This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Saturday Rave: Ken Dodd's jokes.

You probably won't have heard of Ken Dodd, who's died recently aged ninety.

He was a mad-looking scarecrow of a man:

File:KEN DODD.jpg
photo by DAVID A ELLIS

He had a good singing voice, as it happened, but he was famous as a comedian.

He used to appear on TV, long ago, but it was in a theatre that he was happiest. That's why, unless you've visited a British theatre, you won't have heard of him. His stand-up sets would routinely last for hours, until his audience were so weak with laughter they couldn't have walked out even if they wanted to.

It's no good going home, he'd tell them. I'll come and shout jokes through your letterbox.

And his act was mostly jokes. Thousands upon thousands of them. 

It's a privilege to be asked to play here tonight on what is a very special anniversary. It is a hundred years to the night since that balcony collapsed.

He got into serious trouble for tax evasion at one point, and he even told jokes about that.

I told the Inland Revenue I don't owe them a penny. I live by the seaside.

But mostly he skated around the edge of a sort of bright madness, a slightly horrifying joviality.

The man who invented Cat's Eyes got the idea when he saw the eyes of a cat in his headlights. If the cat had been going the other way he would have invented the pencil sharpener.

I don't know if his humour travels beyond the shores of Great Britan. I don't think he would have cared all that much. He died in the house in which he was born, having spent a lifetime coaxing theatres into warm bowls of helpless laughter.

What a lovely day for walking up to a sea gull, chucking a bucket of whitewash over it, and saying how do you like it?

I'm not sure anyone can ask more of anyone than that.

Word To Use Today: joke. This word didn't exist in English until the 1600s. It comes from the Latin jocus.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Word To Use Today: levirate.

English is the biggest language in the world, but that means that there are a lot of words which serve very little purpose.

Such a one is levirate.

I suppose one might say the practice of levirate is enough to fill any thinking man with horror. But that's about it.

So what is levirate?

Levirate is the law, as described in the Old Testament of the Bible (Deuteronomy 25) whereby a man is obliged to marry his brother's widow. (Mind you, to be fair, there's also a bit in the same book (Leviticus 18) which says he mustn't.)

Well, the imposition of a law like that would have changed the course of the English novel, wouldn't it? 

Sons and Lovers, anyone?

It'd certainly make this house a bit crowded.

Anyway, levirate. A word to be glad is no longer of any relevance whatsoever, I think.

Word To Use Today: levirate. This word comes from the Latin lēvir, a husband's brother.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Say cheese!: a rant.

There are ever such a lot of vegans about.

I don't mind - after all, you don't have to listen to them - but their spelling is painful.

I've come across chease, recently. And cheeze. And even sheeze.

Ah, yes, you will say (for you are always wonderfully forbearing), but if it's vegan then the stuff doesn't contain anything actually, well, cheesy, does it? And the spelling alerts people to this.

Well, there's something in what you say, and I can admire the frankness with which the makers of MozzaRisella admit that their cheese-type stuff has been mostly grown in a paddy field; but there have long been cheeses that haven't emerged from the teat of a mammal. 

There are fruit pastes called cheeses made of sharp-tasting fruits such a rosehips or medlars; there's the revolting-sounding head-cheese, which is a sort of pate made of meat from, yes, the head of a pig.

But even people who are prepared to boil a whole pigs' head complete with reproachful eyes have too much delicacy of soul to call it cheez

I mean, it just shows you, doesn't it.

Word To Spell Today: cheese. The Old English called this stuff cēse, and the Romans cāseus. But even that wasn't as bad as the Old Saxons, who called it kāsi.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Nuts and Bolts: peripetia.

Peripetia is the bit in a story where everything suddenly goes horribly wrong.

It's the moment when the hero - or villain - having cleverly evaded capture for months and years, is nabbed as he crosses the border to freedom.

It's the moment when the person you've murdered turns out not to be dead, after all.

It's the moment when the jewels turn out to be fake, or your husband turns out to be your brother, or the person you are fighting turns out to have been born by cesarean, or a woman or a shaved orangutan or something, and so you're not protected by that prophesy after all.


