This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 18 November 2019

Spot the Frippet: pleat.

Pleated skirts are back in fashion, especially mid-calf-length ones which make people look at least fifty years older than their actual age (and a stone heavier, too).

This pleated smock is called a rochet. Still, it probably wasn't particularly intended to be flattering. Photo by Carolus

Some pleats are genuinely useful in allowing freedom of movement:

File:Norfolkjacket 1906.jpg

But many are simply for decoration:

File:Official with Pleated Costume MET LC-65 119 EGDP024372.jpg
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Egyptian, about the year zero.

and all are a pain to iron:

portrait by Benjamin Greenleaf

It's an odd thing, fashion.

Still, pleats mean you can fold things:

or unfold them, for that matter, a trick that Nature discovered millions of years ago:

File:Pleated Inkcap - Parasola plicatilis (29783391482).jpg
pleated inkcap, Parasola plicatilis. Photo by AJC1

File:Fresh green horse chestnut leaves - - 789803.jpg
photo of horse chestnut leaves by Andrew Hill

Then you can find pleats on lampshades, and furniture, and pie-liners, and probably other places, too.

What's the purpose of the first one you find?

Word To Use Today: pleat. This word is basically the same word as plait and ply (as in plywood). It comes from the Old French pleit, from the Latin plicāre, to fold.

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Sunday Rest: virago. Word Not To Use Today.

I daren't use this word. It's too much of a risk.

There have been so many campaigns against using insulting words to describe woman - words such as scold or shrew (and ruder things) - and there's no doubt that virago is certainly insulting, meaning as it does a loud and violently ill-tempered woman.

But still, when you look at the word's origin..., perhaps it might be possible, after all. 

After all, it's not only women it's insulting.

Sunday Rest: virago. This word has been around in English for about a thousand years. Before that it came from Latin, where it meant a manlike young woman, from the word vir, man.

I think that makes it a dual-sex insult...

..not that I'm saying there are only two sexes...

...I think I'd better keep quiet, now.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

Saturday Rave: Iceland by Jonas Hallgrimsson.

Jónas Hallgrimsson (1807-1845), the son of an Icelandic curate, discovered in himself a great interest for the history and natural history of his native country. 

He lived for much of his adult life in Denmark, but he returned home regularly, and wrote for the pro-independence magazine Fjölnir, which he had helped to found.

He was a poet, too, rather a romantic one (there was unrequited love in his past which would have helped with the wistful-longing side of things). He wrote about the Icelandic natural world movingly and beautifully, and experimented with forms new to Icelandic literature.

Here's an example of his verse:


Charming and fair is the land,
and snow-white the peaks of the jokuls.
Cloudless and blue is the sky,
the ocean is shimmering bright,
But high on the lava fields, where 
still Osar river is flowing
Down into Altmanna gorge
Althing no longer is held,
Now Snorri's booth serves as a sheepfold,
the ling upon Logberg the sacred
Is blue with berries every year,
for children's and ravens' delight.
Oh, ye juvenile host
and full-grown manhood of Iceland!
Thus is our forefathers' fame
forgotten and dormant withal.

(translated by Gudmund J Gislason)

Since 1996 November 16, Jónas's birthday, has been recognised as the national Day of the Icelandic Language, and today the Jónas Hallgrimsson Award will be given for outstanding contribution to the Icelandic.

Word To Use Today: icicle, perhaps, as a the word jokul means glacier and is basically the same word as our word icicle.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Word To Use Today: lavabo.

What's the connection between Psalm 26 and a wash basin?


Word To Use Today: lavabo. This is the ordinary French word for a wash basin, but it is used in English, too, though more often than not (which is still not very often) in the phrases lavabo towel or lavabo basin

Dorothy L Sayers used the word lavabo to mean downstairs loo, but that was a while ago.

Lavabo is rather more commonly used to describe the part of the Roman Catholic Mass where the priest washes his hands. In a convent or monastery a lavabo might be a washing trough, but it's the same idea.

And the psalm?

