This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Uniform children: a rant.

At my local Sainsburys supermarket, (which sells clothes as well as such necessities of life as scented candles and Lego) there is an advertising hoarding featuring children wearing school uniform. 

It has the strap-line: 



But who on earth do they think is going to buy school uniform for any purpose other than for school?

Good grief. 

What you need is a slogan that's something like:






Hey... you think someone in advertising might give me a job?

It has to pay better than writing children's books.

Word To Use Today: uniform. This word is from the Latin ūniformis, which means one shape.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Minced Oaths.

Well, I don't know about you, but my day is brighter just for the knowledge that there are such things as minced oaths.

We all use them. If you've ever said gosh or darn or sugar! or fudge! then you were using a minced oath, which is a swear word that's been changed a bit to disguise it.

They're used exactly like normal oaths, and, apart from being less rude than the originals they also mean you're safe from being struck by lightning by an enraged deity, because anything you swear by will be almost certainly non-existent (by Jove!). 

Mind you, you have to be careful. Saying of course I'm telling the blooming truth may seem safe enough, but blooming is a substitute for bloody, which itself may be a stand-in for by-our-lady...and no one wants to upset a lady.

In England, an impetus to create minced oaths came about in 1606, when there was a ban on swearing on stage - and a further, even stronger impetus arrived in 1623, when there was a complete ban on swearing. This is why so many seventeenth century gentlemen went about saying things like Zounds! (short for God's wounds) or Gadzooks (God's hooks, which were the nails on the cross) or Odds bodikins (God's dear body).

So minced oaths have a purpose. 

But be careful. Be very careful. Blimey, for instance, is a disguised version of God blind me.

And no one wants that.

Nuts and Bolts: minced oaths. These are also sometimes called Rhadamanthine oaths, after Rhadamathus, who forbade his subjects to swear by anything but the ram, the goose, and the plane tree. 

Oh ram it! still works rather nicely.

Mince in all its senses is to do with the Latin minūtia, smallness.

Tuesday, 18 September 2018

Thing To Do Today: join a ginger group.

Groucho Marx famously didn't want to join any club that would have him as a member (which is one of the worrying things about the idea of heaven: I mean, some of those saints...).

But what if you want something done, and the only way to get it done is to join in with a group of other people?

Well, the thing to bear in mind is that most of the energy of any group goes into maintaining its own structure. This will keep the majority of its members perfectly absorbed and happy, so if you want anything actually, you know, achieved, then it will gradually become clear to you (unless you allow yourself, like most of your colleagues, to be diverted by Rules of Procedure and Any Other Business) that you will have to Do It Yourself.

Now the problem with Doing It Yourself is that the reason for joining the group in the first place is that you can't Do It Yourself: and so you will have to gather together a few friends who are similarly frustrated and form a ginger group to gee everyone up.

Everyone else will profess admiration and support for you. They may even put your cause (rather a long way down) on the minutes of the next meeting.

So your best bet really is that some idiot will change the Rules of Procedure and get you a shot at power. And then you'll find out whether what you want to achieve is a good thing.

Mind you, by that time, you'll probably have got institutionalised by all the rules yourself, and won't want to change anything.

Ah well!

Thing To Do Today: form a ginger group. Ginger is spicy enough to wake up even the blandest meal, and that seems to be the idea behind a ginger group. The word ginger comes from the Latin zinziberi, from the Greek zingiberis, probably from the Sanskrit śrńgaveram, from śrńga- horn, plus vera, body, from the shape of the root.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Spot the Frippet: weasel.

How do you tell a stoat from a weasel?

Well, a weasel is weaselly distinguished, and a stoat is stoatily different.

All right, all right, please yourselves...

This is a Least Weasel:

Mustela nivalis -British Wildlife Centre-4.jpg
photograph by Keven Law

but exactly what a weasel is depends upon where you are. In Britain a weasel is probably something called a weasel, but in America and in academia weasel can mean any member of the genus Mustela, which includes stoats and polecats and mink. 

Depending on how you define the word, there are about seventeen species of weasel, and they're found in nearly all of Eurasia and in the Americas about down to the Amazon River. They're all small, and would fit comfortably on your hand (except for the fact that they'd probably be trying to bite your thumb off). They're fierce predators, and those slim hips are especially designed to follow their prey down tunnels.

In Greece weasels also, it is said, prey on wedding dresses, an unhappy bride having once turned into a weasel and still apparently on the look-out for revenge.

Weasels aren't all bad luck - we're just past the lucky weasel-killing season in Mecklenburg, Germany (it ended on Sept 8th) so you won't be able to make a lucky weasel amulet from one, as in times past - but mostly weasels do seem to bring misfortune.

Still, seeing a Mustela weasel isn't easy (unless you're talking about a sly or treacherous person: they get everywhere) but weasel words are common. These are deliberately misleading or evasive, and spotting them is essential.

You may also spot a weaselling out, which is an avoiding of responsibility in a really inconvenient or despicable way.

