This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 31 August 2011

Nuts and Bolts: short cuts.

I've been going through George Orwell's rules for writing and this is number three.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Well, that's just simple manners. No one should have to waste time trudging through ill-considered garbage.

Actually, though, I think even this rule could be shorter: OMIT UNNEEDED WORDS.

And so I'd better be going, then.

Word To Use Today: cut. Rather sweetly, the word cut has one of the longest entries in the dictionary. The word is probably of Scandinavian origin: the Norwegian kutte means to cut, and the Icelandic kuti is a small knife.

Tuesday 30 August 2011

Thing To Do Today: hope.

'Hope springs eternal in the human breast,' said Alexander Pope.

Well, that's good, then.

Another Hope quote:

'I thought Deep Throat was a movie about a giraffe.'

Yes, that was Bob Hope, bless him. Full of gags, was Bob, and he appeared in the film Road To Morocco which had the best ever dictionary pun in it : Like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco bound.*

Oh, Bob was never short of a one-liner:

People who throw kisses are mighty, hopelessly lazy.

And there's a great truth for you.

On the subject of courtship, in America there are hope chests, I understand, to hold a woman's new clothes until she finally finds someone worth marrying. (Here in England the same thing is called a bottom drawer.)

And on the subject of marriage, Samuel Johnson called second marriages the triumph of hope over experience.
But he had a very happy marriage, so that was just a gag, too.

I'll sign off with Bob again:

My father told me all about the birds and the bees, the liar. I went steady with a woodpecker until I was twenty one.

Thing To Do Today:  hope. This word, being eternal, has hardly changed in a thousand years. The Old English was hopa, the Dutch was hoop, and the Middle High German hoffe.

*This pun was actually made up by his pal Bing Crosby.

Monday 29 August 2011

Spot the frippet: something beginning with CN.

Something beginning with cn...

Well, there's Cnut, of course, the guy who told the tide not to come in. Unfortunately King Cnut died in 1035, though, so he's no longer available for spotting.

(A quick word about the tide thing. There are three versions of the story: firstly, that Cnut had an insanely big head and thought he really could hold back the tide; secondly, that Cnut was trying to get his courtiers to be less fawning; and, thirdly, that he was trying to show that all power and splendour was rightly the King of Heaven's. The oldest story is the third one.)

Well, if we can't spot Cnut, then how about a cnidarian? That's a jellyfish, coral, hydra or sea anemone. They all have cnidocytes, too, which are things like tiny poison-bearing harpoons for killing their prey.


Easiest of all the cn words to spot is a cnemis, though, because most of us have two of them. Cnemis is the anatomical term for a shin or tibia, and has the rather lovely related adjective cnemial.

Look out for cnemial pads at any cricket match near you.

Spot the Frippet: something beginning with cn. Of these words, the C is, sadly, pronounced only in Cnut. Cnidarian is from the Greek knidē, meaning nettle, and cnemis is from the Greek knē, leg.

Sunday 28 August 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: homunculus.

Homunculus. Now what could one of those be, but a hunched and vicious monster?

Well, even a homunculus has its good side. There are, for example, guardian homunculi. If you'd like one of your own you just have to get a black dog to pick a mandrake root, which you then feed on milk and honey - though some homunculi apparently prefer lavender seeds and earthworms.

In alchemy, homunculi are said to be eager to be turned into metal, now matter how painful the process might be. There was also a theory that every human started off as a teeny teeny homunculus who just gradually...grew.

Homunculi, dismayingly, are still used in science today. These homunculi are distorted pictures which show how many sense cells there are in each part of the human body - so the fingers, for instance, which have many sense cells, are enormous.

You know, the whole thing is really, really, horrible, isn't it.

Word Not To Use Today, Or, In Fact, Ever: homunculus. This word is 17th century Latin and means little man.

And it's horrible.

Saturday 27 August 2011

Saturday Rave: Rumpelstiltskin.

