This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 31 July 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: bidet.

Is there a heavier word in the English language than bidet?

Oh, I do hope not!

Anyway, bidets were invented in France in the 17th century. At some point someone had the bright idea of attaching them to a water supply, and then in 1960 the electric bidet (a combination  bidet/lavatory) was unleashed upon the amazed world.

The twentieth century, that hotbed of innovation, came up with a further sophistication, the "paperless toilet", with a drying as well as a washing function.

I understand that bidets are sometimes referred to as garden hoses: personally, I much prefer not to refer to them at all.


Word Not To Use Today: bidet.  This word is from the French word meaning pony, and before that from the Old French bider, to trot.

Saturday 30 July 2011

Saturday Rave: The Sword in the Stone by TH White.

"Who's there?"shrieked Galapas, wheeling round at the fifth cell.
"It's nothing," cried Merlyn. "Only a mouse."
The giant Galapas whipped out his mighty sword, and stared backwards down the narrow passage with his torch held high above his head.
"Nonsense," he said. "Mice don't talk in human speech."
"Eek," said Merlyn, hoping this would do.

Young Wart is taken on a whole series of adventures by Merlin as he grows up (which he does, like all of us, without really noticing it).

The Sword in the Stone is a glorious mash-mash of beauty ('the big logs roared in the fire - the beech blue-flamy and relentless, the elm showy and soon gone, the holly bright, or the pine with his smoking scents') and anachronisms (one of Galapas's cells has an advertising man in it) and fun.

And then there's the cunning title, which lets us know from the start that there's going to be a happy ending at last.

There are knights, monsters, and the Questing Beast, too.

Really, what more could anyone want?

Word To Use Today: sword. This word is from the Old High German swert. Swords having been always special and useful, it's always meant pretty much the same thing.

Friday 29 July 2011

Word To Use Today: murrain.

A murrain on it!

Cursing, then. Often a relief, and sometimes a necessary alternative to violence.

The currency of cursing is sadly much devalued, though. In my childhood there were several very shocking special-occasion words, but now I don't think there are any words left with that sort of strength. Yes, one or two words are still bleeped out on the TV, but they only usually raise a laugh.

So what to do? Well, be inventive, be scholarly - and be careful. Some of the mildest curses are the nastiest. Blimey is short for God blind me, for example, which surely no one would use if they understood for what they were wishing.

There are plenty of invented curses ready-made for the uninspired. Louisa M Alcott had the odd thunder turtles; the Ewoks have kvark; Red Dwarf has smeg; Jennings has ozzard, and I myself had great fun with the swearing in my Truth Sayer books. I'm still rather fond of soft as goose grot.

For the scholars, Shakespeare is, as so often, an inspiration. Cream-faced loon, from Macbeth has proved on occasion a great comfort to me.

Or there's always diseases to call upon: a pox on't! Pustules!

Or there's always the wonderful murrain!

Word To Use Today: murrain. This is any plague-like disease, particularly in cattle. The word comes from the Old French morine, to die, and before that from the Latin morī, which is also to do with death.

Hm. Perhaps we should all just try keeping calm...

Thursday 28 July 2011

Fixed! A rant.

British Gas has just been fined £2.5 million.

Hey, that's even more than my gas bill. Well, it was last time I checked, anyway.

British Gas has got into trouble for not replying to customers' complaints, that sort of thing. People are also complaining (how justly I don't know) about misleading tariffs and hidden charges.

I can't imagine why any of this should be a surprise, because British Gas has been very frank about its practices. Why, British Gas put a leaflet through my door the other day which proclaimed in large blue letters:

Our boiler installation quotes are fixed.

So what do people expect, then?

Word To Use Today: fix. (Though guaranteed is probably the word towards which British Gas was groping.) Fix is a lovely word which can of course mean mended, unchanging, or fiddled. 

The word fix comes from the Middle English fixen, and before that from Latin fīxus, from fīgere, to fasten.

(You know, the thing that really gets my goat is someone must have been paid to come up with that slogan.
Hey, I wonder if there's an opening for a Say What You Mean Consultant? I'd be very happy to oblige. For a consideration, naturally.)

Wednesday 27 July 2011

Nuts and Bolts: onomatopoeia

Gosh, onomatopoeia is hard to spell, but it just means a word which sounds the same as the thing it describes.

Like hiccup and hum. That sort of thing.

But of course nothing's that easy.

Take a clock. They say (more or less) tick-tock in English and Filipino (tick-tack is generally commoner, elsewhere), but in Albania clocks run in waltz time: tik-tak-tok, tik-tak-tok.