If you're in America you might spot a truly useful weasel if you're in the far north, where it is a truck with caterpillar tracks designed for use on snow.

Spot the Frippet: a weasel. The Old English for this was weosule. Weasel words originate in the belief that a weasel could suck the contents out of an egg without piercing the shell.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Sunday Rest: zucchetto. Word Not To Use Today.

You'll probably have heard of zucchini, the small vegetable marrows that we in Britain usually call courgettes.

Well, as you'd expect, zucchetto is basically the same word as zucchini, and they both come from the Italian zucca, which means gourd.

So what does zuccetto mean?

I'll give you a clue. It's a badge of rank, and they come in black, violet, red and white, with white the highest.

(It means little gourd, remember.)

Got it, yet?


Well, it's the skull cap worm by an official in the Roman Catholic church (white for the pope, red for a cardinal, purple for a bishop, and black for a priest under that rank).

So, why not use the word zucchetto?

Well, how could anyone use it without sniggering once he or she knows the derivation?

Word Not To Use Today: zucchetto. This word comes from the Latin cucutia, which means gourd.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Maxims of Francois de la Rochefoucauld.

François de La Rochefoucauld was born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

Most unusually for a writer, it stayed there: so there was no filthy impoverished garret for the Duc de La Rochefoucaud (he was Prince de Marcillac, as well, for a while, but then, finding the title was cluttering up the place he gave it away to his son).

It's not that I'm bitter, or anything. As the Duke said in the book he called his Maximes The truest mark of having been born with great qualities is to have been born without envy.

And how did he know that? I mean, as he also said in the same book Self-love is the greatest of all flatterers.

Anyway, the Maximes aren't just a list of how to be good. Old François had a good line in viperish wit, too:

Old people love to give good advice; it compensates them for being unable to give a bad example. 


And sometimes he was genuinely wise:

Sincere enthusiasm is the only orator who always persuades. It is like an art the rules of which never fail; the simplest man with enthusiasm persuades better than the most eloquent with none.

...though admittedly only sometimes:

Flirtatiousness is fundamental to a woman's nature, but not all put it into practice because some are restrained by fear or by good sense.

...and there are times when he's frankly nuts:

Nothing is impossible; there are ways that lead to everything, and if we had sufficient will we should always have sufficient means. It is often merely an excuse that we say things are impossible.

...there speaks a man who's never tried to get a live eel into a jam jar.

Still, sometimes there's a small but glorious gem that shines a light through the nonsense and right out the other side:

Absence diminishes small loves and increases great ones, as the wind blows out the candle and fans the bonfire.

...and I'm happy to be grateful to the Duke for that.

Word To Use Today: maxim. This word comes from the French from the Latin phrase maxima propositio which means basic axiom.

Friday, 14 September 2018

Word To Use Today: wayzgoose.

You've heard of a hen night, but how about a wayzgoose?

It's a word from Lincolnshire, England, and it's an annual works outing made by a printing works. 

I accept that this is probably something to which you are seldom invited, but its meaning could easily be extended to cover any celebratory trip taken by workmates.

It might even encourage people to go further than the restaurant or the pub.

After all, how much more revealing of your colleagues' inner souls would it be to have a stroll across the downs, or a sail across the lake, or a stagger up the hill? How much better for the health and wealth of all participants.

How much more fun to see them clambering over styles, or dealing with picnic wasps. In unsuitable shoes. And a thunderstorm.

Mind you, once you know them properly it's quite possible you'll be too frightened ever to go back to the office. 

But at least it'd dissipate the boredom for a bit.

Word To Usr Today: wayzgoose. I think this might be the only word in the English language with the letter-string yzg in it. The word comes from the 1700s, when it was waygoose, but before that its origin is unknown. It started off as an Autumn meal given by an employer at the time when printers had to start working by candlelight, but later began to describe a works' outing. Traditionally a wayzgoose took place on August 24th, St Bartholomew's Day (he's the patron saint of bookbinders) but it can happen on any date around this time of the year.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Things Unknown: a rant.

I was given a questionnaire on the way out of the doctor's room*.

The doctor seemed to be a sensible enough woman, and she was a little sheepish about asking me to fill it in, but, hey, I'm happy to be helpful, and the first few questions weren't at all difficult. Age. Ethnicity. Do you suffer from these illnesses?

Then it got slightly more interesting. 

Was the doctor polite? Comprehensible? Thorough? Did she listen to me?

(The doctor's name was printed on the questionnaire, though my own input was anonymous.)

All fair enough. But then -

Please indicate how strongly you agree or disagree with the following statements, it said.

This doctor will keep information about me confidential

Well, as I said, the doctor seemed sensible enough. I mean, she didn't break off my consultation to make a phone call that started hey, there's this woman in the surgery and you'll never guess what!
but she could have been a host of a Radio Show called This Week's Hilarious Diseases for all I could see.

