This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday, 25 September 2020

Skirmish: Word To Use Today.


Cavalry skirmish by Pieter Snayers

Battles involve pride and utmost force, which are neither of them safe things to trust to human hands. 

A skirmish, on the other hand, is a test of strength which results in a decision not to bother with a battle. This may be because it's obvious who's going to win (which saves loss of face - possibly physical as well as metaphorical - on the potentially losing side) or it may because it's decided that the argument isn't worth so much effort.

Sometimes a skirmish fails to develop into a battle because one of the contestants recognises the opponent's right to hold a different opinion. But this is very rare.

Especially, it seems, nowadays.

Oh dear.

Still, it's a delicious word to say: skirmish, skirmish, skirmish...

Word To Use Today: skirmish. This word doesn't look it, but it comes from Old French, from eskirmir. Before that it was Germanic and is related to the Old High German word skirmen, which means to defend.

Thursday, 24 September 2020

Purely decorative: a rant.

 Walking (in my mask) along the High Street of my local town I saw a sign in a shop bearing a picture of a plastic camel.

Above the picture it said:

Ornamental Decorations

Well, they're the best kind.

Word To Use Today: ornamental. This word arrived in English in the 1300s. It comes from the Latin ornāmentum, from ornāre, to adorn.

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: paradeigma.

 A paradeigma is a short story told to provide an example of good behaviour.

There are lots of examples in classical literature (obviously, which is why the Greeks had to come up with a name for it). In the Bible, parables are examples of paradeigmata

But they're still used by people to this day.

You don't hear the Queen moaning about having to wear heels.

You never saw Jason Statham in a toupee, did you?

Jack the Giant Killer didn't let the fact that he was an idiot stop him exploring.

In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if paradeigmata aren't the essential foundation of all discourse.

So if anyone's looking for a subject for their PhD...

Nuts and Bolts: paradeigmata. This word means pattern or example in Greek. It comes from paradeiknumi, to exhibit or represent, from para, beside or beyond, and deiknumi, to show.

Tuesday, 22 September 2020

Thing To Do Today: marinate something.

 The idea of a marinade is that you slop something vaguely runny all over something more solid, and then you leave it for a while so that the something solid soaks up the runny stuff.

A marinade was originally used for food, especially meat and fish, but nowadays it's not unknown for people to marinate themselves in sunscreen or moisturiser.

(I really don't think this lady is a cannibal.)

(It's got to be something that soaks in, or is supposed to soak in - you can't marinate yourself in water, or mud.)

Small children have a natural urge to try to marinate themselves in anything they can get their hands on, but this will only be tolerated happily by the most insanely besotted of parents.

I've just said that you can't marinate yourself in water. This is odd, because the word marinate looks very much as if it has some connection with the sea.

And it has, too.

Thing To Do Today: marinade something. This word came to English in the 1600s from France, and before that from the Spanish marinado, to pickle in brine. Before that it goes back to the Latin marīnus, from mare, which means sea.

Monday, 21 September 2020

Spot the Frippet: marzipan.

 There are two types of marzipan that I know about.

There's the paste made of ground almonds, sugar and egg yolk (250g ground almonds, 125g of caster sugar, 125g icing sugar, one egg yolk. You just mix it all together):

You can make marzipan into sweets:

File:Marzipan (8311107161).jpg

photo by Aurelien Guichard

You can use it to make the balls on a simnel cake:

Decorated Simnel cake (14173161143).jpg

by James Petts from London.

And you can use it to separate the smooth royal icing from the crumbly bits of cake:

File:Slice of Christmas cake (16119184262).jpg

This is by James Petts, too.

Then there's the other kind of marzipan layer, which describes the middle-managers in a financial (or any other) institution. You know, the ones that stick things together okay, but who no one especially appreciates and that most people suspect are largely unnecessary, and who definitely don't add much pleasure to the process or polish to the final product. 

Well, you can at least see why it's called a marzipan layer, can't you.

Try not to get too annoyed spotting one near you.

Spot the Frippet: marzipan. This word came to English from German from the Italian marzapane. Before we had marzipan we had marchpane. It's the same stuff, but that word came from France. The word marzipan might be something to do with St Marcus.

There are a couple stories about the invention of marzipan, one is that it was first made in a bad harvest year in Italy when almonds were the only grain available, and there's also a lovely Estonian story about a pharmacist's apprentice called Mart. A city councillor got sick, and the pharmacist promised him a cure. But the pharmacist himself was ill and he was sneezing so much he kept blowing all his powders away, and so the task of making a cure fell to the apprentice Mart, who, knowing that he was going to have to taste the stuff himself to prove it wasn't poisonous, made sure it was delicious.

The mixture was therefore called Mart's bread (Mardileib in Estonian).

And they all lived happily ever after.

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Sunday Rest: nife. Word Not To Use Today.

 One obvious reason why the word nife is unusable is that everyone will think you can't spell knife - and then they'll realise your sentence doesn't make sense and assume you've gone mad, as well.

But there are yet other reasons to eschew the word nife. For one, do you say it to rhyme with life, or mighty?

Even the dictionary isn't sure.

Then there's the fact that nife is a scientific term but doesn't look like a scientific term - and that it's made up of one Latin and one German word, and yet it looks like a simple English one.

If we're having to cope with complicated words like that, well, I think we should be getting the credit for it.

Sunday Rest: nife. Nife is the Earth's metallic core. It's named on the assumption that this core is made up of Nickel and Iron, which have  the chemical symbols Ni and Fe respectively.

Nickel is a sprite in German mythology, whose mischief is thought to be the reason no one could smelt copper from nickel ore. The Latin for iron was ferrum.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Saturday Rave: Long Time A Child, by Hartley Coleridge.

