This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Nuts and Bolts: logomachy.

'Greengrocers, eh? Putting their apostrophes all over the place: potato's! I ask you!'

'Er...but surely potato's is correct? The apostrophe indicates that the penultimate letter of potatoes, the e, has been omitted.'

'So they're not just illiterate? Yeah, right.'

'I think I am, actually. You also see it with cauli's and tom's, other cases where parts of the words have been missed out.'

'And how come you think you're an expert on words all of a sudden? You're the sort of person who ends a sentence with a preposition!'

'Err...the word out at the end of my last sentence was part of the verb to miss out.'

'Ha! I like that: out isn't a preposition!' 

'Actually, I think you'll find it's marked as an adverb in the dictionary.'

'Oh yeah? And what do dictionaries know?'

Thing To Engage In Today: a logomachy. A logomachy is a dispute over words. It can also be a dispute which uses a lot - too many - words. The logo bit comes from the Greek logos, meaning word or speech; the machy part comes from the Greek word machesthai meaning to fight.

Have fun!

'Greek? It's Greek? Well, what do the Greeks know about English, that's what I want to know!'


'The next thing you'll be telling me that the word dictionary is Latin!'


'I mean, what did the Romans ever do for us?'

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Thing To Do Today: imbricate something. made the stars, the night, seem to wait, as if the story, narrative history, lay imbricated in the nature of things; and the cosmos was for the story, not the story for the cosmos.

I'm reading The Magus by John Fowles (no idea what it's all about, yet, sorry) and came across that passage last night. It's impressive, but as I didn't know what imbricated meant it was completely baffling.

So I looked it up.

To imbricate something means to arrange its pieces so that the edges overlap like roof tiles:

File:Milano Roof Tiles.jpg
photo by wtclark

A game of patience will often involve imbricating the playing cards; a bread and butter pudding can be artfully imbricated; so is the index-edge of an address book; or a very tidy bra drawer; or open books ready to be signed by an author.

Usually, though, the word is used to describe things from the natural world like scales or petals:

File:Mespilus germanica imbrication.jpg
mespilus germanica: imbricated petals. Photo by Nadiatalent

It's satisfying to have discovered a new word. 

Sadly, however, it hasn't helped me in the slightest with understanding that line of The Magus.

Ah well.

Thing To Do Today: imbricate something. This word comes from the Latin word imbrex, which means roof tile, from imber, a shower of rain.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Spot the Frippet: brownie.

The oldest form of brownie is almost impossible to spot, but the results of his work are very commonly encountered.

You know the way your sock drawer always has laundered socks in it, no matter how often you put on clean ones? The way there's always bread in the bread bin? The way the grass on the lawn never gets too long?

That's brownies who have done that. It says so in all the books. They're small men (there must be female brownies but I imagine they have careers in finance or something) who come into the house at night and do useful chores.

If your house doesn't appear to have been blessed with the services of a brownie I can only say that brownies do tend to gravitate to households which include mothers, or at least motherly types. 

I don't know why.

Easier to spot are the squishy square chocolate cakes called brownies - or, in Australia, the current bread of the same name.

Then there are the junior members of the Girl Guides Association:

File:Brownie points Montreal, Canada.jpg

- though even these modern Brownies, like this Canadian one, are apparently sometimes invisible. 
Photo by Browniepoints

And then there's Brownie points. These are invisible, too. They describe the reward given to someone by his or her superiors for helpful or flattering deeds over and beyond the needs of a work contract.

Yes, that's right: for sucking up to the boss.

The only tangible evidence of this will be in a certain smugness of expression, and the dislike and distaste in the eyes of colleagues.

Spot the Frippet: brownie. The original brownie was a little brown man. The Girl Guides are named after the elves, and the other things are, well, brown. The word brown has been around for ages and is related to the Greek phrunos, toad and the Sanskrit babhru, reddish-brown.

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Sunday Rest: penicillate. Word Not To Use Today.

Anyone with half a brain could work out that penicillate must be something to do with penicillin.

Sadly, though, they'd be, oh, so so wrong.

Word Not To Use Today: penicillate. This word means resembling, or having, many tufts of fine hairs. 

You probably know people like that, but the word is more often used of caterpillars. 

