This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Lifestyle Trend To Try Today: pantsdrunk.

I'm using the word päntsdrunk because that's the accepted English form of the word, but the clever Finnish people invented the concept and they call it kalsarikänni.

Having said that, the English form could hardly be more endearing, and it does communicate the basic idea of päntsdrunk, which is, yes, drinking alone at home in your pants.*

This means that there's no need for any layering of lovely, expensive, fluffy things; no outrageously expensive candles; and no simple snacks which take four hours to put together and no one really fancies in the end.

There's no need to be shiningly photogenic (they don't even have to be your best pants); no need to cover up the cheerful pineapple wallpaper  with a stuffed moose head; no need to try to think of enough friends to invite who can be trusted not to spill beer on the white rug.

You don't have to buy anything (except your favourite drink); neither do you have to talk to anyone, or even switch off the telly. You can eat snacks from packets and check your phone (though not your work phone) whenever you like. 

And all without having to wash your hair, run out to buy some new woollies, or smile.

You know something? I think Miska Rantanen, who's written a book to introduce the English-speaking peoples to this re-charging-of-mind-and-body concept (the book is called Päntsdrunk. The Finnish Art of Drinking Alone. At Home. In Your Underwear) might be going to prevent more nervous breakdowns than the inventor of the fluffy white rug...

...who, come to think about it, if anything, probably caused quite a few of them.

Lifestyle Trend To Try Today: päntsdrunk. This is the English form of the Finnish kalsarikänni. Kalsari means underpants and känni means drunk.

(Mind you, I've just checked kalsari känni on Google translate and got the answers, firstly, The fisherman tugged and then, on another attempt Shoe coversSo I'm not guaranteeing anything.)

*Pants in England are what some other countries call underpants.

Monday, 16 July 2018

Spot the Frippet: garnishee.

A garnishee is, unsurprisingly, someone who's been given a garnishment.

Now, a garnishment can be various things. It can be a notice or warning; in English Law it can be either a summons to attend court proceedings already in progress, or it can be an order to hold onto some money received from a debtor, so that all the debtor's liabilities can be sorted out and fairly distributed.

A garnishment can also be a decoration or garnish.

As for spotting one: well, if you don't know someone who's entangled with the Law, then you just have to give them a warning - don't eat the salmon will do - or else look out for someone with a sparkly tie pin or hair clip.

Of course, if all else fails, you just have to find someone with a sprig of parsley on his head.

File:Green Chana Kabab.jpg
This garnish would make anyone look distinguished. Photo by Geeta ram2003

Spot the Frippet: garnishee. This word comes from the Old French garnir, to adorn, and before that from some Germanic source.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: garboil.

Despite appearances, a garboil is nothing much to do with either gargoyles or boils.

So that's a relief.

A garboil is a disturbance or uproar.

Fortunately the word is itself such a gargoyle of an object that good sense has prevailed and it's very rarely used nowadays.

I think we can all say thank heavens for that.

Word Not To Use Today: garboil. This word came to us from France, but it was a long time ago and I expect people in those days didn't know any better. The Old French garbouil in turn came from the Old Italian garbuglio, from the Latin bullīre, to boil, and with it came the associated idea of boiling with rage.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

An Old Tune by Gerard de Nerval

Gérard de Nerval is most famous as the poet who (it is said) took his pet lobster for walks through Paris on a lead made of a blue ribbon.

Hilarious, or what?

Well, as with so many jokes, it depends on how you tell it, and de Nerval may have been tying to make a serious point about the respect and empathy we should feel for all life.

Sadly, de Nerval seems never to have understood that it's quite difficult to be serious about a lobster.

'Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog?' he asked. '...they know the secrets of the sea, they don't bark, and they don't gnaw upon one's monadic privacy like dogs do. And Goethe had an aversion to dogs, and he wasn't mad.'

More sadly still, poor de Nerval was what a former time would have called mad. He killed himself at the age of forty six while very ill. During his life he introduced France to some important German poetry, wrote travel books, and gave us some poetry of his own.

Here's one of his poems, An Old Tune

There is an air for which I would disown
Mozart's, Rossini's, Weber's melodies, -
A sweet sad air that languishes and sighs,
And keeps its secret charm for me alone.

