This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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



Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: saccharine.

 Sugar is sweet, and there's nothing wrong with being sweet. Sweet is non-threatening and kind and happy. 

There's not a lot of it about.

Saccharine, however, is fake sweet; and that's revolting and dangerous.

You get saccharine greetings cards verses (I could give you an example, but don't worry, I won't). You get saccharine bad art.

You even get it, sometimes, in art that's lauded and pricey. The implied irony is supposed to make up for the insincerity (though it almost never does).

Sodium saccharine, or benzoic sulphimide is hundreds of times sweeter than sugar, but has a nasty after-taste. This after-taste, however, can be disguised by other chemicals, and the stuff is used in all sorts of low-sugar food products.

Sodium saccharine gives rats bladder cancer, but humans cope with it well.

With the simpering and gushing kind of saccharine, though, it's usually the other way round.

Thing Not To Be Today: saccharine. This word comes from the Latin saccharon, sugar. Before that it comes from the Sanskrit sarkara, which means grit or gravel.





Monday, 25 January 2021

Spot the Frippet: imbrication.

 It's a pity, but I don't think there are any imbrications made of actual brick - though I suppose if you count a tile as a thin brick then they're all over the place:

illustration by Pearson Scott Foresman


You can see imbrications made of slate and shingles, too:


photo of shingles by Victorgrigas


(And you sometimes see tile imbrications on the walls of houses, too.)

You get imbrications in Nature:

Pearson Scott Foundation, as above

These scales, amazingly, are on a butterfly's feeler:

photo by Pavel Kejzlar

and you can even get fake imbrications, just to look pretty.

leather samples: photo by Serepsa 


The essential thing is that the scales/leaves/tiles/whatever they are overlap, or look as if they do.

So there we are: imbrications. A whole new way of filing the world!

Spot the Frippet: imbrication. This word comes from the Latin imbrex, which means pantile, which is an architectural tile with a curved edge. 

The word is nothing to do with our word brick.


Sunday, 24 January 2021

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: netizen.

 The trouble with the word netizen is that it's not clear whether the thing describes a citizen of the internet or a denizen.

A citizen has an official standing; he has rights and obligations. A denizen just...exists. 

It is possible, for example (at least theoretically), to be a denizen of Hell; but a citizen of Hell is harder to imagine.

Ah well. At least the silly word has made me think, so perhaps it has some worth, after all.

Sunday Rest: netizen. This word is a mixture of the words internet and citizen. It was coined in 1984. The word citizen is to do with cities and the word internet is to do with nets.


Saturday, 23 January 2021

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

 The hedger now in leather coat

From wood land wilds & fields remote

After a journey far & slow

Knocks from his shoes the caking snow

& opes the welcome creaking door

Throwing his faggot on the floor

& at his listening wifes desire

To eke afresh the blazing fire

Wi sharp bill cuts the hazel bands

Then sits him down to warm his hands

To tell his labours happy way

His story of the passing day

While as the warm blaze cracks and gleams

The supper reeks in savoury steams

Or keetle simmers merrily

& tinkling cups are set for tea

Thus does the winters dreary day

From morn to evening wear away.


photo by Gilbert Scott

And after tea? Then there are stories of ghosts and murderers, princesses and giants, to freeze again the blood warmed by the fire: dreadful warnings, and hope of good things to come.

It's true that John Clare tells us in his poem that nowadays he is too racked by real problems to believe in fairy tales.

But I don't believe him.

Word To Use Today: bill. Clare's kind of bill is a knife with a narrow blade (he's not cutting the hazel bands with his nose!). In Old English a bill was a sword. In Old High German a bil is a pickaxe.



Friday, 22 January 2021

Word To Use Today: lagniappe.

 This word has had such a merry journey to get into English that no one's really sure now how to pronounce it. LANyap, lanYAP, or lanny-app. Take your pick!

