This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 19 February 2020

Nuts and Bolts: the double prefix.

I've always assumed that a binary prefix was something like the bi- in bicycle or the duo- in duopoly; basically, a prefix which indicates two of something.

But it's not.

A binary prefix is that rare thing, an entertaining computer term. You see, a binary prefix is a way of expressing a number where, until fairly recently, you couldn't tell what, er, the number actually was.

I do love it when nerdy people manage to make themselves look ridiculous.

A binary prefix is used to describe the size of a kind of computer memory (it's RAM). Examples, historically, of these binary prefixes are the kilo[byte], mega[byte] and giga[byte], and the number they represent will be a one calculated by multiplying a certain number of twos together. For instance, a gigabyte is 1073741824 bytes, that number being a row of ten twos all multiplied together.

If you're counting something other than RAM then the prefixes kilo- mega- and giga- mean more or less the same thing as they do if they are being the aforesaid binary prefixes, except rounded to the nearest thousand or ten thousand or few billion or so. 

A gigabit, for instance, consists of 1000000000 bits, as opposed to the 1073741824 in a gigabyte as mentioned above.

Rather sadly, computer people have now sorted this out. Kilo- mega- and giga- etc now always mean the whole thousands (so they are no longer binary prefixes at all). If you want a binary prefix, ie one based on a multiplication of the number two, then you are supposed to use kibi- mebi- or gibi-.

It's very sensible, and definitely needed.

But it's rather a pity, all the same.

Word To Use Today: kibibyte? Everyone will think you're talking about some sort of a dog biscuit, but that would be fun. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2020

Thing To Be Today: devoted.

Devotion is an odd thing. How does it begin? With a look, with a word, with some subtle biological chemistry, as perhaps between a mother and her child?

My husband went to his first football* game as a small boy. His dad took him to a match between Millwall, his family's local team, and Shrewsbury Town (an organisation with which you may not be familiar as it doesn't really feature all that much in the glorious annals of the history of sport).

Despite this, Millwall somehow managed to lose 1-2, and the poor little boy got so cold watching the game that on the way home his dad had to take him to an auntie's house to get him thawed out. She was a very kind auntie, and gave the little boy a tot of brandy to help warm him through.

The brandy made him feel warmer, but it can't have made him feel much better because when the little boy finally got home he was sick all over the kitchen floor.

He's been utterly devoted to Millwall Football Club ever since.

As I said, devotion is an odd thing.

Thing To Be Today: devoted. The Latin word dēvōtus means, well, devoted. Or solemnly promised. Dēvovēre means to vow.


Monday, 17 February 2020

Spot the Frippet: film.

After the Oscars Awards Ceremony I thought I'd write about parasites, but when I researched them I quickly discovered that they were far too revolting, and so I'm going to write about films, instead.

Why is a film, as in the movie Parasite, called a film?

Well, long ago, the many photographs which go to make up a film used to be kept, not as data in a computer's memory, but on long strips of translucent tape. The photographs themselves came in the form of a very thin film of chemicals on this strip.

So, what we're looking for are very thin layers.

A bubble consists of a film, usually of detergent:

File:Soap bubble sky.jpg
photo by Brocken Inaglory

and then you get what in Britain we call cling film, which keeps food moist:

File:Sandwich Cling film.jpg

There are also naturally-occurring living films, that is living things joined together to form a sort of thin community spread across a surface. You're destroying one every time you clean your teeth (eerghh!). 

That kind of a biofilm is also a heck of a nuisance on contact lenses.

Modern mirrors are coated with a reflective film. Spectacles are often coated similarly, too.

You might apply a film of oil to stop surfaces rubbing together.

Then there are thin-film solar panels, which are cheaper than the original kind because they use up so much less material.

Or, on the other hand, if you're feeling brave, you could just watch Parasite.

But I think spotting a solar panel or two will do for me.

Spot the Frippet: film. This word comes from the Old English filmen, membrane. It's related to the Greek pelma, which means the sole of the foot, and, rather distantly, to the English word peel.

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Sunday Rest: zoonoses. Word Not To Use Today.

Zoonoses are infectious diseases which are transmitted to man from a different species of vertebrate (that is, an animal with a backbone).

Yes, some animal like a bat or a pig or a pangolin or a chicken.

The word zoonoses is a hundred per cent Greek, and there is, sadly, a strong current need for it. It's a good and necessary word.

