This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Sunday Rest: hasbian. Word Not To Use Today.

The word hasbian, with its nasty echo of has-been, describes a lesbian who is now heterosexual or bisexual.

I'm not saying that such people do not exist; but the presence of the word in the English vocabulary is surely an encouragement not only to ignorance, but to persecution.

Word Not To Use, Ever: hasbian. This is a 1900s mix of has-been and lesbian.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Saturday Rave: L'Orpheo, by Claudio Monteverdi and Alessandro Striggio

There's nothing particularly original about L'Orpheo. It wasn't the first opera (that's reckoned to be Jacopo Peri's Dafne, now sadly lost. Peri's Euridice, which does survive, is earlier than L'Orpheo, too). But L'Orpheo is the work where the various elements of what is now called opera first came together into something that worked really well. 

Now, I realise that, according to a lot of noisy people nowadays, liking opera is a sign of the evil and manipulative disposition of someone who enjoys grinding the faces of the poor. But that is, frankly, nuts: for one thing I'm a children's writer. I mean, how poor can you get?

And for another, L'Orpheo is a masterpiece You can find L'Orpheo on YouTube for free if you're interested, but I especially wanted to mention Alessandro Striggio. He wrote the words.

Words like these:

Io la Musica son, ch’a i dolci accenti,
 Sò far tranquillo ogni turbato core, 
Ed hor di nobil ira, & hor d’amore 
Posso infiammar le più gelate menti. Io sù 

Cetera d’or cantando soglio 
Mortal orecchio lusingar talhora, 
E in questa guisa a l’armonia sonora 
De la lira del Ciel più l’alme invoglio;

I am Music, who in sweet accents, 
Can make peaceful every troubled heart, 
And so with noble anger, and so with love, 
Can I inflame the coldest minds. 

Singing with my golden Lyre, 
I like To charm, now and then, mortal ears, 
And in such a fashion that I make their souls aspire more 
For the resounding harmony of the lyre of Heaven. 


I invite the noisy people to Spot the Evil there.

Word To Use Today: harmony. The Latin word harmonia means a concord of sounds. It comes from the Greek word harmos, a joint.

Friday, 23 February 2018

Word To Use Today: murrain.

'A murrain on you!' 

That's something people quite often say in novels set in mediaeval times, but whether a murrain is a nasty attack of indigestion, a spell of bad luck in the horse shoe tossing competition, or rats moving into your kitchen, I have never thought to enquire.

Titania does give us a clue in Midsummer Night's Dream:

The fold stands empty in the drownéd field
And crows are fatted on the murrain flock.

but I have only ever read or watched MND, not studied it, and so I've always just let myself be washed over by the glory of the verse without bothering too much about every tiny little detail.

But if we were in any doubt that a murrain was a Bad Thing, then the Book of Exodus makes it clear enough:

Behold my hand shall be upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep there shall be very grievous murrain.

File:The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 330. Murrain in the livestock. Exodus cap 9 vv 6-9. Le Clerc.jpg
The Philip Medhurst collection of Bible illustrations

So what is a murrain, exactly? 

Well, the point is rather that no one ever really knew. It was anything that made large numbers of domestic mammals drop down dead - perhaps rinderpest, perhaps erysipelas, perhaps foot-and-mouth or anthrax - some of which diseases could finish off quite a few humans, too.

And if the murrain didn't get you, the famine that ensued after the loss of your animals might; and if you survived the famine then the Black Death might well come along when you were too weak to put up much of a fight against it, and the murrain would get you after all.

I'm never going to wish a murrain on anyone, that's for sure. But when I next begin a cold, I might try bravely dismissing it as just a touch of murrain.

It has a heroic ring.

Word To Use Today: murrain. This word comes from the Old French morine, from morir, to die, from the Latin morī.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

Uplevelling: a rant.

What is uplevelling?

I came across this page, below, on Facebook the other day, which gives us some idea:

No automatic alt text available.

I'm not sure exactly who produced it, but it's apparently a work sheet, or page of a text book, used in English schools.

There is a great fashion in England for teaching grammar to children. This sounds a good thing, and it should be a good thing, because of course you're much more likely to be given well paid and/or interesting and worthwhile things to do if your writing and speech can be easily understood.

But this...

I suppose the idea of the exercise above is that if you make all the changes required then the sentences will get higher marks in a grammar exam - that is, they'll go up a certain number of levels, which is presumably how the exam results are expressed.

