This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Nuts and Bolts: hyperbaton.

The original idea of hyperbaton was that you drew attention to a word by sticking it into the middle of a phrase where you weren't expecting it. 

But different languages are struck together in different ways, and for this reason the way hyperbaton works changes a bit as you go around the world.

If you are speaking a language like Ancient Greek (unlikely, I know) where the order in which words come along in a sentence isn't necessarily all that important as far as the basic meaning of the sentence is concerned, you can easily alter the order of words to give emphasis without changing the essential meaning of what you're saying. 

In the English language this is just a bit more difficult - though not difficult enough to stop people doing it. 

We might say diamonds, I love, which expresses the force of a passion for diamonds more strongly than I love diamonds.

Verse is full of hyperbaton. Apart from anything else, it helps with the rhyme and rhythm of the stuff. In amateur hands I admit this usually ends up a horrible mess (I once wrote the line And through my mind the dreams do creep. I was only nine years old at the time, but I knew even then that it was truly horrible). In expert hands, though, hyperbaton can be powerful and glorious. His coward lips did from their colour fly, reports Shakespeare, via Cassius, of a poorly Julius Caesar, making it very plain that the cowardliness of Caesar is the important thing he wants to get across.

But there's a fly in the ointment - and it is, of course, called Yoda. 

Powerful you have become works as an example of hyperbaton. It makes the word powerful important. But what about The dark side of the Force are they? Is that hyperbaton, or is it just that Yoda's English is a bit rubbish?

Ah well. Having a Greek label to stick on our mistakes does give them a sort of dignity, so Yoda not bothering me is.

Though I can't say that The wisdom of Yoda I really admire, all the same.

Nuts and Bolts: hyperbaton. This word comes from the Greek word which means stepping over, from hyper, over, and bainein to step.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: pullulate.

I always thought that to pullulate meant to make a Native American Indian war-cry sort of a noise, but apparently that's some other word.* 

Still, do feel free to let loose a war-cry if it would make you happy - though possibly not when in a meeting with your head teacher/most important client.


To pullulate actually means to produce lots of young: to breed like rabbits, in fact. 

File:Southern swamp rabbit baby.jpg
young Southern Swamp Rabbit, photo by Mike Perry

If this isn't in your current life plan, then it can also mean to teem or swarm, so a crowd pullulates. This is much cheaper than doing the constant-breeding thing.

If you're a plant (yes, it's unlikely, I know) but if you are a plant, then pullulating means to bud, sprout, or germinate. So that seed tray full of young beans? They're all pullulating like mad.

photo by KVDP

So on the whole it's a good job that pullulate doesn't mean to emit a war-cry, isn't it?

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: pullulate. This word comes from the Latin word pullulēre, to sprout, from pullulus, a baby animal.

*I just looked it up and the war cry thing is ullulate. So I was close.

Monday, 18 June 2018

Spot the Frippet: fizgig.

File:Rotating green fireworks in a wheel spinning Holland.jpg
photo by Peter van der Sluijs

A fizgig is a frivolous or flirtatious girl. 

Now flirting, in these serious times, is an activity fraught with peril, but observing from a safe distance a girl intent on idle and/or lively pleasure can only add to the gaiety of the world.

File:Friends having fun! (5867333292) (2).jpg
These lovely girls are in a State Park in Virginia

If you dare not do even so much as that, then fizgig, helpfully, has other meanings. It can be a be a fizzing firework; a spinning top which makes a similar noise; it can be what's usually called a fishgig, that is a pole with barbs on the end for spearing fish; or it can be (especially in Australia) a police informer.

You could hardly ask for more variety in a word.

Fortunately, I think, my own best chance of one of these is the frivolous girl.

Spot the Frippet: fizgig. It seems likely that this word comes from fizz, which used to mean to fart, and gig, which used to mean girl. 

Fishgig is mysterious, but might comes from the Spanish fisga, which means harpoon, and so originally had nothing to do with the word fish.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Sunday Rest: obnubilate. Word Not To Use Today.

This word is marked as literary in the dictionary, but surely no one with any literary taste at all would consider using this monstrosity of a word.

(You say the second syllable nyoo, by the way. Yes, that does make it even worse, doesn't it.)

Apart from the hideous sound of the thing, obnubilate presents other obvious disadvantages to the user: there's the no-one-has-a-clue-what-you're-going-on-about thing; the this-person-is-showing-off thing; and, worst of all, the this-person-is-trying-to-make-me-feel-small thing.

In fact the only even slightly positive aspect to the word obnubilate is that it means to darken or obscure, and so it's one of those autological words which are examples of their own meaning.

But still, that's not nearly enough of a reason to justify anyone's using it.

Word Not To Use Today: obnubilate. This word comes from the Latin obnūbilāre, to cover with clouds, from nubes, cloud.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Saturday Rave: Ulysses by James Joyce.

Today is Bloomsday. Or, as some in Ireland call it, Lá Bloom.

