This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Nuts and Bolts: isogloss.

An isogloss is a line on a map which marks the boundary between one linguistic feature and another.

It might mark a boundary between two different pronunciations (grass to rhyme with crass and grass to rhyme with farce, perhaps); or two different meanings for the same word (canny can mean either kind or knowing, depending on whether you're in Northern England or Scotland); different ways of saying the letter r; or even two quite different languages.

Here's a map of Germany from Wikipedia.

Public Domain,

This map shows the division of High German into Upper and Central German (green and blue, respectively) as distinguished from Low Franconian, and Low German, which is shown in yellow. The black lines show the famous Benrath and Speyer lines which divides the languages (which just goes to show what an interesting word famous is).

Of course what we really need is a three-dimensional map that shows us the effect of time, as well. Then we could see how everyone stopped saying dear meaning expensive, and when the word often had a sounded letter t.*

It could show us what effect the advent of literacy, radio and TV had on language, too.

Whether wisdom would emerge from such a device I do not know. Probably we'd be left with a puzzle that makes a Rubik's cube look like a one-piece jigsaw. 

Still, that's what academics are for, isn't it.

Word To Use Today isogloss. Iso- comes from the Greek isos, which means equal or similar; and glōssa is Greek for dialect or tongue. 

As the intelligent reader will have spotted, an isogloss shows, not similarities, but differences, and this is why some people point out that it would be more logical to call it a heterogloss. (Hetero means other.)

But then, what has logic got to do with language, eh?

*In the mid-twentieth century, I'd guess. It was part of the speak-as-you-spell movement.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Thing To Pretend Not To Be Today: perfervid.

The British aren't all that good at being perfervid.

In fact, in Britain to be perfervid will probably be seen as embarrassing, or even bad form. 

To be perfervid is practically a sign of unreliability or even madness.

The thing is that we tend to be a rather laid-back lot in England, and perfervid describes someone who's extremely enthusiastic or zealous. It describes someone who has a passion for some cause: whereas in England we most admire a person who casts a cool eye over a situation and then makes a joke about it.

It's very hard to be both perfervid and funny; and round here funny wins every time.

In Italy, I understand, being passionate is perfectly acceptable. In Eastern Europe to be zealous seems to excite high admiration.

Here, though, if you work eighty hours a week then I'm afraid the thing to do is treat the activity as a mild inconvenience.

Still, who really wants passion?




Thing To Pretend Not To Be Today: perfervid. This word comes from the Latin per- which makes words more intense, and fervidus, which means fervid, which itself means intensely enthusiastic and passionate.

Monday, 10 December 2018

Spot the Frippet: zareba.

Technically, a zareba is a stockade or enclosure of thorn bushes around a village in northern East Africa. It can also be used to describe the area so enclosed.

Obviously for most of us the chance of having one of those to hand is fairly remote, but whenever I see the word zareba I don't think of East African hedges, I think instead of the magnificent PG Wodehouse story The Clicking of Cuthbert, which features (wrong word, as you shall see) the great Russian literary novelist Vladimir Brusiloff.

His first glance at the novelist surprised Cuthbert. Doubtless with the best of motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair

I shall be looking out for beards, today...

...and wondering what motives each man has for growing the ridiculous thing.

Spot the Frippet: zareba. This word comes from the Arabic zaribah, cattlepen, from zarb sheepfold.

Edward Lear limerick

illustration and verse by Edward Lear

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Sunday Rest: neonate. Word Not To Use Today.

A neonate is delicate and small and helpless and beautiful and full of promise - and it is the most precious thing on Earth.

And it's also what anyone with an drop of humanity in his veins would call a baby.

File:Baby (4396868797).jpg
photo by Dylan Parker

Word Not To Use Today: neonate. Yes, neo- is to do with being new (Greek neos, new) and -nate is to do with being born (Latin nasci, born) but, good grief...

Mind you...

The creature also needs inconvenient amounts of attention.

You can't store it in a safe, a fridge, a greenhouse or a museum.

It gets between you and your sleep.

It's unreasonable and very messy.

But even so, calling it a neonate is just making it obvious to the world you really don't care. 

Isn't it.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Saturday Rave: Gentle Desdemona by King Charles II

No, okay, it wasn't King Charles II who wrote about Desdemona, that was Shakespeare, but on this day in 1660, after The Return of the King (no, not Tolkien's Aragorn, do keep up at the back, there) either Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall became the first woman to play a role on a public stage in England, and her role was Desdemona in Shakespeare's play Othello.