...sometimes I wonder why we put ourselves through all this fiction stuff, you know.

File:Young orang utan.JPG
photo by Michaël CATANZARITI

Word To Use Today: peripetia. This word comes from peri-, which means around, plus piptein, to fall.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Thing Not To Do Today: mop.

Even those of us who would feel happiest surrounded by layers of history - the coffee slopped onto the table after tripping over Grandma, the spatter of blood stains after the wrestling match trying to open the sardine tin, the fine all-over dust laid down the day the vacuum cleaner got whooping cough - can hardly avoid the occasional bit of mopping, whether it's the tears of a child or the ketchup on a tie.

If, however, your child is permanently contented, and you cunningly wear a ketchup-coloured tie, then to mop also means to pull a sad face.

photo by DodosD

That sort of mopping won't do anyone much good, though, will it?

Thing Not To Do Today: mop. The cleaning word comes from the lovely English word mappel, from the Latin mappa, which means napkin. The sad-face word appeared in the 1500s and might come from the Dutch moppen, to pour. Also possibly relevant is the fact that the Dutch word mop means pug (as in dog).

Monday, 19 March 2018

Spot the Frippet: ear.

It always surprises me that when two spies meet to exchange secrets in the middle of a field of wheat they never notice they're surrounded by millions of ears.

File:Ears of Wheat just before harvesting - - 1440344.jpg
photo by Chris Reynolds

Yeah, okay, okay...sorry...

It's easy enough to spot an ear - or, at least, the outside flap of the ear, which is designed to funnel the sound into the ear hole - but some ears are harder to spot than others. 

A cricket's ears are on its front legs; a grasshopper's ear:

File:Grasshopper 2.JPG
Eastern Lubber Grasshopper. Photo by Ryan Wood

 is on the side of its abdomen; a spider doesn't have any ears at all.

An owl's ears may seem easy to spot in comparison:

Asio otus -Battlefield Falconry Centre, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England-8a.jpg
long-eared owl, photo by angusleonard 

 but don't be fooled because those aren't really ears at all, but tufts of feathers for display purposes. (Owls' ears are actually very interesting. In many nocturnal species one ear is placed quite a lot higher than the other, which helps the owls with locating the squeak of a juicy bit of dinner; and although owls don't have officially have any outer ears at all, their flat faces act in the same way:

File:Female Barn Owl 2 (6942362843).jpg
Barn Owl, photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham UK

funnelling sound into their ear holes. Owls can even alter the shape of their faces to tune in the sound).

Of other remarkable ears, otters have valves in their ears so they can water-proof them:

File:Sea-otter-morro-bay 13.jpg
"Mike" Michael L. Baird [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

And some bats:

File:Northern long eared bat (15357713259).jpg
Northern long-eared bat. Photo by Keith Shannon/USFWS

 can dislocate their ear drums so they doesn't have to listen to the sound of their own screaming.

Whichever sort of ear you see today, I invite you to admire...perhaps not its beauty, if the ear belongs to a human; but at the very least its totally amazing design.

Spot the Frippet: ear. The hearing word comes from the Latin auris. The corn word comes from the Latin acus, chaff, from the Greek akros, pointed.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Sunday Rest: dysprosium. Word Not To Use Today.

Strangely enough, dysprosium isn't an annoying tendency to burst into very bad verse, but a chemical element.

Word Not To Use Today: dysprosium. This word comes from the Greek dusprositos, difficult to get near, with -ium added on to make it look more like the name of an element.

Dysprosium is a metal, Atomic Number 66, symbol Dy. It's used in lasers and nuclear control rods.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Saturday Rave: The Siege of Belgrade by Alaric Alexander Watts.

The Siege of Belgrade is...well, quite honestly it's a truly terrible poem, but it's terrible in such a flamboyantly bonkers way that somehow I can't help being quite fond of the poor thing.

Anyway, as you can see, it must have been ever so hard to write.

Poor Alaric Alexander Watts!


