This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: serious accents.

English doesn't use many diacritical marks (by which I mean the lines and wiggles placed around letters that we usually call accents). We see them in words like naïve and Noël, and in very obviously borrowed words like soupçon and fiancée, and that's about it.

And then there's poetry.

Very early English poetry will sometimes be printed with a dot over some of the e s, like this: ė, to show that they are to be pronounced as separate syllables. In Praise of Mary, by that stalwart of verse Anthologies Anonymous, begins:

Of one that is so fair and bright
Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the dayės
Parens et puella,
I cry to thee; thou see to me!
Lady, pray thy son for me,
Tam pia,
That I motė come to thee,

In later stuff, the mechanism changes from a dot to the sort of mark called a grave. It looks like this: è, and even in prose it's occasionally used to show that the difference between a man who's agèd (age-ed) and something merely aged, like wine.

The song from Shakespeare's play Cymbeline that begins 

Fear no more the heat o' the sun 


Quiet consummation have,
And renownèd be thy grave!

Which makes us wonder, of course, what's so grave about a grave accent?

Well, this:

Nuts and Bolts: grave (as in accent). This word is nothing to do with the burying kind of grave, but it is to do with the solemn kind. This grave comes from Old French, from the Latin gravis, related to Greek barus, which means heavy. 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: funky.

Ooh, ooh, ooh, as has been often remarked, the funky gibbon.

Are you funky today?

In the USA funky is quite likely to mean evil-smelling, so I hope you're not funky in that way, but here in Britain funky will probably mean new-styled, brash, and endearingly eccentric.

Of course sometimes funky means to do with funk music. It's all connected, you know.

By tobacco, actually.

Time to look out one of my sillier hats, I think.

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: funky. Funk was used in 1600s America to describe tobacco smoke. (The same word was used to mean to smoke tobacco, too.) Funk came from the Old French funkier, meaning to smoke, and eventually this gave rise to the idea of funky music: dirty, soulful, or earthy stuff like the early blues, and therefore something impossibly cool.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: something fungous.

Fungous can mean the same as fungal, that is derived from, or caused by, a fungus (and those can be things as various as the smell of dry rot, mushroom ketchup, St Vitus' Dance, or the holes in bread). But it has another meaning.

Something fungous appears suddenly, spreads itself all over the place, and then disappears.

So that's practically all TV talent contest winners, then; and to those we can add most youth slang, and, I should imagine, fidget spinners:

 File:FIdget Spinner.png
photo by BlueAvocado

(Fidget spinners? Well, they...sit on your finger and spin. They are said, though without, as far as I can see, any evidence whatsoever, to aid concentration. 

There are videos of fidget spinners in action on YouTube, if you're interested, but I'm afraid I lost the will to live before I got round to choosing one to upload.)

Spot the Frippet: something fungous. This word comes from fungus, which is the Latin for mushroom. It's probably something to do with the Greek spongos, sponge.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Sunday Rest: slush fund. Word Not To Use Today.

It may be a convenience to The Word Den's gloriously international audience to know that, although in most places a slush fund is a secret account containing money designed for corrupt purposes, in US ships a slush fund holds money made from the sale of kitchen waste.

Though this is, obviously, a distinction with very little difference.

File:Pig in a bucket.jpg
photo by Ben Salter

Sunday Rest: slush fund. Slush is related to the Danish slus, sleet and the Norwegian slusk, slops. The word fund comes from the Latin fundus, which can mean either the bottom, or a piece of land.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Saturday Rave: Robert Raikes' Big Idea.

I had no choice but to go to Sunday School. My dad was the Superintendent, you see, so there was no escape. 

I didn't mind too much, on the whole, though being suddenly appointed teacher of the infant class one day when another teacher didn't turn up was a bit alarming. Especially as I was only ten years old at the time.

Sunday School, by my  time, was purely a vehicle for religious instruction and observance, as it largely seems to have been in 1769 when the first Sunday School was started by Hannah Ball in the English town of High Wycombe. 

But that changed rather when the newspaper publisher Robert Raikes got involved in organising Sunday classes for children. In the course of his charitable work he'd seen a lot of poor children incarcerated as criminals, and he believed strongly that education was the best route out of the very great poverty that made crime so difficult to avoid. 

He supported his Sunday School financially himself to begin with (Sunday was the only day when the children weren't at work) and used his own newspaper for publicity purposes. He started the first school in 1780, and by 1831, despite lots of sneering from the already well-educated and opposition from people who were worried about Sabbath-breaking and other forms of undesirable worship, the Sunday Schools were bringing literacy to a quarter of the children in England.

Think of that: a quarter of all the children in England, educated by volunteers.

Soon after that, in 1833, the British Parliament began the process of taking on the burden of providing education for children. 