This is very odd, I think, given that all early clocks had pendulums.

Or how about sheep. English sheep are supposed to bleat, but I've never heard a sheep say bleat in my life. Sheep round here go merrrrrr!

Sometimes the difference between an obvious attempt at onomatopoeia and the actual sound of the object is easy to explain. Frogs do go ribbit ribbit in America, but not here in England: our common species of frog goes (pretty much) croak.

And of course some sounds are just too difficult or spitty: no one wants to stop in the middle of a sentence to do an authentic imitation of a pig's grunt.

All the same, onomatopoeia gets everywhere, sometimes in quite subtle ways. All sorts of words, like laughter, or chain, have I think an echo of their sounds about them.

It's one of the things that make language so magical and evocative.

Thing To Do Today: listen out for onomatopoeia. This word is Greek, from the words onoma, which means name and poiein, to make.

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Thing To Do Today: soap yourself.

Only dirty people wash.

In fact, only fairly modern dirty people wash.

Oh yes, all this washing is really quite new. 

People seem mostly to have stayed well clear of water, let alone soap, until Roman times, when bathing suddenly became hugely fashionable.

Mind you, Roman soap was made out of wood ash, so I'm not sure how good the baths were at actually getting people clean.

The Arabs brought proper soap to the West in mediaeval times, but the dread of water as a disease-carrying substance meant it wasn't used that much. Even the rich weren't that keen - Louis XIII of France, for example, had his second bath at the age of seven. Mostly, people got clean by rubbing themselves with a perfumed cloth.

By the 18th century this was thought to be slightly inadequate, so rich people kept "clean" by changing their clothes a lot.

Things finally changed once it was understood how disease spreads. It turned out that people had been quite right to distrust the water, but once that was sorted out people rather took to the whole splashing-it-all-over thing.

Some of the distrust lingered for a long time, though. I remember my grandfather washing his bad foot when he went to the doctor's - which was all right, until the doctor wanted to see the other (still dirty) one for comparison.

Now, however, we have heating and we can enjoy a good soapy splash.

Have fun!

Thing To Do Today: soap yourself. This word hasn't changed much for millennia, and both the Old High German form, seipfa and the Old French, savon, are very much like the original Latin sāpō.  

Monday 25 July 2011

Spot the frippet: jelly.

Jelly. A jolly word, I thought, to start the week.

Let's do the British/American thing first. In Britain what we call jelly is usually the rubbery fruit-flavoured dessert which those in America call jello or gelatin.

We unite, however, in naming clear or savory preserves jellies, so that's one reason fewer for the next World War.


Jelly is too weighty a subject for one post, but I must mention jelly shoes because they sound so mad (they're sandals made of soft plastic which looks like jelly) and royal jelly, which is too extraordinary to ignore.

Royal jelly is excreted from the heads of worker bees. It's fed to young bees for the first three days of their lives, and also to queen bees.

If a queen dies, or becomes weak, then the workers will continue to feed royal jelly to a young bee, and this will make her turn into a new queen.

So as far as I can see this means the stuff's magic, then.

Spot the frippet: jelly.  This word comes to us from the Old French gelee, which means frost as well as jelly, and before that from geler, to set hard, from the Latin gelu, frost. 

Sunday 24 July 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: myrmidon.

Myrmidons, eh? They sound like space invaders - which, fair enough, is pretty close to what they are.

There are two stories about where the beginnings of the myrmidons. They're either the descendants of Myrmidon, King of Phthia (do have fun pronouncing that), who was the offspring of Queen Eurymedusa and Zeus (who may have been disguised, bizarrely, as an ant).

Or else the myrmidons were turned into humans from ants when King Aeacus of Aegina asked Zeus to repopulate his kingdom after a plague.

The myrmidons were a race of very brave and skilled fighters who in the Iliad are commanded by Achilles.

Nowadays the word has come to mean someone mindlessly obedient or slavish. And seldom, as they say, in a good way.

One to avoid unless you want to sound like a blocked bagpipe.

Word Not To Use Today: myrmidon. This word is from the Greek word myrmēx, which means ant.

Saturday 23 July 2011

Saturday Rave: The Emperor's New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen

The beginning of the story of The Emperor's New Clothes is long lost, but we do at least know how it ends.

The Emperor's New Clothes was first written down (though not made up) by a Prince, Juan Manuel of Villena, in a collection of stories written in 1335 called Libro de los ejemplos.

