This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 31 May 2011

Thing Not To Do Today: blush.

Unless you're a peach or a bride* blushing can be just as embarrassing as the thing that's caused the embarrassment in the first place.

Those little blood vessels in your cheeks open up and, yes, the whole world knows you're squirming.

The best thing for preventing blushing is luckily easily within reach: it's getting older. Research has shown** that the older the person, the harder it is to make him or her blush.

But then you'll already have noticed that most old people, like parents, have, tragically, given up caring long ago.

Thing Not To Do Today: blush. This word is from the Old English word blȳsian, to burn, from the Middle Low German blüsen, to light a fire.

*Though there is the theory that brides don't actually blush, but are just flushed with triumph.
**Yes, yes, obviously this doesn't mean it's actually true.

Monday 30 May 2011

Spot the frippet: xylem

Yes, yes, I only chose this word because it begins with an x.

Well, it's a first for The Word Den. And you must admit the x thing is really neat.

Anyway, xylem.  This is the magical stuff inside a plant which sucks up water and minerals.
It also confers a certain stiffness which stops oak trees, for instance, flopping over on our heads, thus avoiding a great deal of alarm and, as the lawyers say, despondency.

Basically, then, xylem is more or less the same stuff as wood. Only with friskier letters.

Don't forget, when you're spotting-the-frippet, that some fabrics (like viscose and linen) are made from xylem; as are, of course, the pages of every book, as well as many wallpapers.
In fact it will be more of a challenge to try to find a place where you can't spot anything derived from xylem.*

Try Not To Spot the Frippet: xylem. This word has been pinched from the Greeks, whose word for wood was xulon.

*I think in this instance going out at night would be cheating.

Sunday 29 May 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today. Snot

Sometimes the boundary between gorgeous and revolting is razor-thin.

Snot. I started off thinking it was revolting, but it's grown on me.

So to speak...

We have, of course, two sorts of snot - what the dictionary calls nasal mucus, and the word meaning like a difficult or snobbish person, which is commonest in the form snotty.

A snotty is also a midshipman, a junior navy officer. The story goes that the reason midshipmen have buttons on their cuffs to show their rank, and not stripes, is to stop them using their sleeves to wipe their noses.


Anyway, snot. Perhaps it's rather a nice word, after all. The Norwegians and Danish used to use it. But I'm still not going to use to today if I can help it.

Mind you, I must admit that nasal mucus is even worse.

Word Not To Use Today: snot. From the Old English gesnot, related to the Old High German snuzza, and the German schneuzen, to blow the nose.

Saturday 28 May 2011

Saturday Rave: Knight Crusader by Ronald Welch

Ronald Welch wrote a whole series of books about the d'Aubigny family, and this is the first. Each book centres on an aristocratic and hugely fanciable young man (I read these first as a teenager), usually a junior army officer, but sometimes a spy.

I don't read much military history, but, basically, phwoar!

Knight Crusader is wonderfully written, hugely dramatic, and  there's plenty of humour as well as a great variety of scene and character.

The faint cry that Philip had heard was repeated...It had hardly died away before Philip acted. He ripped out his sword and urged his horse forward...
'Wait, my lord!' Llewellyn bellowed. 'It may be a trap!'

And oh, and what an extraordinary, long-drawn-out and honey-tinted trap it turns out to be, too.

Knight Crusader is far more than spills and thrills, though. It's a vivid portrayal of the clash of cultures between the West and the East in and around Jerusalem during the twelfth century. Each point of view is treated with affection and respect.

It won the Carnegie Medal in 1954, and on the whole instead of dating it's got more up-to-date. It's a simply brilliant book.

Word To Use Today: knight. This word has come up in the world in a big way. It comes from the Old English cniht, which means servant, and before that from the Old High German kneht, which means boy.

Friday 27 May 2011

Word To Use Today: monkey.

The story of the word monkey begins with a very wily fox.

Reynard the Fox was the hero of a series of stories told long ago in France. The first written-down version, Ysengrimus, by Nivardus de Ghent, came along in about 1150 (just to confuse things further, Ysengrimus was actually the baddy, and a wolf).

One of the characters in the stories of Reynard is Moneke, the son of Martin the Ape - and the story was so popular that moneke soon became a common word for monkey.

The word was probably brought to England, with the stories, by members of a circus.

What a wonderful way to arrive!