File:Phryssonotus brevicapensis.jpg
(Though this is actually a millipede, Physsonotus brevicapensis, photo by Mark Judson (MNHN Paris))

The word penicillate comes from the Latin word pēnicillus, brush, from pēnis, tail. 

The word penicillin comes from the same source, and is so called because the moulds which produce penicillin have hairy fruiting bodies.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Saturday Rave: November by Thomas Hood

No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon - 
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day - 
No sky - no earthly view - 
No distance looking blue - 
No road - no street - no 't'other side the way' - 
No end to any Row - 
No indications where the Crescents go - 
No top to any steeple - 
No recognitions of familiar people - 
No courtesies for showing'em - 
No knowing 'em -
No travelling at all - no locomotion,
No inkling of the way - no notion,
'No go' by land or ocean - 
No mail - no post - 
No news from any foreign coast - 
No Park - no Ring - no afternoon gentility - 
No company - no nobility - 
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,-


I wouldn't mind so much, but December's the flipping same!

Word To Use Today: November. The Latin word for nine is novem...yes, I know, but November was the ninth month until July and August were shoved in by Augustus and by the Roman Senate, who wished to commemorate Julius Caesar.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Compound Noun To Use Today: solar plexus.

You only ever hear of the solar plexus when it's in trouble: usually, someone punches the hero in the solar plexus and he doubles up in agony, fighting for breath.

Luckily he recovers in a couple of instants, and goes on to win the day. Hurray!

The solar plexus is to be found, these stories tell us, at the front of the body at the base of the ribs - but in that case what's solar about it (I've heard of a couple of sun-shining parts of the anatomy, but that's never included the stomach)? And, for that matter, what's a plexus?

The solar plexus (it's often called by the doctors the celiac plexus, but that's just to confuse everyone) is genuinely a plexus, which is a complicated network or arrangement, usually of blood vessels or nerves. (It's nerves in the case of the solar plexus.)

Now, as you will have noticed, this mass of nerves is tucked inside the body, but a blow to the general area it inhabits can shock the solar plexus into a state of great bewilderment, and this can affect pretty much all your (to use another technical term) innards.

That's the plexus part of the compound noun.

And what's so sunny about it?


Compound Noun To Use Today: solar plexus. The Latin word plectere, which gives us plexus, means to plait. The word solar comes from the other Latin word sōl, which means sun, and refers to all the branching nerves which come out of the plexus like the rays of the sun...


But we know what they mean, all the same.

File:Wc yellow house child drawing.jpg
Illustration by Øyvind Holmstad

Thursday, 5 December 2019

The clever men at Oxford: a rant.

The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed
But they none of them know half as much
As intelligent Mr Toad.

The makers of the Oxford English Dictionary (a construct of glistening genius and deep learning) have announced their Word of the Year.

It's climate emergency.

Now, I don't expect these unparalleled experts on the English language (and many other languages, too) to be particularly knowledgeable about anything else. I don't expect them to be fully conversant with Special Relativity, Techniques for picking the winner the next Grand National, or Knitting the Heel of a Sock.

But, really, you'd have thought they could have managed to count up to two.

Climate emergency? They should have noticed that there was more than word there - or, if they wanted to award the prize to a single entity (this year's Booker and Turner Prizes notwithstanding) then climate emergency is a compound noun.

If they'd wanted a single word then climate would have done. Or emergency

Or, dither, come to think about it. 

Ah well.

Compound noun to Use Today: climate emergency. The word climate comes from the Greek word klima, which means inclination or region, which comes from klinein, to lean. Emergency is to do with emerging. It comes from the Latin word mergere, to dip.

I thought about looking up the word dither, but in the end I didn't get round to it.


Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Nuts and Bolts: asyndeton.

Want to look clever; learned; pompous?

Fancy appearing to be the top brain at the table, the fount of all knowledge, the wisest of men (other sexes are available)?

Well, there's a mechanism, a way of speaking or writing, which does all that; which accelerates the pace, which imbues each clause with greater heaviness, which makes it more pregnant with meaning*, makes it hum with extra significance.

It's called asyndeton.

It involves leaving out all the conjunctions (those are the words like and, so, but, because, which join bits of sentences together).

What is it like? 

Well, it's rather like this post, here.

Thing To Consider Today: asyndeton. This word comes from the Greek asundeton, from sundein, to bind together.

*Hey, look at that: it is possible to be more pregnant!

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Thing To Be Today: excoriating.

