This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 30 June 2011

Men Only - a rant.

Chairperson? Chairperson? Oh good grief...

Look, we're ALL men. Yes, all of us. A woman, as should be obvious by the word's appearance, is a sort of man. A special sort of man (says she, trying not to bring down a tumult of feminist raving upon her).

Look, I'm all for new words, but all this spokesperson business is embarrassing. I can't be the only one who thinks it's silly when women demand special treatment over something which doesn't exclude them in the first place.

The only sillier thing would be insisting on being called after an item of furniture.*

Word To Use Today: some word that ends in MAN!

The word woman comes from the Old English word wīfmann (there have been lots of different forms: wyman and weeman are the most entertaining). Wīf  meant adult female.

Wīf is related to the Old Norse vīf, which is perhaps from the word vīfathr, veiled...
...or is that just going to cause even more trouble?


Wednesday 29 June 2011

Nuts and Bolts: say it with flowers.

One of the great things about words is that you can carry literally thousands of them around with you wherever you go and access most of them instantly.

I have to admit, though, that the spoken word can fail people at moments of great emotion. Few of us, for example, can speak coherently to someone we really really fancy, at least at the beginning.

One of the most pleasingly bonkers of ways to help with this is the language of flowers.

If you want to console someone, for instance, you send them a bunch of snowdrops. (Here in England that will involve about a seven month wait until they come into flower, but, hey, better late than never.)

If you really feel passionate about someone then you go with the red roses. If you quite fancy someone but can't help noticing they have fat arms, for example, then pink roses would be more appropriate.

If you send red and white roses together then that means united, as the inhabitants of Manchester already know very well indeed.

It can be a bit dodgy, though. I could easily enough send a message of thanks with the agrimony which grows as a weed in my garden, but I'm not sure if anyone receiving a bunch of weeds would get quite the right message.

Ah well. It does make you realise how truly wonderful words are.

Word To Use Today: flower. This word is from the Old French flor and before that the Latin flōs.

Tuesday 28 June 2011

Thing To Do Today: chew the cud.

Grass is really difficult to eat. Even if you can manage to chew it up (and you won't do it with human teeth) then getting any goodness out of the stuff is horribly difficult.

Rabbits and elephants do it by putting the grass through their systems twice, but unfortunately this does involve eating their own poo. A cow has four stomachs to digest its grass but actually needs five, so it has to bring up the grass from its first stomach and give it another good chewing.

This is called chewing the cud.

On the whole I'm glad humans don't eat grass. Humans do sometimes chew tobacco, though, and a piece of chewing tobacco is called a quid, which is basically the same word as cud.

Much less likely to turn your teeth orange, however, is chewing the cud in the sense of having a long relaxed chat, probably about how to solve all the problems of the world. This seldom takes more than an hour or so, or about three drinks.

Thing To Do Today: chew the cud. Cud is from the Old English word cwidu, which means what has been chewed. It's related to the Old Norse kvātha, resin (resin was the original chewing gum) and the Old High German quiti, which means glue, and the Sanskrit jato, which means rubber.

Monday 27 June 2011

Spot the frippet: cabbage.

Cabbage is marvellous stuff. It comes in white, green, red, and even black if the pan boils dry, as it is so apt to do.

Or there's the other sort of cabbage, which are off-cuts stolen by a tailor from a client's own cloth. It's this meaning that's given us the word cabbage which means to steal.

Or of course there's cabbage pastry, though as far as I know the cabbage bit is always known in its French form, choux. This is the stuff you use to make eclairs. Choux pastry is supposed to resemble a cabbage, though heaven only knows what sort of cabbage that might be and personally I'm not going anywhere near it.

Cabbagetown in Toronto is home to a large colony of artists: and is it possible to imagine a more highly inspiring and romantic name than that? 

Spot the frippet: cabbage. The word for the vegetable comes from the Norman French caboche, head, and before that from the Latin caput, which also means head.

The stealing-cloth word might well come from the Old French word cabas which means steal.

Sunday 26 June 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: oligarch.

Gosh, what isn't wrong with this word? It starts off all greasy, and ends up honking with garlic.

There's a nasty velociraptor-about-to-eat-a-small-furry-animal arch! about it, too.

