This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 30 April 2011

Saturday Rave: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Alice in Wonderland terrified me as a child. It was full of deeply worrying things happening for the flimsiest of reasons - or, indeed, for no reason at all.

It also had difficult words like conversations on the very first page, and this annoyed me greatly.

But now I'm grown up...

...well, perhaps I still don't really love Alice in Wonderland, but I do admire it hugely. The sheer cheek of the book is just staggering. Lewis Carroll dances around reason, as nimble as a gnat, and we have no choice but to tumble dizzily with him. 

Oh, and all those over-the-top characters are magnificent.

(Though scary. Definitely scary.)

The Queen's argument was, that if something wasn't done about it in less than no time, she'd have everybody executed, all round. (It was this last remark that had made the whole party look so grave and anxious.)

As well they might.

Ah well! At least no one does get executed. Many a modern book for young people would have them all dead by teatime.

Word To Use Today: execute. This word means to carry out, and doesn't really have anything to do with killing people. It's a bit like saying we're going to do him.
The word is from the French executeur, executor (that's someone who makes sure the right people get the money and property after someone dies) and before that from the Latin ex which means out from, plus sequi, which means to follow.

Friday 29 April 2011

Word To Use Today: nuptials.

Oh, nuptials is a lovely word. It means, of course, to do with weddings or courtship. Birds, for instance, often grow special nuptial plumage, like this, which give a mandarin drake its finest feathers.

Even insects go in for the odd spot of nuptials: in their case nuptial flights. This is what those swarms of winged ants are doing when they fill the air on calm summer days.

You may possibly have heard that we humans are having some nuptials in England today. In fact we're really having a proper do. If you wish the young couple well (and we surely wish every young couple well) then the goddess Juno is

 quene and patronesse of the commocyons nuptial

as William Caxton put it so beautifully in one of the earliest printed English books; so a quick prayer to Juno may possibly ensure the rain holds off at the most critical moments.

But even if it doesn't, I do hope that everyone who watches the wedding of Prince William and Miss Middleton enjoys the nuptial commotions very much indeed.

And a long and happy life to everyone currently involved in the convolutions of a nuptial dance!

Word To Use Today: nuptials. This word came into English from the French, and before that from the Portuguese nupcial, the Italian nuziale and the Latin nubēre, to marry.

Thursday 28 April 2011

Split Infinitives - a rant.

My English History teacher once told me that splitting infinitives was a sin equal in depravity only to forward passing.

Unfortunately at the time I hadn't a clue what either a split infinitive or forward passing were.

I'm still not sure about forward passing (except that if I continue not playing rugby I should be okay) but split infinitives...

Okay. An infinitive is when you use the word to followed by some action. I want to go to the party, for example. Or I would love to snog a vampire. That sort of thing. 

(Some people think the to the and would love in the examples above are infinitives: but they're just wrong, okay? It has to be the word to followed by an action.)

Splitting an infinitive is when you put a word, or several words, between the to and the action. My favourite example comes from our local paper: I would like to, if I may, through the medium of your newspaper, thank the person...

Why is splitting infinitives wrong?

Well, there's no proper reason at all. In the olden days boys spent most of their schooldays learning Latin rather than English, and so they tended to apply Latin rules to both languages. And you can't spit an infinitive in Latin very easily because in Latin an infinitive only consists of one word. The Latin for to love, for instance, is amāre.

So is splitting infinitives wrong, then?

No. Not really.

I must say, though, that if you do split them, quite a lot of people will think you've committed a sin equal in depravity to forward passing.

So best avoided, on the whole.

Word To Use Today: split. This is a lovely lovely word. It comes to us from the Middle Dutch splitten, and before that from the Middle High German splīzen.
It always seems to have meant more or less the same thing.

Wednesday 27 April 2011

Nuts and Bolts: tmesis.

Well, how fan-flipping-tastic is this? I mean, tmesis. For one thing it begins TM (and there are only three of those in the English language.)*

Not only that, but you're supposed to pronounce both the t and the m when you say it: tmeessis.

Cool, eh?


And that's just what tmesis is: it's cutting a word in two and sticking another one in the middle.

Good, or what?


Thing To Do Today: tmesis. This word comes from the Greek word temnein, to cut.

*The other two are tmema, which means a section, and tmetic which means cutting or loosening.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Thing To Do Today: grow.

