This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Thing Not To Do Today: coggle.

Coggle is another Scots word - thank you, Scotland! - and it means to wobble or rock, or to be unsteady.

Something which coggles usually has a rounded base. If coggles too violently then it can be coggled over, or overturned.

Things which don't stand too firmly on their bases can even be coggly.

The word coggle is, plainly, completely charming, and it has been drafted in for other uses. A coggle is a wheel used for making small dents or grooves along the edge of plates before they are fired (though why anyone should wish to do this I have no idea at all). 

A coggle can also be another word for the sort of cobble that's used to make a path or road; or a coggle can be a small boat (which coggles along if the sea is rough); or it can even be a way of drawing word-trees on a computer.

In fact, you know something? It makes standing up straight seem really rather overrated.

Thing Not To Do Today: coggle. The origin of this word isn't known, but could be something to do with the type of coggle/cobble which tends to tip you off-balance when you tread on it. On the other hand it might be a diminutive of cob, a small boat. Or the word may have come about just because it sounds such fun, as did the word joggle.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Spot the Frippet: flap.

Letter go into flaps, and in Britain the vast majority of thses flaps will be set into a front door:

File:New front door (5220796607).jpg
photo by Timo Newton-Syms

but do mathematicians ever go into flaps

See the puzzle, below, and see of you can work it out calmly!

In the meantime, tents have flaps:

File:Sukuti Beach tent.jpg
photo by Paritosh chaudhary

and so do envelopes, pockets, and aeroplane wings:

File:Aircraft wing flaps full dsc06835.jpg
photo by David Monniaux

And then there are flapjacks*. In the USA Canada and New Zealand (my Collins dictionary tells me) a flapjack is a pancake, and in this case the flap in flapjack is understandable because you have to flap the pan to turn the flapjack over. In Britain, however, a flapjack is a chewy dense cake made with porridge oats and golden syrup, and, far from flapping it about, you press it firmly into the pan to make sure it sticks together while it's being baked:

File:Flapjack tray.jpg
photo by sk8geek

So where the flap has come from in that case is a puzzle: though not the only one (see below). 

Spot the Frippet: flap. This word is first recorded in the 1300s and is probably an imitation of the action of flapping.

The mathematical flapjack puzzle. My flapjack recipe (and this is true) calls for an eight inch square baking tray, but instructs the baker to mark out the soft newly-baked cake mixture into twelve squares.

Can you work out how this can be done?

It is possible - though I don't think the result is what the writer of the recipe had in mind.

*The jack is basically a word meaning man, or thingie-that-does-something, and comes from the shortened form of the name John.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Sunday Rest: shacket. Word Not To Use Today.

I'm not against new words.

I'm not even against portmanteau words where two words have been cobbled together without even a passing glance in the direction of history or aesthetics. 

There are limits, though, and this word cavorts through them with all the grace of a hornet-stung mule. 

A shacket is an item of clothing. No, it's nothing to do with shackles, thank heavens. It's a shirt worn as a jacket.

Still, whatever you call it, it's still a shirt. Just a very expensive one.

Still, a fool and his money...

Word Not To Use Today: shacket. This word is a badly sewn-together mixture of the words shirt and jacket. The word jacket comes from the French word jacque, which means peasant, from Jacques, the given name. The word shirt comes from the Old English scyrte, which is related to sceort, which means short.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

An Autumn Rain-Scene by Thomas Hardy.

Well, that's summer gone. It's dull and grey and cold and still.

Keats' writes of sumptuous autumn days of mellow fruitfulness, but they don't really exist. With autumn comes a hint of unease, of threat, of better-take-a-coat, of have-you-seen-my-woolly-hat-I-left-around-somewhere-in-the-spring? That sense of warmth (if any) being fleeting.

All this will tell you that I am basically a county person, by which I mean someone whom the weather affects in practical ways and who is enraged by the very idea of boots made of sheepskin (how are they going to fare in the mud!).