When'er I hear that music vague and old,
Two hundred years are mist that rolls away;
The thirteenth Louis reigns, and I behold
A green land golden in the dying day.

An old red castle, strong with stony towers,
The windows gay with many coloured glass;
Wide plains, and rivers flowing among flowers,
The bathe the castle basement as they pass.

In antique weed, with dark eyes and gold hair,
A lady looks forth from her window high;
It may be that I knew and found her fair,
In some forgotten life, long time gone by.

Word To Use Today: lobster. The Old English was lobbestre, from loppe, spider. (Yes, Tolkien fans, like Shelob.)

Friday, 13 July 2018

Word To Use Today: latchbolt.

I was writing a story the other day about a girl entering a scary room who wanted to make sure that if the door slammed behind her she was going to be able to open the door from the inside. So she turned the inside door handle to make sure the little quarter-circle-shaped chunk of metal that goes into the door frame reinforcing-plate thingy went in and out as it should.

I'm sure you know the bit of metal I'm talking about, but I could hardly describe it like that in a piece of professional writing.

The thing is, how come I had no idea what the thingy on the door was called? I mean, I haven't lived a life devoid of door-handle malfunction, but, as far as I can remember, communicating this fact has consisted of shouting something like: Help, the thingy's bust! or Hello? Hello? Is there anybody there? HELP!

So I looked it up, and it's called a latchbolt.

Knowing that fact is of no use, of course, because no one will understand what I'm talking about. But knowledge has its own satisfactions.

It's quite cool knowing that the room in which I'm writing this features two armoured fronts, too.

Word To Use Today: latchbolt. The Old English læccan meant to seize. The Old English word bolt meant arrow.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

A new low: a rant.

This headline was in the Telegraph on-line edition of 26 June 2018:

Scottish Government accused of failing cancer patients as waiting times hit new low

I don't know what sad excuse for a sub-editor came up with the headline, but he* meant high.

Why don't they teach logic at these schools?

Word To Use Today: low. Or high. But the right one. In the 1100s the word low was lāh. The Old English for high was hēah. It is related (distantly, but charmingly) to the Sanskrit kuča, which means bosom.

*Do I have to say he-or-she all the time? I mean, can't he stand, as it always did, for both sexes? 

What's that? What do I mean both??

Oh, good grief...

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Nuts and Bolts: verbiage.

There's a story about a translator who fell silent while translating German at an international conference.

'What's wrong?' demanded a hundred helpless delegates.

'I'm sorry,' said the translator, 'but all the verbs are on the last page.'

It's a nice story, though very unlikely to be true. German verbs can arrive at the end of hundred-word sentences, but only when people are showing off: German sentences, like all sentences, are usually much shorter.

Putting a verb at the end of a sentence may seem odd to an English speaker, but they have to go somewhere and if you think about it a simple sentence containing only a person who does something (the Subject, also known as S) the thing he does (the Verb, V) and the thing to which he does it (the Object, O) then there are only six possible ways of putting that sentence together:* SOV, SVO, OSV, OVS, VSO, and VOS. 

Most languages use a mixture of these (think how word order changes, for instance, if you are asking a question) though most languages have one order commoner than the others. A few languages (Finnish, Persian, Romanian and Basque, for example) aren't too bothered, generally, about word order (though Finnish uses SVO if you can't be sure what the sentence means otherwise). Japanese sentences usually end with a verb, but whether the Subject or Object comes first is flexible.

So what's the commonest way to put a sentence together? SOV is used by about 45% of languages, and is believed to be the original way, historically, that people put sentences together. It's still used in, for example, Hindi and Korean. Next commonest (42%) is the SVO of English, Italian, Mandarin and Russian.

The rest are much rarer: VSO (Irish, Malay, Tuareg-Berber) 9%; VOS (Malagasy, Baure) 3%; OVS (Apalai, Hixkatyana) 1%, and poor old OSV, which is used in the Warao language of Venezuela, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname, counts statistically as 0%.

The great thing is that as far as I know no one has ever gone to war over word order...

...but then I mustn't be putting ideas into people's heads.

Word To Use Today: any verb at all. Just place it carefully.

*Unless you're speaking a language where verbs, for instance, are split up, but I'm ignoring those for now.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: parboiled.

