This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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



Thursday, 27 April 2017

International World Day: a rant.

Did you know that March 25 was World Malaria Day?

World Malaria Day? 

But why on earth would anyone want a special day to celebrate malaria? Good grief, apart from anything else people will hardly have recovered from the World Tuberculosis Day parties on March 24.

Still, at least we have a good long break, then, before World Rabies Day on September 28.

For all these chances to celebrate we must give thanks to the United Nations, who have cast their official blessing on days throughout the year. 

For instance, March 23rd (gosh, that really is a busy week) is World Meterological Day, when I suppose our parties rain champagne and snow desiccated coconut; and if you fancy something more substantial than that then 16 October is World Food Day.

What? You want something to celebrate a higher plane of existence? Well, how about Nov 16, World Philosophy Day? Or Dec 11, World Mountain Day?

Or perhaps they're too up-in-the-air. Can I suggest Nov 19, then, World Toilet Day? That has to bring a flush of joy to all nations.

By this time you will of course be asking what about today? So, what are we celebrating today?

Well, the UN doesn't seem to know this, but April 27 is World Tapir Day.

And that is certainly something well worth celebrating.

File:Baby tapir.jpg
photo of a slightly grumpy baby tapir by frank wouters

Word To Use Today: I've already featured the word tapir on The Word Den, so how about malaria? It's from the Italian mala aria, which means bad air.


Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Nuts and Bolts stichometry.

'Have you got the scrolls?'

'No, it's just the way I walk.'


Ah, there's nothing like a good old joke - and, yes, all right, that was nothing like a good old joke.

Anyway, the thing is, how do you pay your scribe? By the page? By the line? 

By the line probably seems fairer because otherwise you'd get crafty scribes writing in big letters, or cutting down the size of the pages.

But you're still left with the problem of how long a line is. A scribe's view of the long verse-line called the alexandrine will presumably be: 

Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine

(that alexandrine is from Edmund Spencer's Fairie Queene) 

but the same scribe might fall upon a translated haiku with enthusiasm:

The wren
Earns his living
Noiselessly

(the original haiku was by Kobayahsi Issa)

As a matter of fact the length of a standard line was worked out in Ancient Greek times, and the standard unit of line-length seems to have been based on those two long-term best-sellers, the Iliad and Odyssey. This meant a line could easily contain fifteen or more syllables, or about thirty five letters (which is even longer than your average alexandrine).

Poor scribes!

This counting-lines system is called stichometry.

However, stichometry didn't exist entirely to stitch up the scribes. It also served to tell you how long was the manuscript you were buying; to give you some idea where in a manuscript a particular feature was to be found; and to check that the scribes hadn't gone and left out the clue to the first murder.

Later we changed system and began to use page numbers, and later still, with the advent of ebooks, we switched to percentages.

But I'm still left feeling a bit sorry for those poor scribes.

Word To Use Today: stichometry. This word comes from the Greek stikhometria, from stikhos, a row or verse, which is related to steikhein, to walk.




Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: be graveolent.

As it happens, something graveolent is nothing to do with graves, nor with being serious.

Graveolent describes a plant that stinks to high heaven.


File:Anthemis cotula Habitus 2011-5-22 SierraMadrona.jpg
Anthemis cotula or Stinking Chamomile, photo by Javier martin

I suppose the word may give some of us a dignified way of declining an extra helping of broccoli...

Thing Not To Be Today: graveolent. This word was made up in the 1600s from the Latin words gravis, heavy, and olēre, to smell, presumably by someone who fancied himself too refined to refer to a good honest stink.



Monday, 24 April 2017

Spot the Frippet: sequin.

Here's something entirely frivolous.

Sequins are the small shiny discs sewn onto clothes or, well, anything that you want to make shinier, really. 

They seem to have been used since 2500 BC in India, and I wouldn't be surprised if shiny fish scales were used before that to give joy to the world.

Is it possible to have enough of them?

File:Pink Sequins Fabric-6871045279.jpg
photo by Sherrie Thai

well, possibly, I suppose, if you're designing uniforms for policemen; but on the whole if you're young and care-free then the more the merrier:

Where else could this be? A beautiful Sambista bedecked in Brazil's traditional green and yellow celebrates two of Brazil's great passions—soccer (futbol) and Carnival. Photograph by Nicolas de Camaret, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-2.0
photo by Nicholas de Caramet

or for the oldies, how about these:

File:Moroccan babouche, burgundy leather with silver sequins, 20th century - Bata Shoe Museum - DSC00131.JPG
photo by Daderot

Let it shine!

Spot the Frippet: sequin. Sequins are named after a Venetian coin, officially called the ducat but nicknamed the zecchino. When the coin stopped being minted in the early 1800s the name was transferred to the decorations. 

