This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Saturday Rave: A Fairy Song by William Shakespeare

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

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

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


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


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

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

Friday, 16 November 2018

Word To Use Today: gulch..

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


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

Dead Man's Gulch poster.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

And that'd be linguistically rather clever, too.

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

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

Thursday, 15 November 2018

Yours, sincerely: a rant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Nuts and Bolts: aliterate.

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: mumchance.

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

I'm quite looking forward to it.

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

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

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

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

Simple, yes?

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

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

Monday, 12 November 2018

Spot the Frippet: a percussion instrument.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

File:CH cow 1.jpg
photo by Daniel Schwen

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

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Sunday Rest: waste. Word Not To Use Today.

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

Think of that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 10 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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


Love, like smoke?

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

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

Friday, 9 November 2018

Word To Use Today: alimony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Authentic Italian: a rant.

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

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

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

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

Continuously but not constantly...

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

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

*Da nessuna parte is the Italian for nowhere.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Nuts and Bolts: closet drama.

So, what's a play for, then?

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

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

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

And what's the point of that? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Thing To Be Today, Probably: woke.

Are you woke? Do you want to be woke

Er...what is woke, exactly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ah well! 

The Old English form of this word was wacian.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Spot the Frippet: candle.

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

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

File:Roman candle structure drawing-en.svg

image by Petteri Aimonen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Sunday Rest: bloviate. Word Not To Use Today

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


Well, it sounds like it!

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

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

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Saturday Rave: Pharsalia by Lucan.

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

But the other Lucan is extraordinary. 

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

Then you read more, and things become muddier.

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

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

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

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


I think the technical term is probably phwoar!

But oh, that poor silly genius of a Lucan!

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

Friday, 2 November 2018

Word To Use With Care Today: wowser.

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

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

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

illustration by Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye

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

Thursday, 1 November 2018

A Secret Scandal: a rant.

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

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

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

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

The mind, frankly, boggles.

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