An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.
Cossack commanders cannonading come,
Dealing destruction's devastating doom.
Every endeavor engineers essay,
For fame, for fortune fighting - furious fray!
Generals 'gainst generals grapple - gracious God!
How honors Heaven heroic hardihood!
Infuriate, indiscriminate in ill,
Kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill.
Labour low levels longest, lofiest lines;
Men march 'mid mounds, 'mid moles, ' mid murderous mines;
Now noxious, noisy numbers nothing, naught
Of outward obstacles, opposing ought;
Poor patriots, partly purchased, partly pressed,
Quite quaking, quickly "Quarter! Quarter!" quest.
Reason returns, religious right redounds,
Saves sinking soldiers, softens signiors sage.
Truce to thee, Turkey! Triumph to thy train,
Unwise, unjust, unmerciful Ukraine!
Vanish vain victory! vanish, victory vain!
Why wish we warfare? Wherefore welcome were
Xerxes, Ximenes, Xanthus, Xavier?
Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell!
Zeus', Zarpater's, Zoroaster's zeal,
Attracting all, arms against acts appeal!

There are several versions of this poem, one with a J line in it (the letters I and J counted as one letter until relatively recently) which means the poem ends with a Z line (Zealously zanie's zealously zeal's zest). Some of the lines in various versions are very different: I've come across one Y line that goes Yet yassy's youth, ye yield your youthful yest.

Whatever yest is.

Personally, though, I feel that if I ever find an opportunity to bellow Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell! then my life will not have been entirely in vain.

*IMPORTANT: note to all The Word Den's non-English speakers. Very little of it makes any sense!

Word To Use Today: alliteration. This word comes from the Latin alliterātiō, from litera, letter.

It's unfair on Ukraine, though, sadly.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Word To Use Today: sennit.

What's the connection between a Pacific gourd and your head? 

No, no, it's all right, don't go off in a huff. I'll explain.

Sennit is flat plaited stringy stuff: 

File:Container from New Caledonia made from a gourd and sennit (coconut-husk fibre).jpg
container from New Caledonia made from a gourd wrapped with coconut-husk sennit. Photo by Derrick Coetzee

That plaiting is both clever and beautiful, isn't it. And if you think that's cool, then have a look at this:

Fijian coconut-husk sennit is called magimagi and is used to hold buildings together. Photo by Vcox.

Sometimes sennit is used on ships, but more commonly round these parts it's made of straw or grass or palm leaves and sewn round in a long coil to make hats:


And so sennit ends up wrapped round your head just as it does on that New Caledonian gourd in the picture above.

Well, what other similarity could there possibly have been?

Word To Use Today: sennit. This word appeared in English in the 1600s, but no one knows where it came from.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Power of Positive Thinking: a rant.

Whatever idiot decided to call a unit of our local hospital Frailty should be sacked.

They might as well have written Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here above the door.


Word Not To Use Today: frailty. This word comes from the Latin fragilis, fragile.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Nuts and Bolts: the scullion with the scallion in the scullery.

I love the intricate links between words. They illuminate whole histories of ideas and culture and thought.

On the other hand when I consider that a scullion is a person employed in a scullery to prepare vegetables, and that those vegetables are likely to include scallions...


...and then when I consider that these words have no shared history at all...

...well, quite honestly I come close to despairing of ever making sense of anything.

Words To Use Today: scullery/scullion/scallion. A scullery:

File:Back scullery (4869152647).jpg
Canadian scullery. Photo by Andrea_44

is a room adjoining a kitchen where washing up is done and vegetables are prepared. A scullion:

File:Wenceslas Hollar - A pack of knaves - A Mere Scullion.jpg
illustration by Wenceslaus Hollar

is a servant employed to do rough kitchen work who might well be asked to prepare scallions, which are small onions. The word scullery comes from the Old French escuele, a bowl, from the Latin scutra, a tray; scullion comes from the Old French escouillon, cleaning cloth, from the Latin scōpa, broom; scallions are called after the port of Ascalon.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Thing To Be Today: scribulous.

Now here's a problem. For one thing I'm not sure if scribulous really is a word (it's not in the OED); and, if it is, then I don't actually know what it means.

