This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 19 August 2019

Spot the Frippet: mere.

There are four types of mere in my Collins dictionary, but of course you can't spot the one which means only. 

She is a mere child = she is only a child.

The other three types of mere, however, are out there and fully visible.

The first sort of mere is a lake or marsh, and probably not a very cheerful one. (But then marshes aren't often cheerful.) I associate this sort of mere with Tennyson at his gloomiest:

Long stood Sir Bedivere
Revolving many memories, till the hull
Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.*

The second mere is a boundary or boundary marker:

File:Tri-States Boundary Marker top view.jpg
tri-state boundary marker, USA. Photo by Cohee

and the third is a flat club usually found in New Zealand:

File:New Zealand; Maori wooden club (mere). Albumen print. Wellcome V0038536.jpg
Wellcome Images.

I suppose this is a grim thing, too, but it does at least sound cheerful: you say it merry, pretty much.

The boundary marker seems the easiest to spot, as well as being the most fun, so I think I'll go off and find one of those...

...would a garden fence count?

Spot the Frippet: mere. The lake word comes from the Old English mere, meaning sea. The boundary word comes from the other Old English word gemǣre. The weapon word is, of course Māori.

*Those are the last lines of Morte d'Arthur.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Sunday Rest: eulogy. Word Not To Use Today.


...well, if there's a word that sounds more like someone throwing up then I don't know what it is.

Still, I suppose they can be a bit sickeningly over-sweet.

Sunday Rest: eulogy. In mediaeval times his word meant high praise. (Eus is Greek for good, and logos means word.) It comes from the Latin eulogium from the Greek eulogia, which means praise, but along the way the word has probably got a bit mixed up with the similar Latin word elogium, which means inscription on a tomb.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Saturday Rave: Hertha by Fredrika Bremer.

Hertha was published in 1856. It was written by Fredrika Bremer, and it managed not only to be both dark and funny, but to start a parliamentary debate in Sweden which resulted in a new law giving Swedish adult unmarried women their legal majority.

It also raised the profile of the argument for formal higher education for women. The result, in 1861, was the opening of a university for women teachers, the Högre Iärinneseminariet. As if this wasn't extraordinary enough, the novel also inspired the publication of the women's newspaper Tidskrift för hemmel.

There can't have been many novels which have has such as effect on the political world.

Fredrika Bremer was born in 1801 and brought up to be a young lady, an occupation that drove her almost mad with boredom and frustration. She started writing in order to raise money for charity, but she found in her writing the opportunity to speak the truth about women's lives in nineteenth century Sweden.

She said:

I would like to become an author to whose works everyone who is sad, depressed and troubled (and especially everyone of my own sex who is suffering) could go, assured of finding in them a word of redress, of comfort, or encouragement.

That's a quote from a letter. Here's one from Hertha:

One day is so terribly like another that people don't know how to distinguish one from another. For this reason many an inhabitant of a little town, that he might not drop fast asleep from sheer weariness, endeavours to keep himself awake by drinking punch, playing at cards, at many other such pastimes, which have the result of making the purse light and the heart heavy. The ladies again, when they do not partake of the gentlemen's pastimes - which sometimes happens - generally amuse themselves with coffee-parties, novel-reading, and petty scandal, by way of a little spice to this thin spiritual soup of daily life.

Sharp, funny stuff.

If you have very good eyesight you can read the whole novel HERE.

Word To Use Today: scandal. This word comes from the Latin scandalium, a stumbling block, from the Greek skandalion, a trap.

Saturday Rave: Taras Shevchenko.

As the sun sets and hills grow dark, as the birdsong ends and fields fall silent, as the people laugh and take their rest, I watch. My heart hurries to the twilit gardens of Ukraine. And I hurry. O, how I hurry with my thoughts, as my heart yearns for rest. As the fields grow dark, as the groves grow dark, as the hills grow dark, I see a star. And I weep. Hey, you star! Have you reached Ukraine? Do dark eyes scour the blue sky for you? Or don’t they care? May they sleep if they don’t. May they know nothing of my fate

Friday, 16 August 2019

Word To Use Today: wotcher.

