This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Saturday Rave: The Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest poetry we have.

It's not the oldest poem ever, of course - that would have been when some individual of an early Homo species asked someone to sit down beside her on the sabre-toothed tiger - but The Epic of Gilgamesh is the first poem we have that's written down.

It was first written as five Sumerian poems in about 2100 BC, which became the basis of a long poem in Akkadian. Our first versions of this translation dates back to perhaps 1900 BC.

It's absolutely terrific.

It begins like this:

Gilgamesh King in Uruk

I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.

When the gods created Gilgamesh they gave him a perfect body. Shamash the glorious sun endowed him with beauty, Adad the god of the storm endowed him with courage, the great gods made his beauty perfect, surpassing all others, terrifying like a great wild bull. Two thirds they made him god and one third man. 

In Uruk he built walls, a great rampart, and a temple of blessed Eanna for the god of the firmament Anu and for Ishtar the goddess of love. Look at it still today: the outer wall where the cornice runs, shines with the brilliance of copper, and the inner wall, it has no equal. Touch the threshold, it is ancient. Approach Eanna the dwelling of Ishtar, our lady of love, the like of which no latter-day king, no man alive, can equal. Climb upon the wall of Uruk, walk along it, I say; regard the foundation terrace and examine the masonry: is it not burnt brick and good? The seven sages laid the foundations. 


So that's the very beginning of known poetry. 

And o
bviously, remarkably, it's still a pattern for many fantasy writers today. 

Well, I suppose if it ain't broke...

Word To Use Today: Gilgamesh. This name might mean the ancestor is a hero, from the Sumerian bilga, ancestor, and mes, hero or young man. But that's a bit of a guess, really.

The translation above is by N K Sanders, and the full text can be found HERE.

Friday, 20 September 2019

Tern: Word To Use Today.

The terns are leaving England...

File:Arctic tern 8664.jpg
Arctic tern. Photo by OddurBen

That sounds very mournful and poetic, but it isn't, really, because they'll be back again in the spring. Every year, once the weather starts getting cold, they rise and float on the winds far, far away to the south until they find summer again.

File:Common tern with fish.jpg
Common tern, photo by Badjoby

Among human populations it's only generally the old people who follow them and go to warmer climes for the winter, but if someone younger and fitter wants to travel south then there's a chance they might do it in the sort of tern which is one of these:

File:William P. Stubbs - The American three masted schooner Annie R. Lewis.jpg
The Annie R Lewis by William P Stubbs

This type of tern is also known as a three-masted schooner.

And if by any lucky chance three three-masted schooners sailed off together then you'd have a tern of terns, because a group of three is a tern, as well.

So what's the connection between the word for the bird, and the word for the boat, which are both so beautiful, and both live on the sea, and ride the wind in order to move over it?

If you can believe the dictionary, none whatsoever.

Word To Use Today: tern. The word for the bird comes from the Old Norse therna. The word for the ship and the group comes from the Latin terni, which means three each, from trēs, three.

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Tons of fun: a rant.

The Saddlers Company was fined ten tuns of wine for their part in the great London brawl of 1327. 

And you know how much a tun is, don't you.


Well, a US ton (which is pronounced tun, naturally) is 2,000 lbs (lb is short for pound (yes, I know, but it just is, all right?! Blame the Romans!*) which is about half a kilogram), though a British ton is 2,240lbs. A metric ton (which is a term used in the US and many other parts of the world but not Britain, where it's called a tonne (pronounced, obviously, tun)) is, amusingly, 2,204lbs.

The size of a freight ton depends upon the stuff being shifted, but it can be a unit of either volume or weight. It can be 40 cubic feet (a cubic foot is 0,028 of a cubic metre) or one metric tonne.

But what about a tun?

That's definitely a unit of volume, and is either 252, 256, 240 or 208 wine gallons. A wine gallon is the area of a cylinder of 42 inches height and diameter. An inch is...

...sorry. I seem to lost the will to live.

Ten tuns of wine? 

Ten big barrels.

That'll do.

Word To Use Today: ton or tun. Ton and tun both come from the Old English word tunne.

*lb is short for libra.

Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Nuts and Bolts: penillion.

This word sounds like a number with a very large number of noughts, but it's not. It's something much more interesting.

