This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Thing To Be Today: suspicious.

Some years ago a late-running train meant that I found myself stranded at a railway station on the North Yorkshire Moors. It was winter, it was getting dark, I had an hour to wait for my connection, and the station environs made Wuthering Heights look like something directed by Cecil B DeMille.

There was in fact just one single person within screaming distance. This was a young woman sitting on the only bench on the platform. 

It wasn't until after I'd taken a seat myself that I discovered she was muttering - and not just muttering, but groaning and moaning and giving out mad chuckles and yelps that echoed round the deserted station and would, quite frankly, have made Nelly Dean herself look askance.

Now, I like to be friendly, and in these circumstances I was keen, as you may imagine, to avoid causing offence. But what to do? Move off and hide behind a lamp post and risk being thought stand-offish? Or stay where I was and hope my presence wouldn't cause this lady further agitation?

My mind was made up by a change in my companion. She suddenly sat bolt upright, turned towards me, fixed me with wild pale eyes, and said, very loudly and clearly: "SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES!" 

Then she went back to muttering again.

I went and found a lamp post.


It used to be the case that only dodgy circumstances made us suspicious, but now we are always being offered chances to help Nigerian princes with their finances, and or to be helped by the Microsoft technical department, I'm afraid that suspicion is a daily requirement of existence.

I don't let it sour my existence.

I do, however, do my best to avoid deserted railway stations.

Thing To Be Today: suspicious. This word comes from the Latin suspicere, to mistrust.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: mitt.

It's an interesting word, mitt. Not the derivation, so much, which quite quickly runs into the sand (see below), nor its use as a short form of the word mitten.

(Still, while I'm here, there are, of course, oven mitts:

File:Baking glove.jpg
photo by Lymantria

and baseball mitts:

File:Baseball glove.png

and mitt is also a slang word for a boxing glove.)

No, to me the interesting mitt is the one which means a hand that causes mess, inconvenience, and possibly crime.

Here, get your grubby mitts off that clean washing!

(Though grubby mitts aren't necessarily actually grubby. They might just be naughty, as in: keep your grubby mitts away from that cake!)

Someone with a history of petty theft might have mitts: lock the drinks cupboard, Bob, or Uncle Bernard'll have his mitts on the ginger wine.

Mitt's meaning can be extended into metaphor, too: that scheme's got her mitts all over it. (That is, it shows signs of her self-interest.)

So: where can you spot your nearest mitt? In a kitchen, or on a sports field?

Or sprouting from your wrists?

If not, then whose hands do cause mess, inconvenience and crime?

It's not that difficult, is it?

File:Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau The Cunning Thief.jpg
painting by Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau

Spot the Frippet: mitt. This word is short for mitten, which comes from the Old French mitaine.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Sunday Rest: coiffure. Word Not To Use Today.

This word is fine if you're French, or speaking French (though do say it the French way. It shouldn't rhyme with manure).

File:Pierre-Auguste Renoir - La Coiffure.jpg
La Coiffure by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. PD-US

Otherwise, the word coiffure, meaning hairdo, can only really be used with enormous amounts of irony, probably heavily infused with camp.

Actually, that sounds quite fun. It's vital to use it only in the presence of those with a sense of humour, though. 

Still, if you fancy a bit of danger, and a challenge...

Word Not To Use Today: coiffure. This word is French, and is basically the same word as coif. The Latin cofea means helmet or cap. 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

There's one huge problem with the novel Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady: it's nearly twice as long as War and Peace.

Actually, now I come to think about it, I can hardly imagine two more different books than Clarissa and War and Peace. W&P takes you across half of Europe and manages to be about...well, about bits of more or less everything that was happening (or not happening) to Russians in the time of the reign of the French Emperor Napoleon...and Clarissa is about the fate of one young lady. Yes, she's called Clarissa. In fact she's called Clarissa Harlowe, which turns out to be quite interesting.

The plot of Clarissa could be summarised in a few sentences - which, obviously, I'm not going to do - but it's a book that's haunted me for decades. Yes, Lovelace the protagonist is a poser who gets very dull and annoying at times, but, gosh, you don't half get involved with the characters.

Oh, and I'll tell you what: I'd say that Clarissa has the most searing death-scene (not, as it happens, of a main character) in the whole of literature.