Exactly how much of a snob are you?

Will you happily say Good morning? Or would that be too posh?

Will you say Hi, or Hey: or would that be too modern?

Are you fussy to the point that you don't even approve of Hello? (It is just about possible: the word, used as a greeting, is less than a hundred and fifty years old, and was coined by an engineer* rather than a classics scholar).

Will you say Good day? or is that too ridiculously formal (unless, of course, you're Australian)?

And how about wotcher? That manages to be out-of-date, slang, and never used in middle-class society...


Are you a snob?

Go on, then, prove it: greet the next person you see with wotcher.

I'll let off the Americans amongst you saying the next word in the traditional greeting: 

Wotcher cock!

Word To Use Today: wotcher. This is Cockney (that is, east London slang) for What cheer? It was coined in the 1800s.

Actually, I do wish What cheer would come back as a greeting: it might stop everyone grumbling the whole time.

The word cheer, in the sense of a welcoming face, comes from the Greek kara, which means head.

*Thomas Edison. It was originally an exclamation of surprise at the workings (or lack of them) of his newly invented telephone.

Thursday, 15 August 2019

The Minister for the Eighteenth Century: a rant.

Britain has a long and glorious tradition of eccentrics, and now, to add to the bounty, we have Jacob Rees Mogg. 

Mr Rees-Mogg is a Member of Parliament (and is known, mostly affectionately, as the Member for the Eighteenth Century). He has been recently elevated to the position of Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council.

In what way is Mr Rees-Mogg eccentric? There isn't room here to make a list, but let me just say that he admits cheerfully to having taken his nanny (that is, the lady paid to look after him when he was a child) on political canvassing expeditions. (Though I'm not sure that Mr Rees-Mogg would approve of the trip's being called an expedition as the ped in the middle of the word tends to imply that the journey was done on foot, and it's said (with how much truth I do not know) that he actually used his Daimler.)

Anyway, Mr Rees-Mogg has provided his new government department with a list of rules to be applied to official correspondence. Some of these rules are matters of taste, some of them are matters of convention; some of them logically justifiable, some of them aren't.

Here they are in full.

  • Organisations are SINGULAR
  • All non-titled males - Esq.
  • There is no . after Miss or Ms*
  • M.P.s - no need to write M.P. after their name in body of text

  • Male M.P.s (non-privy councillors) - in the address they should have Esq., before M.P. (e.g Tobias Ellwood, Esq., M.P.)

  • Double space after fullstops
  • No comma after 'and'
  • CHECK your work
  • Use imperial measurements

Banned words/phrases

  • Very
  • Due to
  • Ongoing
  • Hopefully
  • Unacceptable
  • Equal
  • Too many 'I's
  • Yourself
  • Lot
  • Got
  • Speculate
  • 'invest' (in schools etc)
  • No longer fit for purpose
  • I am pleased to learn
  • Meet with
  • Ascertain
  • Disappointment 
  • I note/understand your concern

Actually, I think it's all rather sweet, in a British-eccentric sort of a way.

Two particular comments:

First, don't put two spaces after a full stop in any manuscript sent to a publisher. Most of them hate it!

Second, the no comma after the word and rule. Well, how about this sentence?

The elderly actor finished his plate of fried eggs and old ham that he was bowed to the ladies as he left the room.

A comma (in fact two) would have helped there, wouldn't it?

Word To Use Today: now, are you a rebel or not? If you are, the word speculate is quite interesting. It comes from the Latin specula, a watchtower, from specere to look at.

*The third rule, There is no . after Miss and Ms is, I suspect, an example of the exception that proves the rule, the implication being that the abbreviation Mr should have a full stop. I don't agree, myself - and I spell full stop as two words - but, hey, if it keeps Mr. Rees-Mogg happy...

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Nuts and Bolts: -ode suffixes.

I have a fondness for words ending in -ode because they remind me of the wonderful Professor Unwin, who used them very often.

Having said that, -ode words are slightly annoying because you can never be quite sure what that ending means. It might mean resembling, as in the words nematode or cytode; or it might mean a path or a way, as in electrode or episode.

