This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 30 September 2011

Word To Use Today: marmite.

A hard-working word, marmite.

In Britain, Marmite is a tar-like substance made of yeast and vegetable extracts. It's quite similar to (and yet utterly different from) the Australian delicacy Vegemite, the Swiss Cenovis, and the American Vegex, and it raises similar passions amongst those who like it and those who hate it.

It's made by persuading yeast to auto-destruct.

The philosopher Edward de Bono suggested that Marmite might solve the problems of the Middle East.

Oh yes, he really did.

He suggested that the bad-temper which has plagued the region for millennia might be due to a lack of zinc in the diet (good heavens, we're back to zinc deficiency again. Is that a co-incidence or is it FATE?) which a generous helping of Marmite would cure.

Extraordinary, isn't it.

Marmite is also sometimes taken to prevent malaria. It has no effect on malaria at all, but a belief in its usefulness seems to have arisen when Mary Ratnam dished out Marmite tablets with quinine tablets during an malaria epidemic in Sri Lanka. This had a hugely beneficial effect on the health of the malnourished people.

**Look, I'm really going to have to do some more research into zinc deficiency. If I can discover any way of helping I'll let you know.**

Anyway, apart from the yeast extract, a marmite is a posh lidded cauldron, as used, I should imagine, by the more elegant witch.

And, lastly, in America a marmite is a container used to bring food to troops in the field of war.

Word To Use Today: marmite. This word is from the French for pot. Marmite jars are the same shape as a traditional marmite, too.

Thursday 29 September 2011

a less than minimal meaning - a rant.

When someone tries to persuade me to buy a new car like this:

Flexible financing makes the process easier with...up to £5000 minimum part exchange value guaranteed.

I suppose I must give him or her some grudging respect for assembling a whole sentence containing no obscure words or grammatical errors which nevertheless manages to convey absolutely no meaning whatsoever.

I'm still not buying a car from them, though.

Word To Use Today: flexible. This word comes from the Latin flexus, bent, from flectere, to bend or bow.

The dictionary doesn't make it clear whether that's bow as in arrow or bow as in bend forward, but, hey, it seems to be that sort of a day...

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Nuts and Bolts: yogh.

Poor yogh! It's been completely excluded from the party that is the English language. 

It has, though, like a wicked fairy, exacted a fine revenge by leaving a great mass of confusion and bewilderment in its wake.

Yogh was a letter of the alphabet which looked like this: Ȝ, or this: ȝ, and it was widely used in Middle English and Middle Scots.

It was banished for a mixture of reasons. Firstly, it shared sounds with other letters (y, ng, k, g); secondly, it wasn't available in most printing fonts; and, thirdly, the Normans were, frankly, too racist to use a letter which wasn't deemed necessary in good old Norman French (they tended to use gh instead)*.

But poor yogh's disappearance has left us with the nightmare of words like - well, nightmare. That gh should really be a yogh, and night should really be pronounced more or less nixt (some Scottish pronunciations are still close to this).

Those awkward ough words would make a lot more sense with a nice yogh in them, wouldn't they.

We also have Scottish names like Dalziel (pronounced deeyell) and Menzies (mingis) where poor yogh has been replaced by a z, to everyone's confusion.

Nuts and Bolts: yogh. This letter might be named after the 14th century word yok, which means yoke (as in cattle, milkmaids etc) because of its shape.

*Two yoghs go into a Norman bar. 'Oi, get out!' says the barman. 'We don't want your type in here.'

All right, all right, please yourselves...

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Thing To Do Today: conjure up a collins.

A what? I hear you ask: it's what I said when someone asked me about it, anyway.

Well, it turns out that a Collins can be several things. It's a tall thin glass, often used for serving a cocktail called, yes, a Collins (that's 2 parts spirits, I part lemon juice, 1 part syrup, and a soda topping. Whether it is to be shaken or stirred is apparently a matter for fierce debate).

It's also a very fine dictionary.

It's a type of 19th century lamp burner too - and not a lot of people know that, or, indeed, wish to.

Most fascinatingly, however, Collins has aquired an entirely new meaning, so new, indeed, that I haven't been able to find any mention of it yet on Google. A Collins suddenly seems to have come to mean a thank you letter. My guess is that it's named after Mr Collins in Jane Austen's book Pride and Prejudice, who was famous for his ceremonious, fawning, and unintendedly hilarious letters of thanks.

