This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Thing To Do Today: a yorker.

You know the game of cricket? 

Well, probably not, but the game has a rich and glorious vocabulary. (No, don't worry, the game isn't nearly as confusing as its r & g vocabulary suggests.)

At a basic level, cricket consists of someone chucking a ball at a man with a bat, and the idea is that batsman hits the ball as far away as possible and then sprints from one marked place on the field to another before the other team can retrieve the ball. Each journey from one mark to the other is called a run. If you get from one mark to the other and then back again before the ball is retrieved, for example, then that counts as two runs. You're supposed to keep on going until the other team get the ball back. If you manage to hit the ball to the edge of the playing field without it touching the ground you automatically get six runs. If the ball gets to the edge of the playing field but bounces before it gets there, or rolls part of the way, then you get four.

The man who chucks the ball is called a bowler. His job is to make the ball hard to hit.

A yorker is a ball designed to bounce under the bat, or just behind it, as shown by the green line here:

image by Trengarasu

A yorker is extremely tricky to hit because there are three upright sticks on the ground just behind the batsman that he's not allowed to knock over (so he can't step back very far) and it's just as tricky to bowl. 

Few visitors to The Word Den will be planning on playing cricket today, but a very difficult to answer question is sometimes called a yorker (usually, I must admit, by old men). But, hey, asking difficult questions is a healthy thing, and, anyway, I don't see why the old men should have all the fun, do you?

Thing To Do Today: a yorker. This is probably called after the cricket-obsessed English county of Yorkshire, though in the 1800s to pull Yorkshire meant to deceive someone, and there's also a Middle English word yuerke, also meaning to trick or deceive, which may have something to do with it.

Here's my yorker: have you ever stolen anything?

Monday, 11 December 2017

Spot the Frippet: weeds.

But what's a weed?

Are the sunny marigolds that have seeded themselves along my garden wall weeds? Our builder thought so, presumably, as he carefully dug them all up, but luckily more have emerged, shining like cheerful little suns through the English December murk.

File:Calendula officinalis 001.JPG
photo by H. Zell

Mind you, they annoy at least one of our neighbours rather a lot.

What about weeds on a larger scale? Is the unmown grass round the hoardings full of weeds or wild flowers? 

File:Roadside hoarding near A557, Widnes - - 491341.jpg
photo by Chris Palmer

Is the area a nature reserve or waste land?

Can we call that metre-tall ash tree that's sprung up from nowhere (as ash trees do) a weed, or are weeds by definition little scraggly things that don't threaten to block out all available light and cause serious damage to the foundations of the house?

Some weeds, however, everyone can agree on. The weed is, or used to be, tobacco; weed without the the may well be marijuana; if the weed is walking then it's probably either a thin, small and weak sort of a person, or a similar kind of a horse.

A widow's weeds are the black mourning clothes widows used to wear, poor things:

File:Olivia - Edmund Blair Leighton.jpg
painting of Olivia by Edmund Leighton

and a weed used to be a black band worn as a sign of mourning. 

Before that, weeds used to be clothes of any kind, but nowadays that's just confusing to everyone.

Mourning clothes have gone out of fashion, luckily, so this Spot the Frippet will have to be one of the other kinds. 

Have fun deciding what counts.

Spot the frippet: weed. The plant word comes from the Old English weod and is related to the Old High German wiota, fern. The mourning word comes from the Old English wǣd.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Sunday Rest: wedmin. Word Not To Use Today.

Prince Harry is getting married to his beautiful leman. Bless them both! 

The prince not known as a man of conspicuous oratory, but he does seem to have been responsible for bringing the word wedmin to a large and understandably rather censorious public.

Wedmin describes the administration duties involved in preparing a wedding. On the occasion when Prince Harry most famously used the word he had the job of Best Man at his brother Prince William's wedding (which was quite a big affair): 

File:Wedding Prince William Balcony Buckingham Palace 2.jpg

and I think he can be forgiven for feeling burdened, confused, and occasionally exasperated.

But even the smallest, simplest wedding is bound to produce some sense of burden, confusion and exasperation, so perhaps wedmin has its uses, after all.

Nevertheless, a wedding is supposed to be an event of unrelieved joy and perfection, remember, so best only mutter it in private, eh?

Sunday Rest: wedmin. This word seems to have been coined in 2007, and is a mixture of the words wedding and administration. The word wedding comes from the Old English weddian, and is related to the Gothic wadi, which means pledge.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Saturday Rave: Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair by Richard Lovelace.

Richard Lovelace (you say it loveless) was born exactly four hundred years ago today.