So the only reason for disliking it is that it doesn't describe something altogether more lovable, like the snout of a tapir:

Lowland Tapir (Tapirus terrestris) male (27546923604).jpg
photo by Bernard Dupont

the trunk of an elephant:

File:Elephant breastfeading.jpg
photo by Rick Kimpel

 or the adorable snoot of a koala:

File:Cutest Koala.jpg
photo by Erik Veland

Still, the singular form of the word, zoonosis, looks fairly scary, and can in almost all circumstances be used as an alternative.

Thank heavens for that.

Sunday Rest: zoonoses. This word comes from the Greek zōion, animal and the Greek nosos, which means disease.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Saturday Rave: the Great and the Unready.

Alfred and Catherine were great, weren't they? 

In fact, they were better than great, they were Great. I refer, of course, to Catherine the Great of Russia, and Alfred the Great of those bits of England that weren't currently over-run by someone else.

It does help to have a single word to stick onto people so you can put them in a slot in you mind. The English king Æthelred the Unready,* is an obvious example, as is poor Bloody Mary (it wasn't that she had an over-fondness for cocktails, it was that she killed a lot of Protestants).

Then there was Ivan the terrible (well, you know not to invite him to tea) and Vlad the Impaler (don't even open the door!).

And then there are the people you can't help pitying, like the Scots Earl of Douglas Archibald the Loser, for instance. (He died in battle, yes, but he was Earl for twenty four years and it can't all have been a complete disaster. Can it?) Then there are the French King Louis the Unavoidable (who was actually in prison or in exile for most of his reign, so he was actually very easily avoidable indeed until the Emperor Napoleon was thrown out); the Norwegian Haakon the Crazy (who was sane enough (for a king, anyway) but tended to go berserk in battle); and the Bulgarian Ivaylo the Cabbage (who, remarkably, led a successful peasants' revolt and became king for a year or so. He must have been quite a guy.).

These are all remarkable individuals, but as for today, as it's their birthdays, I dedicate this post to Ivan the Young (1458 - 1490), son of Ivan III of Russia; and Piero the Unfortunate, Italian ruler 1471 - 1503.

I'm just hope they never knew what their chief claim to fame was going to be, that's all.

Word To Use Today: nickname. This started off as an ekename, but then the n went AWOL. Eke means addition.

*Æthelred means well advised, and Unready comes from unræd, which means poorly advised. 

Yes, people have been making bad puns for a long time.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Word To Use Today: spoil.

Yesterday, my husband received an email headlined:

How To Spoil Your Valentine

Luckily, the rest of the text referred to a list of gifts, not activities designed to ruin our day.

File:Red rose bouquet.JPG
photo by Dawid Skalec

Word To Use Today: spoil. This confusing word can be a heap of earth excavated from a hole - so waste, more or less (the same sort of meaning turns up in spoiled food) - but on the other hand the spoils of crime are the valuable bits you want to keep.

The word comes from the Old French espoillier, from the Latin spoliāre, to strip, from spolium, booty.

Thursday, 13 February 2020

Sorted! a rant.

On a display of bottles of pink gin:

File:I Am Khanyi Gin.jpg
photo by Dmusanhu

in my local Sainburys supermarket there is a notice which says:

Valentine's Day: sorted!


and I really don't think that's truly in the spirit of the occasion.

Word To Use Today: sort. The Latin word sors means fate. 

Fate, as in fatal, is what might quite easily happen if you forget Valentine's Day.

So perhaps that notice has something to say for it, after all.

Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Nuts and Bolts: parentese.

Do you speak parentese? You almost certainly do if you're a parent, or if you have ever had anything to do with babies.

Parentese isn't a language so much as a speaking style. It has simplified grammar, a high pitch to the voice, and exaggerated sounds, especially on the important words.

It's a BAALLL! someone might say to a small child, the voice as full of wonder and delight as can possibly be managed.

Yes, it is quite hard work.

Parentese is used in nearly all the world's languages (I must try to find out in which languages parentese isn't used: if I succeed, I'll let you know). Anyway, parentese seems to be an instinctive behaviour when faced with an infant. Parentese has already been shown to be effective in fostering language acquisition in the baby, and now a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by the Institute for Learning & Brain Research, or I-LABS (I wonder how long it took them to come up with such a neat acronym?) has shown that giving parents parentese lessons leads to increased use of parentese, and this in turn leads to children acquiring more words more quickly than those in the study's control group.

Why does parentese work? Patricia Kuhl, I-LAB's director, says it's because the pattern of speech of parentese attracts the attention of the baby. It also makes the use of language a social and happy occasion, and invites a response.