The promised letter of thanks from Mr Collins arrived on Tuesday, addressed to their father, and written with all the solemnity of gratitude which a twelvemonth's abode in the family might have prompted.

Ah well. Mr Collins is a fool, but he's not a villain. And, after all, he can't help being a fool. So good for him!

Thing To Do Today: Conjure up a Collins. A formal letter is sometimes too much, but thanks are always welcome in one form or other. So do thank someone. It's free, and will spread a little happiness.

If you have absolutely nothing to be thankful for then I suggest the cocktail version might be of help.

But remember to thank the bartender, please.

Monday 26 September 2011

Spot the frippet: zinc.

Vital stuff, zinc.

Yes, really vital. It's the twenty-fourth commonest element on earth, and yet a lack of zinc is linked to the deaths of about 800,000 children every year.

Good grief. Just think it. Eight hundred thousand children.

And zinc's not even expensive. You'll find it in batteries, toothpaste, paint, anti-dandruff shampoo and brass. If you see something metal that has a dusty grey look about it then it's most probably galvanised, which means covered in zinc. This stops it rusting.

Zinc was used in ancient times, but in Europe it wasn't named until the 16th century, when Paracelsus (known here as Paracelsus the Bighead) came up with zincum or zinken.

And even then no one really knew what to do with it. P the B gave it to alchemists, who burned it to produce stuff they called philosophers' wool.

You'll find zinc in mineral pills, naturally: and, good heavens, how difficult would it be to hand out those at every third-world school?

Spot the frippet: zinc. This word was made up by Paracelsus the Bighead. It might be because the German Zinke means toothlike and zinc crystals look like needles, and it might be because zinc is quite like tin, and the German for tin is Zinn.

Eight hundred thousand children...

Sunday 25 September 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: orotund.

Orotund. Is there a more pompous-sounding word in any language?

It reminds me of chilly churches and tall black cassocks topped with millefeuilles* of chins.

Of lay cheerfulness breaking on the rocks of clerical dignity.

Of, as a very young child, discovering the gorgeous taste of the phrase wicked vicar, and chanting it for ages. Especially when the vicar called.

The poor man couldn't get his cycle clips back on fast enough.

Word Not To Use Today: orotund. This word comes from the Laton phrase ore rotundo, which means with rounded mouth. It means booming or pompous.

* puff pastry stuffed with cream etc. US napoleon.

Saturday 24 September 2011

Saturday Rave: Cinderella.

I can't believe I've not yet written a rave about Cinderella, but now I've come to think about it I've realised I don't actually own a copy of the story.

I've never missed having one, either, even though Cinderella is one of my favourite stories ever.


Well, firstly, because I know the story so well that I carry it with me at all times. I hardly need to read it.

Secondly, perhaps, because nearly every story in the world is at root a Cinderella story - or it was, until this fashion for post-modern nonsense took its slippery hold. Why, in 1893 Marion Roalfe Cox listed 345 variations on Cinderella in folk tales alone.

Anyway, Cinderella. You know all about Cinderella. Poor good girl, helped by magic power that exists to make everything fair, wins out over the baddies and gets her deserved reward.

What more could anyone want or hope for?

Word To Use Today: deserve. This word is from the Old French deservir, from the Latin dēservīre, to serve devotedly.

Friday 23 September 2011

Word To Use Today: bum.

Such a useful word, bum. In Britain it's a slightly rude word for buttocks - but then referring to the buttocks will always be slightly rude (or slightly embarrassing, anyway) so it gets a lot of use.  

There are quite a few bum words that have appeared over the centuries. A bum-roll is a long cushion that was tied round the waist and held out the skirts of a Tudor lady. (Tudor ladies had farthingales, too, but you couldn't wear a farthingale if you were riding a horse. Indeed, sitting down at all was almost impossible).
bumbailiff is an old slang word for a debt-collector; and bumfluff is a young man's first wispy attempt at a beard.

The American bum, meaning an idler or hobo (what in England we would call a tramp), isn't used in Britain, but we've borrowed one associated meaning: bad musicians here, as in America, play bum notes.

There's one bum word which isn't connected to either of these kinds of bum: a bumboat is a small craft used for ferrying things from a ship to shore.

Word To Use Today: bum. Bum meaning buttocks has been around since the 14th century, though no one knows where it came from before that. Bum meaning homeless person is from the German word bummeln, to loaf. And bum as in bumboat is from the Dutch boomschip, a canoe, from bom, tree.