Ah, this is a story for a word-lover. Rumpelstiltskin: a baffling, juicy title which, now I come to think about it, unfortunately gives away the punch-line.

But never mind.

There are all sorts of things wrong with this story: the King is nasty piece of work, both cruel and greedy, but he still gets the girl; the good guy, who helps the heroine in her hour of need, ends up being dissed by the heroine. 

I suppose this means the hero and heroine deserve each other, but that's still not exactly a fairy tale ending. Ah well, perhaps one day I'll write a sequel and dish out justice all round.

Anyway, even with all its faults, Rumpelstiltskin is a great story. There's a mystery, and a terrible danger, and the poor miller's daughter does get most satisfyingly rich. Most of all there's that lovely word Rumpelstiltskin hanging over the story as a puzzle and then a revelation.

I must say I never did like the ending, though. Is there a Dwarf-Power organisation anywhere I can join?*

Word To Use Today: poltergeist. Hey, you weren't expecting that, were you? And neither, to be frank, was I, but a rumpelstilz is a goblin who rattles posts and knocks on floorboards, and poltergeist is the nearest English word we have. Rumpelstilzchen means Little Rattle-Post in German, and poltergeist is German, too. It comes from the German poltern, to be noisy, and geist, ghost.

There's a similar English story called Tom Tit Tot.

*Actually, the nasty ending for poor Rumpelstiltskin was made up by the blasted Brothers Grimm. In some earlier versions good old Rumpelstiltskin ends up flying off on a ladle. Hurray!

Friday 26 August 2011

Word To Use Today: basil.

Some words are just intrinsically silly, and basil is one of them.

This must be partly because of John Cleese and Connie Booth's marvellous sitcom Fawlty Towers, which stars John Cleese as the extraordinary Basil Fawlty: but of course Basil wouldn't have been called Basil in the first place if the name hadn't been funny to start with.

So why is basil so funny? There's nothing the slightest bit amusing about the word basilisk, for instance; and Baz as a name is really quite cool.

I was wondering if basil could be perfectly dignified when it describes the herb; but then I found out that the herb basil is also called St Joseph's Wort (and it's plainly impossible to take anything called wort seriously) and that there's also a variety called African Blue Basil, and, really, who can keep a straight face?

Boccaccio did write a serious story about a pot of basil - but, honestly, it's so gruesome you'd need a heart of stone not to laugh.

I think the only thing to do is to enjoy basil at every saying.

Basil? BASIL???

And, naturally, every eating, too.

Word To Use Today: basil. This word comes from the Old French basile, and before that from the Greek basileus, king, because saints Constantine and Helena were supposed to have found it growing on the site of the Holy Cross.

Thursday 25 August 2011

Begging the question - a rant.

I saw a muley last night.


Oh, all right, I'll tell you about muleys later. I only mentioned them because I was hoping to arouse your curiosity.


Well, because of all this silly begging the question malarkey. No one has a clue what it means. Lots of people think that if I say something which makes people ask a question (what's a muley?) then I've begged that question.

Now, I, personally, don't agree: mentioning muleys raises a question, but it really doesn't beg it. 

So what is begging a question, then?

Oh, if only people were agreed about that!

Some people say it's when an answer to a question isn't an answer at all.

The other day, for instance, I asked a friend how he chooses which books to read. And his answer was I just look along my to-read shelf.

Now, that's no answer at all, and some people (including me) would say my friend was begging - failing to answer - the question.

But some other people (don't talk to me about people!) say that begging the question is an argument which goes round in a circle.

God exists because the Bible says so, and the Bible must be right because it's the word of God.

And, quite honestly I wish people would make their flipping minds up.

Meanwhile, to keep the pedants happy perhaps the phrase is best avoided altogether.

Except, of course, that pedants are only happy when they're finding fault.

So we just can't win, can we?

Word To Use Today: beg. This word comes from the Middle English word beggen: and for a word that's so useful it's hardly changed at all for so long it's still causing a lot of trouble.

