This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Saturday Rave: A Fairy Song by William Shakespeare

That William Shakespeare, eh? He wrote some heavy stuff.

Death, race, betrayal, love, hate, treachery, suicide, murder, mutilation. You name it, he was there and, quite frankly, down and dirty with it.

Well, that's the stuff that shows a writer is important and clever, right? Someone like Shakespeare wouldn't be doing with all that stupid fantasy stuff. That's just for idiots.


Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough briar,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green;
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours,
I must go and seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslips ear;
Farewell, thou lob of spirits: I'll be gone;
Our queen and all her elves come here anon.


That's from A Midsummer Night's Dream. you think it might be an idea to pause a little before we completely dismiss all writers of fantasy, after all?

Word To Use Today: briar. This word comes from the Old English brēr.

Friday, 16 November 2018

Word To Use Today: gulch..

This is an ugly, gulping word, but it's still good fun to say.


The only gulch I've ever come across, in fact or fiction, is Dead Man's Gulch:

Dead Man's Gulch poster.jpg

a film so little-watched that even Wikipedia doesn't know anything about the plot (though the poster shows two guys and a girl, so we know it was jolly exciting (and it shows hats and horses and a gun, so we also know it was a Western)).

However seldom-watched, the film has brought the word gulch to the attention of England, and for this I am grateful. 

A gulch is a narrow ravine cut by a fast stream, and in order of size as a geological feature it seems to go after canyon and ravine. (I mean, you couldn't imagine a Grand Gulch, could you?)

The word is native to North America, and how those of us in the rest of the world are going to use it today is a puzzle.

It might make a vivid metaphor for the throat, though, mightn't it? Especially one that needs a long, long drink. 

And that'd be linguistically rather clever, too.

Word To Use Today: gulch. This word appeared, mysteriously, in the 1800s, but from where no one is sure. There used to be a dialect word gulsh, which meant to sink in (if it was land) or to gush out (if it was water), and the Middle English gulchen means to drink greedily. 

Disarmingly, in about 1250 a gulche-cuppe was a greedy drinker.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Yours, sincerely: a rant.

I know that yours sincerely is just a formula, and that the same goes for yours faithfully (actually, I wish that some of my correspondents were less faithful: emails from some retailers arrive at a rate of more than one a day).

In any case, what's the alternative when ending a message? Love can be scary, and xx is just an all-too-obvious way of wriggling out of writing Love.

Recently we seem now to have entered a warmest regards period in epistolary history, which is blatantly ridiculous because although I hope I do excite warmest regards in one or two people, I doubt if either of them is my solicitor*.

But although I can myself only hold one single person in my warmest regard, I do wish more or less everyone well and happy, and so best wishes solves most problems.

Despite this, I find myself looking back wistfully, and I can't help thinking it'd be nice, just once, to receive a letter that ends I wish to remain, madam, your most obedient servant.

If it was from a Civil Servant then that would be extra lovely...

...well, it could hardly fail to raise a hollow laugh, in any case.

Word To Use Today: civil. This word comes from the Latin cīvis, which means citizen.

*A solicitor round here is more or less the same as an attorney in the USA, I think.

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Nuts and Bolts: aliterate.

An aliterate person is one who can read, but is disinclined to do so.

It's a condition quite often observed in the young, especially those who haven't yet accepted the impossibility of perpetual motion.

Aliteracy can prove chronic and is certainly disabling, but very nearly all humans have some instincts in the direction of aliteracy, particularly when faced with the words Terms and Conditions or Instructions For Safe Use.

This last is an occasion, particularly in connection with chainsaws, when aliteracy may even prove fatal.

Word To Use Today: aliterate. A word with an a- stuck on the beginning is probably, as in this case, something to do with the Greek habit of using a- to reverse the meaning of a word. The word literacy comes from the Latin litterārius, which means concerning reading and writing.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: mumchance.

Any minute now the fashion for being Tremendously Sensitive (mandatory silent applause, for example, or removing all statues of anyone who's ever done anything) will bump into the fashion for TV talent shows, and there'll be an explosion of astonishing size and magnificence.

I'm quite looking forward to it.

What will emerge from the ashes I do not know, but perhaps a bit of mumchance might fit the bill. Mumchance means being struck dumb by some great emotion, but originally the word described a play without words. 

Well, it'd certainly improve some of the singing acts.

Luckily there is no need for us ever to be struck dumb in ordinary life, because our esteemed politicians have repeatedly shown us how to avoid it. A politician, faced with a difficult question, either says let me be quite clear and then drones on so boringly that everyone's stopped listening before anyone realises that he or she is avoiding the question, or there goes up a cry of fake news.

Or, in an astonishing recent example, I'm not talking to you because you're a horrible person.

Simple, yes?

And the technique's not even that complicated, either. 

Thing Not To Be Today: mumchance. This word comes from the Middle Low German Mummenschanze, a masked serenade, from mummen, which is related to the French word momon, mask, plus schanze, dance.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Spot the Frippet: a percussion instrument.