Oh, and by the way, brass monkey: it started off cold enough to freeze the toes off a brass monkey. There also used to be another expression hot enough to melt the nose off a brass monkey, too.

Neither of them is anything to do with cannon balls - the physics doesn't work!

Word To Use Today: monkey. Moneke (see above) might have been a pet form of the Portuguese mona (or some similar word), which means female ape.
It might also be connected with the Arabic maimum, which means lucky. If it is then that was just sarcasm, as seeing a monkey was regarded as being about the unluckiest thing you could do!

Thursday 26 May 2011

Rampaging hyp-hens: a rant.

Over the years I've spent a lot of time being confused.

C S Lewis's Prince Caspian started it. Someone at some point in the book (I think it was Prince Caspian) says 'we're a sort of rebel-

It took me thirty-five years to work out what a rebel-lion was. 
I was reminded of this when I was reading a national newspaper recently and suddenly came across the mysterious expression an-
As in an-yone could do it.

In the same paper (admittedly it was The Guardian, but even so) I also found the musical and lovely, though very puzzling, viola-

There was the extremely disturbing and strangely eerie  per-
meate, too.

What next, I wonder? Will I bump into someone being standof-

Or perhaps be amazed by a dazzling display of loud pant-

Cower in horror at the advance of a darkly threatening ant-

Or a terrifying snake trying to escape from its box so it can slit-
her away?

Hyp-hens, eh?

Sometimes I wonder if writers actually want to be understood!

Word To Use Today: hyphen. This word comes to us from the Greek word huphen, meaning together. 

Wednesday 25 May 2011

Nuts and Bolts: pidgin.

Pidgins are invented when people who speak different languages try to talk to one another. Usually this involves putting together a mixture of words from both (or perhaps more than two) languages.

This sounds a good idea, but there are all sorts of problems with it. For a start, it's often really difficult to pronounce someone else's language (feuilleter, anyone?). This means that some words get so mangled that no one can understand them except the other people in the area who can't pronounce them either. 

Another problem is that words aren't the only things you need in order to be understood. You also need to know in what order the words need to be used, as well as all sorts of other stuff that your own language might not even bother with. Like, (if you happen to be English) whether a bicycle is feminine or what an ablative is.

Pidgins often solve these problems in the same ways: monkey monkey might mean more than one monkey, for instance; or it might mean a particularly large or splendid monkey. 

Tenses often end up being formed by adding an extra word (I go eat); and difficult-to-say words often loose their last sounds.

A pidgin will be quite clumsy for a while. In fact it won't work as a proper language until its speakers have children who grow up speaking it from birth. And then, by magic (well, how else could it happen?) the pidgin develops the ability to say absolutely anything absolutely perfectly, and a creole is born.

Altogether now: aaaahhhh...

Word To Use Today: pidgin. This word might come from the Chinese pronunciation of the word business, or it might be a form of the word pigeon because you can only say very basic, short things: the kind of thing a pigeon might carry in a message.

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Thing To Do Today: beard someone.

As well as being a lovely dark and hedgy sort of a word, beard is also almost a contranym: a bearded man has a beard, but when you beard someone you're trying to pull the beard off him.

Not, I hasten to add, that I'm in any way encouraging beard-pulling in any form or under any circumstances. No. Beards may seldom be classed as decorative, but you never know what horrors they're disguising: nits, spiders, spit, old chips, or flakes of snowy scurf.

No, what I'm encouraging is a bold opposition to something or someone. Sometimes, you know, campaigns just have to be fought.

The traditional place to beard someone is in his den, but I would recommend your doing your bearding somewhere more public for Health and Safety reasons.

After all, why, as so many teachers seem to think, should you wear matching socks to school?

And wouldn't it be fun to march up and down outside the town hall bearing a placard saying VOTES FOR SQUIRRELS!?

Or, as the great Ken Dodd has observed, what a lovely day for walking up to a seagull, throwing a bucket of whitewash over his head, and saying how do you like it?

Thing To Do Today: beard someone. The word beard is related to the Old Norse word barth, and also to the Latin barba.

Which is odd, because if there were more barbers presumably there'd be fewer beards.

I'm just off to make a small placard to put on my bird-feeder which will read

Monday 23 May 2011

Spot the frippet: iris.

