This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 28 February 2011

Spot the frippet - pigeon.

One day I went out into my garden and my neighbour said here we are! and put something into my hands. And it was a week-old pigeon that magpies had just pulled out of its nest.
Just what I wanted...
Woodstock, for so we called him, was a lead-coloured wrinkled thing with sandy eyebrows and a penetrating weep! He wouldn't open his beak to be fed unless you put your hand right over his head as if you were going to throttle him.
He grew up on creamed sweetcorn and soaked birdseed. We didn't know how to teach him to fly, so we used to take him for walks until one day he took off up into a tree where he sat for twenty four hours while we waved his food bowl at him and worried in case he was afraid of heights.
After that day, if you went out into the garden he would fly down at once to land on your head, and if he saw you inside the house he would try to do the same thing even though there was a pane of glass in the way.
Never quite worked glass out, did Woodstock. We spent several weeks crawling round the house in case he saw us and launched himself into the window yet again.

Gradually he got shyer and shyer, and in the end we saw him no more.
Still feel a bit sad about that.

Spot the frippet: pigeon. They're mostly woodpigeons round here. With their smart white collars and important waddle they always look as if they should be carrying briefcases.

Pigeon. This word is from the Old French word pijon, from the Latin pīpīre, to chirp.
Which the young ones do!

Sunday 27 February 2011

Sunday Rest - pulchritude

Oh, this is a horror. It means beauty. From the Latin pulcher, beautiful.

But I think pulchritude might be even uglier as a word than anaglypta.

The pul reminds me of poultice, and tude sounds heavy and nasty, and the chri bit just sits there in the middle being difficult to spell. 

Word Not To Use Today: pulchritude.


Saturday 26 February 2011

Saturday Rave - Jennings Goes To School by Anthony Buckeridge

Atkinson has been given a player's autograph at a cricket match.

'The chap's writing's a bit wobbly...but if you look at it one way up it looks like B.K.Inman, and upside down it might be E.J.O'Reilly.'
'And which do you think it was?'
'Well, it's probably Smith, sir, because there wasn't an Inman or an O'Reilly in either of the teams.'

My copy of Jennings Goes To School has been read to pieces. It still makes me laugh and laugh, despite the fact that the world of a boys' boarding school has never been relevant to me.

But who needs relevant? I mean, if something's relevant then I'm bound to find out about it anyway. It's other people's worlds I need to explore.

Anthony Buckeridge was an opera singer, as well as a writer. What a guy!

Word to use today: wobbly. This word was wabbly until the 1600s. It's from the Middle High German wabelen, to waver.

Friday 25 February 2011

Word to use today - hiccup.

People have been hiccuping a long time. Well, to be strictly accurate sometimes they've been hikuping, hickoping, hickhoping, hecuping, hiccuping, hickuping, or hiccoughing (the last one is because people thought a hiccup was a sort of cough - but it never has been, never will be, and just makes things more difficult).

Even way way back in the 1100s, people in France called hiccuping hoqueter and in Flanders they said hiketer, which is very much the same thing.

And, I mean, you can't argue with almost a thousand years of hiccuping, can you.

Mr Charles Osbourne hiccuped about 43 million times over sixty eight years, which is the world record.
Then, amazingly, he stopped.

Hiccup: a simply brilliant word that has stood the test of time and should therefore be used as often as possible.

Thursday 24 February 2011

Thanks to Collins...

...who have very swiftly sent me a lovely new dictionary to replace my old one, which proved to have some pages missing.

It's very nice of them to bother, and I LOVE my new dictionary, which is so up-to-date it has the word jeggings (leggings made to look like jeans) in it.

Fulsome - a rant.

Fulsome was such a lovely word before all those fools started using it to mean very full (as in fulsome praise, usually).

Why on earth should they start doing that? Do they think handsome means very hand?

If they get their way we'll have lost a really useful word for treacly, flattering, gluey insincerity.

And what a loss to politics that will be.