Almost anything can be a percussion instrument. That table, that wall, that floor (and who needs drumsticks when you've got hands and feet?


Officially, though, a percussion instrument is something specially designed to make a sound when hit. These go from drums:

File:Drummer in The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps 50th Anniversary Tattoo.jpg
photo Old Guard Museum, Washington

to the less obvious piano, where the hammers that hit the strings are usually hidden inside the case:

File:Yamaha CP-70 opened top.jpg
Yamaha piano, photo by Michael Müller-Hildebrand

(Though where that leaves an electric piano or drum-kit I do not know.)

And there are still more percussion instruments around. They may not be musical, but a percussion tool uses the same principle to do its job:

File:Pneumatic drill.jpeg
photo of a pneumatic drill by Anthony Appleyard

Or there are percussion caps, which, sadly, don't protect people from blows to the head, but were formerly used as a means of making a gun fire.

I think I'll try to find something gentler, though...does anyone know where I can find a cow with a bell?

File:CH cow 1.jpg
photo by Daniel Schwen

Spot the Frippet: something percussive. This word comes from the Latin percutere, to hit.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Sunday Rest: waste. Word Not To Use Today.

A third of all British men aged 19 - 22 at the beginning of the First World War were dead by the end of it.

Think of that.

Think of the three young men who live nearest to you, and imagine one of them dead (you don't get to choose which one). Then do the same with the three young men of whom you're most fond; and the three young men whom you see when you're next out; and the three young men in your favourite TV drama.

(Of course it wasn't only the young men who died. My husband's grandfather had five young children, so he wasn't really young. But he died, all the same.)

After you've done all that, be grateful that it didn't happen to your generation. Be grateful that the First World War put an end (once and for all? Oh, I hope so) to the idea that there is anything, anything at all, sweet or noble about war.

Because that's the only thing that's going to stop the whole mess being an obscene, colossal, waste.

Word Not To Use Today: waste. The word comes from the Anglo-French waster, from the Latin vastāre, to lay waste, from vastus, empty.

The Armistice signalling the end of the First World War happened exactly a hundred years ago today.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Saturday Rave: Smoke is the Food of Lovers by Jacob Cats

Jacob Cats was born in 1577 in the Netherlands. He started work as a lawyer, fell in love, lost his love when he got desperately ill with malaria, was cured after several years by the powder of a mysterious doctor from no one-knows-where, retired to make a famous garden and write poetry, got sent abroad as an ambassador once or twice, and then retired once more to cultivate his garden. He died in 1660 and was much-loved for centuries in his own country as Father Cats.

Jacob Cats is best known for writing emblem books, which were popular in Europe at the time. An emblem consisted of an illustration, a poem or motto, and then an explanation of what it was all about.

Here's a poem of Jacob Cats' which, luckily, requires no explanation. It's been translated by a master hand, but sadly I haven't been able to discover whose.

When Cupid open'd shop, the trade he chose
Was just the very one you might suppose.
Love keep a shop? - his trade, oh! quickly name!
A dealer in tobacco - fie, for shame!
No less than true, and set aside all joke,
From oldest time he ever dealt in smoke;
Than smoke, no other thing he sold or made;
Smoke all the substance of his stock in trade;
His capital all smoke, smoke all his store,
'Twas nothing else, but lovers ask no more -
And thousands enter daily at his door!
Hence was it ever, and it e'er shall be
The trade most suited to his faculty:
Fed by the vapours of their heart's desire,
No other food his votaries require;
For that they seek - the favour of the fair  
Is unsubstantial as the smoke and air.


Love, like smoke?

Well, I suppose you can die from both of them.

Word To Use Today: smoke. The Old English for this word was smoca. The Middle Dutch smieken means to emit smoke.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Word To Use Today: alimony.

My first husband has successfully avoided paying me a penny of alimony in decades. 

But then we're still married, so I suppose I'll have to live with it.

Anyway, two questions: first of all, what's an ali, and, second, is the ending of alimony the same basic word as money?

Yes, I realise that life would probably be simpler if I didn't care, but hey...

Word To Use Today: alimony. This word proved to be a bit of a let-down, quite honestly, coming as it does from the Latin alimōnia, sustenance, from alere, to nourish. 

Still, that does give it a pleasingly unexpected and mind-boggling connection with the alimentary canal.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Authentic Italian: a rant.

For me, a home-made vegetable stock isn't as important as a bedtime story - but I know that's the sort of opinion that attracts hate-mail.

Nevertheless, when Angela Hartnett, the great Angela Hartnett, offers to teach me how to make the perfect risotto then I'm keen to know what she has to say. I want my risotto to be authentic, but I don't really know what authentic is. Should a risotto consist of a heap of chewy separate grains? Or be something more nearly resembling a poultice? Should the rice be creamy or al dente (you can't have al dente cream, can you, so it's hard to see how it can be both, although both are regularly called for simultaneously in recipes).