 Literature is littered with excellent writers who were brought up in houses that contained few books. But still they wrote.

Hartley Coleridge was the eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was given access to some very fine libraries from the earliest age, he was taken to the very best cultural events, and kept company with the great poets of his time. He went to Oxford University.

But his alcoholism soon lost him the university job he was given after graduating, and after that he frittered away his life and his talents. Mind you, they were his life and his talents, so he was perfectly at liberty to do so. He never had any family to support.

How did he feel, himself, about all the opportunities he didn't take? 

Well, he wrote a sonnet to explain just that.


Long time a child, and still a child, when years

Had painted manhood on my cheek, was I, - 

For yet I lived like one not born to die;

A thriftless prodigal of smiles and tears,

No hope I needed, and I knew no fears.

But sleep, though sweet, is only sleep, and waking

I waked to sleep no more, at once o'ertaking

The vanguard of my age, with all arrears

Of duty on my back. Nor child, nor man,

Nor youth, nor sage, I find my head is grey

For I have lost the race I never ran:

A rathe December blights my lagging May;

And I am still a child, though I be old,

Time is my debtor for my years untold.


For I have lost the race I never ran...

...poor Hartley Coleridge died at the age of fifty two, supported at the last by an inheritance from his dead parents.

Word To Use Today: rathe. This means ripening early, or blooming early. The word in Old English was hrathe.

Friday, 18 September 2020

Word To Use Today: nonage.

 Whereas a nonagenarian is a person who has reached the age of at least ninety, nonage describes someone who is legally too young to do something like marrying, or driving a car, or entering into a contract.

You say the word NOHnidge.

I don't know if the difference between the two meanings is annoying, or just completely charming.

But then a lot of things are like that.

Word To Use Today: nonage. The non- in nonagenarian comes from the Latin nōnāginta, which means ninety. The non- in nonage comes from the Latin nōn, which means not. Nonage came to English from the Old French nonaage. Age comes from the Latin aevum, which means age, but also lifetime or an eternity or just a long time, as in Dark Ages.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

Life in The Old Dog: a rant.

 The election campaigns continue for the post of President of the USA. The candidates clearly have quite different personalities, but neither of them is in the first flush of youth, and it's only to be expected that this will be used as a weapon.

Let's face it, everything possible is going to be used as a weapon.

As this is the case, in a way I wasn't surprised to see this headline in the Telegraph newspaper online:

The Moment Kamala Harris Turned On Joe Biden

As I said, I can see why Mr Biden's followers wish him to appear youthful and vigorous in appetite. 

Though I'm not sure what that's got to do with being a good president, all the same.

Words To Use Today: turn on. Attack, or cause to feel physical yearning? 

Another lovely contranym! 

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: lipography

 A lipogram (as opposed to lipography) is a piece of writing where one or more letters or other symbols has been deliberately left out.

A whole novel, for example, has been written without the use of the letter E. It's called Gadsby, came out in 1939, and is by Ernest Vincent Wright. No, I don't know why he wrote it. I don't honestly know why anyone would want to read it, either. It must be ingenious, though.

Anyway, lipography is something different, because that's where a letter or syllable is left out by accident.

We will all regularly come across (and sometimes provide ourselves) examples of lipography

My ant gave me a scar for my birthday.

I've a novelist's eye for an elegant stye.

He sang happily as he tiled the field.

Still, now we can attach a posh word to it, can't we.

Thing To Spot Today: lipography. This word is Ancient Geek. It comes from the word leipein, to omit, and graphein, which is to do with writing.

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Thing To Do Today: manducate.

 Manducating doesn't involve getting information into the head of an adult male human.

If it did, I wouldn't be advising people to do it: adult male humans, as they may have informed you, know more or less everything already.

No, to manducate means to eat. To chew, especially. Food, glorious food, dissolving into sweet juices in your mouth: toffee, crackling, rye bread, fennel, steak, pizza...

...the more you manducate it, the longer you get to enjoy it.

File:Juan de Flandes - The Marriage Feast at Cana - WGA12055.jpg

The Marriage Feast at Canaan by Juan de Flandes. (It's not just wine that's run short, is it. No wonder everyone looks so miserable!)

File:Georg Flegel - Still Life - A Prosperous Past.jpg

That's better! This picture's by Georg Flegel.

Bon appetit!

Thing To Do Today: manducate. This word comes from the Latin word mandūcāre, to chew. It's not the sort of word you can use out loud without appearing to show off, but it can still give a certain amount of quiet internal satisfaction.

Monday, 14 September 2020

Spot the Frippet: mansion.

Some of the new flats being built in the cities of the Far East are the size of a parking space. I suppose they must be cozy, and they are by all accounts ingeniously designed, but they can't have the visual impact of a mansion.  

File:Bletchley Park Mansion.jpg

Bletchley Park, England, photo by DeFacto

A mansion would be too big for me, personally - how could one find excuses to put off self-invited guests? - but what fun it is to imagine what they're like inside:

File:The Haunted House Das Geisterhaus (5360049608).jpg

The Haunted House (Die Geisterhaus) photo by Harald Hoyer

 and what fun, too, to be scornful of some of the architecture:

photo by Stilfehler - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Come to think about it, I lived in mansion, once. Well, in one room of it. It was Tudor, with a Georgian wing. There were holes in the floor of my room covered up by the ancient lino, so that when I got out of bed in the mornings I would sink down three inches towards the ground floor. The bathroom was freezing, too. 

But still, it's fun to look.

File:Burwell house.JPG

The Burwell House, Minnesota. Photo by Ashwin Asokan

Isn't it!

File:Hope End Mansion 1873.jpg

This mansion was called, believe it or not, Hope End.