And the book starts with a duel.

I mean, what more could anybody want?

Well, stronger arms to hold the flipping thing, for a start.

Words To Consider Today: Clarissa Harlowe. Clarissa comes from the Latin clarus, which means bright, clear or famous; Harlowe is originally a place name from the Old English hoer, a pile of rocks, and hlaw, a hill. 

Harlowe is also reminiscent of at least one unfortunate female epithet.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Words To Use Today: pteropod/sea butterfly.

Which do you like best pteropods or sea butterflies?

Which do you imagine you'd like most to see

Pteropod sounds scientific and has an exciting echo of pterodactyl (dactyl means finger, by the way); sea butterfly has a whimsical charm which some might consider veers towards the sickening.

Is the choice is between science and fantasy? Between danger and delicacy?

Here's a picture to help:

What do you think now?

Sea butterflies or pteropods mostly eat algae, and they range in size from a lentil to an orange. This doesn't sound too threatening until you discover that they trap the algae in a sticky web. 

Sea butterflies/pteropods live near the surface of the water of all the seas. The 'wings' (which are really, unromantically, a modified foot) flap to propel the thing along just like real wings.

Most pteropods/sea butterflies don't have a shell, and if they do it's very small and thin.

I'm afraid they're molluscs, like an octopuses or a slugs.

So, now what? Sea butterfly or pteropod?

Well, it might depend on who you are.

I'd imagine a male-female bias if I dared...

...but I don't.

Word To Use Today: sea butterfly/pteropod. The pod comes from the Greek pous, foot. Ptero- comes from the Greek pteron, wing or feather. The word butterfly is discussed HERE.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

To coin a phrase: a rant.

Good grief this is a mess.

To coin a phrase means to invent a new one - except, of course,  when it doesn't. Nowadays this is most of the time.

It's supposed to be an irony thing. People have started saying to coin a phrase when they're about to use a cliché. I think they're signalling that they know it's a cliché and that they wouldn't dream of using it except as an oh-so-sophisticated joke.

But look, the thing about jokes is that they need to be a) funny and b) surprising (unless, like a catch-phrase, they're conjuring up some memory of ancient joy). The ironic use of to coin a phrase isn't either of those things, and, anyway, employing a cliché to mock using a cliché is, frankly, nuts. 

It also (though this, obviously, is a matter of minor importance) irritates the heck out of me.

So just stop doing it, okay?

Phrase Not To Use Today: to coin a phrase. Just to make this phrase even murkier, a coiner can be someone who makes fake coins, though whether this has any relevance here, I don't know. The word coin comes from the Old French word for stamping die, from the Latin cuneus, wedge.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: acrophony.

Acrophony is when the name of a letter begins with the letter itself. For example, the word dee is the name of its own first letter.

It's a great help in remembering which letter is which.

The idea's been around pretty much since there have been letters to name. Proto-Sinaitic emerged from Egyptian hieroglyphs, where the picture of an ox, or 'alp, eventually turned itself upside down and became our capital letter A, also originally called 'alp.

Acrophony has turned out to be such a good idea that it's found all over the place. The Greek letters alpha, beta, gamma, delta, are an obvious example, though not as obvious as our own English a, bee, cee, dee, e...after which it goes a bit haywire, the next letter being, of course, eff, but never mind. French operates on the same principle, but goes off track even earlier, with the letter c being called seh.

Cyrillic and Old Irish, ancient runes, and Thai all use the principle of acrophony - and good for them.

And, do you remember the radio alphabet? Alfa, Bravo, Charlie Delta...

Just think, modern telecommunications systems still rely on the Proto-Sinaitic word for ox.

I told you it was a good idea, didn't I?

Word To Use Today: well, how about alpha?

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Thing Not To Do Today: scuttle.

Scuttling is defined in my Collins dictionary as to move about with short hasty steps, but surely there's more to scuttling than that.

Crabs scuttle. Spiders scuttle. There's something furtive about scuttling, something predatory or fearful.

Someone who's scuttling is trying, for one reason or another, to avoid notice.


I definitely don't plan to do any scuttling today. Stately as a galleon, that's me...