It was a sign that Robert Raikes' heroic campaign had been won.

Word To Use Today: school. This word comes from the Old English scōl, from the Greek skholē, leisure spent in the pursuit of knowledge.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Word To Use Today: gubbins.

Gubbins is quite possibly the most useful word in the English language.

It's lovely to say, too - do try it - and it means, well, more or less whatever you want it to mean.

(Words like that only increase in value as people get older.)

The word gubbins looks like a plural, but when it means a small gadget (or on some other occasions, when it can mean a thing of little value) it works as a singular. On the other hand, when it means odds and ends, or small pieces rubbish left lying about, then it really is a plural.

Just to prove its worth as an absolute hero of a word, a gubbins can mean a silly person, too.

So, basically, gubbins is pretty much the only word you'll ever need.

And it is such fun to say.


Word To Use Often Today: gubbins. This word appeared in the 1500s when it meant fragments. It came from gobbon, and is probably something to do with gobbet, which comes from the Old French gober, to gulp down.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Star Trek and racism: a rant.

I understand there's to be the launch of some new Star Trek series, soon.

I'm an original series girl, myself, but I'm always pleased to hear how the Star Trek universe is getting on. A recent article in the Telegraph newspaper had quite a lot to say about Star Trek's anti-racism. This is something of which I, in my position as a long-standing fan, am rather proud.

Star Trek's creator, Gene Roddenbury, did quite a lot to challenge 1960s assumptions about Other Types of People. His original Star Trek crew contained the efficient Lieutenant Uhura (I'm not sure if her heritage was explained at the time, but she has a Swahili name); the fanciable Russian Checkov; the efficient and fanciable half-Vulcan Spock; and of course Lieutenant Sulu, a man of East Asian appearance (was he Japanese in the series? I can't remember).

Japan had been at war with the USA only a generation before that original series aired, so to feature as a hero someone of the actor George Takei's Japanese heritage was really quite a statement. It was certainly a great advance on the treatment George Takei's parents received in the USA. They, according to the Telegraph article I was reading, 'had been interred during the Second World War'.

Good grief. 

I didn't know the racism had been that bad...

Word To Use Today: inter. This word means bury in the earth. It comes from the Latin terra, earth. Intern means to detain without trial or charge, especially during wartime. That word also come from Latin, from internus, interval.

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: epistrophe

Hourly joys be still on you!
Juno sings her blessings on you...
Scarcity and want shall shun you,
Ceres' blessing so is on you.

That last line might sound like a modern teenager: he is so on you you would not believe... but it's actually Shakespeare's The Tempest.  A man ahead of his time, and also a man not to shun epistrophe.

So: do you know what epistrophe is, yet?

Epistrophe is when you finish a series of phrases with the same word. I am great, you are great, and together we will make America great. That sort of thing.

Epistrophe is easy to use, has been around for millennia (when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child... wrote St Paul) and can be very effective.

Even monkeys use it:

File:Miniature brass sculpture of three monkeys.jpg
photo by Norbert Nagel

So, as I try to be pithy, hope to be pithy, and wish to appear pithy, I think today I might give epistrophe a go...

...and stop writing.

Thing To Use Today: epistophe. This word is Greek. Epi can mean more or less anything you want it to mean, and strophē means a turning.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Thing To Be Today: in unison.

Do you want to stand out from the crowd, or do you fancy being in unison with everybody else?

Well, it depends, obviously. If the crowd is filling the South Stand of Manchester City's Etihad Stadium then standing out by bellowing:

Hello! Hello!
We are the busby boys
Hello! Hello!
We are the busby boys
And if you are a City fan surrender or you'll die,
We all follow United

would be an act of extreme folly.

On the other hand I can see that joining in with:

Blue moon
You saw me standing alone
Without a dream in my heart
Without a love of my own.

might be hugely uplifting.

In my family, when any of us accidentally said something in unison, my mother would always insist on us making a wish and then saying the name of a poet. If you said Goldsmith then your wish would apparently come true through money (gold, geddit?). If you said Shakespeare then your wish would come true through violence. 

My insistence upon saying Emily Bronte or TS Eliot was possibly the reason why it never worked for me.

But anyway, do join in if you hear any singing. It lifts the spirits remarkably. 

But you have to do your best to sing at exactly the same pitch as the others, or it doesn't count.

Thing To Be Today: in unison. This word comes from the Latin ūnisonus. The uni- bit means one, and sonus sound.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: onion.

In the early days of online translation I once asked a computer to turn a review from the Korean language into English.

One phrase I shall always remember, so pregnant was it with luminous meaning. It talked of the green onion of the orchestra.