Spot the Frippet: mansion, This word comes from the Old French from the Latin word mansio, which means a remaining, from mansus, which means dwelling, from manēre, to stay.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Sunday Rest: algorithm. Word Not To Say With A Sneer Today.

 The schools have mostly been shut here in Britain since March (though they've opened, now). As a consequence of this, public exams didn't take place.

This meant that some other method had to be used to assess the children's abilities.

There were several sensible ways of doing this, but what was decided upon was to use data from various sources to get a likely result. This led to some children getting lower grades than they expected or wanted or needed or deserved, and this in turn led to a huge outcry and a hasty retraction. 

In the end teacher's assessments were used to award grades. This very conveniently showed that this year's children are much much cleverer than any other year's have ever been.


The way grades were originally calculated was by an algorithm, and such was the outrage at the results that now you hardly hear the word algorithm being spoken without a sneer. It's as if an algorithm were some kind of evil spell. Actually, I think lots of people do think an algorithm is an evil spell. But it's not.

An algorithm is a set of mathematical rules designed to be applied to data. For example, if you wanted to know how many feet the children in all the classes of a school have you might say: take the number of children in each class and multiply by two.

It's not perfect, but it'll generally give you more or less the right answer.

If you said take the number of children in each class and multiply by a hundred then it won't give you anything like the right answer. But it's not because algorithms don't work, it's because that one is rubbish.

Yes, thank you, I feel better, now.

Please do feel free to sneer at the sneerers.

Sunday Rest: algorithm. Word Not To Say With A Sneer. This word used to be algorism, but it got changed to algorithm because, well, arithmetic has got a th in it. The word algorithm started off as al-Khwarizmi, who was the scholar who introduced the Hindu system of numbers to the Muslim world, which system later came to the West and is the one we use now.

Saturday, 12 September 2020

Saturday Rave: The Shepherd's Calendar. August by John Clare

 Yes, sorry, I am a bit late posting this account of Autumn. I got carried away with Very Short Poems and found myself in September before I knew it.

Ah well.

John Clare and Thomas Hardy were both poets of Man-in-Nature, and if they were alive today then...well, they might both be estate agents for all I know, but they'd both have been brilliant film-directors. Hardy quite often gives us a panning shot that swoops in to a close-up; and for an establishing sequence there's no one anywhere to beat Clare anywhere.

Here's the beginning of August:

Harvest approaches with its busy day

The wheat tan brown & barley bleaches grey

In yellow garb the oat land intervenes

& tawny glooms the valley thronged with beans.

Silent the village grows - wood wandering dreams

Seem not so lonely as its quiet seems

Doors are shut up as on a winters day

& and not a child about them lies at play

The dust that winnows neath the breezes feet

Is all that stirs about the silent street

Fancy might think that desert spreading fear

Had whispered terrors into quiets ear



I think that Clare's August film might have turned out to be a Western...

Word To Use Today: winnow. The Old English form of this word was windwian. It means both to blow, and to separate the grain from the tiny bits of dry leaf that surrounds it. Clever.

Friday, 11 September 2020

Word To Use Today: manes.

 You might see manes (MAYNZ) in a herd:

File:Wildlife (Horses in France).jpg

photo by Fitindia

or a pride:

File:Lion d'Afrique.jpg

photo by Clément Bardot

but on the other hand if you say the word MARnis or MARnayz then you'll only see them somewhere haunted, because they are the ghosts of dead people (who were sometimes, in Roman times, minor gods).

But on the other hand (if you have three hands) and you say the word MARNeez then you're talking about the Persian prophet usually called Mani who founded Manichaeism.

Sometimes I wonder if writing as a system is all it's cracked up to be.

Word To Use Today: manes. The animal hair word was manu in Old English. The ghost-word comes from Latin and probably means the good ones, from mānus, good. 

Thursday, 10 September 2020

The trouble with goats: a rant.

I had an email from Boots the Chemist the other day. The title window said:

Need a hand rebooting your goats?

I must admit I was somewhat taken aback. I have no goats. Not only that, but I had no idea they needed to be provided with footwear on a regular basis.

Then I read it again, and found that it actually said:

Need a hand rebooting your goals?

Well, I suppose I do have goals. 

But on the whole the headline made more sense the first time.

Word To Use Today: goal. This word might be connected with the Middle English word gol, which means boundary. There's an Old English word gǣlan, too, which means to hinder or impede, which might have something to do with it.

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: Chewbacca defense.

 I must begin by saying that Chewbacca did nothing wrong. 

The term Chewbacca defense is, as you'll be able to tell from the spelling, an American one. It originates in a 1998 episode of the cartoon series South Park, where the defense attorney deliberately tries to confuse the jury by focusing his argument on an irrelevant circumstance. In this case, it's why Chewbacca would want to live on Endor with the much smaller Ewoks. The defense attorney says that this does not make sense, and for this reason the jury must acquit the defendant.

What's Chewbacca got to do with it? Not a lot.

This episode of South Park was satirising the trial of OJ Simpson. A glove had been found at the scene of the murder which may have been dropped by the murderer. The glove didn't fit OJ Simpson, and therefore, the defense attorney argued, OJ Simpson couldn't be the murderer. The punch-line was 'If it doesn't fit, you must acquit'.

Most matters of logical argument were dissected several centuries or millennia ago and tend to have names in learned tongues, so it's rather sweet to have this one named by a cartoon show after a character in a Sci-Fi film series.

Well, it's either sweet or completely appalling.

And what happened in the trial of OJ Simpson? 

Well, no jury could possibly fall for such a trick.

Could it?

Word To Use Today: Chewbacca. Although Chewbacca sounds like chew tobacco, and even though in French the character was originally named Chiktaba because it sounded more like the French tabac à mâcher, or chewing tobacco, in fact the name derives from sobaka, which is the Russian word for dog. (George Lucas had a very hairy upright dog who inspired the character of Chewbacca.)