A lagniappe is a free gift (hey, why are they free gifts? What gifts aren't free?) given by a seller to a buyer. It might be a biscuit over the weight, or an extra nail in the bag, or a few chilli peppers, that kind of thing. The word comes most recently from New Orleans, where buyers will ask for one for lagniappe - and will nearly always be given it.

I came across a lagniappe the other day as I was putting away the Christmas decorations. Long ago in Budapest a man in a gift shop in a cellar gave us a tiny rag doll in a walnut-shell cradle; so the custom of lagniappe isn't limited to New Orleans and other places, such as Trinidad and Tobago, which have a shared history. 

In Ireland a lagniappe might be called a luckpenny.

The word itself, though in English dictionaries, is still redolent of Louisiana Creole or Cajun French. And, of course, of warmth and generosity. It's just what we need here in England, in a foggy and freezing and flooded mid-winter. And throughout the world, too.

Word To Use Today: lagniappe. La means the in French and Spanish. The niappe bit of the word goes back to the Quechua word yapay, which means to increase or add, and the word yapa is still used in Andean markets when asking for a lagniappe. The word came through South American Spanish before it settled into French Creole.




Thursday, 21 January 2021

The boundaries of Maryland: a rant.

There's a railway station called Maryland in England, and some people are offended. 

These offended people (they include Rokhsana Fiaz, the local mayor) say that the name Maryland was given to the station because a slave-holding family held estates in Maryland in the USA.* 

Another interested party, Anthony McAlmont, said: 'anything that has some connection with slavery does offend some of us'.

Now, in some ways it doesn't matter in a way if this claim about a connection to slavery is true: offence has been taken, and there's now a campaign to have the name of the station changed. That would cause a bit of expense, and probably quite a lot of confusion, but perhaps it should be done despite the fact that, in Britain, Maryland is only really famous for its cookies.

I'm worried that a change of name might cause offence to historians, though. The people, I mean, who care that the name Maryland, as in the station, seems to be older than the American state.

I'm talking about the people who care that the Mary in this Maryland is probably to do with the Old English word mære, which means boundary.

The problem seems to depend upon whose offence counts for more?

And who would dare legislate on that?

Word To Use Today: actually, I'm getting to the point where I hardly dare use any words at all, but the word slave is basically the same word as Slav. 

Oh dear...

...I do apologise most wholeheartedly for any offence caused to Slavs by the use of this word...

...gulp.

*The account I read in the Telegraph refers to Maryland as a Mid-Atlantic state, but that would surely make the place very wet indeed.


Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Nuts and Bolts: quimp.

 This isn't a very useful word, really, except possibly at Scrabble*, but it's still quite cool.

Quimps sometimes appear in those maledicta balloons, the ones we were playing with last week in The Word Den. They're the speech bubbles in cartoons where symbols take the place of words that are literally unprintable because they're taboo.

Well, a quimp is the symbol that looks like the planet Saturn.

Told you it wasn't very useful.

Word To Feel Quite Smug About Knowing Today: quimp. No one seems to know where this word originated. My guess is that someone's made up a a quirky kind of word for a quirky kind of thing. And why not?

*Sadly, and unjustly, I think, it turns out that quimp isn't actually allowable in official Scrabble contests.


Tuesday, 19 January 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: a slob.

 In an age when the wearing of pyjamas in supermarkets and when taking children to school (when schools were open) has had to be banned, let's hear it for proper clothes.

Hurray for chiffon and tweed and wool. For shoes in bright colours:



 For shiny buckles and contrasting buttons, for zips and epaulets and gathers and pleats.

More than that, let's hear it for caring enough about others (and oneself) to make a just bit of an effort before setting forth.



A big chunk of respect to everyone for waking up and seizing the moment. For making the most of the free stuff. For smelling the coffee.

For making the world no worse a place.

Hurray!

Thing Not To Be Today: a slob. This word came into English in the 1800s from the Irish slab, which means mud. 






Monday, 18 January 2021

Spot the Frippet: cheese.