It's all right for the young ones among us, but for some of us the only way we're going to grow from now on is outwards.

I suppose our hair will carry on growing, though (I wonder why it's only the hair on your head that grows long? I mean, how does the hair on all your other bits know when to stop?).

And our nails will still grow.

And if you're a clownfish (yes, The Word Den has a varied readership and I do deeply appreciate every single one of you) then you might even turn from a boy to a girl as you get older. This must involve all sorts of fascinating growing.

And possibly shrinking, too...

Thing to do today: grow. This word comes from the Old English word grōwan, and before that the Old High German gruoen. The word may also be linked to the words green and grass.

Monday 25 April 2011

Spot the frippet: geek

What's a geek?

Well, the Collins dictionary defines a geek as someone who's obsessed with computing, or else a boring, unattractive misfit.

I do think that's a bit harsh.

For one thing, surely a geek can be obsessive about...well, all sorts of things. Railway engines. Twentieth century telegraph poles. The history of the tumble dryer.

As for being unattractive, haven't they heard of geek chic? They should have done, because it has nearly three and a half million hits on Google.

You know, I really think some geek needs to start a GEEK PRIDE movement.

Only trouble is, they'd all be too busy cataloguing their collections of 1930s handlebars to join it.

Spot the frippet: geek. These are a real challenge to spot, but you may find you have one lurking in a foetid bedroom somewhere.

If not, try your nearest computer shop.

The word comes from the Scottish word geck, and before that from the Middle Low German. I'm afraid it means fool in both languages.

Sunday 24 April 2011

Sunday Rest: rhododendron

Now, before I get attacked by the Rhododendron Fanciers' Club, I do like rhododendrons.

True, rhododendron armies invade the countryside wreaking havoc on fragile eco-systems - but they don't do it on the chalk hills where I live, because chalky soil spells DEATH to the lot of them.

Anyway, rhododendrons are not all bad. Rhododendron flowers can sparkle quite beautifully through a dull spring wood.

But their name: rhododendron. It's so heavy and clumping. No one can say it without sounding as though they've got a bad cold.

Surely, surely someone can come up with something a bit prettier. How about evergreen azalea, for instance?

All suggestions very welcome!

Word Not To Use Today: rhododendron. This word is from two Greek words, rhodos, which means rose, and dendron which means tree.
Rose Tree would be a much nicer name altogether for a rhododendron; but I rather think that it's already been taken.

Saturday 23 April 2011

Saturday Rave: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is my favourite writer. She's funny, and clever, and brilliant at knowing how people's minds work.

I admire very much, too, the deep respect she has for all well-intentioned people, not just the young or pretty or clever ones.

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine leaves her village for a holiday in Bath.

Bath! That means parties and dancing and fashion: and not only that, but (as Catherine well knows, having read a great deal of horror fiction) the Bath 'A' listers are quite likely to be embroiled in murder and dark revenge.

At first things go surprisingly smoothly:

'Neither robbers nor tempests befriended them, nor one lucky overturn [of their coach] to introduce them to the hero. Nothing more alarming occurred than a fear, on Mrs Allen's side, of having once left her clogs behind her at an inn, and that fortunately proved to be groundless.'

Catherine soon enough falls in love, but she little suspects that there's a plot afoot to destroy all her hopes.

In fact, there are several...

Word To Use Today: tempest. This magnificent word is from the Old French tempeste, from the Latin tempestās, storm; and before that, oddly, from tempus, which means time.

Friday 22 April 2011

Word To Use Today - eclectic.

It was Auntie Rose's funeral the other day. A lovely lady, Rose Florence Prue, who lived to be a very bright and poised hundred-and-one.  She was a great reader right into her second century, too.

The reception after the funeral was held at a golf club, and Cousin (sort of) David Baines showed me the list of winners of the Eclectic Salver.

Now, something that's eclectic has been gathered together from several places. And a salver is a big plate.

But what's can an eclectic salver be?

Well, I suppose a non-eclectic salver would be one of those annoying plates with PASTA or RHUBARB AND CUSTARD written round the rim which just beg you to fill them with a nice dollop of stew.
I mean, things have come to a pretty pass when your own crockery starts ordering you about.

But an eclectic it awarded for the largest number of different wools in one golf jumper? For the largest number of clubs used in one hole?