There's a lot of abuse being flung about nowadays.

Although a lot of insulting language is perpetrated by those least-anonymous of characters, the celebrities or influencers (the difference between them is the route taken by the money), a vast amount of abuse is anonymous and on-line.

Perhaps one root of the problem might be the idea, also an internet-promulgated one, that everyone's opinion is of equal value. 

Or even of any value at all.

Sadly very little of this stuff is excoriating. The original meaning of excoriating is to do with stripping the skin off an animal, and you have to do that with a sharp, carefully applied knife. 

Bellowing POSH! or POPULIST! or RACIST! may cause genuine damage, but it proves nothing except a contempt for intelligent enquiry.

An argument isn't a quarrel.

So, be logical, measured, and, if you must, excoriating.

It's the very best way to get under an opponent's  skin.

Thing To Do Today: be excoriating. This word comes from the Latin excoriāre, to strip or flay, from corium, hide.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Spot the Frippet: niche.

A niche traditionally contains a statue (I suppose to save it from being knocked over):

File:Statues in Niches Outside the Uffizi Gallery, Florence.jpg
these niches are outside the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence

but sometimes they're architectural features in their own right:

File:El Tajín Pyramid of the Niches.jpg
Pyramid of the niches, El Tajín, Veracruz, Mexico. Photo by Ernest Mettendorf

Nowadays a niche might hold some other kind of fashionable objet d-art - or perhaps, in a bathroom, a small, tastefully expensive group of toiletries.

Quite often, though, all you'll find is dust and the odd expired spider.

Niches can't contain very much because of their size, and because of this the meaning of niche has been extended to describe objects of interest to, or required by, a very few people.

Niche products include crowns, lizard food, and T shirts bearing the slogan I DON'T HAVE A SENSE OF HUMOUR.

On reflection, I realise we all inhabit our own niches. 

What's the most niche product you own?

Spot the Frippet: niche. This word comes from the Old French nichier. to nest, from the Latin nīdus, nest.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Sunday Rest: slanguage: Word Not To Use Today.

Slanguage is language which involves the use of non-standard words, i.e. words restricted in use either to non-formal occasions, or within a particular social class, age range, or outlook.

Yep, so it's exactly the same thing as slang, then.

Ah well.

Word Not To Use Today: slanguage. This...but you can tell how this word is put together. The word slang appeared in English in the 1700s, and it looks as though its meaning started off as a strip of land, often a meandering one, and then later the similar sort of route taken by a tramp or band of strolling players. Later still the special language used among these itinerant people also came to be known as slang.

Saturday, 30 November 2019

Saturday Rave: Sonnet No 1 by Philip Sidney.

Philip Sidney was good-looking, clever, well-connected, and rich. He was a member of parliament (elected at the age of eighteen (I told you he was well-connected)) a diplomat, a soldier, and a courtier to the very demanding Queen Elizabeth I. Amongst all this demanding activity he somehow found time to write a lot of poetry including over a hundred sonnets.

They're good sonnets, too.

In the end, of course, Sidney died the most romantic possible death, not only giving water to another wounded soldier "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine" but composing a song to be sung at his funeral as he lay on his death bed. (Though when I say romantic, I mean in retrospect: bring shot in the leg and then dying later of gangrene could not have been the least bit pretty.)

To make this even more astonishing, he died at the age of thirty one, an age at which many young men nowadays have only just left university (Sidney graduated from Christ Church, Oxford).

Here's his Sonnet No I. It's a love sonnet, of course, but it's really about creative writing.

I can't imagine anyone ever packing so much useful experience into fourteen exquisite lines.

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay:
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

Word To Use Today: wit. This word was witt in Old English and goes back through history (the lovely Old High German form was wizzi) to the Latin vidēre, to see.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Word To Use Today: sinistrous.

Sinistrous can mean ill-omened, or it can describe shells which curl round in a clockwise direction starting from the top or centre.

It's an odd combination of meanings, but, hey, if you're eating the contents of a sinistrous shell then the two meanings do come together. 

And possibly not only for the poor shell fish, either.

Word To Use Today: sinistrous. This word comes from the Latin word sinister, which means on the left-hand (or for the Romans unlucky) side. 

(If you were trying to tell the future by looking at the flight paths of birds then you really didn't want to see one zooming in from the left). 