Penillion is the Welsh art of singing poetry to the accompaniment of a Welsh traditional melody, usually played on the harp. The singer's (often improvised) tune may be in triple time while the harpist plays in duple time, and the harpist will often ;play variations on the traditional tune. 

Here's a beautiful example:

Penillion often, as in that clip, forms part of the Welsh Arts competitions called Eisteddfodau.

Word To Enjoy Today: pennillion. This word is Welsh and means verses, from penill, verse. It's also called certhh dant, which means string music.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Thing Not To Tell Someone They Are Today: puisne.

You say puisne the same as you do puny (PYOOnee) and it's basically the same word.

The difference is that whereas puny usually means physically weak, puisne means not so powerful.

It's used for people who have too much authority and dignity to have sand kicked over them when sunbathing. Particularly judges.

There are times when calling someone in great authority puisne can be extremely refreshing.

Best not say it out loud, though.

Thing Not To Tell Someone They Are Today: puisne. This word comes from the Old French puisné, born later, from puis, at a later date, and né, born, from the Latin nascī.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Spot the Frippet: sundial.

There are quite a lot of sundials in England. Yes, it is quite bizarre, because we don't always have very much sun. Ah well!

You can find horizontal:

File:Garden sundial MN 2007.JPG

photo by SEWilco

and vertical sundials:

File:Dali Sundial in Paris.jpg
this one's in Paris. Photo by Ken Eckert

This one from New South Wales is a whopper (though it doesn't seem to be doing much good at the time of the photograph):

File:Singleton Sundial Feb 2010.jpg
Singleton sundial. Photo by Bandworthy

My very favourite sundial is the topiary one at Ascott House in Buckinghamshire, England (follow the link to see a photograph). Around the clipped box numbers is the motto, also in clipped box hedging, Light and Shade But Love Always.

If you don't know where to find a sundial then if you have any sort of stick to cast a shadow you can make your own very easily. It'll only tell the correct time at that particular place at that particular time on that particular day of the year, but, hey, that's better than a clock which loses a second a day. 

Or, of course, its battery.

Spot the Frippet: sundial. The Old English for sun was sunne. Dial comes from the Latin diālis, daily, from diēs, which means day.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Sunday Rest: eutaxia. Word Not To Use Today.

A Greek scholar might guess that eutaxia is the state of enjoying things arranged neatly - and the rest of us the word might suggest the natural disgust felt at having to give money to the government. 

But we would all be wrong, because eutaxia is actually an engineering term which describes something that can be easily melted.

Still, if you can find a work of literature which includes the sentence The butter existed in its usual state of eutaxia then you will at least have some idea what it's going on about, won't you.

Sunday Rest: eutaxia. Eu- is to do with the Greek word eus, which means good; -taxia, I should imagine, comes for the Greek word taxis, which means order. 

What this has got to do with things melting I have no idea at all.

 By the way, eutaxis is the state of having a fifth secondary flight feather. 

This is, however, only likely if you are a bird.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Saturday Rave: the book.

Not The Book, as in the Bible (though I can't deny it has some jolly good stuff in it) but the book - the multiplicity of paperback, hardback, cloth book, pop-up, illustrated, versified, mapped, indexed story of romance, betrayal, lust, greed, sacrifice, prejudice, war, romp, anguish, triumph, tragedy and all.

Michael Deacon has recently summed up the lure - well, one lure - of the book most economically and beautifully.

On the 24th August 2019 in the Telegraph newspaper he wrote:

That's what a book is, at heart: a refuge for introverts. It's a way to learn about life without having to take part in it. To learn about people, without having to touch them.

And he's right. Because there's nowhere safer, really, than a book.

Word To Use Today: book. This word comes from the Old English bōk. It's basically the same word as beech (as in the tree) because people used to write on its bark.

Friday, 13 September 2019

Word To Use Today: ostracon.

I love a really obscure word, and so I here give you the word ostracon.

(As a bonus, there's a word ostracod, too, but that's something completely different.*)

An ostracon is a potsherd (no, not someone who herds pots, but a broken piece of a pot used for writing on. It's an early example of recycling).

This one says Kimon Miltiades woz here, more or less.

 In Ancient Greece ostraca were used in voting, and if the vote went the wrong way some unlucky person would end up ostracised. That's the meaning of the word ostracon which non-archaeologists are known to use.