It's England, it's summer, and it's hot.

The last is naturally a surprise to everyone.

We English loved the first few days of not-having-to-wear-scarves-for-once, but then of course we discovered that we had nothing to complain about.

Conversation died.

Now, fortunately, we're totally fed up with the heat and so we're talking to each other again, shaking our heads over moorland fires and water shortages. 

Not that the water shortages have happened, yet: but, hey, they might.

Anyway, here we are, either lurking inside behind heavy curtains, or getting parboiled by the unaccustomed sunshine. 

The palest of us are turning an unattractive shade of lobster.

File:Lobster meal.jpg
photo by Hartmut Inerle

To make things worse, those among us too old to care have cast off far too many garments and are inflicting agonies on anyone with artistic sensibilities. Actually, anyone with any sensibilities at all.

Meanwhile, our green and pleasant land is turning into a vast crispy doormat.

Still, things could be worse: it could be cold and raining.

(We don't like that, either.)

Thing Not To Be Today: parboiled. Parboiled means partly boiled. It's the sort of thing you might do to a potato before you roast it, but it's also used to describe people in hot weather. It comes, oddly, from the Latin perbullīre, to boil thoroughly.

The change in meaning occurred because it's commoner for a person to fail to pronounce his Ts than to speak Latin, and so the par- in parboil has been misunderstood to be short for part, rather than a variation on the Latin per- which means through.

Monday, 9 July 2018

Spot the Frippet: angledug.

No, no, this isn't difficult: an angledug is, obviously, the same as an angletwitch...

...or, as those of not from the South West of Britain call them, earthworms:

                                            photo by Aruna

You'll find them in, well, earth, but there are angledugs more or less everywhere - in water, up trees, and even on sea shores. Some are only a centimetre long, and some in the Mekong Delta reach three metres.

Blackbirds and other thrushes are particularly good at finding angledugs:

File:Common Blackbird (turdus merula).jpg
photo by
Charles J Sharp   Blue pencil.svg wikidata:Q54800218

but they provide a good dinner for all sort of creatures - gulls, crows, snakes, bears, foxes, hedgehogs, pigs, moles, beetles, snails, slugs - and people: noke is a Maori delicacy consisting of earthworms (which is worth remembering if you're in New Zealand and faced with a menu).

The saddle-type thing on an angledug shows the worm is adult, and it is used for producing eggs. (All angledugs are female - but then they're all male, too, at the same time.) They're born as tiny worms that can shift five hundred times their own weight in soil, which is more than you can.

Be careful about touching an angledug. If it's the Australian Didymogaster sylvaticus, or blue squirter earthworm, it will throw up spectacularly over you. If it's a more ordinary worm then you will poison it with the salt from your fingers. No wonder the poor things writhe.

Lastly, if you cut a worm in two then there's just a chance both halves will regenerate into two new worms - but almost certainly they won't, and you'll end up with a single dead worm.

Or, just possibly, a noke garnish.

Spot the Frippet: angledug. I have no idea at all where this word came from, but it's valid in Scrabble.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Sunday Rest: hanger. Word Not To Use Today.

File:A bunch of clothes hangers.JPG
photo by High Contrast

But without the word hanger then where should I put my coat? you may be asking. 

But it's not the word hanger I'm talking about. It's the word hanger.

No, I can't see any difference, either, but the pronunciation of the word I'm talking about is hang-ger, with a hard g, as in goat.

Yes, it's a silly word. 

Yes, it rhymes with anger.

Yes, there's a good reason for that.

Hanger (hanGer? Hangger?) comes from the new word hangry, which describes the irritability experienced when hungry.

A new study, Feeling Hangry? When Hunger is Conceptualized as Emotion by Jennifer MacCormack and Kristen Lindquist at the University of North Carolina, has shown the effects of annoying people when they are hungry,and also when they are full. The results show that people tend to be a bit less positive about things when they're hungry, though only if they don't realise that hunger is the problem. If they do realise that hunger is the problem then instead of snapping at people they tend to go off and buy themselves a sandwich instead.

Hangry has now entered the Oxford English Dictionary, where, let's face it, hardly anyone will see it so it can't do much harm. 

But will the presence of the word in the real world give people an excuse to be horrible before lunch, or encourage them to eat a bit sooner? 