Against all appearances, Bloomsday is nothing to do with flowers, but commemorates the adventures of Leopold Bloom, the main hero of a book called Ulysses written by James Joyce.

It's quite a long book, and at times I must admit it seems even longer than it is because Joyce wasn't too bothered about making it plain what was going on, either in the plot or in the minds of the various characters.

Mind you, this is largely because the characters aren't too clear about what's going on in the plot or their own minds, either. But then, who is?

Ulysses is based on Homer's story of Odysseus's journey home from the Siege of Troy (Ulysses is another form of the name Odysseus). Now, Odysseus's journey took ten years and involved rather a lot of fighting, kings, gods and enchantments, so when I tell you that Ulysses the book takes place on one single day, June 16th 1904, and mostly follows the wanderings of a middle-aged advertising man about the city of Dublin, then you can see that the link between the two stories is fairly loose and limited.

Another obvious difference is that Homer's story is written in verse, and Ulysses, while it at times has a wild, chaotic and surging poetry, is definitely prose. 

And prosaic, too.

So, is it worth bothering to read it? 

Well, that's difficult to say. I loved and understood most of it, and have read some of it twice. A lot of people get bored and give up. 

Today, June 16th, some people will be showing their love and enthusiasm for the book by going to Dublin and taking part in reconstructions of scenes from the story, or by doing a themed pub crawl (though admittedly this may be only a sign of a love of acting and pub crawls).

I'd say the book's well worth a try, though it's probably most fun if you can read it in a Dublin accent.

Word To Use Today: bloom. This word has been around since the 1200s. It's related to the word blow, meaning to blossom, which comes from the Old English blōwan, and is related to the Latin flos, flower.

The date for the novel was chosen because that was the day of James Joyce's first date with Nora Barnacle, who later became his wife.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Word To Use Today: bum-clock.

Sometimes words make the mind boggle: what on earth, one must  wonder upon first encountering it, can a bum-clock be?

Some sort of an aid to achieving regular calls of Nature?

But no, it's not that.

What do you think it is?

No, sorry, not even close. 

A bum-clock is a beetle.

In Scotland it's a beetle that makes a droning noise as it flies: 

File:Cockchafer or May Bug. Melolontha melolontha. Scarabaeidae - Flickr - gailhampshire.jpg
this is a cockchafer or may bug. Photo by Gail Hampshire

but in England bum-clock has been used to mean any insect that hums.

It all makes a bit more sense when you know that bum is another word for hum (and, pleasingly, that something that bums a lot is bumbling...which is, of course, what bumblebees do).

File:Bumblebee on Lavender Blossom.JPG
photo by Martin Falbisoner

As for the clock bit...

...sorry, no one's got a clue about that, but the word clock has been used to mean beetle since 1550. A clock-leddy, for instance, is a ladybird.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

A New Job: a rant.

The advert that popped up on my computer caught my attention because it was directed specifically at people in my area. 

It's always slightly creepy when the internet knows where you live.


Well, no, not really. As a writer I work alone, mostly - which is good, on the whole, because working with passionate professionals sounds exhausting. I mean, passionate? I'd rather work alongside someone who's pleasant, business-like and efficient. 


Um...well, occasionally, I suppose. But it's a terrible nuisance. I mean, I'm generally trying to get a book written.


Ah, I see...

...well, at least I now understand why the council are having so much trouble filling vacancies that they're having to advertise on the internet, anyway.

Word To Use Today: vacancy. The Latin word vacāre means to be empty.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Nuts and Bolts: idioglot.

An idioglot can be two different things - and you are one of them.

An idioglot can be a musical instrument that plays only one note. This sort of idioglot is held in the mouth and plucked.

The vital feature that makes an instrument an idioglot is that the vibrating bit is an integral part of the instrument. It's not something like a clarinet, for example, where the vibrating reed has to be tied onto the mouthpiece.

An idioglot sounds a simple thing - and it is, really - but you can make quite complex sounds by singing along as you play. This will sometimes provide three notes: you'll get the note of the idioglot; the note sung; and a sort of growl of anguish as the two clash. 

The Indian form of idioglot is called a morsing:


and is usually played as apart of an ensemble, or as an accompaniment to singing. It generally plays in time with the other instruments as a sort of echo.

The Philippino kubing:

and Hmong are similar sorts of things. (The video above is very short, but well worth hearing.)

If you are asking what all this is doing on a blog called The Word Den, well, the other sort of idioglot (the one that you are) is someone who speaks an idiolect, and an idiolect is the particular form of language that each particular individual uses.
There you are. It was nothing to do with idiots after all.
Well, that's a relief, isn't it?
Word To Use Today: idioglot. The Greek idios means private or separate, and glossa means tongue.

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Thing To Do Today: twang something.

It's string-like things that twang: well, long things, anyway. 