Before that, the word comes from the Arabic sikkah, die for striking coins.




Sunday, 23 April 2017

Sunday Rest: prepubescent. Word Not To Use Today

So, a child is born, fresh into the world and trailing clouds of glory: 

File:Sleeping baby with arm extended.jpg
photo by PinkStock Photos D Sharon Pruitt

Then, gradually, magically, he grows from innocence and fragility into beauty and intelligence: 


File:Happy child.jpg
photo by امید رستمی نیا


File:Nice sweet children playing in sand.jpg
photo by Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service


By Andrew Butko, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15366970

And how do some people (basically those with no more wit in their souls than a poached egg) describe him?

Prepubescent.

It's enough to make you weep, you know.

Word Not To Use today: prepubescent. This word comes from the Latin pūbēscere to reach manhood, from pūber, adult.


Saturday, 22 April 2017

Saturday Rave: optical fiber


On 22 April 1977 fiber optic cable was first used to send telephone messages.

Happy fortieth birthday!

A great deal more than I know about fiber optic cable can be found in the relevant wikipedia entry, but what I can tell you is that it's pretty cool stuff. It's basically a long piece of glass just a bit thicker than a human hair (as a matter of fact a clear human hair will work in rather the same way) that reflects information along it as far as you like without losing very much of it at all.

Why the glass fibre doesn't break I have no idea at all, but what I do know (thanks again, wikipedia) is that a single fibre can carry 90,000 TV channels (the mere thought of this turns me quite faint). 

And that isn't the end of its cleverness, because information in the cable isn't upset by any sort of outside interference (which can be a problem with metal wires): fibres are indifferent to electricity, so you can put them in the same holes as electricity cables; fibres tend to stay in the hole once you've put it there because people don't want to steal the fibre in the way they'll steal copper; you can't tap a fibre line the way you can a copper one; and optical fibers are jolly useful if you want to look into a small space (like a human body via an endoscope).

There. That's all I know - and much more than I understand.

But it's clearly very nearly a miracle, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: fibre. (Or fiber.) This word comes from the Latin fibra, which means filament - or charmingly, entrails.



Friday, 21 April 2017

Word To Use Today: papyraceous.

Wasp's nests are papyraceous:

File:Common wasp, Queen and nest.jpg
photo by Paulpadam 

so are books:

File:A tower of used books - 8443.jpg
photo by Jorge Royan

and so is this picture frame:


photo by R de Salis

So, what does papyraceous mean, then?

Word To Use Today: papyraceous. This word comes from papyrus, an aquatic grass with umbrella-spoke flower stems at the top of the stems: 

File:01758 - Cyperus papyrus (Papyrus-Staude).JPG
photo by Tubifex

The inside of the stems was used to make paper-like stuff in Ancient Egypt, and papyraceous means relating, made of, or resembling paper. 


Thursday, 20 April 2017

Robin Redbreast: a rant.

I recently got a catalogue from a firm called Orvis which features a three-quarter sleeve T shirt in a choice of colours: deep coral, lapis, white, heathered lavender, orange blossom, and robin.

So: what colour do you think the robin T shirt was?

File:Thomas Bresson - Rouge-gorge-5 (by).jpg
European robin, photo by Thomas Bresson



File:American robin.jpg
American robin, photo by Sujit kumar

File:Luscinia brunnea.jpg
Indian robin

File:Siberian Blue Robin - S4E7383 (19175819080).jpg
Siberian robin, photo by Francesco Verones

File:Cinclidium leucurum male - Ang Khang.jpg
Thai robin, photo by JJ Harrison 

Yep...

...bright turquoise.

I'm still trying to work that one out.

Word To Use Today: robin. This word came into being in the 1500s when someone suddenly decided that the bird looked like a Robin (as in the man's name, eg Robin Hood). 

As far as I can see we could just as easily have been calling them Egberts.



Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Nuts and Bolts: yodelling.

I suppose the main issue with yodelling is why on earth do it?

As wikipedia so wisely says, yodelling sounds best when performed in echoing mountains ranges - and living as I do about a hundred miles from the nearest mountain, I heartily agree.

In case you're lucky enough not to know, yodelling is a sort of howling song where the performer jumps from his chest voice to a falsetto at odd moments. 

And, let's face it, most of the moments in yodelling are odd ones.

The peculiar violence of the sound of yodelling must be the reason why yodelling took off as a music hall act in the 1800s, but before that it was used to communicate in the alps over long distances where a face-to-face chat would have involved a lot of climbing up slopes. A similar sort of thing, but with singing mixed in, called laling, is traditional to Norway (also a place with lots of uphill bits) where it has acted as a sort of signal song. Laling is used to call animals and to send messages between settlements - sometimes with words mixed in with the laling, and sometimes without.