...except that galleons remind me of the other sort of scuttling, which is actually even worse than the spidery kind. If you scuttle a ship you let water into it so that it sinks; scuttling a plan stops it for ever.

Ah well. At least we have coal scuttles...though even they are heavy, black and dirty.

I think all I can do with this word is to suggest giving thanks for strolling, dry land, and central heating.

Thing Not To Do Today: scuttle. Scuttle is at root really three words. The coal scuttle word comes from the Old English scutel, trencher, from the Latin scutra, platter; the running-about word might come from scud, but made to sound a bit like shuttle; the sinking-a-ship word comes from the Spanish escotilla, a small opening, from escote, an opening in a piece of cloth, from escotar, to cut out.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: something pomaceous.

Something pomaceous is, obviously, something that relates to, or bears, pomes.

Bears what?

Pomes. You know, fruits like apples, pears, medlars:

photo by Takkk 

and quinces. Basically, a pome is any fruit that has juicy flesh and a core in the middle where you find the seeds - though when I say juicy, I don't necessarily mean edible by humans: the fruits of cotoneasters and whitebeam, for instance, are pomes, but tend not to feature in recipe books. 

Still, makes an apple sound all the juicier, doesn't it.

File:Big red apple.jpg
photo by Paolo Neo

Spot the Frippet: pomaceous. This word comes from Old French from the Latin pomum, apple. 

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Sunday Rest: plain turkey. Words Not To Use Today.

It's not often you hear a turkey described as handsome:

photo by Greg Hume 

so calling a poor bird a plain turkey is, I think, particularly unkind, even if it lives in wide flat places.

Plain Turkey: photo by TonyCastro 

Oh, I see: that sort of a plain. 

Luckily the poor bird has a scientific name, Ardeotis australis, and other common English names. Mind you, sadly those names include Australian bustard and orange-footed scrubfowl.

Ah well. 

In the Aboriginal language Arrernte, the name for the plain turkey is kere artewe

I think I'm going to go for that.

Words Not To Use Today: plain turkey. I mean, even if you're wanting to eat the usual sort of turkey as a Sunday lunch, it's really probably best not to have the poor beast plain.

The word turkey's origins can be found HERE.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Saturday Rave: After Blenheim by Robert Southey.

Today is the Glorious Twelfth [of August]. This is when, if you're both rich and like killing things, you are finally allowed to go up on the moors and blast grouse out of the skies.

August 12th is also the date of a stupid number of battles, and in 1952 it was the Night of the Murdered Poets, when thirteen Jewish intellectuals were executed in Moscow after Stalin changed his mind about the desirability of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee he'd set up.

But August 12th was also, thank God, the day of Robert Southey's birth, and Southey (you pronounce it SUTHee (th as in mother, u as in cut) if you want to show you're educated, even though he himself seems to have called himself South-ee). 

Anyway, Robert Southey is one of the less celebrated, though possibly the sanest, of the Lake Poets, and he wrote one of the first anti-war poems, After Blenheim.

It's still a brilliantly effective poem (and quite short) though I don't think many people would say it was actually brilliant poetry. The full text can be found HERE, but here's a couple of verses to give the flavour: 

The poem opens like a modern piece of Scandi Noir, with the children Peterkin and Wilhelmine finding a skull while playing in their grandfather Kaspar's garden.

'Now tell us what 'twas all about,'
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
'Now tell us all about the war
And what they fought each other for.'

'It was the English,' Kaspar cried,

'Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,' quoth he,
'That 'twas a famous victory.'

Thanks to Southey for this careful view of another famously  glorious day.

Word To Use Today: glory. This word comes from the French gloire, from the Latin glōria, but its ultimate origin is a mystery.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Word To Use Today: meriggiare.

In a month that has revealed to us that French speakers consider an Italian accent the most attractive in all the world (and that the English accent comes second)) what better word to use today than the Italian meriggiare?

Especially if you can do it in an English accent.

Meriggiare means to escape the midday sun by resting in the shade. It's not a bad chat-up line, either.

I won't put in a pronunciation guide, as the English accent is only going to help.

Mariggiare, mon ami?

Word To Use Today: mariggiare. This word is Italian. It comes from the Latin merīdiāre, from merīdiēs, midday. 

Thursday, 10 August 2017

The racism of racism: a rant.