Ah well. I must at least be glad that it's called uplevelling and not improving your writing:* because according to the work-sheet's criteria this passage, for instance, is a pile of utter rubbish.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. 

(That's by St Paul, from his letter to the Corinthians. St Paul was well known for writing a good letter.)

I was going to finish this post by uplevelling that first sentence: love is patient, love is kind, but I've realised that it won't in any way make the world a better place, and anyway I really can't bear to do it.

I can only hope that our poor children are taught about truth and beauty, as well as levels.

Word To Use Today: level. This word comes from the Latin lībella, which is the diminutive for lībra, scales. 

*Though, very sadly indeed, the word improve is used in one place. Oh dear!

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Njerep.

There's only one person left who speaks Njerep fluently, but there are a few people who speak it a little - and by a few I mean exactly three

All of these people are old.

The speakers of Njerep live in the village of Somié
 on the Nigerian-Cameroon border. Obviously, because only one person speaks the language properly, it isn't used much in conversation except perhaps to make a joke, or to say something secret.

Does it matter that Njerep will soon be no more?

Well, here are a few words of Njerep to help you decide:

gāā              tadpole

nòr lòbó      witch
hōn             voice
táp              war
bă               elder brother or sister of the same sex
bīnī             dance
tʃímbí          the name of the night
sátē             to sit with the legs extended

Does the language that contains these words hold within it a unique and marvellous understanding of the world?

You bet.

Weep, weep for Njerep.

Word To Use Today: well, bă would be a useful word for us to have in English, wouldn't it?

Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Thing To Be Today, Possibly: chubby.

The wonderful stone age sitcom The Flintstones:

Box artwork for The Flintstones (1988).
(here it is in a later computer-game guise)

 had a story once where Wilma

Wilma Flintstone.png

 and Betty

Betty Rubble.png

 got jobs advertising some food stuff on television.

(It was, obviously, a stone television.)

As far as I can remember the advertising jingle they had to sing had an ending that went something like:

If he's a chubby hubby
He's a happy pappy!

To be chubby is to be endearingly rounded, but we seem to have lost sight of the appeal of chubbiness. We strive to appear emaciated, and, failing, give up entirely and before we know it we are buried hopelessly in our own bodies.

Perhaps we need a campaign to celebrate a little chubbiness, just the occasional intriguing wobble.

Well, it just started here.

Thing To Be Today Possibly: chubby. This word appeared in the 1600s. It might refer to the agreeably plump fish called the chub:

File:British fresh water fishes (Plate- Chub) (8550933557).jpg
Illustration by A F Lydon

Monday, 19 February 2018

Spot the Frippet: piano.

My Collins dictionary begins its definition of the piano a musical instrument resembling a harp...which it doesn't, really, especially if the piano in question is an electric one.

Still, with a conventional grand piano you can see what they mean:

File:Keyboards - Rhodes piano, Leslie speaker with microphone, Hammond C3, Grand piano with microphones - Studio A, In Your Ear Studios.jpg
photo by Will Fisher

and, fair enough, a conventional piano does work by making strings on a frame go twang.

Another sort of musical instrument, a piano accordion, has keys like a piano, though the sound is quite different and is made by blowing air through a frame of reeds. They're slightly more portable than a conventional piano and are sometimes used by buskers, being slightly more tolerable in the open air than inside.

photo by Cayambe 

A piano roll is a length of paper with holes punched in it which instructs a pianola, or automatic piano, which notes to play. A pianola is more reliably accurate than a human player, though sadly completely impervious to cat-calls, slow hand-claps, and rotten tomatoes if you want it to shut up.

A piano trio is mostly not piano at all, but violin and cello:

 A piano quartet has proportionally even less piano

File:Zwaag Piano Quartet.JPG
Zwaag Piano Quartet, photo from Noblegoose

A piano duet, conversely, is all piano:

Fran and Marlo Cowan (after sixty two years of marriage)

though whether it'll be played on one or two pianos is impossible to tell until you get there.

A piano nobile is blessedly quiet unless, as often happens, some idiot has put a piano in it. It's the main floor of a big house, the place where the grand reception rooms are. It's often the floor with the posh windows one up from the ground floor.

The greatest irony is that piano means...

Spot the Frippet: piano. Piano is the Italian for soft. In the case of the musical instrument it was originally gravecembalo col piano e forte, harpsichord with soft and loud, first abbreviated to pianoforte and then to piano. Piano nobile is Italian for great floor or noble level.

If this all sounds a bit cynical then, with twenty nine years as a piano teacher behind me, I feel I have every right to be so.

I still do play most days, though.