But only very very occasionally.

Word To Use Today: ostracon. This word comes from the Greek ostrakon, and is basically the same word as ostracise.

*Ostracod is any of the minute freshwater crustacea in the order Ostracoda, from the Greek ostrakon, meaning, in this case, shell.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Kisses nah: a rant.

A dear friend wrote to me about her son-in-law's fiftieth birthday celebrations.

We're having a kisses nah, she said, and all the family will be there.

Well, this friend is a very cultured and intellectually curious person, and I did wonder what a kisses nah might be. But then my friend is also rather fond of using family slang and playful abbreviations, and so, as I'd got the gist of what she was saying, I thought I'd wait until the actual day of the celebration and hope that all would become clear.

Except that it didn't. We had a brilliant kisses nah, my friend told me, happily. So I went off to consult Google; which, I'm afraid, proved to be exactly as ignorant as me.

I then did the sensible thing and asked my friend what a kisses nah was; and it turned out that kisses nah was an example of the Cupertino Effect - a predictive text error.

And what for?

Well, you now have all the clues, so see if you can work it out .(Answer below).

Word To Use Today: kiss. It strikes me that kissing is rather odd behaviour, but we have been kissing in England for a long time. The Old English form of the word was cyssan.

And the answer?

Kisses nah is what the predictive text system on an iPhone made of an accurate attempt to type birthday lunch

And I don't think that even Alan Turing could have worked out that one.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Nuts and Bolts: diaeresis.

The most important thing to know about diaeresis is that an ability to spell the word is a sign of a wasted life.*

(I had to look it up.)

Knowing that the plural is diaereses probably means you have also no friends.

A diaeresis is the double dot you occasionally get above a letter, giving the instruction that the letter in question, and the one before it, should be pronounced separately, as in, for example, Noël, 
Chloë and naïve. 

There are also a few instances where a diaeresis tells you to pronounce the letter separately even though it isn't attached to another vowel, as in the name Brontë.

Diaereses used to be commoner in English - we used to write coöperate and poem, for example - but now if a word is likely to cause a problem with pronunciation then we tend to use a hyphen instead, as in, for example, the word re-ignite.

In fact, pronouncing adjacent vowels separately is still called a diaeresis, even without the double dots or hyphen - though only, as I've already said, by people who have wasted quite a substantial proportion of their lives.

Word Probably Not To Use Today: diaeresis. (Don't mix this word up with diuresis, which is to do with passing urine.) This word is Latin and comes from the Greek diairesis, which mean division. The Greek word diairein means to divide.

Diaeresis can also describe the place in a line of poetry when the end of a regular repeated rhythm coincides with the end of a word.

*Though some people spell it without the e, the rebels.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

Thing To Be Today: an ignoramus.

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

Thus said Alexander Pope in his Essay on Criticism - and not thus say a whole heap of ignoramuses, who misquote him confidently. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, they say; which is also true, but sadly we all of us only have a little knowledge.

Mind you, we all of us only have a little learning, too. 

Still, to help a little, how about this Pierian spring thing Pope was going on about?

The Pierian Spring was in Macedonia, close to Mount Olympus where the gods lived. The Muses, who were the spirits of music, poetry, etc, frolicked there (what a nice word is frolic!). The spring was said to be the source of all knowledge of Art and Science.

One day the daughters of King Pierus challenged the Muses to a contest - which was idiotic of them - and, predictably, the princesses lost. Then the silly girls, instead of accepting their defeat gracefully, began to squawk protests at the decision, and were briskly turned into magpies.

Knowing about the Pierian Spring is admittedly only a small drop of knowledge to thicken the ocean of our ignorance. 

But it all helps.

Thing To Be Today: an ignoramus. The first Ignoramus was a character in a play by C Ruggle, a dramatist in the 1600s.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Spot the Frippet: loot.

In informal speech loot is anything particularly desirable that someone has brought home, even if it happens to have been paid for honestly. This loot may come from a clothes shop or a supermarket (but not if it's grey knickers or sliced bread or bleach or anything dull like that).

Loot must in some sense sparkle.

Most loot, however, is ill-gained. He's got plenty of loot only technically means that he's got lots of money, because there's a tasty tang of dishonesty about the expression which makes a salve for the feelings of the hard-up and the envious.