Scribulous has been claimed as a ghetto term for anything fancy, good, or outlandish - but then ghetto terms tend to stay in the ghetto, where I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be welcome.

On a Merriam-Webster web-site Alex from North Carolina insists that scribulous is a mixture of scrupulous and scribble, that is, someone who's always redrafting his or her work.

But my own assumption has always been that scribulous describes someone who's always scribbling; someone with a vast, probably low-grade output (do you remember Prince William Henry's reaction to being presented with the second or third volume of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire? 'Another damned thick book! Always scribble scribble scribble! Eh, Mr Gibbons?'*). 

In other words, someone scribulous is someone otherwise known as a hack.

So there we are. This word can mean anything we want it to mean, so make your own choice of the above.

For me, obviously, I'm with poor Mr Gibbons.

Thing To Be Today: scribulous. This word, if it exists, might in some of its meanings be something to do with the word scribe, which comes from the Latin scrība, clerk.

*What he said to the eighth volume, which concluded the work's 3,860 pages, is not recorded. But then that's probably best.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Spot the Frippet: something crinite.

You won't have to look far to find something crinite.

Crinite is a biological term meaning covered with soft hairs or tufts...

...a child's arm, perhaps, or a lady's cheek.

A leaf, a flower:

Calochortus coxii (Cox's mariposa lily) (32871534640).jpg
The critically endangered crinite marposa lily, found only in a single country of Oregon. And so beautiful!

A seed pod:

gorse seed pods, photo by 

a moth:

File:(1995) Puss Moth (Cerura vinula) (5731102080).jpg
photo of a puss moth by Ben Sale.

On the other hand, crinite can be a rock made up of the skeletons of sea lilies and feather stars:

File:Isocrinus nicoleti Encrinite Mt Carmel.jpg
photo by Wilson44691

But I must admit you're not likely to have any of that to hand.

Spot the Frippet: something crinite. The hair word comes from the Latin crīnītus, which means hairy. The rock word comes from the Greek krinon, which means lily.

Any connection is probably coincidental.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Sunday Rest: slubberdegullion.

You know that horribly embarrassing thing when someone with no sense of humour tries to be funny?

Such an occasion is responsible, I fear, for the word slubberdegullion.

Luckily the word has more or less vanished, now - unless, possibly, you're a Flowerpot Man -

- but it means...well, it's obvious what it means: an untidy, grubby and/or worthless person.

(Not that there is such a thing as a worthless person, obviously.)

If you do hear this horrid word then pity the speaker. He will be either someone with no idea how humour works, an entertainer of three-year-olds, or someone desperately trying to rescue a comedy.

Sunday Rest: slubberdegullion. The slubber bit is probably a dialect form of slobber, and the rest has been attached because it's just so side-splittingly hilarious.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

Saturday Rave: An undiminishing genius. PG Wodehouse.

PG Wodehouse's last book, published posthumously (and sadly unfinished), was Sunset at Blandings.

PG Wodehouse lived to be ninety three, and he'd been constructing jokes and joyous comedy since he was very young. 

Even his school examination papers were sometimes submitted adorned with jokes.

So, was PG Wodehouse stale by the end of his long life? Had he run out of jokes? Had a life not entirely gilded soured him?

Here's a line from Sunset at Blandings:

Many a man may look respectable, and yet be able to hide at will behind a spiral staircase.

...which is not only wonderfully funny, and perfectly constructed, but full of truth and wisdom, too - and provides proof to all of us that no human life is long enough to reach the end of delight.

Word To Use Today: respectable. This word comes from the Latin rēspicere, to look back, or pat attention to.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Word To Use Today: roorback.

We don't have the American English word roorback in British English, but we certainly need it.

A roorback is a distorted or entirely false report used for political advantage.

Come to think about it, that's practically all of them.

Rather sweetly, the man the word commemorates, Baron von Roorback, was entirely imaginary.