Word to use today: fulsome. This word is, not surprisingly, from full and some, and it did originally mean full or abundant; but this meaning hasn't been in common use since 1583 or so.

Until now, anyway.

Away with it!

Wednesday 23 February 2011

Nuts and Bolts: shibboleths

You can't be too careful, you know - and even when you are, you can still put your foot right in it.
As I did here with my last rant.
Who would have thought that aitches could be so contentious?

Well, in Northern Ireland they are: aitch is pronounced with a h sound, haitch, by Catholics, and without the h, aitch, by Protestants. It's a real-live modern shibboleth.

The story of the first shibboleth.

Long long ago, after yet another battle in the lands now known as  Palestine and Israel, the winners wanted to find out which of the    soldiers came from the enemy tribe. So what they did was to get     every man to  say shibboleth.                                                      
The winners' tribe could say the sh sound all right, but their enemy, who had no sh in their own language, could only say sibboleth.      
So the plan worked very well - though it led to a lot of                      unpleasantness - but, as you may have noticed, failed utterly to      solve the problems of the Middle East.                                             

Shibboleths have been used in more modern times, too. In the         Second World War the Dutch used the name of the town of             Schevenigen to identify Germans (again, the sh sound was the give-away).                                                                                                

So shibboleths are any words which are special to a particular group. It's also come to mean a custom that's a bit out-of-date.                 

Shibboleth: this is a Hebrew word. Shibbόleth means ear of corn, as it happens, though that's got nothing at all to do with either of its current meanings.                                                                                             

Tuesday 22 February 2011

Thing to do today - laugh.

'Last night I dreamt I was eating an enormous marshmallow, and when I woke up the pillow was gone.'

When people are asked what sort of animal would you like to be? they often say a cat.
Not me, though, because cats don't laugh.

'A man went into the doctors with a blob of custard in one ear and some jelly in the other. "You'll have to speak up," he said, "I'm a trifle deaf." '

There have been times when people didn't laugh, either. In the 1700s Lord Chesterfield (I think it was Lord C, but I can't find the exact quote) boasted of never having laughed since he reached the age of reason.
What an idiot!

'Two fish in a tank, one says to the other "I'll drive and you man the guns." '

Thank goodness the fashion for not-laughing changed!

Laugh: this word...hang on, pages 920 - 924 are missing from my brand new dictionary! Curses! Hang on, I'll go and find another one... we are. Laugh: from the Old English hlghhan (try saying that with a straight face), originally from the Greek plōssein, to cluck.

Hm. Well, I suppose if you can't think of anything else to laugh at, you could try doing an impression of a hen laying an egg...

The jokes were originally by the very great Mr Tommy Cooper.

Monday 21 February 2011

Spot the frippet: funkster.

A lively word, funkster: a bit squat, maybe, but happy and energetic. (A funkster, for anyone who isn't sure, is either a performer or fan of funk music, or else someone who follows the latest trends in music, ideas, or fashion.)

It's a wonderful word with a strange history. It comes from funky, of course, which is one of those useful words which can mean more or less anything: soulful, passionate, stylish, earthy, exciting, cool.

Funky comes from funk, which is of course a style of music, but for a long time meant...well, smelly.

Smelly? What do you mean, smelly?

No offence, really, but funkster comes from the Old French word funkier and before that the Latin fūmigāre. And fūmigāre and funkier both mean to smoke.

My guess is that once upon a time the tobacco-smoky atmosphere of a music club (probably a blues club) was just the coolest place to be on the whole face of the earth.

Anyway, funkster: any dedicated follower of fashion.

So, most of us, then.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Sunday Rest - anaglypta.

Word Not To Use Today - anaglypta.

Anaglypta is very fine, useful stuff. It's the sort of wallpaper that's covered in bumpy patterns. You can paint any colour you like, and it's a cheap, easy way of hiding battered plaster.


Oh, but what a nasty-sounding word! The ana bit reminds me of anacondas and anachronisms, and glypta make me think of black nameless stuff dripping down oily walls.

Hey, but perhaps it's just me...