Could you produce a twang by running a spoon along some metal railings? I suppose you might if they were made of hollow steel, but you'd probably only get a rattle if they were made of cast iron. 

Something needs to vibrate audibly for a while for it to twang, and who knows just what will do that? 

The only way to find out is to try it.

But that's the thing with twanging: there's a huge human desire to twang things just to find out what sort of a noise you're going to make. Who has never been tempted to twang a guitar string, or a harp string, especially if it's not actually yours?

Who wouldn't love to hear a bow string twanging beside his ear as it shoots an arrow? Who has never trapped a ruler in the flap of a desk and twanged the free end?*

Who has never wanted to try out a jews harp?

By Krzysiu - Own work, CC BY 4.0,

The desire to twang things is a very mysterious but irresistible part of the human condition. 

Go on. Give into the urge. You know you want to.

I mean, you must be able to find an egg slicer or an elastic band somewhere.

photo by de:user:Rainer Zenz

Thing To Do Today: twang. Someone made this word up in the 1500s in imitation of the sound.

 *That would be everyone too young to have had a proper desk, poor things.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Spot the Frippet: a ringtone.

Goodness knows I am no technical wizard, and goodness knows I try as hard as I can to be broad-minded, but I do find it hard to suppress a sense of irritated contempt when someone's pocket starts emitting the bog-standard Nokia ringtone.

I mean, it must surely be a sign that the bearer of the phone has no taste at all. I mean, if they had any taste then they'd have changed it, wouldn't they? Or asked a three-year-old to change it for them. Or taken the phone back to the shop. Or jumped up and down on it until it shut up. 

Still, next time you hear a ringtone, see how much you can deduce about the person from whose phone the noise is coming - and do it before you look round to see who's bellowing I'm just about to go into a tunnel

Does The Ride of the Valkyre imply someone of culture? Or someone who hopes to be thought of culture? Or is it merely someone intent on world domination?

Is the owner of a phone spouting London Calling by The Clash an avid Millwall Football Club supporter? Or is he just someone who comes from London? And/or likes The Clash?

How old will the person be whose ringtone consists of Blackbird Calling in the Dead of Night?

And, all right, if you're so clever, what sort of ringtone do I have? A bit of my favourite Handel? More Than Words by Extreme? Loster Words by Iron Maiden? X Amount of Words by Blue October? 

Feel free to approach me in person and tell me how great I am, if you think you can guess.* 

Spot the Frippet: a ringtone. The word ring was hring in Old English. Tone comes from the Greek tonos, which means tension as well as tone, from teinein, to stretch.

*I'm afraid my phone goes dring dring.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Sunday Rest: Italexit. Word Not To Use Today.

There are those, curse them, who are beginning to talk about Italexit to describe Italy's possible trajectory towards leaving the Eurozone and/or European Union.

I freely admit that Italexit as a word doesn't have all the disadvantages of Brexit (I mean, people aren't going to keep mistakenly referring to it as breakfast) or Grexit (which sounds like a dying frog), but then the word Italexit has entirely new disadvantages of its own, the chief of which are: a) Brexit was neatly constructed and even perhaps mildly witty, once, whereas Italexit, the word, is a meandering mess; and, b) at least with Grexit the dying-frog thing turned out to be prophetic.

Still, with the word Italexit there is one huge ray of hope.

And that's the beautiful word Libertalia, which some people are beginning to use, instead.

Word Not To Use Today: Italexit. This word is, obviously, a mash-up of Italy and exit. I suggest we all show some respect for two wonderful languages and use Libertalia, instead.

The name Italy is mysterious, and over the years it has referred to various bits of what we now call the country of Italy. It may come from the Oscan Viteliú, meaning the land of calves. (That's calves as in cows, not as in legs.)

Saturday, 9 June 2018

Saturday Rave: Anything Goes by Cole Porter

Anything Goes is the title of a musical first performed on Broadway in 1934. The book was originally by PG Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and the music and lyrics were by Cole Porter.

Was ever a child so set up for delicious success by its sparklingly talented parents?

Possibly not - but there are, as we know, too often wicked fairy godmothers lurking in the wings, and this one, in the guise of Fate, caused a terrible tragedy. There was a fire on board the passenger ship SS Morro Castle that killed 138 people, and this made a light-hearted musical set upon an ocean liner (and including a bomb-plot) quite impossible to put on.

Bolton and Wodehouse were out of the country at the time of the tragedy, and so...well, the management ran round in circles in their scramble to adapt the story into something acceptable, and things got very complicated indeed. The fact that the resulting book of Anything Goes has such a long history of revisions is a sign they weren't entirely successful, but the musical is still performed in various guises, and we still (thank heavens) have the songs.

And (thank heavens again) we still have the particular song Anything Goes.

Here's the middle bit:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose
Anything goes.
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like,
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose.
When ev'ry night the set that's smart is in-
Truding in nudist parties in
Anything goes.