An oligarch, in case any of you don't know, is one of a small group of people who rules a big piece of the world. 
They don't count as oligarchs if they've been elected, though, because then they can be thrown out if they get uppity.

Oligarchs are nearly always uppity.

Any Russians who are immensely rich tend to be called oligarchs, but this is often due to the mistaken idea that an oligarch is someone who owns lots of oil.

For real oligarchs you'd be better off looking in places like Mexico, North Korea, or Switzerland.

Word Not To Use Today: oligarch. This word has been borrowed from the Greek words olίos, few, and arkhein, which means to rule.

Greek loans causing trouble? Whatever next!

Saturday 25 June 2011

Saturday Rave: The Sleeping Beauty

And they all lived happily ever after.

There. A perfect ending for a fairy story.

And how does Sleeping Beauty end?

Well, that's an odd thing, because of all the versions there are of Sleeping Beauty (and there must be hundreds), very few of them actually get as far as the end of the story.

Do you know about the prince's mother and the sauce robert?

'Do it! Do it!' she cried, offering him her neck. 'Carry out the cruel command!'
You don't? Well, I'd recommend searching out a complete version (my copy is the Charles Perrault version adapted by Louis Untermeyer, and it's splendid).

Even though you'll find they don't quite all live happily ever after!

Word To Use Today: cruel. This word is from French, and before that from the Latin word crūdus, which means raw or bloody.


Friday 24 June 2011

Word To Use Today: vole.

Sometimes when I lift the lid of our compost bin I'm surprised to find a small vole sitting staring up at me. They're lovely things: like mice, only fatter, and with shorter tails.

If I'm down by the canal then I just might see a water vole, like Ratty of Tales of the River Bank fame (Ratty isn't really a rat at all).

Water voles are much rarer than they used to be where we live, but they seem to be making a bit of a come-back, thank heavens: they're lovely tame creatures, like swimming guinea pigs.

Then, of course, there's the vole clock. Yes, that's right, the vole clock. Vole teeth are always turning up on archaeological digs, and the changes in their teeth over the millennia are useful for dating sites (that's giving dates to artefacts, not...but you know what I mean!)

Hugely pleasingly, there's also a small group of creatures called mole voles. Isn't that great? I suppose, given their name, there must be mole vole holes, too, hurray!

Word To Use Today: vole. Perhaps in the phrase that car in front is so slow they probably have a vole clock instead of a speedometer.

The word vole is short for volemouse. The vole bit is from the Old Norse vollr, field.

Thursday 23 June 2011

The Carnegie Medal - a rant.

The Carnegie Medal I'm talking about isn't the one for life-saving, but one of Britain's most prestigious awards for children's books, the winner of which will be announced today.

Perhaps I should start off by stating my lack of interest. I didn't have an eligible book published during the qualifying period, so if what follows seems sour, it isn't because of any grapes in the mix. 

I've started to read all the books on the shortlist, but given up on several of them. This was largely because I was repelled by their violence.

There's no book on the shortlist which doesn't contain murder and/or the torture of people or animals.

What children's books should or shouldn't contain is not the question here. The problem is that every single book on the Carnegie shortlist (which children are encouraged by the professional librarians' association CILIP to read) contains serious violence.

I'm not sure that any of these books are really suitable for children - if by children you mean anyone under the age of about ten.

And who else could children be?

Word To Use Today: torture. This word is from the Late Latin word torquēre, to twist.

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Nuts and Bolts: mon po ho.

Sometimes I think people are just out to make difficulties.

I mean, what's wrong with this?

God send everyone their heart's desire.

Or this:

...if ye from your hearts forgive not everyone his brother their trespasses...

Or this:

Every body has their level.

The answer? Well, as the first is Shakespeare, the second the King James Bible, and the third Jane Austen, the answer plainly must be ABSOLUTELY NOTHING AT ALL.

And yet people will insist that you can't use their to mean his or her.

The thing is, we need words in English for his or her and he or she: but although we've had words for both for centuries - their and they - some people just won't have it.

Some mad people have even gone to the effort of making up new he or she words for us: we've been offered, amongst others,  mon, heesh, ho, et, hir, jhe, na, per, xe and po.