Psalm 26 verse 6 begins (New King James version) I will wash my hands in innocence, and it describes one of the religious rites of the ancient Jewish Temple. In Latin that's Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas... 

Obviously saying the whole line would have been a bit of a mouthful, so people must have decided to stop after lavabo, which means I shall wash.

Thursday, 14 November 2019

Woman's stuff: a rant.

A survey has claimed...

...sorry, have you lost the will to live, yet?

I know, let's start with who paid for the research (Kelloggs, and especially their diet cornflake brand Special K) and the survey's sample size (2,000).

I can't find any information on peer-reviewing, or on who conducted the survey, or by what means, so let's get on to what the survey was aiming to show. It was that women feel belittled by certain words.

The survey has produced a list of twenty words that it claims that women would like to see banned (though in fact, if you read the actual results which disclose what percentage of the respondents wants each word banned, you'll find that it's done nothing of the kind).

The words which a majority of women who took part on the survey really would like to see banned are hormonal (68%) drama queen (56%) bitchy (53%) and high maintenance (51%).

Hysterical comes next at 50 per cent, so that's a maybe.

I don't know how the survey was conducted - whether the words were suggested to the respondents, or whether the words were volunteered by the respondents themselves (unlikely, given the results, but I don't know). Whichever it was, of equal interest are the words which nearly everyone, even out of this sample of women who agreed to answer a survey linked to a diet cereal about discrimination against women, don't mind.

They are difficult (21% objecting) sexy (20%) aggressive (10%) sassy (16%) and feisty (14%).

I volunteer this information as a public service. 

My own opinion is that using the words in the second list rather than those in the first might well save a lot of people a lot of grief.

Well, it has to be worth a try, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: hormonal. This word comes from the Greek word horman to stir up or urge on, from hormē impulse or assault.

It might also be worth bearing in mind that testosterone is a hormone

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Nuts and Bolts: melic.

Melic poetry is the carefully-structured Greek verse of the seventh and sixth century BC.

Yes, it is rather a minority interest, but luckily the word has extended its meaning to mean to do with song, or intended to be sung (especially when you're talking about poetry).

Melic is a rather beautiful word, and we still have melic poetry all round us.

One of my longest-term favourites is this one:


What's yours?

Word To Use Today: melic. This word was first used in English in 1699. It comes from the Greek word melikos, from melos, which means song.

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

Thing To Do Today, Possibly: fiddle.

You can be on the fiddle, which involves minor stealing by dodging your way through administrative systems; you can play fiddle, which will involve a violin and a folk tune:

File:Fiddlin Bill Henseley, Mountain Fiddler, Asheville, North Carolina by Ben Shahn, 1937 LOC 290626613.jpg
Fiddlin' Bill Henseley. Photo by Bill Shahn

 and you can fiddle about, which means being busy doing nothing very much, especially if it involves struggling with something small.

Some connections to playing folk music are easy to see - such as having a face as long as a fiddle:

File:Britannica Fiddle Minnesinger.png
Minnesinger, 1200s, Mannesse Manuscript

and it's easy to see the link between violin playing and working with something small or fundamentally not life-threatening.

As for the committing-fraud sort of fiddling, there are theories linking the word to the Emperor Nero (who is said to have fiddled while Rome burned) and also with the sort of fiddle which is the rim of a sailor's plate. Sadly, though, sailor's plates have never had rims called fiddles (though their work surfaces have had) and Nero neither had a fiddle nor stooped to indulging in petty crime (he was a man for an grand evil gesture).

What we do know about financial fiddling is that it started in America in the second half of the 1800s, and that from the beginning it had the dual meanings of swindling and attending closely to small non-essentials.

A man trying to steal small amounts of money is likely to be doing a lot of attending closely to apparently small non-essentials, and this, I suggest, is how fiddling the accounts probably began as an expression.

Thing To Do Today Possibly: fiddle. This word comes from the Old English fithele, probably from the Latin vītulārī, to celebrate:


Monday, 11 November 2019

Spot the Frippet: soldier.

You can find soldiers are all over the place, but they're mostly harmless.