He had the misfortune to live in interesting times, and the further misfortune to be an interesting person - young, handsome, wealthy, and well-born - which of course made it worse. He survived the English Civil War partly because he was in prison at a couple of the most critical periods of the conflict, and it was there that he wrote probably his most famous poem To Althea, From Prison, which is the one that includes the lines Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage.

It was impossible for someone living at that time not to be political, but he wrote many poems of friendship, and love, and a series about small creatures including The Snayl and The Grasshopper.

Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair is about a beautiful and desirable lady - but if it's a love poem then there's a nasty little sting in the tail.

Here's the beginning:

Amarantha sweet and fair
Ah braid no more that shining hair!
As my curious hand or eye
Hovering round thee let it fly.

Let it fly as unconfin'd
As its calm ravisher, the wind,
Who hath left his darling th'East,
To wanton o'er that spicy nest.


The whole not-very-long poem - and that stinging tail - can be found HERE.

Word To Use Today: nest. This word has stayed the same since before the Normans came. Rather sweetly, it's related to the word beneath.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Word To Use Today: typhoon.

Typhon was a monster. A Greek monster, as it happens, and one of the whirlwinds.

His mother was the Earth and his father may have been one of various strange beings, or he might have had no father at all, but the main idea is that Earth, furious with the Gods for destroying her children the Titans, produced Typhon to wreak revenge upon them.

Typhon was quite a guy. He had a hundred or so snake-like or dragon-like heads and his eyes sent out fire. Encouragingly, despite these disadvantages, he found love with another monster called Echidna and they had several small monsters who carried on the annoy-the-Gods thing with gusto. Cerberus, the Sphinx and the Hydra were some of the kids.

Rather a bad likeness, it seems, by Wenceslas Hollar

Now, what you're thinking is, well, that's how we got the word typhoon, then.

And, guess what...?

Word To Use Today: typhoon. This word comes from the Chinese tai fung, great wind...

...though poor old Typhon (he was defeated by Zeus in an epic battle and cast down into the Greek hell, Tartarus, in the end) has influenced the spelling.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The shame of being female: a rant.

I've recently re-read John Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps. It's fine as a thriller (though nothing like as good as the Hitchcock film) but I was surprised by the casual racism of the narrator.

It's unrepeatable on a family blog like this, but there was stuff like a [nationality] [religion] peddler with eyes like a rattlesnake. 

Not nice at all. 

What surprised me even more was remembering that I first came across The Thirty Nine Steps when I was twelve as a set text at school.

Schools have changed since then, and now everyone is much much more careful (in the educational fiction I write I'm not even allowed to mention sausages or the word blast). Recently Natasha Devon, who used to be the British Government's mental health champion for schools, has even gone as far as to urge the headteachers of Britain's most famous girls' schools not to refer to their pupils as girls or ladies because it is patronising.

Patronising? But what's wrong with being a girl?

Mind you, Ms Devon doesn't think it a good thing to call boys boys, either.

Her objection seems to be that if you remind children of their sexes (she calls them genders, but I think sex is what she means) then you are reminding them of all the stereotypes that go with them.

Well...err...not unless you remind them of all the stereotypes that go with them, you're not. I mean, why not use the mention of children's sexes to try breaking them down, instead?

File:Girls playing Soccer.jpg
photo by Sarah Jones


Word To Use Today: stereotype. A stereotype was originally a mould for making type for printing. The Greek stereos means solid and tupos means image, from tuptein, to strike.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Nuts and Bolts: the universal word.

People have made many attempts to establish universal languages, with varying amounts of failure, but how about universal words?

According to the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, the most truly universal word is huh. The main difference between the speakers of huh in various languages is that if a question in that language goes up at the end then huh does too; but if a question goes downwards then huh follows it.

Not universal, but notably similar in many languages are such words as mama and papa; and coffee and tea. 

Coca cola and Apple must get into any nearly-universal list, too, naturally, but until apple starts meaning computer and coca cola starts meaning fizzy non-alcoholic drink then I'd say they were a bit different.

Wifi and RAM are a third category of pretty-much-universal words.

The reason I've been considering universal words is that the other day I came across a new one. I was trying to put together some Ikea cupboards. The quite long and complex international instructions were all conveyed in excellent illustrations, with only one single word involved in the whole thing.

It concerned the joining together of two halves of a hinge mechanism. You had to link them together in a certain way and push them until they locked.

And the word?


Mind you, knowing what click! meant didn't actually help all that much. 

But, hey, I got there. 

In the end.

Word To Use Today: click. The dictionary says that the word click was coined in the 1600s - but of course that would merely have been the first time anyone has found it written down, so it may be older. It's imitative, of course.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Thing To Do Today: pounce.

I suppose it's mostly cats that pounce

but people pounce, too.