I've been wondering all week, so do tell me if you know!

Word To Use Today: eclectic. This word is from the Greek word eklegein, to select, and before that from legein, which means to gather.
If you see someone wearing a swimsuit, a bowler hat, and ice skates you could describe their clothes as eclectic.

It's much politer than crazy.

Thursday 21 April 2011

Exploding trains - a rant.

Oh, I do wish the train drivers wouldn't tell me that my train is about to terminate.

It's deeply worrying.

How will my train meet its end, I wonder, as I sit, fearfully clutching my personal belongings and bidding a sad farewell to the world. Will it explode? Or will it enter a worm-hole in the space-time thingy? Or will the poor thing be executed by having its wheels removed or its plug pulled out?

Around me, everyone is standing up and collecting pieces of luggage. This is encouraging, because of course you can't take anything with you to your final destination.

Euston Station. This is Euston Station. All change, please, all change.


I think the driver must have meant to say that the journey was terminating, not the train itself.

And I've lived to rant another day.

Word To Use Today: terminate. This word is from the Latin termināre, which means to set boundaries, and before that from terminus which means end.

Wednesday 20 April 2011

Nuts and Bolts: the pathetic fallacy.

Now, goblins, eh? Terrible nuisance they can be, as I'm sure you know. Luckily they're also terrible cowards. If you ever get attacked by a herd of goblins all you have to do is put your hands above your head and shout urga-urga-urga very fiercely, and they'll all fall over backwards with fright and run away like greased rabbits.

Yep, goblins are rubbish and cowardly. Really pathetic.

And the only trouble is that everything I've just told you is a fallacy - in other words not even the slightest bit true.

So, all that goblin stuff was a pathetic fallacy, then.

The first thing to be clear about the pathetic fallacy is that it's nothing at all to do with people being cowardly, or stories that aren't true. Nothing.

It's nothing to do with goblins, either.

A lot of people think it is, but they're wrong.

The pathetic fallacy is when people tell you objects have human feelings, or are doing human things. Every time someone says miserable weather! then they are using the pathetic fallacy.

Poets do it a lot, and so do other writers (the moon sleeps with Endymion is Shakespeare, for example) but so does everyone. Using the pathetic fallacy is not a bad thing.

Be careful about telling people they've used the pathetic fallacy, though, because they can get really upset. No, really upset. Upset like a goblin. Honestly.
And with humans the urga-urga-urga thing seldom works.

Pathetic Fallacy. This phrase was made up by a strange man called John Ruskin. He used the words pathetic (which is from the Greek word pathetikos, sensitive) and fallacy (which is from the Latin fallere, to deceive) and has come up with something that, quite honestly, hardly anyone understands.

Pathetic, isn't it?

Tuesday 19 April 2011

Thing Not To Do Today If At All Possible: be groggy.

I suppose lots of us start the day feeling a bit groggy: rather dazed, that is, and inclined to stagger about a bit.
Waking up isn't always easy! 

It's all the fault of Admiral Edward Vernon. (Boo! Hiss!)

Edward Vernon was an admiral in the British Navy, and he really fancied himself. He wore a cloak of grogram, which is a mixture of silk and wool sometimes stiffened with gum.

Yes, it does sound a bit odd.


This cloak was such an mad thing to wear on a warship that the sailors called him Old Grog, which was short for old grogram.

Now, not only was Admiral Vernon a sharp dresser, but he was also MEAN. In 1740 he had his sailors' rum ration watered down.  Now, rum was very important because, apart from the rum, more or less the only provisions the sailors got were weevil-infested biscuit and badly preserved beef.

The poor men called the watered-down rum grog, after Old Grog himself, and since then groggy has meant dazed from either tiredness, blows, drunkenness, or some idiot requiring you to get up in the mornings.

Thing Not To Do Today If At All Possible: be groggy.

Isn't it lovely that an attempt to stop sailors getting drunk should end up as a description of being tipsy?

And I think it serves Old Grog right!

Monday 18 April 2011

Spot the frippet: dung.

Okay, what's brown and sounds like a bell?


Oh all right, please yourselves. It made me laugh, anyway.

I have a French friend who, if I tread in some dung, says: if that had been your left foot it would have been lucky.

I don't know if that's a genuine French proverb or whether she's just a bit weird.

