This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

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...


*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.


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?