This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 31 December 2011

Saturday Rave: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4 by Sue Townsend.

'These are my New Year's resolutions.
1. I will help the blind across the road.
2.I will hang up my trousers.'
And with steely determination and absolutely no sense at all of his own essential idiocy, Adrian Mole sets out to improve both himself and the world around him.
I can't help suspecting that if we were all like Adrian the world would be rather better, though probably an even weirder, place. 
In any case, if you want to laugh and laugh and laugh (all blessings on Sue Townsend!) then this is the place to come.
'6. I will be kind to the dog.
7. I will help the poor and ignorant.'

Word To Use Today: resolution. This word originally meant dissolving or dying, but happily those meanings have fallen into disuse. It comes from the Latin word resolvere, and the solvere bit means to loosen or dissolve.

Friday 30 December 2011

Word To Use Today: party.

And as the year draws towards its close...well, there are still parties to go to.
The word party is all to do with sharing. Party walls are the way your neighbours get to share their family problems; and, when I was young, a party line was a shared telephone line. This meant that when you picked up your phone you would quite often hear your neighbour saying hang on, I think next-door's listening in again.
Mostly, of course, a party is a get-together: a sharing of If we're lucky. If not, well, at least there'll be drink, and probably food (though if it's a publishing party you're quite likely to be fobbed off with something tiny, exquisite and riskily unidentifiable). 

Anyway, by this time of year the office, school and family Christmas parties are already so long ago that the embarrassment and resentment should be beginning to fade.
Gosh, though, it's a good thing we have New Year coming up so we can all make a fresh start, isn't it. Perhaps Auld Acquaintance should never be forgot,* but, old parties are best buried as soon as possible.
Good luck!
Word To Use Today: party. This word comes from the Middle English word partie, which means either to share, or a side in a contest. Partie in turn comes from the Latin word partire, which means to part.

*I know, forgotten! But that's what the song says, isn't it?

Thursday 29 December 2011

Christmas - a rant

Christmas, eh?

Well, whatever you think about it, it's a lovely word - a crunch of snow under the boot, followed by a Christmas pudding munch.


Anyway, we have this smashing word, and what do people do? 

Yes, they go and call it Xmas.

Now, there's nothing wrong with Xmas at all as an abbreviation, but the thing is, that X isn't...well, it isn't really an X. It's not the sort of X that comes between W and Y in the Eglish alphabet, anyway. 

The X in Xmas is really the Greek letter Chi, which just happens to look...well, exactly like our own letter X.

In Greek, you see, the word Christ starts with a chi (pronounced like the English K). This is why we don't say Ch-ristmas, but K-ristmas.

So anyway, if people must write Xmas (and it seems they must) then I do wish they would say it properly. That's either Christmas, or, I suppose, you could argue for K'mas

Well, you could argue for it if you could say it, anyway.

Word To Use Today: Christmas or Xmas. This started out in Old English as Chrīstes mæsse. The mæsse bit is a church service, and the X bit...but we've been through that already.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1100 uses Xpēs mæsse. In this case the P isn't a P, either, but the Greek letter Rho, which is the second letter of Christ in Greek.

Christmas can also mean holly, as used to decorate houses.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Once upon a time.

If you want everyone to shut up and listen to you, all you have to do is say once upon a time...

This opening phrase of a story is pretty much the same all over the world. Sometimes it's a bit plainer, as in French, when it's usually simply there was a time, and sometimes it's more elaborate, as in the Classical Arabic there was, oh what there was, in the oldest of days and ages and times.

In Hungary and Georgia, as well as in Persian, there's a variation: there a story will begin: there was, and there was not. (They must be very interested in the truth, those people. Why, the Hungarians even have a tradition that if a listener sneezes then that means every word of the story is true. You can hear this sneeze played by an orchestra at the beginning of Kodály's folk opera ry János.)

Nearly everywhere, though, the important thing to establish is that the events of the story happened a long time ago. The Irish will say a long long time ago it was, when there was a king in Galway.

And one of the best-known stories of all, of course, starts in the beginning. 

And you can't get longer ago than that.

Word To Use Today: beginning. This word has been around since...well, perhaps since the beginning of English. There are certainly related words in lots of old European languages, but no one knows quite when or from where it came.

That's rather appropriate, I think.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Thing To Do Today: be merry.

It's only occasionally we get the chance to be merry, so I suggest we seize the opportunity while we can. Otherwise we'll have to wait until either Merry Monday, which is the day before Shrove Tuesday, or the merry month of May, when, after all, we might be busy doing other things.

Merry means happy. It also means a bit drunk, but this is optional, obviously.

