This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Nuts and Bolts: the ideomotor effect,

Does dowsing, the process by which buried treasure (most often water) communicates its presence to a person walking across the soil above it, work?

The answer seems to be yes, sometimes. In particular dowsers are effective at finding water in places which are situated on large areas of underground water.

The next question is: does dowsing work more often than mere chance?

Well, no one has yet managed to prove this using any rigorous scientific method, though some large companies who need to look for water or oil do employ dowsers. 

Well, you've got to look somewhere, so why not go with every clue you have?

So the next question is: are all dowsers fakes?

The answer to that seems to be no. A sincere dowser seems to rely on the ideomotor effect, which is when a thought causes an involuntary contraction of the muscles. To make things even more obscure, this thought may not be one of which the thinker is aware.

It's the same mechanism that's reckoned to account for the various forms of "ghost-communication" such as table-turning and ouija boards.

So it may be that an effective dowser is just very good at the unconscious analysis of geological or geographical clues (and people do lots unconscious analysis: when judging the flight of a ball, for example).

Or perhaps, just perhaps, there's some mysterious communication with the Earth going on, after all...

I still can't help hoping, you know.

Word To Use Today: ideomotor. This word was coined by William Benjamin Carpenter in 1852. The ideo- bit is from the Greek idea which means, well, idea; and the motor bit comes from the Latin movēre, to move.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Thing To Do Today: a yorker.

You know the game of cricket? 

Well, probably not, but the game has a rich and glorious vocabulary. (No, don't worry, the game isn't nearly as confusing as its r & g vocabulary suggests.)

At a basic level, cricket consists of someone chucking a ball at a man with a bat, and the idea is that batsman hits the ball as far away as possible and then sprints from one marked place on the field to another before the other team can retrieve the ball. Each journey from one mark to the other is called a run. If you get from one mark to the other and then back again before the ball is retrieved, for example, then that counts as two runs. You're supposed to keep on going until the other team get the ball back. If you manage to hit the ball to the edge of the playing field without it touching the ground you automatically get six runs. If the ball gets to the edge of the playing field but bounces before it gets there, or rolls part of the way, then you get four.

The man who chucks the ball is called a bowler. His job is to make the ball hard to hit.

A yorker is a ball designed to bounce under the bat, or just behind it, as shown by the green line here:

image by Trengarasu

A yorker is extremely tricky to hit because there are three upright sticks on the ground just behind the batsman that he's not allowed to knock over (so he can't step back very far) and it's just as tricky to bowl. 

Few visitors to The Word Den will be planning on playing cricket today, but a very difficult to answer question is sometimes called a yorker (usually, I must admit, by old men). But, hey, asking difficult questions is a healthy thing, and, anyway, I don't see why the old men should have all the fun, do you?

Thing To Do Today: a yorker. This is probably called after the cricket-obsessed English county of Yorkshire, though in the 1800s to pull Yorkshire meant to deceive someone, and there's also a Middle English word yuerke, also meaning to trick or deceive, which may have something to do with it.

Here's my yorker: have you ever stolen anything?

Monday, 11 December 2017

Spot the Frippet: weeds.

But what's a weed?

Are the sunny marigolds that have seeded themselves along my garden wall weeds? Our builder thought so, presumably, as he carefully dug them all up, but luckily more have emerged, shining like cheerful little suns through the English December murk.

File:Calendula officinalis 001.JPG
photo by H. Zell

Mind you, they annoy at least one of our neighbours rather a lot.

What about weeds on a larger scale? Is the unmown grass round the hoardings full of weeds or wild flowers? 

File:Roadside hoarding near A557, Widnes - - 491341.jpg
photo by Chris Palmer

Is the area a nature reserve or waste land?

Can we call that metre-tall ash tree that's sprung up from nowhere (as ash trees do) a weed, or are weeds by definition little scraggly things that don't threaten to block out all available light and cause serious damage to the foundations of the house?

Some weeds, however, everyone can agree on. The weed is, or used to be, tobacco; weed without the the may well be marijuana; if the weed is walking then it's probably either a thin, small and weak sort of a person, or a similar kind of a horse.

A widow's weeds are the black mourning clothes widows used to wear, poor things:

File:Olivia - Edmund Blair Leighton.jpg
painting of Olivia by Edmund Leighton

and a weed used to be a black band worn as a sign of mourning. 

Before that, weeds used to be clothes of any kind, but nowadays that's just confusing to everyone.

Mourning clothes have gone out of fashion, luckily, so this Spot the Frippet will have to be one of the other kinds. 

Have fun deciding what counts.

Spot the frippet: weed. The plant word comes from the Old English weod and is related to the Old High German wiota, fern. The mourning word comes from the Old English wǣd.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Sunday Rest: wedmin. Word Not To Use Today.