Irides (or irises, if you want people to know what you're talking about): they're the coloured circles round the pupils of your eyes; a sort of quartz; a rainbow (though, again, hardly anyone will have a clue what you mean if you use iris to mean rainbow); and a flower.

I've been reading about the flowers, and I'm drunk on glorious words: standards, falls, horns, spoons, flounces, luminata...

Luminata is such a rare word that it doesn't even make it into my copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. A luminata (actually, just one is probably a lumina, I should imagine, though I can't find anyone to tell me for sure) is a petal where the veins are a lighter colour than the background. Or so I understand.

Oh, and the best American iris each year is awarded the Dykes Medal.
Well, you never know, one day that might prove a vital piece of information.

Spot the frippet: iris. Iris is a Greek goddess who acts as a messenger from the gods to men. She gets to earth by sliding down a rainbow.
I think she just might have the best job ever.

Iris is a Greek word which means rainbow.

Sunday 22 May 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: blipvert.

Good grief, is there anything good about the word blipvert?

Does it sound beautiful, crisp, bouncing and full of the joys of living?


Is its meaning clear, or at least guessable?

(You'll have to tell me this, because I happen to know what it means already: but the way it's been cobbled together is truly horrible.)

Is it easy to pronounce?

No. A p followed by a v is truly spitworthy (well, it is if you're first language is English, anyway).
I suppose it is obvious how it's supposed to be pronounced, though, so that is one small (very small) point in its favour.

blipvert is a very short advertisement. It comes, obviously, from blip in the sense of a short sound (though the temporary failure meaning will surely enter people's minds first). The vert bit is from advert - though there's nothing to tell you it isn't from subvert, convert, or, indeed, pervert.

In fact the whole word is a totally rubbish: it's not even as if we can need a word for a very short advert very much!

Word Not To Use Today: blipvert. Blip is a twentieth century word which imitates the sound of an electric monitor. Vert is, as I've said, from advert, which is from the Latin advertere, to turn one's attention to.


Saturday 21 May 2011

Saturday Rave: Danny the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl.

I was just too old to read Dahl as a child (which means of course that I can't really judge his work as it should be judged).

I must admit to not liking all his stuff. There's a certain hand-rubbing enjoyment of downfall and revenge in some of his stories which sometimes makes me uneasy.

But, hey, Danny the Champion of the World, eh?


Boy means everything in the world to his dad, dad is hero to the boy. Nasty teacher (who doesn't really belong in the book, but such a gloriously nasty teacher is generally worth putting in) and a nasty landowner. Secret skills. and a plot to get revenge, but all with a skip of thrilling joy and delight to it.

(I've just opened the book to find a line to quote and discovered a sparrowhawk "hovering superbly in the darkening sky". Great line, pity sparrowhawks don't hover. Ah well.)

" is about the most private and secret habit my father had, and about the strange adventures it led us both into."

How simple is that? But could there be a surer hook to pull us through the story right to the triumphant end?

Word To Use Today: secret. This word is from the Latin word sēcrētus, hidden, from sēcernere, to sift.

Friday 20 May 2011

Word To Use Today: baffle.

I've been trying to write this post all day, but blogspot seems to have been really quite poorly. Still, it's made me appreciate the nice Blogspotmen who usually have this space all buffed up and ready for play.

Thanks, Spotmen!

Anyway, you can see why I've chosen baffle as my word of the day.

It's a lovely word, baffle: it has hints of fluff and buffoon and waffle. It's quite a different sort of word from frustrate, even though it means pretty much the same thing. 

Apart from its most usual meaning, a baffle is also a gizmo which controls the flow of liquid or light or sound.

You get them in loudspeakers a lot, apparently - though really, if baffles were truly effective, wouldn't they'd be softspeakers?

Word To Use Today: baffle. This word might come from the Scots word bachlen meaning to condemn publicly, or it might be from the French word bafouer which means to disgrace. But no one is quite sure.

The etymologists are baffled!

Thursday 19 May 2011

School libraries - a rant.

I didn't have many books when I was young. The public library was quite a long way away, too - too far for me to walk by myself, anyway. Why, it was right on the other side of the Magic Roundabout.

No, that's true. Really.

So most of the books I read came from the shelves at the back of the classroom. There were never a huge number of books, and they certainly weren't all new, but there were always more books there than I could read in the year I was in that class.

And those books were just SO IMPORTANT to me.