Anaglypta. This word is from the Greek word anagluptos, a shallow carving, which is from gluphein, to carve.

***I do wish I hadn't put up woodchip instead, though, because it's a total pain to get off!***

Saturday 19 February 2011

Saturday Rave - A Bear Called Paddington

"A bear? On Paddington station?' Mrs Brown looked at her husband in amazement. 'Don't be silly, Henry. There can't be!'

But, of course, there is.

A Bear Called Paddington was the first long book I ever came across. Miss Wheeler read it to us in Year Three, and I just loved it. A Bear Called Paddington was very funny, and it had simply marvellous pictures by Peggy Fortnum, but even more importantly it showed a small person making his determined, baffled way in a very odd grown-up world.
And grown ups are quite worryingly odd. I mean, you must have noticed that yourself. (Though many of the grown ups in Paddington are full of a comforting kindness, too.)

Note to anybody planning to make a film version. Paddington is young and has a small, clear voice. He's not a growly bear.

Word to use today: amazement. This is a very old word: people have been amazed in England for ages. It means surprised, of course, but there's a hint of too surprised to move about the word, too.
Amazement may come from the Norwegian local word masa, which means to worry, pester or fall into a doze, or from the same word in Swedish, where it means to sun oneself.
As you can see, the not-moving has been part of the word for as long as we can go back, though the surprise hasn't!

Friday 18 February 2011

Macaroni update

Exciting news about macaroni.

In fact, about macaroni wigs.

Apparently the young twits who came back to England from Italy in the mid 1700s boasting constantly about how cool they were (okay, it's not exactly new news!) used to wear flour-coated wigs so pointy at the top that they could only take their hats off with their swords.

I can see it must have been fun to wear one, if only because it would have annoyed the old folk just immensely!

Word to use today - dinosaur.

Dinosaur was the first word whose history I discovered.

I was amazed, because I hadn't known that words had histories - I thought they just popped up by themselves, like mushrooms. Or zits.

As a great Flintstones fan, I was delighted to find out that the dino bit of the word means terrible (at least, it did in the dictionary I had as a child - my Collins dictionary says, rather unhelpfully, fearful, which I now realise is a contranym ).
And the saur bit means lizard.

As well as being an extinct reptile (if dinosaurs were reptiles, which they almost certainly weren't (and there's also an idea around that there are still loads and loads of dinosaurs about, which we now call birds, so dinosaurs aren't definitely extrinct, either)) a dinosaur is any really old-fashioned person who has stopped noticing that things are always changing.

So...what is this Twitter thing all about, then...?

Dinosaur: from the Greek deinos, fearful or terrible, and sauros, lizard.

Thursday 17 February 2011

Aitch bones - a rant!

These aitches! I mean, some you say (hello!) and some you don't (honestly).

Some are even trickier than that. I've always felt sorry for those clever people in the USA who don't like saying the aitches in herb or human. They have to pronounce these words so carefully (to make sure everyone knows they are missing out the aitch-sounds on purpose) that they almost burp when they say them.
My English teacher used to get into the same trouble with hotel - but then she was about a hundred and fifty years old.

Put'em in, miss'em out - people do it all the time and I've never noticed the sky falling

There is just one aitch word which drives me nuts, though. I'd hoped that eventually people would decide to say it my way, but now there's even an advert on the television which, horridly, GETS IT WRONG.



The advert is for high definition television - HD TV- and the word is, of course, aitch.

Aitch, for heaven's sake. Aitch! Look at it: aitch. Not, you will notice, haitch. (My town and postcode begin with aitches, which is perhaps why I get so heated about this small word. On the other hand, thank heavens I'm not called Hannah Hitchhouse.)

 I mean, what is people's problem with aitch??? Okay, some words beginning with aitch start with a h sound (hiccup) and some don't (honour). But are any words at all which start with a h sound and don't have an aitch at the beginning?

Well, not that I can think of at the moment.*

So aitch, okay? NOT haitch. Not never never no-how!