You could go the whole hog with the merry thing if you wished and be a merry-andrew, which is a buffoon or clown. So is a merryman (although a merryman is sometimes the companion of a knight or an outlaw).

A merrythought is a nicely seasonal: it's another name for a wishbone.

A merry-totter (isn't that lovely?) can often be found next to a merry-go-round, because it's a see-saw or a swing.

Full marks to anyone managing a merry ride on a merry-totter while brandishing a merrythought and dressed as a merry-andrew.

You'll be quite likely to get a complimentary stay in a lunatic asylum, too.

Thing To Do Today: be merry. This word comes from the Old English myrige, which means pleasing. Before that it was probably connected with the Old High German murg, which means short.

This is a bit surprising, but the change in meaning seems to be something to do with time flying when you're having fun.

Monday 26 December 2011

Spot the frippet: tinsel.

All that glitters is not gold - which is, of course, a jolly good thing with gold the price it is, or all our Christmas decorations would be rubbish.

It's the middle of winter in England at the moment, and that means it starts getting dark about half past three here in the south - unless it's cloudy, when the chances are it will never get properly light at all.

So we all need a bit of glitter and tinsel to cheer us up, especially if we are young and female. I can still remember getting to wear a tinsel halo when I was an angel in the Nativity play. I must have been five years old, but the glory of it still lingers.

Tinsel started off as a sort of cloth that had gold or silver thread woven through it, but tinsel soon came to mean cheap glittery clothes, and after that it wasn't long before tinsel began to mean stage costumes.

To tinsel something  means to hide the bad points of something under a coat of glitter. But, hey, sometimes, if it's a middle-aged morning face, for instance, that can be a very good thing.

Dr Johnson, though, was never one to mince his words, and he didn't like disguise, however attractive. He once spoke of discovering that someone had "That poverty of ideas which had been hitherto concealed under the tinsel of politeness." 


Spot the frippet: tinsel. This word started off as tinselle satin, from the Old French estincelé from the Latin word scintilla, which means spark.

Sunday 25 December 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: humbug.

'Bah!' said Scrooge, 'Humbug!' in A Christmas Carol, before the ghosts worked their magic.

And, yes, okay, he had a point: but sometimes even valid points are best ignored.

May these

be the only humbugs to decorate your day, and a Very Happy Christmas to...well, absolutely everyone, really.

Word Not To Use Today: humbug. There are loads of places this word might have come from, but really nobody knows. When it first came into the language, in the 1750s, it meant a joke, and the ways it might have taken on this meaning include the Italian phrase uomo bugiardo, which means lying man, and the old English word hum, which meant to deceive.

PS Why was the mosquito always in the pub?
Because he was a bar hum-bug.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday 24 December 2011

Saturday Rave: The Snowman by Raymond Briggs.

I thought I'd rave about this book today because it's wintry and magical and mysterious.

I've only just remembered, though, on looking through it, that it doesn't have any words at all.

I've only just remembered, too, that it's quite different from the film version. I mean, Howard Blake's wonderful Dance of the Snowmen the book there aren't any other snowmen.

The story mostly takes place in the little boy's house, too, not Walking in the Air.

So, does it matter that the book has no words?

Of course not. Not at all. You might as well complain that Leonardo da Vinci didn't paint the back-story of the Mona Lisa on those murky hills behind her. (Speaking of paintings, the snowman in the story definitely doesn't like the reproduction of Van Gogh's Sunflowers which is hanging on the wall of the boy's house. Is this because they're sunflowers? Or is there some other reason? Some words would help to explain this, though they would puncture the marvellous stillness and silence of the book and this is why I'm not wishing for them.)

But here we are, at The Word Den's first Christmas Eve, and finally wordless.

Well, it'll give us time to do a bit of thinking, won't it.

Word of the Day: snowman. The Shorter Oxford Dictionary starts its definition of snow as the congealed vapour of the atmosphere...

Perhaps just very occasionally, the best is silence...

The word snow comes from the Old English snāw, and before that from the Gothic word snaiws, and the Greek word nipha.

Friday 23 December 2011

Word To Use Loudly Today: Nowell.

My copy of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says this is a word to be shouted or sung as an expression of joy at Christmas time.

(It's also another word for a newel post, or for the inner part of a mould for casting large hollow objects, but, frankly, who cares?)

The important thing - and I like to think The Word Den will improve many Christmasses around the world with this simple fact - is that Christmas, that traditional time for shouting, can now become greatly more joyful.

So when Uncle Barry refuses to say smile, or even to say hello to you, shout nowell! 
Yes, right in his miserable earhole.

When people are too stuffed with Santa treats to want to eat their dinners, shout nowell! 
It will relieve the blood-pressure, and perhaps even startle them into friendly behaviour.

