This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 20 January 2020

Spot the Frippet: tsantsa.

Among the Shuar group of the Jivaro people of Ecuador, a tsantsa is the shrunken head of an enemy kept as a trophy.

On the whole, I rather hope you don't have one to hand. Still, it might be therapeutic to make one - to draw a face of an enemy on an eggshell, perhaps, for display and/or target practice purposes.

But just whose head would it be?

Word To Use Today: tsantsa This word comes from the Ecuadorian Shuar language. How tsantsa qualifies as an English word I'm not sure, but it's rather a nice thing to have available.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Sunday Rest: tuan. Word Not To Use Today.

Tuan is a very lovely word which could easily be slipped into a piece of Science Fiction as the name of the heroic leader of the Resistance against the Evil Regime.

(Science Fiction doesn't have much of a taste for the cuddly, does it. Though there are, of course, Ewoks.)

The trouble with the word tuan is that, while in Malay tuan is a word used as a sign of respect, in Australia it's something much too much like a flying rat:

Lithograph by John Gould FRS

To make things even worse, the poor male tuan die as a result of the stress caused by breeding, so that none of them live beyond the age of one year.

And, r
eally, the possibilities for misunderstanding are simply terrifying.

Word Not To Use Today: tuan. This word used in Malaysia is, predictably, Malay. The animal word comes from a native Australasian language of Western Victoria.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Saturday Rave: Roget's Thesaurus.

Peter Mark Roget (1779 - 1869) was an extraordinary man. He was a distinguished doctor who investigated the effect of the water supply on disease, and in his spare time he invented a new type of slide-rule (that, for the young ones among us, is a sort of calculating device) and also worked on the theory of the persistence of vision. He even claimed to have invented the Phenakistoscope.  

What Roget is mostly remembered for, though, is his Thesaurus. He suffered from mental problems all his life, and from childhood found making lists a useful coping mechanism. His Thesaurus emerged from that.

Here's an entry from his original work, and, as it was original, here's the entry on nonimitation:

Nonimitation. - no imitation; originality; creativeness, invention, creation.
Adj. unimitated [0bs3], uncopied [obs3]; unmatched, unparalleled; inimitable &c. 13; unique, original; creative, inventive, untranslated; exceptional, rare, sui generis uncommon [Lat], unexampled.

Some of it is a bit muddled, and the punctuation seems rather random; but still, Roget's great work must have helped many creative people from going mad just trying to think of another word for original.

Word To Use Today: thesaurus. (Not theAsaurus, by the way. That's probably some sort of a dinosaur). This word is the Greek for treasure.

Friday, 17 January 2020

Word To Use Today: nudnik

This isn't an elegant word but, oh, it is one we need.

A nudnik is someone who habitually leaves unjustifiably bad reviews on websites.

(You say it to rhyme with bud weak.)

To some people this seems harmless fun (and how glad I am not to live inside a mind like that) but it destroys businesses and livelihoods.

A nudnik is made more powerful by the star system of reviewing. In my own experience, apart from the sort of one star book review which says I loved everything about this book, it is the best story I have ever read, which is just annoying (though still damaging) there will be the one star review which says this book is rubbish because it isn't about guinea pigs and I only like books about guinea pigs; the one star review of the same book which says this stupid book is boring because it's about guinea pigs; and the one star review which says I suppose this book may be all right for children, but I am much too clever for it.

And there we are: a whole year's work and investment by writer, illustrator and publisher, down the drain. Perhaps a whole career, too.

And nudniks are just as damaging for plumbers and taxi firms, of course.

I understand that attempts are being made to create computer systems which will decline reviews (and, importantly, business) from nudniks.

The world will be a happier and more reliable place once they have.

Word To Use Today: nudnik. This word is Yiddish for a boring nag  (though of course in this context they're worse than that). It comes from the Russian nudyĭ, which means tedious.

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Fully respecting my wishes: a rant.

I gave a donation to the Salvation Army recently. They do a good job, it seems to me, especially at Christmas; and I like to hear their brass band playing.

I got a real proper thank-you letter, which I wasn't expecting. As the Post Script to the letter said:

We have noted your request that you'd prefer not to hear from The Salvation Army by post. I fully understand and we will respect your wish.

Well, that demonstrates a whole new meaning of the phrase we will respect your wishes

But never mind, I still think it's a good cause.

I do wish, though, that they hadn't spent some of the money I sent them on sending that letter.