Prince Juan Manuel's version of the story was more or less as we know it now, except for the ending. In the Libro de los ejemplos the story ends with the emperor's courtiers all admiring the naked emperor.

The child who shouts 'the emperor has no clothes!' was the invention of a later collector of stories, Hans Christian Andersen. His version was published in 1837.

Why did he change the ending of the story? Well, it's a much better ending, which is reason enough.

Andersen did tell a story in his old age about seeing King Frederick VI for the first time and calling out to his mother but he's just a human being! so the idea for the new ending might have come from there.
I don't know, though, that seems a little tidy to me.

I love this story, anyway. The grown up powerful people turn out to be rogues and idiots, and the child turns out to be wise and clear-sighted.

Just how things seemed to me when I was young.

And much how it seems even now.

Word To Use Today: emperor. This word comes to us from the Old French empereor, from the Latin imperātor, which means commander-in-chief. Before that it's from parāre, to make ready.

Friday 22 July 2011

Word To Use Today: chump.

This is the best word ever. Well, definitely one of them.


Isn't it just gloriously satisfying?

Chump chump chump chump chump.

Chump is an affectionate name for a stupid person (and, heaven knows, there are plenty of those about).

Chump chump chump chump chump chump chump chump.

It can also mean head, as in you're off your chump. This means you're mad, but probably not in a dangerous sort of way. You probably wouldn't use it to an axe-murderer.

Actually, I'm not sure what you would say to an axe-murderer.

The thick end of something is also a chump, especially if it's a piece of meat, as in the delightfully named chump chop.

Chump can mean chomp, too.

Chump chump chump chump chump.

Personally, this being such a gorgeous word, I think there's room for it to be used more often. How about chump or chumpion as an opposite of champion?

As in Chumpion the Blunder Horse, perhaps.

Oh, all right, please yourselves!

Word To Use Today: chump. This word is probably a mixture of the words chunk and lump. Chunk might come from the Provençal word soca, which means tree stump, and lump is probably something to do with the similar Scandinavian dialect word which means block.

Thursday 21 July 2011

Humpty Dumpty jumps over the shark: a rant.

" 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone,  'it means just what I choose it to mean.  Neither more nor less.' "


So, jumping the shark, then.

There was once a TV series called Happy Days, and the fifth season opener had the lovely Fonzie, on water skis, jumping over a shark to prove his courage.

Since then, jumping the shark has come to describe the moment when a creative enterprise, having run out of steam, tries desperately and unsuccessfully to reinvent itself.

(That episode of Happy Days was watched by over 30 million people and the series continued for nearly seven more years, but, hey, that's still what jumping the shark means.)

Frank Rich used the phrase differently during the USA's last presidential campaign. He described Candidate Obama as jumping the shark because he sported a presidential-style seal on his podium.
In this case I think Frank Rich meant jumping the gun. It would be an easy mistake to make.

But now (19/07/11) Benedict Brogan in the Daily Telegraph says: All eyes are on the big fight at Westminster, but has the hacking story jumped the shark? The European economy is collapsing round us...

Now, the words jumping the shark here don't seem to have any connection at all that I can see with the the shark.

I think in this case jumping the shark might mean 'distracted us from an even more important event'.

But can it mean that? It would have turned the meaning of jumping the shark inside out, back-to-front, and topsy-turvy, as well.

And we all know what happened when Humpty Dumpty went topsy-turvy...

Words To Use Today: jumping the shark. I think we should stick with its original meaning, even though Fonzie, when he jumped the shark, clearly wasn't jumping the shark at all.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

Nuts and Bolts - hamartia.

I love the word hamartia. It sounds like a rule book for bad actors: ham-art-ia.


It's actually a rule for playwrights.

The thing is, every play or story of any kind needs something to kick it into action. Nowadays people tend to think in terms of a MacGuffin. A MacGuffin is something the characters really really want, even though it often isn't all that clear what the MacGuffin is, or why anyone should want it.

In a thriller it's often the SECRET PLANS.

Alfred Hitchcock made MacGuffins famous, but long before him there was a guy called Aristotle who had his own theories about kicking off a story.

What you needed, Aristotle said, was hamartia. Hamartia isn't a thing, like a MacGuffin. It's either a character flaw (the hero is greedy, or jealous), or it's something vital he doesn't know which makes him act (or not act) and thus cause his own downfall.

Something like the fact that his girlfriend's actually his mother. That sort of thing.
(Yes, it sounds a bit unlikely, but in Aristotle's time apparently the gods thoroughly enjoyed jerking people around in that sort of way.)