The green onion of the orchestra...I  still feel there is some great burgeoning revelation to be had, there, somewhere, if only I knew what it was.

Spotting an onion is easy, whether it's green, brown, white, pink or red (and especially if it's in an orchestra). Onions are at the heart of so many soups, stews, pies and curries. You can even make an onion cake.

If you live in Eastern Europe then you are likely to see onion domes on top of church towers:

File:Onion domes of Cathedral of the Annunciation.JPG
Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Kremlin, Moscow. Photo by Petar Milošević

and if you still have a typewriter then you might well use onion skin paper for your carbon copies. Even if you don't have a typewriter, you may use onion skin paper for origami or calligraphy or tracing. It doesn't contain any onions (it does have some cotton content, though) but it has the same translucent look and crackly feel under the fingers as an onion's skin.

If all else fails, consult an expert in something or other. He or she is bound to know his onions.*

Spot the Frippet: onion. This word comes from the Old French oignon, from the Latin unio. It's related to our word union, which comes from the Latin ūnus, one. The idea is that all the layers enclose one heart, unlike garlic, say, which has many cloves.


Sunday, 8 October 2017

Sunday Rest: burpee. Word Not To Use Today.

Someone my age should be able to do five burpees in a row. Well, that's what it said in the newspaper.

Five what? 

It sounded a most unpleasant, but I looked it up.

A burpee is, apparently, a form of exercise. You squat down with your hands on the floor, then kick out your legs straight behind you, Then you pull them back in again to a squatting position, stand up straight with your hands stretched up as far as they'll go, then get down into a hands-on-floor squat again.

Someone my age is then supposed to do all that again four times.

Personally, I would imagine that anyone with any sort of experience or maturity will have more sense than attempt to do anything of the sort. 

Word Not To Use Today: burpee. This form of exercise was developed in the 1930s by the American physiologist Royal H Burpee.

I would have called it the royal, myself.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Saturday Rest:: Hymn to Diana by Ben Jonson

Diana is the goddess of today's gorgeous moon.

Queen and huntress, chaste and fair,
Now the sun is laid to sleep,
Seated in thy silver chair,
State in wonted manner keep:
Hesperus entreats thy light,
Goddess excellently bright.

Earth, let not thy envious shade

Dare itself to interpose;
Cynthia's shining orb was made
Heaven to clear when day did close:
Bless us then with wishéd sight,
Goddess excellently bright.

Lay thy bow of pearl apart,

And thy crystal-shining quiver;
Give unto the flying hart
Space to breathe, how short soever:
Thou that mak'st a day of night - 
Goddess excellently bright.

Words to make the moon more beutiful yet.

(Hesperus is the evening star, and Cynthia is another name for Diana.)

Word To Use Today: moonlight. The word moon comes from the Old English mōna.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Word To Use Today: attar.

A word with an -ar ending has long been for me a thing of wild romance and mystery. I think it began with my long and wistful though unsuccessful search through the atlas for the fabled town of Orientar (you know, Orientar: where the three kings come from).

Then there's attar, avatar, hussar, pulsar and nectar...all mysterious and lovely things.

Attar practically always comes, in literature at least, from roses: it's the scent of timeless houris draped teasingly amongst shimmering silks, a note of voluptuousness produced from the gorgeous damask rose.

File:Rosa Rose de Rescht.jpg
photo by Florian Moekel

I long to see that lady reclining on her divan in Orientar, languidly dizzy with her own perfume.

File:Pierre-Auguste Renoir - Odalisque.jpg
painting by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Unfortunately I live in a time and place where the top-selling perfume is called Babe Power.

Ah well!

Word To Use Today: attar. This word comes from the Persian 'atir, perfumed, from 'itr, perfume, and before that from Arabic.

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Critical grammar: a rant.

But does grammar matter?

I mean, what is standard English, anyway? As long as we know what's meant, then (snobbery aside) is there any real and tangible downside to the odd mistake?

Will it cost actual money?

Yes it will - and this is how it happened to me.

I recently got an email purporting to be from my very large, very international, and reassuringly dull bank. There was a link involved. The message began:

Dear Mrs Prue,
There is a correspondence relating to account ending **** available for you to view in My documents through Online Banking.

Note the misuse of the word correspondence to mean message, and the missing definite article (the) before account.

Well, only a fool would fall for that, so I ignored it.

Reader, how can I tell you? It was genuine. Genuinely from a genuine senior official (Head of Digital) at the genuine bank. Ignoring it meant losing genuine money.

I am, honestly, in despair.

How on earth can I be expected to identify criminals if it's not through their ignorance of grammar?

Word To Use Today: correspondence. This word comes from the Latin corrēspondēre, from respondēre, to respond.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: hongi.

What's the point of greeting someone?