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: frayed.

 Are your nerves frayed? Have they been worn by friction until they're bare and vulnerable like the threads of a pair of ancient jeans (or a brand new pair, if you're into high fashion).

It's a horrible thought.

Still, what to do about it?

Some people turn to drugs of various kinds; some to exercise; some to religion. Some knit, some read, some have long hot baths. Some fish, some watch birds. Some paint pictures, some paint ceilings. Some raise dahlias, some raise pigeons. Some chat, some retreat into silence.

The principle seems to be to find a space where you fit without any bits of you rubbing on the edges.

I'm off to a (fictional) land populated by dragons.

Where's the place where you can stretch tall?

Thing Not To Be Today: frayed. This word came to England in the 1300s from the French frayer, to rub, from the Latin fricāre.

Monday, 7 September 2020

Spot the Frippet: Frippet.

 Oh dear, I seem to have mistakenly posted today's post last week.

Ah well. Perhaps it's time to come back to the very first Spot the Frippet, which was, um, a frippet.

A frippet, in case you've never wondered, is a flamboyant or frivolous young woman. Some say she has to be pretty to be a frippet, but then the young are almost always beautiful.

File:11 women and a little girl lined up for bathing beauty contest.png

Yes: great fun to spot!

Spot the Frippet: a frippet. This word sounds like something from the 1700s: lawksamercy what a malapert frippet! but it's actually a twentieth century word. No one knows where it came from, but I would guess that the word frippery can't be too distant a relation.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Sunday Rest: techy.

 Sometimes, through no fault of their own, words need to fade away. It's sad, but their presence is just causing too much confusion.

Such a word is techy when it means irritable. Luckily we can write it tetchy, and then the problem of confusing it with the word techy which means someone with technical knowledge disappears.

For those feeling sorry for the first techy, which was, after all, here first, I can only suggest a compromise where the technical techies move exclusively to the alternative spelling techie.

That must be fair to all parties.

There is probably someone out there wondering why on earth I imagine that a word might have feelings to hurt - and I must admit that I am, too - but still, I feel less worried, now.

It's just a slight pity that if the person on the Technical Help phone line proves to be a bit irritable we can't call him a techy techy, that's all.

Sunday Rest: techy. The bad-tempered techy comes from tetch, which used to mean defect. The Old French tache means spot.. The Greek word tekhnē means art or skill.

Saturday, 5 September 2020

Saturday Rave: No One by Diana Wynne Jones.

This short story appears in a collection called Warlock at the Wheel and other stories.

No One is set in the year 2084, and our eponymous hero is a robot whose task is to look after the child Edward, the young son of Mrs Barbara Scantion MP. No One is well-meaning, but unfortunately all the machines in the house, also fully equipped with what we presently call AI, are out to get him.

This exchange with the washing machine is still making me laugh after thirty years. No One is trying to unload the washing, which the washing machine has plaited together.

'What is this? I put in seven pairs of socks. I see fifteen socks in this twist, and five of them are odd ones. How is this done?'

'Us clothes washers have always done that,' said the machine. 'It takes real skill.'

This is a story full of jokes and crammed with creative energy. Highly recommended.

Word To Use Today: sock. In Old English socc meant a light shoe. The Greek word was sukkhos.

Friday, 4 September 2020

Word To Use Today: fecula.

 I love the way words accumulate meanings. They're rolling stones but as they go along they actually do gather moss, to the extent that sometimes when you come across one it's like being greeted by a man who hasn't shaved since before lock-down, and you're left wondering who he is.

The word fecula started off in Roman times describing the crust you sometimes get on the bottom of a very old, very expensive, bottle of wine. 

From there - and here the rolling stone must have hit something which made it divert unexpectedly, though what it was I do not know, perhaps a tortoise, possibly the foot of some reflective poet - it came to mean the kind of starch you can get from crushing plants such as potatoes.

And from there, bafflingly, it took another swerve, possibly caused by an impact with the cauldron of some newt-searching witch, and it came to mean poo, and particularly insect poo.

As I say, I'm not sure how it happened, but it's put me right off paying several hundred pounds for a bottle of wine, I can tell you. 

Word To Use Today: fecula. This word is Latin, and comes from faex, which means sediment.

Spot the Frippet: neb.

 This is a Scots or Northern English word. It can mean peak, as in a hill or a cap:

Nanda Devi at dusk. Photo: By Sumod K Mohan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

File:Metropolitan Police peaked cap front.jpg

photo by Canley

or the beak or a bird:

File:Hawfinch with a blue beak.jpg

photo of a hawfinch by Andreas Overland

or the snout of an animal:

l:File:Tapir anta.JPG

tapir, photo by Piotr29109s

or the nose of a person:

File:Cyrano de Bergerac02.jpg

or, in fact, a projecting part of more or less anything.

A neb is so easy to spot that perhaps we should be trying to spot someone wearing a peaked hat pulled down over his or her nose standing on the top of a hill.

With a dog:

photo by Eugene0126jp

Spot the Frippet: neb. This word comes from the Old English nebb and is related to the German word Schnabel.

Thursday, 3 September 2020

Slavery: a rant.

 Someone in Authority (people are blaming each other, so we don't know exactly who) has banned the singing of the songs Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the annual series of London concerts known as The Proms.

The reason given is that someone (again, the blame is being passed around) objected to the connection between the songs and slavery.

Land of Hope and Glory begins: 

Land of hope and glory

Mother of the free.

and I would have thought that the word free explicitly ruled out slavery. 

And you know what? That's because it does.