They were a way of learning things (I still remember the pride of knowing what a chauve souri* was. That came from Jennings); they were a way of escaping to wonderful worlds (and, boy, did I want to escape); and they were a way of finding out what other people thought was normal, which made me able to judge my own life.

But do you know what? Not long ago a teacher said to me: oh, we don't have any budget left for books once we've done all our photocopying.

And THAT'S TERRIBLE! It's terrible that teachers should think books aren't important.

It's TERRIBLE that because of this we should need a law to make sure that every school in England has a library.

Truly, truly, terrible.

But, so sadly, we do.

Word To Use Today: library. This word is from the Latin word liber, which means book.

*Literally, a bald mouse. We call them bats!

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Nuts and Bolts: We've got rhythm!

Oh yes we have got rhythm, even the most two-left-footed of us.

Even those young men long ago whose idea of dancing was to hold me so far away that they could watch their own feet had rhythm.

Because even if those young men couldn't dance (and, oh, they could NOT dance!), they could walk.
Most of them had even got the alternating-leg thing worked out, on the whole.

And their hearts, though usually confused and sometimes resentful, (can't live with'em, can't live without'em...) tapped out, I'm sure, a very reliable lub-DUB, lub-DUB.

That rhythm, lub-DUB, is called an iamb, and as it happens it's the basic building-block of a lot of English verse.

You can hear lots of iambs here:

I eat my peas with honey,
I've done so all my life.
It makes the peas taste funny, but
It keeps them on the knife.

Can you hear the lub-DUB, lub-DUB of it?

And they were all at it, you know: Shakespeare (To be or not to be), Wordsworth (I wandered lonely as a cloud (or cow, as the original had it)), you name it.

Even quite modern masterpieces use it: A thousand housewives ev'ry day/ Pick up a tin of beans and say...

It's in our hearts, and always will be.

Thing To Do Today: string some iambs together. It's not as hard as you might think!

Rhythm is from the Greek word rhuthmos, and is related to the other Greek word rhein, which means to flow.

Tuesday 17 May 2011

Thing To Do Today: scrabble.

And here's another lovely word: scrabble.

The game of that name has been in the news lately, having extended its list of allowed words to include, amongst other newcomers, innit.

A list of allowed words? But aren't all the arguments about whether scrabble is a proper name, or whether the word friseur is English, most of what makes Scrabble fun?

What? It's not about fun?

Oh well, whatever turns you on...

Anyway, scrabble. It's a lovely puppyish sort of word, and very useful for when you're trying to find a ringing mobile phone in a deep handbag, or the horn button in a new car when a truck is about to reverse into you.

I think we should all celebrate it.

Word To Use Today: scrabble. The game is a trademark, of course, but the English word comes from the Middle Dutch word shrabbelen, which is a frequentative of shrabben, to scrape.

Monday 16 May 2011

Spot the frippet: maria.

Maria is a name, of course, but it's also the plural of mare, which is one of the grey splotches you see when you look at the moon.

This sort of maria is pronounced MAReea: so that makes three pronunciations for this word - m'REEa or m'RAIa for the name, and MAReea for the marks on the moon.

Maria were made by huge volcanoes. Massive amounts of lava exploded out of these moon volcanoes and spread out into enormous dark pools. When the lava cooled down it went solid and turned into a rock called basalt.

People have been wondering about maria for a long time. There was the green cheese theory, of course, and people also thought for a long time that they were seas, which was how maria got their name: maria means seas in Latin.

Each sea has its own name. There's the Mare Imbrium (Sea of Showers) and the Mare Humorum (Sea of Moisture). The Mare Humorum is easy to spot because it's the dark spodge nearest to the bottom of the moon.

These two maria are rather badly named, though, because none of the maria ever get so much as a sniff of a shower, or in fact ever get moist at all.

Spot the frippet: maria. From the Latin word for seas, as I said. 

Do look, and be amazed
The frozen moon 
Once seethed
With spouts of fire.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Sunday Rest: adenoid.

You don't want to know what adenoids are.

No, really. I mean, I looked them up and I certainly didn't. In fact they sounded so icky that I didn't read the whole article, but I do know they make you sound as if you've got a nasty cold.

I suppose, then, I must concede (grudgingly) that adenoid is a really brilliant word, because saying it makes everyone sound as if they've got a nasty cold. 

But then who wants to sound as if they've got a really nasty cold?

