This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Nuts and Bolts: Verspätungsschal.

Claudia Weber works in a travel agent's office in Munich.

Unfortunately, her own attempts at travel were often sadly inadequate. Frau Weber's commute to work went wrong a lot - which, really, is enough to make a person wonder if he or she is in the right job.

So after a while Frau Weber decided to make a Verspätungsschal, a delay scarf, as a brilliant and original way of illustrating what was going wrong.

She knitted one row of the scarf for every journey she made to work. If her train was on time she knitted a blue line; she knitted a grey one if the train was five minutes late, pink for a half hour delay, and red if the train was even later than that.

For an entirely new way of communicating it didn't half strike a chord among German commuters, to the extent that when it was auctioned on ebay it made 7550 Euros for the charity Bahnhofsmission.

Here's the finished scarf, from a post about the auction on Twitter:

All hail Frau Weber, I say, for finding a truly universal language, and I hope she now feels quite happy in her profession.

Word To Use Today: Verspätungsschal. As in I'd make my own Verspätungsschal, except that I support Manchester City, perhaps.*

(By the way, as it happens Germany's railways, Deutsche Bahn, are state-owned.)

*Geddit? Manchester trains are famously late, and so the scarf would turn out mostly red, the colour of Manchester United.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Thing Not To Be Today: bouldered.

Bouldered means high on drugs.

It's a good, vivid expression. The person in question will be sensible as someone who's been hit on the head by a boulder; as clear-thinking as a boulder; and will walk as steadily as if the floor is strewn with boulders.

There are a dozen unanswerable and excellent arguments to be made against being bouldered, many of which concern the cost to health, wealth and society, and of course you've heard them all.

But it's worth mentioning because the word bouldered has a rather satisfying derivation.

Thing Not To Be Today: bouldered. This is like being stoned, but even worse.

Neat, huh?

The word boulder probably comes from Scandinavia. There's a Swedish dialect word bullersten, from the Old Swedish bulder, rumbling, and sten, stone.

Stoned, as in under the influence of drugs (or, to begin with, alcoholic drink) refers to being so drunk as to be as as lively as a stone.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Spot the Frippet: mask.

I hope the mask you see isn't being worn by a surgeon, that's all. 

File:UW surgery and residents.jpg
University of Washington, Seattle.

I hope instead that any mask you see is being worn by a fencer (a sword-fighter, I mean):

File:Romania v France EFS 2013 Fencing WCH t163933.jpg
photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

or perhaps an ice hockey player. 

Or, if you happen to be Ancient Greek who's reading this via some sort of time-slip worm-hole type thing (you never know) an actor:

File:Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy (Thermae Decianae).jpg
(though this mosaic is actually Roman. It's in the Hall of the Doves, Palazzo Nuovo.)

Or perhaps your nearest mask being worn by someone spraying paint or sawing chipboard.

Of course if you're in Venice then masks are everywhere, on every other street stall.

File:Venetian Carnival Mask - Maschera di Carnevale - Venice Italy - Creative Commons by gnuckx (4820456037).jpg
photo by gnuckx

but if you are somewhere else then you might be able to find a dragonfly larva or a fox: their faces are called masks, as are the faces of Siamese cats:

File:Siamese cat.JPG
photo by Achileos

Or perhaps, in your quest for eternal beauty, you are wearing this sort of mask:

photo: By Sérgio (Savaman) Savarese - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

The question always to ask with masks, of course, is: what is the wearer hiding? 

And, even more importantly, why?

Spot the Frippet: mask. This word comes from the Italian maschera, from the Arabic maskhara, a clown, from sakhira, mockery.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

Sunday Rest: the B word. Word Not To Use Today.

I have written about this as a word to be avoided before, but since then things have got worse: now any mention of it in Britain is reckoned to be so much a matter of tedium and despair, a word inducing so many winces of pain and crippling embarrassment from those on both sides of the question, that even on national media it is as often as not referred to as the B word.

On the whole, for this people seem to be grateful.

Word Not To Use Today: the B word. This Initial-Word formula has until now been only usually been used for swear words so offensive that they cannot be spoken out loud. 

I have once heard it used, though, ("the C word") by a publisher referring to the name of a rival organisation.

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Saturday Rave: Nikolai Leskov.

Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov was born in Russia in 1831.

He became a writer by accident. He had had an insecure debt-ruled upbringing, and he had not taken kindly to school, and so he ended up working for Scott & Wilkins, a trading company owned by his aunt's English husband. He travelled all over Russia for Scott & Wilkins, dealing with all classes of people, and all sorts of different ethnic and cultural groups. He thrived on the variety and challenge, and later described these years as the happiest of his life.