Oh, and a muley is a cow without horns. From the Welsh moel, bald.

Wednesday 24 August 2011

Nuts and Bolts: sesquipedalian

George Orwell's first rule for using language is HERE.

This is rule number two:

Never use a long word when a short one will do.

I must say this knocked me sideways a bit. I mean, I hardly like to disagree with George Orwell, but we're not aiming to find words which will 'do', are we? We're aiming to find the exact word for the exact place.

If we mean tranquillity then peace or calm might 'do' - but it would be very sad to lose the beautiful word tranquillity.

And how could I give up the glories of such a sesquipedalian as...well, sesquipedalian?

On the whole, though, of course, Orwell is quite right.

And, sure enough, all writers who use the words laughed or ejaculated or opined instead of said should be taken out and shot.

Word Probably Not To Use Today Because It Will Make You Look A Real Show-off: sesquipedalian. Sesquipedalian means (or describes) a long word. It's from the Latin word sēsquipedālis which means a foot and a half. Sesqui means one-and-a-half, and pedalis means of the foot.


Tuesday 23 August 2011

Thing To Do Today: be pert.

Now, this word is a real puzzle - but let's get the science out of the way first.

PERT is a formula developed during the design of the Polaris submarine. It claims to tell you how long any job will take. The formula is TE = (O+4M+P)

Now, this looks jolly impressive until you find out that means.

It means: add your gloomiest guess at how long something's going to take (P) to your cheeriest guess (O), add on four times your most balanced guess (M), and divide by six.


Anyway, let's forget the "science" and get on to the more interesting stuff, ie, the puzzle of pertPert means impudent or jaunty (as in a pert hat). In the past it's meant clever or brisk, too.

But, hang on, what about a pert bottom? Surely a bottom can't be impudent, clever, or brisk. Jaunty is a bit surprising, too.

A quick survey of the people in this house reveals that a pert bottom is thought to be: a) apple rather than pear-shaped, b) small and c) not at all droopy.

No dictionary I can find even mentions this sense of the word pert.

So, if you have the opportunity, please ask your friends and relations about pert, and let me know what they think.

Go on. In the name of science.

Thing To Do Today: be pert. This word comes from the Middle English word meaning unconcealed, from apert, which means obvious or frank, from the Latin apertus, open.

Monday 22 August 2011

Spot the frippet: wastrel.

It's August, it's the holiday season, and it's probably harder than usual amongst the happy idling crowds to spot a real wastrel.

Oh, but it's a lovely word, and there's surely something irresistibly loveable and all-too-forgiveable about one. A wastrel may be idle and neglectful of his responsibilities, but he is so relaxed about it that we all have trouble avoiding being charmed.

And do I say harden your hearts?

No - but harden your heads, leave your purses in very safe places - and enjoy the company.

Spot the frippet: wastrel. This word is from the Anglo-French waster, from vastāre, to lay waste, from vastus, which means empty.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: oblong.


What a really horribly wobbly word.

People use it to mean rectangle, but surely a fat sort of a word like - ugh! - oblong can't have pointy bits, or sharp edges.

There's some truth in that, too, because an oblong is any long shape: it doesn't have to be a rectangle.

So that means the word doesn't have a rigid meaning, and I can carry on avoiding the whole wet mess. Hurray!

Word Not To Use Today: oblong.  From the Latin oblongus. The ob bit is an intensive - that is, it means extra - and the longus bit means...

...ah, you're there ahead of me.

Always remember:

           **there are worse things than being square!**                

Saturday 20 August 2011

Saturday Rave: Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K Jerome.

This is the second book featuring Harris, George and J. Their first, more famous, outing is described in Three Men in a Boat, where the three men (to say nothing of the dog) row up the Thames towards Oxford - and fail to get there.