But Angela will know, bless her. What should I have been doing all these years?

I tend to stir continuously, but not constantly, says Angela.

Continuously but not constantly...

...ah well. I can always say this is an authentic risotto of the da nessuna parte* region of Italy as I serve it up, can't I. No one can argue with that.

Word To Use Today: risotto. Riso is the Italian for rice.

*Da nessuna parte is the Italian for nowhere.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Nuts and Bolts: closet drama.

So, what's a play for, then?

To entertain? Or to terrify? To harrow, or educate, or persuade?

All these answers, obviously, involve some communication with the audience - but what if a play is deliberately designed not to have an audience?

This is the idea behind closet drama, which is a play designed to be read, either in isolation or with a small group.

And what's the point of that? 

Well, the writer may wish to avoid imprisonment for treason, blasphemy or obscenity; or the writer may not happen to have a theatre handy to put on his or her play. It might be that the writer is of too low status to attract an audience (she may be a woman, perhaps); or perhaps the writer wants to write a play that simply isn't stageable.

Closet dramas were written in England from Elizabethan times onwards, and came into their own during the Puritan Commonwealth when all theatres were closed. 

But they persisted even after the return of the monarchy. In the early 1800s, when theatrical fashion turned against serious verse drama and towards sensation and melodrama, anyone wanting to write a literary play was more or less obliged to make it a closet drama. Goethe, Shelley and Pushkin all wrote in the closet drama form.

Nowadays some of the needs of closet drama are met by producing performances on the radio.

Sadly, though, even radio can't do anything to solve the ongoing and still serious problem of censorship. 

Word To Use Today: closet. This word comes from the Old French clos, which means enclosure.

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Thing To Be Today, Probably: woke.

Are you woke? Do you want to be woke

Er...what is woke, exactly?

Woke is too new a word for anyone to be completely certain of its meaning, especially as it still seems to be expanding and finding new places to exert its influence. It started off meaning awakened: in African American Vernacular English I was woke has long meant I was awake, or I was awakened

From about ten years ago, perhaps as a result of its use in music, woke began to mean I became aware [of some issue]; and then, expanding still further, I became aware that everything out there is a lot more complicated than I thought.

Nowadays I was woke has reached the point where it means I became aware that everything was so complicated that the only way to survive was to go along with the currently fashionable viewpoint on Life the Universe and Everything.

And, really, when you think about it that way, I was woke is an extremely efficient way of putting it.

Nowadays, as well as being woke personally, you can have, for instance, woke fancy dress parties, where everyone is so sensitive about causing offence that they more or less have to go dressed as themselves. There are probably woke restaurants and woke weddings, too.

I would comment that we're all walking on eggshells. But I'm afraid that might be seen as lacking in respect to the poor chicks.

Thing To Be Today Probably: woke. The trouble is, if I am myself woke then I probably shouldn't be using the word woke because that might be seen as cultural appropriation. 

Ah well! 

The Old English form of this word was wacian.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Spot the Frippet: candle.

Today is Guy Fawkes night, our annual English celebration of the defeat of a terrorist plot to blow up our Houses of Parliament.

We traditionally celebrate with fireworks, and this means that the candle we're most likely to spot today is a Roman candle:

File:Roman candle structure drawing-en.svg

image by Petteri Aimonen

but, considering that we've moved on a long way from basic candle technology and now have homes full of halogen bulbs and LEDs, there are still a lot of candles about.

Many of them seem to be amazingly expensive and designed to give out a treacly, migraine-inducing pong. It's amazing what people will spend their money on, quite frankly.

There are candleberry and candlenut bushes, even something called a candlefish:

File:FMIB 50933 "Black Cod" Black "Candle-Fish" or Beshow.jpeg
image of a Black Candlefish by George Brown Goode from the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank 

 They're none of them going to be easy to spot, but you might see one of those candlewick bedspreads: you know, one that's been disfigured by having long lines of tufts applied all over it, like the course of a craft-crazy worm.

Then there's candlepower. Yes, any sort of light can be measured in international candles (though nowadays it's more usually measured in candelas).

Or, if you go bowling, then a skittle is also named a candlepinBy whom, though, I have not the faintest idea.

Spot the Frippet: candle. This word comes from the Old English candel, from the Latin candēre which means to be white or to glitter.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Sunday Rest: bloviate. Word Not To Use Today

The word bloviate - well, it's obviously either something to do with burping, or it's being sent to oblivion by the James Bond villain Blofeld, isn't it?


Well, it sounds like it!

Sunday Rest: bloviate. This word is almost to do with burping, because it probably comes from the word blow. It means to talk lengthily, especially without having anything worth saying. It first appeared in the mid 1800s.