The word may be connected with the word sinus, which means pocket, Romans keeping their pockets in the left side of their togas. 

Going further back, the Proto Indo European word that gave us the word sinister seems to have meant shadow. There's evidence that ancient Europeans worked out their directions starting from the east, where the sun rises. If you do this in the Northern hemisphere this means the light is always on your right and the shadow on your left.

So the sinister side is the dark side, and everything about the connection between left-handedness and bad things falls into place.

(Not that there's any real connection, obviously.)

Thursday, 28 November 2019

The long arm of the chocolatiers: a rant.

I can't eat chocolate. any more: luckily, though, I can still enjoy the baroquely snobbish blurb on the wrappers.

This intense, bittersweet dark chocolate from the Dominican Republic's Cibao Valley offers hints of red wine and berry flavours

says Sainsburys of their own-brand 70% offering - which is great, as long as red wine and berries are what people are wanting.

Then there's Godiva Belgium 1926 72% cocoa Rich Smooth Dark Chocolate

Crafted by Godiva's Master Chocolatiers of Belgium, it says. Made in Turkey.

(Good heavens! They must have very long arms...)

Our deliciously rich, smooth chocolate

it goes on

 is exceptionally crafted with passion and artistic flair, to unlock a rich symphony of flavour notes. Discover the flavour journey inside each pack.

I'm not sure how you can unlock a symphony, let alone do it while journeying.

Ah well. I suppose tastes of chocolate would have been a bit obvious.

Word To Use Today: chocolate. This word comes from the Aztec xocolatl, from xococ, sour or bitter, and atl, which means water.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Nuts and Bolts: orthoepy

Orthoepy is the technical term for the correct pronunciation of words (or occasionally the correct pronunciation of whole chunks of poetry).

What's correct? Well, as far as English is concerned, it used to be  the King's English (that is, the English spoken by the king of England on the odd occasion when one of them happened to speak English as his native language) but now people quite happily claim American and Australian pronunciations as examples of orthoepy, and there are plenty of passionate advocates for the legitimacy of a thousand other dialects. 

Basically the whole idea of orthoepy has gone right out of fashion.

Amusingly, though, people are still arguing about the orthoepy of the word orthoepy.

Which just goes to show how ridiculous the whole idea was to start with.

Word To Say Correctly Today (ha!): orthoepy. This word comes from the Greek ortho- straight and epos word. You can say the word ORthohEEpee, ORthohEPPee, ORthohIPPi, ORthohUHpee...or however you like, really. I would probably stick with four syllables, though.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Thing To Neither Be Nor Do Today: faint

Being faint is to do with lacking things - conviction, brightness, or force.

You can be in exactly the same state in a good way - you can be questioning instead of convinced, soft instead of bright, gentle instead of forceful - but if you're faint then you're annoyingly insipid, dull, or weak.

So don't damn someone with faint praise, glow with enthusiasm about...well, there must be something, if it's only the joy you felt upon leaving the performance (I had such fun this evening, darling!).

Don't be faint-hearted, have courage.

And if you haven't the faintest idea how to do that, well, then: work it out!


...I suppose, ironically, the best option might involve fainting at the critical moment...

Thing To Neither Be Nor Do Today: faint. This word comes from the Old French, from faindre, to be idle.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Spot the Frippet: fairy.

They say that the bottom of the garden is the easiest place to see a fairy, or, if you have no garden, then try the loneliest crossroads you can find. I'm not saying it'll be easy (or possible) but that's what people say.

On the other hand, you can always blow the fairies from a dandelion clock:

File:Blown dandelions (Diente de Leon, Dandelion).jpg
photo by Vicente Villamón 

or there is bound to be a fairy cycle:

File:Childrens bike.JPG
photo by Keanu @ no:wp

a fairy ring:

File:Fairy Ring 0004.JPG
photo by Aviddoghug 

or (in Australia) some fairy floss:

File:Cotton candy Μαλλί της γριάς.JPG
photo by FocalPoint

near you.

Fairy penguins, shrimps and swallows will probably be further away (though, please note, the fairy swallow is not actually a swallow, but a pigeon):

File:Fairy Swallow (Wing Pigeon).jpg

Easiest of all, there are (or very soon will be) fairy lights everywhere:

File:(1)Fairy lights UNSW-3.jpg
photo by Sardaka

Even so, there's nothing quite as good as the real thing, which in Britain at least can be seen in the form of Fairy Godmothers at the Pantomime in theatres across the land:

File:D23 Expo 2011 - Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother (6075263601).jpg

If all fails, make a wish.

