This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 31 October 2011

Spot the frippet: bat.

We're well into autumn here in England, but there should still be a few bats about to add some romance to Halloween, even if they're made of rubber.

Bats are so incredible that I'd need a whole book to list all their wonders, but did you know:

That some bats scream four hundred times a second and use the echoes of the screaming to stop themselves bumping into things in the dark?

That a bat the size of a mouse can make a noise as loud as an express train (though the sound is so high that humans, luckily, can't hear it)?

That the bat can't hear it either, because to stop itself deafening  itself it dislocates its ear drums four hundred times a second, too -and then reconnects them in time to hear the echoes of its screams.

That there are other bats which emit one long constant scream, and their way of avoiding making themselves deaf is to scream at a particular pitch they can't hear, and then rely on the Doppler effect* to change the pitch of the echo so they can hear it.

As I say, I could go on forever, but I'll leave you with something sweet:

Enjoy Halloween!

Spot the frippet: bat. In the 14th century this word was bakke. It probably comes from Scandinavia, as there's a lovely Old Norse word ledhrblaka, leather-flapper, and a Swedish dialect word natt-batta, night bat.
*The Doppler effect is what's going on when you hear the pitch of a siren or an engine change when it switches from travelling towards you to travelling away fom you.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: groovy.


We've had some nasty words in The Word Den, but this must be the most embarrassing word in the English language. My insides wither like salted slugs at the mere thought of it.

It stirs memories I'd hoped were gone forever: the dancing of a middle-aged middle-manager called Colin; a not-quite-as-young-as-he'd-like-to-be-thought vicar; a politician with far too much hair.

Shirts with ruffles.

Not to mention* teachers hoping their clothes would distract attention from the fact that they were balding, pathetic and creepy.

I'll tell you something, though: suddenly I am suffused with a warm affection for every other word in the whole flipping language.

So that's good.

Word Not To Use Today: groovy. This is from groove, of course. It's is from the Dutch word groeve, and there's a Old High German word gruoba, which means pit** which probably has something to do with it, too.

*This is an extremely silly expression now I come to think about it - sorry!

**How appropriate!

Saturday 29 October 2011

Saturday Rave: Hansel and Gretel.

This is a gruesome tale. It has parents planning the deaths of their own offspring; two clever children in peril; a whole house made out of sweets (think of the flies on that!); and a particularly baroque attempt at cannibalism.

In the beginning of the story, poverty proves stronger than love; and at the end of the story, wealth proves stronger than hate.

So, what's not to like?

Oh, and I can't possibly write about Hansel and Gretel without mentioning Engelbert Humperdinck. (Because surely every day is more full of wonder for a mention of Engelbert Humperdinck.)

He did an opera version.
Word To Use Today: cannibal. This word was brought to us by Christopher Columbus (the one who sailed the ocean blue/In fourteen hundred and ninety two, not the film director). He called the Caribs of Haiti and Cuba canibales. That's from the Arawak caniba, which  is basically the same word as Carib.

Friday 28 October 2011

Word To Use Today: queen.

There are a million fascinating things about queens, most of which, naturally, I don't know.


A queen bee produces the queen substance, which her workers eat. This stops them laying eggs and becoming queens themselves. Cunning, huh?

This doesn't happen with humans.

Queen Mab is a fairy who rules over men's dreams.

Queen of puddings is a mixture of breadcrumbs and custard topped with jam and meringue. doesn't sound that queenly to me. I think marketing has a lot to answer for with that one.

Queen's evidence is when a villain betrays his accomplices.

A queen bed is larger than an ordinary bed. This is odd, because England's queens, at least, have been mostly rather short.
Ah well, I suppose they need somewhere to put their crowns and corgis and stuff.

If you take the Queen's shilling then you've enlisted in the British army, though nowadays you don't actually get one. (A shilling is the same as a five pence coin).

And if you have Queen Anne legs then they are rather fat and very bulgy and you are probably an item of furniture.
So that's all right.

Word To Use Today: queen. This word comes from the Old English cwēn. It's related to the Saxon quān and the Gothic qēns, both of which mean wife.

