This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Nuts and Bolts: locus classicus.

A locus classicus sounds a knobbly sort of a thing, but it's actually quite simple.

The locus classicus is the text everyone quotes to prove they're right.

A famous (okay, not entirely unknown) one occurred in Victor Hugo's poem Quant à Paris, ton poing l'étreine, which was seized upon by those who were dismayed by Haussmann's plans to make the city of Paris more rational and orderly (which involved knocking down quite a lot of the old bits). Hugo described: de rues de caprice...

...and the protesters, who rather liked things anarchic and capricious, seized upon this as authority to support their point of view.

(No, of course it wasn't proof of anything, but it was seized upon as a valid argument by plenty of people so it's still a locus classicus.)

As the phrase suggests, the idea of a locus classicus was first applied to Latin and Greek texts, but nowadays it's applied more widely. A host of obvious examples can be found in religious texts: Thou shalt not kill, for instance.

As I said, nothing has to be proved by a locus classicus. It just has to be written down (or, at the least, attributed to somebody) and then cited quite often as an authority.

I just wish that last one was cited a whole lot more.

Phrase To Use Today: a locus classicus. But upon what authority does your example rest?

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Lifestyle Trend To Try Today: pantsdrunk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 July 2018

Spot the Frippet: garnishee.

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

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

A garnishment can also be a decoration or garnish.

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: garboil.

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

So that's a relief.

A garboil is a disturbance or uproar.

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

I think we can all say thank heavens for that.

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

Saturday, 14 July 2018

An Old Tune by Gerard de Nerval

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

Hilarious, or what?

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

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

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

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

Here's one of his poems, An Old Tune

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 13 July 2018

Word To Use Today: latchbolt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 July 2018

A new low: a rant.

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

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

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

Why don't they teach logic at these schools?

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

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

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

Oh, good grief...

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Nuts and Bolts: verbiage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: parboiled.

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

The last is naturally a surprise to everyone.

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

Conversation died.

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

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

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

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

File:Lobster meal.jpg
photo by Hartmut Inerle

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

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

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

(We don't like that, either.)

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

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

Monday, 9 July 2018

Spot the Frippet: angledug.

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

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

                                            photo by Aruna

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

Blackbirds and other thrushes are particularly good at finding angledugs:

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

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

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

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

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

Or, just possibly, a noke garnish.

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

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Sunday Rest: hanger. Word Not To Use Today.

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

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

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

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

Yes, it's a silly word. 

Yes, it rhymes with anger.

Yes, there's a good reason for that.

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

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

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

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

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


Garments and aircraft.

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

I know how they felt.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

Saturday Rave: Adam lay y-bounden. Anon.

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

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

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

Deo gratias means thanks be to God.

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 July 2018

Word To Use Today: mousseline.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That really can't be very far from heaven.

Even, I should imagine, for a bloke.

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

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

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Technical terms: a rant.

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

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

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

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

(I'm fine.)

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

psalterium is the third stomach of a cow.


Well, because of this:

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: fucoid.

Please note: this word is pronounced FYOOkoid.

It's to do with seaweed.

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

Fucus vesiculosus Wales.jpg
photo of Fucus vesiculosus by Stemonitis

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

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

Surely best avoided, if possible.

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

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

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

Monday, 2 July 2018

Spot the Frippet: fuddy-duddy.

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

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

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

But beware: they can creep up on you. 

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

...straight from the depths of the mirror.

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

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Sunday Rest: midaxi. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, what do you think midaxi means?

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


Midaxi is a skirt length. 

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

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

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

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

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

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