Three Men on the Bummel describes a bicycling holiday to Germany, and I love it even more than Three men in a Boat. Three Men on the Bummel doesn't feel the need for sentimental interludes, for one thing, and it is also really shockingly prescient (it was published in 1900) on the subject of Germany's potential for following any leader who presents himself to the country.

And Jerome has such fun. Here he is on the difficulties of pronouncing a foreign word.

'Press your tonsils against the underside of your larynx. Then with the convex part of the septum curved up so as to almost - but not quite - touch the uvulva, try with the tip of your tongue to reach your thyroid. Take a deep breath, and compress your glottis. Now, without opening your lips, say "Garoo".

And when you have done it they are not satisfied.'

Word To Use Today: bummel. I must admit this hasn't really become an English word, but I do wish it had. We used to have the lovely batie-bummil, which means an idle fellow, and the Americans among us still have bum, meaning what in Britain we would call a tramp. 

A bummel is a journey made with no particular purpose, and both it and bum probably come from the same German word, bummeln, which means to loaf.

Friday 19 August 2011

Word To Use Today: mumchance.

Yes, okay, no one will know what you're talking about if you use the word mumchance, but some words are just too gorgeous to leave on the shelf.

Really, using it will make the world a better place.

Mumchance means silent, or struck dumb. I think it can only be used of a person - I don't think you can have a mumchance forest (though even that might make a good title for a thriller) but the expression all I could do was sit mumchance will surely add lustre to any day.

A mumchance can mean also a silent, idle, and probably stupid person, too.

Mumchance has been both a dice and a card game. Unfortunately the rules of both have been forgotten, though we know that they were played without speaking, though not without laughter.

Word To Use Today: mumchance. This word arrived in the English language in the 16th century to mean a masquerade or a mime show. It comes from the Middle Low German mummenschanze which means masked serenade, from mummen (which comes from the Old French momen, mask) and schanze, which means chance.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Masters of the Universe - a rant.

Ah yes, bankers.

The Masters of the Universe, as Tom Wolfe described them: and I didn't notice any of them arguing at the time.

But now, of course, everyone is arguing, both about what's going on, and how it can be stopped.

This is Ian King, business editor of The Times, on the subject of a recent panic: “just six words did it: ‘you will see what we will do’.”


Good grief, and that's someone who's supposed to understand all the figures.

 Still, at least some experts have words of comfort for us:

 ‘The economy may not be as bad as we thought,’ said Joseph Trevisani, chief market analyst at FX Solutions, not long ago, ‘but it is certainly not better.’

Ouch. If that's the quality of the financial experts' thought then I suppose all we can do is crsos our fnigres.*

 Word To Use Today: banker. This word probably comes to us from the Italian word banca, which is a bench or a money-changers’ table. There’s an Old High German word banc which means bench, too.

*Or, this is a bit of a long shot, but I understand that St Matthew is the patron saint of bankers...

Wednesday 17 August 2011

Nuts and Bolts - Single Speak.

George Orwell came up with six rules ‘that one can rely on when instinct fails’.

The aim of these rules was to produce language ‘as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.’

Well, that must be the aim of every honest man, so I thought they were worth a look. They’re beautifully simple rules, too.

Number 1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
Oh all right, when I said these rules were simple I didn’t mean to imply they were easy.

Good grief, following this one involves picking our way carefully through the litter of poor over-worked words which lie exhausted all over our language.

And this, of course, requires attention and careful thought.

 Thought? When writing or speaking? Attention?

 Ah well, Orwell always was a revolutionary.

 Word To Use Today: instinct. This word is from the Latin instinctus, which means roused, from instiguere, to incite.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Thing To Do Today: be nimble.

Jack be nimble,
Jack be quick
Jack jump over
The candlestick.

What? But why on earth...

Well, in those days (the rhyme was first recorded in the early 19th century) they had, as they say, to make their own entertainment.

Jumping over a candlestick was a game, and also a sort of fortune-telling device. Good luck would be yours, it was said, if you could jump over the candlestick without putting out the candle.