The Mbuti of the Congo yodel to call to each other, too, as well as using yodelling in their music (other musical traditions involving yodelling can be found in Persia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Armenia and Afghanistan.)

The common theme with yodelling is that it's more or less an oi, look at me! message - and that the people who do the yodelling are a long way away.

That makes perfect sense to me.

Thing To Try Today If You Can Get Far Enough Away From Everyone Else: yodel. This word comes from the Austro-Bavarian jodeln, to say jo (it's pronounced yo).



Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Thing Not To Do Today: fib.

Telling a lie seems so clever: I mean, it sends all the good guys into a tail-spin because they can never quite believe anyone would have the cheek to do it. This leaves a liar sniggering scornfully at the rest of us, who have been too astonished to do anything to stop him getting exactly what he wants.

And then what happens? 

Well, obviously, nothing the liar says is ever believed again - not even, sadly, when he truly deserves sympathy and help - because the truth, once broken, is broken for...well, I won't say for ever, but the cracks will certainly be visible for a very long time.

It's all very simple, though you will have noticed that some of our canniest and cleverest world leaders haven't grasped it.

But what about a fib? What about a completely harmless lie?

Does my bum look big in this?

Well, the last thing you want to do is lose the trust of those you love, but then you don't have to: you look absolutely wonderful, darling. You look fabulous!

You needn't specify the exact meaning of wonderful or fabulous, after all.

File:Hippogriff1.jpg
photo by  Gustave Eugène Chauffourier

Thing Not To Do Today: fib. This word appeared in the 1600s and might come from the lovely fibble-fable, which is an unlikely story.










Monday, 17 April 2017

Spot the Frippet: something rostrate.

No, this is easy.

I mean, this beetle is rostrate:

Metaxyphloeus germaini dorsalMontage.jpg
Metaxyphloeus germaini

and so is this stone curlew:

File:Eurasian stone curlew.jpg
(don't worry, stone curlews always look anxious)

and so is this pillar:

File:Spb, colonne rostrate 02.JPG
photo by sailko

and this flower:


Heliconia rostrata, photo byCesarious 

and this fossil brachiopod (yes, that's just a sort of shellfish):

Uncitidae - Uncites gryphus.JPG
photo by Hectonichus

and this creature here (and the clue's to what rostrate means is, as they say, in the name):

File:Gould John Duckbilled Platypus 1845-1863.png
illustration by John Gould

Do you know what it is, yet? Yes, that's right: something rostrate is something with a beak.

So: how long will it take you to spot one of those?

Spot the Frippet: something rostrate. This word comes from the Latin rōstrum, beak or ship's prow, from rōdere, which means rather sweetly, to nibble. 



Sunday, 16 April 2017

Sunsay Rest: glair. Word Not To Use Today

Glare is rather an aggressive-sounding word, but then, fair enough, a glare is an aggressive thing.

It follows, therefore, that glair is rather an aggressive-sounding word, too.

So, what do you think glair means? Is it some kind of large, particularly irritable ferret? 

A acidic substance used in the preparation of mustard?

A hang-out for vampire bats? 

Nope. 

It's egg white.

Yes, I know that egg white isn't usually hugely aggressive.

It's usually bookbinders who use the word glair (they use egg white as a glaze and a glue), but it can be used by anyone to describe anything that resembles egg white:

File:Jellyfish on the beach in Bolinas, California.JPG
photo by Airickson

Mind you, if you weren't jolly careful you might have to use the related adjective glaireous, instead. 

And that would be even worse.

Word Not To Use Today: glair. This word comes from the Old French glaire, from the Latin clārus, clear.




Saturday, 15 April 2017

Saturday Rave: Johnson's Dictionary

On 15th April 1755 Dr Samuel Johnson's great dictionary finally saw the light of day (he'd said he could write it in three years, but, as is the way with big projects, it over-ran and actually took nine). 

Johnson's dictionary was an almost incredible achievement. I mean, can you imagine even copying out a dictionary? Now imagine having to write the thing as well (and he did do the whole thing pretty much by himself, except for some clerical help).

Dr Johnson was paid 1500 guineas for his work. That wasn't too bad - a professional level of income for nine years' writing - and, indeed, it proved almost enough for him to live on.

The payment came from a group of publishers who found that, among a population rapidly becoming literate, an authoritative guide to the English language was needed. This was a task to daunt all but the bravest, but Dr Johnson was certainly brave (how I wish he'd had access to Twitter!). Johnson was also cunning, and he swerved the question of his right to pontificate rather neatly.

I shall therefore, he wrote, since the rules of stile, like those of law, arise from precedents often repeated, collect the testimonies of both sides and endeavour to discover and promulgate the degrees of custom, who has so long possessed whether by right or usurpation, the sovereignty of words.