Jason Osamade Okundaye is a student of Sociology and Politics, and an organiser of Cambridge University's Black and Minority Ethnic Society. 

He's been defending himself against criticism:

'I stated that regardless of sexuality, class, gender or age, all white people are racist, i.e. not just one type of white person,' he said.

You have to laugh, you know. 

Word To Use Today: racist. Rather pleasingly, no one is sure where the word race, meaning a group of related people, comes from, but it got to England via French from the Italian razza

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: going loco.

How do you name a locomotive?

Well, the very first locomotives seem mostly to have been named as marketing exercises: for instance, those at the Rainhill Trials were called Rocket, Sans Pareil, Cycloped, Novelty and Perseverance. 

Marketing remained important for locomotive names over many years, and this has given us the famous Cannonball Express (there are still lots of express trains) and The Flying Scotsman.

But what was being marketed wasn't always speed, but prestige. In Britain, for instance, we had trains named The Black Prince and (less showily) William Wordsworth. Contemporary celebrities weren't ignored either, and it was possible in the twentieth century to hitch a ride on both George V and Dwight D Eisenhower.

But what of nowadays?

The Swedish Railway Company MTR Express, together with the Metro newspaper, are naming a new fleet of locomotives to travel between Sweden's two largest cities, Stockholm and Gothenburg. Some of the fleet will have names in the traditional mould. There will be a royal name, Estelle, after Sweden's five-year-old princess, and an Ingvar, named after a celebrity, the TV personality Ingvar Oldsberg.

But then things diverge from tradition.

This divergence seems has been caused by some names having been selected, not by the owners of the locomotives, but by public vote. So a third locomotive, with 43% of the vote, is called Glenn (it's a joke: everyone in Gothenburg has been said to be named Glenn ever since the 1980s, when the football team IFK Göteborg had as many as four Glenns in its line-up.)

And the fourth locomotive? Suggestions received from the public included Hakan, Miriam and Poseidon, but the run-away winner, with 49% of the vote was...

Trainy McTrainface.

'news that will be received with joy by many, not just in Sweden,' said MTR Express.

And how right they are.

Words To Use Today: Something Mcsomethingface. Mc or Mac, as found in Scottish or Irish Gaelic surnames, means son of. It comes from the Goidelic language.

More about this meme can be found HEREHERE and HERE.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: shooglie.

I earnestly commend the most excellent Scottish word shooglie, especially to those in the USA. 

Of particular interest might be the expression his jacket's hanging on a shooglie peg, which means he's a great danger of getting fired.

Shooglie means shaky, which is an undesirable thing in a coat peg, chair leg, or any means of transport (a Glasgow tram: 

File:Glasgow Coronation tram.JPG

is nicknamed a shooglie.) (Photo by Kim Traynor

But if you have a shoogle (yes, I do mean shoogle) then you might be dancing (though probably not very well), or rocking a baby, or rearranging your ornaments.

Shooglie and shoogle: both lovely words, and I can't think however we managed without them.

Thing Not To Be Today: shooglie. This word might well be something to do with the German schaukeln, to shake.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: flag.

Flags is rather hard to spot in England. I think it might be because of the deeply-engrained English fear of being thought a show-off.

There are very very seldom flags to be seen hanging indoors, here, even in Government offices. The Queen does fly her Royal Standard outside her current home:

File:Royal Standard of the United Kingdom.svg

 but then she's the Queen.

So where to find a flag? Occasionally you'll see a church that flies a flag from its tower (I don't know why). A modern town hall in a modern square may possibly have room for a couple of flag poles, though they'll probably be empty. An international tourist shop is likely to be smothered in Union Flags:

File:The Union Jack Flag MOD 45153521.jpg

But then most places don't have shops catering for international tourists.

Luckily, there are other, easier sorts of flags. A button on a computer screen to turn on or off a feature is a flag; so is the fringe under a dog's tail:

File:Irish Setter in Tallinn 2.JPG
Irish setter, photo by  Томасина

 or the entire tail of a deer:

Black-tailed deer (obviously). Photo by Bardbom 

 Some people use the word flag to mean bookmark, and in Australia and New Zealand a taxi that has a for-hire sign that sticks up is displaying its flag. A flag officer is a very senior naval officer who's entitled to fly his own personal flag.