Strangely enough none of them has caught on.

Personally, if a singular their is good enough for Shakespeare, the Bible and Jane Austen...

I must admit I've never dared put one in a book, though. Not deliberately, in any case.

Thing To Do Today: use their as a singular - and quote Shakespeare at anyone who gets sniffy!

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Thing To Do Today: waft.

Ah, there's nothing like a good waft.

You could put on a dress of shimmering silk and waft along gracefully, perhaps.

Or perhaps not.

You could carry a posy of perfume-wafting roses, or wear a carnation in your button hole.

A chemist faced with something nasty will waft his hand through the air above the stuff so he can get an idea of its smell without risking a real nose-blaster.
Or, if at sea, you could hoist a waft, which is a furled flag which, like musical notation, conveys its message by its position.
Hope you have a fragrant day!

Thing To Do Today: waft. This word comes from wafter, which was an armed ship used to guard convoys.
Wafter comes from the Middle Dutch words wachter and wachten, which are to do with guarding, but the word seems to have got mixed up with the Scots and Northern English word waff, a gust of air, somewhere along the way.

Monday 20 June 2011

Spot the frippet: cappuccino

A cappuccino is a little capuchin, of course: and a capuchin is a hood.

The coffee drink, with its hood of whipped milk, was patented in 1901 by Luigi Bezzara. According to the experts a cappuccino should not be drunk after 11 am, but, good grief, life is difficult enough without being banned from having a quick cappuccino whenever you fancy one.

The cappuccino was named after the capuchin monks. This order was founded by Matteo de Bascio after the Franciscan order they originally belonged to developed mission-creep. (Sorry!) 
People got very upset about these new monks, and for safety they had to go and stay with another group of monks called the Camaldolese, who wore beards and hoods which the new monks began to wear too.

The capuchines, or the Poor Clares, are nuns who live by similar rules to the capuchins - except that for them I should imagine the beards aren't compulsory.

Capuchin monkeys are New World monkeys who do look a bit like monks. Unlike the monks, however, they have a long history in show business, doing great things for organ-grinders and, more recently, in the film Pirates of the Caribbean.

Spot the frippet: cappuccino. The coffee sort of cappuccino is probably easiest!

The word cappuccino is from the Italian word cappuccio, which means hood. Before that it came from the Latin word cappa, cloak.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: acme.

This is a truly horrible word. Acme. It sounds sticky to me, and a sort of metallic pink.

In fact, it sounds just like a 1960s face cream.

(They used to call them vanishing creams in those days, and, though I'd never seen any ladies vanishing, well, you couldn't help but hope...
The vanishing thing was really to do with wrinkles and blemishes, of course. Mind you, it didn't work on them, either.)

Anyway, acme. A nasty poking sort of word, and way too much like acne.

Strangely, it's actually the other way round - acme, meaning summit or best, has been around for thousands of years, and the word acne seems to be a misprint for the older word. That tells you a lot about the word acme.

Acme does have one other meaning: the very worst part of an illness.

Definitely one to avoid.

Word Not To Use Today: acme. This word is very old and Greek. And ridiculous. It means summit. 

Saturday 18 June 2011

Saturday Rave: Mr Midshipman Hornblower by CS Forester

The Hornblower books arrived with my husband.

I can't say that books about the navy usually appeal to me much. The chance of romance is remote, and, although romance isn't necessary to a book - or, indeed, to a life - the chance of it makes things much more interesting.

Still, my husband obviously had excellent taste...

I discovered that when a book is very VERY well done then it will always be fascinating: and CS Forester writes superbly.

When something is done with love it will always warm our hearts, too: and CS Forester loves the sea - and his shy hero.

Hornblower did not look round. He was looking steadfastly at the grey sky past Simpson's right ear - somehow he could not look him in the face...The end of the world as he knew it was close to him - soon there might be a bullet though his heart.

So plain, but so vivid. Cor!

Word To Use Today: bullet.
  • This word is from the French word boulette, which means a little ball.
  • Before that it probably came from the Latin word bulla, which means bubble.
  • I think the progression from bubble to bullet is rather sad.
  • Though there are happier bullets, I suppose:
  • Like that one.