I don't know that: but what I do know is that hangers should only be for garments.


Garments and aircraft.

Word Not To Use Today: hanger. I don't know who coined this word, but he or she was a fool. The Old Norse angr meant grief, and the Latin angere means to strangle.

I know how they felt.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Saturday Rave: Adam lay y-bounden. Anon.

Here's a very old, very simple, poem. At least, the story it tells is simple, though the English is a bit odd (even updated, as it has been here, by Edith Rickert).

The original poem was written in about 1400, and is known from a single manuscript in the British Library.

No one knows who wrote it, but in this complicated world sometimes simple stories are what we need more than anything else.

Deo gratias means thanks be to God.

Adam lay y-bounden
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long;
And all was for an apple
An apple that he took,
As clerkes finden written
In theire book.

Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Ne hadde never our Lady
A been heaven's queen.
Blessed be the time
That apple taken was!
Therefore we may singen
'Deo Gratias!'

Word To Use Today: bond. This word comes from the Old Norse band.

The four thousand years refers to a belief that Adam was kept in chains from his death until the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Word To Use Today: mousseline.

There can't be many more seductive words in the English language than mousseline (you say the last syllable LEEN, by the way).

Try whispering mousseline de soie, [you say that d swa] or mousseline de laine [d lenn] to your loved one (that's silk mousseline and woollen mousseline, respectively) and you'll conjure up (at least to someone who doesn't speak French) echoes of the willow leaves whispering below you on a warm evening on the terrace of some glorious hotel.

Well, it might be worth a try, anyway...

Mousseline, when turned into English, gradually morphed into the much less glamorous word muslin, but mousseline is still used to mean the sort of very fine fabric you wouldn't dream of using for draining cheese.

File:1950 Jean Dessès evening dress in blue silk mousseline.jpg
1950 silk mousseline dress by Jean Desses, photo by Πελοποννησιακό Λαογραφικό Ίδρυμα

Mousseline is also a type of thin blown glass used to make fine wine glasses.

Lastly, but most commonly, there is mousseline sauce, which is (WARNING: even the following description might adversely affect those with heart problems) hollandaise sauce with whipped cream folded into it.

Wearing a dress of mousseline while eating salmon mousseline and drinking from a glass of mousseline?

That really can't be very far from heaven.

Even, I should imagine, for a bloke.

Wor To Use Today: mousseline. This word is the French for muslin, and comes from the Italian mussolina, from the mawşilly, which means of Mosul, where the fabric was first produced.

Weep, oh weep, for a world where Mosul was famous for its fine fabric!

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Technical terms: a rant.

When I was wheeled into the operating theatre the other week I didn't expect to understand all the technical terms the surgeon and her team were going to use during the procedure.

To be frank I didn't want to understand all the technical terms they were going to use. I had a basic idea what they were planning to do, and that was enough. In fact, it was plenty. 

And when I heard the surgeon ask twice for a mushroom, and once for a spear, as far as technical terms were concerned I could have done with more of them.

Word Not To Use In An Operating Room Today: spear. This word was spere in Old English. The Greek sparos means gilthead, which is an edible fish, Sparus aurata

(I'm fine.)

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

Nuts and Bolts: from sacred songs...downwards.

A psalm ( you say it sarm) is one of the one hundred and fifty songs that are published together as one of the books of the Bible.

Number 117 was my favourite as a child. Well, it has only two verses. It's also cheerful and snappy, and you can understand what it's going on about:

O praise the Lord, all ye nations: praise him, all ye people.

For his merciful kindness is great towards us: and the truth of the Lord endureth for ever. Praise ye the Lord.

The word psalm has given us various other English words. A psalmist writes psalms (the Psalmist, with a capital P, is King David); psalmody is to do with singing psalms, or setting them to music; a psalter is a book with the psalms in it.

And then it's not much of a stretch to get to a psaltery, which is a sort of stringed instrument:

This very fed-up psaltery player comes from an illustration in the Gorleston psalter.

But what about a psalterium, which is..., guess...

Yes, you're quite right. Of course: you've guessed it.

psalterium is the third stomach of a cow.