We no longer have actresses, of course, only actors of various and infinitely varied sexes.

But it was fun while it lasted, wasn't it?

Word To Use Today If You're Brave Enough: actress. This word stretches back further than you'd think, right back to the 1580s when, however, it meant a woman who did something. The stage sense appeared around 1700, so Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall were actually actors. 

The word actor started off with the idea of being someone who manages some activity (particularly, oddly, driving sheep). An actor was also the accuser in a court case. It started to be applied to stage actors about the time the word actress first appeared, in the 1580s. The Latin word agere means to set in motion.

Friday, 7 December 2018

Word To Use Today: venom.

'But I don't come here for venom!' you may be thinking, quite reasonably enough. 'I get enough of that at home!'

(And at work, and, heaven help us, constantly on the news.)

But the thing is that I can't resist featuring the word venom because it has such a neat derivation.

Still, it does give me the chance to tell you something cheering. I came across a beautiful story recently of a Chinese spider (it goes by the daunting scientific name of Toxeus magnus) that produces milk and suckles its young. It carries on feeding the young spiderlings until after they are are technically independent, too. And it might have as many as thirty six kids.

There. That's rather lovely, isn't it. The details can be found HERE, but I wouldn't recommend them. They don't give that good an impression of those 'higher' and also sometimes venomous life-forms, humans.

Word To Use Today: venom. This word comes from the Old French venim, from then Latin venēnum, which means poison or, astonishingly, love potion. The word is related to venus, which means sexual love.

Thursday, 6 December 2018

Out of this World: a rant.

Yesterday was World Soil Day - and as if this wasn't enough of a delight for one week, tomorrow International Civil Aviation Day is coming along to add lustre to our existence. 

As it turns out, every week is scattered with celebrations. November the nineteenth was World Toilet Day, for example, and June the fifteenth was Global Wind Day.

Now, these are all things worth celebrating. I mean, without soil and civil aviation where would we get the beans with which, I assume, we should celebrate Global Wind Day?

But, I don't know. I'm having trouble with September the thirteenth. September the thirteenth is World Sepsis Day. And who on earth would want to celebrate that? 

I mean, World Anti-Sepsis Day I could understand.

But never mind, we have a real treat to which to look forward soon. On December the twentieth we shall all wake up to World Barking Day. The idea, apparently, is to celebrate our inner dog...'s the lamp posts I feel sorry for, myself.

Word To Use Today: soil.This word comes from the Latin solium, which means a seat. This would be very puzzling if it weren't for the fact that some of the Anglo-Normans were a bit rubbish at Latin, and the word they were actually meaning to borrow was solum, which means the ground.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Nuts and Bolts: How To Plan Your Novel.

Kate Atkinson is a wonderful novelist, and recently on the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs she told us that when planning a novel she finds it helpful to have a good tidy.

'There is something about mindlessness, as opposed to mindfulness, that is very creative,' she said.

That other fine novelist, Dorothy L Sayers, had a rather similar take on the matter. Her novelist heroine Harriet Vane is shown putting her sticky novel to one side 'to clear' as if, as her creator observes, it was soup.

Faced with the experiences of two such literary titans then my own voice can add but a trivial note, but I myself find that a bit of mild sweeping can help enormously.


It might be because staring with concentration and energy directly at the nothing which is an unplanned novel is likely only to generate more nothing. Laying a sock in a drawer, however, or gently encouraging dust into small piles, or going for a walk, leaves room for the mild wonderings that may spark just the sort of line of enquiry which, seized upon, might even turn into a book.

And after all, at worst you end up with a cleaner house. about a novel about a woman who is despised for her devotion to housework, but then turns out to be the wisest of them all? 

Compare and contract with a evangelical pastor? 

Or a philosopher?

Hmm...the philosopher idea is quite interesting...

....and I haven't swept the bedrooms for a while...

Nuts and Bolts: sweep. in about 1200 this word was swepen. It's related to the Old Norse sveipa, and also to the words swipe and swoop.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Thing To Do Today: hold up something.

No, no, please, this is a law-abiding blog. Please do not load up your holsters, saddle up your horse, and ride out along a lonely road to wait for a stage coach.

Apart from anything else, you'll probably die waiting.

No, I was thinking more of the other sort of holding up. The opposite sort (yes, holding up is a contranyn, something meaning two opposite things depending upon how you use it) because there's also the sort of holding up that means to give support to: to stop something falling over or down, or perhaps to keep it from withering. 

