This blog is for everyone who uses words.

The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

International World Day: a rant.

Did you know that March 25 was World Malaria Day?

World Malaria Day? 

But why on earth would anyone want a special day to celebrate malaria? Good grief, apart from anything else people will hardly have recovered from the World Tuberculosis Day parties on March 24.

Still, at least we have a good long break, then, before World Rabies Day on September 28.

For all these chances to celebrate we must give thanks to the United Nations, who have cast their official blessing on days throughout the year. 

For instance, March 23rd (gosh, that really is a busy week) is World Meterological Day, when I suppose our parties rain champagne and snow desiccated coconut; and if you fancy something more substantial than that then 16 October is World Food Day.

What? You want something to celebrate a higher plane of existence? Well, how about Nov 16, World Philosophy Day? Or Dec 11, World Mountain Day?

Or perhaps they're too up-in-the-air. Can I suggest Nov 19, then, World Toilet Day? That has to bring a flush of joy to all nations.

By this time you will of course be asking what about today? So, what are we celebrating today?

Well, the UN doesn't seem to know this, but April 27 is World Tapir Day.

And that is certainly something well worth celebrating.

File:Baby tapir.jpg
photo of a slightly grumpy baby tapir by frank wouters

Word To Use Today: I've already featured the word tapir on The Word Den, so how about malaria? It's from the Italian mala aria, which means bad air.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Nuts and Bolts stichometry.

'Have you got the scrolls?'

'No, it's just the way I walk.'

Ah, there's nothing like a good old joke - and, yes, all right, that was nothing like a good old joke.

Anyway, the thing is, how do you pay your scribe? By the page? By the line? 

By the line probably seems fairer because otherwise you'd get crafty scribes writing in big letters, or cutting down the size of the pages.

But you're still left with the problem of how long a line is. A scribe's view of the long verse-line called the alexandrine will presumably be: 

Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine

(that alexandrine is from Edmund Spencer's Fairie Queene) 

but the same scribe might fall upon a translated haiku with enthusiasm:

The wren
Earns his living

(the original haiku was by Kobayahsi Issa)

As a matter of fact the length of a standard line was worked out in Ancient Greek times, and the standard unit of line-length seems to have been based on those two long-term best-sellers, the Iliad and Odyssey. This meant a line could easily contain fifteen or more syllables, or about thirty five letters (which is even longer than your average alexandrine).

Poor scribes!

This counting-lines system is called stichometry.

However, stichometry didn't exist entirely to stitch up the scribes. It also served to tell you how long was the manuscript you were buying; to give you some idea where in a manuscript a particular feature was to be found; and to check that the scribes hadn't gone and left out the clue to the first murder.

Later we changed system and began to use page numbers, and later still, with the advent of ebooks, we switched to percentages.

But I'm still left feeling a bit sorry for those poor scribes.

Word To Use Today: stichometry. This word comes from the Greek stikhometria, from stikhos, a row or verse, which is related to steikhein, to walk.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: be graveolent.

As it happens, something graveolent is nothing to do with graves, nor with being serious.

Graveolent describes a plant that stinks to high heaven.

File:Anthemis cotula Habitus 2011-5-22 SierraMadrona.jpg
Anthemis cotula or Stinking Chamomile, photo by Javier martin

I suppose the word may give some of us a dignified way of declining an extra helping of broccoli...

Thing Not To Be Today: graveolent. This word was made up in the 1600s from the Latin words gravis, heavy, and olēre, to smell, presumably by someone who fancied himself too refined to refer to a good honest stink.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Spot the Frippet: sequin.

Here's something entirely frivolous.

Sequins are the small shiny discs sewn onto clothes or, well, anything that you want to make shinier, really. 

They seem to have been used since 2500 BC in India, and I wouldn't be surprised if shiny fish scales were used before that to give joy to the world.

Is it possible to have enough of them?

File:Pink Sequins Fabric-6871045279.jpg
photo by Sherrie Thai

well, possibly, I suppose, if you're designing uniforms for policemen; but on the whole if you're young and care-free then the more the merrier:

Where else could this be? A beautiful Sambista bedecked in Brazil's traditional green and yellow celebrates two of Brazil's great passions—soccer (futbol) and Carnival. Photograph by Nicolas de Camaret, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-2.0
photo by Nicholas de Caramet

or for the oldies, how about these:

File:Moroccan babouche, burgundy leather with silver sequins, 20th century - Bata Shoe Museum - DSC00131.JPG
photo by Daderot

Let it shine!

Spot the Frippet: sequin. Sequins are named after a Venetian coin, officially called the ducat but nicknamed the zecchino. When the coin stopped being minted in the early 1800s the name was transferred to the decorations. 

Before that, the word comes from the Arabic sikkah, die for striking coins.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Sunday Rest: prepubescent. Word Not To Use Today

So, a child is born, fresh into the world and trailing clouds of glory: 

File:Sleeping baby with arm extended.jpg
photo by PinkStock Photos D Sharon Pruitt

Then, gradually, magically, he grows from innocence and fragility into beauty and intelligence: 

File:Happy child.jpg
photo by امید رستمی نیا

File:Nice sweet children playing in sand.jpg
photo by Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Andrew Butko, CC BY-SA 3.0,

And how do some people (basically those with no more wit in their souls than a poached egg) describe him?


It's enough to make you weep, you know.

Word Not To Use today: prepubescent. This word comes from the Latin pūbēscere to reach manhood, from pūber, adult.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Saturday Rave: optical fiber

On 22 April 1977 fiber optic cable was first used to send telephone messages.

Happy fortieth birthday!

A great deal more than I know about fiber optic cable can be found in the relevant wikipedia entry, but what I can tell you is that it's pretty cool stuff. It's basically a long piece of glass just a bit thicker than a human hair (as a matter of fact a clear human hair will work in rather the same way) that reflects information along it as far as you like without losing very much of it at all.

Why the glass fibre doesn't break I have no idea at all, but what I do know (thanks again, wikipedia) is that a single fibre can carry 90,000 TV channels (the mere thought of this turns me quite faint). 

And that isn't the end of its cleverness, because information in the cable isn't upset by any sort of outside interference (which can be a problem with metal wires): fibres are indifferent to electricity, so you can put them in the same holes as electricity cables; fibres tend to stay in the hole once you've put it there because people don't want to steal the fibre in the way they'll steal copper; you can't tap a fibre line the way you can a copper one; and optical fibers are jolly useful if you want to look into a small space (like a human body via an endoscope).

There. That's all I know - and much more than I understand.

But it's clearly very nearly a miracle, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: fibre. (Or fiber.) This word comes from the Latin fibra, which means filament - or charmingly, entrails.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Word To Use Today: papyraceous.

Wasp's nests are papyraceous:

File:Common wasp, Queen and nest.jpg
photo by Paulpadam 

so are books:

File:A tower of used books - 8443.jpg
photo by Jorge Royan

and so is this picture frame:

photo by R de Salis

So, what does papyraceous mean, then?

Word To Use Today: papyraceous. This word comes from papyrus, an aquatic grass with umbrella-spoke flower stems at the top of the stems: 

File:01758 - Cyperus papyrus (Papyrus-Staude).JPG
photo by Tubifex

The inside of the stems was used to make paper-like stuff in Ancient Egypt, and papyraceous means relating, made of, or resembling paper.