In the USA the word is associated with US President Warren G Harding (quite often reckoned the worst president ever, even though there is, very obviously, considerable competition) who used the word bloviate to describe spending time doing nothing very much. Sadly one of thing he did do a lot was to go on and on and on about nothing very much, so his special meaning soon switched back to the generally accepted one.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Saturday Rave: Pharsalia by Lucan.

If you'd mentioned the name Lucan to me until recently then my first thought would have been of Lord Lucan, the man who vanished in London in 1974 leaving behind the murdered nanny of his children.

But the other Lucan is extraordinary. 

We have, sadly, lost most of the works of Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, usually known as Lucan, but at first glance he looks to have been an extremely romantic figure, having died most satisfactorily at the age of twenty five.

Then you read more, and things become muddier.

We have three, partly contradictory, accounts of Lucan's short life, but his story seems to have gone something like this. He was born to a wealthy and famous Roman family, and carefully educated in Rome and Greece. When he was grown up he became a friend of the Emperor Nero (not, clearly, a sensible move) but then, after having received several favours and appointments from the emperor, Lucan fell out with him (not at all a sensible move) and began (it is said) writing rude verses about his old friend. As if this wasn't foolish enough, Lucan then joined a plot intended to bring the emperor down. Lucan was forced to commit suicide when it was found out (though not before dobbing in his mum as a conspirator in the hope of being pardoned). Lucan apparently died reciting his own verse.

But still, his poem Pharsalia (the only one that survives that we're sure is his) is fabulous. 

Here's a bit from near the end (it's very long, though even so the poem may not be finished). It's about Caesar's meeting with Cleopatra. The whole poem has been recently and marvellously translated by AS Kline, and can be found HERE.

There, kings, and Caesar, greater than they, were
seated. There too was Cleopatra, not content with
a crown of her own, or her brother for a husband,
her baleful beauty inordinately painted, covered
with Red Sea pearls, a fortune in her hair and
around her neck, weighed down with jewellery.
Her snowy breasts gleamed through the Sidonian
stuff, thread wound tight on the Seres' shuttles,
that Egyptian needleworkers loosen and extend
drawing out the silk. 


I think the technical term is probably phwoar!

But oh, that poor silly genius of a Lucan!

Word To Use Today: caesar. This is the family name of Julius Caesar. Tsar and Kaiser are basically the same word.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Word To Use With Care Today: wowser.

To me, wowser is a longer form of the word wow, that is, it's something to say to indicate surprise and joyful satisfaction.

I've just discovered, however, that in New Zealand a wowser is a person of very strict puritanical tendencies, and quite possibly a teetotaller.

Still, I suppose the chances of confusion are relatively slight. I mean, few people express much joyful satisfaction when they see one of those.

illustration by Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye

Word To Use Today: wowser. This word was invented in the 1900s and comes from the English dialect word wow meaning to whine or complain.

Thursday, 1 November 2018

A Secret Scandal: a rant.

The idea of a secret scandal is, of course, nuts (if it's secret then there's, obviously, no scandal) but that's more or less what we're having in Britain at the moment.

A prominent businessman has been accused of the sexual harassment and bullying of employees, but, as he has obtained a court order preventing his name from being reported in the press, nobody knows who he is...or, at least, no one would if someone hadn't announced his name in the House of Lords (you can't sue someone for saying that sort of thing in Parliament).

One factor in this man's success at obtaining his court order is that the accusing employees have received money from him in return for a promise not to tell anyone about the alleged harassment and bullying.

I don't know what this man is said to have done, but on BBC Radio 4 the other day a newsreader twice spoke of a nun-disclosure agreement.

The mind, frankly, boggles.

Word To Pronounce Correctly Today: non. Perhaps this word is pronounced nun in some places in the world (the newsreader in question comes from Jamaica). The word non comes from the Latin nōn, which my Latin teacher would have pronounced nohn, to rhyme with bone, but which most people would rhyme with gone

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Nuts and Bolts: How Not To Sell Your House.

England is full of pretty villages, and the pretty villages are full of Rose Cottages and Meadowsweet Farms and Honeysuckle Houses.

But I, a dweller of bland suburbia, have always had a hankering to name my own bog-standard house Ghormenghast, after the dark and terrifying pile in Mervyn Peake's trilogy. It would be a lovely joke. 

So why haven't I done it?

Because no one is going to buy a house called Ghormenghast, that's why.

Though, I don't one in these modern times believes in all that haunted house/superstition nonsense, do they?

File:House Cemetery Haunted House-2187170.jpg

Well, the answer to that question is that yes, they must do, because the English online estate agent House Simple has done a survey that's showed that sales of houses in Bone Lane, for instance, are slow to non-existent. No one much wants to live in Bloodhills, either. Or in Broomstick Lane (that one is quite near me, in Tring, Hertfordshire).

And as for Cauldron Crescent and Cackle Street, well, they do little better than Dead Lane and Coffin Close.

But why wouldn't anyone want to live in Deadmans Lane or Spook Hill? Or Headless Close or Vampire Street? Why isn't Hell Lane any more popular than Warlock Close?