A bumbailiff is someone who follows you very closely indeed.

Thursday 22 September 2011

Filling in - a rant.

Gifts to English from all over the world are very welcome. They make the language shinier, more exciting, more precise and more beautiful. 

But may I point out that although in many parts of the world a form may be either filled in or filled out, in England the only thing that can be filled out with propriety is a bra.

Thank you.

Word To Use Today: bra. This word is a shortened form of brassiere (in Britain this long form is used only by very old-fashioned and expensive shops).  Brassière is the French for undershirt or harness, from the Old French braciere, a protector for the arm or later a breast plate, from braz, which means arm.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Nuts and Bolts: breaking the rules.

So here at last is George Orwell's sixth and last rule for using English.

Break any of these rules* sooner than say something outright barbarous.

See? The man was a genius.

He knew that the slippery, dazzling, shifting and extraordinary thing that is the English language will always slip laughing away from the weight of any rule - and here he is undermining all his own in eleven words.

And all respect to him, too.

Word To Use Today: barbarous. This word comes from the Greek word barbaros, which imitates the odd (to Greeks) sound of non-Greek speech. There's a Sanskrit word barbara, too, which means stammering.

*Here are the links to The Word Den posts on Orwell's other rules.

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Thing To Do Today: lunch.

The great thing about lunch is that, unlike dinner, at least everyone knows when to eat it.

Er...unless you're from the Caribbean, when lunch may well be what I'd call afternoon tea.

Lunch in England probably started off as nuncheon, from noneschench, which means noon drink. (See? The time to consume it was built in from the start.) The word had been shortened to lunch by the early 19th century.

In England it was normal for the main meal to be eaten at midday until just a few decades ago, but a light portable lunch was a necessity at harvest time when people were in the fields from dawn until dusk.

Where I live in Hertfordshire this meal traditionally consisted of a Tring Dumpling. This was a suet roll stuffed with meat at one end and jam at the other - and, the saying went, with a cup of tea in the middle.

The thing to eat for lunch nowdays is, obviously, luncheon meat...

...but only if you're desperate.

While I'm here, Ladies Who Lunch, the pastime of women with nothing better to do, was dreamed up by the marvellous Stephen Sondheim for the musical Company.

Thing To Do Today: lunch. I've already written about the derivation of this word, which is good, because I'm absolutely starving.

Monday 19 September 2011

Spot the frippet: bombast.

Bombast: a lovely fat and bouncy word. Nowadays it usually means pompous language. This is easy to spot - just listen to any headmaster or politician - but if you are quite depressed enough as it is, give yourself a break and look for the other sort of bombast, which means stuffing.

That's not stuffing as in sage and onion, I hasten to add, though it was sometimes almost edible. Bombast was used in the 16th century as stuffing for clothes to make them grander.  This sort of bombast could be made of wool, cotton, horsehair, sawdust, or even bran. The enormous trousers and sleeves of a 16th century person would be full of the stuff (though bran and sawdust were not recommended as the smallest tear would leave you trailing bombast behind you wherever you went. And, I should imagine in the case of bran, rats and mice, as well.)

There was a short bizarre fashion for men to have paunches, and they were stuffed with bombast, too.

If you happen not to have a 16th century courtier hanging about your house (where's a ghost when you need one?) then a puffa jacket or a pair of shoulder pads would provide, I think, an acceptable equivalent.

Bombast meaning pompous language is said by some to derive from Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, otherwise known, thank heavens, as Paracelsus.

Paracelsus was a man of many talents, a renaissance man who lived in, and he was so outstandingly unpopular that the idea that bombast is named after him is really almost convincing.

'Let me tell you this:' he said 'every little hair on my neck knows more than you and all your scribes, and my shoe buckles are more learned than your Galen and Avicenna.'

Now, there was someone who was really reckoned to be in need of stuffing.

Spot the frippet: bombast. This word comes from the Old French bombace, from the Latin bombāx, cotton.

Sunday 18 September 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: boil.

This is a horrible word - and it's even worse than it looks, because it's actually two words.

There's boil as in the painful bump under the skin, of which nothing good can be said except that it has the splendid synonym furuncle.

There's also boil as when a liquid bubbles and turns into a gas, which I have to admit is more interesting. Boiling happens when gas bubbles form inside a liquid and then bobble their way up to the surface. 