Bad luck was certainly yours if you went and set fire to yourself.

However, Nimble Kate isn't a champion candlestick jumper, but a rather rampant American weed, Sicyos angularis, also known as the Bur Cucumber.

And a nimblewit...well, if you are one yourself then you probably don't need me to tell you that it's an alert and clever person.

Thing To Do Today: be nimble. This word comes from the Old English nymel, meaning capable, which is a sort of mixture of the Old English words nǣmel, quick-grasping and numol, able to take. The Greek word nemein, to take, is also part of the word nimble's history.

Monday 15 August 2011

Spot the frippet: taxicab.

Well, Taxis are usually easy to spot. In England they have the word TAXI written on them, for a start. In New York they're famously yellow. In Guyana their registration numbers begin with the letter H.

The first taxi companies started up in London and Paris in the 17th century, and in London the horses to pull them were kept in the district of Hackney. London Black Cabs (the ones you can hail) are still officially called Hackney Carriages.

If you're in India you might be lucky enough to travel in an auto-rickshaw; in Mackinac Island a taxi-sleigh; and in Venice, of course, the taxis are aquatic. There are flying taxis, too.

They're all very useful when you're lost, tired, or you've met bad weather. 

But what's even worse than it raining cats and dogs?

Hailing taxis!

Spot the frippet: taxi. The term taxicab was coined by Harry Nathaniel Allen in New York. It's short for taximeter cabriolet. Taximeter comes from the French taximètre, which is made up of the Mediaeval Latin taxa, which means tax or charge, and the Greek metron, which means measure. Cabriolet is the French for a little skip, and is from the Latin capreolus, a wild goat.

So there you are: look out for someone enjoying a ride in a wild goat charge-measurer today.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: interlocutor

I'd never heard anyone say this word until about six months ago, and now it's all over the place.

It's a horrible tinny little word, too, like a very cheap clockwork train going over some very rickety points.

(You say it INterLOCerta.)

All it means is someone who takes part in a conversation - and it's far too grand a word for that. Questioner or interviewer or even interviewee must be preferable (though interviewee is pretty nasty, too).

An interlocutor can also be the front man in a troupe of minstrels - the one who does the announcements and engages the others in conversation.

If you're in Scotland, it can be a decree by a judge. 

I just wish a judge would make a decree to throw it into jug for a long long time.

Word Not To Use Today: interlocutor. This foul word is annoying enough to pollute the atmosphere with no fewer than three feminine forms: -tress, -trice and -trix. Curse it!

This word is made up of the Latin inter, which means between or among or together, and loquī, to speak.

Saturday 13 August 2011

Saturday Rave: Puss in Boots.

I love stories about crafty people, and there's surely no hero craftier than Puss in Boots.

Puss in Boots is not nearly as well-known a story as some of the other tales published (and in this case quite possibly written) by Charles Perrault, but it's a cracker all the same. It starts most satisfactorily with a youngest son who is left only a cat in his father's will, and ends...but of course I mustn't tell you the ending, except that it involves an ogre and the most beautiful princess in the whole world.

Puss in Boots is an unusual story because the youngest son isn't really the hero: the hero's the brains of the outfit, which is most definitely Puss. 

The youngest son doesn't have to be brave, or clever, or important, or even to know anything. I suppose he does have to be handsome, and he has to be humble enough to follow his cat's advice, but that's about it.

Gives hope to us all, I reckon. Hurray!

'Never again did he chase a mouse - except for fun.'

Word To Use Today: fun. This word popped up in the 17th century. It might come from fon, which meant to make a fool of, and before that from fonne, a fool.

Friday 12 August 2011

Word To Use Today: orifice.

This is a word to give pleasure in every saying: orifice (you say it ORRY-fiss).

It means an opening, of course. Orifices of the body, for example, are the mouth, the nostrils others.