I'm also pleased to report that Cole Porter was no hypocrite, but a fervent exemplar of his own principles, as expressed in this song. 

He lived flamboyantly in rented palaces, put up platinum wallpaper, once hired the entire Ballet Russes for a party, and for another celebration hired fifty gondoliers to act as footmen and presented as entertainment a tight-rope walking troupe. 

His (very rich and domineering) grandfather wanted him to be a lawyer. 

But Fate was kind, in this case, and not cruel.

Word To Use Today: a colporteur is a peddler who sells books, especially bibles. I don't know if Cole Porter's parents knew this when he was named. The word colporteur comes from the French, probably from comporter, to carry, and probably altered by the idea that the word was something to do with porter à col, to carry on the neck.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Word To Use Today: rowth.

Here's a splendidly vigorous Scots word to strengthen our English tongue.


(You can write in routh if you like. Either way you say it to rhyme with mouth.)

Rowth can either mean an abundance of something, or it can describe something that's found in large quantities. You can have rowth of friends, or rowth parcels, and to me it makes both the friends and the parcels sound full of excitement and challenges.

So thanks, Scotland, for this bit of grit to add some heft to our smooth English speech.

Word To Use Today: rowth. This word appeared in the 1700s, but no one's sure where it came from...a dog barking at a large flock of sheep, perhaps: rowth! Rowth!


Thursday, 7 June 2018

Pure, But Far From Simple: a rant

An on-line advert popped up the other day. It was from the clothes company Pure, and it was offering me an embroidered laundered linen tunic (yes, the laundered bit is confusing: but then I suppose it's better than an unlaundered one).

Anyway, the headline said: 


Now, three questions immediately sprung to mind, namely: What's a fresh? Where is Titude? and What's that got to do with an embroidered laundered linen tunic?

I still haven't worked out the answer to the last question.

Word To Use Today: attitude. This word comes from the French, and before that from the Italian attitudine, from the Latin aptitūdō, fitness, from aptus, apt.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Nuts and Bolts: How Not To Drink in Bhutan

Driving under the influence of alcohol is stupid and dangerous: I mean, just consider how stupid and dangerous the drivers are who haven't been drinking.

Frightening, isn't it?

The question is, how do you get people to stop doing it?

In Britain there are two methods. Firstly, the penalties for drink-driving are severe, including automatic bans, fines and imprisonment. 

The other method involves advertising campaigns. The short TV films involved often start off all happy and full of beautiful people, and end up in dark tragedy.

The same sort of approach is taken to the dangers of speeding.

But consider: if something terrible happens to the actors in a film, then what do people do? Do people try to remember every detail of these tragic events as they go about their daily lives? Or do they tell themselves it was all fiction, try to put the most heart-rending bits out of their minds, and get on with doing other stuff? 

This desire not to wallow in sorrow might be one reason why these Tragic Advertisements might not be the most effective way of getting the drink-driving message across (that, and the comforting belief that it probably won't happen to you).

The small Himalayan nation of Bhutan has another approach. One of their advertisements goes like this:

After drinking whisky
Driving is risky.

And then there's:

Going faster
Will see disaster.

Drive slow
To avoid grave below

On the bend
Go slow friend

Don't be a gama*
In the land of lama.

and the slightly less elegant:

Don't hurry, be cool,
Since heaven is already full.

(though how they missed rhyming cool with fool I do not know).

But the proof of the pudding is, as always, in the eating. So what do the road-safety figures for Britain and Bhutan tell us? 

In Bhutan in 2013 about one in five thousand people were killed in traffic accidents. 

In Britain it was about one in thirty eight thousand...

...which just goes to show that if anyone knows anything about anything, it certainly isn't me.

Word To Use Today: traffic. This word comes from the Old French trafique, from the Old Italian traffico, from trafficare, to engage in trade.

*I've seen gama defined variously as a crazy person, a legendary wrestler, and an annoying river creature.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Thing To Be Today: feat.

Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands,
Curtsied when you have and kissed
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.*

We all know about feats of strength, or athleticism, or endurance, but how does anyone dance featly?

I mean, dancing footly we could understand.

Well, a feat of something-or-other is a skillful or remarkable or daring achievement, and feat, as in trip it featly, means skillful, too, in a neat and suitable sort of a way.

So it follows, as you'll have noticed, that in the verse above tripping means, well, not tripping, but being balanced and graceful and generally twinkle-toed.

I'd love to see a rush-hour crowd tripping it featly instead of barging their way through the crush, but I suppose that's an impossible dream. 

File:Shinagawa Station.jpg
(though this elegant lot look as if they'd dance rather nicely. This is Shinagawa station, Tokyo. Photo by mdid.)

Never mind. We can try being neatly skillful in other things, like putting out the bins and stacking the dishwasher.

It would surely be a source of quiet but considerable satisfaction.

Thing To Be Today: feat. This word comes from the Old French fet, from the Latin facere, to make.