Rule Britannia! is a song from an opera by Thomas Arne. The opera is about King Alfred, aka Alfred the Great, and his leading of the fight against some invading Danes. This song does mention slavery because the chorus goes Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves! Britons never never never shall be slaves!

One verse goes:

To thee belongs the rural reign,

Thy cities shall with commerce shine;

All thine shall be the subject main,

And every shore it circles, thine.

But, as anyone can see, saying that every shore that's circled by the subject main (that is, Britannia's sea) shall be Britannia's just means no one's going to invade us successfully.

Which seems fair enough.

Still, I can understand the uneasiness about the singing of these two songs. Rule Britannia! does include the word slave; and Land of Hope and Glory does express the hope that the Land of the Free might become wider and mightier (though which land this might be isn't specified, except that it's the land of the free, which means...but I've already said this). Unfortunately there are, clearly, people of such low levels of intelligence that just the inclusion of a word makes them think that a work must be expressing an opinion in its favour (but also the opposite, as in the case of Land of Hope and Glory).

The worrying thing is that such utter dunderheads should be in a position of any influence at all.

Word To Sing Today: free. The Old English form of this word is frēo, and it has ancestors going right back to the Sanskrit priya, which means dear.

UPDATE September 2nd: the BBC has relented: Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory will be sung, after all. Alleluya!

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: code-switching.

 Here's a fashionable idea.

Code-switching is what happens when people change their accents or their vocabulary in order to fit in with their company.

There are those who claim that feeling obliged to code-switch, or gaining an advantage if they do, is a sign of oppression.

Sometimes, of course, they're quite right: but the slope from its-being-a-courtesy-to-others-to-imitate-their-ways to being-forced-to-reject-your-own-culture is a long and slippery one.

Even so, there are some universal principles that probably apply. Deliberately not fitting in with a group may be a sign that you aren't going to be an easy person to have as a friend, relation, or colleague - especially if it means that other people have to make a special effort to understand you.

As for the oppression of being obliged to code-switch, well, as a novelist I'd say that we code-switch to some extent with every single individual we meet. We even code-switch with the same person at different times of day: sentences spoken before breakfast are likely to be shorter, and simpler, to the extent where they may not even be sentences at all.

Notice how often you code-switch today. 

And then see how oppressed you feel each time, on a scale, perhaps, of one to ten.

It won't solve anything, but it might be interesting.

Thing To Notice Today: code-switching. The word code comes from the Latin word cōdex, which means tree trunk, wooden block, or book.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Thing To Be Today: miffed.

 In a world where people are totally devastated by small things - a missed penalty at football, or the use of a non-fashionable word - I rather long for the Olden Days, when we just tended to be miffed.

Those were the days when a disappointment engendered a snort, an expletive, a small tantrum,  a frown, or an angry word. And then people over it.

I realise this makes me a heartless brute. 

Except...I don't's possible that people might be happier if their usual reaction is to be miffed (that is, transiently annoyed) than if they are totally devastated.

It might be worth trying, anyway, the next time something doesn't go quite your way.  

Thing To Be Today: miffed. This word appeared in the 1600s says my Collins dictionary (though other sources put its origin in the early 1800s). It's not certain where the word came from, but it might be close in sound to a snort.

Monday, 31 August 2020

Spot the Frippet: constellation.

 There're aren't many things that can only be seen in the dark, but constellations are one of them.

Constellations are also examples of things you can see which doesn't actually exist - by which I don't mean that they're just lights twinkling in the celestial sphere which encloses the Earth (because that really doesn't exist) but that a constellation exists as a group of stars only if you view it from Earth: most of the stars in a constellation won't be connected in any other way.

The constellations people tend to know best by name are the signs of the zodiac, but if you live in the North or South of the world then they'll not always be very easy to see. 

The Great Bear (or Ursa Major, The Big Dipper, The Plough, Charles's Wain, or The Saucepan) is an obvious constellation in the Northern Hemisphere, as is The Southern Cross in the South. Orion, with his shining belt, can be seen all over the world at various times of the year.

If you're looking for something less obvious, then those in the South can look for a Phoenix:

File:Phoenix constellation map-fr.png

(yes, you have to use your imagination)

 and those in the North could look for the Canes Venatice, the hunting dogs (which are owned by the endearingly-named herdsman Boötes):

File:Canes Venatici Hevelius.jpg

Illustration by Johannes Hevelius

And those of us who are afraid of the dark can spot the other kind of cluster of stars by watching any film starring at least half a dozen people you've already seen in other films.

File:The Magnificent Seven cast publicity photo.jpg

Count them up before you watch!

Spot the Frippet: constellation. Con- is Latin for together, and stella means star.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Sunday Rest: Boomer. Word Not To Use Today.

 May I just point out that boom, as it the term baby-boom, refers to the number of babies born after the natural lull during the second world war, and not to the state of the economy?

I wish to make this clear because I myself am a baby-boomer and I can't say I noticed living off the fat of the land. Even the nostalgic glow of a distant childhood has done little to prettify a life lived without central heating, quilted coats, double-glazing, trainers, the internet, nice cheese, a telephone in the house, concerts, theatre, a car, a fridge, foreign holidays, aubergines, a university education, and pain relief at the dentist.

And before anyone starts whingeing, my husband and I had each to save a whole year's salary before we got together a deposit for half a house.

So can the self-pity and the contempt, okay?

OK Boomer, indeed.

Sunday Rest: boomer. This word might come from the Dutch word bommen, which is basically the sound made when someone booms. People who boom tend to be out-going and full of energy, and this seems to be how it came to be a word for a period of high activity.


Saturday, 29 August 2020

Saturday Rave: The Cat by William Henry Davies.

 Write a poem, they tell you at school - and then they put up a list of five titles on the board from which to choose.