A soldier course, for instance, does not usually involve assaulting obstacles such as walls, but building them: it's a row of bricks standing on their smallest side with their narrow side facing outwards along the wall.

The bricks are called soldiers because they stand up straight, and the same principle has been used to name the strips of bread or toast cut for dipping into a soft-boiled egg.

Less benign are the soldier ants, egaponera analis, which launch attacks on the termite colonies upon which they feed:

File:Megaponera analis raid collecting termites.jpg
photo by ETF89

or the soldier crabs:

Pagurus bernhardus.jpg
By © Hans Hillewaert, <a title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0" href="">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>, <a href="">Link</a>

which live in molluscs' shells and will fight each other for the best ones (these crabs, also called hermit crabs, also, of course, wear armour).

And then there are the human soldiers. Some help out in emergencies:

File:NZ Army Engineers repair water mains at Burwood Hospital after Christchurch Earthquake - Flickr - NZ Defence Force.jpg
New Zealand troops repairing water main after Christchurch earthquake Photo by New Zealand Defence Force:

some keep the peace:

File:Bangladesh UN Peacekeeping Force-3.jpg
Pakistan. Photo by Sqn.Ldr.Zaman & Faisal

and some, I'm afraid, break it.

Still, they're usually the ones trying their best to be invisible, so you're not likely to spot one of those.

File:Army Reservists Applying Camouflage MOD 45156163.jpg

Spot the Frippet: soldier. This word comes from the Old French soudier, from soude, pay, from the Latin solidus, a gold coin, which is also the Latin for firm (as in, not wobbly).

Sunday, 10 November 2019

Sunday Rest: lucubration. Word Not To Use Today.

I don't actually know what lucubration means, but it sounds oily, pompous, and insincere.

Hang on, I'll look it up in my Collins dictionary... we are: lucubration

1. laborious study, esp. at night. 2. a solemn literary work.

Good grief, it's even worse than I thought. 

Still, my instincts led me in the right general direction. Any use of the word lucubration will certainly be pompous, and any substantial work which is solemn is almost always insincere because honest thought can seldom ignore the ridiculousness of existence.

Anyway, it's definitely a word for the rubbish-dump. Apart from anything else, I must inform all clever young men, who must be the most likely people to use the wretched word, that it registers exactly minus nineteen point five on the attract-a-mate scale.

And that's out of twenty.

Sunday Rest: lucubration. This word comes from the Latin lūcubrāre, to work by lamp light.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Saturday Rave: Hymn to Science by Mark Akenside.

There are many poems entitled Hymn to....something or other, but this one is surely one of the most hymnish.

Its author, Mark Akenside (1721 - 1770) was originally sent to train as a clergyman, but changed his mind rather quickly and trained instead as a doctor. 

Akenside was kept financially afloat for a lot of his life by his great and enduring friend Jeremiah Dyson, but Akenside eventually became the Queen's physician (he didn't really much care for treating people of much lower social class than that).

His Hymn to Science is quite long. It does pay lip-service to God and religion, but it's hard to feel Akenside's heart is really in those small parts of the poem. The whole thing makes me giggle, in any case, and I think we can say that it was a good decision on his part to give up on training to be a minister of the church.

Science! thou fair effusive ray
From the great source of mental day,
Free, generous, and refin'd!
Descend with all thy treasures fraught,
Illumine each bewilder'd thought,
And bless my lab'ring mind.

But first with thy resistless light,
Disperse those phantoms from my sight,
Those mimic shades of thee;
The scholiast's learning, sophist's cant,
The visionary bigot's rant,
The monk's philosophy.

O! let thy powerful charms impart
The patient head, the candid heart,
Devoted to thy sway;
Which no weak passions e'er mislead,
Which still with dauntless steps proceed
Where Reason points the way.

Give me to learn each secret cause;
Let number's, figure's, motion's laws
Reveal'd before me stand;
These to great Nature's scenes apply,
And round the globe, and thro' the sky,
Disclose her working hand.

Next, to thy nobler search resign'd,
The busy, restless, human mind
Thro' ev'ry maze pursue;
Detect Perception where it lies,
Catch the ideas as they rise,
And all their changes view.