When the cook looks disappointed at your not eating her brussels sprouts, which she has been boiling briskly since November, shout nowell! And then, while everyone is distracted, slip the offending vegetables onto someone else's plate. Preferably mine. I love'em!

Oh yes, let's make the best of this word while we can, shall we?

So. Why are there only twenty five letters in the alphabet at Christmas time?

Because there's..........!

Word To Use Loudly Today: nowell. Or, indeed, nowel. The making-a-mould meaning is really the same word as newel. The Christmas meaning comes from the Old French nouel, from the Latin word natalis, which is to do with being born.

Thursday 22 December 2011

Rudery/prudery - a rant.

The rudest people in the world are not journalists, nor politicians, nor talent-show judges, nor taxi-drivers, nor even Billingsgate porters (Billingsgate is the big London fish market. I'm sure the porters are perfect gentlemen nowadays, but I'm afraid their reputation for lurid language still lingers. Mind you, which of us wouldn't get a little tetchy if we had to lug tons of slippery sprats hither and yon?). 

Anyway, there is one group of people ruder even than Billingsgate porters. Yes, the rudest people in the world are the editors of school books for children.

It's not that they use bad language (as far as I know - not in emails to their writers, anyway), or make abusive telephone calls, or draw rude pictures in the margins of their books. 

What they do, though, is to see rudeness everywhere.

For instance, once when I was writing a book for use in schools my editor banned the hero from going to the loo.

But...children know that people go to the loo, I couldn't help telling them.

But apparently the trouble wasn't that he went to the loo, the trouble was that in order to do it the hero would have to adjust his clothing. Absolutely a no-no, apparently.

That was some years ago, and I thought that by now I'd experienced more or less everything in the editorial rude department, but my most recent brush with rude editors has stumped me completely.

My latest hero's been banned from swigging off his beer.

Why? Well, on the grounds that swigged off sounds a bit rude.

Um...does it?

Ah well. It's no problem. I've suggested they use tossed off, instead.

Word To Use Today: swig. This word, in its sense of to drink, has been around as slang since the mid-1500s, but unfortunately no one is sure of its origins.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Nuts and Bolts: abbreviations. recently sent me a too-good-to-miss email offer.

Order by December 16th it said in the title bar and have your order delivered by Christ...

I suppose that's not really an abbreviation, even though it is certainly abbreviated, but it got me thinking about them.

Abbreviations have been around - well, pretty much forever. When Marcus Volumnis Tenax's wife was putting up a gravestone to her husband in the first century AD, the message coniunx reverenter posuit voto (his wife reverently placed this inscription according to a vow) is reduced to C R P V.

I don't know if she was too poor to pay the stonemason, or whether she was regretting her vow.

Fair enough, you might say. It takes a lot of effort to carve something in stone. But even the ease of printing didn't put an end to abbreviation. An English document of the 1700s is quite likely to use wch ( short for which) and yr ( for year, or your), and, most charmingly, maty (for majesty).

New abbreviations are still being brought into use, too. The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently describing the latest attempt to impose order on the Eurozone as a Supra-National And Financial Union, has chosen to abbreviate it snappily as snafu.


Word To Use Today: abbreviate. This word is from the Latin word brevis, which means brief. It can be used of skirts and mathematical terms, as well as words.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: worry.

What's the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile. So!
Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and
Smile smile smile.

That's a First World War trenches song, and now I've typed it out I've realised that it makes my point completely.

So: those of us not in imminent danger of death, please stop worrying. It doesn't matter if your brussels are soggy, your potatoes under-done and your turkey tasteless: that's how you can tell it's Christmas, after all.

Yes, your relations are revolting and your friends exhausted to the point of insanity; and yes, Uncle Barry won't like his present (always give soap to the Uncle Barrys - at least it puts a stop to their saying I've got no use for that) but, hey, make a chart and award yourself a star for every hour you get through without actually saying what you think.

Because of course if you do say what you think, then you'll be spending next Christmas worrying about how to cook a turkey for one.

What's the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile...

...unless you plan to catch your turkey with your bare mouth, naturally. Worrying in this sense means to kill by biting and shaking. I can't say I recommend that, either; nor indulging in the sword-fighting sort of worrying, which is a quick series of pretend thrusts.

In fact the only sort of worrying I can recommend is an obscure type which involves hugging or kissing vehemently.

It's what mistletoe's for, after all.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: worry. The anxiety meaning of worry is only a couple of hundred years old, but the killing-by-biting meaning can be traced right back to 725. It comes from the Old Frisian wergia, to kill, and before that from the Old Norse urga, which means rope.