Well, because of this:

Word To Use Today: one beginning with psal-. The song word comes from the Latin psalmus, from the Greek psalmos, song accompanied by a harp, from psallein, to play the harp. (This explains psaltery nicely, doesn't it.)

Psalterium comes from the Latin psaltērium, which means psalter, because a psalterium has many folds that look a bit like the pages of a book.

Here's a model of one which completely fails to illustrate this:

File:Didactic model of a bovine omasum and abomasum-FMVZ USP-26.jpeg
Model of the psalterium and abomasum of a cow. Photo by Wagner Souza e Silva, Museum of Veterinary Anatomy FMVZ USP The psalterium is the spiral bit.

Still, this photo of one of the leaflets inside the psalterium helps just a little:

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: fucoid.

Please note: this word is pronounced FYOOkoid.

It's to do with seaweed.

Fucus ceranoides, Pieterburen, the Netherlands.jpg
photo of Fucus ceranoides by Bj.schoenmakers

Fucus vesiculosus Wales.jpg
photo of Fucus vesiculosus by Stemonitis

In the nineteenth century there was a craze for seaweed. People collected it, dried it, and placed it in albums. And if it made people happy, why not?

Sadly, sea weed is much less admired today, and being at all fucoid would I'm afraid involve having a very very bad hair day, or else require either a strong dose of deodorant or an immediate change of diet.

Surely best avoided, if possible.

Thing Not To Be Today: fucoid. This word describes seaweed of the genus Fucus, which is found on almost all the coasts of the world.

(Fucus seaweed may not be rare or fragrant, but it can be used as fertiliser, and in glass and soap making. Bacteria found on the surface of Fucus seaweed have recently been found to be able to combat MRSA. It has also been used in thalassotherapy, in which people are smothered in seaweed-based gunk (to no known scientific benefit, but never mind).)

The word fucoid comes from the Greek phukos, which means seaweed.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Spot the Frippet: fuddy-duddy.

A fuddy-duddy is a person, usually elderly, who is dull and set in his or her ways.

Yes, that's right, someone a bit like a zombie, but with an added tendency to tut, and with any bandages more professionally applied.

Spotting fuddy-duddies is a natural human instinct, and most of us have been on the alert to escape their clutches all our lives.

But beware: they can creep up on you. 

Most horrifyingly of all, you sometimes find them staring at you... 

...straight from the depths of the mirror.

Spot the Frippet: fuddy-duddy. This word is used in Britain, but the first mention of it actually comes from Texas in 1889. Some people wonder if the word has Scottish ancestors - fuddy meant buttocks in Scotland, and duddy meant ragged - but as those words are nothing to do with the meaning of fuddy-duddy, basically, we're left admitting that no one's got much of a clue.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Sunday Rest: midaxi. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, what do you think midaxi means?

It has a vaguely Aztec flavour. though the beginning looks English...some sort of spicy sauce used obliterate the taste and healthy qualities of salad?


Midaxi is a skirt length. 

I've done some research via Google images, and there is no agreement as to exactly how long midaxi is, but it seems to be somewhere between the bottom of the knee and the top of the ankle.

This means that a short midaxi is the same as a midi, the medium ones are mid-calf, and the longer ones are ankle-skimming.

Why have we been landed with the revolting term midaxi when there are more precise terms available? 

Because fashion is all about the new, that's why, and a new word, it is hoped, will give the impression of a new style.

The trouble is, with a word like midaxi, although the style may sound new, it doesn't sound the least bit elegant or beautiful.

Word Not To Use Today: midaxi. This is a very recent horror. It is a mixture, of course, of midi and maxi. Mid has implied middle since Old English times. Max- has implied large since the 1700s. Maximum is Latin for greatest.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Saturday Rave: The Beggar's Opera by John Gay and others.

Well, yes, you may say, John Gay did write the words of The Beggar's Opera, but what about the music? After all, we don't usually say that The Magic Flute was by Emanuel Schikaneder, do we?

Well, the thing is that the music was stolen. It was a mixture of Scottish folk songs, opera arias, and popular tunes, all well-known at the time of the first production (and so with a large amount of hummability built-in).

The Beggar's Opera was written to make fun of traditional opera, traditional morals, politicians, and polite society. It was a massive success on all fronts.