Back orifice is a sneaky bit of computer programing which means you can operate a computer secretly and remotely. This can be useful, obviously, but it can also be a dangerous menace and the security people hate it.

An orifice plate is a clever device which partly blocks off a pipe through which a fluid is passing. The difference in pressure as the fluid goes through the left-open bit - the orifice - tells you stuff about the flow rate.

Or so they tell me - though that sort of stuff goes in one orifice and out the other, I'm afraid.

Word To Use Today: orifice. This is too wonderful a word not to be used as often as possible, and there are orifices everywhere. Think of nesting boxes and post boxes and washing machines, for a start.

Do explore one today.

The word orifice comes from the Late Latin ōrificium, and before that from the Latin ōs, mouth, and facere, to make.

Thursday 11 August 2011

Irony: a rant.

I thought I'd have a good rant about people who misuse the word irony.

But then I thought about it some more, and perhaps it's really the word irony itself that's the villain, and not the people using it.

I mean, irony does have several meanings, and they do blur into one another most confusingly.

So, irony.

Well, poor Alanis Morisette and Glen Ballard, eh? They wrote a song called It's Ironic which was made up of a whole list of things that aren't actually...well, ironic. Hitting a traffic jam when you're already late isn't ironic at all, it's just really, really exasperating.

The central idea of irony is that somewhere there's a power (the gods, fate etc) that watches people going about their lives and takes delight in pressing the NOBBLE button just when people think they've got things sorted out.

For instance, the man who tried to shoot Ronald Reagan missed him, but a shot hit the presidential car, which was so carefully armoured that the shot ricocheted and hit Ronald Reagan in the chest.

Another for instance: my husband took his swimming trunks, carefully wrapped in his towel, on a trip to the pool. But he fell into a pond on the way and it was only his swimming stuff that avoided getting soaked through. (Still makes me laugh, that.)

Then, as well, you have the sort of irony that's pretty much the same as sarcasm but without the bitterness. Then there's dramatic irony, too, which is when a fictional character says something and you know they've got it ALL WRONG and that they're DOOMED.

Perhaps one day we'll evolve into bigger-brained creatures who can cope with this sort of thing. But for now perhaps we should go easy on the word irony.

Unless, of course, we hold back on pronouncing the r and mean full of iron.

Word To Use Today But Only After A Lot Of Thought And Possibly Not Even Then: irony. This word comes from the Greek words eirōn, which means dissembler, and eirein, which means to speak.

Interesting that they're such similar words, isn't it.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Nuts and Bolts: nemesis.

I've been ambling through the stages of Aristotle's ideas about tragedy. The first two stages can be found here and here, and now we come to nemesis.

Oh dear...

The first important thing is that Nemesis is female. The second important thing is that she's out to get you.

Well, perhaps not you, personally, but her job is to bring you down to earth with a sharp bump if you get uppitty - as heroes of tragedies (and life) tend to do.

Now, Nemesis gave birth, they say, to two sets of twins: firstly Castor and Pollux, and secondly that sweet pair Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra.
(Good grief, you wouldn't want to accept an invitation to their Christmas get-togethers.)

Nemesis, it is also said, used to be rather mellower: she started off as the spirit of just deserts. 
I suppose having a family like that, though, is enough to sour anyone's temper.

Word To Use Today: nemesis. This word comes from the Greek work nemein, which means to give what is due.

Hilariously, nemein is also the origin of the word economy.

Tuesday 9 August 2011

Thing To Do Today: shoogle.

My Collins dictionary says shoogle is a dialect word chiefly used in Scotland, but it's much too splendid a word not to be used by all of us on every possible occasion.

Shoogle means to shake or sway, or to rock backwards and forwards.

Shoogle is also system (if I've understood it correctly, which I quite probably haven't) of persuading a phone to give out information by shaking it.
Well, shouting at them certainly doesn't seem to work.

Never mind, even the most technophobic of us can always have a good shoogle to some music!