The harder the air is pressing down on the liquid, the harder it is for bubbles to form. This means that if the pressure of the air is high, the liquid won't be able to boil until it's at a higher temperature than usual.

This is why the liquid in a high-pressure cooker boils at a higher temperature than in an ordinary saucepan (and so cooks the food faster); why you can't have a decent cup of tea on Everest (there's less air above Everest than anywhere else, so there's less air to press down on the water, which therefore boils more easily (and at a lower temperature) and doesn't brew the tea properly); and why potatoes take longer to cook in thundery weather (thunder happens when the air pressure is low).

Apart from these two meanings, there's a seafood boil. This is, predictably, a sort of party where you boil seafood.

It's probably delicious, but it sounds horrible.

Word Not To Use Today: boil.  The furuncle boil comes from the Old English bȳle, the Old Norse beyla, which means swelling, and the Gothic ufbauljan, which means to inflate.

The liquid sort of boil comes from the Old French boillir, and before that from the Latin bullīre, to bubble.

Saturday 17 September 2011

Saturday Rave: Baa by Roger Hargreaves.

Baa is a sort of sheep. A Timbuctoo sheep. And a very old sheep indeed.

She's a little hard of hearing, which I suppose shouldn't be the sort of thing we should laugh at, except that Baa's deafness doesn't bother her in the slightest. It's everyone else who gets bothered.

'Hello,' said Baa, peering over her glasses. 'Who are you?'
'I'm a cat,' said Meow.
'Yes you are getting fat,' said Baa.
And went on her way,

And mostly in words of one syllable, too.

Simply brilliant.

Word To Use Today: fat. This word is from the Old English fǣtan, meaning to cram, from the Old High German feizen, meaning to fatten.

Friday 16 September 2011

Word To Use Today: clog.

It's Friday, hurray, so how about a clog dance?

Or here's another one.

Clogs come from all over the place, but they're generally cheap, hard-wearing, good at keeping you out of the mud, and also good at protecting your toes when you're down the mine.

Those not in the mood for dancing are said to have used clogs to cause trouble at work or school (even the finest computer or piece of machinery will be taken aback by a good whack with a clog) which activity, sabotage, is said to be named after the French word saboter, to spoil by being clumsy, which in its turn comes from sabot, which means clog.

I don't know why, but clogs do seem to raise passions. There used to be a vogue for clog-fighting in Lancashire. This was also called purring, and was such a truly vicious activity that it even put participants at risk of - well, of popping their clogs.

Something for a clever clogs to steer well clear of.

Word To Use Today: clog. This is a 14th century word which meant block of wood.

The word clog meaning to post an unauthorised photograph of someone on the internet is a shortened form of Camera Log.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Logistical Solutions - a rant.

Logistical Solutions, it says on the sides of far too many lorries.

Logistical Solutions? Logistical Solutions??

But doesn't that just things?

Great heavens, but it's a LORRY, for goodness' sake! What else is it going to do?

Or are there lorries out there with a wider agenda? Ones that gild elephants' toenails? Or juggle medium-sized planets?? Or knit booties for orphaned hedgehogs???

Ah well, I think I'll stick with simple delivery services, myself.

I've got a feeling it'll be cheaper.

Word To Use Today: logistics. This word comes from the French word logistique, from the word loger, to lodge.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Nuts and Bolts: domestic bliss.

Good old George Orwell, always trying to set the world to rights. Here, here, here and here are his first four rules for good writing.

And this is his fifth one:

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

Orwell wrote these rules in 1947, and his hope was that they would halt a decline in the English language, which he thought was connected to the 'political chaos' of his time.

Plus ça change...

...whoops! Sorry. That's foreign, isn't it. Perhaps I should have said nothing changes. Except that nothing changes doesn't have the same wistfully charming double-edge as plus ça change, with its unspoken plus c'est la meme chose: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The trouble is that with foreign words something nearly always gets lost in translation.

And of course everything is changing, changing, fearfully changing. Huge masses of people are moving across continents and then hopping over onto new ones, taking their languages with them just in case they prove useful. And they are proving useful. English, never pure and, heaven knows, never simple, is accumulating words and grammar from twenty different directions at once.

 And into this mix comes science, with all its mad inventors madly inventing things we never dreamed we needed, and with them must come new words, for how will we know to buy something if we can tell from its name that it isn't doing anything useful? And although the mad inventors start off creating jargon, the most useful jargon soon hardens into science, and the most useful science soon hardens into English.

