This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Saturday Rave: tanka

In Japan, long long ago (and we're talking the 700s AD, here) there were long poems and there were short poems. The long ones were called chōka, and the short ones were called tanka.

Over the years things evolved, although really not all that much, and the chōka faded away and the tanka flourished. 

Aristocrats began to hold short-poem parties, some featuring a team sport where two poems on a particular given topic were judged against each other (the winner gained points for his team), and some an affair where where everyone gathered round to read their own poems.

Tanka nowadays traditionally consist of five chunks, with the syllable count (not that what's counted is quite what an English person would call a syllable when the poem is in Japanese) 5,7,5,7,7. 

Also traditionally, tanka were exchanged between lovers. From the resurgence of the form from about 1900 onwards, though, the scope of the tanka widened. 

Here's a tanka by one of the first people to write as part of this movement, Ishikawa Takuboku.

On the white sand
Of the beach of a small island
In the Eastern Sea.
I, my face streaked with tears,
Am playing with a crab

Word To Use Today: island. The Old English word for island was īg, and later the land bit was added making the word mean, literally island land. The s was added in there as well because, well, the word isle had one, didn't it? 

(The word isle comes through French from the Latin word insula.)

Friday, 10 July 2020

Word To Use Today: omphaloskepsis.

The omphalos is the navel, and omphaloskepsis is navel-gazing.

It's practised by those too deeply stupid to have noticed that the rest of the world is approximately ten thousand times more interesting than they are (and that's only counting the rest of the world that happens to be in view at the time).

Omphaloskepsis, sadly, leads to a great number of tantrums because the poor boobs practising it think they aren't getting the attention that is their due. Whereas they are: it's just that they really aren't deserving of much attention.

An omphalos can mark the centre of anything, but is especially the sacred cone-shaped stone at Delphi in Ancient Greece which was said to mark the centre of the world.

But, as it turned out, the world didn't even spin round Delphi.

It might be a plan for us all to make a point of noticing six more interesting things than ourselves before breakfast.

Or during breakfast, anyway.

Word To Use Today: omphaloskepsis. Omphalos is Greek for navel. Skopein means to watch.

Thursday, 9 July 2020

Cultural Appropriation: a rant.

I would like to apologise for the cultural appropriation displayed in this blog.

Sadly, as the word apologise is basically Greek, and the words cultural and appropriation and display are basically Italian, I'm not sure how I can do it.

Word To Use Today: That's probably fairly universal. It's short for web log. The word web is Old English (as are the words I, would, like, to, for, the, in and this) and no one knows where the word log comes from.

Mind you, before these words were Old English they came from Germany and Scandinavia - and the word I might even ultimately have Hittite origins. So I really have to apologise for them, too. 

But I can't.

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Nuts and Bolts: the glamour of grammar.

Glamour and grammar

No, really, they're the same thing.

Well, in a way they are, anyway.

The word gramarye came into English in the 1300s from the French word gramaire, which meant stuff that learned people knew (so not things like how to fatten a pig, or build a house, or anything useful like that, but Latin and stuff).

In fact, over the years gramarye came to include all sorts of things that weren't known (or needed to be known) by nearly everybody, such as astrology and, um, magic; and of course if you're studying magic then what you're really after is magical power for yourself. This idea evolved in Scotland into the word glamour. If you cast a glamour over someone you weren't giving them a make-over, but enchanting them. 

A related word, grimoire, is a manual for invoking demons (but, hey, with a family like yours who needs to invoke demons?).

Grammar is now to do with the way words are arranged so they mean things, but the connection between written-down words and magic goes right back to the very beginning. 

I wonder, was there always a feeling among the wider populace that the stuff learned people learned wasn't really very useful? Is this why learned people were keen to make an association between writing and supernatural power? 

Was it basically some kind of compensation for an inferiority complex? 

Or, at least, to get themselves a bit of respect?

History would make a bit more sense if that was the case, wouldn't it.

Nuts and Bolts: grammar/glamour. The Greek word gramma means letter, as in a letter of the alphabet.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: a gooseberry.

In Britain, a gooseberry is an unwanted person who tags along with a romantically involved couple.

Yes, that's right: three's a crowd.

But I didn't know that gooseberry bushes were actually illegal in the USA for about fifty years from 1911 (they supported a pathogen which affected timber, apparently, though now trees have been bred to be resistant to the disease) and gooseberries still aren't all that commonly eaten.

photo by Pavel Leman

To be honest, they're not usually all that nice unless they're mixed with plenty of sugar. Cream helps, too.

But why are they called gooseberries, and what's that got to do with upsetting lovers?

Well, no one knows what they've got to do with geese. There are a whole load of theories, but the most likely thing seems to be that they're called after the birds and, um, berries, though what geese have to do with it no one's got a clue.

As for the poor lovers, the word started off in the 1800s describing someone who acted as a chaperone. The idea seems to have been that this person would hang around in order to keep things respectable, but that they'd go off to pick gooseberries from the hedgerows so as to allow the lovers time to be completely absorbed with each other. (Another, similar, term was picking daisies.)

Those days of scrupulous manners have long since past, of course, and so now such a person is just a nuisance.

Thing Not To Be Today: a gooseberry. Gooseberries are green, sharp, and their bushes are prickly, which are also things not to be. The French call them groseille à maquereau, mackerel berries, because a gooseberry sauce is good to eat with mackerel. Long ago if you called someone a gooseberry you were calling him a fool, because of the cream and gooseberry dessert called a gooseberry fool. 

The word goose was gōs in Old English, and the word berry was berie.

Monday, 6 July 2020

Spot the Frippet: fiddle-faddle.

Fiddle-faddle describes nonsense, or trivial things.

It can also describe a great fuss made over something essentially trivial.

It's not hard to spot fiddle-faddle, though, I must admit, dangerous to point it out in public at the moment.

Still, a great deal of satisfaction can be gained from the private use of the word.

And, after all, to distinguish the fiddle-faddle from the truly important is the best way there is of stopping ourselves going quite as mad as the rest of them.

Spot the Frippet: fiddle-faddle. This word first appeared in the 1500s. It's a playful version of the word fiddle in the sense time-wasting. 

The Old English form of this word was fithele, and before that it's probably something to do with the Latin word vītulāre, to celebrate.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

Sunday Rest: Covid. Word Not To Use Today.

Covid is short for COrona VIrus Disease.

The 19 in Covid-19 is the date (2019) that the blasted thing emerged from its bat cave.

You know something? A year ago I would have guessed that Covid was some video conferencing system like Zoom.

Still, I suppose the sharing idea is still there...


Word Not To Use Today: Covid. There isn't really very much wrong with the word Covid, but, gosh, we are all fed up with it, aren't we?