Word to use today: horrid. This word is from the Latin word horridus which means bristling or shaggy, from horrēre, which means to bristle.

*Apart from who!

Wednesday 16 February 2011

Nuts and Bolts: lost positives.

One of the things I like best about words is that nearly every word has its own story. Yes, sometimes words do seem to appear from nowhere (like the lovely yonks), but usually you can follow a word back and discover all sorts of things about the way people see their world. 

All we have left of some words, though, are shadows. They are words lost to time, and only their opposites remain.

So we have uncouth, but where is couth? And where are kempt and loof? (Oh, I do hope I'm loof!). How about the lovely ane, ert and sipid?

It's odd, but with nearly all these words we've kept the horrible one of the pair of opposites: I mean, we'd all love to be gruntled or consolate or gainly, if only we could.

We do have unswerving and impeccable and unflappable, but there are far more unwieldys and dismayeds.

Ah well! Perhaps it's just that there's only one way of getting something right, and a million ways of fouling up!

Word to use today: dishevelled. This word is from the French
deschevelé meaning bad hair (more or less), which is itself from the Latin word for hair, capillus.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Spot the frippet: marmalade.

It's 1561, and the teenage Queen Mary is at last returning from France to her kingdom of Scotland. But the sea is rough and Mary is feeling very ill. Not only that, but Mary's maid is feeling ill, too - and Mary's maid's maid is feeling worst of all. They are all flopping about and wishing they were dead, and the only person who can help them is Mary's maid's maid's maid, whom I shall call Isabelle.

Now, Isabelle is usually kept well away from all the lords and ladies, and she is terrified: the Queen of France and the Scots is ill and only humble Isabelle can save her! So Isabelle runs to the doctor - only to find that the doctor's face is even greener than the queen's.
'Marie est malade,' Isabelle says, because she is French. Which means Mary is ill.
Unfortunately the poor doctor is too ill himself to care much. He throws Isabelle a jar of some golden jelly and tells her to get out.

Now, whether it is because of the golden jelly I do not know, but Queen Mary soon feels so much better that she rewards Isabelle with enough money to set herself up in a nice little pub in Dundee.

Strangest of all, Isabelle finds that her story is so famous that the golden jelly she took Queen Mary is everywhere known as marmalade, which is clearly a short form of Marie est malade.
                           *   *    *     *    *    *    *                                       
Well, it would be nice to think so, anyway. The Marie est malade story is certainly widely spread - but unfortunately so was marmalade, long before poor Mary Queen of Scots came along.

Marmalade was certainly a medicine for stomach upsets, though, and the modern version using oranges might have been invented in Dundee (the old version used quinces).

The word marmalade seems to be from a Portuguese word, marmelada, from the Greek melimēlon, which means honey apple. Which is odd for something now usually made of lemons, limes, or oranges.

Monday 14 February 2011


Long long ago, in the time of the Romans, young people used to get together in mid February to find new girlfriends or boyfriends. They did this by putting all their names in a hat and drawing out two at a time.

It was great fun.

But the old folk disapproved of the whole thing so much that they thought up a new game to replace it.

In this game you put the names of saints into the hat, and then you had to try to live for the whole year like the saint whose name you'd pulled out of the hat.

For some reason this game never really caught on.

At last the old folk gave up trying to stop the young people finding girlfriends and boyfriends, and instead came up with a saint especially to help them do it. Actually they came up with two saints, but they were both called St Valentine and they might even have been the same person some of the time.

Then everyone was happy, especially the old folk, who all started greetings-card factories.

Valentine. This day is named by spoil-sports after two at least partly made-up saints.

Thing to do today: say it without flowers!

Sunday 13 February 2011

A peaceful Sunday.

Isn't it lovely that the famously noisy Placido Domingo has a name which means Peaceful Sunday in his native Spanish?
(It's worth following that link not only for the singing, but for the sight of the very fine orchestra having to spend a lot of time going rest pah, and also for the sheer worry on the conductor's face at the end.)

Non-activity for today: listen to some quiet.
Quiet: this word is from the Latin word quiēs, which means rest.