(Well, it's always useful to have confirmation, even of the most obvious things.)

The great discovery of the study as far as I'm concerned is that if you tell parents that using parentese helps their baby, then parents will use it more, with measurable positive results. After all, parentese does make you look like a bit of an idiot.

So it's good news all round. Because, after all, life is much easier for everyone when a child can ask for something instead of having to do a lot of random bawling, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: parentese. The word parent comes from the Latin word parere, to bring forth.

The lead author of the study was Naja Ferian Remirez, and the co-author was Sarah Roseberry Lytle.

Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: abysmal.

According to my Collins English Dictionary (30th anniversary edition) the primary meaning of abysmal is "immeasurable; very great; abysmal stupidity".

Then it goes on to meaning 2, which it calls informal: "extremely bad; an abysmal film".

Well, the dictionary can say what it likes, but no one, no one, uses the word abysmal informally. 

As for abysmal's primary meaning, an abysmal performance is never, ever, a great one, however deep it is; and the height of the arch of a rainbow may be immeasurable but it cannot under any circumstances be described as abysmal.

Still, this is a good thing.

After all, there are plenty of things around that can be called abysmal, and it'd be a pity to overwork the word.

Thing Not To Be Today: abysmal. This word is linked to the word abyss, which comes from the Greek abussos, which means bottomless (though not in the catwalk model sense) from bussos, depth.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Spot the Frippet: cockscomb/coxcomb.

Clothes go out of fashion, as do styles of furniture, architecture, music, and literature.

So, less obviously, do personal failings.

It's not only that the words for personal failings go out of fashion (though they do); it's not just that sloth has become know as laziness, or that we don't covet things any more but feel envious of them. 

Coxcombs just aren't on anyone's radar any more - unless to describe a cock's comb:

photo by Žiga

Why has a word which describes the sort of conceited arrogance which so often leads to foppish dressing in the young (and occasionally the not-so-young) largely vanished from the world?

Perhaps it's something to do with our cultural trend of admiration for the wisdom of the young.

There are certainly coxcombs around. You might spot one by his expensive footwear or glittering gold jewellery, his impractical hair style or impudent swagger, his arched eyebrow or offensive snigger.

The poor loves will grow out of it, most of them, but until they do they can be quite annoying and intimidating. The cure is, of course, to call them coxcombs,* which will make them shrink back to their proper insignificant size and give us all a laugh.

Bless them.

Spot the Frippet: coxcomb. The Old English form of the word cock was cocc, (the bird). The word is basically an imitation of the sound such a bird makes. The word comb is also Old English, and used to be camb.

*Probably not to their faces, though.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

Sunday Rest: celebocracy.

The word celebocracy may be an unconventional mixture of Latin and Greek (see below) but then so is the word television, and we've managed to get used to that.

The problem is that anyone who utters the word celebocrary will look pretentious (and in Britain pretentious = ridiculous) so it's unusable.

Still, it's a useful and interesting idea, isn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: celebnocratic. The word celebrate comes from the Latin celebrāre, which means numerous, crowded, or famous. The -cracy bit comes from the Greek kratos, which means power.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

Saturday Rave: Le Genie by Jules Verne.

Jules Verne is the second-most translated writer in the world (he's between Agatha Christie and William Shakespeare).

In Britain we tend to regard Verne as a writer of light and perhaps juvenile adventure stories, but in his native France he is honoured as a writer of intellect and distinction.

The difference in perception seems to have been created by those many and often much-abbreviated translations.

Here's one of Jules Vernes' poems, Le Génie

Comme un pur stalactite, oeuvre de la nature
Le génie incompris apparaît à nos yeux.
Il est là, dans l'endroit où l'ont placé les Cieux,
Et d'eux seuls, il reçoit sa vie et sa structure.

Jamais la main de l'homme assez audacieuse
Ne le pourra créer, car son essence est pure,
Et le Dieu tout-puissant le fit à sa figure;
Le mortel pauvre et laid, pourrait-il faire mieux?

Il ne se taille pas, ce diamant byzarre,
Et de quelques couleurs dont l'azur le chamarré,
Qu'il reste tel qu'il est, que le fit l'éternel!

Si l'on veut corriger le brillant stalactite,
Ce n'est plus aussitôt qu'un caillou sans mérite,
Qui ne réfléchit plus les étoiles de ciel.

Translation has obviously not served Jules Verne well, but are there any excuses for this? 

Well, here's what Google Translate makes of his poem.