Thursday 27 October 2011

Caulis: a rant.

What? You don't know what a caulis is?

Well, neither did we. It was on a cardboard sign by someone's gate, and we were half a mile down the road before we both triumphantly exclaimed: 'cauliflowers!'

Yes, this post is about greengrocers' apostrophes.

I know, I know, but people will get aeriated about signs saying POT'S or TOM'S or CAULI'S.

'A plural doesn't have an apostrophe!' they scream, as red with fury as a crate of BEET'S.

There, there, now. Calm down, dear. I have two point to make. Firstly, it's really not worth risking a heart-attack for the sake of a punctuation mark.

Because, let's face it, it'll make everyone snigger at your funeral.

Secondly, while plurals are not signalled by apostrophes, missing letters are. You've seen this in the word, well, you've (which is short for you have). And possibly fo'c's'le (short for forecastle), too.

So - sorry about this - but all those TOM'S and BEET'S and POT'S signs are right. The apostrophes show that letters have been missed out and should, strictly speaking, read: TOMATOES or BEETROOTS or POTATOES.

And not only that, but the apostrophes also stop people spending far too much time wondering what on earth a caulis is.

Word To Use Today: cauliflower. This word is from the Italian caoli flori, which means cabbage flowers.

Wednesday 26 October 2011

Nuts and Bolts: what became of the donkey donkey donkey...?

So, just why don't donkey and monkey rhyme?

Now, it looks as if monkey is the odd word here, but that's actually the wrong way round.

When you think about it, although we're told that an o gives you a sound as in pot, it really doesn't, a lot of the time.

Think of all the very common words like come, done, honey, money, monk, one, some, son, ton, tongue, won, and lots and lots more where the o sounds like - well, like a u as in fun.

Or, more to the point, as in dun.

Yes, the chances are that a donkey is so named because of its dull colour (and perhaps also because its old name, ass, now sounds a bit rude).

Now, this word, donkey was pronounced dunky to start with. But then it changed.

My guess is that this happened because donkey is quite a new word - it only appeared in the 18th century - and so lots of people came across it first in print, and they pronounced the o as, well, an o, without realising it was following a different rule.

So anyway, why are all those common words with o s in them pronounced as if they contain u s?

Well, it's all the fault of the monks. Oh yes. You see, they invented an astonishingly beautiful form of handwriting. It was real work of art, and the only slight problem with it was that no one could read it.

 It was all straight lines and zigzags, you see, and in it a u was so similar to an m or an n that in the end they were forced to use o s instead of u s after those letters to make the thing readable.

I suppose it'd be sensible to change all these spellings back, now -but then we do seem to be getting on quite all right as we are, and it'd upset the poor pedants just dreadfully, so I suppose we're stuck.

Word To Pronounce In The Modern Way Today: donkey.

I've already said where this word comes from, but shall just note that one of my daughters, when small, wanting to cast off the childish doggy and birdy sort of thing, insisted for a some time in calling this creature a donk.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

Thing To Do Today: snoop.

This is a simply gorgeous word, though I'm not sure whether to recommend it as an activity.

It's fine, of course, if you're on the side of the angels, as Miss Nora Van Snoop undoubtedly was. In 1898 Miss van Snoop had the honour of being one of the first women to star in a detective story.

Her name couldn't have made things easy for her, either. 

The story was by Clarence Rook and was called The Stir Outside The Café Royal.

As it happens, Snoop Dogg has also had a long and varied association with the law.

If you fly a snoopy mission, you'll be in one of two helicopters, one flying at tree-level to draw fire from concealed positions, and the other providing back-up.
And if the snoopy mission takes place at night, then you'd need a snooperscope, which uses infra-red light to allow you to see in the dark.

We must all be grateful to those who snoop out criminal activity and, sometimes, scandal.

But as far as being Snoopy is concerned, I think this character really takes some beating.
Thing For Angels To Do Today: snoop. This word is from the 19th century Dutch word snoepen, which means to eat furtively.

Now that's easy.

Monday 24 October 2011

Spot the frippet: brace.