*I'm sure you know that's one of Ariel's songs from The Tempest.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Spot the Frippet: fantoosherie.

I'm not so very keen on tartan or large bagpipes in quantity, but Scottish words give me great joy: they display a splendid vigour from which standard English so often shies away.

Fantoosh started off meaning ostentatious:

File:Ostentation of Peacocks - - 90012.jpg
photo of an ostentation of peacocks by Mick Garratt.

Nowadays fantoosh tends to mean fancily, or very fashionably, dressed - and especially over-dressed.

From fantoosh we get the gorgeous word fantoosherie, which means fuss, pretentiousness, or swank.

Fantoosh is definitely a term of disapproval. Dressing smartly isn't enough: you have to do it with the intention of making everyone else feel slightly inadequate. 

Yes, you need to take yourself seriously to be fantoosh.

If you want to spot some fantoosherie then weddings, royalty, and high-ranking officials tend to attract it.

Spot the Frippet: something fantoosh. No one is quite sure of this word, but it seems to have appeared during the 1914 - 18 war, and perhaps it was something to do with the English dialect word fanty-sheeny, from the Italian fantoccino, puppet. Whether this is correct or not I do not know, but it does give just the right impression of a small person in thrall to the larger forces of their ego.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Sunday Rest: obesogenic. Word Not To Use Today.

Is your environment obesogenic?

I hope not, because that means it makes you very fat.

Now, the trouble is that I'm finding it difficult to imagine how an environment can make anyone obese - unless, after some unimaginable disaster, one somehow finds oneself having to eat one's way out of an enormous candyfloss machine:

illustration: By Screenshot taken with WINUAE., Fair use,

or one gets a job biting the holes out of doughnuts.

These eventualities being unlikely, I'm wondering if obesogenic is much more than an excuse for greed. So I think I'll stick with the word fattening, which is a warning, rather than obesogenic, which seems to be a sign of inevitable doom.

Sunday Rest: obesogenic. This word comes from the Latin obēsus, from ob- which means (more or less) lots of, plus edere, to eat. 

Saturday, 2 June 2018

Drunk Again by Tan Da

In the Vietnam of the early twentieth century there were two themes for government-approved poetry: the ethical and the romantic.

The poet Tn Đà, however, liked to write about politics - and even though his political poetry encouraged patriotism, it raised no enthusiasm at all among the ruling classes.

The trouble was that Tn Đà wasn't the sort of man to submit to convention, so giving him any encouragement was risky. 

Here's one of his poems. It's not at all romantic, ethical, or even political. It's actually disgraceful.

But when I read it I can't help feeling an affection for the old ruffian, all the same.

Drunk Again


It is bad to be drunk, I know,
but let's be bad, let's all be drunk.
Let the earth be stoned, let Heaven
turn crimson!
Who will dare laugh?


Which time is this?
The tenth, the fiftieth, the nth time drunk?
Can't quite focus, must be tipsy again.

Lord, how can I be so tipsy?
Drunk all night, drunk all day, no more mind.
My wife says a souse is good for nothing,
and I drink harder to drown her out.
I leave the world to sober types,
couldn't care less what anyone says.
Hey, maybe that's the point of drinking -
sobriety, propriety - the wives talk their husbands into it.
We should honour the drunk men.

Tn Đà died in 1939 at the age of fifty one. He'd been the editor of literary magazines, founder of a new poetry movement, and written essays, poems and plays. 

He died, some would say inevitably, in great poverty.

Word To Use Today: sobriety. This word comes from the Old French from the Latin sōbrius.

Friday, 1 June 2018

Word To Use Today: zugzwang.

Zugzwang is chess term, but it's such a charming word it's a pity it doesn't get out more.

File:Chess Large.JPG
photo by Jyothis

Zugzwang is German, so you have to say both the Zs as tss. And the U sort of halfway between an oo sound and the the u in put. And the g as in get. And the w like the v s in involved.

Gosh, it's complicated, isn't it. Perhaps that's why the word has been left languishing for so long in the dim world of chess. 

Anyway, now we've finally worked out how to say it, what does it actually mean?

Zugzwang is when the only moves a player can make will lead to serious loss or disadvantage (in chess you are forced to move when it's your turn.)

There are, sadly, lots of possible applications of this word in politics, and also many in business and family life. 

Being able to say He's got me in a complete zugzwang might help a bit, though, mightn't it?

Word To Use Today: zugzwang. This, as I've said, is German. Zug means a pull or a tug, and Zwang means force or compulsion. If I were using it in English in a non-chess context I probably wouldn't bother with making the first Z a capital letter, as the Germans do.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The discourteous thief: a rant.

I picked up the phone the other day to hear an automated message telling me that due to security issues with my internet service provider my internet connection would be disconnected in twenty four hours.

If this was going to cause problems, I was asked to dial 1.

I must admit that I was deeply upset by this call. I mean, if a criminal wants to take over my computer, steal my identity, and cream off lots of money from my account, you'd think that at least they'd have the simple courtesy to phone in person.