Cats tend to pounce on delicious meat-filled mice: humans pounce on a variety of other delicious things. It might be the perfect present for the difficult brother-in-law; the rarely-available sheep's milk cheese; the amusing-yet-tenderly-respectful greetings card for the girlfriend; or the stuffed toy for the chihuahua-obsessed toddler.

For those miserable people who never buy presents, have no unfulfilled desires, and don't eat mice, then pouncing can also involve punching decorative holes in metal from the reverse side.

For those miserable people whose metalwork days are over, pounce is also a fine powder, often made of cuttlefish bone, used either for drying ink or treating paper to stop ink from going splodgy. If the pounce is made of charcoal, then you can sprinkle it through holes in a piece of paper to transfer a pattern to another piece of paper underneath it.

I suppose you could transfer a pattern punched in metal in the same way, which would be a sort of double pouncing. But as far as I know no one has actually done it.

Thing To Do Today: pounce. The jumping-on-something word seems to comes from the Middle English punson, pointed tool (which is a bit odd, but there you go); the making holes in metal word is probably related, and comes from the Old French poinçonner; the powder word comes from the Old French ponce, from the Latin pūmes, pumice.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Spot the Frippet: something lacertilian.

Do you have lacertilian eyes? 

It sounds quite romantic - perhaps they would long-lashed, dark, and languorous - but sadly that's not the case because lacertilian means to do with lizards.

Now there is the occasional lizard, like this crested gecko, that looks rather as if it has eyelashes:

File:Crested gecko back.jpg
photo by Michael McConville

(cute, isn't it?) but on the whole lacertilian eyes are not something to which a mammal would aspire. 

Those slitted pupils would, one imagines, be off-putting.

So what else might be lacertilian?

Well, lizards, obviously - but they're all hibernating in Britain at the moment, except for the ones kept as pets, and in zoos.

If you're in Central America then you may get a chance to feast on chicken of the tree, which is the meat of the Green iguana:

File:Iguana iguana Portoviejo 04.jpg
photo by Cayambe

 In Africa spiny-tailed lizards are eaten (though presumably not the actual spiny tails):

photo by Arpingstone

 and Uromastyx species:

File:Uromastyx nigriventris - Uromastyx acanthinurus nigriventris - Ménagerie Paris 05.JPG
Uromastyx nigriventris. Photo by Cedricguppy - Loury Cédric

are the fish of the desert and eaten by nomadic tribes.

Then there's the charming Gila monster, whose poison is used to make the anti-diabetic drug exenatide.

Ans we mustn't forget the Cardiff-based band called Lacertilia which promises 'a cosmic blend of primal rock'n'roll energy, heavy psychedelia and sludgy groove rock'.

But on the whole, I have to say, lizards aren't a lot of good to humans. The big ones might eat rats sometimes, and they small ones are fairly effective insect-eaters, but mostly they go their own sweet way. I rather admire that.

So for today, I think I'll be on the look-out for someone with chilling, unfeeling, predatory eyes.

And then run away from them.

Spot the Frippet: something lacertilian. Lacerta is the Latin for lizard.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Sunday Rest: cudbear. Word Not To Use Today.

It's not often a derivation gives one actual pain, but this is a rare example.

Cudbear is also known as orchil. It's a purplish dye you get when you torture lichen to death by pouring ammonia on it.

Rocella tinctoria - orseille - orchil - archil - Färberflechte - Fuerteventura - 01.jpg
Cudbear lichen, Rocella tinctoria. Photo by Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany

...though when you put like that perhaps the horrible derivation is justified, after all.

Sunday Rest: cudbear. This word came into being in the 1700s as an hilarious (not) version of Cuthbert, which was the Christian name of Dr Gordon, the man who patented the dye.

The word cuddy, meaning donkey, is probably also based on a silly form of the name Cuthbert.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

An importunate chink by Edmund Burke: a rave.

Reading maketh a full man, says Francis Bacon; but then he lived before the invention of the tabloid press and Twitter. Nowadays it's easy to be full to the point of being thoroughly fed up.

Still, there are treasures everywhere, even on Twitter (@CatBake is a particularly glorious example) and this, below, is a treasure I found in a newspaper, though not one of the tabloid variety. I am greatly indebted to Charles Moore and the Daily Telegraph for drawing to my attention this quotation from Edmund Burke's Reflection on the Revolution in France.

As it happens, Edmund Burke did his writing before the tabloid press and Twitter, too. This is from 1790.

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadows of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.

Although it isn't only British oaks, of course, but American redwoods and Australian eucalypti and Cedars of Lebanon and a whole world of assorted greenery.

Here's to the majority, eh?

Word To Use Today: cud. This word comes from the Old English cudu , from cwithu, what has been chewed, and is related to the Old Norse kvātha, resin, the Old High German quiti, glue, and the Sanskrit jatu, rubber.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Word To Use Today: porphyrogenite.