This cleverness was reflected in the reputation of the dictionary. Although there were a few mean-spirited naysayers ('most truly contemptible performances' John Horne Took (yes, quite: who?)) Dr Johnson's great work has become the basis for every English dictionary ever since.

Hurrah!

Word To Use Today: dictionary. This word comes from the Mediaeval Latin dictiōnārium, a collection of words, from the Latin dictiō, word.



Friday, 14 April 2017

Word To Use Today: mousse

The French have the clever word moue, which is what English speakers, much less elegantly, call a pout.

Clever? Well, saying it makes you do it. I think that's very clever.

Moue is quite similar in pronunciation to our English word moo, but the French moue is more associated with allure or disgust than cows. (There may be some great philosophical truth lurking beneath that fact, but quite frankly I don't want to think about it.)

Anyway, mousse is an English word with some of the allure, I believe, of moue.

Mousse comes in various forms which you might eat or might spread on your hair.

Best to make sure which sort it is before use.

File:Auberge Saint-Roch mise en bouche mousse de betterave au vinaigre de framboise.JPG
Auberge Saint-Roche bettarave au vinaigre de framboise. Photo by JPS68


Word To Use Today: mousse. This is a French word at root, too. It means froth.


Thursday, 13 April 2017

Feedback: a rant.

Will you give us feedback on your purchase of DOG-BREATH super-strength halitosis tablets?

Well, no, probably not, especially as my one cast-iron rule for writing is that everything must go out under my name: if I'm not prepared to own up to it then I shouldn't be writing it.

But still, reviews do help customers to choose the right product. 

Mostly.

Here's one I came across recently for a local heating engineer:

Thank you very very much florin and the boys you did unspeakable job for me. I will never look any where else for a builder busy or not I will wait for you. Will always recommend you you are worth every penny thank you.

What? 

Oh, yes, thank you, my boiler's fixed, now. Yes, it's working perfectly. 

But it wasn't fixed by the unspeakable Florin, no.

Word To Use Today: unspeakable. Why unspeakable should mean dreadful when unbelievable usually implies good I do not know. The word speak comes from the Old English specan.


Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Nuts and Bolts: sick lit.

File:Goat Simulator.jpeg
Image by EnderWikiTX

We've had chick lit (light fiction aimed at, and about, young women) for a couple of decades, now. Some of it (eg Sophie Kinsella, Helen Fielding) is both very enjoyable and very good.

I didn't welcome the term at first, thinking it dismissive and patronising - I was afraid that it would encourage people to dismiss and patronise all books about young women - but, hey, chick lit exists, and we've coped. 

But further delights are crowding upon us because we now have sick lit, a similarly dismissive term which describes books where the illness or disability of a main character or characters is used to add tragic importance to the narrative.

This time, personally, having trudged my way through one or two of these fashionable, self-indulgent, manipulative books, the term fills me with delight.

Word To Use Today: tragedy. It is vitally important to remember when reading sick lit that the word tragedy comes from the Greek word for goat. Tragos is goat and the Greek word for song, oīdē, is mixed in there, too.




Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Thing To Be Far From Today: the madding crowd.

It doesn't matter how often I've read the explanation of the title of Hardy's novel Far From The Madding Crowd, I can never get it clear in my mind what it means, except that's it's not what you'd think.

Now at last I've sorted it out. The thing is that madding has two meanings.

Madding can mean the same as maddening, but as far as Hardy's book is concerned it means behaving as if mad.

Now, luckily, most crowds don't act as if they're mad. There's usually not room, for one thing, and for another few people have the energy to do more than shuffle dispiritedly along. 

Luckily, too, madding crowds are quite easily avoided. And as a) I have no intention of going anywhere near a Massive Last-Chance Sale, b) I am usually fast asleep by the time the bars close, and c) I'm more of a believer in focused arguments than walking up and down with placards, I should be safe enough.

Thing To Be Far From Today: the madding crowd. The word mad comes from the Old English gemǣdan, to render insane, related to gemād, insane.

By the way, I have definitely read Far From The Madding Crowd, but can remember absolutely nothing about it except for a vague impression of brownish green. Knowing Hardy, though, it probably concerns a doomed love affair or two. 

Best to avoid those, too.

PS I've just looked up FFTMC, and it's the one about Bathsheba Everdene.

So I was right, then.

Gosh, though, they weren't that much saner in the countryside, were they?




Monday, 10 April 2017

Spot the Frippet: tendril.

Here’s a gentle word to ease us into the working week...

...tendril...

...it has an echo of tender, doesn't it, and tenderly is how we all need to be treated on a Monday morning.