Well, it depends. It may be a simple way of saying here I am! or hey, listen to me! A handshake is basically an agreement that the participants aren't going to attack each other for the duration of the meeting. A bow may be a quite precisely formulated show of respect.

But you have to be careful, because you may be getting more than you bargain for when you greet someone.

The Maori hongi, which involves two people pressing their foreheads and noses together while exchanging breath, is a formal greeting and performs some of the functions as a handshake.

But there are snags to the hongi. For a start, there's a traditional feeling that exchanging breath has an exchanging-soul aspect to it, which one doesn't normally expect with a handshake (unless you're accepting a job at a major investment bank); and, as well, the performance of the hongi means, technically that you are Tangata whenua, one of the people of the land.

This is, of course, a huge privilege. It does come with minor disadvantages, though, such as a duty to help out in any imminent battles and the getting in of the harvest. 

It gives a whole new meaning to keep your nose out of trouble, doesn't it?

Word To Use Today: hongi. This word is Māori, of course.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Thing To Do Today: pandiculate.

One of the nice things about words is that they can give us dignity in the midst of our human frailty.

When we remember that our incoherent rabbiting on is in fact the act of speaking prose; that red-eyed snivelling can also be termed a bitter lamentation; and that a sneeze is technically a sternutation, then we can't help but feel slightly less ridiculous.

So how about a little pandiculation?

To pandiculate means to yawn and stretch. 

Yes, just like that.

But you feel quite business-like and important, now, don't you.

Thing To Do Today: pandiculate. This word comes from the Latin pandiculare, from pendere. to stretch.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: something from John MacAdam or John McAdam.

Where would we be without John McAdam?

John Loudon McAdam.jpg

Still bumping along a rutted track saying are we nearly there yet? probably. Possibly not even bothering to set out.

Where would we be without John Macadam?

John Macadam (1827–1865).png

A nut short of a poisonous cookie, that's where.

John Macadam was born in Glasgow, and John McAdam was born in Ayr, so they were both Scots (though John Mac didn't get famous until he got to Australia). 

John McAdam invented the macadamised road - that is, one made of small broken stones, in later versions usually bound together with tar or asphalt (John McAdam's nickname, Tar McAdam, has given us tarmac, too, even though the system of road-building called tarmac was actually developed long after John McAdam's death by Edgar Purnell Hooley).

John MacAdam was a politician in Victoria, Australia, who passed laws to regulate doctors, the safety of food, who was responsible for the supplies taken by the doomed Burke and Wills expedition to cross Australia (the sad outcome wasn't at all his fault), and was altogether so large and red-haired efficient and larger-than-life in his position as Hon Secretary of the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria that he had the macadamia nut named after him.

Both great benefactors of the world: but would you rather be famous for a road surface or a nut?

Difficult, isn't it?

Spot the Frippet: something from John McAdam or John MacAdam. John McAdam's name should really have been John McGregor - so we might have had macgregorised roads - but his family changed its name for political reasons.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Sunday Rest: mildew. Word Not To Use Today.

The worst thing about the word mildew is that it sounds rather lovely.

Even when you look inside the word at its roots (see below) it's strangely beautiful.

But the word is an assassin. It might murmur of sweetness and the dropping of gentle mercy, but it's an invisibly-flying group of organisms bent on making your garden collapse under an onslaught of powdery decay, and your bathroom look, shamefully, as if it hasn't seen a scourer for a decade.

But it sings of honey and freshness as it lays waste to our roses.


File:Powdery mildew.JPG
photo by Pollinator at English language Wikipedia

Word Not To Use Today: mildew. From the Old English mildēaw, from mil-, honey, which is connected to mēli- the Greek word for honey; the dew bit comes from the Old English dēaw, dew.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

Saturday Rave: a talking shop.

On this day in 1938 The League of Nations unanimously outlawed...

Well, can you guess? 

Let me (like a politician) be absolutely clear: in an international organisation set up to maintain world peace, an issue had been discussed by various of the world's leaders. Then the most experienced and skilled diplomats had made the most careful possible choice of words to ensure that the resolution was clear (or, of course, not).

In this case it was clear. Completely and utterly transparent.

Everything that persuasion in the form of language could do had been done, and everyone (well, everyone who had bothered to join The League of Nations and hadn't subsequently gone off in a huff, anyway) was agreed.

On this day in 1938 The League of Nations unanimously outlawed 'intentional bombing of civilian populations.

It's enough to make you weep.

Word To Use Today: league. This word comes from the Old French ligue, from the Italian liga, and before that from the Latin ligāre, to bind.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Word To Use Today: quinquereme

A quinquereme, as I'm sure you know, is a Roman ship propelled by oars arranged in five levels.