    Friday 17 June 2011

    Word To Use Today: grimoire.

    A grimoire is a textbook. It's not your ordinary sort of French or geography textbook, though, full of garçons and global warming.

    No, a grimoire is a textbook of magic and sorcery.

    What? Oh, well, sorcery is when you use the power of other-worldly creatures - ghosts, vampires etc - to get your own way.
    This is almost always a VERY BAD IDEA INDEED and I wouldn't recommend it. In fact, any plan you might have which involves trusting a vampire is very likely to end in tears.

    Magic, on the other hand,  covers loads of other stuff, too. The power of magic can be derived from perfectly harmless sources such as porridge pots, mirrors, or, of course, words:


    Hang on! Where did that purple frog come from?

    Word To Use Today: grimoire. This word is wonderful to say, especially if you have a cloak to swish or a moustache to twirl. Try saying I must consult my grimoire in a mysterious Transylvanian accent - it's much more impressive than saying I'll look it up on Google.

    Grimoire is from the French word grammaire, which means grammar, and comes from a time when all writing seemed magical. Grammaire is from the Greek word gramma, which means letter (as in alphabet, not as in bank-statement). 

    Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit! Ribbit!

    Thursday 16 June 2011

    The unchecked box: a rant.

    I've made a terrible mistake.

    I don't know when it was, or even exactly what I did - whether I checked a box that should have been left blank, or failed to read the Terms and Conditions - but I've brought down a dreadful torrent upon myself.

    Well, an intermittent dribble, anyway.

    Good morning ma'am (DON'T call an Englishwoman ma'am: unless you're talking to the Queen it comes over as sarcasm. And don't try it on an an Englishman, either) we are conducting a survey...

    And it's not even true. The person on the other end of the phone is almost certainly NOT conducting a survey, but trying to get me to give money to distressed ex-costermongers, or to avail myself of a unique opportunity to acquire a solar-powered squirrel-cleaner or something.

    And if it is a survey, then I shall probably be asked (as I once was) how feminine I think my toilet cleaner is. Or, during a stay in hospital, how satisfactory was my pain?

    Surely the time has come to strike back at all this lunacy, and therefore my very great respect goes to the large number of teenagers who recently answered a survey about favourite reads by putting THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR top of their lists.

    I hope they all enjoyed the resulting angst about reading standards!

    Word To Use Today: survey. This word is from the French word surveoir, which is in turn from the Latin sur, which means over or beyond or something like that, and vidēre, which means to see.

    They're mostly conducted by people who couldn't see over a garden fence if it was three inches high and made of perspex.

    Wednesday 15 June 2011

    Nuts and Bolts: Cutleryism.

    Who hasn't occasionally looked for a place in a par cark?

    Well, not anyone in the USA, I suppose, though I do hope that there the lovely and evocative larking pot gets the odd airing.

    Dr Spooner, the Warden of New College, Oxford, doesn't seem to have made many spoonerisms, though he did claim to have delighted a large congregation by announcing the name of the next hymn as Kinquering kongs their titles take (instead of Conquering kings). 

    The most interesting thing about this story is that, according to Douglas Hofstader's rather charming system, Dr Spooner's spoonerism isn't actually a spoonerism at all, but a kniferism.

    A spoonerism, according to Hofstader, is when the initial sounds of two words are swopped, as in 'you will leave Oxford by the town drain!' (as Dr Spooner is supposed to have said but, sadly, didn't).
    Swopping the middles of words Hofstader called kniferism (geddit?) of which my favourite example, heard in a news report many years ago and still making me giggle, is hypodeemic nurdles.

    And then there's forkerism, which is, naturally, swopping the ends of words. This would change that useful person the Wadley barber into the waddler Barbie - presumably an obese special edition of the famously skinny doll.

    Thing To Do Today: enjoy a good spoonerism.

    If you're German then you'll probably be very good at this, as the Germans have a tradition of spoonerised poetry called Schüttelreime (shake rhymes).
    And good for them!

    Tuesday 14 June 2011

    Thing To Do Today: be humble.

    They say if you've got it, flaunt it.