I can only think that people regard whole thing rather like other superstitions such as touching wood or not walking under ladders: that is, that you don't have to believe in it for it to be true.

Watch out! It's behind you!

File:Image of a ghost, produced by double exposure in 1899.jpg
1899 image, The UK National Archives

Word To Use Today: spook. This word comes from Dutch, and before that from the Middle Low German spōk, ghost.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Thing Not To Do Today: mangle something.

You can mangle your fingers in a mangle:


 if you can find one still in use.

Mangles were for wringing the water out of clothes. You fed the dripping sheets or whatever between the rollers as you turned the handle, and tried, usually unsuccessfully, to keep your fingers clear. 

Our mangle stood under a bit of corrugated roof by the shed. It was a run-down thing, that mangle, its rubber rollers cracking and its paint dull, but it still retained its enthusiastically vicious temperament. It snatched at fingers at all opportunities. I wouldn't have been half so good on the piano if it hadn't been for the grabbing and stretching tendencies of that wretched machine.

So I'm glad mangles have gone out of our lives, though I expect it won't be long the greenest of us will be seizing with earnest delight upon this zero-carbon method of wringing out our clothes, and soon we'll be guilt-tripped into mangling away once more.

But even though we're currently part of a mangle-free generation, there are still mangling opportunities to avoid. That beautifully-presented pudding, for instance: do please start eating neatly at the edge instead of mashing the whole thing into a brown stew-like mess. Do not use the sledgehammer when assembling the flat-pack: try re-reading the instructions instead. Watch out for low bollards in the car park: they are specially designed to be just slightly out-of-sight of anyone in the driving seat of a car.

And if you're a surgeon...

...but no. 

That doesn't even bear thinking about.

Thing Not To Do Today: mangle something. There are two different words, here. Mangle, as in squeezing the water out of washing, comes from the Dutch mangel, from the Latin manganum, which is a war-engine device for throwing stones or fire (I told you they were vicious). 

Mangle meaning to mutilate comes from the Norman French mangler, probably from the Old French mahaignier, to maim.

Monday, 29 October 2018

Spot the Frippet: tartan.

Tartan comes from Scotland, right?


Just to be clear, nowadays tartan is a pattern, originally a fabric design, where lines of different colours meet each other at right angles. The pattern of weaving means there's often a diagonal element to the thicker stripes.

tartan montage by User:Celtus

In the USA and elsewhere, tartan is often called plaid, but in Scotland a plaid is basically a blanket. The man here:

is wearing a tartan plaid over his shoulder.

The first tartan patterns were probably made in what is now Austria in the 6th century BC, but tartan is now most strongly associated with Scotland.

The story of tartan is the story of war, technology and fashion. To begin with, a particular tartan pattern would be associated with a district, and not with a particular name or family: the colour of the tartan was simply the colour of the obtainable locally-sourced dyes.

In 1746, as a result of a rebellion by tartan-wearing Scots, the wearing of tartan was outlawed for a couple of generations, and when it was allowed again it was no longer viewed as ordinary Highland dress but as a symbol of nationality.

Soon a combination of bright synthetic dyes and a desire for both romance and order (the Victorians loved classifying things) gave rise to the idea of family tartans. There are now thousands of them, often available in modern, weathered, ancient and muted versions, depending upon how bright you like your tartan (as I've already said, modern dyes are much brighter than ancient ones).

Some tartans are known the world over, like this Burberry one:

and that particular one is actually legally copyrighted. But very nearly all other tartans are free for anyone to wear.

You might spot a tartan on a school uniform, a soldier's uniform, a bow tie, a pencil, a mug, a carpet, a scarf, or the lining of a coat.

Extra points if you know what that particular tartan is called.

File:Black Watch or Campbell tartan.svg
Black Watch tartan, photo by Wgabrie

File:Royal Stewart tartan.png
Royal Stewart tartan. Photo by MyNikki

Spot the Frippet: tartan. This word might come from the Old French tartaine, from the Old Spanish tiritar, to rustle (tartan is usually made of wool, now, but then it was silk). On the other hand there's a French word tartarin which means Tartar cloth, and a Gaelic word tarsainn which means across(Mind you, the earliest Scottish cloths called tartans sometimes had no pattern to them at all.)

A tartan is also  sort of old sailing boat. This word is thought to come from the Provençal tartana, falcon, because boats were often called after birds.

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Sunday Rest: hetman.

The trouble with the word hetman is that everyone will assume it's a misprint for hitman.

In fact, a hetman is the leader of a group of Russian military types...


...actually, it's not really going to matter all that much, is it?

Sunday Rest: hetman. This word is Polish, and comes from the German Hauptmann, head man. 

The original hetmans were elected leaders who led a democratic Cossack State. 

Cossack Mamay. Illustration by Fedir Stovbunenko

I'm sure they were all absolute masters of charm and urbanity.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Saturday Rave: Psalm 150, versified by Mary Sidney.