Part of Leskov's job involved writing reports of his business undertakings, and his literary abilities showed themselves so clearly in these accounts that his uncle realised they were worthy of publication.

Thus it occurred that Nikolai Leskov's career as a writer started with a work entitled Sketches on Wine Industry Issues.

The folk origins of Leskov's work showed clearly in the style, now called skaz, which involves the narrator's use of slang and dialect, of which he was one of the originators. 

Later, Leskov wrote: 'I think I know the Russian man down to the very bottom of his nature but I give myself no credit for that. It's just that I've never tried to investigate 'the people's ways' by having conversations with Petersburg's cabmen. I just grew up among common people.'

Even nowadays, that's a sadly unusual way for a novelist to source material.

Leskov wrote a great deal, but, not being a member of any particular political party, he was largely ignored by Russian critics. His work was much admired by Tolstoy and Chekhov, but most of it was denounced by the Soviets.

I'll leave you with the first line of his most famous work, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Katerina Lvovna lived a boring life in the rich house of her father-in-law during the five years of her marriage to her unaffectionate husband; but, as often happens, no one paid the slightest attention to this boredom of hers.

Can't wait to find out what happens next?

Well, you can HERE

It's violent and bleak and terrific.

Word To Use Today: boredom. This word appeared in the 1700s, from no one knows where.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Word To Use Today: topaz.

For years - years - I've been repeating to myself the quotation the topmost topaz of an ancient tower and wandering what on earth it was on about.

Why would anyone put a topaz on a tower?

I've looked up topaz in dictionaries, hoping for an obscure and enlightening meaning; I've pondered the possibility of the line invoking some ancient sunrise tradition; but nothing I've been able to discover has made it make anything like sense.

I've never even, until now, been sure from where the quotation came. It has the powerful, mystical feeling of Tennyson - and if it was Tennyson then it must mean something!

But at last, at last, I've found the origin of the line. It's from a thirty one page book called The Enemy Conquered; or, Love Triumphant, written by G Ragsdale McClintock, a man now, sadly, only remembered for the wonderful review by Mark Twain of the above opus.

And Mark Twain, thank heavens, explains all.

The reader must not imagine that he is to find in it [the book] wisdom, brilliancy, fertility of imagination, ingenuity of construction, purity of style, perfection of imagery, truth to nature, clearness of statement, humanly possible situations, humanly possible people, fluent narrative, connected series of events - or philosophy, logic, or sense.

And later, bless him, Twain gets on to the topmost topaz.

We notice how fine and grand it sounds. We know that if it was loftily uttered, it got a noble burst of applause from the villagers; yet there isn't a ray of sense in it, or meaning in it.

No ray of sense or meaning...

I can't tell you how relieved I am by that!

A topaz is just a topaz. A jewel. It's beautiful, and has been said to cure lunacy.

photo by Pithecanthropus4152 

But not, I'm afraid, in the case of The Enemy Conquered, or Love Triumphant.

Poor G Ragsdale McClintock.

Word To Use Today: topaz. This word probably comes from the Greek Topazos, the old name of St John's Island in the Red Sea where a similar mineral was mined. Or the word might come from the Sanskrit tapas meaning heat or fire.

The whole of Mark Twain's scintillating review can be found HERE.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Valentine Verse: a rant.

Roses are red
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet
And so are you.

Excuse me a moment, I'm feeling a little nauseated...

...deep breath...

....OK. I can do this.

That horrible sugary little rhyme has many variations, all of them rubbish. It even has a Folk Song Index Number (it's 19798. Yes, that is a lot of folk songs).

And in any case roses are very often not red, and violets are, well, violet. 

It was Sir Edmund Spencer who first seems to have come up with the roses are red, violets are blue line (in The Faerie Queene) and by the end of the 1700s the line had become part of a nursery rhyme (which are allowed to be nonsense).

Whether Victor Hugo knew about either of these sources I don't know, but in Les Misérables he came up with a French version that actually makes sense:

Les bleuets sont bleus, les roses sont roses...

The cornflowers are blue, the roses are pink...

And you know something? Murmuring something in French might even have some effect on a sweetheart, especially if he or she doesn't understand French. And even if he or she does, then, as the rest of the verse involves a bit of shopping for very pretty things while walking along the streets, it still might just do the trick:

Nous achèterons de bien belles choses
En nous promenant le long des faubourgs
Les bleuets sont bleus, les roses sont roses,
Les bluets sont bleus, J'aime mes amours.

Well, Roses are red isn't going to get you anywhere, is it?

Word To Use Today: rose. This word has meant, well, rose, for over a thousand years. The old Greek form is rhodon.