There are a few English words beginning porphyr, and they mean a rather random collection of things.

There's porphyria, which is a disease which causes stomach pain and mental confusion; there's porphyritic, which is a sort of rock that has large crystals embedded among small ones; there's porphyropsin, which is a pigment found in the eyes of some fish; and there's porphyrogenite, which is a prince born to a reigning king.

Can you see the link between all these words?

Well, probably not, apart from the obvious fact that they all start with porphyr- but the answer is the colour purple.

People with porphyria have purple pee*; porphyritic rocks have a structure similar to the rock porphyry, which is purple:

File:Porphyry support for a water basin MET DT8829.jpg
Porphyry stand for a basin, Metropolitan Museum of Art

porphyropsin gives fish purple eyes; and porphyrogenite describes a boy who's born to the purple - that is, born into kingship, purple being the colour of kings:

Henry VIII of England with his son, later Edward VI. Is the lady Edward's deceased mother Jane Seymour? My source doesn't say, but it looks quite like her.

How on earth you are going to use the word porphyrogenite, though, I do not know... 

...hmm...about a politician, perhaps.

Word To Use Today: porphyrogenite. The Greek for purple is porphuros, and the gen- bit is from genēs to be born.

*Try saying that very fast five times.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Literature for the young: a rant.

All right, then. Complete the following sentence:

If literature is to have any point for young people...

I have a passionate interest in literature for young people (I'm a children's writer, after all). Literature (by which I mean good books) has been my comfort, my refuge, my friend and my teacher nearly all my life. 

If literature is to have any point for young people...

...well, how do you think that sentence ends? 

A clue: this sentence appeared in The Guardian newspaper of 11/11/17. (For the non-British reader, the Guardian is the newspaper of the educated intellectual, you're right, it doesn't sell that many copies.)

So: if literature is to have any point for young people...

Another clue: the quote is from the British playwright and novelist Hanif Kureishi.

If literature is to have any point for young people...

Still not sure? Well, think about what literature meant to you when you were young.

Here's the answer: must be to examine and dismantle the structures that maintain white power.

Well, did you get anywhere even remotely close?

Thought not.

Word To Use Today: point. This word used to mean spot in Old French. Before that it comes from the Latin pungere, to pierce.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: getting a beta.

Transliteration when someone writes down a language in an alphabet which isn't its usual one. 

The Word Den does this rather often with Greek words.

Well, when The Word Den says Greek, it generally means Ancient Greek, and when it says Ancient, it mostly means before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. 

Yes, it makes a difference. 

The Greek letter beta, β, for instance, is pronounced as a b in Ancient Greek (βιβλος, which sounds like biblos, for example, means book (yes, as in bible)). But to get that b sound in Modern Greek you have to write the letters mu pi: μπ.

The letter β in Modern Greek makes the sound we in English write down as v.

Mind you, if you think that's confusing, the Greeks have always pronounced a capital P as an R. 

Still, they were there first, so fair enough.

Thing To Consider Today: beta, β. The name of this letter comes from the Hebrew bēth, from beyith house, which seems to comes ultimately from the Egyptian hieroglyph for house: O1.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: a hypochondriac.

As we are all aware from the press, fifty eight per cent of people die of heart disease; two thirds of us are felled by of cancer; forty three per cent of us expire of diabetes; and septicaemia takes off twenty two per cent more.*

The good news is that this puts the murder rate at minus eight nine point six recurring per cent, and that you have more chance of having tea with Elvis in Shangri La than being run over by a bus.

File:A hypochondriac tells her doctor that she has a pain in her Wellcome V0011548.jpg
photo from the Wellcome Collection

This being apparently the case, who can blame us for being anxious about our health? Indeed, the authorities positively encourage us to be so. We are instructed to prod and scan ourselves at regular intervals in a search for morbid signs. Hypochondria is practically an official virtue.

Ah well. Even if hypochondria makes us miserable, and everyone around us even more miserable (therefore taking away the point of actually staggering on with this Life thing anyway) then at least the counsellors and psychiatrists presumably get to see an uptick in business.

And what more could anyone want than to give money to them?

Thing To Try To Avoid Being Today: a hypochondriac. Hypochondria is Latin and means the abdomen (which was believed to be the seat of melancholia, that is, sadness). It comes from the Greek hupokhondrios, of the upper abdomen, from hypo- under, plus kondros, cartilage.

*All figures are approximate.**

**I.e. made up.***

***Yes, like everyone else's.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: something hypogeal.

You're going to have to dig deep to find this one.

Well, actually, digging shallowly would do, because something hypogeal is something which lives or occurs below ground.