    I suppose it does mean that everyone will know exactly how wonderful you are* but it does also mean that everyone will hate you.

    So let's be humble for a change. Wasn't it Oscar Wilde who said the English instinctively admire a man who can't do anything and is modest about it?
    (Hang on, I must go and check that: memory like a...
    ...whoops, no, it was James Agate. And it was a man who has no talent.)

    Ah well! I got that wrong, then. So here's a recipe for humble pie.

    Get some umbles (dubious innardy bits of a deer), put them in some pastry, and cook until done.
    If you've had to cook the pie on an open fire then it's proabably a good idea to throw away the pastry before eating.

    All humble pie recipes which include spices, meat, dates or raisins aren't humble pies at all.
    Though they are much more appetizing.

    Thing To Do Today: be humble.  This word comes from the Latin humilis, which means low, from humus, which means the ground.

    The humble in humble pie comes from numbles, which means deer offal, from the Latin lumbus, loin.
    This word has changed its first letter twice. A numble became an umble because of false splitting, and then later umble became humble. This was partly because only humble (that is, poor) people ate them, and partly because everyone thought that the poor people were dropping their aitches.

    *Very seldom an advantage.

    Monday 13 June 2011

    Spot the frippet: bling.

    Bling, or bling-bling. This is a newish word for stuff which might in the olden days (by which I mean the second half of the 20th Century) have been described by the adjective flash.

    It means something shiny worn to show off. It might be made of diamonds or gold (real or fake), and it might be jewellery, a phone, or even toothcaps.

    (Actually, I suppose a diamond-encrusted toilet-brush would count, too, though those are seldom worn; so I suppose I should have said displayed to show off rather than worn.)

    Bling is said to be an imitation of the sound of light flashing off jewels. (This, I realise, makes no sense at all, but that sort of thing is established enough as an idea to have its own literary name, idiophone.)

    Your best chance of spotting some really spectacular bling would be on a slightly out-of-date rap artist, a film star who's had more than three face-lifts, or a female child under the age of six.

    Put on your shades and enjoy!

    Spot the frippet: bling. This word may come from the comedian Martin Lawrence's parody of the Colgate toothpaste advertisement, as in: "the Colgate ring of confidence: bling!*".
    I understand it was used in its current sense by Jesse West in Super Cat's 1993 hit Dolly My Baby (Remix).

    It's a useful word, too.

    *Sound of someone hitting a triangle (or glockenspiel?) to show how sparkly teeth can be.

    Sunday 12 June 2011

    Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: foetid.

    Foetid (fetid is actually the more usual spelling, but I think the o makes it look even knobblier) is a word with a built-in scowl.

    No, really: try it and see. Saying foetid makes you look as if you'd smelled some really REALLY revolting.

    Like...but, hey, I don't want to put you off your biscuit.

    Still, stinking is as stinking does. The plant foetid bugbane lowers fever, kills pain, and is a sedative, a tonic, anti-viral and anti-biotic. It treats rheumatism, coughs, colds, headaches, gum disease and, oddly, measles.

    And smells of decaying fish.

    Ah, but the toadstool Amanita foetidissima may smell disgusting, but at least it's edible.
    If you're desperate...

    As for the buffalo gourd, Cucurbita foetidissima, not only can you eat it (as long as it's young enough not to have developed too much taste) but you can make it, bizarrely, into rattles.

    I don't know, though: I think I'll stick with aspirin, mushrooms, and not-rattling, though, all the same.

    Word Not To Use Today: foetid. This word is from the Latin word fētēre, to stink, and is related, rather satisfyingly, to the word fūmus, smoke.

    Saturday 11 June 2011

    Saturday Rave: Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, from The Jungle Book

    Oh yes, we all know The Jungle Book. Ooh ooh ooh - I wanna be like you hoo hoo, etc. Brilliant.

    And it is - though not that much to do with Rudyard Kipling's book.

    My very favourite part of The Jungle Book is the story of Rikki-Tikki-Tavi. (I say this even though I'm very fond of snakes, and a lot of the action takes place in a bungalow.)

    from the thick grass at the foot of the bush came a low hiss - a horrid cold sound that made Rikki-Tikki jump back two clear feet. Then inch by inch out of the grass rose up the head and spread hood of Nag, the big black cobra...