One of these titles is generally My Cat.

What do you write about? The soft fur, the warm body, the exclamation mark rear end, the velvety murderousness?

Here's an example from William Henry Davies. It's in my edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse

The Cat

Within the porch, across the way,

I see two naked eyes this night;

Two eyes that neither shut nor blink,

Searching my face with a green light.

But cats to me are strange, so strange -

I cannot sleep if one is near;

And though I'm sure I see those eyes

I'm not so sure a body's there!

You know, on reflection I think that with a bit of chin-scratching several of us might be able to do better. 

File:Cat scratching.jpg

photo by Vannie

Still, that's an inspiring thought.

Word To Use Today: cat. The Old English form of this word was catte and the Latin for was cattus. 

Friday, 28 August 2020

Word To Use Today: escritoire.

 Lewis Carroll's mad Hatter famously asked Why is a raven like a writing desk?

He asked this question in Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland, and Alice never found out the answer because there wasn't one. That was the point. Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, and he was fed up with the pointless logic-chopping popular among mathematicians at the time.

But since then, more or less everyone has tried to find an answer. Aldous Huxley might have come up with the best, providing a neat non-answer to the non-question: 

Because there is a 'b' in both and an 'n' in neither.

In fact poor old Lewis Carroll was besieged by so many letters of enquiry from fans that in the end he did come up with an answer to his riddle, which he put into the introduction of a new edition. I hope it stopped the enquiries, even though a misprint meant part of the joke didn't really work:

Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!

(The word never should have been written nevar...geddit?)

No, it's still not very good. Ah well.

An escritoire is a writing desk, of course, but the word escritoire is much more fun to say.

File:Escritoire desk (AM 2013.34.1-1).jpg

Do enjoy the lovely French throat-clearing noise at the end when you say it.

Word To Use Today: escritoire. In Mediaeval times a scriptōrium was a writing room in a monastery. The word comes from the Latin word scrībere. to write.


Thursday, 27 August 2020

Full stop to full stops: a rant.

Rhiannon L Cosslett is a novelist and journalist for The Guardian newspaper. A little while ago she posted this on Twitter:

Older people – do you realise that ending a sentence with a full stop comes across as unfriendly to younger people?

Well, no, as an older person I hadn't known that. 

As if unfriendly weren't bad enough, a study at Binghamton University on 2015 asked 126 undergraduates about punctuation in text messages, and it turned out those which ended with a full stop were perceived to be less sincere.

Unfriendly and insincere. The word passive-aggressive has been used in this context, too. 

Wow. The power of a dot.

There are two reasons put forward to explain the problem. Firstly, a full stop is seen to be a bit down-beat for a cheerful message, and therefore a sign of insincerity. Secondly, a short text message has so little content that even the punctuation becomes extremely significant and has to bear a lot of meaning.

I can think of another couple of reasons, too. First, down the centuries people, and young people in particular, have always enjoyed a good wallow in self-pity and victimhood; and, second, they've always also enjoyed a good violent reaction to...almost anything. 

Still, I suppose that if people have the time and energy for extreme reactions to punctuation then there can't really be too much else wrong, can there, so this is good news, really.

Sorry: really!

Thing To Use Today When Addressing A Younger Person: patience. This word comes from the Old French, from the Latin patientia, endurance, from patī, to suffer.

(No, no, I know that it doesn't matter a bit what older people feel when they see a text message without a full stop...)

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Nuts and Bolts: grawlix.

 Grawlix sounds as if it ought to be some sort of Scandinavian mustard sauce. But it isn't. 

(The plural can be either grawlix, grawlixes or grawlices. The last "Ancient Greek" example is just for fun, because it's not any sort of Greek - but then the whole idea of a grawlix is more or less for fun, so why not.)

A grawlix is something written or drawn, especially in a comic-strip or graphic novel, to take the place of swearing. (Which presumably makes it a non-graphic graphic novel.)

A grawlix is often @#$%&! but it can also be some image expressing explosions or violence that's placed inside a speech bubble.

It's a useful device, and it could have a wider application. Shouting grawlix! when you stub your toe might be a real help.

It's worth trying, anyway.

Word To Use Today: grawlix. I hope you don't stub your toe, but this word might come in useful for shouting at the TV or Radio or some idiot who think he can drive a car. I don't know of any derivation, but the word seems to have been coined by the American cartoonist Mort Walker in 1964.

Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: fearful.

 The word fearful has two meanings that are opposites of each other, which makes it a contranym. As if that isn't enough, it also has another meaning not really connected to either of the other two. That makes it very useful.

But whether fearful invokes fear in others (The fearful monster roared, and its hot breath enveloped me...) or describes being full of fear ourselves (...but I stood with my feet planted wide apart so no one could hear the fearful knocking of my knees...) or even whether fearful just means really really annoying (...and I told myself that if I got eaten at least that would cure my fearful fever) then we want to keep away from it.

I mean, we have the heroes of books to go through all that sort of thing for us, don't we.

File:Dewey Lake Monster 2017.jpg

illustration by The Terror Tales

Thing Not To Be Today: fearful. The Old English form of the word fear was fǣr,which is related to the Old Norse fār, hostility, and the Latin perīculum, danger. 

Monday, 24 August 2020

Spot The Frippet: something orra.

 Orra is a Scots word which means odd or unmatched.

An orra man is an odd-job man.

There's something strangely sinister about a house where everything matches. Instead of presenting an honest glimpse of a life, or a portrait of a family, all the souls who live there are peeking out from behind a curtain of someone else's taste.

One can't help but wonder just what it is they're hiding.