Tendrils are, luckily, all over the place. You can find them on climbing plants – peas, or some pitcher plants:


They can be slightly sinister:

File:Jellyfish Lots of Tendrils (17540663995).jpg
photo by Eric Kilby

and I'm afraid the tendrils of parasitic cuscuta plants:

Image result
photo by Michael Becker

have a sense of smell, so they can sniff out their prey - but, all the same, you can't deny that tendrils are elegant things:

File:Tendril.jpg
photo by Hamed Saber

If you live in a mighty concrete city then there will still be tendrils around you. Look at the ears of young ladies and admire the way wisps of hair curls into spirals around them. Or, indeed, look at the ears of the young men, if you can find any with enough hair.

If you live in a mighty concrete city where everyone has their hair covered then I can only advise finding someone smoking a cigarette: the chances are the tendrils of rising smoke will be the only completely beautiful thing about them.

File:Smoke by THOR.jpg
photo by THOR


Spot the Frippet: tendril. This word comes from the Old French tendron, tendril or bud, from the Latin tendō, tendon, from tendere, to stretch.


Sunday, 9 April 2017

Sunday Rest: featurette. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, obviously, the person who first perpetrated this hideous assault on the English language should be...

...oh dear...

...I really don't want to be unkind...

...um...

Well, perhaps he or she could be given a nice little job writing for some magazine for semi-literate people with no taste. One of the celebrity ones, perhaps.

Then I doubt that he or she would bother any of us, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: featurette. Feature (in this case as in article in a magazine or newspaper) comes from the Anglo-French feture, from facere. to make.


Saturday, 8 April 2017

Saturday Rave: I Loved a Lass by George Wither.

Poetry can be magnificent, passionate, delicate, intelligent, original and dazzling.

Sometimes it's not.

Most of George Wither's poetry is generally reckoned to come into the not category, but are wonderful things here and there: and sometimes, remarkably, even the stuff that's not has a marvellous freshness, and enough cheek to cheer the day.

As far as I'm concerned that's plenty to justify its existence. 

The whole of I Loved a Lass can be found HERE, but this is the opening stanza. It manages to be tragic and cliched and not very accomplished - and yet I still can't help feeling affection for it.

I loved a lass, a fair one,
As fair as e'er was seen;
She was indeed a rare one,
Another Sheba queen.
But, fool as then I was,
I thought she loved me too,
But now, alas, she's left me,
Falero, lero, loo.

I only wish I knew how he did it.

Word To Use Today: alas.  This word comes from the Old French ha las! from the Latin lassus, weary.

I'm wondering if part of the attraction comes from the feeling that the lover of the poem is an ordinary man, and not some rarefied being living on Parnassus.


Friday, 7 April 2017

Word To Use Today: tansy.

Here's a lovely dancing word.

Tansy is a wild flower, native to Europe and Asia, but introduced to America and elsewhere.





So why would anyone introduce a wild flower into their homeland? Isn't a wild flower just a weed that's been noticed by a poet?

Well, tansy is useful stuff. It's said to be good for killing intestinal worms and preventing flatulence (especially valuable during Lent, apparently, when people aren't allowed meat and so tend to fill up with beans). Putting some in your bath water is said to cure joint pain, and it's still approved in the USA for treating fevers and colds.

Tansy is a good insect repellent, too, and has been rubbed on meat for this purpose (not recommended, as tansy can be poisonous) and also used at funerals (eerrgghh). If you plant tansy with potatoes then Colorado beetles tend to turn up their noses (proboscides?) and go elsewhere, and if you wear it round your neck then mosquitoes tend to bite someone else.

You can make omelettes with tansy (if you're prepared to risk being poisoned) and tansy sweets might even help your gout.

But the best reason to use the word tansy is because it is a word that dances.

Quite possibly the can-can if you try eating it.

Word To Use Today: tansy. This word comes from the Mediaeval Latin athanasia, from the Greek word meaning immortality, because it was believed to prolong life.

So now you know why there are no Ancient Greeks left around.




Thursday, 6 April 2017

A Good School: a rant.

I wrote about DNA the other day, and how the glory of you, you yourself, can be described in an alphabet of just four letters (though I'm afraid one of the letters means, basically, bird poo). 

The only problem with this alphabet is that the text turns out to be rather lengthy (my post can be found HERE).

But what about if you don't have much space to get your message across? What if all you have is, say, the back of a bus?

I found myself travelling behind the minibus of a local fee-paying school last week. It had a slogan on the back, presumably aimed at the parents of prospective pupils.

It said:

Happiness, Confidence, Success


This was was a bit odd, I thought, because I surely the purpose of a school is to keep the kids safe and get them to learn lots of stuff.

Still, I suppose the people who run the school have a deeper philosophical attitude than that.

Something along the lines of a fool and his money is soon parted, perhaps.