Word To Use Today: respect. This word comes from the Latin rēspicere. to look back or pay attention to, from specere, to look.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Nuts and Bolts: System Not-So-International.

The SI in the SI system of measurement stands for Système International. It's obviously a good thing to use an international system in our multi-national world, and the fact that on the whole the SI system is fitted together on a scientific basis makes measuring things as straightforward as it can be.

Now, if there's one place were you need a proper international system it is, of course, on aeroplanes, which can waft from one country to another in a matter of minutes. And so what system do aeroplanes use?

Well, vertical distance is measured in feet, speed in knots, visibility in metres, distance in miles, time in minutes, direction in degrees, and fuel in litres.

(A knot, by the way, is a nautical mile per hour, equal to (about) 1.15078 miles per hour or 0.514 metres per second.)

Ah well. 

At least everyone speaks English...

Well, more or less, anyway.

Nuts and Bolts: systems. The word system comes from the Greek syn-, which means together, and histanai, which means to cause to stand.

Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Thing To Be Today: ravenous.

Have you finished the Christmas cake yet? We ourselves still have an unopened panettone, two Christmas puddings, two tubs of brandy butter, some nuts, various bits of chocolate, some cheese,  and some crystallised ginger.

Oh, and an apple.

The trouble is that after the Christmas and New Year festivities I'm not sure I'll ever be hungry again.

Still, I could probably fancy a nice plateful of something plain, like mashed potato or cabbage.

Anyone got a recipe including brandy butter and cabbage?


Well, keep it to yourself, do.

Thing To Be Today: ravenous. this word comes from the Old French ravineux from the Latin rapina, which means plunder, from rapere to seize. It's basically the same word as ravish.

Ravens are often ravenous, but these two words are unconnected. The bird word comes from the Old Norse hrafn.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Spot the Frippet: rattle.

Well, I hope your nearest rattle isn't one of these:

photo by Razimantv

nor one located somewhere under the bonnet of your car (unless it's somewhere in the boot - though it only starts up when you're going at over seventy, when it's really not practical to have a look for it).

File:Old demolition derby racer - 1955 Chevrolet 150 (2321024737).jpg
photo by dave_7

This is a Rattle worth hearing:

but even if that's not your thing then one of these can't be far away:

File:A baby sits in a chair chewing a rattle. Engraving by A&E. V Wellcome V0039341.jpg

The other sort of rattle is caused by the rattling of a tongue, that is someone who talks and talks and talks about nothing very important.

But everyone has long practice at spotting those so they can take evasive action.

Spot the Frippet: rattle. This is an imitative word. It's basically German.

Sunday, 12 January 2020

Sunday Rest: tantivy. Word Not To Use Today.

Now tantivy is a really dangerous word.

It means at full speed. The trouble with it is that it's traditionally used by huntsmen, especially those hunting foxes on horseback.

File:Fox Hunting - Henry Alken.png
Illustration by Henry Thomas Alken

This activity is now (rather controversially) illegal in Britain. People can still pretend to hunt, but they aren't allowed to pester any animals: instead they set the hounds to follow a synthetic scent, which provides a more reliable, and much safer, source of entertainment.

People still mourn the old ways, though, so perhaps the anticipation and danger were important.

(The foxes are now shot.)

Anyway, as far as I know tantivy may still be shouted when galloping after a scent-trail, but yelling it in any other setting is likely to get you scragged by any vegans or animal activists that might be lurking about the place.

They can be quite an aggressive bunch, the animal activists.

But still, if you feel a great need to shout tantivy at least you'll know they won't eat you.

Word Not To Use Today: tantivy. This word is probably an imitation of the rhythm of a galloping horse.

Saturday, 11 January 2020

Saturday Rave: Wang Chongyang.

Wang Chongyang was born in China in 1113 AD. He had a traditional upper class upbringing and was planning on starting a civil war when he happened to meet three immortal beings in a pub. As a result of this meeting he became a philosopher and mystic, instead.

If only things always happened that way.

Wang Chongyang lived a holy life after that mysterious encounter, three years of it in a tomb he'd made for himself, and four years in a hut he called the 'Complete Perfection' hut.

Wang Chongyang devoted his life to Taoism. Luckily for us he wrote down his discoveries, sometimes in the form of poetry. Here is one of his poems.

I can't say that the beauty of the language really shines through in this translation, but the longing for a better sort of life does.