Anyway, dung is marvellous stuff. Just think, people pay extra to have their vegetables fed on dung instead of nice clean fertiliser (that's often what organic means). 

Do keep an eye out for some dung today.

Come to think about it, keep an eye out for dung every day...but if it's your left foot it might just be lucky.

Spot the frippet: dung. I chose this word mostly for its surprising history. The word dung comes from the Old English word for prison. Before this it was related to the Old High German tunc, which was a cellar roofed with dung (you can see why one of those would make a good prison), and before that the Old Norse dyngja, which means manure heap.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Sunday Rest - dingy

Dingy is really an excellent word, really, because if anything makes you feel more drab and dusty and faded and generally as if you've slipped into one of the duller regions of the underworld then I don't know what it is.

There's a small English butterfly called a dingy skipper: I've always felt terribly sorry for it.

Mind you, I have to admit the poor thing really is quite dingy.

Word Not To Use Today: dingy. This word is probably related to the Old English word dynge, meaning dung.

Makes sense to me.

Saturday 16 April 2011

Saturday Rave: Tim To The Rescue by Edward Ardizzone

It was stormy weather and Tim who was tired of his books and lessons was looking out of the window and wishing he was at sea again.

And soon, of course, he is, as second ship's boy on the SS Fidelity of 3000 tons. At first Tim has tremendous trouble with the first ship's boy Ginger (you will jolly well have to do what I tell you or I will bash you). But before long Ginger has had a terrible encounter with the Third Mate's hair restorer: and nothing, as they say, is ever the same again.

I love this book. I love Ardizzone's pale watercolours and cross-hatching (why don't modern illustrators do cross-hatching?) I love the emphasis on truly interesting things like the fact that Alaska Pete has a passion for King Charles the First.

I love the fact that it's all a bit bonkers, really - and that, after many perils, it comes to a truly satisfying ending.

And all this in a picture book, too.

Word To Use Today: hero. This word has meant the same thing for thousands of years. Even before our alphabet was invented, when people spoke Ancient Greek, the word was pretty much the same.

It's only lately that stories with heroes have become not quite so popular, but I think it's about time splendidly brave people like Tim are celebrated again.


Friday 15 April 2011

Word To Use Today: mash.

Mash is a lovely word, a gorgeous word, a word to shout from the rooftops.


(This is not an activity I'd advise, you understand, I just think it'd be fun. I'm sure it would cheer up the whole neighbourhood - even the men in the white coats would have a spring in their steps.)

Anyway, mash: potato puree with milk and plenty of butter; bran, meal or malt mixed with water (this variety is for non-human animals); malt and hot water for making beer; a brew of tea; even a good session of flirting.

All lovely things.

And if that's all too sweet for you, how about badmash? It's from the mixture of Hindi and English which is called Hinglish, and means naughty, or hooligan. Another gorgeous word.

Word To Use Today: mash. This word has been around for ages. There was the Old English mǣsc which used to be stuck onto other words (but not potato because potatoes didn't exist in England then). Before that there was a Middle Low German word mēsch.

Badmash comes from somewhere else entirely. The bad bit is from the Persian word bad, meaning...well, bad (it's a coincidence!); and the mash bit is from the Arabic ma'āš meaning livelihood.

Thursday 14 April 2011

Youthspeak - a rant.

Words, eh? You never know where you are with them. 
Just when you've got properly used to people saying hi! then suddenly everyone's saying hey!

Still, where would The Word Den be if words didn't change? Up a gum tree without a paddle, that's where.
(Note to self: mixed metaphors - share some more soon!)

People will get their knickers in a twist about it, though.

It's all these young people! They say. They make up new words all the time!
It means that we older people don't always understand what they say.
It makes us feel rather excluded, actually.

YES, you poor dears: BUT THAT'S THE POINT!

In any case, you old people are sitting on most of the money and power, aren't you. And what do all those nice young people have? The ability to say peng to baffle you lot.
Surely you don't grudge them that.

In any case, there's no need to worry: there's nothing so painfully embarrassing as old slang. I mean, don't you just dig all this crazy sun?

Ouch! Ouch! Ouch ouch ouch!

I don't suppose peng will be here forever, but let's let people enjoy it while they can.