Thomas Hardy was a country person, too. 

You can tell.

There trudges one to a merry-making
With a sturdy swing
On whom the rain comes down.

To fetch the saving medicament
Is another bent,
On whom the rain comes down.

One slowly drives his herd to the stall
Ere ill befall,
On whom the rain comes down.

This bears the missives of life and death
With quickening breath
On whom the rain comes down.

One watches for signals of wreck or war
From hill afar
On whom the rain comes down.

No care if he gains a shelter or none,
Unhired moves on,
On whom the rain comes down.

And another knows nought of its chilling fall
Upon him at all,
On whom the rain comes down.

October 1904

Word To Use Today: chill. This word comes from the Old English ciele, and goes right back to the Latin gelidus, icy.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Word To Use Today: garbology.

Sometimes a suffix does wonders.

You might have thought that searching through dustbins was an activity confined to vagrants, detectives, thieves, foxes, and tabloid journalists; but call it an -ology, garbology, say, and suddenly you're a scientist, an ecologist, and an economist; and by searching through people's rubbish you're analysing the consumption patterns of households. 

Useful stuff.

It's a big thing, garbology, believe it or not, especially now the effects that waste plastics are having on the world are becoming known.

But surely even the keenest garbologist must wish he could have had a better name. Someone could have come up with a wholly Greek form of waste-study. You could have called it apatalology, for instance. 

But no one did.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: garbology. A J Weberman coined this word in 1971 after going through Bob Dylan's dustbins. It became an academic subject in 1987 at the University of Arizona in a team led by William Rathje.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Nice names: a rant.

A letter in the Telegraph newspaper* points out that some names given to storms do not do their job, which is of course to sound threatening. It cites as examples Freya, Hannah, Gareth and Barry.

That's quite true, of course, but what can we do about it?

We in Britain have most recently been visited by storm Lorenzo's tail. To me Lorenzo sounds doomed and tragic, but that's because the only Lorenzo I've really come across is the beloved of the heroine in Keats' poem The Pot of Basil (and if you think European Romantic poetry is bland then The Pot of Basil will change your mind for ever (and quite possibly stop you eating basil for ever, as well). Mind you, the original horrid story comes from Boccaccio).

Anyway, the point is that with a few exceptions (Ghengis, Adolf, Medusa, Cruella) we will all have different associations with different names. Perhaps your favourite aunt was called Clytemnestra; perhaps you were once given a sweetie by your kind neighbour Mr Sauron.

Anyway, the obvious remedy is to call storms by names of threatening things and not people at all. Whirlpool. Quicksand. Calamity. Ledge. Catastrophe. Cyclone. Overhang. Disaster. Cliff.


Well, all right, not Cliff.

Perhaps this is harder than I'd thought.

Word To Use Today: cliff. This Old English form of this word was clif. It's not completely unrelated to the word cleave.

*From Kate Forrester of Malvern, Worcestershire, [you say that WUSSterSHEER, the wuss as in, well, wuss] England.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Nuts and Bolts: just between us.

This post is for people who speak English but experience occasional grammar anxiety

Well, that's most of us.

So: when does one say between you and me and when does one say between you and I?

Well, that's easy. One says between you and I when one doesn't understand the rules but has a vague feeling that I sounds rather classier.

Between you and me is, however, standard English.

So there we are: one worry fewer.

Good day's work.

Word To Use Today: grammar. The Greek word grammatikos means concerning letters.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Thing Not To be Today: flat-footed.

But aren't all feet more or less flat? You may be asking yourself.

Well, they are on top, if you're human, but the essential thing about flat feet is that they're flat underneath. Most of us have an arch between the ball of the foot and the heel, and the flat-footed don't.

Flat-feet used to be a reason for being rejected for military service, and it's true that the condition can cause knee and other problems, but usually people with flat-feet carry on just as normal and have no problems at all.