Word To Use today: shoogle. There are other dialect words which seem to be related to shoogle, such as shog, which means trepidation. There's probably a connection to the German word schaukeln, too, which means to shake.

Do see if you can persuade a friend to shoogle, too.

Monday 8 August 2011

Spot the frippet: velvet.

Soft, cushiony, and just faintly sinister: velvet.

Apart from the luxurious and lustrously pelted fabric, velvet is the skin which covers and feeds antlers while they're growing (velvet antler is made from antlers that have been harvested before they've got bony. It's ground up to make tea and is used in Chinese medicine to try to cure all sorts of unlikely things).

Velveting is the lovely expression which describes a cat folding its claws back into its paws.

Then we have the velvet scoter and the velvet shank, a sea duck and a fungus, respectively.

An iron hand in a velvet glove is a gentle reminder of the wielder's power.

Black velvet is, though, one to be avoided if at all possible. It's a mixture of stout and champagne in equal proportions. And, surely, a great waste of both.

Spot the frippet: velvet. This word comes to us from the Old French veluotte, from the Latin villus, which means shaggy hair.

Sunday 7 August 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: bilk.

This is a truly horrible puking sort of a word.

I'm not sure why it's so nasty because milk and silk are, well, milky and silky. And the bill bit is fine, too (unless, obviously, it's a demand for payment).

Anyway, bilk. It can mean to thwart, or to refuse due payment, or to cheat.

In the card game of cribbage, it's playing a card which stops your opponent from scoring in his or her crib.
(I suppose bilking at cribbage is part of the game, but, I don't know, I think I'm too soft-hearted to take any pleasure in it even then. Perhaps it should be re-named. Plurdling, perhaps.)

Anyway, how could a bilk-free Sunday fail to make the world a happier place?*

Word Not To Use Today: bilk. This word is probably a form of the word baulk. It comes from the Old English balca, which is related to the Old Norse bálkr, partition, and the Old High German balco, which means beam.

*I'll make an exception in the case of the veteran clarinettist Acker Bilk, who, as far as I know, is perfectly harmless.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Saturday Rave: All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott.

No, really, James Herriott's books about a Scottish vet in the Yorkshire Dales are marvellous. I must admit that when I picked them up again after many years I wasn't expecting much, but they're tender, funny, and full of wonderful characters, proper stories, and joie de vivre.

My visits here were usually associated with a degree of fantasy but I was beginning to feel out of my depth.
'You mean you actually have a pig in the house?'
'But of course.' Mrs Pumphrey looked surprised. 'He's in the kitchen. Come and see him.'
...The elderly cook...was chopping carrots and hurling them into a saucepan with, I thought, unnecessary vigour.

And it's all beautifully done: just beautifully done!

Word To Use Today: fantasy. Yes, I know that fantasy is much-derided but, hey, it helps to make me a living so I'm not going to start knocking it.
The word fantasy comes from the Latin word phantasia, and before that from the Greek phantazein, to make visible.

Friday 5 August 2011

Word To Use Today: sausage.

sausage is just a way of persuading people to eat the most revolting bits of an animal.
It's been tremendously successful, too: I understand that people have been making sausages since prehistoric times. We certainly have a Chinese recipe for goat and lamb sausage from 589BC, and Aristophanes' play The Knights is all about a sausage seller.

On the other hand the Byzantine Leo VI (the Wise) banned sausages following cases of food poisoning.
Not all that wise, then.

Today, of course, there are sausages all over the place, made of all sorts of things it's probably best not to think about too much. English sausages have a habit of exploding during cooking (explosions were especially violent during World War Two, when there was a lot of water added to sausages to disguise the fact that they contained very little meat) which is why we often call them bangers.

The expression not a sausage, meaning nothing at all, is rhyming slang: sausage and mash - cash. So not a sausage originally meant penniless.

Gosh, I'm hungry!

Word To Use Today: sausage. This word is from the Old French saussiche, and before that from the Latin salsus, which means salted.