Word To Use Today But Only If You're Young Enough, Which Certainly Doesn't Involve Me: peng.
I only know this word because I read about it in The Times.
It seems to mean what long ago was termed well fit, and it's probably come from the Caribbean 

I promise not to use it. Ever.

It's all yours!

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Nuts and Bolts: quibbles.

Ah, there's nothing like a good quibble.

Shall we all have a cup of tea?
Oh no, let's push the boat out and have one each, shall we?

Ah yes, quibbling can be really really annoying.

It's ever so useful in stories, though.

For instance, never trust a witch because her words will be twisted up tighter than a jar of pickled peppers and then you'll be DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMED.
No man of woman born shall harm Macbeth, eh? Macbeth was a fool to believe that would save him because of course no man of woman born doesn't cover women, children, and homicidal donkeys.
Then there was the pound of flesh thing in The Merchant of Venice (ah yes, Shakespeare loved a good quibble). I'm not going to publish a spoiler, but obviously a good lawyer could drive a coach and horses through that.

But why would anyone want to drive a coach and...

Look, just leave it, all right? It's an expression!

Oh, and be very careful when making bets. Loki (you know, the really annoying Norse godlet) lost his head in a bet, but then came up with the can't-harm-my-neck stunt.
He still got his lips sewn together, though, which pretty much served him right.

And genies...don't get me started on genies.

Word to use today: quibble. This word is from the Latin words quibus and quī, which are words often found in legal documents.

But then I suppose it's the job of a lawyer to nit-pick.

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Thing To Do Today: be a bit of a card.

The Collins Dictionary defines a card as a witty, entertaining or eccentric person. Being witty and entertaining can sometimes prove rather a challenge, but the eccentric bit should be no trouble at all. Just walk backwards. Or do some yodelling. Or wear a flower in your hair.

Actually, everyone seems to be doing that at the moment, so that probably doesn't count. Unless you're a man.

Don't be a yakuza, though. This is the Japanese for the worst possible hand of cards, an eight, a nine and a three (must be an interesting game) and also for a member of a criminal gang which goes in for illegal gambling, gun-running etc.

I suppose Lord Yarborough was a card, too. A yarborough is a hand at whist or bridge with no aces, kings, queens, jacks or tens in it. Lord Yarborough is supposed to have given odds of a thousand to one against such a hand occurring.
If this is true then he must have been a pretty awful card-player, because the odds are actually 1827 - 1. Or so I'm informed.

I should stick with the yodelling, myself.

Thing To Do Today: be a card. The word card comes from the Old French carte, and before that from the Greek khartēs, leaf of papyrus. The Greeks probably stole the word from the Egyptians, but so far no one's been able to prove it.

Monday 11 April 2011

Spot the frippet: frog.

It's not so easy to find a frog in my part of the world nowadays, but their spawn should be in ponds about now if you're in the Northern hemisphere.

Frogs are one of my favourite things. They're fantastic. I mean, some sorts of frogs keep their young safely in their mouths until they're in their adult form; some feed their young on a sort of frog-milk; some keep their young in holes in the skin of their backs; and...hey, but I could go on all day.

Take the strawberry poison-dart frog, for instance. It lays its eggs on the forest floor, and then has to keep going back to pee on them to keep them moist. Then, when they hatch, it gives each tadpole a piggyback into a nice safe leaf-pool, and keeps laying eggs for it as baby food until it can fend for itself.

That's even more fantastic than most fantasy - and I should know!

Spot the frippet: frog. This word is from the Old English frogga, and before that from the Old Norse froskr and Old High German forsk.

If an amphibious frog proves impossible to spot then perhaps you could look out for the bow of a stringed instrument: the frog is the bit you hold.
Or the loopy braid fastening on the front of a jacket is frogging.

Sunday 10 April 2011

Sunday Rest: moomba.

The Moomba Festival is Australia's oldest community festival. It's a sort of fireworky, carnival, water sports thing. Great fun, by the look of it.

And moomba? Well, the official line is that it means let's all have fun together in one of the local native Australian languages.

But I'm afraid that moom actually seems to mean buttocks or bottom in that language: and ba does quite often mean up...

It looks as if Melbourne Council's researcher didn't quite understand the answer the native speakers gave him when he asked them for their help.

Word Not To Use Today. Moomba. Though, actually, moom is a rather lovely word for bottom and actually I think that part of the word should be used more often.