Resolutely yearn for the Tao 
and retain nothing that binds and enwraps you.
Isolate your body, and sleep in solitude.
When stillness arises within the stillness you will attain wonders.
When calmness arrives within the calmness you shall certainly unite with the mysterious.
Now you can act as you will, and know what it is to be tranquil and content.
The inborn saint passes the days in refreshing coolness.
Stop wishing for divine immortality; stop speaking of it.
Let yourself sit in the white lotus flower.



Word To Use Today: Tao. Tao encompasses, firstly, ideas about the goodness of the universe in which all things exist and happen; secondly, the rational basis of human conduct; and, thirdly, the relationship between life and eternal truth. 

The word means path in Chinese.

Friday, 10 January 2020

Word To Use Today: riffle.

The hills where I live are veined with shallow chalk streams. There aren't very many chalk streams in the world (which isn't surprising as chalk doesn't hold water) but it's only quite recently that they've been embraced as habitats worth preserving.

River Gade

There are two such streams within a couple of miles of my house (and sometimes a third, which appears sporadically to foretell war (it's accurate, too, though admittedly it's not very often Britain isn't joining in war with someone or other)).

Anyway, these chalk streams, which have often been straightened and dredged to tidy them up, are now being returned to their natural meandering ways, with berms (ledges along the sides of a deepish central channel) brash (logs and branches put into the water to provide shelter for wildlife) and riffles.

Ah yes, riffles. They're shallow bits in the stream where the water gets broken into rough ripples.

The same word also gives you the troughs called riffles which are used in the extraction of mercury and gold. They have groves along the bottom for catching the specks of gold and mercury washed from the earth. One of these groves is called a riffle, too.

Then there's the riffle sound that cards make when you shuffle them; and the riffle you perform when you skim your way through the pages of a book.

Running water, gold, mercury, cards, books...

Was there ever a word for so many magical things?

Do let us know if there is.

Word To Use Today: riffle. This word is probably a form of ruffle with a bit of ripple mixed in for good measure. Ruffle comes from the Middle English ruffelen, and ripple from more or less the same root.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Wise Old Owls: a rant.

Honestly, owls!

They put out all this endless publicity about being old and wise, but they only say one thing and they can't even get the grammar of that right.

To-whit to-who?

Don't they know it should be to-whit to-whom???

Word To Use Today: owl. The Old English form of this word is ūle.

To be fair, it's only the Tawny Owl who says to-whit to-who, and it's only the male Tawny Owl which says the to-who bit.

File:Tawny Owl Lincolnshire.jpg
photo by Joe Pell

The grammar of all other owls is, as far as I know, unexceptionable.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Nuts and Bolts: tercets.

A tercet is a three-line verse.
For those of you who rant and curse
When faced with rhymes, they could be worse.

Mind you, if you're reading a villanelle you'll be faced with five tercets in a row followed by a four-line verse (a quatrain) which makes nineteen lines, which is even longer than a sonnet.

(Speaking of which, tercets are quite often hidden cunningly inside in longer verses, and some sonnets end with a couple of them.)

The most famous and celebrated tercets are those of Dante, who wrote a whole book full of them. He used a particular rhyme scheme called terza rima, where the rhymes of the first tercet go ABA, then the next BCB, and so on. It works brilliantly in Italian, but is surprisingly difficult to translate into English. 

The other problem with terza rima is that the link between the verses means that it never really reaches an ending, so usually you have to have a single line to finish things off.

Still, tercet is a lovely, elegant little word, and I personally could easily cope with more of them.

Nuts and Bolts: tercet. This word comes from the Italian terzetto, which means little third.

Tuesday, 7 January 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: weaselly.

Weasels are famous for their cunning and viciousness.

They're still quite cute, though:

File:Least Weasel (3766818218).jpg

Least weasel. Photo credit: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. #

People whose appearance is described as weaselly, however, are not cute at all, but scrawny and furtive. This is most unfair on sleek, quick and brave weasels.

Weasel words are another piece of slander on the poor creatures, for weasel words are not cunning at all: if they were, then no one would know they were weasel words. Avoiding a question to disguise some horrible truth might be called weaselly, but no actual weasel would dream of acting in such a way.

It's straight for the jugular with a weasel.

Weasels never make promises, either, so they never even try to weasel out of anything.

This leaves us with a problem: is it better to be straightforwardly aggressive and selfish, like a weasel, or is it better to pretend weaselishly to be civilised and kind?

Well, I don't know. 