Yes, moles:

File:Mr Mole.jpg
photo by Mick E. Talbot

are hypogeal, but they're difficult to see: but what about a potato? Or a peanut? Or a pebble?

There, that's three ideas and they're just a few very obvious ps.

Talking of ps, hypogeal germination is a botanical term which means that the first leaves which emerge from a seed, the cotyledons, always stay below ground. And, rather neatly, the pea plant is an example of this.

File:CSIRO ScienceImage 3245 Pea plants in flower.jpg
photo by Carl Davies  CSIRO

So good luck with spotting something hypogeal. It's a new way of looking a the world, isn't it?

Spot the Frippet: something hypogeal. This word comes from the Latin hypogēus, from the Greek hupogeios, from hypo- under, plus ge, earth.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Sunday Rest: Birmingham. Word Not To Use Today

Mrs Elton, in Jane Austen's masterpiece Emma*, is a dreadful woman. She is snobbish, conceited, vindictive, manipulative, unavoidable, uncaring, asinine and self-righteous.

I'm wondering, though, if perhaps in her blundering stupidity she might have got one thing right.

'One has no great hopes of Birmingham,' she says. 'I always say there is something direful in the sound.'

And, though Birmingham is full of valuable people:

ELO - Time Tour 81-82.jpg
ELO. Photo by TyrystorELO 

 and civic wonders:

St Martin's church and Selfridges department store in the Bull Ring
St Martin's Church, The Bull Ring, and Selfridges Store. Photo by GavinWarrins

 I can't help but think in that direful she was actually on to something.

Word Not To Use Today: Birmingham. (The British Birmingham is pronounced BERming'm.) The word comes from Beormingahām, which means the home or settlement of the Beomingas, who were the people of Beorma. Beorma in Old English means frothy or fermented (as in the head on beer) and is the same word as our modern word barmy.

*Not that I am seeking to suggest Jane Austen only wrote one masterpiece.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Saturday Rave: Shtiler, shtiler, ovntwint by Jacob Fichman

It's all-too-easy to ignore poetry not written in one's own language, but it's a great loss. 

This poem was originally written in Yiddish by a Moldovan, Jacob Fichman.

Here's the first verse, the title of which translates as Silent, Silent, Evening Wind.

And there we are: the idea that different times of day might have different winds is already something new as far as I'm concerned.

Silent, silent evening wind
you are coming from afar.
You come from the endless steppes.
You come from the seas which have no end.
Where the grasses sway back and forth;
where the waves whisper to each other.

The whole of this short poem, which is so sad and yet so hopeful at the same time, can be found HERE, both in English and in the original Yiddish.

Word To Use Today: Yiddish. This word comes from the German Jude, which means Jew.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Word To Use Today: seawan or seawant.

The opposite of seawan is peag.

Isn't that wonderful? Even without the foggiest idea what it means the phrase has a mysterious resonance.

The opposite of seawan is peag.

Seawan...that might mean anything from the pallor of a drowned child to the mysterious shadows that bloom in sea-glass.

Sadly, I feel that some of you are expecting me to explain away that splendid and infinite ignorance... perhaps those of you who are enchanted by the mystery of seawan and peag should look away now.


Seawan are beads made of polished shells. They have to be loose, not strung (the strung ones are called peag). They've been used as currency by Native Americans - and, yes, the same sort of thing is more often known as wampam.

So have I spoiled it? 

Was ignorance actually bliss?

I'm afraid that in this case it was.

Word To Use Today: seawan or seawant. This word comes from the Munsee (or some say Narragansett) word seawohn, which means scattered or loose.


Thursday, 23 November 2017

Moist: another rant

If you want to see some beautiful science, have a look at this article from PLOS ONE.

It's about the word moist, and particularly why the American public dislikes the word so much. 

Well, when I say the American public, an aversion to the word moist is apparently commonest among young, educated, neurotic and female members of the public.

(I should say here that I don't mind the word moist at all (and have already written about it HERE) but then I'm not American or young.)

Five scientific experiments were conducted by Paul Thibodeau from Oberlin College, and were designed to find out why people dislike the word moist so much. Is it the sound? Is it because it's the fashion? Is it because you have to screw up your face in a disgusted kind of a way to say it? Is it because the word might make you think about disgusting things? The results were many and interesting, and can be found by following the Plos One link above, but here are some of the answers.

Prof Thibodeau found that quite often people didn't actually know why they hated the word. People who thought they hated the sound, for instance, proved not to mind words like rejoiced or hoist.

The people who claimed to hate the word moist most violently also loathed words like phlegm and vomit, suggesting that perhaps all these words are avoided for reasons of hygiene. (It's difficult to say whether this disgust is instinctive or learned, until you remember that most people, even young, educated, female, neurotic Americans, don't have any great aversion to the word moist at all. So it's probably learned, then, isn't it?)