Prince Harry is getting married to his beautiful leman. Bless them both! 

The prince not known as a man of conspicuous oratory, but he does seem to have been responsible for bringing the word wedmin to a large and understandably rather censorious public.

Wedmin describes the administration duties involved in preparing a wedding. On the occasion when Prince Harry most famously used the word he had the job of Best Man at his brother Prince William's wedding (which was quite a big affair): 

File:Wedding Prince William Balcony Buckingham Palace 2.jpg

and I think he can be forgiven for feeling burdened, confused, and occasionally exasperated.

But even the smallest, simplest wedding is bound to produce some sense of burden, confusion and exasperation, so perhaps wedmin has its uses, after all.

Nevertheless, a wedding is supposed to be an event of unrelieved joy and perfection, remember, so best only mutter it in private, eh?

Sunday Rest: wedmin. This word seems to have been coined in 2007, and is a mixture of the words wedding and administration. The word wedding comes from the Old English weddian, and is related to the Gothic wadi, which means pledge.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Saturday Rave: Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair by Richard Lovelace.

Richard Lovelace (you say it loveless) was born exactly four hundred years ago today.

He had the misfortune to live in interesting times, and the further misfortune to be an interesting person - young, handsome, wealthy, and well-born - which of course made it worse. He survived the English Civil War partly because he was in prison at a couple of the most critical periods of the conflict, and it was there that he wrote probably his most famous poem To Althea, From Prison, which is the one that includes the lines Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage.

It was impossible for someone living at that time not to be political, but he wrote many poems of friendship, and love, and a series about small creatures including The Snayl and The Grasshopper.

Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair is about a beautiful and desirable lady - but if it's a love poem then there's a nasty little sting in the tail.

Here's the beginning:

Amarantha sweet and fair
Ah braid no more that shining hair!
As my curious hand or eye
Hovering round thee let it fly.

Let it fly as unconfin'd
As its calm ravisher, the wind,
Who hath left his darling th'East,
To wanton o'er that spicy nest.


The whole not-very-long poem - and that stinging tail - can be found HERE.

Word To Use Today: nest. This word has stayed the same since before the Normans came. Rather sweetly, it's related to the word beneath.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Word To Use Today: typhoon.

Typhon was a monster. A Greek monster, as it happens, and one of the whirlwinds.

His mother was the Earth and his father may have been one of various strange beings, or he might have had no father at all, but the main idea is that Earth, furious with the Gods for destroying her children the Titans, produced Typhon to wreak revenge upon them.

Typhon was quite a guy. He had a hundred or so snake-like or dragon-like heads and his eyes sent out fire. Encouragingly, despite these disadvantages, he found love with another monster called Echidna and they had several small monsters who carried on the annoy-the-Gods thing with gusto. Cerberus, the Sphinx and the Hydra were some of the kids.

Rather a bad likeness, it seems, by Wenceslas Hollar

Now, what you're thinking is, well, that's how we got the word typhoon, then.

And, guess what...?

Word To Use Today: typhoon. This word comes from the Chinese tai fung, great wind...

...though poor old Typhon (he was defeated by Zeus in an epic battle and cast down into the Greek hell, Tartarus, in the end) has influenced the spelling.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The shame of being female: a rant.

I've recently re-read John Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps. It's fine as a thriller (though nothing like as good as the Hitchcock film) but I was surprised by the casual racism of the narrator.

It's unrepeatable on a family blog like this, but there was stuff like a [nationality] [religion] peddler with eyes like a rattlesnake. 

Not nice at all. 

What surprised me even more was remembering that I first came across The Thirty Nine Steps when I was twelve as a set text at school.

Schools have changed since then, and now everyone is much much more careful (in the educational fiction I write I'm not even allowed to mention sausages or the word blast). Recently Natasha Devon, who used to be the British Government's mental health champion for schools, has even gone as far as to urge the headteachers of Britain's most famous girls' schools not to refer to their pupils as girls or ladies because it is patronising.

Patronising? But what's wrong with being a girl?

Mind you, Ms Devon doesn't think it a good thing to call boys boys, either.

Her objection seems to be that if you remind children of their sexes (she calls them genders, but I think sex is what she means) then you are reminding them of all the stereotypes that go with them.

Well...err...not unless you remind them of all the stereotypes that go with them, you're not. I mean, why not use the mention of children's sexes to try breaking them down, instead?

File:Girls playing Soccer.jpg
photo by Sarah Jones


Word To Use Today: stereotype. A stereotype was originally a mould for making type for printing. The Greek stereos means solid and tupos means image, from tuptein, to strike.