Saturday 12 February 2011

Saturday Rave: The Ogre Downstairs

"Johnny was near the head of the next flight, looking absolutely desperate, wrestling with an octopus-like bundle of threshing toffee-bars."

I am a huge admirer of Diana Wynne Jones' books. The Ogre Downstairs was the first one I ever read, and I was really amazed both at the sheer energy of the book, and the incredible variety of Diana Wynne Jones' imagination. Scuttering dust-balls, a purring pipe,  some very angry dolls'-house people - and the absolute need to keep all this and much much more secret from a new and scary step-father.

Word to use today: ogre.
This word used to be French, and before that it might have been borrowed from the Latin god Orcus, who was hairy and nasty and lived in hell.

Friday 11 February 2011

Word to use today: macaroni.

Yankie Doodle went to town
Riding on a pony.
He stuck a feather in his cap
And called it macaroni.

I spent years and years trying to work out what that was all about.

I mean, if Yankie Doodle had stuck a bit of macaroni in his hat and called it a feather, then I could understand it - though of course it would still be bonkers.

Ah, but now I think I get it. When macaroni arrived in Britain from Italy, people must have served it up a lot to show everyone how rich and clever they were.

And of course this was so annoying that macaroni came to mean anyone who wore foreign fashions, fancied himself a lot, and was generally a bit of a twit.

Macaroni. This word is from the Neapolitan word maccarone, and is probably connected to the Greek word makaria, which is food made from barley.
Although macaroni is usually made from wheat.

Hint for use. Macaroni cheese must be the most boring food on the planet. Enjoy something different!

Thursday 10 February 2011

Opposite opposites - a rant.

How can this be? people cry, pouring tins of custard over their heads to try to cool their brains down. You say the opposite of interested is UNinterested, except sometimes, when it's DISinterested? How in the name of the great god Tutt are we supposed to know which one to use, then??? 

It's okay. Calm down. It's easy.

The fact is that interested has two meanings, and each meaning has to have have its own opposite.
It's just like the opposite of light can be dark or heavy.

When interested means curious, or fascinated, its opposite is UNinterested. Yes, that's right, so uninterested means not-curious, or bored.

That leaves the other, more unusual, meaning. When interested means in with a chance of gaining something, its opposite is DISinterested. Disinterested means being fair because you won't gain anything whichever way you decide.

People have been muddling up these words for centuries - in fact at times the accepted meanings have even been the other way round.

Does matter? Oh yes. Apart from the fact that I keep finding myself SHOUTING AT THE RADIO, sometimes we really need to be sure what we all mean. For instance, whilst I'm prepared to accept that a referee presiding over a Millwall game should be disinterested, I certainly don't want an uninterested one: he might not notice the other team's dirty play!

Word to use today: rant. This word is related to the German ranzen, which means to gambol or skip.
Dancing with rage, then!

Wednesday 9 February 2011

Nuts and Bolts 3. Frequentatives.

No, they're brilliant. Really. I know they've got a long dull name, but they describe some of the most playful and loveable words you could come across anywhere.

Frequentatives are words which have grown some extra letters on their ends to show that an action is being repeated.
Usually the extra letters are LE.
Like, for instance, sniffle means to sniff a lot. Then there's waggle (wag a lot, of course) and paddle (you're ahead of me) all gloriously silly words.
And then there are some interesting frequentatives which don't work in quite the same way, like dazzle (daze) and, perhaps my favourite of all, nestle (nest). 

Word to use today: waggle.
From wagian, which means to shake, and perhaps also from the Old Norse word vagga, which means cradle.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

Thing to do today: slope away.

There's something sly about sloping away. Something slippery and slouching and sliding and sleuth-like. Something almost slithery; and definitely something slinking.

Why do so many of those rather similar words begin sl? There must surely be a reason. I've no idea what it is, myself, but they're lovely words to say, anyway.

To slope away (or off). This word is a shortened form of the old English word aslope, which is related to the word āslūpen, from slūpen, to slip.