The Countess of Pembroke doesn't sound the sort of person it's easy to care much about; but how about clever Mary Sidney? 

Doesn't she sound more interesting?

Mary Sidney was Philip Sidney's sister, and, like him, a poet. She was also a great supporter of writers, letting them stay in her house and encouraging them in all possible ways. She even had various theatre companies to visit (including Shakespeare's) when there was plague in London.

Her most extensive work consisted of completing her brother Philip's verse version of the Psalms. Philip had got as far as Psalm 43 when he died on a military campaign in the Netherlands. There are 171 poems in total (psalm 119 was sensibly split up into twenty two chunks).

The fact that John Donne was an admirer of the Psalms must be some indication of their quality (although admittedly Donne was sometimes very much in need of financial support). In any case we have the psalms available so we can judge for ourselves. They're written in a huge variety of verse forms, surely at least partly designed to show off Mary Sidney's technical ability. Here is a happy one, and the very last.

This one is a sonnet.

See if you think it looks exhausted after all that effort.

Oh, laud the Lord, the God of hosts commend,
Exalt his pow'r, advance his holiness:
With all your might lift his almightiness;
Your greatest praise upon his greatness spend.

Make trumpet's noise in shrillest notes ascend;
May lute and lyre his loved fame express;
Him let the pipe, him let the tabret bless,
Him organ's breath, that winds or waters lend.

 Let ringing timbrels so his honour sound,
Let sounding cymbals so his glory ring,
That in their tunes such melody be found
As fits the pomp of most triumphant king.

Conclude: by all that air or life enfold,
Let high Jehovah highly be extolled.  


Word to Use Today: laud. This word comes from the Latin laus, which means praise.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Word To Use Today: chino.

I wish that chino meant, as it should, half a pair of chinos. But sadly it doesn't.

The word came to my attention as the result of a list in the Telegraph newspaper of Twenty Five Items Of Clothing Every Man Needs In His Life (yes, I'll read anything). 

One item read as follows:

When jeans won't cut it and a suit just feels a little too much, a good pair of chinos still covers you in that middle ground, as it has for decades.

File:Chino pants.jpg
photo by Kuha455405

It's always been my opinion that the chief function of jeans, suits and chinos is to cover you in that middle ground. 

But anyway, that word chinos...

My nearest dictionary says origin obscure, but Google (Google itself) is confident that the word comes from the South American Spanish word for toasted, because of the colour of the cloth.

Does anyone out there own a pair of chinos the colour of toast?

Wikipedia, on the other hand, speaks of a cotton twill chino cloth developed in the mid 1800s for British military uniforms. The Americans military started wearing trousers made of the stuff when they were in the Philippines during the Spanish-American war, and because this cloth was made in China the garments were called pantalones chinos (Chinese trousers) or chinos for short (or, indeed, shorts).

So who is right? 

Well, the obvious problem with the toasted theory is that chinos were first made in the colour called khaki, and that nothing you toast goes khaki (khaki comes from the Urdu khāk, which means dust). 

Further research has come up with a young British soldier called Harry Lumsden:

Harry Lumsden - Project Gutenberg eText 16808.jpg

He was soldier in India and in 1848, with his subaltern, William Hodson, he came up with the idea of making uniforms khaki-coloured (khaki because dust was involved in the manufacture of the dye) because the traditional white military trousers were both impractical and dangerously visible. So the cloth was made in India to start with, and the trousers were called khakis.

Chinos made in every colour, now, so they really did need a new name. And chinos meaning made in China makes sense to me.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

The Lure of the Foreign: a rant.

One of the two best-selling colours made by the British firm Edward Bulmer Natural Paints is celadon.

Celadon is not only a beautiful word, but it is the colour of a glaze used in oriental pottery:

Korean pot, photo by de Calais

Celadon was highly fashionable in China for a while, being the colour of precious jade, but then the blue-and-white painted stuff came along and then everyone moved on. But that's fashion for you.

Still, having your walls painted in celadon would show you to be a person of culture and refinement, wouldn't it. I can see why you'd choose it.

The other best-selling Edward Bulmer paint colour also has a name with a foreign origin. It is Cuisse de Nymphe Emue and it's a sort of sludgy pink.

Cuisse de Nymphe Emue translates as thigh of an aroused nymph

And what sort of a reputation that gets you I do not know.

Word To Use Today:'d better be celadon, I think. Although celadon glaze was originally Chinese the word is actually European, and no one is sure quite where it came from. Honoré d'Urfé's romance L'Astrée (based on Ovid's Metamorphoses) involved a shepherd called Celadon who wore pale green ribbons*. Or celadon might be a form of the name of the Sultan Saladin, who was known to send celadon ware as presents. Or it might be from the Sanskrit sila dhara, which means green stone.