Monday 19 December 2011

Spot the frippet: sylph

All right the original sylphs were fairy-type things which inhabited the air, and, fair enough, they aren't so easy to spot. 

But there are other sorts of sylph, and if you are going to spot one then now is a good time as, obviously, it isn't only the turkey that gets itself well stuffed at Christmas, and few of us will see the New Year in anything like a sylph-like state.

It also gives me the opportunity to mention Paracelsus the Bighead again (BOOOOOO!). It seems to have been he who came up with the word sylph. I don't know why he did it, but there you are, he poked his nose in everywhere.

Apart from being a figment of Paracelsus the Bighead's imagination a sylph can be a slender and graceful girl. These are fun to spot (and some of them might even be frippets, as well, hurray!).

They are also, most beautifully, hummingbirds with long forked tails.

 This is a violet-tailed sylph.

And as if that wasn't enough, there are dragonfly sylphs, too.
Spot the frippet: sylph. This word seems to have been cobbled together by our old friend Paracelsus the Bighead from the Latin word sylvestris, which means of the wood, and nympha, which means nymph.

The plural is either sylphes or sylphi or sylphen. And, quite honestly, I don't see with all that variety why we shouldn't add another to them and say sylphs

Except that our false teeth would probably fall out if we tried.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: stearine.

 I've been wondering what stearine means for decades.

Yes, I've looked it up, but I've never found it in anywhere, not even in the Oxford English Dictionary.

 The thing is, PG Wodehouse uses stearine at least twice, and anything PGW wrote is worth studying. Actually I think stearine must have been a small private joke of his: in The Truth About George, for instance, George Mulliner falls in love with a girl who knows not only the meaning of crepuscular, but of stearine, too.

Well, these things will form a bond.

Anyway, I've been doing some research and I have, I hope, solved the problem. Stearine (a nasty sneering word) means of course made of stearin.
So there we are!


Oh, glyceryl tristearate. You get it from beef fat or palm oil, or when making cod liver oil. You can make candles or soap with it, or even, or so the OED claims, statuettes.

I must say, now I come to think about it, I quite fancy the phrase stearine bulge. But I shall resist it while I can.

Word Not To Use Today: stearine. This word comes from stearin, which is from the Greek stear, which means stiff fat, tallow or suet.

PS. I've just consulted my new Collins Dictionary, and it does have stearine in there as an alternative spelling for stearin. Rats! Do hope this doesn't mean people will go and start actually using it. 

STOP PRESS: I'm so sorry to hear about the terrible storm that's affected the Philippines, where The Word Den has many very valued readers.
My thoughts and hopes are with you all.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Saturday Rave: The Farthest Shore by Ursula Le Guin.

I don't think you can judge a book by its cover, but I do think you can almost always judge it by its first line.

In the Court of the Fountain the sun of March shone through the young leaves of ash and elm, and the water leapt and fell through sunshine and clear light.

And already you can be pretty sure that this book won't be an easy read, but that it will be full of beauty and poetry (check out the buoyant rhythm of that sentence), and a long clear sight of something beyond our world.

And you, dear reader, would be absolutely right.

Word To Use Today: fountain. This word has come to us through the French from the Latin word fons, which means spring or fountain.

Friday 16 December 2011

Word To Use Today: picaroon.

So, what's a picaroon?

Well, I'm not surprised if you haven't heard of it, because it's something people keep secret as long as they possibly can.

You see, if people found out then a picaroon would be in REALLY BIG TROUBLE.

A picaroon is a villain.

(Pause for nasty rattling laughter: yah-ha-ha-HA! followed by someone saying nothing shall stop me now...)

A picaroon is a rogue, or a thief (I do hope somewhere there's a macaroon picaroon) or a brigand. Or else he's a pirate.

You don't come across the word picaroon very often, but maybe it should be used it more often to remind ourselves that thieves and pirates are just poor weak folk who can't manage to make a living without hurting other people.

The related word picaresque does get used from time to time, mostly by teachers. It usually means a story about the adventures of a rogue.

Word To Use Today: picaroon. Rogues and villains are all around us, so this should be an easy word to use. It comes from the Spanish word picaron, from picaro, which means rogue.

The word's perhaps best said in a Scots accent: the man's a picaROON!


Thursday 15 December 2011

Going slow fast - a rant.

The OECD (that's the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Gosh, you have to admire their sense of optimism, don't you) has recently announced that:

"The slowdown in leading economies around the world is gathering speed."

Now, I think I know what the OECD means. I think they mean that the economies are shrinking at a greater rate than before.

But, hey, perhaps the OECD means that the slowdown has turned into a speed-up.

Who can be sure?