Like a pure stalactite, work of nature,
The misunderstood genius appears to us.
He is there, in the place where Heaven placed him
And from them alone he receives his life and his structure.

Never the hand of man bold enough
Cannot create it, because its essence is pure,
And the Almighty God did it in his face;
Could the poor and ugly mortal do better?

It is not cut, this Byzarre diamond,
And some colors including bedecked azure,
May it remain as it is, as the eternal did!

If we want to correct the brilliant stalactite.
It is immediately no more than a pebble with merit,
Who no longer reflects the stars in the sky.


Google's not done a bad job, I'd say. It's a pity that les Cieux is translated as Heaven instead of the heavens, and even more of a pity that le fit à sa figure comes out as did it in his face; but you can tell that this is serious stuff, and you can basically tell what he means. 

So I think we can say that there not really any excuse that poor Jules Verne's work is so diminished in translation.

Mind you, perhaps after all he'd not have minded too much being ahead of Shakespeare.

Word To Use Today: genius. This word comes from the Latin word gignere to engender.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Word To Use Today: chersonese.

(You say this word k-ss-NEEZ.)

Islands are the thing. I knew that quite well when I was working out my new kitchen layout, but there wasn't room for an island, so I had to made do with a peninsular unit, instead.

Yes, I love it, thanks. I really flipping love it.

But that word,'s just slightly a sign of compromise, somehow, so I think I might be going to christen my peninsular unit the chersonese.

Well, I would if I wanted to show off, anyway. 

Sadly, though, as I don't, I think I'm going to have to carry on calling it a table.

The Golden Chersonese, drawn by Nicolaus Germanus in 1467 after Ptolomy's Geography. It's thought to be the place now known as the Malay Peninsula. Some have claimed it as the kingdom of Caspar, who brought gold as a gift to the infant Christ.

Word To Use Today: chersonese. This word turned up in English in the 1600s but never really caught on except with the more refined poets. They got it from Latin, but of course it's really a Greek word, khersonēsos, from khersos, dry (as in land) and nēsos, island.

Thursday, 6 February 2020

Sentences: a rant.

An Islamist terrorist, Sudesh Amman, was shot dead by police on 02/02/2020 after he stabbed two members of the public in a busy London High Street. Amman was wearing a fake suicide vest. The incident occurred ten days after Amman's statutory early release from prison. 

From the Telegraph Online, 3rd February 2020:

Haleema Faraz [Amman's mother] today revealed that she visited her son at his bail hostel on Thursday after he was released from prison early for distributing terrorist documents.

As a writer, I can see how these things happen (it's probably from trying just a bit too hard). 

But surely someone checks this stuff before it's posted, don't they?

Um...that has to be a no, then.

Word To Use Today: terror. This word comes from the Greek word trein, to run away in terror.

Wednesday, 5 February 2020

Nuts and Bolts: chiasmus.

Chiasmus isn't nearly as difficult or complicated as it sounds.

Chiasmus is when you say something like, for instance:

I adore Belinda,

and then, to emphasise the fact, you say it again, only sort of backwards:

 she is my darling.

As you can see, it's not that the words are in reverse order, it's that the thing that was at the end of the phrase is now at the beginning, and vice versa.

As a classier example, the second line of this speech of Othello's is a chiasmus:

But O, what damnéd minutes tell he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts; suspects, yet strongly loves.

Do chiasmi matter? Well, they're a useful way of emphasising something, so if you're trying to be persuasive it might be worth bearing in mind.

Mind you, if you're trying to be persuasive there'll probably be about a hundred more important things on your mind. 

So chiasmus is probably mostly a way of trying to make yourself look clever.

Thing To Consider Today: chiasmus. This word is from the Greek khiasmos, a cross-cross shape. Chi is the Greek name for the letter X.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Thing To Be Today: sublime.

Well, we all know that sub- means under, and that a lime is a fruit.

But what's so good about sitting under one of those?

File:Lime Tree - recovery from wind damage.jpg
This sort of lime tree, a Tilia species, doesn't actually bear limes, but, hey, it's still very beautiful. Photo by Rosser1954.

(If you're chuckling wisely and thinking about all the other meanings of the word lime then, yes, okay - but as it happens even those doesn't actually help very much. Or, indeed, at all.)

The trouble is that to be sublime is quite an ask. Sublime talent and sublime beauty may indeed elude us (elude us? As if I ever got within clutching distance!).

Still, we can all be sublimely unconcerned, I suppose, if only about our own deficiencies.