 When I was young there were seven types of English cheese. They were all bland.

Also available were some rubbery stuff called Edam, and some small foil-wrapped wedges of damp, harsh, veined stuff called Danish Blue.

Cottage cheese appeared in the shops a bit later, but that didn't help things at all.

And now? Now the world is full of glorious glorious cheeses. England alone has hundreds of them. Even Edam comes in varieties that are excellent (and Danish Blue might, too, for all I know: I'm afraid I haven't been brave enough to do the research).

photo by Kgbo

There's cheese made of the milk of cows, goats, buffaloes, camels, donkeys, yaks:


hard chhurpi yak cheese. Photo by 
Sumit Surai

 reindeer, and probably more.  There's even cheese made from soya beans.

There's cheese, like mozzarella,  that's almost as soft and white as milk, and cheese, like Parmesan, dense enough to build a wall.

There's cheese wrapped in nettles, and cheese stippled with chilli; there's cheese that's spherical and cheese that's disc-shaped - cheese that's no shape at all.

There are parts of the world where most people can't eat cheese, especially soft cheese, because they can't digest lactose. If this is the case for you then something cheesy, as well as being something made with, or smelling like, cheese, can be anything that's sentimental in an obvious way, and usually also in poor taste.

Any Greetings Card shop or website will provide very very many examples.


photo by 
Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine

Spot the Frippet: cheese. This word was cēse in Old English and cāseus in Latin.




Sunday, 17 January 2021

Sunday Rest: MAMIL.

 What's a MAMIL?

Well, what does it sound like?

Yes, it sounds like mammal.

So, presumably, MAMIL is something to do with mammary glands (ie bosoms) or the state of being an animal of the class Mammalia, which feeds its young on home-produced milk.

And is it?

Nope. No MAMIL ever fed his young on home-produced milk* and that's one reason why MAMIL is a word to avoid. 

The other reason is: well, there's no need to sneer, is there?

Sunday Rest: MAMIL. This word is an acronym. The letters stand for Middle-Aged Man In Lycra and the word refers to keen male cyclists of a certain age. 

The word Lycra is a trade name registered in 1955 by E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, Wilmington, Delaware, USA for an elastic polyurethane fibre.

That's a pity, really, because it would have made a really good name for the heroine of a fantasy trilogy.

*If there are trans activists out there hoping to be offended by no...ever...I mean really rather seldom. Okay?



Saturday, 16 January 2021

An Apple A Day by PG Wodehouse.

 In these times of sorrow and plague, The Word Den arrives with helpful advice on both health and self-isolation, via the incomparable wisdom of the British philosopher PG Wodehouse.

An apple a day, if well aimed, keeps the doctor away.

How true, my friends. 

How very true.

Word To Use Today: apple. The Old English form of this word was æppel.

The quotation above comes from Carry On, Jeeves, which has other good bits in it, too.


Friday, 15 January 2021

Word To Use Today: naissant.

 You say this word NAYs'nt.

Naissant is a term from heraldry. Here's a stag naissant:



illustration of the heraldic shield of Macorquodaill of that ilk* by Czar Brodie.

Yes, naissant means chopped off horizontally.

I hope you don't see any chopped-in-two stags as you go about the place, but in these times of Zoom and constant news there are many humans naissant to be seen. Well, half seen, anyway.

You might even eat meals with some of them.

And in these times of prolonged togetherness it just might make them seem less boring to think of them as heraldic beasts.

Word To Use Today: naissant. This word came to English in the 1500s from France. It means being born. The Latin word nāscī means to be born.

*Ilk, in this instance, means place: these Macorquodaills are lords of a place called Macorquodaill.

 






Thursday, 14 January 2021

Looking After Nanny: a rant.

 People get terribly worried in Britain about the Nanny State. 

Nanny, in this instance, is nothing to do with grandmothers (or, indeed, goats), it's to do with the sort of nanny who is hired to look after other people's children. 