The next statement on the questionnaire was:

This doctor is trustworthy and honest

Again, she wasn't stroking a white cat, and she wasn't wearing a black pointy hat, an electronic tag, or a prison-issue tracksuit - but honest? Trustworthy? How could I possibly tell? 

I drew a circle round the questions, wrote I have no information on either of these points, and despaired slightly that anyone could go to the trouble of writing such questions, in words, on paper, and then print them out and distribute them to all the patients in the practice, and still not think it through.

Word To Use Today: trust. This word comes from the Old Norse traust. It is related to the Old HIgh German trost, which means solace.

*It was just a routine check-up, thank you.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Nuts and Bolts:genteelisms

What does one go when Nature calls? The toilet? Loo? Lavatory? WC? Bog? Restroom? (You'll get a good laugh in Britain if you try using that one.) The wheresit? The Little Boys' (shudder) Room? Or are you just going upstairs?

Of all these only bog definitely isn't a genteelism. Loo, in my present place and time, is as near neutral, I would say, as I can get. Toilet is an odd one, a word often trying hard to be a genteelism but oh-so-tragically failing.

Oh, the infinite shadows cast by wealth, family, and class!

Anyway, do you wear glasses? Or spectacles? Do you look in a mirror or a looking glass? 

These two are well known markers of class. If it's natural for you to say looking glass, is that a genteelism? Or is it only a genteelism if you say it deliberately to appear, well, genteel?

There are some genteelisms so bizarre as to be unmistakable. Male cow is ridiculous; so is calling the legs the lower limbs. People in the USA have many fewer cocks than we do in Britain, the replacements running from roosters to faucets, but those words, though they may have started off as genteelisms, are now perfectly normal and common (though not as common as muck). When did they stop being genteelisms, I wonder?

Do we - should we - say couch, pardon? and serviette? Or sofa, what? and napkin? Should we say Jack or Knave? Ill or sick? Sweet or pudding?

If you really are genteel, do you know something? 

You really won't care.

Word To Consider Today: genteelism. This word comes from the French gentil, which means well-born.

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: dreich.

I've never really known what dreich means, but then as someone living in the south of England I've only ever come across it in books, so it's never mattered that much.

I've always had a vague idea it means something like drily obstinate, probably because it sounds a bit like dry* and seems, from the occasional contexts in which I've come across it, to be something inconveniently egotistical.

I've probably been quite wrong (I'm going to look dreich up in a moment) but that's been my longstanding position on the word. 

I also assume it's Scottish.

The really appalling thing is that a good chunk of my vocabulary exists in the same shadowy valley of ignorance. (As, probably, does yours.) 

Still, that's possibly better than the sunlit uplands of confident ignorance. 

I think.

Anyway. Dreich. Hang on... 

Ah yes, Here we are. 


Well, it is Scots, and there is perhaps a subtle dryness to it, but obstinacy...not really. 

Dreich means dreary.

Still, dreariness is frustrating, just like obstinacy. 

Isn't it?

Thing Not To Be Today: dreich. (Or, apparently, dreigh). This word comes from the Middle English dreig, enduring, from some Old English word which looked something like drēog.

*Dreich doesn't actually sounds like dry at all: you say it dree- and then the sound you get at the end of loch. But then, as I've said, I've never heard anyone say it.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Spot the Frippet: gong.

Is gong the best onomatopoeic word in the English language? I can't think of a more pleasingly dramatic one.

Gongs are essentially Eastern in origin, and quite often to be spotted as part of the decorative scheme in Oriental restaurants.

Large houses also traditionally keep a small gong in the hall to summon the inhabitants to dinner.

It is a legal requirement for any ship over a hundred metres in length to carry a gong (as well as a bell and a whistle); the German radio time signal uses a gong; and so do boxing matches to signal the beginning and end of rounds (well, it's called a gong, anyway, even if it doesn't always sound much like one). 

Berlioz uses a gong when laying people to rest in his Requiem; and traditional alarm clocks use them to get people up.

File:Roman numerals on alarm clock (Unsplash).jpg
photo by Ales Krivek

In the 1500s in Britain we used to have gong farmers, who went around emptying cesspits (though I can't help wondering in this case if this was a misprint for pong).

In Britain medals, especially medals for bravery or as a mark of distinction, are called gongs. Perhaps you have one for swimming or spelling or attendance or dancing in a drawer somewhere.

I haven't, but there's always this:

Rank, who used this gong to introduce their films, made Brief Encounter, Black Narcissus, Great Expectations, and The Red Shoes, so it's worth looking out this particular gong if you feel in the mood for an old-fashioned thrill.

I mean, who doesn't?

Spot the Frippet: gong. This word came to English from Malay.

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Sunday Rest: canicule. Word Not To Use Today:

No, a canicule isn't a small receptacle for baked beans, it's something much bigger. And less beany.

Actually, if a canicule were a small receptacle for baked beans I wouldn't mind the word so much.

No, the canicules are the dog days, the hot days at the end of summer in the Northern hemisphere when the star Sirius is bright in the sky as it follows the path of the constellation Orion the hunter (like a dog, geddit?).