Word Not To Use Today: adenoid. This word comes to us courtesy of the Greek adenoeidēs, which is from the Greek word for gland, adēn.


Saturday 14 May 2011

Saturday Rave: William and the White Elephants by Richmal Crompton

William is one of the greatest heroes of children's fiction.

In fact, he must be one of the greatest heroes of all fiction.

William Brown is brave and inventive and loyal, and he has a terrifically strong sense of right and wrong. True, his ideas of right and wrong may differ from those of the rest of the world around him, but he can be relied upon to support them with passionate argument.

The awful Miss Poll is wearing the vicar's wife's coat (there's a lot of deeply satisfying plotting in William), and William needs to get it back.

'It's - it's sort of gettin' hot, i'n't it?' he said huskily.
'Yes, isn't it?' said Miss Poll, pleasantly.
William's heart lightened.'Wun't you like to take [your coat] off?' he said persuasively. 'I'll carry it for you.'
But Miss Poll, who considered, quite erroneously, that the coat made her look startlingly youthful and pretty, shook her head and clutched the coat tightly at her neck.

What more could anyone want in a book? A charismatic hero and  staggering adventures constantly imperilled by mighty enemies.

And we get lots of chances to laugh at grown ups, too.

Thing To Do Today : say something huskily. This word to describe a hoarse voice seems to come from the rough husk which surrounds grains of corn.

Friday 13 May 2011

Word To Use Today: worm.

People should care more. No, really, they should. I mean, worms have feelings, too...


...ANYWAY, worms are fine creatures who do all sorts of sterling work eating dead leaves and turning it into compost. And how do we repay them? By attaching their fine and ancient name, worm, to all sorts of alien creatures like glow-worms and shipworms and inchworms (if you're in the USA) just because they're longish.

Which is about as sensible as calling a man a salmon.

NB. Cutting a worm in two only makes two bits of dying worm. Really.

Word To Use Properly Today: worm. Over the years this word has been wyrm, wirm, wurm, ormr, waurms, vermis and romos, which is Greek for woodworm.

Mind you, woodworms aren't actually worms at all, so I suppose it's our worms that are the imposters.

I should have known. Honestly, worming their way into their name like that...

Thursday 12 May 2011

Children - a rant.

I never seem to go long without hearing someone say children are...

Sometimes what follows will end in nowadays. This is practically always bad news.

But, however it ends, nearly everything people say which starts children are is rubbish.

I suppose children are shorter than adults (generally), and have less nose hair than adults (generally) and are younger than adults (can't see anything wrong with that one) but, most of all, children are different from each other. They are individuals.

Some children like pink, some like black. Some like interior design, some like beetles. Some like ice cream, books, cabbage, Latin, shoes, sheep, football, fell-walking, rap, rollercoasters, or nose-picking.

Some would be delighted to be given a huge stuffed gnome; some have taste.

Children are...different from each other. And they should be allowed to be.

And people who try to poke children into line with children are...don't help them at all.

Freedom for kids!

Word To Use Today: individual. This word is from the Latin word indīviduus, which means indivisible.

So don't let anyone cut any important bits off you to make you fit into other people's schemes. 

Wednesday 11 May 2011

Nuts and Bolts: neologisms.

A neologism is a word someone's just invented.

They're all failures.

That's not to say we don't need neologisms. Of course we do. We couldn't manage without words like hashtag* and jeggings**, could we? 

The trouble is that once a neologism becomes widely understood then it stops being a neologism and becomes just an ordinary word.

All words were neologisms once, after all!

Most new words that survive are those with guessable meanings. Hashtag and jeggings are both good examples of words that contain clues to what they mean. This makes them easier to remember. Being able to guess their pronunciation helps, too.

Many words, sadly, don't make it. For instance the charming and highly evocative boogrot***, meaning stomach-upset, has never become widely established.
But still, I've just used it here, so that's given the poor thing a little bit of extra life.

Word To Use Today: any neologism. This is easy, because you can make up your own.


The word neologism is from the Greek neo, which means new, and logos, which means word.

*A Twitter address, as far as I understand, which isn't very far at all (probably about three and a half centimetres).
** Leggings which are styled to look like jeans.
***Mr Boog used to claim responsibility for catering at Royal Holloway College in the 1970s.

Tuesday 10 May 2011

Thing To Do Today: be capricious.

Capricious means impulsive, or jumping from one thing to another.