But whatever the reasons, think on this: an aversion to the word moist doesn't seem to be doing the sellers of moisturiser any harm, does it?

Word To Use Today Unless It Bugs You: moist. This word is related to the Latin mūcidus, which means musty, and mūcus, which, I'm afraid, means mucus. But then who doesn't have some dodgy relatives? 

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: figuring the bass.

This being St Cecelia's Day, the patron saint of music, I thought it would be appropriate to have a look at something fundamentally musical. 

And there's nothing more fundamentally musical than bass notes.

The bass notes form the base of the music - and, yes, base and bass are basically the same word (see what I did, there?).

These low notes can be sung - by a bass, naturally - or played on a bassoon or a double bass or some other large instrument, like a contrabass tuba.

If you play the sort of instrument which can produce more than one note at a time, then you'll usually play the bass notes with your left hand (or your right thumb if it's a guitar-type instrument. In this sort of instrument the lowest notes are at the top of the instrument - a fact which makes more sense if you remember that the player views his or her strings upside down).

Anyway, how does a player know which bass notes to play?

Well, they can be written down in the same way as the higher notes, of course, but sometimes they're written as what's called a figured bass. This is when some of the bass notes are written down in, er, figures. Figures, that is, as in the numbers 2 or 3 or 4 etc.

The basic idea is that the figures tell you the size of the gap between the bottom note and the next one up (sometimes they tell you other notes, too, but let's not complicate things).

So, the music will have the lowest note written down as a musical note just like any other, and, underneath it, it will say 3, for example. 

Now, as must be clear to everyone, that means that as well as the bass note you also play the note two up from it...


...yes, well...

...I sometimes think that poor St Cecelia must get terribly busy, at times...

Word To Use Today: bass or base. These words comes from the Latin basis, which means pedestal (yes, the sort of thing you put a basin on, though sadly a basin is nothing to do with base).

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Thing Not To Be In Today: in a state of latah.

Language is playfully bonkers, deadly accurate, euphonious, and a cacophony...

...but the reason it truly fascinates me is the way it shows us the world.

Latah is a psychological state you'll probably only have observed if you've been to Malaysia and spent time teasing women too old to have children.

It's when, after a shock (even something like being poked suddenly, or shouted at), a person (usually a no-longer-youthful, not-very-educated woman) begins to scream, swear, jiggle about, laugh uncontrollably, sweat, mimic the people around them, and do whatever people tell them to do, however embarrassing that might be afterwards (though they probably won't remember what's happened).

Why this happens is a mystery. Some other cultures exhibit something rather similar, but the state of latah is a purely Malay phenomenon. 

But...I don't know...I've never thought about it before, but the link between a shock and someone being suggestible is a real one everywhere. 

And without that Malay word (which English has borrowed, though it's rarely encountered) I probably wouldn't have realised it.

It's certainly something to bear in mind if you have a shock.

Thing Not To Be In Today: a state of latah. This word is Malay.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: latex.

The real reason The Word Den featuring latex is really to share the thrilling news that the plural of latex is latices.* 

The sad thing is that The Word Den can't imagine any circumstance in which anyone would need to use a plural of latex.

Ah well.

Latex is the milky-looking fluid that oozes out of about 20,000 different types of plants, including the rubber tree, whose latex is used to make, yes, rubber:

photo by Jan-Pieter Nap

Latex usually appears when a plant is wounded, when it acts as an insect repellent. In fact, the latex of the Sandhill Milkweed is more than a repellent because it kills nearly a third of the baby Monarch butterfly caterpillars that try to feed on it.

Where to find latex? Well, apart from in the garden it's used to make balloons, gloves, mattresses and chewing gum; latex from poppies is the basis for morphine and codeine; it's used in paints (when you scratch a scratch card, you're scratching away latex), and it's found sometimes in cement, and often in glue.

All that, and it has a ridiculous plural, as well.

What sort of brilliant stuff is that?

Spot the Frippet: latex. This word comes from Latin, where it means liquid or fluid.

*Though you can say latexes, instead, if you're boring.)

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Sunday Rest: latifundium. Word Not To Use Today.

A latifundium is a large agricultural estate:

File:North Central Pennsylvania Farm.jpg
This one is in North Central Pennsylvania. Photo by fishhawk

Yes, that's quite a nice thing to know, but, however much you may wish to share this knowledge, I must warn you that the uttering of this word will make you look like a total poser.

And the reason it will make you look like an total poser, I may add, is because it will be true.

Word Not To Use Today: latifundium. Originally this was a Roman estate worked by slaves. The word comes from the Latin lātus, broad, and fundus, farm or estate.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Saturday Rave: A plum of Plum.