My Collins dictionary helpfully points out that these oars were on each side of the ship, which is certainly true, but has left me wondering whether this was entirely a good thing. It meant the ship could travel in a straight line rather than in constant frantic circles, but then a quinquereme was an extremely nasty thing to have bearing down on you with a view to sinking your own ship.


I may have just solved the problem of naval warfare.

So what use is the word quinquereme to us nowadays?

None whatsoever, as far as I can see, except for the sheer pleasure of saying it.

If you know the beginning of John Masefield's poem Cargoes, and can murmur Quinquireme* of Nineveh from distant Ophir as you go about your day then every hour will surely shimmer with voluptuous joy...

...and quite possibly get you your own seat on the train, too.

Word To Use Caressingly Today: quinquereme. This word comes from the Latin quinquerēmis, from quinque, five, plus rēmus. oar.

*That's how Masefield spells it. I like it, too, personally.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

A growing rage: a rant.

Look, growing something and developing it are different things.

Growing happens all by itself. Yes, it may be that someone provides the conditions for the growth to happen, as with turnips, or dahlias, or children, but the actual growth happens as if by magic.

The same sort of thing occurs with population growth. Obviously individuals are helping that happen, but the population as a whole doesn't have that particular intention because a population can't have an intention.

Developing something, on the other hand, is what happens when you take deliberate steps to make something get bigger, or smaller, or more refined, or more profitable.

So, please, stop talking about growing a business.

You develop a business in growing mangelworzels.


Word To Use Today: develop. This word comes from the Old French developer, which means, delightfully, to unwrap.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: hendiadys.

No, it's all right, this is easy. You've been using hendiadys more or less all your life: hendiadys is just the clever name for it.

Hendiadys basically comes about when, instead of using one word for a thing and another word to describe it, as in:

 the dinner was sitting in a pool of greasy gravy 

you join the two words together with an and, tweak one of them a bit, and say: 

the dinner was sitting in a pool of grease and gravy.

That's more or less all there is to it, really. 

Jolly powerful and effective it can be, too.

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.

Poor Ophelia!

Nuts and Bolts: hendiadys. This word is a Latinised form of the Greek phrase hen dia duoin, which means one through two.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Thing To Do Or Be Today: flash.

Are you flash? If you've got it, do you flaunt it?

Do you display your roll of bank notes at every opportunity, or brandish your super-platinum Amex card in the most public way possible?

Do you have a personalised number plate?

Do you drive your car lying down?

Are your shoes bitterly uncomfortable? 

Does your neck ache from the weight of the gold hanging round it?


Well, you'll just have to rely on flashing past someone at speed, or having a flash of genius, won't you?

I suppose I've got a chance of the former if I can spot a very very old person going for a walk.

Thing To Do Or Be Today: flash. This word started off meaning to rush in the way a flash flood rushes; but where it came from before that is a mystery.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Spot the Frippet: mandolin.

I once tried to borrow a ukulele for a concert performance, but because of some confusion (probably mine, quite honestly) when it arrived, a week before my big spot, it turned out to be a mandolin.

So I had to learn to play the mandolin. I think I did quite well for someone who'd only been playing a week, but of course it wasn't very good - and thank heavens for that, because I only knew one piece and if I'd been asked for an encore I'd have been sunk.

Finding a musical mandolin around the place is unlikely to be easy, but hearing one is no further away than YouTube:

Happy, now? Surely everyone must be who's listened to that.

Anyway, the reason why mandolins are in my mind is because at the weekend we had luncheon guests and for them I made a flan topped with a spiral of sweet potato shavings arranged on their edges to look like a big orange rose. I had to make the sweet potato shavings with a potato peeler, and, boy, did I miss having a mandolin.

No, not to amuse me as I laboured away, but to slice the vegetables:

One of these mandolins is surely spottable in a kitchen or kitchen shop near you. Or perhaps a restaurant might oblige by giving you a glimpse of theirs.

The question, though, is, why have a musical instrument and a vegetable slicer got the same name?

You really want to know, too, don't you?

Spot the Frippet: mandolin (or mandoline if you prefer). This word comes from the Italian mandolino, diminutive of mandolo, lute, from the Greek pandoura, which is a three-stringed instrument. As for its connection with the vegetable slicer, everyone is curious but baffled. The most convincing idea (to me) is that the name was first given to a wire-type slicer (like an egg-slicer) and the name was transferred from there; but some say that the early mandolins were held against the body and the action of using them was very like strumming a musical mandolin.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Sunday Rest: gorpcore. Word Not To Use Today

Last week we were recoiling in appalled horror from normcore; this week we lurch, protesting bitterly, out of gorpcore's sticky reach.