*Though in Ovid, Celadon is actually two guys who get killed in fights.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Xavante

The language of the Xavante people is much cherished in its homeland, the Eastern Matto Grosso of Brazil.

It's one of only two known languages in the world which arrange their sentences in the order Object-Subject-Verb (basically, you start a sentence by naming the thing that's had something done to it, then you name the person or thing that's done the action, then you say what the action was. Sausages man ate, that sort of thing).

The other very distinctive thing about Xavante is that its grammar specifies very exactly the person to whom you are speaking. It's common for languages have this feature to some extent, of course, but Xavante even has special forms for speaking to your grandparents or, sweetly, to your fiancé(e).

Not many people speak Xavante - fewer than ten thousand - but those people are proud of and love their language, and teach it to their children. Seven thousand of the Xavante people speak only Xavante, which is a good thing for the language, though I'm not certain if it's such a good thing for the people.

Still, if they're keeping such a treasure alive then I, for one, am very very grateful. 

Word To Use Today: one in Xavante. The number one in Xavante is misi, two is maparane, and three is si'ubdatō.

If you want more, then HERE is the Lord's Prayer in Xavante. Our Father is, irresistibly, Wamama.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: glaikit.

(You say this word GLAY-kit.)

Here's a lovely Scottish word (though it's been used in Ulster and the North of England, too).

I can't pretend there aren't alternative words for glaikit, but there are so many occasions for its use that one more can only be a good thing. 

You can say it with such energetic contempt, too.

Glaikit means stupid, foolish, witless, or thoughtless.

It might prove useful to have such a word that no one's near you is going to understand.

Or it might have its uses when coming across dangerous driving in the car. 

Especially if the children are listening.

Thing Not To Be Today: glaikit. The Scots word glaiks means pranks, and that word probably came from the Middle English gleek, a jest or trick.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Spot the Frippet: mandarin.

The easiest mandarins to spot are fruit:

Citrus reticulata April 2013 Nordbaden.JPG
photo by 4028mdk09

but there are also more mysterious mandarins among us. These may be civil servants so shiningly powerful, so polished and wily, that they are quite beyond the power of politicians to grasp or control.

That sort of mandarin has long existed in China, except that a Chinese mandarin would have attained his position by means of examination rather than by family background and bland cunning.

The word mandarin has now been extended to include other people of such great influence (and often wealth) as to be immovable. This sort of a mandarin might perhaps be someone irresistibly influential in the realm of the Arts.

Then there are mandarin collars:


And mandarin ducks (native to China, but kept all over the world for their astonishing splendour):

File:Mandarin Ducks.jpg
photo by Keven Law

and of course there's Mandarin the language, spoken by two thirds of the vast population of China.

Here's a traditional Mandarin song, Peng You. It doesn't sound very traditional to me - or very like Mandarin - but I'll trust there's something authentic in there somewhere.

Spot the frippet: mandarin. This word arrived in English from the Portuguese mandarim, via the Malay menteri, from the Sanskrit mantrin consellor, from mantra, counsel. So it's not Chinese after all.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Sunday Rest: womxn. Word Not To Use Today.

Even those who feel passionately that having the word man inside the word woman is demeaning (and who also know that, according to the people who made it up, womyn doesn't include women who started off as men) then they're still not going to be saying the word womxn today, are they.

And why is that?

Because, as far as I can discover, no one has the faintest idea how to pronounce it.*

Sunday Rest: womxn. This word was made up to include transsexuals (though the inclusion of the letter Y, as in womyn, would have done this better than an X, given the genetics of the thing. Womyn, however, is apparently already bagged by the XX-only brigade.)

The word woman is late Old English and started off as wiman, plural wimmen (which pronunciation we've kept). Before that a female adult human was called a wif or a quean. Wiman was a changed version of wifman, which meant woman-man, man standing for all human beings, as it often still does.

*Wuhmix'n sounds insultingly like vixen: but then perhaps we should be reclaiming vixen as a term of dignified respect...

...although on the whole joining an order of Trappists might be easiest.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Saturday Rave: L'Oreste by Giovanni Rucellai.

L'Oreste is one of the first Italian classical tragedies to be written in blank (ie non-rhyming) verse, and the very first to be written in hendecasyllables (that just means that each line has eleven syllables. Yes, that is an odd number. Literally.). 

L'Oreste is based on the Aeschylus's trilogy of plays the Oresteia (Orestes was the son of Agamemnon).

I can't find an on-line translated version of L'Oreste, but there are a few quotations. The play was written before 1516 but, sadly, despite the half millennium that has been available for their message to sink in, many people are still too dim to have taken them on board.

Quest' oltraggio è fatto ai Dei,
I quai, se non han cura di se stessi,
Non vi curate si vendicarli.

This is an insult offered to the Gods,
And if the Gods themselves make light of it
It is not in your hands that vengeance lies.

Oh, but I wish they would.

Word To Use Today: vengeance. This word comes from Old French, from the Latin vindicāre, to punish.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Word To Use Today: widget.