Still, the rest of us will have no trouble finding unmatched things, whether it's a sock (the other one is probably in the washing machine) 


Very odd sock. Photo by Rion

or the last plate of the set Auntie bought us, or that perfectly good envelope that came with a birthday card, or that earring which used to be one of my favourites and you never know but the other might be caught up in something somewhere.

(This Mycenian earring probably lost its partner in the 16th century BC, or soon afterwards. Still, this one is being kept at the Louvre just in case the other one turns up.)

Mind you, you could probably do without the glove whose pair was lost on that skiing holiday. And that single chopstick...but no. That might come in useful for getting the stones out of cherries.

Something orra can still be useful and stimulating.

Well, aren't you?

Spot the Frippet: something orra. Sadly, no one knows where this word comes from, except Scotland.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Sunday Rest: Karen. Word Not To Use Today.

As far as I understand it, a Karen is a not very well educated and not very intelligent white woman who is given to complaining.

I don't know of any term to describe a not very well educated and not very intelligent black, yellow, green, brown, red or blue woman who is given to complaining.

But if I did I wouldn't use those, either.

Word Not To Use Today: Karen. I don't know where this word originated, but Karen as a girls' name is a short form of Catherine that has been popular in Denmark since Mediaeval times.

Saturday, 22 August 2020

Saturday Rave: I, by J W Curry.

 I think we may now have reached the natural end of this very-short-poem series. Basically, things are getting silly.

Still, here are two final examples.

Aram Saroyan produced a poem consisting of a four-legged letter m. I've no idea what he meant by it - if anything, it reminds me of a caterpillar wearing boots - but people have come up with some truly intricate and bizarre interpretations. Two of the most comprehensible are that it's about the alphabet being born (because it's an amalgamation of the letters n and m) and a variation of I'm.

Even shorter, and much easier, is J W Curry's poem, which consists of a letter i where the dot is a fingerprint.

It's arresting, and pretty, and it suggests various ideas about identity and individuality.

I really rather like it.

Word To Use Today. Um...oh dear, we're dealing in units even shorter than the words, now. Still, the one-word poem has been presented quite seriously by various poets, so I suggest we all write one of our own.

Here's mine:


The word lazy appeared in the 1500s, but so far no one's been able to summon up the energy to discover its derivation.

Friday, 21 August 2020

Holster: Word To Use Today.

 When people think of holsters then they usually expect them to be holding guns: 

File:Glock 17 in Holster MOD 45154999.jpg

photo by Andrew Linnett from the British Ministry of Defence

but I keep my secateurs in mine: 

Secateur ouvert.jpg

photo by KoS 

and a climber might keep an axe in his or hers.

pick 1, head 2, adze 3, leash 4. leash stop 5, shaft with rubber grip 6, spike 7

photo by Lacen 

There are also, for those without pockets (women, usually) phone holsters.

The main reason this word is featuring on The Word Den, though, is because of its connection with the Old English word heolstor.

Word To Use Today: holster. This word comes from the Netherlands, and England pinched it in the 1600s when our two countries were spending far too much time firing missiles of various sizes at each other. It's connected to the Old Norse hulstr, sheath (as for a sword) and the Old English heolstor, which means, thrillingly, darkness.

Thursday, 20 August 2020

Evolution: a rant.

From The Telegraph Newspaper Website, August 4th 2020:

New emperor penguin colonies discovered using satellites

Good heavens. 

Well, that puts paid to the expression bird brain, doesn't it.

Evolution, eh?

Word To Use Today: satellite. This word comes from the Latin satelles, which means an attendant. The fact that the word doesn't look that much like Latin might be because the word isn't, being probably of Etruscan origin.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Nuts and Bolts: skunked terms.

 A skunked term is a word or phrase which is either in the process of changing its meaning (in which case the old folk will assume one meaning and the young ones another) or it's a word that's become controversial (not necessarily for any logical reason).

Fulsome is an well-known example of such a word. Does it mean insincere (which was the only thing it did mean in the mid-twentieth century) or does it mean enthusiastic and complete (probably its commonest meaning nowadays)?

The Word Den has already looked with mixed irritation and affection upon many of these meaning-shifting words, but one example not yet explored here is moot point, which to a middle-aged British person means an important issue at the heart of an argument, but which to an American will probably mean an issue of no, or only academic, importance.

( there's another interesting word!)

As for an example of a newly controversial word...and The Word Den is now stepping into dangerous territory...but it would be no surprise if describing someone as niggling is soon enough to call up a Twitter mob.

It's a fine bold label, is skunked term, but many words have changed their meaning over time, and most have largely lost their power to confuse.

But then I suppose that every skunk does, eventually, lose its smell.

Thing Probably Not To Use Today: a skunked term. This term was coined by the lexicographer Bryan A Garner in 2008.

Niggling comes from Scandinavia and is probably something to do with the word nygg, which means stingy. Moot is basically the same word as meeting. Fulsome started off meaning full, as in a stomach, then came to mean nauseated, then sickening and insincere, and now it's getting back to meaning full again.

The word skunk is a gift from Algonquian.

Tuesday, 18 August 2020

Thing To Be Today (or not): impregnable.

 What does this word mean?

Is something impregnable something no one can enter, as in an impregnable castle? 

File:Krak des Chevaliers 01.jpg

Krak des Chevaliers, Syria, Photo by Bernard Gagnon

Or the same thing in a figurative sense, as in impregnable to flattery or bribery?

Or is it some animal which can be made pregnant?

pregnant lioness. Photo by Robin Hutton

Well, it's both, of course. This makes the word a contranym (a word that can mean itself or its own opposite).

I tell myself that one day I'll get the hang of this flipping English language...

...but there's not much sign of it so far.

Thing To Be (or not): impregnable. The word meaning not-able-to-enter dates from the 1400s and comes from the Old French imprenable, from prendre, to take. The word meaning able-to-become-pregnant dates from the 1600s and comes from the Latin praegnans, pregnant. The im- in the first case means not and in the second the im- means into, towards, or within.