Personally, I'm going to have to go with that.

Thing To Be Today: sublime. This word is from the Latin sublīmus, which means lofty. That word might come from sub-, meaning up to, and līmen, threshold (or possibly lintel).

But what's sublime about a threshold (or a lintel) I have no idea at all.

Anyway, threshold to what, I wonder? 

Monday, 3 February 2020

Spot the Frippet: wicket.

I was writing about Ewoks the other day, and I remembered that Wicket is my favourite of all the ewoks. I love teh fact that he's so passionate about getting to be a warrior even though he's pretty much unable to pronounce the word.

I accept that we're unlikely to spot an Ewok as we go about our daily commute, but there are other wickets to be seen.

You play cricket on one (the wicket is the strip of very closely mown grass where the players run up and down). In England many villages have cricket pitches, recognisable at this time of year by the sight-screen and the pavilion (the game of cricket involves an official meal break). Just to confuse things, the wicket is also the name of each of the groups of three sticks which sits at each end of the mown-grass wicket. It's also a batsman's turn at batting, though the term is only used under certain very specific circumstances.

A wicket door is a small door or gate, especially one within a larger door:

File:The church of All Saints - C15 door with wicket gate - - 833336.jpg
photo Of All Saints Church (I'm afraid I don't know where it is) by Evelyn Simak

 In the USA a wicket can be small window used for selling tickets etc.

Then there's the wicket which is a small sluice gate which forms part of a lock gate, or a water-wheel system; or (again in the USA) a croquet hoop.

Wickets, wickets, everywhere, and all much closer than Endor.

Mind you, if you see a bus going that way, I'd seize the chance to take it.

Word To Use Today: wicket. This word comes from the Old Northern French wiket, which is related to the Old Norse vikja, to move.

Sunday, 2 February 2020

Sunday Rest: whatever. Word Not To Use Today.

According to the USA-based Marist Institute for Public Opinion, the most annoying word in the English language is whatever.

It has held this position for over a decade.

To be fair, the purpose of the word whatever is very often to annoy people (the implication being that your concerns are of no interest or importance to me whatever) so we must at least admit that it's effective.

Perhaps we should mark this word as annoying but useful.

Saying whatever is probably safer and more polite than stating your position in a whole sentence, anyway.

Sunday Rest: whatever. Whatever, in its dismissive sense, has been around for some time. It was so used in an episode of Bewitched in 1965 (that use was by a rather cranky witch, so it was never presented as a model for good behaviour).

Whatever is sometimes now abbreviated to evs


...I think that whatever might just possibly have yielded its most-annoying crown to evs.

The Old English form of what is hwæt; the Old English form of ever is æfre.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Saturday Rave: Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms by Thomas Moore

You can lose a lot of happiness by being cynical.

Until now, I've always assumed that Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms was a song sung by some rotter trying to seduce a young lady. 

But then the other day I was walking in St Albans park, and at three o'clock the cathedral bells treated us to several verses, played with lovable clatteriness and only approximate tuning, of, yes, Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms

This seemed more than a bit random, so, finally, I've done some research and discovered that in my cynicism I've been missing something lovely.

In 1808 Elizabeth Moore became gravely ill with smallpox. The family were banished from her room, but after a period of great anxiety it finally became clear that Elizabeth was going to recover.

Sadly, though, the smallpox had scarred her face. She was convinced she was now unlovable, and refused to see anyone, not even her husband, or to leave her room.

Luckily her husband Thomas was both an affectionate, understanding man and an accomplished poet. He wrote these verses, and sang them at her door to an old Irish tune.

Believe me, if all those endearing young charms,
Which I gaze on so fondly today,
Were to change by tomorrow, and fleet in my arms,
Like fairy-gifts fading away -
Thou wouldst still be ador'd as this moment thou art,
Let thy loveliness fade as it will,
And, around the dear ruin each wish of my heart
Would entwine itself verdantly still!

It is not while beauty and youth are thine own,
And thy cheek unprofan'd by a tear,
That the fervour and faith of a soul can be known,
To which time will but make thee more dear!
Oh! the heart, that has truly lov'd never forgets,
But as truly loves on to the close;
As the sun-flower turns on her god when he sets,
The same look which she turn'd when he rose!


Could any woman stand firm against that? Elizabeth couldn't. She emerged, reassured.

And they lived happily ever after.*

Word To Use Every Day: an endearment. The Old English form of dear was dēore.

*I'm not actually sure about this. But you can sometimes do too much research...