This sort of thing is certainly tricky, and perhaps the OECD should try using musical terms, because they are rather good at describing speeds.

There's the useful molto mosso, which means with much agitation (ie, faster), and we have accelerando and rallentando for speeding up and slowing down.

Or there's always morendo, an instruction famously to the music rather than the performer. 

Morendo means getting slower and quieter and in the end dying away.

Word To Use Today: speed. This word comes from the Old English spēd, and before that from the Old High German spuon, meaning to prosper or succeed.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Nuts and Bolts: suppletion.

So, why is it that I go tomorrow, but yesterday I went?
It makes no sense at all. I mean, it should be: I go, I goed, I have gone.

Shouldn't it?

How on earth could any language manage to get went out of go?
Well, the thing is, it didn't.

Long. long ago, when the word go was still gān, we used to have the lovely geēode to describe what we'd done when we'd gone somewhere. 
We also had the word wendan which meant...well, more or less the same thing. 
How we ended up using wendan for past events and n for present ones is something of a mystery; but if this seems a bit of a nuisance be glad you're not Portuguese, whose verb to go comes from FOUR different words: the Latin words vadere, to advance, ire, to go, ambulare, to walk, and even fui, which is part, bizarrely, of the Latin word to be.
Makes the English seem almost sensible, really. 
On a technical note, a word's having forms which have completely different histories is called suppletion.
Word To Use Today: wended
Well, why not? Using suppletion is, let's face it, close to impossible.

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Thing To Do Today: sprinkle.

Is there a word in the English language more full of delicate joy than sprinkle?

Er...yes, quite probably, but at the moment I can't think what it could be.

You can sprinkle confettii, water (especially if it's holy water), happiness.

In England the water-sprinkling thing is pretty much constantly on automatic,* but if by any chance it's not raining or snowing where you are, then you can sprinkle...well, sprinkles. These are tiny pieces of sugar or chocolate (or, quite often, sugar pretending to be chocolate). If you're English you'll buy a small tub of them and then leave them in the cupboard until you move house, when you'll throw them away. If you are Dutch, however, you will buy them in half kilogram boxes and eat them on bread and butter.

As long as it makes them happy...

If you don't fancy bread and sprinkles, then you can always do the sprinkler dance, where you pretend to be a...well, a sprinkler. You put your left hand behind your neck and turn round in a circle waving your extended right hand about as if...sprinkling.

A simple thing, but a cause of great excitement and joy during the 2010 Ashes cricket tour of Australia.

Little things, as they say, please little minds.

And let's all give thanks for that.

Thing To Do Today: sprinkle. This word is probably something to do with the Middle Low German sprinklelt, which means spotted.

*Actually it doesn't really rain all that much in a lot of England, but it's traditional to moan about it as if it does.

Monday 12 December 2011

Spot the frippet: diatom.

Now, considering that the very most well-fed diatom is generally less than 2mm in length, spotting one of them may seem to be a tall order.

But, hang on, the things are all over the place.

They're a sort of alga (no, please, they're fascinating!) and they live in simply colossal numbers in the sea, as well as in fresh water, and, indeed, more or less anywhere that's a bit damp. Good heavens, there are about a hundred thousand species of them.

Mostly they're loners, but sometimes they live with their friends in ribbons, or fans, or stars, like this.

Their skins are, remarkably, made of silicon (like sand) which means they look as if they're going to be jolly useful for making tiny valves for computers. 

Their dead bodies, crushed together to form a sort of rock, is used in dynamite, to filter honey and wine, and in toothpaste (yum!).

The most remarkable thing about them is that they have children by splitting their silicon skins in half - which means that each child only ever gets to be half as big as its parents. When the poor things are quite ridiculously small, then they get together with a friend and produce a simply enormous egg-type thing, and the process begins all over again.

Just imagine what it would be like if your granny was four times as big as you...and wanted to kiss you.

Spot the frippet: diatom. If you look at any body of water or swamp you'll be looking at thousands of them.
The word diatom comes from the Greek word diatemnein, to cut through. Some people say this is because they consist of two silicon walls joined in the middle, and some say it's because some types of diatoms live in zigzag chains.
I must say I don't understand what zigzags have got to do with cutting through, though.

Sunday 11 December 2011

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: beneurous.

Of course I'm shooting myself in the foot with this post, because I should imagine few of you would have considered using the word beneurous today if I hadn't brought it to your attention.

Beneurous means..well, what do you think it means?

Having a low and throbbing belly ache?

Or perhaps having a distinct smell of week-old musk-ox curry?

Or carved with mysterious patterns, possibly representing the passage of a dead soul through the after-world?

Or a dim and bilious green?