Wouldn't you?

Word To Use Today: cream. This word comes from the Old French cresme, from the Latin crāmum. The word was Celtic before that.

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Nuts and Bolts: gazetteer.

Is your local newspaper called a gazette? Mine is.

In Britain, as well as being a newspaper, a gazette can be a publication which lists official appointments. That's why an army officer here is said to be gazetted when he takes up his new rank.

A gazetteer is a book, or a bit of a book, that's a bit like an index, except that it only lists and describes places.

The word gazette is quite likely to come from the Italian word for magpie. 

File:Magpie in Madrid (Spain) 77.jpg
photo by Luis Garcia (Zaqarbal)

It's quite easy to imagine how a word for magpie came to mean a word for a compilation of some kind. 

But it didn't happen in the way you'd imagine.

Word To Use Today: gazette. This English word appeared in the 1600s from France. Before that it came from the Italian gazeta, which was a news-sheet costing a gazet, a small Venetian copper coin. In turn the coin might be named after a gaza, a magpie, which word comes from the Latin gaia, a jay.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Thing To Read Today: a book on the Index.

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum is a list of books formerly banned by the Roman Catholic church (in 1966 Cardinal Ottaviani, swamped with potentially harmful new books, threw up his hands and gave up trying to keep track of all them all). 

It was quite common for all of a writer's books that were at all to do with morals or religion to be put on the Index, but between 1929 and 1966 the ban was extended (possibly unintentionally) to the complete works of some authors, whatever the subject. 

Everything by Zola and Sartre was forbidden, for instance.

Then there were, at various times, bans for Jean de la Fontaine's children's tales, Montaigne's Essays, Richardson's Pamela, Voltaire's Candide, the love novels of Balzac and both Alexanders Dumas, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

Charles Darwin's works were never banned, but his grandfather Erasmus Darwin's book, Zoonomia, was.

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables was banned until 1959, which is particularly strange as the Index was run by Catholics who weren't allowed to read the book. 

As this was the case, how on earth could anyone make the judgement to get the Les Misérables ban lifted?

Thing To Read Today: a book on the Index. Index Librorum Prohibitorum is Latin for list of forbidden books. Index means pointer in Latin, from indicāre, to disclose.

I've read quite a lot of them, and I'd probably have enjoyed them even more if I'd known they'd been forbidden.

Monday, 28 May 2018

Spot the Frippet: something penannular.

Annular means ring-shaped, and penannular means almost ring-shaped.

These two Celtic brooches, for instance, are penannular:

File:LEIC-D37E54 - Roman or early medieval penannular brooch (FindID 581063).jpg
photo by Anna Booth.

Or, much easier to spot, so are many earrings:

File:Ribbed Penannular Earring MET 26.7.1321-26.7.1322-26.7.1323 EGDP014180.jpg
These are Egyptian, from around 1500BC. They're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Um...the Ancient Egyptians didn't actually have three ears, did they?

You might see a penannular pattern on some bracket fungus:

File:... bracket fungi (9589410673).jpg
photo by Dinesh Valke from Thane, India

or a pennanular key-ring, or a jar-opener:

File:Jar Opener.jpg
photo by Horatio Snickers. If there really can be anyone in the world called Horatio Snickers.

You might spot a coiled penannular caterpillar:

Idea leuconoe - Image: Paper kite caterpillar
paper kite caterpillar

 or you could just take a big bite out of a doughnut.

Or, make things really very easy indeed, you could even try to find a nice curly example of the letter in the Roman alphabet that comes between b and d.

Hmm...I think we can all claim 100% success rate on this one.

Spot the Frippet: something penannular. The pen bit comes from the Latin paene, which means almost. Annular comes from the other Latin word annulus, which means ring.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

Sunday Rest: fatuous. Word Not To Use Today Unless You're Not An Idiot.

There's actually nothing wrong with the word fatuous. True, it's nothing to do with the word fat, but the added spectre of that insult adds even more power to the general contempt implied.

So why feature the word fatuous today?

Well, because there are many more occasions when it can't be justifiably applied than where it can.*

For instance, using the word fatuous to complain about the coverage of a public event watched by an estimated 1.9 billion people (yes, yes, I'm talking about the royal wedding) because it is of no importance or interest is plainly... got it.

It's fatuous, isn't it.

Word Not To Use Today Unless You're Not An Idiot: fatuous. This word, meaning complacently or inanely foolish, comes from the Latin fatuus. It's related to the word fatiscere, to gape.

*It occurs to me that this is true of almost all words, like toadstool and bucket and didgeridoo. But, hey...

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Dracula: by Bram Stoker.

Today is World Dracula Day.

I only found out about that yesterday, or I would probably have gone to the trouble of reading the book. Well, I have read some of it - I've trudged through the first few chapters on a couple of occasions - but never made it further. 