Monday 7 February 2011

What does Paul McCartney have on his arms that most people have on their chimneys?

Spot the frippet 3.

Oh, this is a lovely word. Flaunch. A bit of fling and a bit of haunch - two other fantastic words - all rolled into one.

But what can one be? I mean, what could Sir Paul McCartney have on his arms? Tattoos of Father Christmas? Blackbirds singing in the dead of night? A pair of small television aerials?

Well, none of these as far as I know. HERE are Sir Paul's arms - and in this case arms means his patterned shield. Each knight has his own pattern because of course you can't tell who's who when they've got their helmets on, and biffing the wrong guy is really embarrassing.

And the flaunch? Well, there are two of them - they're the black fish-shaped bits with the gold line running through them that are on either side of the central golden guitar.

As for the chimneys...Well, we are lucky enough to have flaunches all round us. HERE is a very badly-made one. Because as well as being a pattern on a shield, a flaunch is the very important ring of mortar that stops the rain getting down the join between a roof and a chimney.

Flaunch. From the French word flanc, which means, not surprisingly,  flank.

You've probably been relying on one all your life and never known it.

Hey, and isn't it interesting how not knowing the name for something can make it invisible?

Sunday 6 February 2011


When I was at school a teacher told me that the French word for Sunday, Dimanche, had that name because in the olden days people would put on a jacket as well as their usual weekday shirt to go to church.

It makes sense. Di in a word does sometimes mean two (as in carbon dioxide, where two atoms of oxygen are sort of joined to every atom of carbon) and manche certainly means sleeve in French. So Dimanche, I always thought, meant two-sleeves.

Isn't that lovely? And so elegantly French, I thought, to call a day of the week after a fashion choice intead of some random god.

But, sadly, I now discover it's horribly wrong. Dimanche really comes from the Latin word dominica, which means belonging to God.

Personally, I'm really, really gutted about it, too.

Inactivity for today: don't believe everything people tell you.

Saturday 5 February 2011

Saturday Rave - The Railway Children by E Nesbit.

"Girls are just as clever as boys, and don't you forget it!" says Daddy in The Railway Children. But then there's a knock at the door, and for a long time Roberta (Bobbie) doesn't understand anything. 
That doesn't stop there being lots of adventures, though, lots of them centring on the marvellous steam train which travels past the house.
Here is a piece from further on in the book.
"[Bobbie] could not stay in the garden. The hollyhocks and the asters and the late roses all seemed to be waiting for something to happen. It was one of those still, shiny autumn days, when everything does seem to be waiting."
I love the way E Nesbit's description of a few flowers on a quiet day fills the story with excitement. Magic!

Word to use today: shiny.

February in England is often dull, but there are still lots of shiny things around - new pennies, apples, crocuses, mirrors. Even the sun, occasionally!

The word shiny comes from the Old High German scinan to shine, which is related to the Greek skia, which means, rather oddly, shadow.

Oh, and that ending to the story! I don't want to give it away for those who don't know the story (can there be anyone who doesn't know the story?) but that heart-wrenching call of Bobbie's on the station platform...oh yes, I cry every time.
I seem to remember E Nesbit stopped writing after some idiot editor told her that children didn't like her sort of book any more.
Oh yes, that editor's right up there with the Man from Porlock as far as I'm concerned.
Anyway, what riches she left us: The Psammead, The Wouldbegoods, and The Railway Children among others, all published a hundred years ago and still full of energy and humanity and joy.

Friday 4 February 2011

Word to use today: aardvark.

I love this word because if you say it in a growly voice it makes you sound like something from Outer Space. Aardvarks hate all fruit apart from aardvark cucumbers, but will eat as many as fifty thousand ants in one night. Yum!
Aardvarks are so odd that even their nearest relations on the animal family tree, sirenians, tenrecs and elephants, are very different from them.
The word aardvark comes from the Africaans word aarde which means earth or ground, and varken, pig.
Tip for using the word aardvark. Do you know anyone with really weird relations?