But no. As it happens, beneurous means happy or blessed: and this must be one of the very worst matches of sound and meaning in any word I've ever come across.

You know that saying, do what I say, not what I do? Well, I'd suggest reversing it for this word.

Be beneurous, do - but please don't actually say it.

Word Not To Use Today: beneurous. This word was used by William Caxton, who printed the first books in England. It comes from the Old French beneurous

And they can jolly well have it back as far as I'm concerned, too.

Saturday 10 December 2011

Saturday Rave: Aladdin.

Sometimes things are just too easy, and I'm afraid that's how it is for Aladdin.

I really don't think there's a story in the whole world that wouldn't buckle a bit under the weight of a magic lamp, complete with its own genie, to provide the hero with endless power and wealth.

Still, the story has an idle hero with whom we can sympathise; a splendidly frustrated and infuriated old lady; an exotic genie; and the most dastardly of villains (can there be a more sinister name than Abenazar?) And it makes the most glorious of pantomimes.

Best of all, it ends happily ever after. Well, it does for those who deserve to be happy, anyway.

The story arrived in Europe courtesy of a man called Youhenna Diab in the early 1700s. He was from Aleppo, and although the story is set in China, it's a very Middle-Eastern China, and the story is probably originally from Syria or somewhere near there.

Word To Use Today: lamp. This word is from the Latin lampas, from the Greek lampein, which means to shine.

Friday 9 December 2011

Word To Use Today: newt.

The trouble with this word is that it sounds uncomfortably like someone treading on one.

Still, let's celebrate the glory of newts.

Firstly, they are pretty near to being frogs with super-model figures. Yes, they're elegant, newts.

Secondly, newts come from the sub-family Pleurodelinae of the family Salamandridae - and if those words aren't magic then they jolly well ought to be.

Thirdly, if they lose a limb (they are, I'm afraid, notoriously careless in this respect) they can regenerate it. They can regenerate their jaws, eyes and even their hearts, too. Neat.

Fourthly, the rough-skinned newt, Taricha granulosa, is poisonous enough to kill an adult human: but only if you eat it, when I think we must all agree it would serve you right. They're basically friendly things.

Fifthly, there's one species called the Black Knobby Newt, which must surely fill us all with abiding joy.

I must admit newts have played a comparatively small role in English Literature, but I must just mention, sixthly, the great Sir Isaac Newton, one of Jeremy Fisher's friends.

Word To Use Today: newt. This word started of as eft (which is still the word for a young newt that's old enough to have left the water where it was born), then it changed by some mysterious means to euft and then to ewt. Later on an ewt became a newt* - and a word was born.

*See HERE for more of this sort of thing. 

Thursday 8 December 2011

Unique - a rant.

Oh yes, words are infinitely flexible, and are to be used playfully and creatively...

...except, of course, when they're not.


Now, the clue to this word is at the beginning, okay? - the uni bit.

Think unicycle, unicorn, and uniform.

Or, indeed, think of a unicycling unicorn wearing a uniform: I should imagine you will be one of the first people ever to do so.

What you won't be, though, is almost unique.

If something is unique means there's only one of them. That's all it means.


Yes, yes, people will say almost unique, meaning very unusual, but this is bad bad BAD because nice knobbly awkward words which have just one meaning, like unique, are actually quite unusual and we should cherish them like mad and not try to rub the corners off them, because that's cruel as well as wasteful, and knocks a colour out of the gorgeous language rainbow.

Probably a sort of charcoal grey, I should say.

Word To Use Properly Today: unique. This word comes from the Latin word ūnicus which means unparalleled, from ūnus, which means one.

This means that uni has meant one for thousands of years, so please don't go and spoil it now, okay?

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Nuts and Bolts: creoles.

'Me Tarzan!'

People who speak different languages quite often have to try to talk to each other.

It's not easy.

They usually end up bodging together bits of both their languages. 
The result is fine for getting across necessary information, but doesn't go much further than that. This is a pidgin language (and in some ways it's not really a proper language at all).

When these pidgin speakers have children, though, something magical happens. The children learn pidgin words from their parents, but they put them together in newly subtle ways - and suddenly a proper fully expressive language has come into existence. 

This is a creole.

I've long been utterly charmed by the creole spoken on Papua New Guinea, and by the similar languages spoken on Vanuatu and Bislama, and on the Solomon Islands. 

This language is based on English, but also on German, Malay, Portuguese and many Austronesian languages.

In Papua this language is called Tok Pisin. The Tok is the same word as talk, and the pisin comes from pidgin, even though Tok Pisin isn't a pidgin language any more.

When you read it Tok Pisin comes over as a sunny, hopeful, if slightly bonkers affair. 