Then we have the flower type of flags:

File:Iris pseudacorus LC0338.jpg
photo by Jörg Hempel

and the floor-covering type of flags:

File:Weedy flagstone deck 01.JPG
photo by User:SB_Johnny

Flags are also the long feathers on the leg of a hawk or falcon:

File:Galapagos hawk.jpg
Galapagos hawk, photo by Thomas O'Neil, Tgo2002 

I must say this is all a great relief to me, because personally I'm so English I'm embarrassed even to notice a flag of any nation at all. 

It seems a bit like, you know, showing off.

Spot the Frippet: flag. No one knows where the emblem-on-a-cloth word comes from. The flower word probably comes from Scandinavia, and the floor-stone word originally meant a piece of turf and comes from the Old Norse flaga, a slab.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Sunday Rest: diaphoresis. Word Not To Use Today.

No dears, properly-brought-up girls used to be told (not that I was properly brought-up, but I had a very stiff History teacher) young ladies don't sweat. Horses sweat; men perspire; and ladies glow.

Sometimes ladies glow so much they get positively effulgent, but it's still much more pleasant and elegant than sweating. No one wants to sweat.

However, there is, sadly, something even worse than sweating, and that is exhibiting diaphoresis. That's actually just the medical term for sweating, but it's such a thoroughly horrid word that surely it can only make sufferers feel even worse.

Actually, come to think about it, that's like a lot of medical terms.

Do you think the doctors are just trying to drum-up custom?

Word Not To Use Today: diaphoresis. This word comes from the Greek diaphorein, to disperse through sweat (ugh!) from dia-, across, and phorein, to carry. 

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Saturday Rave: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse.

Our house is about to become a fog of plaster dust (we're having the place re-wired) and so all our least washable possessions have been either wrapped, or lodged with friends and family. 

All our library books have been returned, too, and this has given us the perfect excuse to re-visit some old favourites. The most recent of these has been Edmund Gosse's autobiographical book Father and Son. It describes Edmund's mid nineteenth century childhood, first in London and then in rural Devon, with his very strictly puritanical, anxiously loving, and fundamentalist Christian father, the scientist and Plymouth Brethren preacher Philip.

Edmund Gosse's professional life ended up being focused on Pre-Raphaelite poetry and modern Scandinavian and French Literature, so it can be seen that his father's beliefs failed in the end to have much of an effect upon him. I suppose whether you see this as the father's tragedy or the son's will depend upon your own view of God's place, if any, in creation, but either way there's very little theology here to try the patience of even the most ardent atheist, and hardly a quotation from the Bible, either, even though the Bible underpins every moment of Edmund's childhood.

The father of the title, Philip Gosse, is an illustrator and cataloguer of seashore specimens, living at a time when his beliefs about God's place in creation are under attack. He publishes a book which aims to reconcile the Bible and evolution (Darwin has been a friend) but, devastatingly, the world treats his earnest work with scorn. 

Meanwhile his son is coming to the awful understanding that he, himself, has no talent for prayer or even religious belief.

This is a generous, fair and affectionate account of a man who could easily have been portrayed as a monster, and a fascinating read for everyone, whether parent or child.

Word To Use Today: son. This word comes from the Old English sunu. The Sanskrit  form was sūnu.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Word To Use Today: petaflops.

The word petaflops is, rather sadly, nothing to do with the French word péter, as made famous by le petomane, the feted French flatulist.

No, petaflops is a computer term to describe the speed of a computer. It is equivalent to a thousand million million floating-point operations per second.

I should imagine that's quite a lot.

How to use this lovely word in everyday conversation is something of a puzzle, but how about:

I fear his/her brain's processing powers are more flops than petaflops.

Yep. That should do it.

Word To Use Today: petaflops. The peta bit of this word comes from the SI unit denoting 10 to the power of 15. (It's the next unit up after tera, ten to the power of twelve.) The flops bit is short for floating-point operations per second.

I don't know which particular o, p, and s they've chosen to use from the phrase, though.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Direly diacritical: a rant.

Look, why can't I have a double-shift key that I can program to give me my own choice of extra letters?