(For those so far innocent of these horrible words, they both describe fashion trends. (And I'm sorry to say that between normcore and gorpcore there was, inevitably applecore (ouch!) which involved dressing up like a middle-aged Apple executive.).)

Now the main problem with the word gorpcore is that it's really very ugly indeed. The second problem is that most of us won't have a clue what a gorp is. The third problem is that even if you do, it's not going to help much.

Gorp stands for Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.

And what has that to do with fashion? It could be a hat trimming, possibly (though inconveniently liable to attract sea gulls, I would have thought).

Gorpcore's actual connection to fashion is, thankfully, less direct. You eat gorp when hiking or camping, and gorpcore involves wearing clothes associated with striding through the Great Outdoors. This will probably involve padded jackets, walking boots, fleece, and rucksacks.

If you want to do the fashion thing really properly then Prada is selling a rucksack at the moment for £1200.

Luckily I already have a rucksack. I think it's in the loft somewhere. 

Is turquoise nylon in?

Sunday Rest: gorpcore. But you already know from where this word slithered into sorry existence.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Saturday Rave: The Beguiling of Gylfi by Snorri Sturluson

What do you do if there is a new and powerful religion in the land, and you are afraid that the glories of the old (if false) one will be discarded and forgotten?

If no one makes a record of the old religion it will all be lost - but being the author of such an account is likely to make you very very unpopular.

The Icelander Snorri:

Snorre Sturluson-Christian Krohg.jpg
illustration by Christian Krohg

 (called Snorri Sturluson by those who feel uneasy about someone having a name with no surname or patronym attached) solved this problem, in the Iceland of the 1220s, by writing The Beguiling of Gylfi, or Gylfaginning, where the old lore is inserted into the story of a king who stumbles upon the hall of the old gods.

The format is odd - a section of prose followed by a few lines of verse. Admirers of Tolkien will hear the echoes of his work in it - and those who can't stand Tolkien can admire it just for what it is.

Surtr fares from the south / with switch-eating flame, --
On his sword shimmers / the sun of the War Gods;
The rock-crags crash / the fiends are reeling;
Heroes tread Hel-way; / Heaven is cloven.

The Beguiling of Gylfi forms part of Snorri's Younger Edda. It's 20,000 words long, and the reason it's called the Younger Edda is that there might have been an older one, which, very sadly, has been lost. 

Thank every heaven that Snorri saved this treasure for us all.

Word To Use Today: Edda. This word might be to do with the place in Iceland called Oddi; it could be something to do with the fact that edda means great-parent, and therefore suggests that the work holds the wisdom of the old; it could be because of the Latin edo, meaning I write, suggests poetic art.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Word To Use Today: ojama-shimasu.

As I come to the end of my second month of living with builders, plumbers, plasterers and electricians, I find myself wishing for an English equivalent of the Japanese ojama-shimasu.

It's a phrase that's said whenever a visitor enters someone else's house, and it means sorry to cause bother.

There's an idea behind the words of being modest, and aware that you're intruding, as well.

It's a conventional phrase in Japan, and it's used so often it probably doesn't always mean very much. But still, for someone like me watching as her house degenerate into a building site, it would give quite a lot of comfort.

Word To Use Today: ojama-shimasu. It's possible, of course, to say the same thing as ojama-shimasu in English, although it takes a lot longer and a lot of care. Still, if you are planning to wreck someone's house, it might be worth doing from time to time.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Ta: a rant.

Twitter can be a truly great platform full of amazing and beautiful things, but may I just point out that the thank-you tweet is an idleness, an evasion, a scandal, and an abomination?

Thank you so very much to everybody for this kind opportunity to express my gratitude.

Word To Use Today: platform. This word comes from the French plateforme, from plat, flat, and forme, lay-out.

File:Bond Street tube Westbound Platform 1.jpg
Bond Street Tube Station, London, westbound platform. Photo by Oxyman

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: the largest possible capers.

This post isn't about the wildest leaps of dancers:

File:1953 Ballet Grand Pas - Jean-Paul Andreani au Foyer de la danse de l'Opera de Paris.jpg
Jean-Paul Andreani, photo by Christjeudi10  

No, the capers to which I refer are the buds of the Mediterranean bush Capparis spinoza, which we usually come across salted or pickled and used as a flavouring.

Illustration Capparis spinosa0.jpg
Illustration by Otto Wilhelm Thomé

The smaller the capers are the higher their quality is deemed to be, and so there needs to be a clear grading system.

So: do we have minuscule, minute, tiny, small, and medium?

No, the truth is much more lovely. We have non-pareil, surfines, capucines, capotes, fines, and grusas.

And just how gloriously bonkers is that?