It's chaos, but we have no choice about it. If we're to keep even a fingerhold on the madly spinning world, then we must learn, I think, to enjoy a bit of chaos.

Plus ça change...

Word To Use Today: chaos. This word is thousands of years old and was originally the Ancient Greek word, khaos.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Thing To Do Today: business.

Richard Adams, in his book Watership Down, came up with the term tharn to describe the way a rabbit will cower in the approaching headlights of a car instead of taking action to save itself.

Yes, I've just been reading about the world economy. Sometimes I wish all these experts would follow the example of the Welsh Football Team and get down to business.

Oh yes, always keen to get down to business under any circumstances, the Welsh Football Team. To quote the BBC Wales radio commentary on the recent Wales-Montenegro soccer match:

The Wales team look very comfortable doing their business on the pitch.

Hm. On the whole I'm glad that was on the radio...

Anyway, business: things people make, things people do (not always for a reward: think of mind your own business). It may mean effective (this cough medicine does the business) or extremely fast (going along like nobody's business).

It also describes, oddly, a collection of ferrets.

Now, please excuse me. Guilt has kicked in as I write, and I'm either going to have to go and write a bit more book or start a collection of ferrets.

Thing To Do Today: business. This word is from the Old English bisignis which means solicitude, from bisig, busy, plus nis, which is the same as our ness.

Monday 12 September 2011

Spot the frippet: saffron.

Saffron is one of the most expensive substances on earth. This is a very good thing.


Well, because, worryingly, it's poisonous.

You'd have to eat a lot of it to notice, though, unless you try gathering your saffron from the autumn crocus Colchium autumnale (true saffron comes from Crocus sativus). There's just an outside chance that eating Colchium autumnale will kill you.

Still, where can you spot it? Growing, hardly anywhere. You can't find Crocus sativus in the wild (saffron is the bright orange thread-like things that grow from the middle of the flower). Crocus sativus doesn't set seed, either, so if you come upon it by accident it's almost certainly something else. Each plant produces up to ten cormlets (lovely word!) a year which have to be planted by hand.

To get a kilogram of saffron you need over a 100,000 plants, which accounts for the price.

So where can you see saffron? The robes of many Buddhist monks are saffron in colour, though they're actually sensibly dyed with turmeric, which is very much cheaper.

The easiest way to see saffron is probably to look out for a dish of risotto Milanese, or bouillabaise, paella or biryani. Saffron has been used in fabrics, medicines and even in Alexander the Great's bath - but that's not really much help to us, though the Indian flag has a deep saffron background.

If you're in Sri Lanka then you need to ask for some kungguma poo, which is not only charmingly named but is believed to cure headaches.

Spot the frippet: saffron. This word comes to us via the Old French safran and Latin safranum from either the Arabic afar, yellow, or the Persian zarparān, which means having golden stigmas.

Sunday 11 September 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: catarrh.

This word sounds like the first blast of the last trump.


The wretched word is also very nearly impossible to spell.

Yes, yes, all right, I've got a rotten cold. I'm going to go and get myself a hot honey and lemon in a minute. 

Before I do I'll just mention that catarrhine means having your nostrils set close together and opening to the front of the face, like some monkeys.

And that catarrh is also a really stupid place to hold a Soccer World Cup*.

Word Not To Use Today: catarrh. This is from the two Greek words kata, which means down, and rhein, to flow.


*I know, I know! Sorry. Qatar. But it is, isn't it?

Saturday 10 September 2011

Saturday Rave: Jack and the Beanstalk

Fee! Fie! Fo! Fum!
I smell the blood of an Englishman.
Be he 'live or be he dead
I'll grind his bones to make my bread.

Now there's a bit of verse you just have to say with feeling, and usually while striding round the playground trying to look scary.

It's very important, that bit of verse: it's the only reason why the giant at the top of the beanstalk deserves his fate.

Anyway, good for Jack. He may be a fool, but he comes through in the end.

And so gives hope to us all.

Word To Use Today: fie! This has been an expression of distaste or mock dismay for...well, more or less for ever, really. Even the Romans were apt to say from time to time. This is one to use when the plastic veggie bags prove hard to open in the supermarket, perhaps.

Which is, after all, always.