Word To Use Today: I can't honestly recommend hamartia because it will make you look like a show-off.
MacGuffin is quite cool, though. It was probably made up in about 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock.

Hamartia comes from the Greek word hamartanein, which means missing the mark. There's also a feeling of sinfulness in the word, too.

Tuesday 19 July 2011

Thing To Do Today If You Get Half A Chance: be torpid.

Birds do it, bats do it, even educated rats do it - let's do it, let's...

...sink into a torpor.

We humans aren't bad at sinking into torpors. A large lunch is usually enough to send adults, at least, into a state of blissful inactivity.

Female crocodiles are just the same during their short egg-laying season (who discovered that, I wonder? Of all the research projects to get lumbered with, poking crocdiles to see how fast they react must be one of the dodgiest).

We and the crocodiles are amateurs, however, compared with some hummingbirds. They don't just stop moving, as we do, but actually slow their heartbeat and lower their body temperature every night to stop themselves starving.

Jumping mice and groundhogs do the same thing, but for a whole winter.

Lungfish will sink into a torpor, too, though not because they've got no food, but because their pond is drying up. They make themselves a tight cocoon and stop doing anything much (except breathe air - they really are odd fish) until it rains and they can start doing their splashy fishy thing again.

Hm. Perhaps we should be sending trained lungfish on the next Mars mission.

That, or make sure the astronauts have a really enormous lunch before they go.

Thing To Do Today After Lunch If You Get Half A Chance: be torpid. This word comes from the Latin torpēre, which means to be numb or motionless.

Monday 18 July 2011

Spot the frippet:yokel.

Ah, yokels.

I'm afraid, you know, that some town dwellers think that country folk are slow.
There's a whole genre of yokel jokes that illustrate this.

A townie comes to a ford. He leans out of the window of his car and asks a nearby yokel how deep the water is.
The yokel thinks for a while.
'A couple of inches,' he says at last.
So the townie drives into the water, deeper and deeper, until at last the car floats away and the townie has to jump out, all sodden and furious and dripping green water everywhere.
'I thought you said the water was only a couple of inches deep!' he exclaims, in exasperation.
'Ah,' says the yokel. 'Well, it only comes half way up the ducks.'


And what happens then? Well, the townie goes off more convinced than ever that yokels are stupid, and the yokel goes home laughing.

Neat eh? So if you do spot a yokel - that is, anyone from the countryside - then take care. They're very clever people, and the chances are they'll not care a bit what you think of them.

Spot the frippet: yokel. This word probably comes from the country name for a green woodpecker or a yellowhammer.

Though I'm certain that a real yokel would be able to tell the difference between a green woodpecker and a yellowhammer, so whoever told the lexicographer that was probably just having a bit of a laugh.

Sunday 17 July 2011

Sunday Rest, Word Not To Use Today: scabrous.

Scabrous. This is a horrid word, with a cruel beginning and a dismissive end.

It means indecent, in a joyless sort of way.

Scabrous is sometimes used, too, of a problem that's particularly difficult to solve.

It can mean scaly, too. Now, there's nothing wrong with scales (provided you don't discover them when you take your vest off - that would be a sign you were turning into a dragon). Lizards and snakes wear their scales most beautifully. But even the elegance of an armadillo girdled lizard doesn't salvage the word scabrous as far as I'm concerned.

A murrain on it!

Word Not To Use Today: scabrous. This nasty word comes from the Latin word scaber, which means rough.

Saturday 16 July 2011

Saturday Rave: Towers in the Mist by Elizabeth Goudge.

What will survive of us is love, said Philip Larkin.

I'm writing a pair of stories set in Tudor times, and this has given me an excuse to return to an old favourite, Towers in the Mist. The story is set in Elizabethan Oxford, and as well as the stories of Joyeuce, Faithful, and Nicholas, we are given glimpses of Walter Raleigh, Fulke Greville, and Philip Sidney. We have some of their verses, too, as chapter headings.

Perhaps this isn't really a children's book, but it was given to me as a Sunday School prize (my dad ran the Sunday School, so attendance was compulsary - though I did have the advantage of being able to choose my own prizes.)

Reading Towers in the Mist again, I'm struck by two things: firstly, the shiveringly wonderful descriptions of the countryside around Oxford.

They had left the sun behind them and walked into the country of the moon. It hung in a deep green sky and...below them the grass had changed its colour, and become a cold blue-green.