Well, you never know...

Spot the Frippet: fairy. This word comes from the Old French faerie, which means fairyland, from feie, fairy, from the Latin Fāta, the fates.

Sunday, 24 November 2019

Sunday Rest: finsta. Word Not To Use Today.

A finsta is a second Instagram account, access to which is restricted to close friends. The idea is that the photographs and videos on it reflect the poster's real life and interests rather than some highly varnished and glamorous version of it.

I actually quite like the word finsta, but weep that anyone should feel any need for any other type of account.

Sunday Rest: finsta. This word is a portmanteau of the words fake and Instagram. This is rather odd, as the finsta is actually the account which reflects reality. 

The word fake is interesting. It first appears as thieves' slang in the 1700s, where it meant to mug or wound someone - perhaps even yourself, to make yourself more pitiful for begging purposes. It might have originated via Polari from the Italian word facciere, to make or to do. On the other hand the word fake might have come from the dialect slang words feak, to twitch or move quickly, or feague, to put a live eel or ginger up the backside of a horse in order to make it seem more energetic.

Well, that's an image that will haunt me for ever. 

Especially whenever anyone says fake news.

Saturday, 23 November 2019

Saturday Rave: Areopagitica, by John Milton.

I have a bit of a problem with John Milton. His mind was tough and his poetry magnificent, but...

...I think what it comes down to is that he irritates the heck out of me.

Still, many people revere Milton, so this is plainly my fault. I think that part of it is that I've never recovered from reading Robert Graves' wonderful novel Wife To Mr Milton.

Is this why I have mixed feelings about Areopagitica? (The title refers to the hill in Ancient Greece where trails were held.)

Areopagitica is a pamphlet arguing against censorship - and it makes its argument both logically and successfully, and many philosophers whom came after him took Areopagitica as their starting point.

Areopagitica 1644bw gobeirne.png(Although it's called a Speech to Parliament on the cover, it was never a speech, and, as John Milton wasn't a Member of Parliament he couldn't have made it, anyway. I told you he was irritating.)

The other two irritating things about Areopagitica is that, first, one reason Milton was so charged-up about censorship was that his own treatise on divorce had been suppressed (he wanted divorce on the grounds on incompatability. If you want to know more about the circumstances I do recommend Wife to Mr Milton); and, second, after making a series of clear and admirable arguments he goes and says that none of it counts if the stuff's about things he doesn't agree with, such as Catholicism, or superstition, or attacks on the government.

Milton's argument goes something like this: a) it was the Catholics who started this censorship lark, and you don't want to be copying them; b) reading wrong things expands the mind and confirms what is right; c) licensing laws are expensive and useless, and most people will come across the bad ideas by other media such as word of mouth, anyway; d) you can't trust the censors; and, e) as long as a written work isn't allowed to be anonymous then you can sort out the author after publication, anyway.

So, two hearty cheers for John Milton.

It should be three, really, but I can't quite bring myself to suggest it.

Word To Use Today: censor. This word comes from the Latin word cēnsēre, to consider.

Friday, 22 November 2019

Word To Use Today: mastodon.

Mastodon is a brilliant word for, well, a mastodon

Mammoth on the left, mastodon on the right. Illustration by Dantheman9758

The mas bit sounds weighty, and the don bit sounds like a mighty robot.

(As a matter of fact the derivation is nothing to do with being either massive or powerful, but there you go.)

Mastodons were common, once, but that was a long time ago.

I still miss them, though.

How to use the word? Well, as so often PG Wodehouse shows us the way. He writes of occasions when 'Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primaeval swamps' (though I would have thought that a swamp would have been rather a dangerous habitat for an animal as heavy as a mastodon).

That other master of the English language, Betty Rubble, compares Fred Flinstone's singing voice to that of a mastodon who's got caught in the tar pit.

So there we are. Mastodon. A word all ready to add spice to your conversation and to describe any over-large and over-noisy character near you.

Word To Use Today: mastodon. This word comes from the Latin and means, literally, breast-tooth. Even though a mastodon's teeth have bumps on them which are more or less in the shape of nipples, this is a very odd name indeed.