    Rikki-Tikki is a very young mongoose, only just washed out of his family's burrow by a flood. How can he protect himself and the human family who have adopted him when Nag (who is, by the way, named after a snake god) and his wife are out to kill them all? 

    Only with great activity, curiosity, and a great deal of bravery.

    Word To Use Today: mongoose. This word used to be mungos, and before that it's come to us through all sorts of mysterious languages like Telugu and Konkani and Canarese, in which a mongoose was called was called a mungisi.

    The official word for more than one is, sadly, not mongeese but mongooses.

    Friday 10 June 2011

    Word To Use Today: jade.

    Time for some magic, I thought.

    Jade is a sort of green stone (well, it's usually green) and it's been known to be magic for thousands of years.

    It's been used to make magic axes and knives, and even, in China, burial suits.
    The Chinese used jade to make the mouthpieces of pipes, too, which were supposed to give the smoker long life.*

    In New Zealand, jade was so important to the Maoris that their name for South Island is Te Wahi Pounami, which means The Place of Greenstone.

    Even in Europe jade has long been used to treat diseases of the kidneys and loins (though sadly you can't get it on prescription from the doctor any more).

    Word To Use Today: jade. This word comes from the Italian giada and before that from the Spanish piedra de ijada, which means stone of the flank, because of its connection with the kidneys. Before that it probably comes from the Latin word ilium, which is the widest parts of the hipbone.

    I must admit jade isn't the most useful word, but there's probably something around that's jade green.

    *And if you believe that...

    Thursday 9 June 2011

    Cover Stories: a rant by ADELE GERAS.

    Adèle Geras's highly successful career as an award-winning poet, writer of fiction for both children and adults, and critic, began when she failed to win a creative writing competition. Since then she has written nearly a hundred books.
    Adèle has also been an actress, a singer, and a teacher.
    Adèle Geras lives with her husband in Cambridge, England.

    COVER STORIES: A RANT by Adèle Geras.
    "Isabella's raven tresses cascaded down her back in an undulating, blue-black flow. They meandered like the tributaries of some dark river between her shoulderblades and brought to mind the shimmer of a blackbird's wing....."

    Never mind the quality, as they say, (which is frankly deplorable and execrable and other juicy words which could usefully be looked at on the Word Den,) feel the BRUNETTE-ness of our heroine. Imagine that this description appears on page one of a long novel. If you read such a sentence, I think you have every right to see a brunette of sorts depicted on the cover. The trouble is, very often, the figure chosen to sell the book bears no relation whatsoever to the creature the writer had in her mind when she wrote that ghastly sentence about Isabella.

    The book and the cover image are miles apart.

    My rant is about this phenomenon. I can't count the number of times I've read a book and found the cover completely at odds with the content. The inappropriateness of covers is something every writer knows about. Sometimes you can object but most often you can't. I'll give two examples of this, one taken from my own books and one from someone else's.
    My book, A CANDLE IN THE DARK (A&C Black) is about some children who leave Berlin in 1938 for England on one of the the Kindertransports. The latest cover (earlier versions were quite different and fine) shows a line of misty mountains in the background and in the foreground, something like the cattle trucks which travelled to the Death Camps during the Second World War. At the time my book is set, the war has not yet begun. Berlin is a railway station in the middle of a European city, miles from misty mountains of any kind.

     The cover is simply WRONG as well as being not particularly attractive. I complained at the time and was simply told "Oh, we're sorry you don't like it. Everyone here thinks it's lovely." There was nothing to be done. I sighed and groaned, which is about all you can do.                                                                                                                            
    My other example is an excellent, Pulitzer Prize winning novel called OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout (all of whose books, incidentally, I love). Olive, the heroine, is a tall, rather ungainly and getting-on-for-elderly retired Mathematics teacher in a small US town. Got the picture? The cover image shows acres of creamy flesh: a woman seen from behind dressed in a backless, dark-green evening frock rather reminiscent of the slinky number Keira Knightley wore in the movie Atonement and which Strout's Olive wouldn't be seen dead in.
    I have no words to express the unsuitability of this image to represent the novel.