Say from what simple springs began
The vast, ambitious thoughts of man,
Which range beyond control;
Which seek Eternity to trace,
Dive thro' th' infinity of space,
And strain to grasp the whole.

Her secret stores let Memory tell,
Bid Fancy quit her fairy cell,
In all her colours drest;
While prompt her sallies to control,
Reason, the judge, recalls the soul
To Truth's severest test.

Then launch thro' Being's wide extent;
Let the fair scale, with just ascent,
And cautious steps, be trod;
And from the dead, corporeal mass,
Thro' each progressive order pass
To Instinct, Reason, God.

There, Science! veil thy daring eye;
Nor dive too deep, nor soar too high,
In that divine abyss;
To Faith content thy beams to lend,
Her hopes t' assure, her steps befriend,
And light her way to bliss.

Then downwards take thy flight agen;
Mix with the policies of men,
And social nature's ties:
The plan, the genius of each state,
Its interest and its pow'rs relate,
Its fortunes and its rise.

Thro' private life pursue thy course,
Trace every action to its source,
And means and motives weigh:
Put tempers, passions in the scale,
Mark what degrees in each prevail,
And fix the doubtful sway.

That last, best effort of thy skill,
To form the life, and rule the will,
Propitious pow'r! impart:
Teach me to cool my passion's fires,
Make me the judge of my desires,
The master of my heart.

Raise me above the vulgar's breath,
Pursuit of fortune, fear of death,
And all in life that's mean.
Still true to reason be my plan,
Still let my action speak the man,
Thro' every various scene.

Hail! queen of manners, light of truth;
Hail! charm of age, and guide of youth;
Sweet refuge of distress:
In business, thou! exact, polite;
Thou giv'st Retirement its delight,
Prosperity its grace.

Of wealth, pow'r, freedom, thou! the cause;
Foundress of order, cities, laws,
Of arts inventress, thou!
Without thee what were human kind?
How vast their wants, their thoughts how blind!
Their joys how mean! how few!

Sun of the soul! thy beams unveil!
Let others spread the daring sail,
On Fortune's faithless sea;
While undeluded, happier I
From the vain tumult timely fly,
And sit in peace with thee. 

Word To Use Today: science. The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Word To Use Today: canasta/canaster/canister.

So what do a card game (canasta), a type of coarse tobacco (canaster) and a metal tin for keeping your coffee or tea fresh (canister) have in common?

Award yourself a treat from the biscuit canister if you can work it out.

Word To Use Today: canasta or canaster or canister.

Answer: all these words come from the Greek word kanna, which means reed (as does the word canal, for that matter). 

But how the words are connected?

Here's a clue: the words all also come from the Latin word canistrum, which means a basket made of reeds.

It's an easy hop and a skip from there to the idea of storage container (and also to the other type of canister, which is a sort of shrapnel loaded inside a shell); and if you think about tobacco, that, too, needs to be packed in something, and in this case it's a basket made of rushes (the word comes to us through the Spanish canastro).

But the card game?

Well, it uses two packs...

…and that's very nearly a basketful.

Thursday, 7 November 2019

Away with hate: a rant.

Irmela Mensah-Schramm is a criminal.

Known as Sprayer-Oma, or Graffiti Grandma, she has been defacing public buildings in the German town of Eisenach for thirty years.

Now, though, she's finally been brought to justice and given a fine of three hundred euros plus costs.

An open and shut case?


Well, sort of.

The problem is that what Ms Mensah-Schramm has been doing all these years is covering up graffiti bearing neo-Nazi messages. She does her best to do this in an artistic, or at least an attractive, way, and tries to change the message to something more positive and much less vile.

The offence for which Ms Mensah-Schramm has been punished involved changing graffiti reading NS-Zone, which stands for Nazi Zone, into a picture of hearts.

(During the refugee crisis she also changed the slogan Merkel muss weg, Merkel must go, to Merke! Hass weg! which means Remember! Away with hate! Neat, huh?)