However, a flat-footed gait is said to be pondorous and heavy, and so anyone who puts their foot in it - in the sense of being outstandingly tactless - is often deemed called flat-footed. A flattie, short for flat-foot, is a British slang word for those other traditionally pondorously heavy-stepping characters, policemen. 

As an extension of this meaning, to be flat-footed is to be clumsy or awkward, or perhaps simply to be not quite up to date with what's going on, as in catching the flat-footed.

Now, no one would want to be any of those things, so it's twinkle-toes time today for me.

I think that a simple pirouette at the fish counter of the supermarket will probably do.

Thing Not To Be Today: flat-footed. This word has meant flat more or less forever. The Greek form of the word was platus.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Spot the Frippet: jumper.

In Britain a jumper is likely to be what English-speakers in other places usually call a sweater:

File:"WIN" patterned sweater.JPG
believe it or not, this one was made for Gerald R Ford

As a word, the word jumper has the disadvantage that a jumper is nothing to do with jumping; but then do we really want to draw attention to the connection between a sweater and sweating?

Luckily there are universal sorts of jumpers. A boring tool which works by hammering itself into something hard (rock, usually) is a jumper; then we have jumper leads or jumper cables to coax recalcitrant car engines into life:

photo by oomlout

 a jumper can be a terrifyingly reduced form of sled:

Modern Jackjumper with shocks.jpg
photo by Michael Muir-Harmony CC BY-SA 3.0,

 or it can be (in Ireland) a person who changes his religion; or it can be simply something which jumps:

File:Horse and rider jumping over a hurdle - Show Jumping.jpg
photo by Revital Salomon

File:Flea (251 01) Aphaniptera; total preparation.jpg
photo from the archive of Josef Reischig

Or, of course, to see a jumper all you really have to do is creep up behind someone and shout boo!

But that would, I think, be unkind. And possibly cheating.

Spot the Frippet: a jumper. The garment word comes from the French jupe, from the Arabic jubbah, a long cloth coat. The leaping about word is probably an imitation of the suddenness of the action.

Sunday, 6 October 2019

Sunday Rest: mattify. Word Not To Use Today.

I wish there were a better word which means to take the shine off the skin by covering it with cosmetics.

But, as far as I know, there isn't.

I don't know, though...


After all, why should the roasting dishes have all the best words?

Sunday Rest: mattify. To make things even worse, the word mat, meaning non-shiny, comes via French from the Arabic word māt. In both these languages it means dead.

Glaze is basically the same word as glass.

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Saturday Rave: The Love of Meera Bai

There are a lot of love poems in the world, but Meera Bai's love songs (and they are still sung) are different from most we come across in the West.

For the great love of Meera Bai's life was the god Krishna, and with Him she had a passionate, devoted, tortured relationship which lasted until the end of her life. 

Meera Bai was born in about 1498 in Rajasthan, and died in about 1547 (or perhaps, as the stories say, she didn't die but was absorbed into a statue of Krishna). Meera Bai lived in time of war, and many of the men of her family were killed in battle. 

Is this why Krishna seemed the best focus for her passion? I don't know, but it should be noted that Meera Bai is famous for her piety, as well as her writing, and there are several miracles attributed to her.

Here's a small taster of her verse, which has been translated by John Stratton Hawley for his 2002 book Asceticism, OUP.

After making me fall for you so hard, where are you going?
Until the day I see you, no repose: my life, like a fish washed on shore, flails in agony.
For your sake I'll make myself a yogini, I'll hurl myself to death on the saw of Kashi,
Mira's Lord is the clever Mountain-lifter, and I am his, a slave to his lotus feet.

Word To Use Today: yogini. This word is the feminine form of yogi, and comes to us from Sanskrit.

Friday, 4 October 2019

Word To Use Today: offendatron.

Offendatron is a newish word, but a wonderfully useful one.

It describes someone who seizes the smallest opportunity to take offence with the intention of making an opponent look unprincipled or unfeeling.