    Is it just me, or does everyone get cross about covers? I'd love to know.

    Word To Use Today: deplorable*. This word is from the French word deplorer, from the Latin word dēplōrāre to weep bitterly, from plōrāre, to lament.

    *Yes, The Word Den is happy to do requests. It's a top word, too. 

    Wednesday 8 June 2011

    Nuts and Bolts: Missing Ethel.

    Oh, Ethel! A small light went out when you disappeared.

    Occasionally, fleetingly, you can still be seen. You can still be dredged out of WORD with a certain amount of effort, and you're in the International Phonetic Alphabet; but your beauties all too seldom see the light of day.

    Ethel. She looks like this: œ. Or this: Œ. She's what's called a ligature, which is two letters tied together.

    In the International Phonetic Alphabet she's used to represent the sound you get in the middle of the French neuf

    Ethel came into existence because some Latin speakers wanted to borrow some Greek words which had the letters omicron iota (οι) in them. The trouble was that οι was a bit odd and difficult for a Latin speaker, so instead of οι they used œ.

    Nowadays poor ethel is usually either written as two letters, oe, or, especially in America, just as e by itself. So the word fœderal has become federal and diarrhœa is now either diarrhoea or diarrhea.

    Ah well, I expect poor ethel is quite glad to be out of that one.

    Word To Use Today: ethel. This word is an Old Frisian word meaning ancestral estate or native land.

    I vow to thee my ethel...

    Tuesday 7 June 2011

    Post Alert: cover story.

    Thursday will welcome an honoured and distinguished guest to The Word Den. The lovely Adèle Geras is going to have a good rant about book covers.

    Don't miss it!

    Thing To Do Today: pout.

    No, no, not a surly or stubborn pout. I'm thinking super model, here.

    You can either have your lips injected with chemicals, or, if you're sane, imagine the camera is a strawberry topped with a swirl of cream (try not to dribble, it will spoil the effect) and then say porridge.

    Alternatively, you could make a small haystack (a pout is a small haystack) or (though I am in no way recommending this) shoot partridge or moorfowl.

    Thing To Do Today: pout. This word is rather mysterious, but there is a Swedish word puta which meant to be inflated, and a Dutch word pude which meant cushion, and it's probably something to do with those.

    Monday 6 June 2011

    Spot the frippet: fan.

    What would a caveman have done?

    I suppose the basic answer to that one is, generally, not have lived in a cave: but as I'm sure* I've seen chimps fanning themselves with leaves** then we can assume, I think, that fans have been around for a very long time. In fact, they must have been around longer than there have been words to describe them.

    Our word fan, though, started off describing the big basket-like thing you use for throwing ears of wheat skywards so the wind can blow away all the leafy husks. Fans only started being used for fluttering and flirting in the mid 1500s.
    Which is, admittedly, still quite a long time ago.

    A fan is also, of course, an enthusiast for something or other. I'm a fan of words, Baroque music, roses, frogs, Gershwin, fashion, and loads of other things that haven't occurred to me at the moment.
    This probably makes me weird, but certainly happy.


    Spot the frippet: fan. Apart from the obvious sorts of fans (look out for the football shirts!) you might be lucky enough to be able to find a fan-tailed bird or a fan-leafed plant.

    Fan. The word for the wavery thing comes the Old English fann, and before that from the Latin vannus. The enthusiast sort of fan is short for fanatic, which is from the Latin fānāticus, which means belonging to a temple, and so inspired by God into a frenzy. Church must have been much livelier in those days.

    *I use the expression I'm sure in the usual way to mean I have some vague recollection.

    **Though there is just a slight possibility that was a character in a Disney film.

    Sunday 5 June 2011

    Sunday rest. Word Not To Use Today: ail.


    Isn't that horrible? You can almost feel the self-pity dripping off this word.

    It's generally only used by people so annoying they can't even be bothered to make the effort to have a proper wail.

    Do try to bear up, do.

    Word Not To Use Today: ail. This word is from the Old English word eglan, to trouble, and before that from egle, which means painful.

    It's also related to the Gothic agls, which means, interestingly, shameful.

     And may the blessings of good health and cheerfulness be upon you all!