Still, lots of people say it's really good.*

Ah well. Perhaps I'll manage to get through the blasted book before the next World Dracula Day. 

(Why on earth is there a World Dracula Day???)

Still, as so many professional critics regard reading the actual book as a sad curb on their creative flights I invite you to do as they do, and make up your own mind, even if you are, like me, in a state of blissful ignorance.

One thing no one can deny about Dracula, though, is that it's seminal. Films, TV, computer games, T shirts...there's a very funny and well-written Man from UNCLE book by David McDaniel called The Vampire Affair that refers constantly to the Dracula legend. It came out in 1966 and is available on Amazon.

I can thoroughly recommend that, at least.

Word To Use Today: Dracula. Dracula was (or may have been) the son of Vlad II Dracul. Dracula means son of Dracul, and dracul means dragon in Romanian.

*On the other hand Jamo's review on Amazon says: The whole thing is about a bunch of privelidged people talking about how amazing eachother are! that realy is 90% of the book. I found the characters so intensely unlikable that I realy was rooting for old Dracula to just turn up and kill them all sharpish.

Friday, 25 May 2018

Word To Use Today: zoon.

A zoon may sound like a race of alien beings with a particularly zippy line in personal aircraft, but...

...well, actually, in a way zoons (or zoa) are exactly that. If on a small scale.

A zoon is a colony of animals which live stuck together, like corals or sea pickles (sea pickles are stuck together with jelly). Siphonophorae are zoons, too, but being colonies of jelly fish they're more or less all jelly.

Here's a young sea pickle:

Tunicate off Atauro island.jpg
photo by Nick Hobgood 

some pretty coral:

File:Coral Reefs.jpg
image by Georgemakar

and a siphonophore:

File:Marrus orthocanna.jpg
Photo of Marrus orthocanna by Kevin Raskoff 

Neat, huh?

And now we can all go away and spend at least three minutes wondering about writing an incredible sci-fi story...

Word To Use Today: zoon. Sadly, you say this ZOH-on, not zoooon. It comes from the Greek word zōē, which means life.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Good Readers: a rant.

Ofsted is the British Government Department which...well, this is from from the organisation's website.

Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills. We inspect and regulate services that care for children and young people.

Our goal is to achieve excellence in education and skills for leaders of all ages, and in the care of children and young people.

There's also reassurance that Ofsted's evaluation tools and frameworks are valid and reliable.

Well, that's all good, isn't it. 

Right, then, here's a slide from a talk by Ofsted's Head of English, Sarah Hubbard.   

What do you think?

Personally, not only has it persuaded me that I am not a good reader, but it has also persuaded me that I really can't be bothered to become one.

Somehow I doubt that was Ms Hubbard's intention.

Word To Use Today: slide. This slide was presumably presented via Powerpoint, but in the olden days images to be shared were printed on small squares of transparent film framed in cardboard. Each one had to be slid in front of a bright light which projected the enlarged image onto a screen.

It was much more fun than powerpoint because there was always a chance the image would come up upside-down.

Carousel slide projector, photo by Adamantios. The slides in this incredibly sophisticated device* were fitted into the groves in the disc on the top, and then dropped down in front of the light source by means of a switch.

The word slide comes from the Old English slīdan and is related to various other slippery words such as sliderian, to slither.

*Well, it was once.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Nuts and Bolts: epithalamion.

An epithalamion is usually a wedding poem (though it can be a song, a piece of music, or even a painting).

It seemed appropriate to feature epithalamia in the week of a royal wedding that's been received with glee, rejoicing, loving-kindness, ennui and, in some small dark unhappy quarters, contempt.

Ah well. This has probably been the reaction to weddings down the ages, for they've been around a long time. Epithalamia themselves are ancient. The Song of Solomon is often counted as one, and that was written...well, people argue about that, but certainly earlier than 300 BC; and the Greeks were singing epithalamia even before that, usually at the door of the bridal chamber. One epithalamion would be sung as the couple retired, and then another (possibly even less welcome) would wake the couple up the next morning. Epithalamia were generally full of good wishes and hopes for a happy marriage.

The Romans took up the custom, though they tended to sing theirs at the reception after the happy couple had left - and the words tended to be less suitable for sober society.

The tradition stuttered a bit after that, though the French Ronsard and the Italian Metastasio were part of crazes for ephithalamia, and there was a similar English craze that saw John Donne, Ben Jonson and, very notably, Edmund Spencer write wedding poems (Spencer's takes up a whole book).

Nowadays wedding poetry is rare, though, having just come from doing a Google search of  'poems for a wedding' I can say with great feeling not nearly rare enough

In fact the offers on Google enough to make me wonder if the original custom of singing the epithalamion in private, away from the guests, might really have been the most sensible way of going about it.

Word To Use Today: epithalamion. This is Greek. Epi- means upon, and a thalamos is a bridal chamber. The official plural is ephithalamia, but -mions is also used a lot.