Words To Use Today: one that describes a caper. Non-pareil means without equal; surfines means very fine; capucines and capotes are coats or cloaks with hoods; fines means fine; and grusas means dashed in Swedish (though I doubt very much that's relevant as the rest of the words have basically ended up French). My guess is that it's something to do with the French gross, meaning, well, gross. Gruesa is Spanish for bulky.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Thing To Do Today: reel.

Cotton reels were invented about a decade after the invention of cotton thread, which was itself invented after Napoleon's 1806 Edict of Berlin banned countries in continental Europe from trading with Britain (which made silk and linen thread hard to obtain)

I don't know what people did during the decade they were waiting for the cotton reel to be invented, but the Edict certainly did wonders for innovation and the smuggling industry.

Anyway, reeling. The word started with the sort of reels that fishing line and film come on, and then migrated into meaning the sort of reeling people do when surprised, thumped, or drunk. The word then migrated in another direction to cover certain extraordinary folk dances which involved chasing each other round in circles (though squares and lines also have a major role to play). Here's a Scottish reel:

All in all, reeling presents an opportunity to those of more or less every lifestyle and preference. Whether contemplative fisherman, convivial party-goer, or all-too-convivial-trying-to-find-his-way-home-er.

We're all good for a quick reel.

Thing To Do Today: reel. All these words are connected. They started off with the Old English hrēol, which is related to the Old Norse hrǣlī, weaver's rod and the Greek krekein to weave.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Spot the Frippet: tiller.

A tiller is a lever used to steer a boat:

File:Miss March manning the tiller of the narrowboat 'HEATHER BELL' nas it carried flour from Worcester to Tipton during 1942. D7652.jpg
This photograph shows Miss March manning the tiller of the narrowboat HEATHER BELL as it carried flour from Worcester to Tipton in 1942.

but of course we mustn't forget the dancing Tiller Girls:

Tiller Girls, London Plaza 1928.

though they're no longer in existence (a revival is planned).

Luckily for those of us who live far from both very old-fashioned nightclubs and navigable water, a tiller is also both a grass shoot which comes up from the base of a stem, and another name for a young tree or sapling.

File:Rowan sapling in Gullmarsskogen.jpg
photo: W.carter

though the main question for you to answer is: which of these three meanings gives you most joy?

Spot the Frippet: tiller. The boat-steering word comes from the Anglo-French teiler, the beam of a loom, from the Latin tēlārium, from tēla, a web. The tree/grass word comes from the Old English teīgar, twig. The Tiller Girls were founded by a Mr John Tiller.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Sunday Rest: normcore. Word Not To Use Today.

I've come rather late to the word normcore, which is really sad, because if only I'd been a bit later I might have missed it altogether.

Normcore is now most usually used as a way of mocking old people. I think the idea might be that old folk are so hilariously unattractive they're asking for it. 

What young, beautiful and desirable people do in their mockery is to put on their grandparents' clothes (not literally, of course, or we'd have lots of aged people going around in a state of undress. This would benefit absolutely no one. I mean they put on their grandparents' style of clothes).

This, of course, involves a lot of beige and comfy elastic.

See? Utterly hilarious.

Of course it means these bright young things are forced to wear a permanently ironic expression and go everywhere at a haughty strut, just in case people failed to understand the joke.

But, hey, at least they got to wear some nice comfy flats for a change. So not all bad, hey.

File:Normcore example.jpg
photo by Rossco wm

Word Not To Use Today: normcore. Normcore is a mixture of normal and hardcore. The word appeared in the webcomic Templar Arizona before 2009. To start with the word implied the satisfaction to be obtained in being nothing special, but later it came to signify an ambition to dress so as not to be noticed. This was perhaps a reaction to the tyranny of the fashion world, but, as seen above, the fashion world soon managed to make being unfashionable in this way one of the most fashionable things on earth. 

Ah well.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Saturday Rave: The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes.

Alfred Noyes was born 137 years ago today. I shall be for ever grateful to Noyes for writing Daddy Fell Into The Pond, which was one of the works which opened my mind to the joy of poetry, but The Highwayman is probably Noyes' most famous work.

The whole text can be found HERE, but this is the beginning:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding - 
Riding - riding - 
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

It's such splendid stuff - I love the sound of the galloping of the highwayman's horse beneath the words - and the whole poem tells a proper story of love, madness, cruelty, heroism and some very nice clothes. Not only that, but it's quite short, and the ending, very neatly, is hinted at in the opening lines.

When Noyes was asked why the poem had become such a success, he said that at the time he wrote it (he was twenty four) he was still genuinely excited by love and adventure and heroism.

I'm much older than that, but surely no one could get to the end of The Highwayman unmoved - and while there are tales like The Highwayman we'll fight old age off yet.