If you would like to see something more definitely dodgy then countries have always had a habit of looting stuff whenever they can; a lot of loot is a product of empire, war, trade, or an assumption of superiority.

There's probably something viewable in a museum near you.

Spot the Frippet: loot. Strangely, although the Saxons, Vikings, and Cromwells were notable for their looting and pillaging of England, the word loot itself is much more recent. It comes from the Hindu word lūt. 

Sunday, 8 September 2019

Sunday Rest: bradigan. Word Not To Use Today.

On 29 August, the fashion journalist Caroline Leaper asked rather nervously if it would be acceptable to call Katie Holmes' latest outfit of a knitted cardigan worn over a matching knitted bra either a bra-digan or a bradigan.

I would say the answer to that question is no.

Sunday Rest: bradigan. The word bra is short for brassière, and in the 1600s in France this meant bodice. Before that, braciere was Old French for a cover for the arm, from braz, arm. The -digan part of bradigan comes from Cardigan, a town in Wales, which gave the 7th Earl of Cardigan, who liked a nice warm button-up woolly, his title.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Saturday Rave: A Ballad of Freedom by C J Dennis.

The Australian poet C J Dennis was born in 1876. He was remarkable for having a fairly gloomy and difficult childhood (not only sent away to be raised by great-aunts, and then by the notoriously violent Christian Brothers, but being called Clarrie (which was short for Clarence, but even so...)) and yet he grew up to be not only a poet who could see the comic side of more or less anything, but a poet who made proper money.

The Ballad of Freedom speaks penetratingly of serious matters, but that doesn't stop it being a joyful read.

It begins like this:

Now Mr. Jeremiah Bane
He owned a warehouse in The Lane,
An edifice of goodly size,
Where, with keen private enterprise,
  He sold imported napery
  And drapery - and drapery.
His singlets and his socks were sent
Out over half the continent;
  In clothing for the nursery
  And mercery - and mercery
He plied a most extensive trade,
And quite enormous profits made,
And barracked, with much fervency,
For foreign-trade - described as "Free."
        He said,
        It was
            His creed.
The trade described as Free.


And then we get a whole story about this dreadful, cunning man, which I thoroughly recommend.

A Ballad of Freedom poem reminds me rather of The Canterbury Tales. It has the same winking humour and sharp eye for hypocrisy, and the same slightly sardonic realism and delight in the arrangement of language.

How could anyone afford to miss something like that?

The whole poem - do read it - can be found HERE.

Word To Use Today: mercery. Mercery is fine fabrics (mercery are fine fabrics? Oh dear, that's a place that English won't go, isn't it) such as velvet and silk. The word comes from the Latin mers, which means goods or wares.

Friday, 6 September 2019

Word To Use Today: loriner/lorimer.

Loriner is a lovely word. I discovered it on a visit to Capel Manor College and Gardens, which is just inside the northernmost stretch of the M25 motorway which circles London.

There is a plaque in the entrance there to commemorate the 750th anniversary of the Worshipful Company of Loriners. 750th! And yet I didn't even know what a loriner was.

It turns out that a loriner is someone who makes the metal bits of a horse's tackle: that is, basically, the metal parts of its saddle and bridle.

The Loriner Company first came together officially in 1261, and part of the idea of the company was to lay down rules for conditions of work, and to stipulate the taxes to be paid to the City of London, and also to charity.

Now, the Saddlers had a company, too, and the Saddlers' Company hated the Loriners. They hated the Painters and the Fusters (or joiners), too, and on Ascension Day in 1327 there was a huge bust-up in the streets of London between all these companies in which several people were killed.

Everyone was duly summoned to appear before the Mayor and Sheriffs (in fact, so many men turned up on the first day that they had to abandon the sitting) but although the Saddlers protested that all the other trades had agreed to go on strike if any one of them had a dispute with the Saddlers (a wheeze which continued to be legal for nearly all of the last 750 years), in the end the judges decreed that the Saddlers must promise to conspire no more against the other trades - and must pay ten tuns of wine to the Commonalty of London.

It's a lovely story, but how to use the beautiful word loriner today I do not know. I can only suggest you tell someone the story of the court case and discuss how much wine might atone for some other sins. 

Such as failing to return a library book on time, perhaps.