Monday, 17 August 2020

Spot the Frippet: spine.

 We're having a heat-wave in England as I write this, and so people's spines are more visible than usual. Well, not their actual spines, of course, but sometimes, on the not-too-fat people, the knobbly bumps where the skin stretches over the bone.

Most animals with spines are furry or scaly or feathery, so their spines aren't even as obvious as that. Still, if you happen to be frying a fish or roasting a chicken...

But there are other things that have spines. Books, for instance:

File:Library books.jpg

photo by User:Pouya sh

and leaves:

File:Emilia sonchifolia leaf on stem2 (14023826586).jpg

photo by Harry Rose

a porcupine's quill is called a spine:

File:African Porcupine (4145538286).jpg

photo by Eric Kilby

and so is the long summit of a hill:

File:Andes Spine, Peru (8641513667).jpg

The spine of the Andes in Peru. Photo by Rod Waddington

A spine is usually to do with holding things in place, so the word can be used in a lot of contexts. Even a novel may have a spine (and if it doesn't then that might be why it's uninteresting).

Today is perhaps a day to consider the structure of things.

Spot the Frippet: spine. This word comes from the Old French espine, from the Latin spīna, which means thorn or spine.

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Sunday Rest: fartlek.


Well, a lek occurs when various male animals get together to show off their bodies and skills to a group of females in the hope of winning their favour. 

And, indeed, favours.

It's usually birds who are known for gathering in leks, especially grouse, but this behaviour can also be seen in Atlantic cod, marine iguanas, parrots, cattle, seals, wasps, and butterflies.

Luckily, everyone already knows what a fart is.

Yes, the mind is boggling.

Sadly, fartlek is really the same thing as interval training (that's where you exercise very hard for a while, then do something less taxing to get your breath back, then go back to the strenuous stuff again).

Still, whatever it means, it's brightened my day, anyway.

Sunday Rest: fartlek. This word is Swedish. In Swedish lek means play. The fart bit of the word is to do with speed.

Saturday, 15 August 2020

Saturday Rave: Me by Muhammad Ali.

 In 1975 the great man (and also great boxer) Muhammad Ali was addressing a couple of thousand people at Harvard University. His speech basically said you've got an education, now use it to make the world a better place.

And were the scholars of Harvard content with the best advice they could possibly have had, from one of the twentieth century's most remarkable men?

No, they weren't.

Someone called for a poem.

Now, the problem is that this very short poem was spoken by Muhammad Ali, and not written down, so no one is exactly sure how it went.

It could have been:



which might express a sense of solidarity and communion with all mankind: no man is an island, as another great man once said.

On the other hand, some have said it should be written:



which in this case may express a delight in his own genius, or the simple relief of an uneducated man at having got out of Harvard unscathed.

Mind you, it would have been a brave man who threw anything.

Word To Use Today: we. The Old English form of this word was wē, but it goes right back to the Sanskrit vayam.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Word To Use Today: pomiculture.

 The Australians call the British Poms or Pommies. The contempt embedded in the word is reasonably friendly and so, as far as I know, no one minds.

What the Australians think of pomiculture I'm not sure. 

I have to admit that the British do have various bits of culture about the place, but mostly we try to pretend they aren't there. Sometimes we pretend that the stuff isn't actually culture by giving it a silly name (like the concert series called The Proms, for instance (yes, all right, Pom Proms); or by letting our artists starve in desperate poverty (children's writers); or by putting it in a big house miles from the nearest railway station/town/road (opera).

Mind you, having said all that, some Australians will know that pomiculture is actually to do with growing fruit.

File:Jack fruit tree 01.jpg

photo of a jack fruit tree by Biju Karakkonam

But then they lose out on some fun.

Word To Use Today: pomiculture. Pōmum is the Latin for apple or fruit, and culture comes from the other Latin word cultūra, a cultivating, from colere, to till.

Pom meaning British person may derive from pomegranate (because British people in Australia tend to suffer from sunburn, or because it's rhyming slang for immigrant) or it just may be from an acronym: Prisoner Of Mother England. Other explanations for the word's origin involve the British pom-pom gun and the nickname of Portsmouth, Pompey, which was for a long time the chief port of the Royal Navy. But nobody's sure.

Thursday, 13 August 2020

Just Mates: a rant.

 Headline from the often rant-worthy Telegraph Newspaper online, 12 August 2020:

The Moment Kamala Harris Turned On Joe Biden


...that doesn't seem a terribly good reason for choosing someone to be Vice-President, to be honest. But I suppose it's good they're friendly.

Still, it puts the mate in running-mate, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: mate. This word came into English in the 1300s from then Middle Low German. It's related to the Old English gemetta, table guest, from mete, meat.

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Nuts and Bolts: antilogy.

The Word Den was thinking about the word antilog the other day, and next to it in the dictionary I happened upon the word antilogy. 

(And after antilogy comes antimacassar, which just goes to show how random even a language which is largely made up of bits of other words stuck together can be.)

The usually reliable Wikipedia speaks of an antilogy being an alternative term for a contranym (a word which means both itself and its own opposite (like the word dust, which can mean to put dust onto something, or to take it off)) but an antilogy is more often a contradiction in terms - that is, a phrase which contradicts itself, like independent colony, visible darkness, or delicious root beer.

(Yes, they are also called oxymorons, but it's usually kinder to call them antilogies, people being extremely sensitive to being associated in any way with the word moron.)

There. Antilogy.

So now we're all educated ignoramuses, aren't we?

Word To Use Today: antilogy. The Greek form of this word was antilogia. The English language pinched it in the 1600s.