    Saturday 4 June 2011

    Saturday Rave: The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

    Spring was moving in the air above and in the ground below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirirt of divine discontent and longing.

    And almost at once Mole is saying 'Bother!' and 'Oh blow!' and also 'Hang spring-cleaning!' and he's up out of his dark and lonely world and into a universe of friendship and beauty...

    ...and the river.

    Never in his life had he seen such a thing before - this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling...All was a-shake and a-shiver - glints and gleams and sparkles, chatter and bubble.

    Isn't The Wind in the Willows about what every book should be about? What every work of art should be about, for that matter: showing us that we live in a world of miracles.

    Word To Use Today: the word river comes to us from French, and before that from the Latin word pathough pa means the bank of a river rather than the river itself.

    River is one of those interesting words which don't have a to-do-with form (though riverish would be lovely).
    All we have is fluvial or potamic, which are both ridiculous.

    Friday 3 June 2011

    Word To Use Today: zorilla.

    A zorilla is a cousin of the weasel.

    Unfortunately it's the sort of cousin even a weasel might try to avoid, because a zorilla is the smelliest animal in the world.

    Its pong is so powerful that one has been observed holding nine lions at bay while it scavenged their kill.

    In fact, even people with quite small noses can sniff its whiff over a thousand metres away.

    Zorillas hunt at night, catching small rodents and reptiles (yum!) and even if a zorilla happens to meet a nasally-challenged hyena or something it can still avoid being eaten by either climbing a tree, or playing dead.

    Zorillas live in the grasslands of Africa, almost always alone (its habit of squirting foul-smelling liquid out of its bottom at visitors might explain this).

    Makes me feel quite smug to be human, really.

    Word To Use Today: zorilla. This word is from the Spanish zorro, which means fox: though of course a zorilla isn't a fox at all, but a weaselly thing.

    I admit zorilla is a word unlikely to be of great use in most people's day-to-day lives; but then perhaps we should be grateful for small mercies.

    It's good to have a rhyme for gorilla, anyway.

    Thursday 2 June 2011

    Fewer, or even less - a rant.

    Some things don't matter. I know that.

    It doesn't stop them sending you demented, though.

    This less versus fewer thing. It trips people up all the time. Why, it trips me up, sometimes - upon which all my friends and relations, tired of my ranting, will shout FEWER! in accusation and, naturally, glee, and I have to apologise.

    Sometimes I wonder if it would be better if the word fewer disappeared from the language. It would save subsequent generations a lot of grief, and I must admit we don't actually need the word: after all, everyone knows what we mean when we use less when we should really be using fewer.

    In the meantime, perhaps we should avoid both less and fewer and go with not as much and not as many, respectively.

    Or perhaps we could all try thinking before we speak.

    Now that really would be utterly revolutionary.

    Word To Use Today: demented. This word is from one-and-a-bit Latin words: de, which can mean more or less anything to do with removal or opposites, and mēns, which means mind.

    Wednesday 1 June 2011

    Nuts and Bolts: backslang.

    Backslang is...well, it's a bit rubbish, frankly.

    There have been quite a few attempts to establish it, but they've always failed because...well, I would say because backslang is really quite annoying.

    Backslang always seems to have been used as a means of excluding people, too, which does rather seem to miss the point of language.

    Backslang comes in two varieties, one of which is real backslang (that is, saying a word backwards) and the other one...isn't.

    True backslang seems to have been invented by London traders in the 1800s so they could say rude things about their customers. This can't have been great as a way of encouraging custom, and this could be why these backslang words have pretty much died out. The only one we use commonly is yob, which used to mean boy but now means bad boy.

    People do wonder if wonk is backslang, too, as it means someone who's in the know.

    The only other possible backslang word I've come across is crib, meaning thief's lair. This could be from the old word birk, house: but I doubt it.

    The other sort of backslang involves moving the first bit of a word to its end and then putting some sound like onga in, too, just to confuse everyone.

    It makes me tired just thinking about it.


    I must say, though, that in the Juniors my best friend Lehcar often called me Yllas.

    And why not.

    Thing To Do Today: talk forwards!  

    The word slang appeared in the 1700s, but no one knows where it came from.
    The back bit is obvious.