This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Rankings: a rant.

If someone asked you to guess what number The Thirty-Nine Steps was on the Guardian newspaper's list of A Hundred Best Novels, what would you say?


All right, then.

Now suppose the other person asked you to guess again and gave you the clue higher!

Would you guess it was number seventy-five or number twenty-eight?

I keep on hoping that this language stuff will start making sense at some point.

But it never does.

Word To Use Today: rank. This word came to us from Old French, where it was spelled ranc. Before that it was a Germanic word. The Old High German hring means circle and may be something to do with it.

The answer, by the way, is forty-two.

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Nuts and Bolts: the three-letter rule.

 The first thing to say about the three-letter rule is that it isn't actually a rule.

On the plus side, it does involve words with three letters.

The basic idea is that in English most words that describe important ideas - things that you're supposed to notice - have at least three letters.

The third letter is sometimes unneeded - as in the word ebb or owe or axe (the last letter of axe is sometimes left out by people in America because Noah Webster thought it unnecessary, but mostly it's held its own). 

Sometimes this helps to distinguish a word from a much commoner one: bee and be for example.

There are many many exceptions to this rule. Some of these many exceptions are words borrowed from other languages, which sometimes retain their original form, even if that form contains only two letters. 

Om! hasn't yet been re-written omm! for instance.

So - the three-letter rule is not a rule. 

But all the same it does kind of make sense, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: how about buy? Or by? The Old English form of by was bī. The Old English form of buy was bycgan, pronounced with a dg sound, as in budge.

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Thing Not To Be Today: negative.

 Do you listen to the news to discover what's not in it, so you can find out what happens to be going quite well?


We seem to have reached a point when good news is literally no news.

This means, of course, that the reporting of the bad news is unbalanced and untrustworthy, too.

I could make bitter comments about journalistic laziness and bias, but that wouldn't be in the spirit of this post.

Ah well. This has sharpened our critical faculties, anyway.

At least, we can only hope so.

Thing Not To Do Today: be negative. Fittingly, the word negative comes from the Latin word negāre, from nec, which means not, and aio, I say.

Monday, 17 January 2022

Spot the Frippet: a neighbour.

 Do you have good neighbours?

Will they water the plants while you're away, or happily take in parcels, or smilingly accept five pounds of surplus plums?

Or do you have the kind of neighbours who have loudspeakers in the garden, or park their cars across your drive, or plant a row of Leyland Cypresses on the South side of your garden? 

Or expect you to listen to their child's performances?

caricature by James Gillray

Or, are they people who, if they bump into you, want to talk for hours and hours and hours? Do they peep round the curtains as you walk along the street? Do you hear so much gossip from them that you can't help wondering what people are saying about you?

painting by John William Waterhouse

Neighbours can be a pain and a nuisance. 

The Bully of the Neighbourhood. Painting by John George Brown

But at least, if that is the case, there is some small satisfaction to be taken in knowing the derivation of the word.

Spot the Frippet: neighbour. This word was nēahbūr in Old English. Nēah comes from nigh, which means near, and the rest comes from gebūr, which means dweller and is basically the same word as boor, which is an ill-mannered, clumsy or insensitive person.

Sunday, 16 January 2022

Sunday Rest: global.

 Well, I mean, what does a non global pandemic look like?


Sunday Rest: global. The word globe is French, from the Latin word globus.

Saturday, 15 January 2022

Saturday Rave: Preface to Tartuffe by Moliere.

 Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622 - 1673), usually known by his stage name of Molière, is famous, honoured and respected throughout the world. As if this isn't unusual enough for anyone, he made a reasonable living as a writer (well, sometimes) and to make the whole thing close to incredible, he wrote comedy.

On the other hand, he was imprisoned for debt (for the rent due on a tennis court he was renting as a theatre) and he regularly drove various segments of French High Society crazy with outrage - which was a jolly dangerous business at the time.

Poor Molière died after he had a haemorrhage on stage while performing the title role in his own play Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid). The King had to give special permission for his body to be buried on consecrated ground (that was against the law because poor Molière was an actor). Even then, the burial had to happen at night.

Here's a short quotation, not from one of his plays (because a writer's characters often insist on uttering all kinds of nonsense) but from the preface to one of his masterpieces, Tartuffe.

People do not mind being wicked, but they object to being made ridiculous.

And, you know something? All at once the English Channel seems three times as wide.

Ah well. Our two countries are joined in admiring Molière, at least.

Word To Use Today: ridiculous. This word comes from the Latin rīdiculōsus, from rīdēre, to laugh. 

Friday, 14 January 2022

Word To Use Today: cheetah.

 Sometimes a cheetah looks like this:

photo by James Temple

Now, you may be thinking that cheetahs always look like that, because cheetahs, like leopards, can't change their spots (though occasionally cheetahs do occur with stripy backs like tabby cats, and some are even quite dark all over) but there's a Cheeta who looks like this:

Cheeta, character from Tarzan, played here by Jiggs the chimpanzee

(There are probably at least fifty reasons why the Tarzan stories can't be recommended nowadays. Some of them will be good ones, no doubt, but I still think that on the whole it's quite sad.)

Cheetahs are wonderful creatures that once roamed across Africa, the Middle East, India, and even into Europe. But then people came along and decided, erroneously, that it would be clever to shoot a few dozen of them, and that their women would look terrific draped in cheetah skins...

...gosh, that's another ape/cheetah link, isn't it?

...and now their range is much reduced and they are much rarer.

Anyway, cheetahs are big cats, but they have a slightly dog-shaped body and have non-retractable claws, which is dog-like, too. They can sprint extraordinarily fast. They hunt in the day time, mostly because the even bigger cats, hyenas and wolves tend to hunt at night and things can get a bit hairy if you go and swipe an antelope a leopard was planning to have for dinner.

Cheetahs are quite easy to tame:

By Collection gallery (2018-04-06): CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0,

and they can be trained to hunt. In the Middle East there was even a tradition of cheetahs having special seats fixed to the back of horse-saddles so they could ride.

But I don't suppose that would be allowed nowadays, either.

Word To Use Today: cheetah. This word comes from the Indian language Urdu, where it is cītā. Before that it comes from the Sanskrit chitra-ya, painted or variegated or adorned. Cheetahs have also sometimes been called the hunting leopard because they could be trained to hunt for man.