The canicules are associated with heat, as I said, but also originally with drought, thunderstorms, lethargy, disease, rabies and bad luck.

Nowadays the dog days are mostly just associated with lethargy.

I always thought the dog days were the days when it was so hot that all you wanted to do was flop down on the floor like a dog and pant quietly until dusk.

And they are. 

So dog days will do very well for me.

Sunday Rest: canicule. This word comes from the French, from the Latin canīcula, which means puppy.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Saturday Rave: Fulgens and Lucrece by Henry Medwell

Fulgens and Lucrece by Henry Medwell is the first non-religious play in English that survives.

It was performed before 1500, probably at Lambeth Palace in London in 1497. Cardinal Morton, whose house it was, had important guests (the Ambassadors of Spain and Flanders, no less) and the play was probably put on the amuse them.

Fulgens and Lucrece is based on a Latin work by Buonaccorso da Montemagno that had been translated by the Earl of Worcester and published by William Caxton in 1481. The play itself was printed in about 1512, but quite soon nearly all of it was lost until a copy turned up in an auction in 1919.

The plot concerns Lucrece's choosing of a husband. I tried to read it on-line and found something rather wonderful.

The introduction to the Henry E. Huntington edition is interesting, but it's the text of the play itself that I really wanted to read.

Here's the very end of the text:

3t tlje led pe toil! tatte it in pacience 

3nD pf fyetbe onp offence 

^boto b toljece in o? toe go fcence 


31 1 10 onelp far lacbe of conpnge 

3tiD not l?c /but lji0 toit runpnge 

3; s thereof to blame 

3nD glaDe tool&e &e be/auD rpgfjt fapne 

Cbatfomeman of ftabpUijjapne 

tool&e take on !jpm tlje la&out and papnc 

(C^ts tnater to a mcnDe 

3nD fo be topHpD me fo? to faj> 

3no t^at Done of all tljts plap 

The last line in particular fills me with awe: 

3no t^at Done of all tljts plap

Surely it must mean something extremely deep and marvellous.

If only I had the faintest idea what.

Word To Use Today: plap, I think. Whatever it means. Thackeray used it to mean to fall down with a light slapping sound, but he didn't use it until the middle of the 1800s. 

So what it meant to Henry Medwell - or the computer program that chewed up his work - I really can't imagine.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Word To Use Today: bonce.

Bonce is a playful sort of a word. It's British slang for the sort of head that isn't too obviously overburdened with dignity, beauty or brains.

Still, nothing too bad can happen to your bonce. You can bang it, but not fracture it; it can be stupid, but not diseased; it can inconveniently block out the view, but not terrify the children.

In fact, if we all shed our dignity a bit and accepted that we have bonces then the world would be a jollier place all round.

Word To Use Today: bonce. In the 1800s a bonce was a type of ball, often made of terracotta, used for playing jacks. 

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis (though that ball looks as it it's made of rubber, I'm afraid).

There's a theory is that bonce is a form of of the word bounce - though I wouldn't try bouncing anything made of terracotta, myself.

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Raindrops on roses: a rant.

Raindrops on roses
And whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things...

People get into a terrible state about how much the electronic imps of the internet spy on us. 

It's true that being bombarded with advertisements for hotels in the city of Brighton (Hipster Capital of the World, apparently) was disconcerting when all I'd done is type in a query about Graham Greene's anti-hero Pinkie; but on the other hand it's rather encouraging to reflect upon how much the sprites of the internet get wrong.

The other day the internet auction company ebay sent me an email. 

We found your favourite things, it said, and then tried to sell me an axe sharpener, a tape measure, a brick bolster (sorry, I've no idea what it does) a cordless drill, a spirit level, a camping cool box and a set of G clamps.

I have three observations: 

1)who on earth does ebay think I am?

 2) why does it think this?


3) how come Oscar Hammerstein managed to get so much closer?

But then I think we all know the answer to the last point.

There was considerable quantities of sanity, wisdom and genius involved.

Oscar Hammerstein - portrait.jpg

Word To Use Today: favourite. The Latin favēre means to protect.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

Nuts and Bolts: more calques.

A calque, as we saw last week, is a word inspired by one in another language. Instead of borrowing the word itself, though, it borrows only its meaning.

For example, many languages call a computer mouse by the local word for an animal mouse (in European Portuguese it's a rato, for instance). As it happens, the idea of calling a computer pointer after the long-tailed animal began in English.

What else has English given the world? Well, French, Catalan, Spanish, Portuguese and Romanian speakers all go on a honeymoon (lune de miel, lluna de miel, luna de miel, lua-de-mel, luna di miele and luna de miere, respectively).

Skyscrapers also get everywhere, from the French gratte-ciel to the Italian grattacielo, from Hindi gagan-chumb to the Hungarian felhőkarcoló.

Baloncasto? Pallacanestro? That's Spanish and Italian for basketball.