File:Schoolchildren reading 1911.jpg

Word To Use Today: success. This word means a favourable result, though it used to mean any result. The word appeared in English in the 1500s and came from the Latin succēdere, to succeed.



Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Nuts and Bolts: etymon.

Etymon is the Ancient Greek for truly, or really, and it describes a word (or part of a word) that's given rise over time to another. For example the word musth, the state of excitement a male elephant experiences during the breeding season, has as its etymon the Persian word mast, meaning drunk. 


File:African bull elephant Tanzania.jpg
photo by Geir Kiste

The idea is that if you look at the history of a word you will discover its true or real meaning. Unfortunately, as you can see with the musth example, it doesn't work.

What you will discover, though, is how people see (or have seen) the world. 

And what could be more fascinating than that?

Word To Use Today: etymon is Greek. It first appeared in English in the 1570s, when it held the idea not only of truth, but being primitive, as well.



Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Thing To Not Be Today: trepid.

Intrepid we know, but what about trepid?

It looks as if trepid should be intrepid's opposite, but what's the opposite of that? What's the opposite of the urge that encourages us to explore criminals' hideouts, mysterious pot holes, haunted houses and so many other challenging places, from beauticians' parlours to Korean dog restaurants?

For those of you who have come up with the words sensible or living, I say away with you!

In any case, trepid doesn't necessarily describe someone afraid to leave to confines of home, it just describes someone timid - probably too timid to risk using the word trepid, which might call attention to the essential selfishness and dullness of a life of, well, trepidation.

So: do something new. Take a different road home, or wear a hat, or try a new writer.

Try a new food (though I wouldn't try dog, myself); say what you think; wear false eyelashes. 

Dare to be different.

Just for once.

File:Morris dancer, York (26425183210).jpg
photo by Tim Green

Thing Not To Be Today: trepid. This word comes from the Latin trepidus, fearful or timid.




Monday, 3 April 2017

Spot the Frippet: hexagon.

A wonderful thing is the hexagon. Most of the ones we see around us are regular, that is they have sides of equal length (which happens to means that their angles are of equal size, too: 120 degrees, or a third of a circle).

The nearest hexagon to you might be on a nut (a nut-and-bolt type nut, I mean, not your nearest almond or idiot) but when we think of webs of hexagons we often think of honeycombs:

File:Honeycomb structure (6248780733).jpg
photo  by Gavin Mackintosh

Much thought has been given to how bees can manage to produce such perfect hexagons, but I'm afraid the answer that seems likeliest to me is that what they're doing is placing tubes of soft wax as close together as possible, and this means they automatically end up squashed together into perfect little hexagons.

I don't think the Giant Finn McCool (who was, let's face it, a great idiot) put a lot of scientific thought into making the hexagons of his causeway, either:

File:Giants Causeway cellules polygonales.JPG
photo by Patrice78500

Where else can you see hexagons? On the skin of a custard apple:

File:A scene of custard apple.JPG
photo by Thamizhpparithi Maari

which just goes to show that irregular hexagons can be fitted together, too (this mind-bending example below, and several others, can be found HERE:


Isohedral tiling p6-11.png

Where else?

Lots of places, probably.

How about having a good look at your nearest pencil?

Spot the Frippet: hexagon: The Greek for six is hex. The -gon bit comes from the Greek gōnia, angle.


Sunday, 2 April 2017

Sunday Rest: under-hung. Word Not To Use Today.

I love the works of Jane Austen, and I completely accept (and mostly enjoy) the fact that language changes constantly (especially now I'm old enough to have seen so many hideous words and expressions slip into merciful obscurity): but, really, Sir Walter Elliiot's description in Austen's Persuasion of his kinsman Mr Walter Elliot took me aback a bit:

He did justice to his very gentlemanlike appearance, his air of elegance and fashion, his good-shaped face, his sensible eye; but, at the same time, "must lament his being very much under-hung...".

Apparently it means that Mr Elliot's had a projecting lower jaw.

Gosh, but it's a word to be careful with, isn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: underhungThis word tends not to have anything to do with jaws, nowadays. It may describe meat that's tough because it's been cooked too soon after slaughter, or a door that slides on runners.

Or may not.


The word hang comes from the Old English hangian, which meant the same thing.


Saturday, 1 April 2017

Saturday Rave: being Elizabeth Goudge.

Elizabeth Goudge was a middle-class maiden lady who wrote novels for adults and children. 

She won the Carnegie Medal for her children's book The Little White Horse, but she didn't receive very much praise for her adult work. Her 1956 work The Rosemary Tree, for instance, was criticised in the New York Times for its sentiment and 'slight plot'.