Another thing I love about the word aardvark is that in English we have taken the same elements - earth+pig - and ended up with something completely different.

Aardvark has that lovely by hook or by crook I'll be first in your book thing, too. Well, except for aalii, which is beautiful but, quite frankly, just doesn't have the same star quality.

Thursday 3 February 2011

Vampire teen horror crime romance - a RANT!

Word to use today: deasil.

Deasil means going round something in the same direction as the hands of a clock. This is also the way the sun travels if you live in the top half of the world. The word deasil has long been used in magic spells.
It comes from the Old Irish word dess, which means either right or south, and sel, which means to turn.

Genre - a rant!

Oh, I suppose I can see the point of genres. I mean, the booksellers and librarians have to know which shelf to shove the books on, don't they.
Although, come to think about it, libraries usually rely on stickers. Odd that they should shun words like that.

But anyway, I suppose that genre-labelling helps to let people know that a book will feature a murder, or a love story, or probably (at the moment) both, with some dead-fit vampires thrown in (see what I did, there?).

Boxes, that's what genres are: useful things.

But you try putting an eel, or love, or Niagara Falls in a box.

I mean, suppose someone had written a novel about elves (fantasy) and Nazis (historical fiction) with chases (thriller) just the merest touch of a love story (romance) the odd skeleton (horror) and the whole survival-of-the-fittest thing (hm. Might even be getting a bit literary, there, you never know).

Where would that book fit? If there's no genre box for it to go in, can it exist at all?

Well, yes, it can, as it happens, and I hope you don't mind my mentioning it but it's being published today.

It's called ICE MAIDEN.

Um...yes, as it happens, it's by me.

It contains the word deasil, too.


Wednesday 2 February 2011

Nuts and Bolts 2. Hypercorrections

Four left feet.

Oh, we all know about ordinary corrections, of course. Some of my teachers used to gouge terrifying lines right through the paper, though even more crushing were the tiny neat crosses of teachers who really did not care in the slightest whether I'd got my answers right or not.
Anyway, hypercorrection is when someone, trying to be clever, uses a language rule that doesn't always work and ends up with non-standard English. Or a mistake, depending on how you look at it.

Take, for example, the word octopus. The much-used plural form octopi looks right, and would in fact be right if only the word were nice Old Latin like stimulus - but unfortunately it's actually Greek, which means it has to be octopodes; which lovely word is, however, much too fancy for daily use and so I am left, rather sadly, to use the rather ordinary octopuses.

Oh, but I do regret not being able to use the magnificent octopodes.

Octopus is a New Latin word, from the Greek oktopous, having eight feet. (Except that the scientists tend to call them arms.)

Thing to do today: rub your tummy and pat your head - and be glad you're not an octopus.

Tuesday 1 February 2011


Last week, on a trip to London, I passed a man with two ferrets on leads, one of which (I think - though I didn't like to stare) was wearing a Father Christmas hat.

It worried me rather; but as the days since then have passed without hallucinations it now seems safe to report.

Now, one of those ferrets was white and the other brown - or so I thought until my Collins Dictionary (seventh edition 2005) assured me that all ferrets are albino (from the Latin albus, white, via the Portuguese).

So, what sort of creature was the white ferret's friend?

Well, I rushed to The Ferret Trust's website, only to find to my astonishment photographs of ferrets in at least five different colours, including fitch (chocolate and cream), albino, silver, sandy and dew.

 And The Ferret Trust must know. I mean, who can you trust about ferrets if not The Ferret Trust?

So...the dictionary is wrong, then.

But...a dictionary, wrong? Is it possible for a dictionary to be wrong??

I must say that further research revealed that the august (and very heavy - which is one reason why I generally use the Collins) OED does not (phew!) specify any particular colour for a ferret.

But still this incident has shaken me. I mean, if you can't trust a dictionary...

Anyway, ferret. Delightful colourful creatures, or so I'm told: into everything. From the Old French word furet, from the Latin fur, which means thief.

Thing to do today: have a ferret around.