Secondly, I remember from long ago my glee at being introduced so easily to some rather obscure poets. I came away from Towers in the Mist with the young and fanciable Raleigh, Greville and (especially) Sidney quite my own.

Eventually I even discovered the significance of Raleigh's meeting the Queen's little maid, and of the arrow Sidney shoots blindly into the air.

But even though I fancied them something rotten, for me what remains of Raleigh, Sidney, Greville isn't really love.

But their stories.

Word To Use Today: story. This word has come to us from the Anglo-French estorie, from the Latin historia, the Greek historein, which means to narrate, and before that from histōr, judge.

Friday 15 July 2011

Word To Use Today - cobalt.

Cobalt can be beautiful, but it can also be very dangerous.

The German miners of the 17th century certainly didn't like it much. This was partly because it was jolly difficult to get anything valuable out of the rock in which cobalt is found; partly because cobalt has a habit of spoiling nice clean silver ore; and partly because when you smelted it you were likely to get poisoned by arsenic fumes.

This is why those German miners called the stuff kobolt, which means goblin. (No one ever seems to have a good word to say about goblins.)

If that's not enough bad things about cobalt, there's also the Cobalt Blue Tarantula, a particularly poisonous and irritable hole-dwelling spider from Thailand.

And, of course, there's also the cobalt nuclear bomb. Not pleasant.

But it's not all bad news: there's the Cobalt Blue Mbuna, a perfectly harmless little fish from Malawi; all that stunning blue and white Chinese pottery; blue glass; the Romanian flag; and vitamin B12, without which we would all be anemic, tired, forgetful and depressed.

And cobalt blue is a simply glorious colour.

Word To Use Today: cobalt. This word comes from the German word kobolt, which means goblin, because of the belief that malicious goblins (is there any other kind?) put it in silver ore.

Thursday 14 July 2011

Reversing the ferret: a rant.

We're having a bit of a scandal in Britain at the moment. 

There's a lot of information still to emerge, but what is clear is that some of our gentlemen of the press are now ex-gentlemen, having firstly illegally hacked voice-mail messages, and secondly given money to police officers in return for information.

Naturally, those sections of the press untainted by the scandal are whipping themselves into a frenzy, with some delightful linguistic results. Twice over the last day or so I've come across baffling ferret references, as in John Whittingdale has reversed his ferret.

Even the omniscient Google has no mention of anyone reversing their ferret before the 12 July 2011, so it really is very new.

But what does it mean?

Well, thanks to wikipedia I now have some idea. When Kelvin MacKenzie was editor of The Sun newspaper he claimed that the job of a journalist when faced with public figures was to stick ferrets up their trousers - that is, to make them feel threatened.*

However, if it became clear that The Sun's bullying was unpopular with its readers, Mr MacKenzie would erupt from his office shouting 'Reverse ferret!'

I must say this new extension of the phrase into to reverse one's ferret is rather lovely. The meaning has changed from the original reverse ferret, though: to reverse one's ferret now seems to mean merely to retract an earlier statement.

This is, happily, even more useful, and I wish to reverse one's ferret a long life.

Oh, but wouldn't it be nice if people making up such expressions took a moment to make it clear what on earth they were talking about?

Word To Use Today: journalist. This word is from the Old French word meaning daily, and before that from the Latin word diurnālis, from diēs, which means day.

Curious, as so many of them work into the night, but there you go.

*(There is a Northern English sport of ferret legging, where contestants compete to see who can cope with having a ferret introduced into their sealed trousers for the longest period of time.

No, really, all you readers from saner climes, there IS!)

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Nuts and Bolts: anagrams.

You can't make up an anagram unless you know how to spell.

Now, this was a real nuisance until someone standardised English spelling, especially as anagrams had been used by many ancient and highly respectable men, like Moses, to do all sorts of magical things.

Still, anagrams could be used in various codes, and sometimes scientists (Galileo, for example) printed anagrams of the titles of his discoveries so he could prove they were his if someone stole them before the whole thing was published.

Similar things still happen: the secret BBC plans for one of Dr Who's regenerations was code-named TORCHWOOD.

Anagrams have long been used to disguise people. Dan Abnormal = Damon Albarn, for example.

And there never was a Hamlet, Prince of Denmark - but there was one called Amleth.

Anagrams are also good for a sly insult. It wasn't Salvador Dali's fault that his name is an anagram of Avida Dollars, but it must have stung, all the same.

And how about the rather wonderful Spy Allure?
It's the only way I'm ever going to sound anything like a Bond girl!