An example I came across recently was holding up democracy, where it meant to give support to it, not to hold it to ransom.

The easiest thing to hold up is probably an example, as an encouragement, or perhaps a discouragement, to others.

Friends, I hold up, as examples of various things, Mr Donald Trump, Queen Elizabeth II, the Brexit negotiations, and instant mashed potato.

If you are feeling literal today, then, of course, you could actually hold something up. A piece if art, perhaps. Or just a hand.

Or, if trying to get into a supermarket car park, the traffic.

Minneapolis. Photo By Calebrw - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Thing To Do Today: hold up something. The word hold hasn't changed very much since Old English times, when it was healdan

Monday, 3 December 2018

Spot the Frippet: amulet.

An amulet is a charm worn to fend off evil.

I've been wondering about amulets since someone gave me a rabbit's claw set in silver (eergh!). These are said to be lucky - though it didn't do much for the rabbit, did it - and on reflection I think this is probably not an amulet because although rabbit claws are supposed to give good luck, no one claims they ward off evil.

But there are genuine amulets about in various guises. The Hand of Fatima:

File:Part of a silver necklace decorated with the 'hand of Fatima Wellcome L0057649.jpg
photo by Wellcome Images

 is remarkable for warding off harm to more or less everyone, including Muslims, Christians and Jews (particularly generous of it/her). 

My own grandfather carried a punched silver French franc all through World War I, and my father carries it still at the age of ninety seven, so it's been doing sterling* service for well over a hundred years.

A holy man can confer protective powers on any object, commonly a depiction of some sort of relic or saint. The artistic value of these representations is often severely limited, but they are almost certainly lovelier than carrying a caul around (a caul is the thin membrane which sometimes surrounds a baby when it's born) which are supposed to protect people from drowning.

An easier insurance policy to find is a St Christopher medallion, which, they say, protects all travellers:

File:Saint Christopher Medal.png

wikimedia commons

As for me, I believe none of it; but then I understand amulets work even if you don't believe in them, and this may be why I always carry a small hawk bell in my purse. 

How many people would you have to ask before you find someone with an amulet?

Well, why not ask round and find out.

Spot the Frippet: amulet. This word comes from the Latin amulētum, meaning an object which protects someone from trouble, but where the word came from before that no one knows.


Sunday, 2 December 2018

Sunday Rest: restroom. Word To Use With Caution Today.

There may be nothing wrong with the word restroom as it stands, but a word of warning to American friends: if you go into a British pub or hotel and ask for the Men's Restroom then you are going to cause a great deal of hilarity.

Either that, or they'll show you to a bedroom.

And then charge you for it.

Word To Use With Caution Today: restroom. The Old English form of rest was reste or ræste. Before that the word seems to have described a distance, possibly a distance to be covered between two rests. 

Though how far that is, it's hard to imagine.

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Saturday Rave: A Winter Night by Robert Burns

Robert Burns wrote in the Scots dialect of his homeland, which means that some of his vocabulary is strange (and sometimes, let's face it, incomprehensible to the non-Scot). 

But even so this poem shares enough with standard English to thoroughly chill our bones.

When biting Boreas, fell and doure,
Sharp shivers thro' the leafless bow'r;
When Phoebus gies a short-liv'd glow'r
Far south the lift,
Dim-dark'ning thro' the flaky show'r,
Or whirling drift:

Ae night the storm the steeple rocked,
Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked,
While burns, wi' snawy wreeths upchoked,
Wild-eddying swirl,
Or thro' the mining outlet bocked,
Down headlong hurl.

List'ning, the doors an' winnocks rattle,
I thought me on the ourie cattle,
Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
O' winter war,
And thro' the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle,
Beneath a scar.

Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!
That, in the merry months o' spring
Delighted me to hear thee sing,
What comes o' thee?
Whare wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing
An close thy e'e?

Ev'n you in murd'ring errands toil'd
Lone from your savage home exil'd
The blood-stain'd roost, and sheep-cote spoil'd
My heart forgets,
While pityless the tempest wild
Sore on you beats.


Word To Use Today: brattle. This word can mean anything from a fight to a clattering noise, but here it chiefly means a sudden short spell of bad weather with wind, and rain or sleet. It comes from the Old Scots brattill, which means a rattle or sharp assault, and imitates the sound of its meaning.