The world is awash with creative writing classes. I've attended several, usually as tutor, but once quite recently as a pupil. 

Well, I wanted to find out what I was supposed to have been doing all this time.

Creative writing classes can be both interesting and fun, but they don't provide what people need to become writers - what people really need - which is a stubborn ability to carry on, probably through years of neglect, and to keep on carrying on no matter how little notice people take.

And then, in the end, if you can manage to die, minimally published, starving, and broke, in a garret, you might even be awarded the status of genius. 

So anyway, creative writing classes. The very best of them you can get for free from your local library in the form of other people's, yes, creative writing. Sadly this does mean you'll have to work out the lessons the books teach you all by yourself, but, look, the creative thing does imply a bit of doing-it-yourself, doesn't it?

So have a look at this. It's from PG Wodehouse's Mulliner Nights

Then see if you can work out how he did it.

Everyone has his pet aversion. Some dislike slugs, others cockroaches. Egbert Mulliner disliked female novelists.

Yes, it's pure and absolute genius.

And PG Wodehouse, let me tell you, didn't even die in a garret.

Word To Use Today: Egbert. This name comes from the Old English ecg, which means sword, and beorht, which means bright.

Nowadays the impression given by the name is sadly less heroic.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Word To Use Today: garnet.

The garnets you see in jewellery are usually red:

File:WLA hmns Garnet and Diamond necklace.jpg
(necklace designed and created by Ernesto Moreira and to be seen at the Houston Museum of Natural Science)

 though they can be yellow or green:

photo by Arpingstone 

Garnets are classed as semi-precious (which doesn't imply they're less beautiful than precious jewels, it just means there's enough of them about to be useful. Garnet paper, for instance, has powdered garnet stuck onto it and is used as sandpaper, and garnets are also used to cut steel and to filter water).

There is another sort of garnet, which is a device for lifting cargo off ships, but that's a quite different word.

Possibly the most interesting thing about this word, though, is its derivation.

Word To Use Today: garnet. The loading-cargo word probably comes from the Dutch garnaat. The jewel word comes from the Old French grenat, red, from pome grenat, which means pomegranate, which comes from the Latin pōmum, apple, and grānātus, full of seeds.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Pigweed Delight: a rant.

The Prince of Wales, God bless him:

has opened the Forgotten Foods Network, a scheme run by Crops For The Future in Malaysia. It will study ancient food crops in the hope of improving yields in the face of climate change.

One such possible crop is Aztec pigweed.

Now, Aztec pigweed may be nutritious, tasty, resilient, and grow at a rate which makes bindweed look like a bonsai tree, but if there's one thing it needs, it's an agent.

I mean, Aztec pigweed? 

For a start, Aztecs are a) dead, and b) much too closely associated with human sacrifice; and then you have the weed bit - no one wants anything to do with weeds - and calling people pigs is going to get you precisely nowhere.

On the other hand, getting an agent costs you (at least) ten per cent, so here's a solution for free. Call the stuff by its other name, which is beautiful, mysterious, and romantic.

I mean, who could resist a steaming dish of amaranth?

Word To Use Today: amaranth. If you come across this word in poetry it will almost certainly mean flower that never fades. It comes from the Greek amarantos, unfading, from marainein, to fade.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: ablauts.

Why is a long thing lengthy, and not longthy?

Why do we sing songs and not song them? And, after we sang it, why is it sung?

Well, I don't know, to be honest, but that sort of a change of vowel in words that are related to each other is called an ablaut (it's a German word, so you say it AB-lowt).

You occasionally get the same sort of thing happening in English with plurals: goose and geese; mouse and mice; foot and feet.

Woman/women is another example, and in fact it's a double one: the man/men bit of the word changes, but so (invisibly) does the sound of the o.

Some ablauts are just a bit more subtle. In the words telegraph and telegraphy, for instance, both the second e and the a both change sound.

Ablauts are not only an English thing. The idea was first described by the fourth century BC Sanskrit grammarian Pānini. Much later in Europe, in the early 1700s, Lambert ten Kate wrote about them in a book about the similarities between German and Dutch.

German is a language that really enjoys its ablauts, so here, to finish, is the German word for burst in various tenses. 

It's splendid stuff for chanting.

Bersten, birst, berstet, barst, geborsten!

Nuts and Bolts: ablaut. This word was coined by Jacob Grimm (yes, the fairy tale man) in 1838. Ab means off in German, and laut means sound.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: a chauvinist.

Do people sometimes have different opinions from yours?

So, why is this? Do explain it to me. 

Is it because the other people are stupid? Or because they are ignorant? Or evil?

Or could it be because you are yourself wrong?