Word To Use Today: torrent. This word comes, oddly, from the Latin torrēns, burning, from torrēre to burn.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Word To Use Today: gusset.

Is there a word that's more satisfying to say than gusset?

On the whole I think not.

A gusset is most commonly a piece of of fabric sewn between the seams of a garment to make it stronger or the right shape. Tights (pantyhose in some places, I understand)

File:Lena pantyhose 200x600.png
illustration by Znakezwamp

often boast of their reinforced gussets. These are the bits which sag down as you wear them and make moving at anything faster than a waddle close to impossible.

Builders use gussets, too. (Yes, even the ones who don't wear tights):

photo by TomerTW  The gusset plate is the bit stuck with rivets. According to Wikipedia they're used to connect truss members. The mind boggles.

Originally, of course (though you'll all know this) a gusset was a piece of mail (the stuff that's usually inaccurately called chain mail) fitted between plates of armour, or into the leather or cloth underclothes worn by knights.

Underwear made of leather and mail?

Good grief. And I thought it was bad enough having to wear tights.

Word To Use Today: gusset. This word  comes from the Old French gousset, a piece of mail. It's a diminutive of gousse, which means pod.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Where Adam stands: a rant.

'I mean, all these celebrity shows. Celebrities? I wouldn't know them from Adam.'

As you will be aware, this has become a very common complaint.

Now, The Word Den is always pleased to be of help, so may I point out that Adam is the one in the apron made of sewn-together fig leaves? 

If he is wearing his apron slung low then a further clue (though this is a matter of some argument) may be that he possesses no belly button.

If your celebrity is female then there will probably be other differences, and for an explanation of these I recommend any standard text book on Human Biology.

Word To Use Today: Adam. According to the Bible, Adam was given his name by God, and He might have decided upon it because Adam is the Hebrew for to be red (the Almighty was perhaps anticipating Adam's embarrassment at his nakedness). Or the word Adam might come from the Akkadian adamu, meaning to make. God made Adam out of earth, which in Hebrew is adamah, so that might be part of the name's origins, too. Indeed, it might even be God's first pun.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: colometry.

Colometry is a thing both gloriously obscure and very simple.

It's the habit of some of the Early Christian Fathers (it seems that the Early Christian Mothers had no truck with it) of arranging their writing so each new phrase was on a new line. This made speaking it aloud both easier and more effective.

It's the difference between this sentence from Emmeline Pankhurst's address in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 13 1913:

I am not only here as a soldier temporarily absent from the field at battle; I am here - and that, I think, is the strangest part of my coming - I am here as a person who, according to the law courts of my country, it has been decided, is of no value to the community at all: and I am adjudged because of my life to be a dangerous person, under sentence of penal servitude in a convict prison. 

and this:

I am not only here as a soldier 
temporarily absent from the field at battle; 
I am here - 
and that, I think, is the strangest part of my coming - 
I am here as a person who, 
according to the law courts of my country, it has been decided, 
is of no value to the community at all: 
and I am adjudged 
because of my life 
to be a dangerous person, 
under sentence of penal servitude in a convict prison. 


Come to think about it, it might not be a bad thing if colometry were still in use today; you never know, our public figures might start making a bit more sense, then.

It's either that or give them lessons in punctuation.

Thing To Consider Today: colometry. This word comes from the Greek kōlon, limb or part of a sentence, and -metry, from the Greek metron, measure.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Thing To Do Today: yawn.

If the purpose of yawning is to get more air into your body (though that's only one theory about it) then why do we spend most of the time when yawning breathing out?

photo: By Daisuke Tashiro - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Well, don't ask me, I haven't a clue, but it's interesting how efficient that short gasp at the beginning of a yawn is. If you want to sing, or play a wind instrument, observe what you do at the beginning of a yawn, because that's the way to get lots of air in quickly and quietly for musical purposes.

No, no, that's all right. All part of the service.

Anyway, here's another question: why is yawning catching?

Again, no one knows (though one idea is that it's to keep a group of animals alert) but it's a widespread phenomenon. Even reptiles will sometimes yawn in imitation of a colleague. Birds sometimes do the same thing. You can even catch a yawn from a member of another species.

But why do we yawn? I mean, if we needed more oxygen then we could just breathe faster. 

Well, yawning might cool down the brain, or signal to your friends that it's time for sleep (or to stop talking about their holiday). On the other hand baboons yawn as a threat; guinea pigs yawn to be bossy; and penguins yawn when chatting up a potential mate. 

Snakes yawn to put their jaws back together after a meal.

So the real expert here, of course, is you. 

Why do you yawn?

Worth thinking about, isn't it?

Thing To Do Today: yawn. This word comes from the Old English gionian, and is related to the Old Norse jgā, gap.