Of course the inspiration doesn't go all one way. The German Kindergarten, meaning preschool (literally children garden), for example, has versions in French, Spanish, and Portuguese (though not English: here in England we've borrowed the word as it stands (though without the capital letter): kindergarten).

But my very favourite calque of all is one that English has inspired: the Danish have borrowed our English foolproof, translated it literally, and it has become the completely wonderful idiotsikker.

I rather wish we'd borrow that one back just as it is.

Word To Use Today: calque. This word comes from the French calque meaning to copy (papier calque is tracing paper). 

Loanword, by the way, is a calque of the German Lehnwort.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Thing To Do Today: pamper yourself.

Henry Luttrell's idea of heaven, according to his friend Sydney Smith, was eating pâté de foie gras to the sound of trumpets.

It's not mine.

So: what's your idea of heaven? What situation would put you into the most complete possession of relaxed and contented bliss?

Would you like to be fanned by palm leaves? Massaged with scented oils? Or would you be happiest completely alone with your sofa, kitchen, or swimming pool?

What would you eat? Steamed broccoli? Chocolate? Venison? Champagne? Coca cola?

Will you be having a friendly chat with someone dear to you? Or be at a noisy party? Or would you like to be surrounded by the melancholy strains of a solo oboe? Or a soprano, a musical, a film, a sit com, an opera? Bach? Gershwin? Techno? Or a bit of peace and quiet to read a good book?

By Austen? Enid Blyton? Dan Brown?

And how about the view? Will it be Mount Everest? Manhattan? Madras? A wildflower meadow? The sea? Suburbia? Harrods? A cathedral? Wembley Stadium? The Rokeby Venus?

What scent will beguile you? Coffee? Fresh bread? Something by Chanel? Freshly laundered linen? A good clean pig? Wood smoke? Incense? Rain? Lilies?

Oh dear...

...I've got an horrible feeling that a lot of us have just discovered how shallow we are.


Thing To Do Today: pamper yourself. This word used to mean to feed to excess. It's a Germanic word originally. Pampfen is a German dialect word meaning to gorge oneself.

Monday, 3 September 2018

Spot the Frippet: something palmary.

Now, this is a personal sort of a thing, but as three examples of something palmary I'd come up with this:

Queen Elizabeth II in March 2015.jpg

and this:


and this:

File:LS Buddleja 'Buzz Lavender', plant.jpg
buddleja "Buzz" lavender. Photo by Ptelea

But whether or not you agree, every day spent trying to spot something palmary is a day happier than one not.

Spot the Frippet: something palmary. This word comes from the Latin palmārius, and is to do with the palm of victory. Palms were long believed to make a connection between heaven and earth, and so became the symbol of various gods, and also of the people who worshiped them. This led to Cimon of Athens making part of a monument to the Greek victory at the battle of Eurymedon in the shape of a palm tree (it also enabled him to make a pun, because the Greek for palm tree was phoinix and the defeated enemy were the Phoenicians).

Palm leaves were later given to the winners of races, a habit which spread round the ancient world.

Nowadays, something palmary is something deserving of praise.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Sunday Rest: palp. Word Not To Use Today.

A palp is a finger-like appendage which sprouts from near the mouth parts of a crustacean, arachnid, insect, mollusc, or worm.

File:6-BMOC 97-1010-002 Pyemotes male vent BF100.jpg
bee mite, illustration by Pavel Klimov.

File:10-Lasioseius female2 palps BF100 BMOC 87-0419-001.jpg
another of Pavel Klimov's delightful illustrations of a bee mite.

Here is another palp:

anatomy of a female spider. Illustration by Peter Coxhead.

A palp is designed for touching (can't you feel the soft, inescapable, clammy touch of the thing in the sound of the word? Because I can). 


 Palp can describe the fleshy part of a finger tip, too, but whichever way you cut it the word gives me the creeps. This post was palp-typed...

...excuse me. I think I'm just going to have an attack of the screaming abdabs...


Word Not To Use Today: palp. Palpus is Latin for feeler, and palpare means to stroke or touch softly. Errrgghhhh...

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Saturday Rave: sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare.

It's the first day of Autumn - or possibly Spring if you live in the South of the World - but here's an Autumn poem anyway.

The poem looks as if it's going to be a bit miserable, but this has been written by genius, and it has a twist at the end.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all the rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

Word To Use Today: choir. The bare ruined choirs of this poem aren't a group of elderly cracked-voiced nudists, but the area of a church in front of the altar where the choir and clergy sit. There would have been quite a lot of bare ruined choirs about in Shakespeare's day because so many of the monastery churches would have been abandoned or ransacked or recycled after Henry VIII threw out all the monks a couple of generations before.

The word comes from the Greek khoros.

By the way, Shakespeare never did get to the bare-ruined-choirs stage: he died, retired and wealthy, after a night out with some writer friends, at the age of fifty two.

Friday, 31 August 2018

Word To Use Today: tuxedo.