I mean, it'd save me, ooh, at least a minute a day if I could type ē,ó,Ɣ,æ, and ð with a couple of strokes of my keyboard instead of having to open a WORD document, select a drop-down menu, rummage through a chart of diacritical marks (you know, the things most people call accents) and then cut-and-paste them.

Oh, and while I'm here, some labels to stick on the keys would be nice, too, so I could remember where I've left the flipping cedilla.

Word To Use Today: diacritical. This word comes from the Greek diakritikos, serving to distinguish, from krinein, to separate.

Yes, I know, diakritikos should really have a line over the third i. 

Look, imagine it if it bothers you, okay?

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: leetspeak.

How do you prove you're one of the elite?

Yes, okay, your leather jacket, tiara, or accent might do it: but what if you're online?

Well, then you might use leet, otherwise known as leetspeak, or 1337.

Do you see the connection between the word leet and the numbers  1337? Because that's how leetspeak works. It's used chiefly by computer gamers and hackers, and it's a formalised way of mangling words to prove membership of the in-crowd. 

I, for instance, am a n00b at this - a newcomer, or newbie - but there are those who can converse in leetspeak quite fluently. There's even a web-comic called Megatokyo which has characters who speak it.

Leet-tweaks include putting -x0r on the end of a word instead of     -er. -ed might be replaced with 'd, or just the d by itself. An & sign means and, so b& means banned - and, as a further layer of difficulty, it might be written b7 instead, because the & and the 7 are typed using the same key.

There's lots of playfulness, creativity, and showing-off in leet: the use of 1_1 to represent the letter U, for instance isn't either easy or time-saving, but it does display ingenuity. Leetspeak also positively enjoys exploiting what some people call grammatical and spelling errors.  

Clever? Yes, certainly. Original? Well, I don't know. Is leet so very different from the old LEROY WOZ ERE? Or backslang

I'm not sure leet is quite so ground-breaking, after all.

Word To Use Today: leet. It's short for elite, which comes from the Old French eslit, which means chosen, from the Latin ēligere to elect.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Thing Definitely To Be Tomorrow: frugal.

Oh, to be frugal!

How cleansed we'll be from vain possessions which clog our every view!

How fit from shunning taxis! How charged with vital sparks from fasts unbroken save by roots carved into mermaids' hair and berries sour as sin!

How sweet the world when nourished by our wealth unselfish spent!

Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes! How full of vim and mental clearness we will be...


(Hey, bung us that bit of pie, will you?

File:Blackberry pie and ice cream, 2006.jpg
photo from Rei at English Wikipedia


Thing Definitely To Be Tomorrow: frugal. This word comes from the Latin frūgālis, from frūgī, temperate or useful, from frux, fruit.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Spot the Frippet: something tawdry.

We're looking for something cheap, showy, and of poor quality, here, but that's so easy that it'd be much more of a challenge to go an hour without spotting something tawdry.

If that's the way you'd like to do it, I'd suggest a walk in the countryside, or a long look at the sea, the clouds, or the stars - or, on the other hand, you could take yourself round a big department store like Harrods.

Whatever you see there, it certainly won't be cheap.

Spot the Frippet: something tawdry. Ethelthryth, also known as Etheldrida or Audrey, was a queen of both Northumbria and the English Fens in the 600s. She received the city of Ely as a wedding gift and is now its patron saint. She was twice married but never shared a bed with a man, which she managed by means of persuasion, flight, a miraculous tide, and an equally miraculous staff which grew into an ash tree.


She died on 23rd June 679, and a fair in Ely was held annually on this date in her honour. 

The word tawdry is a shortened form of Audrey, so the quality of the good and prizes on offer can't have been any higher than at fairs nowadays.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Sunday Rest: nisgul. Word Not To Use Today.

As anyone not entirely allergic to fantasy fiction must know, a nazgûis one of the nine really extremely nasty sorcerer-kings in JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. They have a habit of flying about on pterodactyl-like things, have killer breath, are only sort-of alive, are under the influence of  that source of immortal cruelty and evil Sauron, and are generally predatory and unwelcome.

Altogether not the people you'd ask to your next barbecue.

So, to nisgul. It's a sadly unusable word because it's bound to get confused with nazgûl, but when you remember that JRR Tolkien was brought up in the Midlands of England, prime nisgul territory, it still makes me smile. 