And what could be more fun than that? Variety is the spice of life, after all: and it keeps people on their toes.

So: be unpredictable. Wear a tutu in Tesco's. Discuss Balzac with the bus driver. Make a daisy chain for your nearest cow. Take up crochet. Or blacksmithing. Or the bassoon. Dye your moustache.

And surprise everyone - including, of course, yourself.

Thing To Do Today: be capricious. Capricious means jumping from one thing to another like a mountain goat. Now the Italian for goat is capra, so the word capricious obviously comes from the Italian word for...


Oh yes it does. Capricious comes from the Italian capriccio, meaning shiver, and before that from capo, head, plus riccio, hedgehog.
I think the idea is that something capricious is hair-raisingly unexpected.

Monday 9 May 2011

Spot the frippet: monger.

Monger. This is a splendid word, and it's a great shame we so seldom see it by itself.

A monger, of course, is someone who mongs; that is, someone who sells or barters things.

We have cheesemongers, fishmongers and ironmongers (though the ironmongers, strangely, do not sell much iron except in the form of pans and screws and things for collecting the limescale out of kettles).

We also have scandalmongers and newsmongers, who make their wares available to the public just like any other monger, but often out of mischief rather than for money.

A costermonger sells things from a barrow. Coster doesn't mean barrow, though, but apple.

Spot the frippet: monger. This word is from the Old English mangere, and is probably something to do with the Latin word mango, which means trader.

Mango and apples: a fruity post, today!

Sunday 8 May 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: bungalow.

Oh, bungalow is just horrid. The word, I mean, there's nothing wrong with bungalows themselves. Except possibly for their being occupied almost exclusively by people with irritable dogs and florid curtains.

No, it's the actual word. It's all honking and lumpy - not only that, but bung sounds silly, and a low is somewhere no one would wish to be.

I don't know how widespread bungalows are throughout the world, but here in England it's what we call single-storey houses.

Personally, I think we'd be better off calling them...

...single-storey houses?

Word Not To Use Today: bungalow. This word is from the Hindi word bangla, which is a Bengali house. Though I expect these are charming.

Saturday 7 May 2011

Saturday Rave - Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend by PG Wodehouse.

PG Wodehouses novels are wonderful. His short stories are close to perfection.

Most of his work concerns people falling in or out of love, and the same is true of Lord Emsworth and the Girlfriend, though the love here is of a very unusual kind.

In it the perpetually oppressed Lord Emsworth is so braced by his admiration of young Gladys that he even thinks of casting off the tyrannies of his sister, gardener and stiff collar together.

"The lidy didn't like Ern biting her in the leg, sir."
"Ern bit her in the leg?"
"Yes, sir. Pliying 'e was a dorg."
...Lord Emsworth breathed heavily. He had not suppose that in these degenerate days a family like this existed...It was like listening to some grand old saga of heroes and demigods.

Oh, and didn't I say? It's marvellously funny, too.

Word To Use Today: bite. This word is from the  Old English bītan, and before that it is connected to the Latin word findere to split, and before that to the Sanscrit  bhedati, he splits.

Friday 6 May 2011

Word To Use Today: century.

The Word Den has now passed its hundredth post: HURRAY!

It's been great fun so far, so here's to the next hundred.

A century is a hundred years, of course, and also a hundred runs scored by a batsman at cricket.
Basketball, I understand (and I use the word understand really very loosely here) uses century in the same sort of way.

In Ancient Rome a century was a group of men led by a centurion. Most of the time this group was somewhere between sixty and eighty strong, but I suppose it did help them look stronger and scarier than they really were.

Then there's the century plant, which only blooms once in its entire life, after...

...yep, you've got it, between ten and thirty years.

Ah well!

Word To Use Today: century. This word comes from the Latin word centum which means a hundred.

Thursday 5 May 2011

More or less: a rant.

Confuse more and less?
Yes, I would have thought it was difficult.

I don't know, though, these arithmetical ideas are always tripping people up. Perhaps people can't do sums and speak at the same time. And vice versa.

It would explain a lot.
Anyway. How about:


Now, I think this is an attempt to say that items are to be sold at less than half price.

Except, of course, in that case the reduction is actually more than half of the price.

I have seen signs recently, though, that copywriters (who are the people who write advertisements) have woken up to the difficulties of more and less.