Well, as this last is a vanishingly small possibility, let's assume that you are completely and utterly correct in all your opinions (in which case I should perhaps spell that you with a capital Y). How then do we account for the perverse beliefs of others?

Well, let's suppose we ask everyone in the world to tell us why they hold their opinion of, say, chocolate. We could then file these answers into correct, stupid, ignorant, and evil piles. Then we'd have to hope the proportions of the piles tell us something useful.

The first thing, obviously, is to decide which opinion is correct.

Hmm... know, this isn't going to be easy, is it? Unless, of course, you're sure that only your own opinion matters.

My Collins dictionary defines chauvinism as a smug irrational belief in the superiority of one's own race, party, sex etc

That sounds spot-on to me...

...but then what do I know?

Thing Not To Be Today: a chauvinist. The first chauvinist was Nicolas Chauvin of the Napoleonic wars, who was noted for his enthusiastic, unthinking, and loud patriotism. 

There are, sadly, two small problems: first, Chauvin didn't become famous until after Napoleon's downfall; and, second, no one's sure if he ever actually existed.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: cattle.

I don't have to go far from here to see some cattle. The nearest kind to where I live are usually ones like these:

File:Belted Galloway cow J1.jpg
Photo by Jamain

That beast is a Belted Galloway cow, but other cattle come in different shapes:

File:CSIRO ScienceImage 2643 A Brahman Bull.jpg
Polled Brahmin bull, photo by  CSIRO


File:Cow highland cattle.jpg
Highland cow, photo by Mahaba

 and sizes:

File:Dexter cow, Three Counties Show.jpg
Dexter cow, photo by David Merrett

though they're all usually of the genus Bos.

But what if you live in a cattle-free zone?

Well, passenger planes have a cattle class (though the airlines usually call it economy) and of course cattle dogs are to be found all over the place.


Oh, it's Australian. 

What does it mean? 

Catalogue, I'm afraid.

Yes, they are, aren't they: absolutely everywhere.

Spot the Frippet: cattle. This word comes from the Old Northern French catel, and is basically the same word as chattel, from the Latin capitāle, wealth.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Sunday Rest: mouthbrooder. Word Not To Use Today.

A mouthbrooder, despite appearances, isn't someone with a habitual enbittered pout, but a sort of fish (or, occasionally, frog) which carries its eggs and young around in its mouth.

Cyphotilapia frontosa. Photo by Matthew Miller. (Can you see the babies?)

Mind you, as you can see, that can often be the same thing.

Word To Use Today: pout. No one is sure where this word comes from, but the Danish word pude means pillow.

There are some species where the fathers take on the mouthbrooding, but it's usually the mothers.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

And death shall have no dominion by Dylan Thomas.

I haven't seen many remembrance poppies about this year. In fact, I haven't even had an opportunity to buy one.

I hope it isn't because of the idea that's being put about on social media that wearing a poppy implies an approval of, and support for, war. (It's hard to see how a symbol of the blood of soldiers can do that, but that's what people are saying).

Here's the beginning of a poem by Dylan Thomas. It was written in 1933, which we now know, sadly, was between-the-wars.

Does writing a poem about war show support for wars?

Well, what do you think?

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have star at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

The first and last lines come from St Paul's letter to the Romans.

The whole poem can be found HERE.

File:Poppies again 1 (5781248599).jpg
photo by Tony Hisgett

Word To Use Today: dominion. This word comes from the Latin dominium, ownership, from dominus, master.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Word To Use Today: dornick.

Most words, like our own dear queen, have fairly obvious relatives. 

A cupboard, for instance, plainly started off being a rather different piece of furniture, and it's not difficult to guess how its meaning evolved.

Some words, however, drop in from Mars: or, in this case, Belgium, which is, after all, very much the same thing.


Can you guess what it is? 

Even though a dornick is two quite separate things, almost certainly not.

The oldest dornick is a kind of heavy and very expensive damask cloth (damask is the sort of fabric that has patterns on it made by weaving in extra-shiny thread). Traditionally, dornick is used for curtains and vestments (especially the cloaks priests wear).

Something like this:

Gothic Chasuble & Stole - Gold 'Gothic' silk damask - Chasubles - Vestments

The other sort of dornick word you only find in the USA. 

This sort of dornick is as different as possible from the first one, because it means a small stone, pebble, or occasionally, coin. There used to be an expression as hard as dornick to describe a tough man:


The two sorts of dornicks are all alone - they aren't even relations of each other.

So perhaps we should adopt them.

Word To Use Today: dornick. The cloth dornick is named after the Belgian town now called Tournai, where it was manufactured. The stone dornick probably comes from the Irish Gaelic dornōg, from dorn, which means hand.