Word To Use Today: roorback. This word goes back to a time when the most effective way to smear a political opponent was in the newspapers. Whoever made up the roorback scheme did his best to obscure the non-existence of his witness, Baron von Roorback, who was said to have claimed that James K Polk, the presidential candidate, owned at least 43 slaves all branded with his initials. This claim was supposed to have been made in Roorback's (non-existent) book Tour Through The Western and Southern United States. Details of this account were sent anonymously to a newspaper in Ithaca, New York, in 1844.

However, all this obfuscation wasn't enough to prevent the scheme being revealed as a dirty trick. The plot back-fired, and Polk was duly elected.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Yoga: a rant.

I am often assured of the peace, tranquillity, flexibility and long life to be attained by practising yoga; and I have no objection whatsoever to peace, tranquillity, flexibility or, indeed, long life.

It's just that it's hard to believe I'll achieve any of them straining to do something called a downward dog.

photo by Iveto.

Word To Use Today: yoga. This word comes from Sanskrit, where it mean a yoking or a union, from yunakti, he yokes.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Nuts and Bolts: hypallage.

The only really important thing to know about hypallage is that you say it hi-PAL-er-jee.

Yes, that's right, it's Greek.

Although hypallage isn't very important, it is interesting because quite often it involves giving an emotion to the owner of the thing who's actually experiencing it.

Roberto raised his angry sword is an example.

Or Sharon ran a covetous hand over the silk petticoat.

Or - not to be sexist about it - Sharon raised an angry sword, and Roberto ran a covetous hand over the silk petticoat. 

(It is much more interesting that way round, isn't it.)

These are obvious examples, but hypallage is used all the time. If you've ever spent a wakeful night, or drank a thoughtful glass of wine, you've been using hypallage

The most important thing about it is the idea of exchange: that you're pinning a description or an action on something, well, technically wrong. Or you might be switching round two words to make a point. The example in my Collins dictionary is the fire spread the wind.

Anyway, it's nice to know we're all masters of hypallage, isn't it. 

Let's face it, it's impressive enough just that we can pronounce it.

Nuts and Bolts: hypallage. This word comes from hyper- from the Greek huper, above, and the other Greek word allassein, to exchange.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: delible.

We describe biros or pens as indelible, but the equally useful word delible has vanished from our consciousness. It's a shame.

The Oxford English Dictionary refers to the delible stain of departed souls, which is a true but terrifying thought.

What is a computer image but a delible stain...?

What is a life but a memory...?

...well, in both cases, quite a lot, actually.

But only if you do something about it, like writing a play

File:Shakespeare Droeshout 1623.jpg
engraving by Martin Drieshout

 or having a child:

File:Lady Jennie Spencer-Churchill (1854-1921) (C).jpg
Jenny Spencer-Churchill

 or inventing a cure for smallpox:

File:Edward Jenner. Pastel by John Raphael Smith. Wellcome L0026138.jpg
Edward Jenner by John Rapheal Smith

or invading a country:

File:King of the Eburones - Marble Julius Caesar.jpg
Julius Caesar


Perhaps you can take the delible thing a bit too far...

Thing To Be Today: delible. This word comes from the Latin delēre, to destroy.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Spot the Frippet: something increscent.

So, increscent. Is that something that is a crescent or something that's definitely not a crescent? 

Well, neither, really. 

Increscent describes something that's increasing in size. The word is most usually used to describe the moon.

How can you tell if the moon where you are is getting bigger or getting smaller? You look to see which side of the moon is shining. If the shiny bit of the moon is on the Right it's Returning (ie, moving towards a full moon); and if the shiny bit of the moon is on the Left it's Leaving (on its way to no visible moon at all).

Sadly the moon's just past the full at the moment, so you won't be seeing an increscent moon for a couple of weeks.

Still, if you see a lady in an expectant condition; or have a balloon that needs blowing up; or are in a climate where pumpkins are growing; or a place where frogs are singing;

File:Western Chorus Frog (6922520670).jpg
Western Chorus frog

 or you've bumped your head rather hard; or have ever seen a molehill appear; or have put a cake in an oven, then you will have spotted something increscent.

File:Balloons in the sky.jpg
photo by Crystal

And when the moon does begin to wax again, you'll have an extra reason to feel pleased with yourself.