And as I said, it charms the life out of me.

Gras bilong het, (usually just gras, nowadays) is, of course, Tok Pisin for hair (ie grass belong head. Geddit?).

My very favourite piece of Tok Pisin, though, is magimix bilong Yesus, which is...yes, a helicopter.

I was reminded of Tok Pisin when not long ago on a visit to Vanuatu Prince Charles was given the title of Nambawun pikinini blong Missus Kwin: ie the number one child who belongs to Mrs Queen.

Isn't it gorgeous?

Word To Use Today: creole. This word is probably from the Portuguese criolo, which is either a slave born into a household, or a person of European ancestry born in the colonies. The word is probably from criar, to bring up, from the Latin creāre, to create.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: pop.

Half a pound of tuppeny rice
Half a pound of treacle
That's the way the money goes
Pop goes the weasel.

My husband, growing up in South London used to add:

Up and down the City Road,
In and out the Eagle
That's the way...

And when the tune reached America in the 1850s the words were:

All around the cobbler's house
The monkey chased the people.
And after them in double haste...

So, what's that all about? 

Well, some say pop is used here in the sense of to pawn; some say the weasel is a weasel-skin purse with a pop-closure; and some talk mysteriously of hatters' tools.

The experts on these matters, Iona and Peter Opie, however, point out that even in the 1850s when the song was the centre of the latest dance-craze, no one had a clue what it meant.

So, no change there, then.

Anyway, pop is a simple but useful word, meaning to make a small explosion, to burst, to pay a brief visit, to stick out (if you're talking about eyes), to shoot with a firearm, or to consume (usually a pill).

I'll just point out that if you pop someone on the ground in England you're putting them down lightly and gently, while in America you're knocking them over.

An important distinction, that.

Also important is the difference between popping your clogs, which means dying, and popping the question, which means proposing marriage.

I'm not expecting to do either of these today, but I can pop off with no trouble at all.


Thing To Do Today: pop. This word has been around since the 1300s. It's an imitation of the noise it makes - though not, generally, if you're proposing marriage.

Monday 5 December 2011

Spot the frippet: philtrum.

So, where do you keep your philtrum?

Oh yes you have.

This rather a nice, trim sort of a word means the indentation to be found in the middle of your upper lip.

According to a Jewish story, God sends an angel to teach the Torah to unborn children, but after the children have learned it all the angel touches the child between lip and nose to make it forget its knowledge, and the philtrum is the finger mark.

Hm. Well, I expect that story makes sense in some other version. There are certainly other stories about the philtrum being caused by the finger of God, anyway.

We humans have only got a small dent for a philtrum, but a dog or a camel, for instance  have much more spendid versions.

A philtrum moustache is one which covers little more than the philtrum. It's the same as a toothbrush moustache, as worn by the film incarnations of Charlie Chaplin and Oliver Hardy.

As well as by Adolf Hitler and Robert Mugabe.

So: a sign of megalomaniac dictators and fools, then.

You have been warned.

Spot the frippet: philtrum. This word is a Latin word, and before that it came from the Greek word philtron, which means love potion.

This is lovely, but quite baffling as far as I'm concerned. I suppose it is close to the Cupid's bow. Could that be something to do with it?

Sunday 4 December 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: toilet.

The only good thing about this word is that sometimes people raise a snigger by putting a letter i in the middle of TO LET signs.

Otherwise, it's horrible.  

I mean, the word causes trouble everywhere. It makes the lavatory brigade look down their noses. (The lavatory brigade raises such a lovely image of ranks of befrogged uniforms, brushes held at the salute.)

The bog people (a very much less lovely image, I'm afraid) will despise toilet-users for being prim.

The loo people will despise toilet-users for being infantile.

I would say the thing's a minefield, except that my all-too-vivid imagination doesn't even want to go there.

Anyway, it's a horrid flat-footed word, Toi-Let, and it's really best avoided by anyone with an ounce of poetry in their souls.  

Oh, and I must just mention that my mother's bottle of toilet water puzzled me for ages...

Word Not To Use Today: toilet. This word comes from the French toilette, which means to dress. Which is odd, as surely you need to undress, don't you?

Saturday 3 December 2011

Saturday Rave: The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie

This is my favourite of Agatha Christie's stories, and it's quite high up on my list of favourite books.

It's a murder story, of course, but it's a Cinderella story, too, and it has a hugely satisfying romance at its core.

And who did it? Well, lots of people did all sorts of things, as people do. But the murderer...

...well, the murderer is the only person who could possibly have done it, of course.