In Britain we call tuxedos (or tuxedoes) dinner jackets

If you are required to wear one to an event then the invitation will probably say black tie and not mention the jacket at all.

Yes, it is odd.

File:Black Tie-Regular LGE.jpg
Illustration by Loris Gerber Loris_85The frilly shirt is unusual round here nowadays. 

Mind you, if you are female and are invited to a black tie event then you will be expected to wear neither a black tie nor a dinner jacket, but something much less cosy and comfortable.

Something like this:

Jean-Paul Gaultier, 1997. Wikimedia commons

A funeral is conventionally a black tie event, in that it is conventional for men to wear black ties, but under no circumstances should anyone wear black tie. Black tie is reserved for celebrations and wearing one at a funeral would appear unkind, to say the least.

The difference between a dinner jacket and a tuxedo is mostly geography, but the other difference is that a dinner jacket is designed to allow a man to merge into the woodwork, and a tuxedo is designed to allow him to shine under a spotlight.

But that's largely down to geography, too.

Word To Use Today: tuxedo. This is the North American word for dinner jacket. A country club in Tuxedo Park, New York, gave this garment its name in the 1800s. The name of the garment is often shortened to tux.

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Speed Cameras: a rant.

I'm just back from a few days in the western part of the British county of Norfolk.

It's land that's been reclaimed from the sea: 

File:RSPB Strumpshaw Fen Norfolk Brick Hide view.jpg
photo by LittleHow

and it's famed for its huge skies, rich dark soil, drainage ditches, wildfowl, and boring straight roads which suddenly turn at right-angles.

This last largely accounts for its other reputation, which is for fatal traffic accidents.

The authorities could install speed cameras, of course, which are no doubt A Good And Necessary Thing, but the trouble is that speed cameras are resented with such bitterness that they are not only ignored, but it's not unknown for people to cover their lenses with ink.

But now, I see, some genius in western Norfolk has come up with a new and cunning wheeze.

There are no speed cameras any more. Instead there are safety cameras.

And how hard it is for a poor boy racer to resent them, now.*

Word To Use Today: safety. Safe comes from the Latin word salus, which has meant safety for a couple of thousand years.

*Girl racers, presumably, are similarly frustrated.

Wednesday, 29 August 2018

Nuts and Bolts: phraseological calques.

A calque is a word or phrase that's been inspired by one in another language.

It's not a straight borrowing, like, for instance, the word entrepreneur which English has borrowed from French (and when I say borrowed, obviously that doesn't mean that French speakers are no longer able to use it, or that we're going to give it back).

Calques come in various flavours and work in various ways. Phraseological calques are, yes, phrases inspired by those in other languages. Flea market, for instance, is a direct translation of the French marché aux puces.

The French were also there first with free verse (verse libre) and the Old Guard (Vieille Guarde).

The Romans were bound to be first in lots of things, for obvious reasons, and they inspired our Milky Way with their via lactea. In nuce has been turned into our in a nutshell.

A really good turn of phrase can go through a whole chain of languages. The Greek sōphronistēres inspired the Arabic adrāsu 'likmi, the Latin dēns sapientiae, and eventually our own wisdom teeth.

El momento de la verdad, the final thrust in a bullfight, gives us our moment of truth.

Meanwhile the French have been inspired by our own hard disk (disque dur). If we go to a French flea market, what we find there is based on our own phrase second hand (seconde main).

And, you know something? Over the course of all these centuries, I don't think that anyone faced with a phraseological calque has ever murmured cultural appropriation.

And thank all the gods for that.

Words To Use Today: well, how about second hand? The Latin secundus means coming next in order, from sequī, to follow. Hand hasn't changed as a word since Old English.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: noisome.

Noisome means offensively smelly. I've always assumed the word was something to do with noses, but as it happens it doesn't.

There are some things I do know, though, and one of those is that any moderately clean body wearing moderately clean clothes smells better than the industrial-strength deodorant/gels/perfumes presently designed for what I'm afraid I should now, in the currently fashionable usage, call the youth

It makes me wonder whether the production of these unguents is a deliberate or accidental ploy to get the poor boys spurned by all self-respecting girls.

It works rather well, in any case. 

Word To Use Today: noisome. This word is linked to the word annoy. 

Which is fair enough.

Monday, 27 August 2018

Spot the Frippet: something cuneate/cuneal.

(You say this KYOOnee-ayt, or KYOOnee-l.)

This is something cuneate:

File:Cake cropped.png
photo by David.Monniaux

and so are these leaves:

File:The birds of America - from drawings made in the United States and their territories (1840) (14562271208).jpg
painting by Audubon, lithograph by John T Bowen

and so is this:

File:Rubber door stop in action.jpg
photo by Strait 

Do you know what it means, yet?