It's a word I fear we shall be needing often. 

Word To Use Today: offendatron. This word starts with the word offend, obviously. The Latin word offendere means to strike against. The -atron bit is a traditional robot or powerful machine name suffix whose origins I can't track down, though I note that a Major Metallitron features in Dragon Ball, which was launched in 1984, and that Megatron is a chief baddy in the Transformers franchise.

(A megatron was originally an electron tube devised in increase the range and power of radio fields. The -atron bit here comes from the word electron.)

The word offendatron seems to have been coined by the writer and game designer MAATOHA.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Unparliamentary language: a rant.

The British House of Commons has become a pit of vituperation and rage.

The speaker (a small, pompous, rude man named Bercow) seems unable to restrain the members of parliament from intemperate speech. As a result of this, rational discourse and reasoned argument are being suffocated.

And what is the point of parliament without rational discourse or reasoned argument?

To remind members of parliament why they get paid, here is a list of unparliamentary language (that is, the language not allowed to be used in the House of Commons).

(The list contains one or two swear words, but nothing you haven't heard before.)

Bastard, blackguard, coward, deceptive, dodgy, drunk. falsehood. git. guttersnipe, hooligan, hypocrite, idiot, ignoramus, liar, pipsqueak, rat, slimy, sod, squirt, stoolpigeon, swine, tart, traitor, and wart.

The only trouble with that list is, of course, that it does make it difficult to describe the actions of rather a lot of them.

Word To Use Today: one unparliamentary. Pipsqueak is fun to say. It means insignificant of contemptible. Pip in this case may come from the word meaning annoyed, which comes from Latin pituita, phlegm.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Nuts and Bolts: haplography.

Haplography is a matter of spelling. 

In fact, of mispelling.

Yes, I know I have misspelled the word mispelled, there, but haplography is what happens when someone uses one letter when there should be a pair (or, rarely, as in the German word rollladen, which means shutters, two letters instead of a trio).*

What I want to know is, if someone writes the word traveling in the USA and then sends the message to Britain, is that haplography? Or if they write travelling out of respect for British spelling, is that an example of dittography, which is the opposite of haplography?

Well, don't ask me, I've no idea at all.

There's another form of haplography which occurs when someone is copying out a text, something like:

The man jumped back from the jackal snapping at his face, but the lion jumped forward onto the vicious canine and ate it.

and the scribe, bored to tears, skips from one jumped to the next, entirely missing out the words in between, and ends up with:

The man jumped onto the vicious canine and ate it.

Isn't it nice when a silly mistake like that has an important-sounding term like haplography?

Thing To Avoid Today: haplography. This word comes from the Greek haplo- single and graphein to write.

*A special thanks to Wikipedia for this rather lovely example.

Tuesday, 1 October 2019

Thing Not To Do Today: corrode.

To be corroded is to be gradually eaten away.

You are probably safe personally (though who can say for sure in these days of Artificial Intelligence?) from the most obvious signs of corrosion, as seen in old cars:

File:Rusted car, Strezlecki Track.jpg
photo by PookieFugglestein

 reinforced concrete structures:

File:Betonkorrosion unter Autobahnbruecke (02).JPG
photo of Autobahn bridge by Karl-Heinz Wellmann

 and leaky batteries:

File:Battery Terminal Corrision.jpg
photo by MarkBuckawicki

but there are more insidious types of corrosion.

Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyes monster which doth mock 
The meat it feeds on.

says wise Iago, a man so corroded, and perhaps with jealousy, that his mind no longer even understands itself; and then there is the corrosion of greed, fear, hatred...

As with the more visible sorts of corrosion, they can almost all be cured; but, always, the sooner the owner takes action the better.

Thing Not To Do Today: corrode. This word comes from the Latin word corrōdere, to gnaw to pieces, from rōdere, to gnaw.

(This means it's basically the same word as rodent: and you wouldn't want rats in your brain, would you?)