Opera at the time tended to be extremely large and heroic, full of Gods and Heroes and vocal gymnastics from foreign stars. The Beggar's Opera was about the criminal under-class of London, and was sung by undistinguished Londoners (though Lavinia Fenton, the ex-prostitute and barmaid who played the leading lady, Polly Peachum, eventually became a duchess).

Another factor in The Beggar's Opera's success was that traditional opera was supported by the king, George II, with whom his son Frederick the Prince of Wales was having a life-long feud. Half of London was placing its bets on Frederick, as likely to be the survivor (though as it happens he wasn't). Because The Beggar's Opera was making fun of opera, it was seized upon as an opportunity to cock a snook at the king's court.

The Beggar's Opera was so successful in establishing its own new genre that the very great opera composer Handel found that operas in the grand style were no longer commercially viable - and that meant he had to invent his own new art form, oratorio. And so we have Jeptha, and The Messiah. A definite win for the world.

So, The Beggar's Opera is play about thieves, with stolen music...

...I just hope that when people asked Gay where did you get the idea from? as people do, Gay admitted he got it from a suggestion by the great Jonathan Swift of Gulliver's Travels fame. John Gay was a much loved man, very much supported by the other literary figures of the time, so I would imagine this was one bit of thievery he wouldn't have countenanced.

Here's a song from the opera. In this clip it's sung by Lawrence Olivier and Dorothy Tutin:

As you can see, it's not just the satire that made The Beggar's Opera a success, but the depth of human feeling.


Word To Use Today: beggar. The word beg appeared in English in the 1200s. It's probably something to do with the Old English bedician, which itself meant beggar.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Word To Use Today Though Heaven Only Knows How: merchet.

Merchet is such a lovely neat sort of a word.

It's an amount of money paid by a tenant to his landlord to gain permission for the tenant's daughter to marry.

File:Aglauros’s Vision of the Bridal Chamber of Herse, from the Story of Mercury and Herse MET DT222918.jpg
tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Merchets haven't been paid in England (or, I hope anywhere else) for many centuries.

Sadly, this must make merchet a contender for the most useless word in the dictionary.

And it's such a lovely little word, too.

Word To Use Today Though Heaven Only Knows How: merchet. This word appeared in the 1200s from Anglo French. In those days it meant, literally, market.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Descriptive words: a rant.

Words are tricky things. It's bad enough when things are written down (predictive text, eh?) but when spoken aloud then accents, speed, technical terms, dialect, and speaking-with-the-head-stuck-a-cupboard or through-a-gobstopper all make understanding each other difficult - and sometimes perilous.

But sometimes, just sometimes, you'd think things would be straightforward.

I was in a pasty shop in Dorset the other day (a pasty, for the non-British, is a single-portion semi-circular pie, usually savory:

File:20070802122215!Cornish pasty - cut.jpeg
photo by David Johnson) [1]

and I heard the shop assistant ask the Englishman beside me, who was making his order, small or large?

And the man replied what's the difference?

Word To Use Today: large. See if you can find an English-speaker who doesn't understand what large means. The word comes from the Latin largus, which means ample or abundant.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Nicaraguan Sign Language.

How does a new language develop from scratch?

We know that new words are invented all the time, and we know that sometimes two or more languages will meet and merge to form first a pidgin, and then later a creole.

But how about a new language with no ancestors? None at all?

It may seem unlikely that the formation of such a language has ever been observed, but it has, and the most famous and studied of these events happened in west Nicaragua in the 1970s and 80s.

The new language came into being after schools for the deaf were set up for the first time in the area. To begin with the children were taught Spanish finger-spelling by their teachers, but few of the children ever understood this method of expressing meaning, and among themselves they began to use a mixture of the basic gestures and signs they had each individually used at home to communicate with their families. 

This led to a situation where it was now the teachers who couldn't understand what was being communicated; and so an expert, Judy Kegl from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was brought in to help. She discovered that the sign language the children were using had gone past the bolting-together-of-individual-signs stage, and had become a sophisticated language with its own grammar.  

This language is now known Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua, or ISL

What has ISL taught us about the invention of an entirely new language?

Well, perhaps the most fascinating thing might be that it was when younger children joined the school and started using the sign language that it stopped being a basic bolting together of signs, and became infinitely more subtle. For instance, the space in which signs were made became variable and important, and this variation might express something like a pronoun, or might express an individual left/right concept missing from the signing of the older children.

