This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Nuts and Bolts: aliterate.

An aliterate person is one who can read, but is disinclined to do so.

It's a condition quite often observed in the young, especially those who haven't yet accepted the impossibility of perpetual motion.

Aliteracy can prove chronic and is certainly disabling, but very nearly all humans have some instincts in the direction of aliteracy, particularly when faced with the words Terms and Conditions or Instructions For Safe Use.

This last is an occasion, particularly in connection with chainsaws, when aliteracy may even prove fatal.

Word To Use Today: aliterate. A word with an a- stuck on the beginning is probably, as in this case, something to do with the Greek habit of using a- to reverse the meaning of a word. The word literacy comes from the Latin litterārius, which means concerning reading and writing.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: mumchance.

Any minute now the fashion for being Tremendously Sensitive (mandatory silent applause, for example, or removing all statues of anyone who's ever done anything) will bump into the fashion for TV talent shows, and there'll be an explosion of astonishing size and magnificence.

I'm quite looking forward to it.

What will emerge from the ashes I do not know, but perhaps a bit of mumchance might fit the bill. Mumchance means being struck dumb by some great emotion, but originally the word described a play without words. 

Well, it'd certainly improve some of the singing acts.

Luckily there is no need for us ever to be struck dumb in ordinary life, because our esteemed politicians have repeatedly shown us how to avoid it. A politician, faced with a difficult question, either says let me be quite clear and then drones on so boringly that everyone's stopped listening before anyone realises that he or she is avoiding the question, or there goes up a cry of fake news.

Or, in an astonishing recent example, I'm not talking to you because you're a horrible person.

Simple, yes?

And the technique's not even that complicated, either. 

Thing Not To Be Today: mumchance. This word comes from the Middle Low German Mummenschanze, a masked serenade, from mummen, which is related to the French word momon, mask, plus schanze, dance.

Monday, 12 November 2018

Spot the Frippet: a percussion instrument.

Almost anything can be a percussion instrument. That table, that wall, that floor (and who needs drumsticks when you've got hands and feet?


Officially, though, a percussion instrument is something specially designed to make a sound when hit. These go from drums:

File:Drummer in The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps 50th Anniversary Tattoo.jpg
photo Old Guard Museum, Washington

to the less obvious piano, where the hammers that hit the strings are usually hidden inside the case:

File:Yamaha CP-70 opened top.jpg
Yamaha piano, photo by Michael Müller-Hildebrand

(Though where that leaves an electric piano or drum-kit I do not know.)

And there are still more percussion instruments around. They may not be musical, but a percussion tool uses the same principle to do its job:

File:Pneumatic drill.jpeg
photo of a pneumatic drill by Anthony Appleyard

Or there are percussion caps, which, sadly, don't protect people from blows to the head, but were formerly used as a means of making a gun fire.

I think I'll try to find something gentler, though...does anyone know where I can find a cow with a bell?

File:CH cow 1.jpg
photo by Daniel Schwen

Spot the Frippet: something percussive. This word comes from the Latin percutere, to hit.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Sunday Rest: waste. Word Not To Use Today.

A third of all British men aged 19 - 22 at the beginning of the First World War were dead by the end of it.

Think of that.

Think of the three young men who live nearest to you, and imagine one of them dead (you don't get to choose which one). Then do the same with the three young men of whom you're most fond; and the three young men whom you see when you're next out; and the three young men in your favourite TV drama.

(Of course it wasn't only the young men who died. My husband's grandfather had five young children, so he wasn't really young. But he died, all the same.)

After you've done all that, be grateful that it didn't happen to your generation. Be grateful that the First World War put an end (once and for all? Oh, I hope so) to the idea that there is anything, anything at all, sweet or noble about war.

Because that's the only thing that's going to stop the whole mess being an obscene, colossal, waste.

Word Not To Use Today: waste. The word comes from the Anglo-French waster, from the Latin vastāre, to lay waste, from vastus, empty.

The Armistice signalling the end of the First World War happened exactly a hundred years ago today.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Saturday Rave: Smoke is the Food of Lovers by Jacob Cats

Jacob Cats was born in 1577 in the Netherlands. He started work as a lawyer, fell in love, lost his love when he got desperately ill with malaria, was cured after several years by the powder of a mysterious doctor from no one-knows-where, retired to make a famous garden and write poetry, got sent abroad as an ambassador once or twice, and then retired once more to cultivate his garden. He died in 1660 and was much-loved for centuries in his own country as Father Cats.

Jacob Cats is best known for writing emblem books, which were popular in Europe at the time. An emblem consisted of an illustration, a poem or motto, and then an explanation of what it was all about.

Here's a poem of Jacob Cats' which, luckily, requires no explanation. It's been translated by a master hand, but sadly I haven't been able to discover whose.

When Cupid open'd shop, the trade he chose
Was just the very one you might suppose.
Love keep a shop? - his trade, oh! quickly name!
A dealer in tobacco - fie, for shame!
No less than true, and set aside all joke,
From oldest time he ever dealt in smoke;
Than smoke, no other thing he sold or made;
Smoke all the substance of his stock in trade;
His capital all smoke, smoke all his store,
'Twas nothing else, but lovers ask no more -
And thousands enter daily at his door!
Hence was it ever, and it e'er shall be
The trade most suited to his faculty:
Fed by the vapours of their heart's desire,
No other food his votaries require;
For that they seek - the favour of the fair  
Is unsubstantial as the smoke and air.


Love, like smoke?

Well, I suppose you can die from both of them.

Word To Use Today: smoke. The Old English for this word was smoca. The Middle Dutch smieken means to emit smoke.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Word To Use Today: alimony.

My first husband has successfully avoided paying me a penny of alimony in decades. 

But then we're still married, so I suppose I'll have to live with it.

Anyway, two questions: first of all, what's an ali, and, second, is the ending of alimony the same basic word as money?

Yes, I realise that life would probably be simpler if I didn't care, but hey...

Word To Use Today: alimony. This word proved to be a bit of a let-down, quite honestly, coming as it does from the Latin alimōnia, sustenance, from alere, to nourish. 

Still, that does give it a pleasingly unexpected and mind-boggling connection with the alimentary canal.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Authentic Italian: a rant.

For me, a home-made vegetable stock isn't as important as a bedtime story - but I know that's the sort of opinion that attracts hate-mail.

Nevertheless, when Angela Hartnett, the great Angela Hartnett, offers to teach me how to make the perfect risotto then I'm keen to know what she has to say. I want my risotto to be authentic, but I don't really know what authentic is. Should a risotto consist of a heap of chewy separate grains? Or be something more nearly resembling a poultice? Should the rice be creamy or al dente (you can't have al dente cream, can you, so it's hard to see how it can be both, although both are regularly called for simultaneously in recipes).

But Angela will know, bless her. What should I have been doing all these years?

I tend to stir continuously, but not constantly, says Angela.

Continuously but not constantly...

...ah well. I can always say this is an authentic risotto of the da nessuna parte* region of Italy as I serve it up, can't I. No one can argue with that.

Word To Use Today: risotto. Riso is the Italian for rice.

*Da nessuna parte is the Italian for nowhere.