Friday 9 September 2011

Word To Use Today: whisker.

Whiskers are generally found, of course, on the faces of animals (though, confusingly, the cat's whiskers are exactly the same as the bee's knees).

Some birds, various prawn-like creatures, and bats have whiskers, and many non-flying mammals do, too.

Whiskers have the lovely anatomical name vibrissa, which is to do with vibrating, but they're mostly used as feelers - except in the case of humans, where whiskers are usually an attempt to excuse odd behaviour.

In chemistry, a whisker is a very fine single crystal, often surprisingly strong and good at conducting electricity.
There are also whisker booms, which hold extra sails on a boat when there's not much wind.

And of course a whisker also means a tiny distance, as in when the custard exploded I escaped death by a whisker.

Word To Use Today: whisker. This word comes from the Old Norse word visk, which means wisp, and before that from the Old High German wisc.

Thursday 8 September 2011

On The Road To The: a rant.

Road sign are different from sonnets.

I mean, I've been trying to work out the precise meaning of Or bends with the remover to remove from Shakespeare's sonnet Number 116 for about...ooh, several decades.

Sometimes I think I've got a handle on it, sometimes I don't. Once or twice I've had a blinding flash of revelation - which has left me, naturally, blinded.

This doesn't matter. Part of the point of a good sonnet is to give people the chance to think.

But road signs are another matter. They have to yield up their meanings more or less instantly. Obviously the most successful road signs will leave the reader with something to think about as they wend their way (there's really a place called Limpley Stoke? In Wiltshire??) but the primary meaning should leap out.

So, anyway, the other day we were coming up to a big roundabout in a strange land. (It was Norfolk.) The authorities had helpfully marked the traffic lanes on the approach road. NOR, it said, indicating the lane for Norwich. A47, it said, indicating the lane for the...but you get the idea.

And then the next lane was emblazoned with the mysterious message: THE.



THE what? The North, the edge of the cliff, the Gates of Hell?


...but of course by then it was too late, the roundabout was upon us and we were careering round - and round - and round - and phew, that looks right, and off we go.

Ten miles down the road we realised that we were nearing the town of Thetford.

Word To Use Today: sonnet. This word comes from the Old Provençal sonet, a little poem, and before that from son, a song, and the Latin sonus, a sound.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

Nuts and Bolts: action stations!

I've been letting George Orwell write the Nuts and Bolts feature here in The Word Den for the last few weeks.

Well, why not go for a bit of class, that's what I say.

Here's his rule number four:

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

The passive describes an occasion when someone is on the receiving end of an action instead of, as usual, performing it. Polly was hit by Sandra, for example.
Now, this is just a long and complicated way of saying Sandra hit Polly, of course. The passive tends to be weak, too: Big Brother is watching you is much punchier than You are being watched by Big Brother.

We mustn't get too carried away, though, because as it happens George Orwell used the passive voice rather a lot himself. 'Your name was removed from the registers, every record...was wiped were abolished, annihilated'.
That's from 1984.

In fact, the passive is used by everyone. Winston Churchill, Shakespeare...It's used all the time in describing scientific experiments: a test-tube was filled with spit...

The passive is jolly useful, for instance, when the receiver of the action is more important than the performer: George Clooney was cast as Adam in the film Garden of Eden*.

It's useful for hiding the performer of the action altogether, as well: the computer was dropped during its journey from the manufacturer.

So does Orwell's rule hold up? Never use the passive where you can use the active?

Well, I think I'd go along with that as long as it's Jane Austen's never, which means not very often.

And I'd do as Orwell did, rather than as he said, this time.

Word To Use Today: passive. this word comes from the Latin passīvus, meaning capable of suffering, from patī, meaning to undergo.

*Sorry, I'm afraid this is just wishful thinking on my part.

Tuesday 6 September 2011

Thing To Do Today: be genial.

This has been the coldest summer in England for...oooh, simply ages. So let's spread a little warmth and happiness: let's be genial.

So smile, please, everybody - and as for you, you frowning clouds, avaunt! Let the sun spread some genial warmth on our beaming faces.

You remember pleasant? Well, there's something to aim for.


But even if you're the irredeemably miserable type then you can still join in with being genial by sticking out their chins, because,
yes, genial also means to do with the chin. Your genial tubercules are a couple of bumps on the inside of your jawbone.

Thank you. That's génial, as the French say. Which means great!