And the conclusion to be drawn from this? 

Well, one conclusion this extraordinary story suggests is that in the beginning we didn't teach children to speak.

They taught us.

Word To Use Today: deaf. The Old English for this word was dēaf.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Thing Possibly To Do Today: swizzle.

If you're in America then the chances are that you'll do your swizzling with a swizzle stick, for in America a swizzle is any unshaken cocktail, and a swizzle stick is the thing used to stir it. It makes the cocktail extra fizzy, as well as mixing it.

That's all straightforward enough.

In Britain, though, you have to be a bit careful about swizzling, because in Britain a swizzle is the same as a swiz - and a swiz is a swindle or a cheat or disappointment, or at the least something blatantly unfair.

It's the sort of word a child might use, but even an adult might use it in the face of extreme adversity, such as being cheated by the arrival of a mother-in-law of a pleasure such as watching the football. 

Or perhaps the word swizzle might be used if you discovered the money-off petrol voucher only works after midnight on a Tuesday if you're already registered on a website that requires you to divulge your bank details, dress size, and insurance provider.

The Word Den recommends that all swizzling is done with sticks. 

Because, obviously, anything else is just mean.

Thing Possibly To Do Today: swizzle. The origin of this word is mysterious, but as far as the cocktail is concerned might well have something to do with the words swirl and fizz.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Spot the Frippet: pabulum.

The word pabulum means three related things.

First of all, pabulum means food. This makes it a very easy Spot indeed, because it might be almost rarer for a person to be in a place where he or she can't see anything to eat than that he or she can

Pabulum was first used to describe the nutrients a tree or animal absorbs in order to function, but then in the 1600s pabulum came to mean subjects worthy of reflection, something so intellectually stimulating that it could be regarded as food for the mind. 

And then something odd happened, and the third and most recent meaning of pabulum is something that's designed to avoid controversy by being dull, safe, and stodgy. It might be a piece of writing, perhaps, or some very undemanding television.

Now, you might be remembering England's food reputation as the land of the bland and be seeing a connection.

But, actually...

Spot the Frippet: pabulum. This word comes from the Latin pascere, to feed.

The change between pabulum meaning something essential and nourishing to something mind-destroyingly uninteresting did actually occur because of some very bland food, but as it happened it wasn't English but Canadian. 

In the 1930s a team of Canadian doctors invented a kind of baby food they called Pablum, based on the word pabulum. It was so tasteless that the poor word pabulum was affected and its meaning took a 180 degree turn.

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Sunday Rest: chicest. Word Not To Use Today.

There should be some way of writing down a non-confusing version of the word that means most chic - but if there is I don't know what it is.

There's no problem when the word chicest is said out loud, but when written down I always end up wondering what on earth a chice is (sadly, a chice doesn't seem to be anything. It isn't even in the Oxford English Dictionary)*.

So what to do? Chic is the last thing to describe this confusion.


No: that just draws attention to the problem.

Most chic?

Supremely chic?

Either of those last two will do. 

Just as long as I'm not having to worry about chice.

Sunday Rest: chicest. The word chic arrived in French in the 1800s, but no one is certain where it came from.

*Unless chice is the plural of chouse on the mouse/mice model... that would be great, but sadly chouse is a verb, so it isn't. It means to trick or cheat.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Saturday Rave: typewriters.

Typewriters were always a pain. You had to be a skilled and experienced operator to work them effectively, and this meant that everyone who needed to send business letters had to have access to a specialist typist to type them.

This meant that no one in the days of typewriters could send the briefest business letter without first writing it down by hand, or else saying it into a recording device, or else dictating it to a shorthand-trained secretary. 

After that it would be given to a typist, who would invariably read or mishear epiglottic for erotic and then the whole page - the whole page! would have to be typed out again.

A typewriter, you see, doesn't have abackspace button.

But I have come to praise typewriters, not to bury them, and when I saw one for sale the other day in a second-hand shop I was strongly tempted to buy it. Yes, typewriters were heavy and noisy and very hard work. Yes, they'd only give you at most three smudgy and faint copies of your letter (and only then if you'd put the carbon paper in the right way). Yes, a single keystroke error took a couple of minutes to correct. Yes, they were horribly slow unless you were very skilled indeed. But...