This contrasted starkly with the reception given to a 1993 novel called Crane's Morning, by Indrani Aikath-Gyaltsen, which was, according to the Washington Post, 'exquisite' and 'breathtakingly new'.

Well, it might have been exquisite, but it certainly wasn't new. Crane's Morning was set in an Indian Hindu village, but apart from the setting and the names it was copied, sometimes word for word, from Elizabeth Goudge's The Rosemary Tree.

This was a rotten trick if ever there was one, and it's made even more rotten by the fact that Aikath-Gyalten died in not entirely clear circumstances (suicide? neglect?) quite soon after the facts of the plagiarism became known.

You have to be careful with tricks, you know.

But let me leave you with something happier. Elizabeth Goudge died on April Fool's Day 1984, but in her books she found a way of bringing us joy and truth from beyond the grave.

As she said:

'This world...needs to be reminded that the old fairy stories are rooted in truth, that imagination is of value, that happy endings do, in fact, occur, and that the blue spring mist that makes an ugly street look beautiful is just as real as the street itself.'


Word To Use Today: beautiful. This word comes from the Old French biau.






Friday, 31 March 2017

Word To Use Today: cabbage.

Apparently cabbage is going to be the next big thing. Particularly pickled cabbage, as in the Korean kimchi and the German sauerkraut.

Amazing health benefits in pickled cabbage, apparently, and anyone who's anyone is going to be scarfing barrels of the stuff - and as it is, between us we humans eat over seventy million tons of cabbage a year.

But then why should a fondness for cabbage be a surprise?  Cabbage has long been close to our hearts. I mean, if the French, so dedicated to elegance and haute cuisine, can refer to their loved ones as little cabbage (petit chou*) then who is to argue?

The cuteness of cabbage is also a matter of simple patriotism for any member of the Commonwealth, for it has the approval (presumably) of Her Majesty the Queen herself, cabbage being the Duke of Edinburgh's affectionate and intimate method of address to his wife (by which I mean that he is said to call her cabbage; he doesn't, as far as I know, go waving them about in her face in moments of high emotion).

If you really can't bear cabbage anywhere near you, then cabbaged can mean exhausted, and cabbage can be a slang term for either tobacco or cash - though neither of these products is nearly as lavish with the vitamins and minerals as the original thing.

So let's hear it for cabbage

After all, a billion slugs and caterpillars can't be wrong, can they?

Word To Use Today: cabbage. A lot of European and Asian words for cabbage come from the Celto-Slavic cap, meaning head. Our English word has come directly from the Old French caboce.


*Okay, chou in this case is probably more to do with its cream puff meaning than actual cabbages (though French baby boys are found in cabbages, so, um...no, perhaps best not to think too much about that) but hey...


Thursday, 30 March 2017

Cruising: a rant.

I love the holiday brochure season.

I have a leaflet here from Hurtigruten Cruises bearing a photograph of a small cruise liner nosing its way through the waters of an impressively sparkling mountain-lined fjord.

The headline?

Immerse yourself in the beauty of Norway

I can't honestly say it inspires confidence.

File:Geiranger Fjord.jpg
photo of Geiranger Fjorby karaian

Word To Use Today: immerse. This word comes from the Latin mergere, to dip.




Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Nuts and Bolts: a four letter alphabet.

Describe yourself in four letters.

Yes, all right, cute is fair enough, but that doesn't give us the full picture, dpes it? it doesn't give any hint of your penetrating intelligence, brown eyes, and ability to crack your knuckles.

What I'm looking for is a system to describe every single physical and mental aspect of you in just four letters.

Yes, I'm talking about a four-letter alphabet.

Now, there doesn't seem to be a human society that uses an alphabet that only has four letters (though Hawaiian has only thirteen) but such a thing would be possible.

However, there is already a language that describes you, every part of you, using four chemicals usually represented by the letters A C G and T (they stand for adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine).

These chemicals make up your DNA, and therefore they form the instructions that make you your own self, and not your mother, say, or Scarlett Johansson or Leonardo da Vinci. 

Or Donald Trump.

Yep: powerful stuff.

Now, because you are made up of lots of cells stuck together, these DNA instructions have to be present in nearly every single cell in your body*.

Okay: so if you laid out all the DNA-based instructions in all the cells of your body end to end, how far do your think they'd reach?

a) if you curled it round in a spiral you could fit it on the head of a pin.

b) it'd go all the way round a football pitch

c) nearly as far as a marathon 

d) more than sixty five times from the Earth to the Sun and back.

What do you think, truly wonderful person? 

The answer's below!

Word To Use Today: guanine. This word comes from guano (which is seabird poo), which is very similar stuff to guanine. The word comes to us from Spanish, from Quechuan huano, which means dung.