Or it might just be a word that happens to end in the letters -ode, like code, lode and abode, where the -ode bit doesn't really mean anything in particular.

The annoying word cephalopode ( which is the old form of the word cephalopod) is different again, because the -ode bit here is really part of the ending -pode, which comes from the Greek word pous, foot. 

The same is the case with the extraordinary birds called megapodes:

File:Megapodius eremita.jpg

As Professor Unwin might have said himself, it's all a bit complexico unsimplode.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: one ending in -ode. This ending might come from the Greek word eidos, which means shape, or the other Greek word hados, which means way.

Nematode, by the way, comes from the Greek ma, which means thread.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Thing Not To Do Today: humble-brag.

I wish my legs were longer. I'm going to look awful in my Dior bikini on our luxury holiday in the Seychelles.

I'm so bad at English that I'm going to have to employ someone to correct my grammar for my speech to the United Nations.

If only I had the self-control to refuse all the free food you get offered in first class.

I'd love to have a Fiat just like yours. I have such trouble parking my Rolls Royce.


Look, the humble-brag: it's completely transparent. It just makes you look like an idiot.

So best not do it, eh?

Thing Not To Do Today: humble-brag. The word humble comes from Old French, from Latin humilis, which means low, and before that from humus, which means the ground. The word brag appeared in the 1200s, but, perhaps surprisingly, its origins are modestly obscure. It may, however, be something to do with the bray of a trumpet, or a Celtic word meaning proud, or an Old Norse word bfragr, which means the toast, or best of anything.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Spot the Frippet: ocellus.

An ocellus is a simple eye, or something that looks like an eye.

Insects have them:

File:House Fly Eye Closeup.jpg
eyes of a house fly. Photo by Sanjay Achara

...and butterflies sometimes have more than two.

File:Peacock Butterfly (7822792836).jpg
photo of a Peacock butterfly by Tony Hisgett

Peacocks are famous for flouncing about with loads of the things, and so does the Argus pheasant:

illustration by T W Wood from Darwin's The Descent of Man do some leaves and types of fungus.


I'm beginning to wonder if I've ever been a day without seeing one.

Spot the Frippet: ocellus. This word is Latin for small eye, from oculus, which means eye.

Sunday, 11 August 2019

Sunday Rest: vegangelist. Word Not To Use Today.

I hope that this is the last of The Word Den's vegan-based-monstrosity series.

A vegangelist is someone who goes about proclaiming the benefits of being a vegan. 

This is fine, of course, as long as they don't get aggressive or silly about it, like supporting an attack on a butcher's shop, for instance; or suggesting a change to the name of town because it's called after an animal product.

That sort of action might make people think that vegans are dangerous and/or clinically mad.

Which they're not.

Well, not most of them, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: vegangelism. No one I can discover is admitting to having coined this horrible word. The word evangelist basically means good news, from the Greek eu- good and angelos, messenger (yes, as in angel).

The name of the town of Wool comes from the Saxon welle, which means spring and is nothing to do with a sheep's coat.

Saturday, 10 August 2019

Saturday Rave: The Battle of Malden. Anon.

Today is the anniversary of the battle of Maldon, which took place between a group of locals commanded by Byrhtnoth, the Earl of Essex, and a group of nameless Viking invaders (though other sources say that the leader of the Vikings was called Olaf).

The battle took place in 991, and the poem which has made it famous (for the battle was of almost no importance as far as history is concerned) was written within a few decades of this.

 The poem is missing its beginning and end, but we still have a substantial account: 325 lines, to be exact.

The battle happened like this. The English were defending a causeway, but Byrhtnoth allowed the Vikings to cross it so that there could be a pitched battle. Whether this was an act of bright bravery or dull idiocy will probably never be settled, but by the end of the bit of the poem that we still have it is clear that the English are overwhelmed and are going to be slaughtered.

Byrhtnoth, the commander of the English is already dead, and these are his dying words:

"Geþancie þe, ðeoda waldend,
ealra þæra wynna þe ic on worulde gebad.
Nu ic ah, milde metod, mæste þearfe
þæt þu minum gaste godes geunne,
þæt min sawul to ðe siðian mote
on þin geweald, þeoden engla,
mid friþe ferian. Ic eom frymdi to þe
þæt hi helsceaðan hynan ne moton."