Saturday 9 April 2011

Saturday Rave: Heidi by Johanna Spyri

I came across my battered copy of Heidi yesterday while I was looking for something else. Ah, I thought, I can rave about that - but then I wondered if it could really be any good.

I haven't read Heidi for ages, and I wasn't sure I'd still like it: but then somehow I found myself on page 103 and enjoying myself hugely.

Heidi herself is a great character, and can be relied upon to cause panic in all but the most right-minded people; and Peter the goat-herd (the what? Why on earth would anyone name a herd of goats? I used to wonder) is wonderfully stubborn, selfish, dour and tongue-tied.
And then there's not only the self-serving Aunt Dete, the stuffy Fraulein Rottenmeier and the embittered Alm-Uncle, but Clara in her wheelchair as well.

There's the love of the mountains and the astonishments of the big town.

"Where is the child, Dete? What have you done with her?" [everyone asked, and] she replied angrily "With the Alm-Uncle, of course! I left her with the Alm-Uncle just as I said."
Dete ran through the village as fast as she could go...for she was far from easy in her conscience about what she had done.

Heidi was written in 1880 to raise money for refugees from the Franco-Prussian War. It has succeeded wonderfully, I think, from every point of view.
Perhaps there's rather a lot of praying going on towards the end, but nothing like enough to spoil the book.

Word To Use Today: uncle. This word is from the French oncle, and before that from the Latin word avus, which means...grandfather!

Friday 8 April 2011

Word To Use Today - erinaceous.

Erinaceous is a really useful word if you happen to see something that looks like a hedgehog because it means something that looks like a hedgehog. It can mean to do with hedgehogs, too.

I came across this word only last night and I've fallen in love with its soft mellifluence. I'm sure it'll come in really useful... Okay, this one may be a bit of a challenge.

Hey, but I know! Dennis the Menace, who's just had his sixtieth birthday, has hair that's definitely erinaceous.

And yesterday I saw some old teasels left over from last summer, and they were erinaceous, too. Oh, and the garden centre had some small wooden houses designed as erinaceous habitats.

What a brilliant word - I can't think how I've managed without it!

Word To Use Today: erinaceous. This word is from the Latin word ērināceus, meaning hedgehog.

And it's a lovely word which needs using!

Thursday 7 April 2011

Literally - a rant.

Oh, all right, this isn't a rant at all really. I think it's terrific when people use literally incorrectly. It's one of the joys of life.

It does rile some people, though (there is, for instance, a Teach Jamie Redknapp the meaning of the word literally campaign on Facebook) so I thought I might as well mention it.

Okay. This is how it works.

If someone says Gareth Bale is flying down the wing (Gareth Bale is a hugely talented Welsh soccer player), no one imagines that the lovely Gareth is truly flying in the manner of a bird or an aeroplane. We know it just means that he's running very fast indeed.

But if someone says Gareth Bale is literally flying down the wing then that changes everything. 
The literally makes everything physically true: so Gareth is really flying, like Superman - and the FA are going to have to make up a whole new set of rules.

As I said, it's a word that gives me a lot of joy.

I really do put myself literally in a character's shoes. Ruth Rendall.

Sometimes I've gotten photographs back and people have literally shaven pieces off me. Alicia Keys.

These balls, now - they literally explode off your feet. Jamie Redknapp.

Bless them all!

Word To Use Today, if Possible Without Making a Complete Idiot of Yourself: literally.
This word is from the Latin littera, meaning letter of the alphabet.

Wednesday 6 April 2011

Nuts and Bolts - acronyms.

An acronym is a word that's made up of bits of other words. At least, it is if you can say it.

For example, you can't really say BBC as a word, you can only say the letters: you say B - B - C, not bubucy. This means that BBC is more of an initialisation than an acronym. But people do argue about this.


Acronyms are mostly fairly new things, and the interesting ones are usually fakes. Cop, for example, does not stand for Constable On Patrol, but is someone who cops (arrests) people. Posh does not stand for Port Out Starboard Home (the best cabins to stay in if you're going East - or so the story goes) but probably comes from an old word for a dandy.

Scuba is a real acronym: Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. That's quite a good one, but my favourite acronym by miles has to be laser.

Laser is made up of the first letters of Light Amplification [by] Stimulated Emission [of] Radiation: except that the scientists among you will know that a laser doesn't amplify light at all. It makes it oscillate.