Thing To Use Today: an anagram. These are extremely useful for passwords - especially if they're really simple ones, like Amleth.

The word anagram is from the Greek word ana, which means again, and gramma, letter.

Tuesday 12 July 2011

Thing To Do Today: bloom.

How are you?

Blooming, I hope!

bloom is a sort of lonely-hearts ad. A plant pays insects or birds or bats in nectar (which is stuff like runny honey) to introduce its pollen to other blooms.

Sometimes, even more cunningly, blooms lure insects in by dressing up as possible girlfriends. The bee orchid, for instance, looks, yes, rather like a bee. 

Sometimes a bloom will smell of something delicious to encourage visitors. Mind you, if you're a beetle this might well be rotting flesh.

Or sometimes a bloom will miss out the middle man and just eat the insect straight off.

Some blooms can be really bad news for people as well as insects. If algae bloom (algae don't have flowers, it just means there are so many of them they colour the water) then that's often a sign of pollution.

Oh, and while I'm here, Bloomsday is not a flower festival, but a celebration in Dublin on June 16th of the life and work of James Joyce. The hero of his book Ulysses was called Leopold Bloom.

Thing To Do Today But Not If You're An Alga - bloom.  This word is probably something to do with the Old Norse word blōm, which means flower. The Latin word flōs probably has something to do with it too.

Monday 11 July 2011

Spot the frippet: fish.

The Word Den has neglected military matters until now.

Sadly I have no tales to tell of trained shivers of killer sharks, or hovers of spy-trout. But it was fish that saw off the Spanish Armada in 1588.

Well, it was largely the weather, actually, but the plan was all about fish.

The English knew that if the Spanish (or the French - England had annoyed rather a lot of her neighbours) decided to invade, they would have to come by ship. And to see off these enemy ships the English needed trained sailors.

And what is the best way of training sailors? Being out on a boat. And, really, while they were out there it was felt they might as well do something useful and catch some fish, and then the government wouldn't even have to pay them.

So a crafty law was passed which required everyone to eat fish on a Friday and a Saturday. This gave the fishing industry a big boost, and England survived undefeated.

(That was mostly because a storm got up and blew the Armada of enemy ships all over the place, but hey, the best laid plans...)

1588 was a long time ago, but fish are still used in sea battles: well, tin fish, are, anyway. A tin fish is another word for a torpedo.

Spot the frippet: fish. This word is from the Old English fisc, and before that from the Latin piscis.

Sunday 10 July 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: extravehicular.

This one's just silly: I mean, that HIC!  in the middle.

Extravehicular means stuff that happens outside a spacecraft.

This can either be in space itself, or on the surface of a moon or planet.

Rather sweetly, Extravehicular Activity is usually known as EVA. I'm not surprised: for one thing scientists love acronyms, and for another extravehicular is a spectacularly silly word .

Silliness isn't always a bad thing, of course. There's nothing wrong with the word twerp, for instance. But extravehicular is long, twitchy, ungainly, obscure and silly.

AND it's a pain to spell.

Word Not To Use Today: extravehicular. This word doesn't appear at all in my Oxford English Dictionary, so it must have been coined quite recently (though as far as my version of the OED is concerned that's anything after about 1930).

Perhaps when making up technical terms NASA should have spent a few dollars consulting the odd poet.

It wouldn't have been difficult: I mean, so many poets are.

Word Not To Use Today: extravehicular. The extra bit of extravehicular is Latin, from exterus, outward, and the vehicular bit is from the Latin word vehiculum, from vehere, to carry.

May I ask any visitors to this blog who happen to be in space to stick to EVA for the next day or so?


Saturday 9 July 2011

Saturday Rave: Chimney Corner Stories by Enid Blyton.

I suppose this is the equivalent of admitting to having a vinyl  version of Two Little Boys, but this book was a present, okay? I was six. I was too young to know any better.

The fact that I still occasionally read some of the stories in it

Oh all right, I must admit I admire Enid Blyton's short stories. She was brilliant at telling a deeply satisfying story in a small space.

She does proper plots, too. Take She Turned Up Her Nose, a tiny story about a snobbish doll from the Chimney Corner Stories. It's all there: the fatal flaw of character, the imagined invulnerability, the downfall, the recognition of error, and the happy ending.

There's a neat little anti-racist gag thrown in, too, (though I admit this generally isn't Blyton's strong suit).

In the nursery there lived a rather grand doll called Annabella Mary.