Word Not To Use Today: nisgul. This word is, delightfully, a Midlands English dialect word for the smallest and weakest bird in a brood of chickens.

File:Tetramorium nazgul 0028556 d 1 high.jpg

This Madagascan ant, by the way, is called Tetramorium nazgul. 

And I wouldn't want to invite that at my barbecue, either.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Saturday Rave: ging gang goolie.

On 29 July 1907 Sir Robert Baden-Powell set up a camp for boys on Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour, England. He charged £1 for the public school boys and 3s 6d for the others (a public school in Britain is a particularly old and famous one for which you pay fees to attend). This camp is regarded as the beginning of the Scout movement.

The Scout movement has many fine principles and, I'm sure, does a lot of good. I was both a Brownie and a Guide and quite enjoyed it, especially the bonkers bits of which there were many. Examples included dancing round a plastic toadstool, and an odd way of welcoming strangers where we had to squat down in a circle, then repeatedly half-rise to our feet while hooting like an owl before suddenly jumping up, clapping our hands, and shouting welcome welcome welcome.

An odd way to greet people, to be sure, though I can't remember anyone actually running out screaming.

The best thing of all about being a Brownie or a Guide, though, was the singing. 

Some of it was educational: 

Oh you can't go to heaven (oh you can't go to heaven)
In a baked bean tin (in a baked bean tin)
'Cos a baked bean tin ('cos a baked bean tin)
'Sgot baked bins in ('sgot baked beans in).

But lots of it was utter gorgeous nonsense. 

Ging gang goolie goolie goolie goolie watcha
Ging gang goo, ging gang goo.

Ging gang goolie goolie goolie goolie goolie watcha
Ging gang goo, ging gang goo.

Hayla, oh hayla shayla, oh hayla shayla, shayla, oh-ho.
Hayla, oh hayla shayla, oh hayla shayla, shayla, oh.

Shally wally, shally wally, shally wally, shally wally,
Oompah, oompah, oompah, oompah.

This was hugely liberating, though why I have no idea at all. I should imagine it's partly the tune, which has been said to be from Mozart's Symphony No 1*. 

Word To Use Today: goo. It is said this word for a thick sticky substance was made up in the 1900s, but from where it came isn't clear. It might even be the case that the song got there first.

By the way, pleasingly, the song was designed to be complete nonsense in all languages.

*Mozart's Symphony No 1 is well worth listening to (especially when you consider that Mozart was eight when he write it) though it doesn't, as far as I can spot, include the tune to Ging gang goolie.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Word To Use Today: ruche (or rouche).

Here's a good word to say: ruche (it's basically French, so you say it roosh).

It's a lovely vroom of a word - like a car in wet weather - but, perhaps sadly, it's actually a clothes thing.

A ruche can be a strip of gathered or pleated fabric used as a decoration on an item of clothing, or, if you're still living in the eighteenth century (and there are those) then it's a sort of mini ruff worn round the neck.

Johann Heinrich Tischbein d.Ä. - Bildnis der Anna Victoriamaria von Rohan, Prinzessin von Soubise.jpg
Landgravine Victoria of Hesse-Rotenburg

Ruching is when you sew lines of parellel stitches, possibly, but not necessarily, using the very thin elastic called shirring elastic, so you end up with an area of gathered fabric:

File:Jean-Paul Gaultier expo bustier.jpg
ruched dress by Jean-Paul Gaultier

Sadly, at the moment you probably have to be female to wear ruching, though actually...

...perhaps Messrs Barnier and Davis should set an example of flexibility and show us some ruching at the next round of Brexit talks.

...though actually perhaps not.

Word To Use Today: ruche. This word came from France, where it means beehive, in the 1800s. I do not understand this at all. Before that it came from the Latin rūsca, the bark of a tree, from some Celtic language.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Breaking the rules: a rant.

Look, why is it that when you ask someone if they have a habit of doing something, and they reply yes, as a rule, the function of this phrase is to make it clear that it isn't a rule at all?


Word To Use Today: rule. This word comes from the Old French riule, from the Latin rēgula, a straight edge.

File:Metre pliant 500px.png
Photo by Za

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Nuts and Bolts: wise owls.