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Thing To Do Today: simmer.

Are there as many technical bits of jargon in cooking as there are in computers? 

Well, I don't know, quite honestly, but as cooking terms must occur every language known to man,* and as computer terms are largely international, I suspect the cooks have the larger vocabulary.

So, the term simmer. This originally meant to keep food for a time in water just hot enough to make small bubbles rise to the surface. That temperature is probably, depending upon the weather and how high you are above sea level, about 95 degrees centigrade.

If you live up a mountain, or there's a thunderstorm brewing, then your simmering water will be cooler, and the cooking will take longer.

If you have someone around who does all the cooking for you then I am sorry for you, for you are missing a great pleasure, but in that case there are other ways to simmer. You can always look forward to your dinner in a state of simmering anticipation; an approaching trip or celebration might find you in state of simmering excitement; a difficult colleague might cause you to exist in a miasma of simmering anger; a difficult boss might induce simmering resentment; and a difficult computer might lead to simmering frustration.

In all these cases, we in England try our best not to come too obviously to the boil.

Except when watching the news and the football, obviously.

Thing to do today: simmer. This word first appeared in the 1600s. The best guess is that it's an imitation of the sound of a simmering pan.

*Possibly not Klingon**.

**Actually, even in Klingon. I just looked it up, and the word for to boil, for instance, is pub.

Monday, 21 May 2018

Spot the Frippet: tack.

Here's a little word that does a lot of work.

It can be a sort of nail with a big flat head:

photo by S.J. de Waard 

a large temporary stitch for holding fabric in position:

File:Basting (PSF).png

the stickiness of wet paint, a sailing direction that takes you diagonally towards the wind, poor-quality food, anything cheap and gaudy, riding harness for horses:

File:Balimore the beautiful horse.JPG
this photograph is entitled Balimore the beautiful horse. Photo by Revital Salomon

 or a tack can be (in Scotland) an area of land held on a lease.

A thumb tack is what British people call a drawing pin:

File:Brass thumbtack.jpg

I'd feel sorry for the small word having to do so much work, except that it's a spiky little thing, full of energy and bounce, and it seems to be thoroughly enjoying itself.

Spot the Frippet: tack. In the 1300s the word tak meant fastening or nail. It's related to the Middle Low German tacke, a pointed instrument, and the theory is that it goes right back to a Proto-Indo-European word meaning tip or point or prong or twig, and which word is also connected to another Proto-Indo-European word meaning to rip or fray. Tack meaning food is the same thing as hardtack, which word appeared in the 1800s though no one knows from where. The word tack meaning cheap and gaudy appeared around the same time and started off meaning an inferior horse. The Scots lease word is from tak, the Scots form of take.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Sunday Rest: bromance. Word Not To Use Today.

'Who can trace to its first beginnings,' asked PG Wodehouse in The Clicking of Cuthbert 'the love of Damon for Pythias, of David for Jonathan, of Swan for Edgar? Who can explain what it was about Crosse that first attracted Blackwell? We simply say, "These men are friends", and leave it at that'.

And so it was, until some cretin coined the word bromance.


File:Cima da Conegliano - David and Jonathan - WGA04912.jpg
Despite appearances, this pair is not Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, but David and Jonathan plus the top bit of Goliath. Painting by Cima da Conegliano (1459 - 1517).

Word Not To Use Today: bromance. I think, if I could be bothered to look it up, this word would prove to be a mixture of brother and romance...

...okay, in the end I just had to look it up. The word is said to have been coined by Dave Carnie, editor of the skateboard magazine Big Brother, to describe a relationship that develops between skaters.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Saturday Rave: Go Seek Her Out by James Joyce.

May all the blessings of heaven descend upon Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and I hope their wedding proves to be the prelude to a fairy tale marriage...

...though, now I come to think about it, fairy tales aren't generally the happiest or safest places to live. Step-relations, for instance, are notoriously unreliable.

But still, away with doom and nay-sayers, this is a day to celebrate the happiness of two young people, and here to help is a wedding poem by James Joyce. As a bonus it's much shorter than Ulysses and much easier to understand. 

The poem is addressed to the wind, and it's a rather simple thing: but then so, at its best, is love.

Go Seek Her Out

Go seek her out all courteously,
And say I come,
Wind of spices whose song is ever

O, hurry over the dark lands
And run upon the sea
For seas and lands shall not divide us
My love and me.

Now, wind, of your courtesy
I pray you go,
And come into her little garden
And sing at her window;
Singing: The bridal wind is blowing
For Love is at his noon;
And soon will your true love be with you
Soon, O soon.

Word To Use Today: courtesy. This word was originally to do with having courtly manners. It comes from the Old French, from the Latin cohors, which meant cohort.

Epithalamium is the spelling of this word used in all the various on-line versions of this poem, from which I have copied the text. It's quite often spelled epithalamion. It means a wedding-poem either way.