The Nanny State is the idea that State Departments might look after people so carefully and comprehensively that individuals won't have the space to be, well, individual.

As with more or less everything, this argument comes down to a matter of circumstance and degree; but it led to two beautifully juxtaposed headlines in the Telegraph online:

We must kill off the top-down Nanny State

said one. And, right underneath it:

We mustn't write-off our elders as the collateral damage of Covid

said another.

It made me smile. 

What intemperance, though. 

It led me to wonder if perhaps we could all do with a nanny to teach us consideration for others. And some basic manners.

Word To Use Today: nanny. This word appeared in the 1800s as a child's name for a nursemaid.




Wednesday, 13 January 2021

Nuts and Bolts: maledicta balloons.

 Maledicta balloons are used in graphic novels and cartoons to depict the words which can't be printed in a family comic.


illustration by Polylerus

 

I rather wish there was a similarly violent and creative system that could be used in actual speech.

Word To Consider Today: maledicta. The Latin word maledictiō means a reviling. It comes from male, ill, and dicere, to speak.




Nuts and Bolts: legal words.

 


https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2021/01/09/pm-launches-operation-bleach-strip-references-eu-tens-thousands/

Tuesday, 12 January 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: low.

 Okay so it's midwinter for most of us, there's a global pandemic going on, the economy is at the point of death, and parties of all kinds are forbidden.

Still, at least it's...

...interesting.

The honest truth, though, is that we do have some excuse for feeling a bit low

If there was a universal cure for lowness then that would be lovely, but there's not. 

Still, here are a few things which might be of assistance: a bit of self-help (hot baths, food treats (a moderately healthy one will stop you feeling worse after consumption); a good book; earning some money; TV; parcels; going fishing/for a walk/some exercise; hugs (even hugging a pillow might be worth a try)); and then there's a bit of help-others (phone a friend, make a donation to charity, run an errand). Or you can help yourself and others at the same time by creating something (a cake, a novel, a garden, a picture) or learning something (to knit, to play the guitar, to make mayonnaise or bird boxes).

The worst thing you can do is to be low in the sense of cunning and wicked. That helps no one, because nasty people, after all, aren't generally distinguished for their happiness.

Thing Not To Be Today: low. The word meaning sad and the word meaning wicked come from the same source, the Old Norse lāgr. There are similar Dutch and Frisian words.


Monday, 11 January 2021

Spot the Frippet: hunx and hunks.

 A hunk is a large irregularly shape piece of something.

Rock sometimes comes in hunks:

photo of the Twelve O'Clock Rock, Trink Hill, by Jim Champion

 

and so does bread when it's been torn and not sliced.

The other kind of hunk is a large good-looking man:


photo by nathanmac87


A hunx, on the other hand, is an old and grumpy man who is probably also a miser, and so, I should imagine, not nearly so fanciable.

The proportion of hunks to hunx you can spot will depend on how fussy or available or generous you are.

Which ratio of hunks to hunx reflects best on the observer is an interesting question; but it's not one to which I can provide any answer.

Spot the Frippet: hunks and hunx. The word hunk probably comes from the Flemish word hunke. The Dutch homp means lump. The word hunx has been around since about 1600. It might have started out as a reference to some character in particular, but no one really knows.



Sunday, 10 January 2021

Sunday Rest: shym.

 We've long had sheds, and we've long had offices, and now, in these times of WFH (Working From Home) lockdown we have shoffices.

At least, when I say we, I don't personally have an office in a shed. I don't need one because I already have a garret. It's rather spartan, and I am writing this wrapped in a blanket and wearing mittens, but oh, I feel so...what's the word? Creative? Romantic?

No. I think the word is actually cold

Ah well!

Anyway, shoffice as a word is a bit silly, but you can see what it means. In any case, heaven knows but we could do with a little light silliness at the moment. 

But what's a shym?

If you can't guess then I'd say that's reason enough to leave the horrible little word alone.