Spot the Frippet: something increscent. This word comes from the Latin incrēscēns, which is to do with swelling or growing.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Sunday Rest: gloriole. Word Not To Use Today.

A glory hole is a Northern English term for an untidy cupboard. It also has meanings in glassblowing (small furnace for re-heating glass); mining (dip caused by subsidence over a mine); oil drilling (an underwater extraction technique); and dam construction (part of an overflow system).

There are probably other meanings of glory hole, too, but I really don't want to investigate them.

Anyway, none of these terms has anything to do with the word gloriole.

Frauenkirche, Dresden. What the white squidgy stuff in the middle of the golden gloriole is I'm not sure. Photo by SchiDD

But, all the same, the word halo means the same thing as gloriole, and is perhaps safer.

Word Not To Use Today: gloriole. This word was made up in the 1800s from the Latin gloriōla, a small glory. (Glory, as it happens, was the term for halo in the Middle Ages, but after that we made do perfectly happily with halo and nimbus until the 1800s - and perhaps should do again).

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Saturday Rave: The Girdle, by Edmund Waller

Edmund Waller was a poet who, like John Suckling, found himself struggling to survive all the reverses of the English Civil War.

He did survive (though only by betraying his comrades and paying lots of bribes). He then, understandably, went into exile. He didn't return until after the re-establishment of the monarchy.

But still, he was an interesting poet. The fashion at the time was for serious poetry to be so dense as to be almost impenetrable, but Waller began to write more open and straightforward verse in the couplets (that's pairs of consecutive lines that rhyme) that were to dominate English verse for the next couple of hundred years. 

This isn't a serious poem, but it shows the form.

On a Girdle

That which her slender waist confined,
Shall now my joyful temples bind;
No monarch but would give his crown,
His arms might do what this has done.

It was my heaven's extremest sphere,
The pale which held my lovely deer,
My joy, my grief, my hope, my love,
Did all within this circle move.

A narrow compass, and yet there
Dwelt all that's good, and all that's fair;
Give me but what this ribbon bound,
Take all the rest the sun goes round.

Though what on earth he looked like prancing around with some woman's girdle wrapped round his head I shudder to think.

Hmm...perhaps that explains why the government agents failed to overlook him when he was plotting to take over London.

Word To Use Today: girdle. Although recently a girdle has been a small elastic corset, sadly in Waller's day it was probably a sash or a belt. The Old English form was gyrdel. It's connected to the word gird.

Friday, 2 March 2018

Word To Use At Some Point: mordacious.

You see the letters mor- at the beginning of a word and you begin to fear some fell disease or death, as in morgue, moribund, morbid, mortal and mortsafe (the last was, picturesquely, an iron cage placed over a new grave to discourage body snatchers).

At least mordacious isn't as bad as that. Mordacious means biting, usually in a sarcastic sort of a way. 

Sarcasm is said to be the lowest form of wit - which it is, unless you've ever spent time with four-year-olds, clowns, or accountants - but, hey, it's sometimes very funny and usually better than nothing.

And if it's intended to be hurtful, well, raising an eyebrow and saying isn't that somewhat mordacious? is a terrific way of pulling the rug from under the idiot's feet.

Word To Store Up To Use At Some Point: mordacious. This word isn't anything to do with the Latin mors, death, or the Latin morbus, illness, but the Latin mordax, from mordēre, to bite.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

The Beast from the East: a rant.

We're having a few days of rather cold weather in England at the moment. Some snow. Quite sunny, sometimes. Breezy. It's likely to last, ooh, about four or five days.

The press is calling it The Beast from the East.

Good grief. What will they call it if we get some really bad weather? The Ogre of the Orient? The Crusher from Russia?

The Asnowcalypse?

There'll be people walking up and down the High Street with sandwich boards saying THE END OF THE WORLD IS NIGH, next...

...ah, no. 

They won't be able to get there because half the trains have been cancelled.


Word To Use Today: rather. This word has been around since before 900. It started off meaning a bit hræth, a bit quick.