We all have gadgets - heaven knows we all have gadgets! - and a widget is a gadget's small brother.

They're useful things, widgets. Sometimes they're useful things whose name you've forgotten (can you pass me the widget?) and sometimes they're useful things which don't really have a name, like those credit-sized metal things with the holes punched out of them that are supposed to be able to perform the function of at least fifty-six different tools, or the thing on penknives for getting stones out of horses' hooves.

At some point someone has actually invented something - it's a device that adds nitrogen gas to beer when its can is opened to give it a head - but has been so stymied by the task of thinking up a name for it that it is now known, officially, as a widget.

Various computer bits and pieces are known as widgets, too. As is, peculiarly, an airliner.

As you can see, widget is a small but very useful sort of a word.

A widget of a word, in fact, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: widget. This word was invented in the 1900s. It's an altered form of gadget. Gadget entered the English language in the 1800s, perhaps from the French gâchette, a trigger, from gâche, a staple. 

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Picking up germs: a rant

This is from a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph newspaper:

SIR - The worst place to pick up harmful germs...must be the supermarket trolley. The handles are often sticky, which must attract millions of microbes.

I try to take a wet wipe to clean the handle before use, but the problem then is safe disposal of the wipe.


It just makes you wonder what the writer does when he's in the best place to pick up harmful germs, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: worst. This word comes from the Old English wierrest.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Nuts and Bolts: doggish.

A universal language would be useful, wouldn't it? Various languages at various times have come some way towards performing this function. Currently it happens to be the turn of English to be very widely used. 

But there's at least one language that really is universal all over the world - and the only problem is that it's spoken by dogs. 

Yes, a Turkish dog will understand a Latvian dog, who will understand a Brazilian dog, who will understand an Indian dog.

Back off! Hello-hello-hello! I'm completely harmless.

But our human languages aren't so versatile. English dogs, for instance, say woof-woof! or sometimes bow-wow (or so English people say) but although these beliefs do have some wider support among other languages they're not in complete agreement. Welsh people's dogs, for example, go wff wff, French ones wouf wouf, and Afrikaans ones woef-woef. The bow-wow sound is recognised even more widely, from India (bow-bow), Hungary (vow-vow), Lebanon (how-how), China (wow-wow) to Malaysia (ow-ow).

On the other hand in Israel dogs say hav-hav, in Albania ham-ham (which is understandable), in Burma woke-woke, and in Indonesia guk-guk.

But the dogs? They understand it all

Even, mysteriously, when the message is sprayed on a lamp-post.

Thing To Do Today: try to hear a dog say guk-guk, perhaps.

A really thorough and excellent article on this topic has been written by Stanley Coren and can be found HERE.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: virescent.

The Word Den has visitors from all over the world, and recently this has included large numbers from somewhere called Unknown Territory. This is thrilling, because, well, surely everywhere is known to the Great God of the Internet.

I can only think that Unknown Territory is somewhere under the sea (or on it: a cruise liner?) or some sort of a secret hideaway (Tracy Island? Could it be real?) or just possibly on Mars.

If the last is in fact the case then please, Martians, don't be offended by the title of this post. I have nothing against the naturally virescent (that is, things which are, or are becoming, green). Really. Trees in the spring: fine. Parrots: fine. Bank notes: fine. 

It's just not very healthy for humans.

Chinese girl tretchikoff.jpg
The Green Lady by Vladimir Tretchikoff (though on my screen she actually looks bright blue)

You see, a virescent human will be either seasick or envious or inexperienced or gullible.

They say that poison is green, too: but I think that was just a rumour put about by someone who didn't like broccoli.

Thing Not To Be Today: virescent. This word comes from the Latin virēre, to be green.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Spot the Frippet: ladder.

Ladders can be spotted in libraries:

File:Library of the Catholic Seminar in Budapest, former monastery of the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit 03.JPG
Library of the Catholic Seminar in Budapest. Photo by JezW

 in (mainly British) knitwear and hosiery:

File:Stocking run.jpg
photo by Molly from Bronx

(in America they're called runs, but ladder is rather good, I think)

 They're used in building:

File:Steeplejack on a chimney in 1960 arp.jpg
photo by Adrian Pingstone of 1960s Bristol. (Look at that safety, there isn't, is there. Eek!)

and on tower blocks:

ไฟล์:NYC - Buildings with fire exit ladders - 0200.jpg
photo of New York fire escapes by Jorge Royan

There are also virtual ladders. If you want to get higher up a, well, a hierarchy, then you may find yourself on a social or professional ladder - and it may well feel even more precarious than a job as a steeplejack.

Mind you, you can climb some ladders without taking any risks at all...

...but watch out for snakes, do.

File:The ladder of life is full of splinters.jpg
photo by Mykl Roventine

Spot the Frippet: ladder. This word comes from the Old English hlǣdder. I wish we still had common English words that begin hl.