Word To Use Today: poison. This word comes from the Old French puison, a potion, and before that from the Latin word pōtiō, a drink (especially, my dictionary says, a poisonous one. Good grief, you'd have thought that was a distinction worth making absolutely clear) and before that from pōtāre, which means to drink.

Friday 2 December 2011

Word To Use Today: tranquillity.

This is a beautiful word, although I'm afraid that the double l does spoil it slightly: instead of being a lovely long ripple, there's a wall in the middle for people to trip over.

The good news is that in America so many people have been tastefully leaving out the second l that tranquility has become, I understand, a recognised spelling.

The Sea of Tranquility is quite dry, on the moon, and where Neil Armstrong took his famous small step.

Elsewhere, amongst planners and travel agents, tranquillity is a serious business. There's even a tranquillity rating, which you work out with the equation:

TR = 9.68 + 0.04NCF - 0.146Lday + MF

This equation assumes that what you need for tranquillity is wide open spaces, running water and wildlife (though this is unlikely to be the case if you're falling from an aeroplane into a raging torrent filled with crocodiles) and that what you really don't need is  people, music and traffic (though what about cycling along a country lane listening to the second movement of the Mozart clarinet concerto with the members of a George Clooney look-a-like convention?).

But whatever your tastes and circumstances, gentle reader, may tranquillity hold you in its arms, even if the only way you can get it is by sitting in a cupboard with your fingers in your ears.

Remember, you're worth it.

Word To Use Today: tranquillity. This word is from the Latin word tranquillus.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Vocation - a rant.

Lots of young adults can't find jobs at the moment.

According to Professor Alison Wolf of Kings College, London, one of the main reasons for this is that they lack the vocational skills they need.

And what vocational skills might these be?

Well, according to Professor Wolf (and she's produced an independent review into the matter) by far the most important vocational skills for young people are in English and Maths.

You know, that's such a deeply sensible and revolutionary conclusion that I feel inclined to weep with relief and gratitude.

Let's hope lots of people are listening.

Word To Use Today: vocation. This word comes from the Latin word vocāre, to call.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Nuts and Bolts: a big difference.

Yes, yes, I know that apostrophes have been used in varied ways over the centuries, but sometimes they do make a big difference.

Sir Robin Mountfield has died. He was a very senior civil servant, and also a grammatical stickler, who came up with my favourite example of how, occasionally, apostrophes really matter.

This example was a World War 2 headline, and it described a German army advance which had succeeded in surrounding part of the French army.

It said:


As Sir Robin pointed out so persuasively, without the apostrophe it could have had a rather different meaning.

Thing To Use Today: apostrophe. This word has come to us through Latin from the Greek word apostrephein, which, oddly, means to turn away.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Thing To Do Today. Or possibly not. Screeve.

Screeve is a lovely word, now sadly fallen into disuse.

It can mean to write quickly or continuously, which is surely something to be encouraged.

Or it can mean to ooze, which surely none of us ever aspires to do.

Or, if you're a horse, it means to fall with the legs apart while running on ice.

What a language, eh? How marvellous to have a word for that.

A screeve can be a piece of writing, a banknote, or a begging letter.

Whereas a screever is a pavement artist. This is a very fine thing to be as long as you work in something washable, like chalk.

So there we are: screeve. It's what I'd call a really generous word, too.

Thing To Do Today. Or possibly Not. Screeve. The ooze meaning comes from the Old French escrever, where it is used of wounds (lovely!). The reading-and-writing meaning comes from the Latin scrībēre, which means to write; and the falling-on-ice meaning comes from the Norwegian word skreva, to straddle.

Monday 28 November 2011

Spot the frippet: fungi.

There are fungi wibbling all over the fields and woods of England at the moment - we have some lovely lilac blewits on our front lawn - but of course most of the fungi which exist around us (and inside us) are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.

Pause to shudder with wonder, here, I think. Invisible fungi include yeasts, and antibiotics, as well as being part of what is rather spookily called gut flora.

Hey, and did you know that fungi are nearer to animals than plants?

That they are farmed, not only by people, but by ants and wasps and termites?

That fungi have cells made with chitin, which is the same stuff of which lobsters' skeletons are made?

That fungi are used to "stonewash" jeans?

That some fungi are utterly delicious?

(This is a stilton cheese, and the fungus which inhabits it is called Penicillium roqueforti. Yes, it's used in Roquefort cheese, too.)

Spot the frippet: fungus. If you can't find a mushroom-type thing then any piece of bread or any alcoholic drink will contain fungi -  and anyone with a beard or moustache is sporting face fungus.

The word is Latin for mushroom, and before that it came from the Greek word sphongos, which means sponge.

Which brings us back to the wibbly woods rather beautifully. doesn't it.