So why on earth the scientists decided against using the acronym LOSER I've no idea.


Acronym is from the Greek word acros, topmost, and onym, which is from the Doric word onoma, name.

No, I can't see what topmost has got to do with acronyms, either.

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Thing To Do Today - be feisty.

I always snigger to myself whenever I hear someone referred to as feisty (it's always women, isn't it? I wonder why.)

It used to mean aggressive, nervous or touchy, but now tends to mean spirited or bossy.

The word came to Britain and Australia not long ago from America, but it must have been British originally because feisty comes from the dialect words feist and  fist, which mean small dog.

As if that's not bad enough, fist is related to the Old English word fisting which means what the Collins dictionary delicately refers to as breaking wind.

Does that mean those feisty ladies are all old farts?

Monday 4 April 2011

Spot the frippet - butterfly

Well, the fly bit of this word is easy to understand. But why butter?

Is it because, as some say, the first butterfly of the English year is bright yellow (unless, of course, you happen to see one of the mostly brown ones that occur at the same time)?

Is it to do with flutter by?

The Oxford English Dictionary comes up with the Dutch word boterschijte and wonders if it's because the insect's poo looks like butter.
The trouble is that my lepidopterist husband has just been showing me examples of moth and butterfly poo (marriage, eh?) and the colour varies greatly. In any case, I'm pretty certain a butterfly's poo isn't the main thing you'd notice about it.

The Collins dictionary says that butterflies are said to steal milk and butter. Whoever first said this is, however, BONKERS because whilst butterflies might sip at honey or rotten fruit (and they love cheap lager) I've never seen one go anywhere near a milk jug or a butter dish.

Wilhelm Oehl's idea was that, when people were first inventing words, the word for butterfly was buto or boto, which made a picture in sound of their flapping wings.
Later, people tried to make sense of this sound with stories. The Russians came up with witches turning themselves into butterflies because their word babochka means witch. We came up with various butter stories.

And what's true?

What's true is that the sight of a butterfly lifts the heart.

And I don't know why that is, either.

Sunday 3 April 2011

Sunday Rest - refulgent.

Sometimes it's hard to work out whether an ugly word really is ugly, or whether it's tainted by its meaning. It's clear enough with words like echidna, than which of course nothing could be more delightful, but how about last week's dirge?

And why are some beautiful things given ugly names? Like refulgent.

Refulgent means shining, so why does it sound as if it means belching?

Ah well, only tin-eared show-offs use this one, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: refulgent. This word is from the Latin word refulgēre, which means to shine brightly.

So that's one more thing the Romans did for us.

Saturday 2 April 2011

Saturday Rave - Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

I read this again and again as a child. I wasn't rich enough to have ballet lessons myself - I didn't even get to see a ballet until I was grown up - but, oh the clothes! How I envied Pauline that blue velvet dress, and how awful it must have been to have to dance in rompers. (What are rompers? I'm still not sure, but they sound foul).

Not only were the clothes fascinating, but Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil were all adopted, too. Just like me. I knew I was too tall to do ballet, but perhaps, I thought, just perhaps I had some talent in me somewhere which might one day allow me to do something wonderful.

Pauline, with her silk wings streaming behind her, and her toe pointed to alight beside Titania, almost forgot to say 'ready' when she came down, because she was thinking to herself how like being a real fairy it was.

I'll try, I decided. I couldn't have dance lessons, but I'd try to do something wonderful all the same.

Yes. I really would.

Word To Use Today: fairy. This word is from the Old French feie. Before that it comes from the Latin Fāta. The Fāta are the spooky characters we call the Fates who decided how long each person lived.

Friday 1 April 2011

Word To Use Today: manticore.

A manticore has a lion's body, a scorpion's tail, and a man's head with three rows of teeth.

It prowls about in forests and eats people who can't answer its riddles.

Luckily manticores are so rare that no one I know has ever encountered one, and according to official figures more people get injured pulling on their socks than in manticore-related incidents.

Well, that's a relief.

All these old monsters only know really cheesy riddles anyway. As long as you know why the chicken crossed the road* and what's brown and sticky** you should be all right.

Word To Use Today: manticore. This word comes from the Greek word martichorās from the Persian marakhora man-eater.

*To get to the other side.
**A stick.