You just know from the very first line that Annabella Mary is riding for a fall.

Word To Use Today: doll. This word was invented in the 1500s, and probably started off as Doll, a pet form of the name Dorothy.

Friday 8 July 2011

Word To Use Today: world.

The world is too much with us, said William Wordsworth.

But then here we are, stuck on the flipping thing, and there's really not a lot any of us can do about it. 

Well, I suppose we could go on a lot of long-haul flights...

...or buy a pogo-stick.

The ancient world was a much more harmonious place than ours. The Latin word for world, mundus, meant clean or elegant; the Greek word for world, cosmos meant orderly arrangement.

Our English idea of the world comes from somewhere quite different. The Old English weorold is made up of two pieces. The weor bit was to do with man, and the eld bit meant age. So for us the world is the Age of Man.

And what a piece of work is man!

There is another place called The World within our reach. This a man-made collection of islands off the coast of Dubai. Unfortunately only one of them has a building on it, and the rumour is that they're all sinking back into the sea.

The News of the World is a British Tabloid Sunday Newspaper. It will cease publication on the 10th July 2011 after a series of phone-hacking scandals, most recently involving phones belonging to an abducted child, and also to the relatives of other murder victims.

I believe the world will be a sweeter place for its demise.

Thursday 7 July 2011

Ignorance: a rant.

Gosh, it's hard to know where to start with this one.

Have you heard the story about the talks between British and US diplomats which were held up for more than an hour because of an argument over whether an idea should be tabled or not?

Everyone got very frustrated, especially as everyone seemed to agree with each other about more or less everything.

So what was the problem?

Well, in Britain tabling an idea means putting it forward so it can be acted upon; and in the USA tabling means putting it to one side so it isn't.

So now. Ignorance.

Not long ago, after one of my piano pupils said, desparingly, I'm so stupid! I told her that, on the contrary, her only problem was a tiny amount of easily curable ignorance.

Now to my surprise this upset her very much.

It turned out that in her part of town ignorance means nastiness - and later, when I thought about it, I realised that as a child I'd sometimes heard the word used that way: he's just ignorant, people would say, meaning, he's just a nasty piece of work and all you can do is ignore him.

But, good grief, what chance has any of us got if just a few miles away across town words turn out to have changed their meanings completely?

Ah well. I suppose all we can do is keep on trying.

Word To Use Today: ignorance. This word comes from the Latin ignōrāre, which means not to know, which is itself made up of in, which means not, plus gnārus, knowing.

How ironic that after all these centuries of use people still aren't too sure what it means!

Wednesday 6 July 2011

Nuts and Bolts: a sinister delight.

The English language hasn't been kind to left-handed people. Sinister used to mean left. So did gauche, and cack-handed.

Sinister came from the Latin word sinus, which means pocket. (A toga had its pocket on the left side.) My Latin teacher told me once that if a Roman used his left hand his toga fell off, and perhaps this is why sinister began to have its current threatening meaning.

Gauche is a French word which means awkward (though it still means left, too). It's from the Old French gauchir to swerve.

Cack-handed means clumsy, as well as left-handed, and probably has an even less complimentary origin than the others.

On the other hand (sorry!) an Inca left-hander can do magic and heal people; in some sorts of Buddhism left-handers are known for their wisdom; in Japan the left hand is the hand of work; and in Russia levsha, a lefty, means a skilled craftsman. 

And of course if you're writing Arabic, Persian, Urdu or Hebrew, which run right to left, then being a left-hander might even be an advantage.

There's some research to suggest that clever left-handers earn more, too.

I'm beginning to feel quite left-out!*

Word To Use Today: sinister is a great word, and luckily, like gauche, it's now lost its shades of left-handedness.

*Do feel free to groan.

Tuesday 5 July 2011

Thing To Do Today: blink.

This is an easy one: we all blink.

If you are a hamster or a tortoise (hi there, guys!) you'll only blink one eye at a time. If you're a bird, a reptile or a shark (does anyone make an underwater computer?) then you'll blink with your third eyelid, which comes across vertically and looks really quite spooky.

We blink for several reasons. We blink when something comes close to our eyes; we blink to keep our eyes moist (not you, sharks); oddly, we also blink when we hear a loud noise.

We blink less often when we're very young, and when we focus on one thing for a long time. This is why reading can make the eyes feel tired. Perhaps we should have BLINK! signs in writing as reminders: or perhaps a full stop (period) could take on this extra function.
Well, it's a thought, anyway.

