This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Sunday Rest: diurnal. Word Not To Use Today.

The poet William Wordsworth was a genius. He was so often sublime, so often breathtakingly graceful, simple and profound:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
          I had no human fears:
          She seemed a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

One of Wordsworth's rules for his poetry was to use "language really used by men". But sometimes he just couldn't help himself getting a bit poetical.

          No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
          Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.


Diurnal usually means to do with the daytime (as opposed to nocturnal). Diurnal flowers open in the daytime, diurnal animals sleep at night, and a diurnal is a book containing all the church services except matins (which, although its name means morning, used to have an irritating habit of being held in the middle of the night).

Apart from the fact the I don't think I've ever heard anyone say diurnal in my whole life, diurnal is a horrible word. Well, it's made up of DIE and URN and ALL, which add not a jot to the gaiety of the nation.

Ah well, the word is with us, now.

But the least we can do is leave it to the long-dead poets.

Evening Dawn
Photo publicdomain

Word Not To Use Today: diurnal. This word from the Latin diēs, which means day.


Saturday, 19 April 2014

Saturday Rave: Samuel Butler.

Samuel Butler (1835 - 1902) wrote Erewhon. He wrote The Way Of All Flesh. He wrote a lot about evolution, and a lot about the follies of mankind.

He didn't write, or try to write, the same sort of thing as anyone else; and no one tried to write the same sort of thing as him.

He could be very funny. Here's a letter to his long-standing friend, Miss Savage. It was written, not for money, but out of sheer fun. 

15 Clifford's Inn, E.C.
Friday, Nov. 21st 1884

Dear Miss Savage,

....Yes, it was good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four.

Believe me, Yours very truly,

S. Butler.

Wicked, yes.

But thoroughly cherishable, all the same.
Word To Use Today: butler. A butler is the servant in charge of the wines and the table in a household. He (or nowadays sometimes she) is usually the head servant. The word butler comes from the Old French bouteillier, from bouteille, bottle.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Word To Use Today: gramophone.

Yes, yes, I know. Gramophone is a word for old people. For wrinklies.

But think: those wrinklies. They don't have to work, their children have grown up, and they can dye their hair blue without anyone thinking they're disreputable. Why should they have all the fun?

I mean, record-player sounds so dull. (I know we say vinyl now instead of record, but I haven't come across vinyl-player yet. And if I did it would still be DULL.)

It's true that gramophones are usually powered by clockwork (but then how green and modern is that?) and that the sound of a gramophone is traditionally amplified by a large horn (yes, yes, that is exactly the same principle as all those no-battery phone amplification systems that are all over the place nowadays) but I don't see why the word gramophone shouldn't be used for an electric machine.

Record Player
Photo by public domain

Actually, come to think about it, I think the coolest thing would be if we all went back to hand-cranked gramophones.

File:Gramophone 1914.png

Think of the fun of dancing to music that can be accelerated and slowed down, from frenzy to zombie, in a couple of beats.

Now that's what I call music.

Word To Use Today: gramophone. In the US and Canada gramophones are called phonographs, but the word gramophone is freely available for borrowing purposes to anyone who likes it. The word gramophone was originally a trade name, perhaps a mixed-up version of phonogram, which means written-down sound.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

What the Dickens? a rant.

I mean, you expect it of hairdressers.

The Cut Above; Shorn To Be Wild; Fringe Benefits. I could go on, but there's a limit to the amount of pain that I can bear.

At least, I thought there was a limit until my recent visit to Rochester (that's Rochester in Kent, England). Rochester has a castle, a cathedral, city walls, a long history and many fine houses.

Charles Dickens didn't live there. No, he lived a little way outside the town. But you wouldn't have guessed that from the shops in Rochester.

Walking innocently down the High Street, what did I find?

A shop called Sweet Expectations.


Later, there was a restaurant called A Taste of Two Cities.

Those were the worst, but there were also Pip's, Copperfield's (that was antique place; I thought they'd missed a trick until I discovered The Old Curiosity Shop further down the road). Then there were Tiny Tim's Tea Shop, Mr Tope's, Fezziwig's, Peggotty's Parlour, Micawber's Fish Bar, and Little Dorrit's Revival.

Good grief.

Only two things stopped me shrivelling up and dying of sheer agony. One was that (thank heavens!) the Bridal Shop was not called Miss Havisham's, and the other was that several shops had branched out in other literary directions: Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) Pastures New (Milton), Demelza's (Winston Graham) and the Rochester Grill (Charlotte Bronte. Possibly).

I won't say don't go to Rochester.

But if you do, steel yourself.