Sunday Rest: shym. A shym is a home gym in a shed. The word gymnasium comes from the Greek gumnasion, which means, um, gymnasium, from gumnazein, to exercise, from gumnos, naked (I never thought I'd say it, but thank heavens for lycra). The Old English form of shed was sceadan.



Saturday, 9 January 2021

Saturday Rave: Gasman's End.

 Gosh, do we all need cheering up at the moment.


A silly old gasman called Peter

Used a match to inspect his gas heater.

Touched a leak with his light

And blew out of sight - 

And, as anyone who knows anything about poetry can tell you, he also ruined the metre.

**

(No, no, it's all right. Peter survived the experience unscathed. In fact he became famous, had his own prime-time chat show, and in the end he married the love of his life, a plumber called Max, settled down, had several sensible children, and lived happily ever after.)


Word To Use Today: metre/meter. The word meaning measuring device comes from the Old English metan. The word that describes the bumpiness of poetry comes from the Greek metron, which means measure (as in poetry).


Friday, 8 January 2021

Word To Use Today: cryptoscopophilia.

 In these times of separation from, well, pretty much everyone else on the planet, we have to take our pleasures where we can.

Cryptoscopophilia is a love of looking into people's houses as you walk past them.

photo by Emmabellechan

It's a love that generally dare not speak its name - not that it would be easy to say its name even if you dared - but all the same I would guess that cryptoscopophilia is a majority interest.

For what do we live, as a man of philosophy once said, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?*

Word To Use Today: crytoscopophilia. The crypto- bit of this word comes from the Greek word kruptein, to hide. The scopo- bit comes from the Greek word skopein, to look at. The philia bit comes from the Greek word philos, loving.

Well, it's a grander term than Peeping Tom, isn't it?

*Mr Bennett, Pride and Prejudice.


Thursday, 7 January 2021

The unscheduled schedule: a rant.

 Line from the Telegraph Online 29/12/2020:

The Irish Government will hold an unscheduled meeting on Wednesday.

And to think that I was hoping that 2021 would make a bit more sense.

Word To Use Today: schedule. This word came to English in the 1300s, when it was sometimes spelled cedule and sometimes sedule. It came from Latin via Old French. Schedula means a small piece of paper. Scheda, obviously, just means a piece of paper.

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Nuts and Bolts: enigmatic gifts.

 The Enigma Machine was invented in Germany and used to send coded messages during World War II.

It was an extremely clever system: almost unbreakable, but yet capable of being used quite easily by quite stupid people.

(Some people really were just too stupid, though: a man stationed in the middle of nowhere who every week posted exactly the same message, basically nothing has happened, was a great help to the enemy who were trying to work out the Enigma code word for that particular month.)

Anyway, in the end the code was cracked, and later, as the Western Alliance invaded the continent of Europe, quite a lot of Enigma coding machines (they were a bit like typewriters) were captured.

Now, what use could be made of a whole load of Enigma Machines?

Well, someone had a cunning plan. You see, the British had never revealed that they'd cracked the Enigma code, so they gave Enigma machines to their allies, explaining that the Enigma machines were a marvellous system for sending completely secret messages...

...and then they sat back and read them all.

Dastardly, or what?

Word To Use Today: enigma. This word comes from the Latin aenigma, from the Greek ainigma, from ainessisthai, to speak in riddles, from ainos, a fable or story.



Tuesday, 5 January 2021

Thing To Do Today: bolster something.

 A couple of weeks ago I caught a glimpse of a headline in the online Telegraph newspaper:

Furlough Chancellor extends scheme to 

lobster wobbling economy

Well, I was amazed. I hadn't know there was any money to be made out of lobster wobbling. And how - and, indeed, why - would anyone want to wobble a lobster? 

The mind boggled.

And then I read it again and discovered that it wasn't lobster, but bolster.

Ah well.