Actually, my affection for typewriters may be entirely sentimental. They were dreadfully awkward machines, but they were much more legible (and in the right hands, quicker) than writing by hand. They also gave employment opportunities to many women in the early twentieth century who were too educated or refined to do heavy manual work.

Many designs of typewriter were invented in many countries before the first one was made commercially. The Hansen Writing Ball, above, invented in Denmark by Rev Malling-Hansen, was produced from 1870. The keyboard was arranged so that the most frequently used letters were conveniently placed, but it only typed capital letters.

The first typewriter to be commercially successful came along in 1878 and was invented by Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W Soule, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Entertainingly, Sholes later decided he hated the thing and refused to have anything to do with it.) This was the first machine to be called a typewriter. It had a QWERTY keyboard, and the rest is history.

Despite everything, you know, I still feel rather sad that the rest is history.

Word To Use Today: typewriter. Well, it's obvious where this word came from, but it's quite interesting that to begin with the person who operated the machine was also called a typewriter

An earlier version of the machine, invented by John J Pratt, had the much more thrilling name of pterotype. 

It would have been nice if that name had been the one to survive, wouldn't it?

Pteron in Greek means wing or feather.

Friday, 22 June 2018

Word To Use Today: moai.

I was intending to write about the Japanese word moai, which means to come together for a common purpose, but when I searched for information about the word I was reminded that there are other moai in the world:
Like these>

photo by Aurbina

These moai all come from Easter Island.

photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen The moai on the second right has his hair, or pukao, on. The mana, or strength and prestige of a chieftain, was believed to reside in his hair.

This sort of moai is a relic of a country that was once forested but is now bare of trees; of a people that is now extinct; and of a culture finally destroyed and nearly obliterated by the slave trade and missionaries.

So it's a good thing we have the other sort of moai, the Japanese sort, to cheer us up. These Japanese moai consist of groups of people which meet to support each other socially, financially, spiritually, and in good health and bad. They started in Okinawa, when groups of farmers got together to discuss how to plant their crops in such a way that the effects of bad harvests could be minimised. 

Nowadays, as well as resource-pooling, planning and problem-solving, moai act as a supportive extended family. They provide trustworthy and reliable help in everyday life, in crises, and in grief.

As a bonus, evidence shows that moai are the reason the people of Okinawa live much longer than most of the rest of us do.

One word, two such different meanings: and which moai is the more wonderful? 

I leave it to you to decide.

Word To Use Today: moai. The Japanese word means meeting for a common purpose. The Easter Island word comes from the Rapanui language of the island and means statue.

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Threatening Stars: a rant.

A film called Ocean's 8 has just had its British release. I understand it's a bit like Steven Soderburgh's Ocean's Eleven, but with a cheaper cast and a feeling it's not worth bothering to write out the names of numbers properly.

It also appears that none of it takes place under water. This is a disappointment, but not a huge one,because I'm no more likely to see Ocean's 8 than I ever was to see Ocean's Eleven.

But never mind the film, there's enough fun to be had with the reviews and the publicity. The i newspaper had a piece which particularly caught my eye. It said that one of the stars, Mindy Kaling, had been intimidated to work with Rihanna.

Well, I was terribly shocked. I mean, I know that Rihanna is a primarily a singer rather than an actress, but I wouldn't have thought intimidation was necessary to provide her with fellow actresses. 

What I wanted to know was, what did the casting director do? Did he whisper something in he ear about the poor quality of brake cables nowadays? Mention a potential fashion for concrete stilettos?

Did Mindy wake up with a dolphin's head beside her on the pillow? 

But upon further reading I was relieved to discover that the answer to all those questions is no. No one intimidated Mindy into anything. Instead Mindy had felt intimidated about working with Rihanna because she feels that music stars are starrier than mere actresses.

'They can do whatever they like and nobody thinks it's crazy or weird,' she said, rather sweetly, if erroneously.

Well, I wish Mindy a long and distinguished career. 

But most of all I'm glad, poor love, that no one sent round the mob.

Word To Use Today: intimidate. The Latin word timidus means fearful, from timor, fear.

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.