Word To Use Today: dickens. This word is usually heard in the expression what the dickens? meaning what on earth? It comes from the 1500s and is a polite form of what the devil. It comes from the name of a Mr Dickens (not the writer) who can't have been very nice to know at all.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Nuts and Bolts: hacek.

English doesn't go in much for putting squiggles above or below its letters. We don't often come across things like ā or ç or ú.

But just sometimes when a new word comes into English one of these squiggly things (which are usually called accents, but which are officially called diacritical marks) comes with it.

You see them in place names, most commonly: the Polish Częstochowa, for instance.

Czech has given us one of these new squiggles, the haček - or, if you prefer, the háček. Rather neatly, you can see a háček on its middle letter.

What a háček does it to change the sound of the letter it's above: a c with a háček becomes a ch sound (as in church) and an s with a háček turns into a sh, as in ship.

So, when you say the word háček, that middle c is a ch. The whole thing sounds like hah-check.

(Sometimes a háček is called a wedge, but as it's not really all that wedge-shaped I don't think this helps anybody.)

Czech also sometimes uses a háček over a r, which turns it into a fricative trill. A fricative trill has been described as a cross between an r and a z.

I've no idea what this sounds like, but it's quite fun trying to do.

Thing To Try To Do Today: a fricative trill. The word háček was invented in the early 1950s and is the Czech for little hook.




Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: warble.

Are you a warbler?

No, I don't suppose you're any sort of small singing bird, though I note that in Europe warblers generally do their best to be invisible:

Eurasian Reed Warbler

 whereas in America they tend to flaunt themselves all over the place:

Prothonotary Warbler.

No, I'm asking if you warble when you sing.

Do you put back your head, assume a pleasing expression, and let rip in a light tenor/soprano?

Or do you shuffle along emitting a sound like a slightly paranoid  chicken?

Singer At Open Mic

(In the USA, apparently warble can be used to mean to yodel - but naturally yodelling is not to be recommended under any circumstances whatsoever.)

I would recommend the letting-rip, myself, but if you must warble, then the vital thing is that you don't do it anywhere near cows.

No, really. Because the very most annoying of all the warblers is the warble fly, which lays its eggs in the hide of cattle and causes them a lot of irritation. In fact the mere sound of a warble fly is enough to send a herd of peacefully grazing cows into a panic-stricken stampede.

Yes, that's right, very much in the same way as when a busker  warbles a song of his own composition in a crowded street.

So, if you must warble, warble safely: find somewhere where you'll be out of the crush, first.

Thing Not To Do Today: warble. No one is sure where the word warble comes from. Some say it's a frequentative form of the Middle High German werben, Old High German hwerban, to be busy, to set in movement. Some say it comes from the Old French werbler, to vibrate or tremble. There's also an Old High German word wirbil, meaning whirlwind, that might have something to do with it. Though it's hard to see what.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Spot the frippet: pean.

This is an ridiculously easy spot if you're a lord or a monarch.

Paen ermine is a sort of fur found on Coats of Arms. Usually ermine is white with black "spots" on it, like this:

(Ermine is the fur you get when you sew the skins of winter-coat stoats together (the black bits are the tail-tips)).

Ermine Paen is much the same, but this time the background colour is black, the spots are gold, and the stoats must presumably have been painted.
The other sort of pean (that's the US spelling: I would usually write paean) is a song of praise.

Where do you find those?

Well, in a church (hallelujah!) or at a sports match, or, most easily of all, in television advertisements:

It's the real thing
Coke is
What the world needs today
O-o-oh yeah
It's the real thing.
Or perhaps:

Birds Eye Potato Waffles, they're waffly versatile. Grill ‘em, fry ‘em, bake ‘em, eat ‘em, they’re waffly versatile.

I can't honestly claim to be very fond of either product, but you can't argue with the fact that Coke IS real. As for Birds Eye Potato Waffles, they might well be waffly versatile. As I'm not sure what waffly means in this context it's hard to say.


One good thing about a paen is that it doesn't have to be sung - a few simple words of praise will do - so all you have to do is say how brilliant something is there's your paen falling off your teeth.

For instance, for those of you without an idea about whom or what to be nice: The Word Den - it's BRILLIANT! either said or sung, would make an excellent paen.

Given the extreme difficulty of painting stoats, I think I'm going to restrict myself to spotting the singing sort of a pean.

I like a nice cup of tea in the morning...

Spot the frippet: paen, or paean (if it's the song, and that's how it's spelled where you are). The praise song word comes from the Greek paiān, which is a hymn to the god Apollo, Paiān meaning doctor to the gods.
 No one knows where the fur word comes from.