ða hine heowon hæðene scealcas
and begen þa beornas þe him big stodon,
Ælfnoð and Wulmær begen lagon,
ða onemn hyra frean feorh gesealdon.

"I thank you, Wielder of nations,
for all the joys I have felt in this world.
Now I, merciful Lord, have great need
that you grant a blessing on my soul,
that my spirit may journey to you
into your wielding, Lord of the angels,
and depart in peace.  I entreat you
that hell's fiends may not harm it!"

Then heathen warriors hewed him,
and the men who stood by him;
Ælfnoð and Wulmær both lay dead,
giving up life their lives beside their lord.


I'm left thinking about modern war poems, and I'm wondering why nowadays we don't name the names of real people so much.

It makes deaths in battle easier to bear, of course.

And I wonder how much that is really the point.

Word To Use Today: merciful. The word mercy comes from the Latin mercēs, wages or price, from merx, which means goods.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Word To Use Today: greng-jai.

This word is Thai, but we could really do with something that means the same thing in English, so perhaps we should steal it. 

Let's face it, we've already stolen the words bong (the pipe) and pad thai from Thai, so one more word won't make much difference.

Greng-jai is a complicated thing. It can be the reluctance you feel when about to ask a favour from someone, or the reluctance you feel in interfering in any way with someone else's behaviour, even when it's plainly wrong or even illegal.

Greng-jai is more or less the opposite of confrontation.

As this leads to all sorts of not-saying-what-you-mean, I suppose this is the opposite of effective language.

But it'd be a jolly useful word, all the same.

Word To Use Today: greng-jai. This word is Thai. Jai means heart mind or spirit and greng means fear or to be afraid.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

Orders of Services: a rant.

So what's the plural of Order of Service (which is the pamphlet you sometimes get at a church service to tell you what's going to happen)?

Is it Orders of Service? 

No, because there's only one order, no matter how many are printed.

Is it Order of Services? 

No, because there's only one service, no matter how many are printed.

Orders of Services?

um...I've got a feeling that logically that just makes everything even worse?

Ah well. On the basis that there's no problem so big that you can't run away from it, how about copies of the Order of Service?

It's not elegant. But it'll do.

Word To Use Today: copy. The Latin word cōpia means an imitation and before that an abundance, or riches.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Nuts and Bolts: versicle.

A versicle is a line said or sung by a priest at a religious ceremony to which a response is required.

For example:

Hear my prayer, O Lord:

[The response to that should be: And let my cry come unto you.]

that sort of thing.

A versicle can also be a line of a verse (especially if it's in a hymn) which is shorter than most of the others, as in the last line of:

Where light, and life, and joy, and peace
In undivided empire reign,
And thronging angels never cease
Their deathless strain;  

A versicle can also be a short verse:

A longer verse
Is often worse.

so, basically, in that case a versicle is an ickle verse.


Word To Use Today: versicle. The Old French version of this word was versicule, from the Latin versiculus. Yes, which really does mean little verse.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Thing Not To Write Lightly Today: vers libre.

The French and the British have history - lots of history. Some of it's friendly, some of it's most definitely not; but it's all coloured by fundamental incomprehension.

Having said that, we British admire the French for many things - for their elegance, for one thing, and also for their ability to speak of intellectual matters without sniggering self-consciously. This is why the term vers libre is sometimes preferred in England to its English translation free verse.

Vers libre is writing that's divided into short lines like poetry, but doesn't go in for regular rhythms or rhymes.

Now, you may be asking (as I am) so what's the difference between vers libre and prose that's been chopped up?

And I'm afraid 
The answer is, 
Too often, 
None at all.

Thing Not To Write Lightly Today: vers libre. This is French for free verse. The term was probably invented by Gustave Kahn, and the idea is that each poem has its own individual structure and form.

Rules may not apply, but, in poetry as in life, that doesn't mean you can do anything you like and call it good.