Thing To Do Today: be genial. Genial is really two words. The chin-meaning comes from the Greek geneion, from genus, jaw, and the warm and happy meaning comes from the Latin geniālis, relating to birth or marriage.

And that must be enough to cheer anyone up.

Monday 5 September 2011

Spot the frippet: something diaphanous.

                                                              Photo: Roger Prue

Just look!

Bees' wings, film of mist, shadowed silk,
Haze on hills, wind-blown grass, 
Blackest coffee swirled with melting milk,

Shining suds, spider webs, sea-crashed caves,
Freesia flowers, dawn-dewed breath,
Lacy fingertips of reaching waves.

Just look!

Spot the frippet: something diaphanous. This word comes from the Greek diaphainein, which means to show through.

There is the lovely associated noun diaphaneity, too.

Sunday 4 September 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: indigent.

This word sounds like a badly-suppressed burp.

It sounds scornful, too: in fact it's a truly horrible word which should be banned at once.

Being hard-up should be a matter for assistance and sympathy.

And not burps!

Word Not To Use Today: indigent. This word comes from the Latin word indigēre, which means to need, from egēre, to lack.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Saturday Rave: Mary Poppins by P L Travers.

Sometimes, especially when you're small, stories can be the only source of hope in a mightily large and uncomfortably knobbly world.

But, oh, if Mary Poppins can blow in on the East Wind (the East Wind! Not a comforting too-good-to-be-true southerly, but a bracing blast from the Urals) then anything is possible.

It might be really hard to believe in a proper Fairy Godmother alighting in, say, Birmingham; but someone snappish, who smells of boot polish and Sunlight Soap: well, someone like that could easily walk up the front path and knock on any door.

And someone like that (for all grown ups are mysterious) might quite easily have friends amongst the stars, too.

Mary Poppins...was wearing her blue coat with the silver buttons and the blue hat to match, and on the days when she wore those it was the easiest thing in the world to offend her.

Doesn't someone like that just have to be real?

Word To Use Today: offend. This word comes from the Old French offendre, to strike against, from the Latin offendare, which means the same thing.

Friday 2 September 2011

Word To Use Today: vulture

A wonderful bird is the vulture.

No, really. Just because they tend to be a bit bald, have a habit of using projectile vomit to scare off interlopers, and always pee down their legs, that doesn't make them unattractive. In fact, these habits are a sign of daintiness.

Oh yes they are.

The baldness, to start with. Being bald helps vultures keep cool, for one thing, and it's also much easier to keep a bald head clean, especially when you keep having to put it inside rotting corpses.

As for the projectile vomit...well, vulture vomit is very special and important. The stomach acid of a vulture is so strong that it destroys botulinum poison, hog cholera, and anthrax. This must be a relief to everyone.

Vulture pee is also special. It kills any germs on their feet, which tend to go where no man has voluntarily gone before.

The terrible news, though, is that in India and Pakistan the use of the painkiller Diclofenac in animals has resulted in the deaths of 99.9% of vultures. Diclofenac is so poisonous to vultures that even the tiny amounts of the drug left in animal corpses is enough to kill the poor birds. The use of Diclofenac has just been banned, hurray, but the vultures have come perilously close to extinction.

Does it matter? Well, in India the lack of vultures has lead to an increase in wild dogs, which don't destroy the germs the vultures do. So, even to humans, the decline of the vulture matters a LOT.

Word To Use Today: vulture. This word comes the Latin vultur, and perhaps from the Latin vellere, to pluck or tear.

Thursday 1 September 2011

Partners in crime - a rant.

So what do you call the person with whom you live as man and wife when you're not, well, man and wife?

Partner? But that leaves us unclear as to whether the aim of the partnership is business or pleasure.

Girlfriend and boyfriend look increasingly silly as people decline into the vale of years.

Co-habitee is ridiculous, and lodger annoys just everyone.

I've heard fella, but that's awkwardly casual, and anyway it has no female equivalent. You can use friend as long as you do something significant with your eyebrows when you say it, but even then it only really works for gay couples.

Lover does nothing to assure anyone of the exclusiveness of the relationship.

I think we need something new. Or, actually, something old.

I think we should all go with the really rather lovely leman.

It's usually pronounced like the fruit - but, unlike friend, there's absolutely no implication that you are one.

Word To Use Today: leman. This word was leofman in the 13th century, from leof, dear, plus man, which meant person.