We preen ourselves on being able to say bonjour, or guten tag, or kaixo or helo when required (well, we do if we have the rudiments of, respectively, French, German, Basque and Welsh, anyway).

There may even be those among you who can reply zdraveĭte to a greeting in Bulgaria, and hyālō in Bengal.

But who speaks rattle snake, apart from, well, rattle snakes? Is it some long-learned scientist who has dedicated his whole life to the study of the family viperidaeOr some Native American wise man who has learned the lore of the snake together with all the wisdom of the ages?

Well, not as far as I know.

No, it's burrowing owls

photo by SantaFeLady

Burrowing owls share their habitat with both rattle snakes and ground squirrels, and if a squirrel approaches an owl nest looking as if it's hungry for an owlet dinner, then the owl will make a hiss that sounds so much like the rattle of a snake that the squirrel will probably change its mind and decide to have a vegetarian day, after all

Not only this, but burrowing owls can understand the prairie dog language, too. Prairie dog help! There's something out to get me! calls send the owls scuttling away as full speed. This means there are parts of two languages burrowing owls can understand - as well, of course, as the whole of their own.

Neat huh? 

And we thought being able to say por favor was pretty cool.

Word To Use Today: owl. This word comes from the Old English ūle.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Thing Probably Not To Be Today: a stool-pigeon.

A stool pigeon can be three things: it can be an actual pigeon (live, stuffed, or even reproduction) designed to lure other pigeons towards it; a police informer; or, in the USA, a person working as a decoy for a criminal.

I should imagine that few of The Word Den's readers are actual pigeons (pigeons' reading skills are notoriously poor, though on the positive side pigeons yield to no one in their talent spotting small boats on the ocean), so we are left with the other two possibilities.

Being a police informer is morally rather difficult: basically, do two wrongs make a right? Is this sort of stool pigeon a double-dyed villain who can't even be loyal to his own disreputable comrades? Or is he a brave under-cover agent trying to save lives from the forces of darkness?

Luckily I'm far too cowardly for this to be a matter of urgent practical difficulty.

Fortunately the USA sort of stool pigeon presents no moral difficulties at all. He will be working for a criminal, so he is almost certainly both wicked and doomed.

And serves him jolly well right, too.

Thing Probably Not To Be Today: a stool pigeon. The bird meaning is the oldest, appearing in the early 1800s. The other meanings soon followed, though at first the luring-people meaning didn't necessarily imply any criminal intent. The derivation of the stool bit of stool-pigeon no one's quite sure about, but pigeon comes from the Old French pijon, young dove, from the Latin pīpīre, to chirp.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Spot the Frippet: kitsch.

The difficulty with spotting kitsch is that one man's kitsch is another man's objet d'art.

I mean, I'm sure that when my late mother-in-law bought me that china spoon rest in the shape of a pig, the one with the 'comic' verse painted on its tummy, she didn't mean to send every nerve in my body screaming with appalled gut-clenching horror. No, she was being generous and kind. (As a matter of fact I dropped it almost immediately, and completely by accident.)

It's much the same with my husband's fondness for Wade pottery
and the wooden rhino. Still, now we (a daughter and I) have explained carefully and kindly to the poor man that he has absolutely no taste at all, we manage very well.

But how to define kitsch? The Collins dictionary says tawdry, vulgarised or pretentious, and later it uses the word sentimental. I'm not sure about pretentious because so many pretentious things (modern art provides many examples) aren't kitsch at all. 

Kitsch, too, needn't be tawdry: some of it can be hugely well-crafted. I mean, all those shocking pink flamingo lamps don't manage to stand up by accident, you know.

Sentimental gets closer. Kitsch does invite affection (isn't that puppy vase sweet?).

But essentially kitsch is the stuff that's disharmonious. The stuff that fights everything else around it for noisy attention. The stuff with sharp elbows and a grin which might be either cheeky or leering.

You won't find any trouble spotting kitsch.

The mystery is that a professional artist and a professional craftsman brought themselves to bring the thing into existence.

Ah well. I suppose that explains the underlying viciousness of the stuff, doesn't it.

Spot the Frippet: kitsch. This word is German, and started off in the 1860s describing cheap and popular sketches sold in art markets.

Yes, no illustrations. It seemed kindest.