The answer to the multiple choice question is, astonishingly, d. Yes, it does seem vastly unlikely. I worked it out partly from information in Bill Bryson's excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything...I think I got it right. Another estimate I found says your DNA stretches twice all the way round the Solar System. Mind you, no one's sure about how far that is, so it doesn't help all that much, but either way we're talking billions of kilometres.

*Though not in mature red blood cells, hair, or hard skin.


Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: miserly.

Did you know that to a civil engineer a miser is a large hand-drill-type thing for making holes in loose soils? 

Well, you do now.

The usual meaning of miser is, of course, a person who hoards money or possessions with a great and fierce fervour. 

It seems that the pleasure of a hoard, whether of beautiful shiny gold or of invisible (and really non-existent) money in the bank, means that a miser can't bear to exchange any of it for anything, whether flowers, respectable clothes, or friends.

At the bottom of being miserly is a desire for control; and at the bottom of that must almost always be a lurking well of fear.

There's something else connected with misers, too: I used to do yearly a door-to-door collection for charity, starting at the rich end of my street and finishing with the shared-house single-roomers. 

Not only did the donations get larger as the means of the people reduced, but the connection between the words miser and miserable was absolutely as plain as day.

Have a happy day!

Thing Not To Be Today: miserly. Miser is Latin for wretched.

Why the drill is called a miser no one knows: but then as very few of us have heard of the thing this is perhaps not surprising.




Monday, 27 March 2017

Spot the Frippet: raffia.

All right, all right, the real reason the word raffia is featuring on The Word Den is that I've just discovered that the scientific name of the raffia palm was until quite recently Raphia ruffia, and I want to share the joy of it this Monday morning.

No, really, it's my pleasure.

The leaf veins of the raffia palm (now, apparently, called Raphia taedigera, (though all delight is not lost because its fruit is still called an uxi nut)) yield a useful sort of stringy stuff, used as, well, string, but it's also woven and knotted and knitted together to make decorative (occasionally) items for the home (a source of delight to me ever since an imaginary body called The Country Crafts and Folklore Council was described in the BBC TV comedy series Yes Minister as the Raffia Mafia...and anyone who's ever been to any ordinarily competitive mothers' coffee morning will laugh, too).

You might find raffia around the pace in the form of baskets, hats or shoes. It's favoured for tying up plants in the garden, too.

The raffia palm:

Raphia australis.jpg
Photo by Andrew Massyn (Kirstenbosch Gardens Cape Town, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1742192)

is grown in Madagascar, Tropical Africa, and Central and South America. This might be rather a long way away from where you live, but the stuff is probably to be found in your local garden shed or handicraft shop, or in a placemat near you.

Mind you, if you're in Bandundu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you might be able to get yourself a Munganji suit made of raffia to dance in.

No one will have the slightest trouble spotting raffia then.



photo by By Nick Hobgood (Flickr [1], CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5112437)

Spot the Frippet: raffia (or raphia). This word comes to us from from Malagasy. 



Sunday, 26 March 2017

Sunday Rest: submental. Word Not To Use Today

Submental is an impossible word to use. Not only does it reek of intellectual snobbery, but there's also a distinct tinge of prejudice against those we now sadly have to call differently abled.

In fact submental is such a disaster zone that even the fact that it means situated beneath the chin doesn't help much.

Does it.

Soupy Sales Lunch With Soupy 1960.JPG


Word Not To Use Today: submental. This word comes from the Latin mentum, which means chin.


Saturday, 25 March 2017

Saturday Rave: the meaning of music.

What does music mean to you?

No, really: what does it mean to you?

Well, obviously a 'March' is meant for strutting about, a 'String Quartet' is meant for two violins, viola and cello, and an 'Allegro' is meant to be fast.

Sometimes, especially with music from 1800 onwards, you get more of a clue what's going on. Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, for example, goes in for what I imagine to be solitude, and then you get some crashing waves (though unless you know that Fingal's Cave is by the sea the piece might bring to mind...shepherds and whirlwinds?  An artist's garret and a busy airport?). 

Now, it's entirely possible that someone's written a piece called Ham and Mustard Sandwiches at Four o'Cock in Basingstoke - and if they have then I'd love to hear it - but the thing is, what can music really convey? Most people can pick up happiness or yearning, but what about those ham and mustard sandwiches? Apart from anything else it's going to depend upon whether you like mustard, aren't gluten-free, and don't think pigs unclean, isn't it.

The piece below doesn't, I think, call up anything prohibited or likely to cause an allergic reaction. But what is it about?

Try not to peek until you've listened to it (it's only about a couple of minutes).




How close did you get?*

Word To Use Today: allegro. This means fast to a musician, but it's actually the Italian for cheerful, from the Latin alacer, brisk or lively.

*Jardins sous la pluie = gardens in the rain.