Word To Use Today: loriner/lorimer. The Old French word lorain means harness strap, and comes from the Latin lōrum, strap. The form of the word lorimer seems to be basically a very long-standing mistake.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Real Food: a rant

I see that Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket, is advertising its ready meals as made using real ingredients for a natural taste.

And now I have an idea for a new guaranteed 100% successful diet: meals made using unreal ingredients:

File:Fasting 4-Fasting-a-glass-of-water-on-an-empty-plate.jpg
photo by Jean Fortunet

...I think fame and fortune might await.

Word To Use Carefully Today: real. This word comes from the Old French réel, from the Latin rēs, which means thing.

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Nuts and Bolts: enthymeme.

An enthymeme is a matter of logic.


To get an enthymeme you have to start with a syllogism. A syllogism is a statement where you deduce a fact as a result of stating and then accepting two others. 

Dogs are mammals.
Snoopy is a dog.
Therefore, Snoopy is a mammal.*

If you don't bother to state one of the supporting facts then you've got an enthymeme:

Snoopy is a mammal because he's a dog.

But there are other types of enthymeme, and some of them are very weak indeed. You can have an enthymeme which relies on a sign of something to bring you to a conclusion:

She's wearing fur, therefore she's not a vegan.

which is usually true - but not, for instance, if the she in question is a hamster.

Weaker still are the enthymemes which are based on prejudice - though these do come in very useful for jokes:

I can always tell when my mother-in-law's coming to stay: the mice throw themselves on the traps.
Les Dawson.

It may take a while to unpick the logic in that statement, but over the years it's still made a lot of people laugh.

Thing To Consider Today: enthymeme. The Greek word enthumeisthai means to infer, from thumos, mind.

*Which just goes to prove that even logic isn't necessarily completely bullet-proof.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Thing Not To Indulge In Unthinkingly Today: zoolatry.

Zoolatry can be either excessive or extreme devotion to animals (they're usually pets):

File:Patriotic Pampered Pocket Pooch Posing Proudly.jpg
photo by Randy Richardson

...which does get a bit boring for everyone else; or it can be the worship of various animals as the incarnations of gods, or God, or some other Life Force or Good Thing.

It all seems a bit odd to me, but, hey, if it involves being nice to animals it can't be bad. 

Well, as long as it doesn't involve human sacrifice it can't be too bad, anyway.

Mind you, every sort of worship involves some sort of sacrifice, doesn't it?

Thing Not To Indulge In Unthinkingly Today: zoolatry. The Greek word zōion means animal; the Greek word latreia means worship. 

The carn bit of incarnation comes rather horribly from the Latin word carō, which means flesh.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Spot the Frippet: something venerable.

Are you, or do you plan to be, venerable?

Or just past it?

(Or, for the pessimists among us, short-lived?)

To be venerable is to be admired and valued for your great age, and for the knowledge and wisdom which is (sometimes) a by-product.

If there's no chance of that by the end of play today then there are other ways of being venerable, and one of them doesn't even involve being old (though it does involve being an official in the Church of England (an archdeacon) which is even harder than being old).

Never mind, if you're a member of the Roman Catholic church you can be venerable without even having to be alive; someone venerable in this case has been officially decreed holy by the church, but he (or she) hasn't yet been recognised as a saint.

Come to think about it, though, that must be the hardest way of being venerable there is.

As for spotting something venerable, then you're either on the look-out for an old person who retains some sense of dignity, or something other kind of dignified old thing. You might see a venerable dog, or a venerable church, or a venerable book, or a venerable aeroplane:

File:Sopwith F-1 Camel USAF.jpg
this is a Sopwith Camel

Just make sure that when you do see it, you give some thought to exactly how much you should venerate it.

Spot the Frippet: something venerable. This word comes from the Latin venerāri, to venerate.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Sunday Rest: ventifact. Word Not To Use Today.

A ventifact is an intriguing, marvellous, and magnificent thing:


White Desert, Egypt. Photo by Christine Schultz.

but because the word ventifact sounds so much like a piece of information repeated loudly again and again by someone very angry, it is sadly unusable on nearly all occasions.

Sunday Rest: ventifact. A ventifact is a pebble or rock that's been shaped by wind-blown sand or ice crystals. The Latin word ventus means wind, and the other Latin word facere means to make.