Ms Mensah-Schramm was convicted after she was filmed by a resident of the town and reported to the police. A fund to help with an appeal has been launched online.

What will happen now I do not know, but it's important to note that Ms Mensah-Schramm has formerly received quite a lot of recognition for her work, including the award of the Federal Medal of Merit, the Göttingen Peace Prize and the Jochen Bock Prize for Civil Courage.

Can the authorities between them sort out this bizarre and uncomfortable situation?

Well, it's what authorities are for. 

Isn't it?

Word Not To Use Today: Nazi. This word comes from German. It is a phonetic transcription of two syllables of the former political party Nationalsozialist, which means National Socialist.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

The first seven words: Nuts and Bolts

How do you get a job interview?

A study by Yale University of pre-interview discussions with 274 candidates for a laboratory manager post has shown that in the USA it tends to be the people believed to be of the highest social class.

The study was led by Dr Michael Kraus, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at the Yale School of Management. 

'We rarely talk explicitly about class,' he said. (Which makes me realise what a foreign country the USA is (I'm British).)

The next question is, how does social class reveal itself? 

The conclusion of the study is that it's in the first seven words that comes out of a candidate's mouth. It's in the speech patterns, and in the accent. In other words it's not in the content of what you say but in the way that you say it.

(Mind you, if you've only said seven words then you're not likely to have got much further than hello, your name, and your business, so perhaps that's not surprising.)

The surprising thing to come out of the study is that high-class speech was found to be associated not just with grammatical or historical traditions but with the voices of Amazon's Alexa and other similar robots. 

So if you want the job, speak like a robot.

The trouble is, who wants a job where the boss wants to employ a robot?

Word To Use Today: one in the accent of your youth. I'll go with k'NOW, which when written down is usually spelled canal. The word comes from the Latin word canālis, water pipe, from canna, reed.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Thing To Be Today: slightly safe

It's Guy Fawkes Night here in England, the night of our main firework celebrations.

I have to report, with some sadness, that Guy Fawkes Night has gone a bit out of fashion recently. This is partly down to some obscure feeling that the celebration is anti-Catholic (which it isn't); partly down to Health and Safety fears; and partly down to a less obscure feeling that perhaps there might have been something to be said for blowing the whole Houses of Parliament sky high after all. (I suppose I have to admit, here, rather wistfully, that this also is not the case.)

Still, there are some determined revellers who still let off fireworks on November 5th, and I've been reading the instructions-for-use on some rockets we plan to let off tomorrow.

angle slightly away from spectators, it says.


I suppose part of the fun of fireworks is that they make you jump.

File:Fireworks 5049.jpg

Though to be honest I wasn't reckoning on the jump being sideways into the nearest bush.

Thing To Be Today: slightly safe. The word safe comes from the Old French salf, from the Latin salus, safety.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Spot the Frippet: vanishing cream.

I had a very dull childhood indeed. We had, as they say, to make our own entertainment. 

Sadly, we weren't any good at it.

Still, because I was a bookish child (and because luckily my classroom at school had a bookshelf) I did have hope; and most of the hope came in the form of magic. 

(Well, the delights of reality were largely out of reach.) 

Anyway, for some time my greatest hope was centred on being able to get my hands on some vanishing cream.

If I could vanish, you see, then I could steal onto a train and go...anywhere. If I had vanishing cream then my family would stop being annoyed by finding me with my nose in a book when I should have been standing about, healthy but cold and bored, in the garden. 

And the greatest, the most tremendous thing about vanishing cream was that, unlike wardrobe-portals to other worlds and talking mirrors, it actually existed. There were advertisements for the stuff in the newspaper.

Vanishing cream still does exist. I know now that the vanishing bit of its name refers to the fact that once you've rubbed it into the skin it disappears, but I'm still fond of the idea of the stuff. It's usually called moisturiser nowadays. You won't, obviously be able to spot it on a face near you, but someone in the house will almost certainly have a pot of the stuff.

Rub some on. Go on: it's worth a try. It just might work...