But I know what a weasel would say.

Thing Not To Be Today: weaselly. Weasels have a reputation for cunning because it is said they can suck the contents of an egg without breaking the shell. (That's not true, either.) The word weasel comes from the Old English weosule.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Spot the Frippet: cobwebs.

Today is Twelfth Night (unless you think Twelfth Night was yesterday, which some people do). Twelfth Night is the day the Christmas decorations come down and you find all the cobwebs.

Don't worry too much about destroying cobwebs because if you can see them then so can the flies, and this means they aren't going to be much good to the spider. (Some people distinguish between a spider web, which is all but invisible, and a cobweb, which is dusty and abandoned.)

Cobweb covered in frost. Photo by By Yintan at English Wikipedia, CC BY 4.0,

The best and dustiest cobwebs are to be found in haunted houses. I can only account for this by supposing that the ghosts are such a nuisance that even the spiders have moved out.

Where else might you spot a cobweb? Sometimes the forehead of a zebra or horse has marks on it that are called cobwebbing, and there's a Cobweb Bridge in Sheffield, England:

File:Spider Bridge, Sheffield - - 725508.jpg
photo by Stephen McKay / Cobweb Bridge, Sheffield / CC BY-SA 2.0

That other Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, features a character called Cobweb, but you're not likely to find that play being performed at this time of year unless you're in the Southern hemisphere.

Whatever sort of cobweb you spot, a cobweb made by a spider is a wonderful thing. They've been around for at least a hundred million years (to put that into perspective, Homo sapiens is nowhere even near its millionth birthday). To start with the webs were made to protect spiders' eggs and bodies, but then they became used for hunting. Some spiders can produced eight sorts of silk - safety-line silk, a sticky fly-catching silk, and a soft fly-wrapping silk, for instance.

Cobweb silk is strong and stretchy, and the webs come in spirals, tunnels, tubes, tangles and sheets. People are still trying to work out how to make cobweb silk artificially because it'd be great for making bullet-proof vests and replacement tendons.

And how does a spider manage to weave a cobweb right across a passageway so that you get it wrapped round your face every time you go out to the bins? It produces a line with a sticky end and then lets the breeze waft it about until it sticks on something (the spider can tell when it's stuck because the line will vibrate in a new way). Then the spider will stroll along the line with a stronger piece of silk, and carry on from there.

It's a miracle of construction - and a frippet worth looking out for before you walk into it, too.

Spot the Frippet: cobweb. coppe is the Old English for spider. Webb is the Old English form of web.

Cobwebbing occurs in dun horses when there are rings or stripes of a slightly darker colour than the coat , they are found on the horse’s fo...

See the cobwebbing?

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Sunday Rest: yaas and smol. Words Not To Use Today.

Even the oldest words were new once, so no one who speaks, listens, writes or reads can object to newness in itself. 

So what's wrong with yaas and smol? They're new words, after all.

Well, they're not so much new as hiply warped. Yaas means yes (especially when screeched it in triumph) and smol means small (especially when it's something cute as well as small, like a puppy).


...actually, I'm not sure why I'm bothering to get uptight about either of them.

They'll probably be over by Christmas.

Words Not To Use Today: yaas and smol. The word yes comes from the Old English gēse, from iā sīe, may it be. The word small was smæl in Old English.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

Saturday Rave: talking rumps.

Everyone loves a nickname, but it's not easy to get them to stick. I mean, we've had ten whole years to come up with a nickname for the 2010s, and there have been plenty of suggestions (usually variations on the numbers, such as the Tenties) but none of them has stood out as an affectionately disrespectful encapsulation of the decade.

In Britain our last parliament has also been looking for a nickname. Again, it's been called all sorts of things, but few of them are repeatable, and none of them has stuck. 

But then perhaps it's best forgotten.

They did things better in former times. In the first half of the 1600s alone we had the Addled, the Happy, the Useless, and the Barebones Parliaments; but as far as I'm concerned the best parliamentary nickname was surely the Rump Parliament of 1648. (It was called that because all those members who didn't want to bring the King to trial for treason had been thrown out, and there weren't all that many left.)

In fact, the Rump Parliament was such a successful nickname that they had another Rump Parliament eleven years later.


The Constipated Parliament? The Costive Parliament?

Actually, I think that last one might just do.

Word To Use Today: rump. This word is Scandinavian. The Danish from is rumpe, but beware: the German rumpf means trunk of the body.