Yes, that's right: something cuneate or cuneal is something wedge-shaped:

Related image

like the tail of this wedge-tailed eagle 

or these:

or, as this is a language blog, the marks on this fabulous tile:

File:Tablet with Cuneiform Inscription LACMA M.79.106.2 (1 of 4).jpg
cuneiform writing, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Sadly, knowing my luck, I'm most likely to spot the door stop.

Spot the Frippet: something cuneate or cuneal. These words come from the Latin cuneus, which means wedge.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Sunday Rest: dementia. Word Not To Use Today.

We aren't as good at dying as we used to be. When we find ourselves at the edge of the cliff we shuffle back painfully, grabbing fearfully at every briar.

Perhaps it's because increasing numbers of us are longer certain what we'll find at the bottom.

Shakespeare spoke of the end of life as a second childishness and mere oblivion, and, you know something? Oblivion seems not such a bad idea when we're travelling towards a cliff.

So I wish we spoke of heading towards oblivion rather than getting dementia. Dementia suggests being demented, and a person demented is not calm, or happy, but angry and confused and frightened. It's a violent, distressing thing, to be demented.

I hope my mind stays okay. But, if it doesn't, let me travel a gentle road towards oblivion.


Sunday Rest: dementia. This word comes from the Latin word dēmentāre, to drive mad. Mēns means mind.

Saturday, 25 August 2018

Saturday Rave: The Library of Leuven.

On 25th August 1914, German troops moving through Belgium towards France destroyed the library of the University of Leuven.

Three hundred thousand books and a thousand manuscripts were lost. Many of them were irreplaceable. The attack was seen as a direct assault on learning and culture, and caused worldwide outrage.

In 1915 an appeal was launched to rebuild and to restock, as far as possible, this great library.  

Now, Henry Guppy doesn't sound like the name of a hero, but it was he who organised the appeal from his place of work at the John Ryland library in Manchester. The first consignment of books from universities and libraries around the world was sent to Leuven in 1919. By 1925, 55,782 books had been collected. The foundation stone for a new building, which was largely funded by the American government, was laid in 1921.

I raise a hand of salute to Henry Guppy and to all those learned men and women who gave books to the University of Leuven, and to the international community of those seeking truth, for the search for truth is the ultimate function of all books.

And that is why they get attacked in the first place.

Word To Use Today: truth. The Old English form of this word was triewth.

The beautiful new library of the University of Leuven was destroyed by German troops during World War Two.

But HERE  you can see some better news.

Friday, 24 August 2018

Word To Use Today: nomarch.

A nomarch, my Collins dictionary tells me, is the head of an ancient Egyptian nome.

Ah well, I suppose it's rather healthy to come across a completely unhelpful definition from time to time. 

It makes it so hard to be prejudiced.

Word To Use Today: nomarch. (You say it NOmark.) A nome is an administrative area of ancient Egypt or recent Greece. I found this rather a disappointment because I was hoping the head of a nome would be something with an enormous nose and flapping ears.

Come to think about it, though, the faces of how many administrative leaders would you want decorating the wall of your living room? There were probably hundreds of nomarchs with enormous noses and flapping ears.

I feel a lot better, now.

(The Greek word nomos means region or pasture. -arch at the end of a word means ruler. (And it means more or less the same at the beginning of a word, too.))

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Keeping quiet: a rant.

Sometimes it's what people don't say.

I've been having a series of eye operations over the last year or so. It's been a bit of a nuisance but at the same time quite interesting and entertaining (I'm pretty-much okay, now, thank you).

After each operation a letter is sent from the surgeon to my doctor to say that the procedure has been carried out and (quite inaccurately because, as I said, it's been fascinating) declaring the operation to have been uneventful.

I've just realised that the letter after the last operation (I'm sent a copy) omits the word uneventful.

I suppose that's rather a cunning way of conveying to the doctor that things went wrong without actually saying so.

Though quite honestly I'm not sure that cunning is absolutely the most desirable quality for a health system to have.

Word To Use Today: cunning. The Old English cunnende is related to the Old English cunnan, to know.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

Nuts and Bolts: endangered poetry

It's a delightful fact that people visit The Word Den from all over the world. At the moment of writing the largest number of readers are in France, but last week it was Italy, and quite often it will be the USA or Russia or Ukraine.

Everyone is equally welcome, of course, whether they're from the largest country in the world (Russia) the most populous (China) or tiny places like the island of Réunion, or the even tinier island of Sint Maarten (which is, really, only half an island).

At the moment, thrillingly, somewhere called Unknown Territory is in the top ten, and I'm amazed there's anywhere in the world that can't be recognised by Blogger.

All this means that you're a wonderfully diverse lot, and the reason this is important is that there's an organisation in London called the Endangered Poetry Project which needs the help of people like you.

The inspiration for the project has come from the observation that many extinct languages only survive in fragments of songs or poems. As UNESCO believes that perhaps half the world's languages will be extinct by the end of this century (we're losing as many as one language every two weeks) Chris McCabe, the project's librarian, is convinced that recording and storing poems from endangered languages is a matter of great urgency.