Now they've started trying to tempt us with BETTER THAN HALF PRICE.
But better for whom? We are forced to ask. The buyer or the seller?
Ah well. At least they seem to have stopped telling us their prices are more than reasonable
Word To Use Today: value. This word is from the French word valoir and before that the Latin valēre, to be worth or to be strong.

Wednesday 4 May 2011

Nuts and bolts: rhyming slang.

The most important thing to know about rhyming slang, of course, is that most of the time it doesn't rhyme.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, a lot of rhyming slang was invented in London in the early nineteenth century, and some of the rhymes only work if you have a nineteenth century London accent. For instance, a hot potato was a waiter, and round the houses was trousers.
(In the first example potato was (and sometimes still is) pronounced p'TAYter, and in the second trousers was TROWsiz.)

The other reason why rhyming slang doesn't rhyme is that the original very often consists of a pair of words, and the years have worn away the one that rhymes. For instance, apples and pears is rhyming sland for stairs; but I've never heard anyone say more than up the apples!

Sadly, I hear rhyming slang less and less, and when I do it's usually being used by fairly old people. Still, it's left its mark, and is used by all of us even if we don't realise it. For instance, the American brass tacks is rhyming slang for facts; and the Australian pom meaning immigrant could well be rhyming slang from pomegranate. 

Thing To Do Today: blow a raspberry. This seems to be American, too. A raspberry, meaning a rude noise, has its origins in raspberry tart!

Tuesday 3 May 2011

Thing Not To Do Today: get your dander up.

You don't hear the expression get your dander up very often nowadays, but it's too good a piece of English to allow to die. It means to get very angry.

Anyway, don't. Take some deep breaths. Imagine what fun you'll have telling your friends all about it. Pretend the idiot people are chipmunks (I seem to remember that's What Katy Did).

And if possible keep your distance!

Thing Not To Do Today: get your dander up. People aren't quite sure about this expression. It could mean attacking someone so ferociously that dandruff flies about in all directions (dander=dandruff) .


Or, more likely, it's from the dander which is the frothy stuff you get on fermenting cane juice when you make rum: so it's rather like boiling with rage.

This meaning is probably from the Spanish redundar, meaning to overflow, which is from the Latin redundāre, to flow backwards.

There are a few other similar expressions, come to think about it: people can get airated (or aerated, or even aeriated); or sometimes they have steam coming out of their ears; or they can even blow their tops!

Monday 2 May 2011

Spot the frippet: mattress.

In Southern England at the moment the hedgerows are in full blossom, and beneath them the verges are full of bluebells, stitchwort, geraniums, speedwell...

...crisp packets, beer cans...

...hops, dandelions, daisies, archangel...

...the occasional mattress...

The mattresses always surprise me. I mean, if you want to dump a mattress it's surely safer, easier, and just as cheap to dump it at the...well, at the dump.

Anyway, mattresses aren't like crisp packets. I can see that someone might be walking along carrying an empty crisp packet. Throwing it away in a hedgerow is wicked and wrong and just makes the world uglier, but I can see how a bad person might come to do it.

But a mattress???

Ah well, perhaps there's something going on here I don't understand.

Spot the frippet: mattress.  I expect you have one of these on your bed, but if you fancy a challenge then a Dutch Mattress is a mat made of brushwood and poles that stops banks wearing away. A mattress is also the name of the concrete or steel raft used as a foundation for some buildings (have a look at a conservatory or greenhouse), and of the steel rods used for reinforced concrete, too.

The word mattress comes from the Italian word materasso, and before that from the Arabic almatrah, which means a place where something is thrown.

Ah, now perhaps I begin to understand all those dumped mattresses...

Sunday 1 May 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: sewer.

Long ago, my husband wrote a long report about some people whose job it was to sew together the pages of books. He called them sewers, and it wasn't until the whole thing was typed up that he realised that he'd have to rewrite the whole thing and call them sewing machine operatives.

Sewers (that is, drains) are marvellous, wonderful things, and I'm sure we'd all be much less healthy and fragrant without them. The entrance to the one in our front drive even has a mysterious iron ladder going down inside it, and I've sometimes been tempted...

...but not that tempted!

Anyway, the word in itself is nasty. Sewer. It sounds like someone spitting out a toad they've found in the soup.


Word Not To Use Today: sewer. This word is from the Old French essever, to drain, and before that probably from the Latin words ex, out of, and aqua, water.