Spot the Frippet: vanishing cream. The word vanish comes from the Old French esvanir, from the Latin word ēvānēscere to evaporate, from vānēscere to pass away, from vānus, empty.

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Sunday Rest: hacktivist.

The word hacktivist is made up of the words hack and activist, and both are problematical.

In the computing community, hack can either mean to cobble together a solution to a computing problem, or it can describe someone who's an expert in computer security.

To the uninitiated, however (which is practically all of us) to hack a computer is to break through its security systems in order to cause problems.

(A computer security expert would like us to call these people crackers. But of course we don't.)

As for the activist part of the word, everything depends on what the activist is trying to do. His (or her) main motive might be to allow freedom of expression, in which case he won't, logically, be inserting computer code that will result in a computing system shutting itself down (that is, making a Denial Of Service attack). 

(Not that logic doesn't always come into it.)

A hacktivist might have, in any case, a less philanthropic agenda. He may want to spread a message of hatred; he might want to close down government department; he might want to tell the world a few choice state secrets.

The thing is, it's hard to be seen as a goodie when you wear a black hat.

And to most of us both halves of the word hacktivist look pretty close to charcoal.

Word Not To Use Today: hacktivist. The Old English form of the word hack was haccian. The word activist comes from the Latin actus, a doing or performance.

Saturday, 2 November 2019

Saturday Rave: The Morris Worm.

The Morris Worm came into being in 1988. It was named after its summoner, Robert Tappan Morris, and also after the Great Worms (we'd probably call them dragons) of JRR Tolkien.

(You can see an illustration by Wouter Florusse of one of the Tolkien worms, Scatha, HERE.)

The Morris Worm (suddenly Morris sounds a very unlikely name for a dragon) caused a great deal of dragonish havoc and destruction, but that was a mistake (though the idea that anyone can control a worm of any kind is, of course, laughable).

The Morris Worm (or Great Worm as it is sometimes called) was a piece of computer code designed to show up how easy it was to breach the security of the very early internet. 

In this is was completely successful. Unfortunately Robert Tappan Morris made a mistake when he designed the structure of his worm. This meant that each computer could be infected many times, and each time it was infected the machine ran a little slower. 

It didn't take long before about ten per cent of the machines connected to the internet had been dragged to a halt.

Robert Tappan Morris, cunningly, had launched the worm from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (he was actually studying at Cornell) but he was soon nabbed, fined, given a community service order, and put on probation.

The Morris Worm, although it caused a lot of worry and inconvenience, turned out in the end to be not altogether a bad thing. It did make everyone sit up and take notice and think about on line security.

And what happened to Robert Tappan Morris? Well, he wasn't daunted by his experience. He went on to found a software company which he sold in 1998 for $49 million, and later became a professor at MIT.

He's still running computer companies. He's only fifty three. 

But I think he's keeping away from dragons, nowadays.

Word To Use Today: worm. The Old English form of this word was wyrm. The history of the word goes right back to the Greek word romos which means, rather embarrassingly for present-day dragons, woodworm.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Word To Use Today: puccoon.

There are some words which are too endearing to ignore, but which provide very few opportunities for use in day-to-day life.

Such a word would appear to be puccoon.

Puccoons make up a small group of North American wild plants, mostly of the borage family.

This is Lithospermum canescens, or the hoary puccoon (at least, that's what it said on the source of this image, though, now I come to think about it, it doesn't look very hoary to me):

And this is the unrelated plant called Bloodwort, or Canada Puccoon.

Illustration by William Curtis

The plants, though unrelated, do have something in common, which is that you can get a red dye from the root which has been used by some Native American people as body paint. John Smith in 1624 tells of it colouring the head and shoulders of Native Americans, a spectacle he calls an exceedingly handsome shew.

I'm not sure about the shoulders, but plenty of people put red pigment on their faces. It used to be called rouge, and then, perhaps because rouge was associated with a lack of respectability, blusher; but perhaps now is the time to embrace the ridiculousness of face paint and go back to calling it puccoon.

It would brighten the morning ritual, wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: puccoon. This word comes from the Powhatan word poughkone.