Friday, 3 January 2020

Word To Use Today: misericord.

So, how was Christmas and the New Year? Rather stressful, mildly awkward, slightly trying on the patience, possibly a waste of effort, but quite interesting in retrospect and occasionally even fun?

Yep, that sounds about right.

So what that you couldn't find the napkins, or that Great Aunt Dora fell asleep between the turkey and the pudding. Christmas was never going to be perfect while there were people involved. Give yourself a break!

Which brings us to misericords. They sound as if they're to do with misery, but they're not. They're about giving yourself a break.

A misericord is a ledge fixed under the surface of a tip-up seat. They're for monks to perch on when they're supposed to be standing up at church services. Yes, that is cheating, a bit, but then even monks are human. Misericords are often beautifully carved (and the carvings are hidden most of the time, when the seat is down, so the decorations can be playful):

Misericord S5, St Mary's church, Beverley
photo copyright Julian P Guffog. Misericord in St Mary's, Beverley, Yorkshire, England, 1400s.

That elephant is presumably a comment on the fatness of some of the monks!

Misericords can also be also rest homes for sick or old monks and nuns where the strict rules of their lives are relaxed a bit.

There is one other meaning of misericord, and you can see it on this, well, misericord:

File:Beverley, St Mary's church, misericord N6 (24794243883).jpg
photo by Jules and Jenny

You see that the hunter is reaching for his dagger to finish off the wild boar he's speared? Well, a dagger used to finish off a victim is called a misericord, too. (That misericord carving is on Beverley, too.)

And if you've got through Christmas and New Year without using one of those, then you can feel jolly pleased with yourself.

Give yourself a break!

Word To Use Today: misericord. This word comes from the Latin misericordia, compassion, from miserēre, pity and cor, heart.

Thursday, 2 January 2020

A level playing field: a rant.

I've never really got the hang of football. I mean, I know it's vitally important, but I've never quite managed to work out exactly why.

Still, I've just discovered something that's piqued my interest.

There's a wonderful not-for-profit organisation called The Ant which helps communities in Assam in India. It provides work for impoverished women, and it tries to combat prejudice and violence between the many different groups of people living there.

A new project has been the formation of mixed junior frisbee teams. Each team has to have representatives of each sex, various religions, and several ethnic or tribal groups.

File:Flying Disc - Ultimate Frisbee - World Games 2005 (1).jpg
photo by  Raimond Spekking

It's working well in reducing prejudice (well, you can't be prejudiced once you've had an opportunity to judge for yourself, can you) and something that The Ant's co-founder Jennifer Liang said has given me a new insight, not only into frisbee, but into football, too.

"As the sessions progressed, they [the boys] quickly realised that the girls were valuable for the team. Frisbee was the perfect vehicle to impart lessons to the children as the sport was new to both genders. Unlike football, it offered a level playing field."

Football without a level playing field?

Now that's something I'd really be interested to see.

Word To Use Today: frisbee. Frisbees were first sold by Walter Frederick Morrison. He called them the Flyin-Saucer at first, and later an improved version was called the Pluto Platter. After he sold the company to Wham-O in the late 1950s the disc became known as a frisbee because of Bridgeport Connecticut college students' craze for skimming Frisbie bakery pie tins at each other. 

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Nuts and Bolts: resolutions.

1. This year I shall make the effort to be as welcoming as possible to all new words*. 

2. I shall remember at all times that split infinitives do not matter in the slightest...

3. ...though I shall avoid them because stupid people so often matter rather a lot.

4. Ditto prepositions at the ends of sentences, though not as strictly as the split infinitive thing because, hey, how much of my life am I prepared to spend sucking up to idiots? 

5. I shall not despise people who don't know the difference between its and it's unless I am paying them money to be halfway literate. This category includes journalists, publishers, and lawyers.

6. I shall own up to my mistakes readily...

7. ...and try to avoid them in future.

8. I shall never under any circumstances post anything anonymously online.

9. I shall finish the blasted work in progress, even though the chances of anyone publishing it are approximately zero...

10. ...and I shall be as generous as possible about the undeserved success of others.


It's not going to be an easy year, is it.

Perhaps I'll just try to cut down on the use of the word really instead.

Thing To Make Today: resolutions. This word comes from the Latin resolvere, to unfasten or reveal, which is a bit surprising. Before that it comes from solvere, which means to loosen. It's basically the same word as solve.

*Snippy was a new and brilliant one for me this year.