Thursday 4 August 2011

A submersible delight - a rant.

Someone's just sent me a small brochure advertising some river cruises. I don't think they can have had that many enquiries about the Chinese one, because the Imperial Jewels of China cruise has been reduced in price by a hefty £750.

Reading the blurb, I think I can see why it's not proved too popular.

'Step away from the busy centre,' it says 'and submerge yourself in Zhujiajiao - Shanghai's Venice.'

Ah. Presumably that's one for the mermaids, snorkellers, and fishes, then.

Word To Use Today: submerge. This word is basically Latin. Submergere is made up of sub, which is one of those bits of words which means more or less anything but mostly, in this case, means under, and mergere, which means to immerse.

I can't imagine how you can immerse something without it going under, but there you go.

Wednesday 3 August 2011

Nuts and Bolts: hubris.

Hubris is the pride that goes before a fall. You know the sort of thing: when the villain stops stroking his white cat just long enough to laugh manaically and say nothing can stop me now!

Now, when the villain says, nothing will stop me now you sit on the edge of your seat because you know jolly well that any moment now the helicopters will be homing in on his volcano hideout.

But what if it's the hero who's doing the nothing will stop me now bit?

Well, (according to Aristotle at any rate) then you have the makings of a tragedy.

 Because when the hero says, hubristically, nothing will stop me now, you wince and say to yourself poor mutt: because, of course, we all know that despite his looks, ambition, and noble birth he's quite, quite doomed.

Well, there's tragedy for you.

Word To Use Today: hubris. I think you can just about get away with using this one as long as it's about someone everyone's really annoyed with. Like bankers.

The word hubris an ancient Greek legal term which covered disrespect to a defeated enemy, or to a corpse, and then, later, to crimes by powerful people which humiliate the victim.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Thing To Do Today: wish.

What would you wish for?

World peace? A handsome prince? A million pounds? A doughnut?

Whatever it is, you can try to get it by wishing on a star (shooting or otherwise), or a wishbone, or while blowing out the candles on your birthday cake.

If you're prepared to make an investment, then chucking a coin into a wishing well might be worth a try, too.

Otherwise, your best bet might be a freeing a genie from a bottle.

But in that case, be very careful what you wish for...  

Three men on a desert island find a bottle. They take out the cork and a genie appears.
'Okay,' he says, 'Thanks a lot, and I'm prepared to offer the going rate of three wishes. That's between you.'
'Well, I wish I was home,' says the first man, and vanishes.
'I wish I was in Paris,' says the second: and instantly he's gone.
And then the third one looks round at the empty island and says:
'Gosh, I wish my friends were back!'

Thing To Do Today: wish. The Old English form of this word is wȳscan. It's related to the Norse öskja and the Dutch wenschen.

Monday 1 August 2011

Spot the frippet: garden.

It's much easier to spot a garden in England than in America - or so I understand.

You see, in England there are gardens everywhere, though most of them are small, and some of them are tiny.

Really tiny.

An English garden may be less than three feet from front to back.

In America it seems that these small areas are called yards, which is confusing because an English yard is an area of bare concrete (probably) with no plants, nowhere to sit, and a heap of junk in the corner.

In England, saying would you like to come and see our yard? is about as likely as saying would you like to come and see our dustbins?*

Look deeper, though, and it all comes together. The word garden is from the Old French gardin, which is related to the Old Norse garthr. And garthr is not only the ancestor of the word garden, but of the word yard, as well. 
More relations include the Old Slavonic word gradu, which means town or castle, and the Albanian garth, house.

Still, whatever you call them, yards or gardens, each one, as TE Brown told us, is a lovesome thing. And also, as Keats almost told us, a thing of beauty and a job forever.

Spot the frippet: garden. While I'm here, a gardenia is named after the American botanist Dr Alexander Garden, 1730 - 1791.

Well, I suppose he had to be a botanist with a name like that.

*Garbage cans!