Thing To Do Today: bolster something. To bolster something is to strengthen and support it. If you're an architect you might do this with a beam of wood, if you're a dress-maker you might do it with padding, if you're into comfort then you might make your bed more supportive with a long pillow. 

lady playing the tambura sitting against a bolster. San Diego Museum of Art


If people are sad then you might bolster their morale by organising a singalong.

Though, to be realistic, this might actually destroy it.

The word bolster in Old English was bolster.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Spot the Frippet: widow.

 A widow is a woman whose husband has died...though nowadays I suppose it might be that her wife has died.

Traditionally widows wear black as a sign of mourning: 


Mary Wylie Burbank Kind. 1920

though nowadays black is usually kept just for the funeral. 

If then.

We are all bound to know some widows, and today must be as good a day as any for spotting them, or contacting them, or even just giving one a socially-distanced wave.

Some widows - the lucky ones? - still have husbands living. A golf widow sees very little of her husband because he spends so much time on the golf course; and there must be motorbike widows, and bird widows, and possibly even moth widows.

There are also widows to be found in books - yes, they appear as characters, but a widow is also the end of a paragraph when it consists of a very short line, perhaps only a word long, especially if it appears at the top of a page. Copy-editors hate them and will juggle them away whenever possible.

At cards, a widow can be a hand of cards exposed on a table.

Then we have widow birds:



 (hopefully ones which eat black widow spiders), a widow's mite (a donation to a good cause from a poor person), and the kind of hairline called a widow's peak:


photo by Kdhondt


So it seems that widows can be quite cheerful things. Hurray!

Spot the Frippet: widow. This word was widuwe in Old English. In Latin it was vidua (viduus means deprived). The Sanskrit form is vidhavā.


Sunday, 3 January 2021

Sunday Rest: Blursday. Word Not To Use Today.

The word Blursday may be clumsy, but I have to admit it's just what you need at this time of year.

It'd probably be best not to use it to date a letter to a government department, or your Last Will and Testament; and neither is it terribly helpful when arranging a Zoom call; but, gosh, it does sum up the way a lot of us feel at the moment.

Blursday...a day when you're not sure what day it is. 

As a matter of public information, today is a Sunday. But I only know because I'm writing a Sunday Rest for The Word Den.

Sunday Rest: Blursday. The word blur might be a variant of the word blear. In the 1200s blere meant to make dim.


Saturday, 2 January 2021

Saturday Rave: one kind word.

 There's a Japanese proverb which says:

one kind word can warm three winter months.

Well, it has to be worth a try: the world needs all the warmth it can get.

Mind you, kind actions might help even more. 

But then we're only human.

Word To Use Today: a kind one. The word kind was gecynde in Old English and meant natural or native. 

Perhaps 2021 will be a time when it is again thought quite natural to be kind.



Friday, 1 January 2021

Words To Use Today: bicarb.

 All words today should be said softly, gently, and considerately. 

Even though most of the riotous parties that traditionally take place on the last night of the year will have been illegal because of you-know-what, few countries have made alcohol illegal as a result of this crisis, and today there will be plenty of hangovers making their presences felt.

Bicarb is a white powder, NaHCO3, quite often called baking soda or bicarbonate of soda or sodium bicarbonate. It's called bicarbonate because it has twice as much carbon in it as sodium carbonate, but nowadays a serious chemist might call the stuff sodium hydrogen carbonate. A non-serious chemist will probably just call it bicarb.

It makes cakes rise, it stops the growth of fungi, it's used in swimming pools and fireworks, and it makes old books less smelly. It's found in toothpaste and in cleaning products.

It's said to absorb smells if left in a fridge, but there's no proof that it works and the idea seems to have been started as a marketing campaign by the company Arm and Hammer, who make the stuff.

The stuff does, however, seem to be good for settling for queasy stomachs. Its use brings hope, anyway.

And hope is one thing we need, at the moment.

Word to use today: bicarb. The bi- bit comes from the Latin bis, which means twice. The carbonate bit is to do with carbon, which word comes from the Latin word carbō which can mean charcoal or coal.