Thing To Do Today: blink. This word is related to the Middle Dutch word blinken, to glitter, and to the Danish word blinke, to wink.

Monday 4 July 2011

Spot the frippet: cucumber.

What's the fastest vegetable on earth?

Well, it's not the cucumber because the cucumber is technically a fruit, but the cucumber is jolly fast all the same.

I'm talking about the famous exploding cucumber, Ecballium elaterium, here. It's a poisonous thing which grows on the ground and looks something like a lime.

When it gets ripe, especially if you poke it (and who could resist?) it explodes with satisfying violence, spreading its slimy innards all over everything in the surrounding area.

The ordinary eating cucumbers are natives of India, but they've long colonised the world. Cucumbers are eaten in the story of Gilgamesh, and the Emperor Tiberius grew them in greenhouses on wheels and ate some every day (which is about the only good thing I know about the Emperor Tiberius).

The cucumber is said to cure scorpion bites and bad eyesight, and also to scare away mice. You can put slices on your eyes to reduce puffiness, and cucumber sandwiches are essential for afternoon tea. Well, if you're a snob they are, anyway.

Eat your cucumbers long before they're ripe, though, or they will taste utterly disgusting.

Spot the frippet: cucumber. This word arrived, with the fruit, in the 1300s. It comes from the Latin word cucumis.

Sunday 3 July 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: callus.

Callus is a spit of contempt.
It usually means, of course, a thickening of the skin caused by continual rubbing or pressure.

(Let's stop for a moment to admire the miracle that is the human body, shall we...yep, good stuff.)

A callus can also be the extra strengthening tissue that forms around the mend in a broken bone (and I mean, how does it know to do that???)

Plants do the same sort of thing round any injury, too (which, okay, makes me feel slightly less wonderful.
Ah well!). 

A Sherlock Holmes would be able to divine my job from the middle finger of my right hand, because anyone who does a lot of handwriting will have an area of thickened skin on the thumb-side of their top finger joint.
You know, I've never noticed that before.

The word callous, meaning unfeeling or insensitive, is basically the same word: because, of course, if you're thick-skinned you don't feel much.

Word Not To Use Today: callus/callous. Callum is Latin for hard skin, and callus is a variant of that.

Saturday 2 July 2011

Saturday Rave: The Wombles by Elisabeth Beresford.

I was a Womble once.

It was blazing day in June, and my friends Candice and Ruth and I dressed ourselves up in borrowed fur coats, padded ourselves with pillows, and put on furry ears and masks complete with ping pong ball noses. 

I was Tobermory, and had borrowed a bowler hat from the local bank manager.

I remember three things about that performance. Firstly, the incredible, brain-melting heat; secondly, the look of awe and wonder on one little girl's face; and thirdly, the fact that someone decided our performance area looked a mess while we were changing and tidied away every single prop just before we made our grand entrance.

Elisabeth Beresford invented the Wombles, and her books about them are lovely.

Some...[Wombles] spend a long long time looking at all the different parts of the world to find out just what will suit them [as a name], and some of them merely shut their eyes tight and point and hope for the best.
Which is how Bungo got his name.
"Serve you right," said Great Uncle Bulgaria.

And Wombles pick up litter, too. What's not to like?

Word To Use Today: Womble. This word was inspired by a kniferism. One of Elisabeth Beresford's young children, on a walk on Wimbledon Common, referred to it as Wombledon Common.
And the rest is history.

Wombling, by the way, is a method of looking at places where things are changing very quickly. It's been used to look at changes in language and in genetics. This word is named after its developer, William H Womble

Friday 1 July 2011

Word To Use Today: yacht.

Once upon a time there was a prince. He was tall, dark, and...

...well, two out of three's not bad.

Now there was a plan afoot to overthrow his father the king (who was, admittedly, very foolish and extremely annoying*) and so the prince fled his country.

The prince lived in exile for several years, and actually had a really great time. He discovered delightful things called actresses, and also the great pleasure of messing about in boats.

Now, before too long everyone back at home discovered that the plotters against the king were even more annoying than the old king had been, and so the prince was asked to return. By that time, though, the prince had realised that kings don't usually have all that much fun.

And so instead of travelling in a great warship, as a king should do, he started as he meant to go on and made the journey home in a much more amusing sort of craft called a yacht

And that is how the first yacht arrived in the English language.

Word To Use Today: yacht. This word is from the Dutch word jaghte, which is to do with chasing. The first yachts chased either pirates and tax-dodgers, or each other, for fun.

*and was called Charles the First.