The project has poems in Faroese, Kristang and Alsatian (do make up your own joke, here) and quite a few other languages, but it needs more. It needs every endangered language in the world.

So if you know a poem in an endangered language then the Endangered Poetry Project would love to hear from you. 

Please. It's urgent, so do forward a link to this post to anyone who might be able to help.

Instructions on sending poems can be found HERE.

Poem To Say Today: one in your own first language.

Here's an anonymous poem in mine:

World is vast and wide.
So much out there to explore.
Right now, let's eat lunch.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: shoddy.

Something shoddy is something made with poor quality materials.

It's the pair of trousers that splits the first time you wear them, or the hairdryer that gives you an electric shock every time you switch it on, or the chair that gives you a splinter.

Shoddy behaviour is slightly different. Shoddy behaviour is doing something deliberately ungenerous. It's letting people down. It's betraying a trust.

Shoddy behaviour is drinking someone else's drink, or not turning up to play in the match, or leaving the old lady lying on the pavement.

It's nothing criminal, just the sort of thing that displays the grubbiness of a soul.

And, obviously, compared to that, a wonky seam on a T shirt weighs as nothing.

Thing Not To Be Today: shoddy. The cloth called shoddy, which consisted of recycled wool mixed in with a bit of new stuff, was invented by Benjamin Law in Batley, West Yorkshire, England, in 1813. It was a very good thing, because it made clothes much cheaper, and created a market for worn-out fabric. 

The reason shoddy came to mean cheap and nasty is probably because in the American Civil War so many uniforms were needed so quickly that they were made with poor quality shoddy which sometimes fell to bits within days or even in heavy rain.

As to why the fabric was called shoddy in the first place, no one really knows. Shoad is scraps of mining ore and rock; or perhaps it's to do with the shed clothing from which the fabric is made.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Spot the Frippet: an object of virtu.

Objects of virtu (or vertu) aren't for me: for one thing I can't be bothered with all the dusting, and for another I enjoy wide open spaces, especially when it comes to window sills.

If I am a connoisseur, then I get much more pleasure from cheese and Monteverdi than eighteenth century shepherds and shepherdesses:

(Hideous, aren't they?)

But, hey, there's no accounting for taste, and people cherish all sorts of horrible stuff, even to the extent of dusting it.

File:V and A Museum snuffbox 28072013 07.jpg
snuff box in the V&A museum, London. Photo by Vassil

What makes a thing an object of virtu? It has to be an object of fine art designed to be collected and displayed. It has to be beautiful (although this is a notoriously slippery idea, see above), rare, or otherwise appealing to a connoisseur.

They don't have to be ugly:

File:Piriform watch, signed Ilbery, London, c. 1800, gold, enamel - Cinquantenaire Museum - Brussels, Belgium - DSC08936.jpg
watch c 1800. Photo by Daderot

Sometimes being eccentric is enough::

File:Vase with coiling dragon MET DP167159.jpg
vase, Vienna, c 1725

But on the other hand a certain business does seem to help:

File:Minton majolica Novelty Teapot.jpg
c 1875, Minton, Photo by Davidmadelena

Still, it's fun to despise other people's taste, isn't it?

Spot the Frippet: an object of virtu. Virtù is Italian. The Latin virtūs meant manliness or courage.

Personally, I can't see the connection, but there you go.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Sunday Rest: selfitis. Word Not To Use Today.

Long, long ago, when I was young and impressionable, people used to sneer at the word television because - shock horror! - the first part of the word came from a Greek word and the second part came from Latin. 

Ah well. It filled these people with happy contempt, so it served some purpose. I mean, otherwise one can't help suspecting that they would have had completely miserable lives.*

Anyway, that was then. Nowadays it seems that no one cares anything for the derivation of words, and so we have come up with the word selfitis, (Old English beginning, Greek ending) which apparently describes a strong propensity for taking photographs of oneself.

The suffix -itis usually implies some sort of inflammation, and so..., actually...

Selfitis: an inflamed sense of self. 

You know, I think I'm coming round to the word selfitis, after all.

Sunday Rest: selfitis. The suffix -itis comes from the Greek -itēs which means belonging to. Self comes from the Old English seolf.

*By the way, making the word all Greek would have left a TV called a telescope, which would have been rather confusing; but I suppose it could have made it all Latin, and then we'd have been watching distavision.

Saturday, 18 August 2018

Saturday Rave: By The Sea by Emily Dickinson

It's summer here and people are flocking to the seaside. What will they find?

It all depends upon whether they are geniuses or not.

Here's a poem about a visit to the sea by Emily Dickinson. 

It has a much-quoted first line.

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement 
Came out to look at me.

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as the dew
Upon a dandelion's sleeve - 
And then I started too.

And he - he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle, - then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

If the purpose of Art is to show you something you thought you knew, then these are valuable lines.

Now, some clever people may say the poem's about something else entirely.

But it doesn't have to be, does it?

Word To Use Today: sea. This is a word of the northern lands. The Old English form was .