A Californian friend startled me not long ago with the information that she'd seen a world-famous baritone's red suspenders. 

To me, that meant he was wearing what an American calls a garter belt.

But no. Opera singers are required to wear all sorts of dubious costumes, but in this case the divine Gerald Finley was only trying to hold up his trousers. With what I'd call braces.

Apart from trouser supports, braces are drills with D-shaped bends in the handles to make them easier to turn. A brace can also be something which is added to make a joint stronger, or it can be a device for changing the tension of a drum.

It can be a pair of game birds, too.

These: { and } are also called braces. They are especially useful for indicating that two or more lines of music should be played by the same person.
(Part of Grieg's Spring Song has three lines of music for the poor pianist to play simultaneously, and is therefore very nearly impossible unless you have three hands and the ability to move them at the speed of sound. Well, that's my experience, anyway.)

You can see braces on teeth, too, of course, and amongst the rigging of sailing ships.

There we are: all braced up to spot the frippet.

Spot the frippet: brace. This word is from the Old French word which means two arms, from the Latin bracchia, arms.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: pylon.

Pylon. This is a word which starts as a whine and ends with a flat-footed thump.

Apart from the sometimes rather beautiful towers which hold up power lines:

it can mean a huge gateway;

 a bit on an aircraft which stops the engines or fuel tanks falling off;

 or even a temporary artificial leg.

These are all useful things, I have to admit, but that still doesn't stop the word pylon beginning with a whine and ending with a flat-footed thump.

Word Not To Use Today: pylon. This word is from the Greek word pulōn, which means gateway.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Saturday Rave: Little Grey Rabbit's May Day by Alison Uttley.

I've treasured my copy of this book for over forty years.

It's a slim squarish hardback. It has a cobalt blue dust-jacket, and exquisite watercolour pictures by Margaret Tempest on every other spread.
The vignette on the dust jacket is surrounded by white silhouettes of garlands and posies of flowers. The endpapers show a very beautiful pen and ink drawing of a cottage in a winter wood. This and the type throughout are also in cobalt blue.

See? A treasure.

The story, too, is full of delight and joy. It describes Crown Imperials growing in an old lady's garden, just as Crown Imperials grew in my own grandmother's garden. This made the magic of May Day seem marvellously close.

How to keep May Day?...You ought to know. May is the Queen of the flowers. You must make crowns and sceptres for her. She's invisible, but you hang them on a may tree and she will find them.

So Little Grey Rabbit and her friends make a procession fit for a queen.

I still value this little story very much because it made me think that if the Queen of May herself noticed such small poor creatures as Hare and Water Rat, then perhaps I'd not be entirely overlooked myself.

Word To Use Today:  sceptre. This word comes through French and Latin from the Greek word skeptron, which means staff.

Friday 21 October 2011

Word To Use Today: poltroon.

Poltroon is one of the best words you can say in any language.

Go on, try it.


A poltroon is of course an obvious coward, and poltroons are to be found all over the place, littering the world with their poltroonery.

Hm, poltroonery might be an even better word to say than poltroon.

In any case, poltroon is not only a lovely, but a very safe word to use, too. Well it is as long as the person you're talking to really is one, anyway.

If not...

Word To Use today: poltroon. This brilliant word is from the Old French poultron, and before that from the Old Italian poltrone, a lazy good-for-nothing, from poltro, which means bed.

Though on the other hand it might be from the Italian poltro meaning unbroken colt, from pullus, which is the Latin for a young animal.

I like the bed derivation best.

Thursday 20 October 2011

Nearing the end - a rant.

Look, I know things are a bit grim on the world economic front, but the headline in the Daily Telegraph the other day which said:

For all the talk, we're no nearer the end of this economic crisis

can't actually be true.

Can it.

Right. Glad that's sorted out.

So. All together, now: Always look on the bright side...

Word To Use Today: crisis.  This is a Latin word which means decision. Before that it was borrowed from the Greek krinein, which means to decide.

Ironic, really, given the circumstances.

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Nuts and Bolts: the colour red.

So: red pandas are brown,

red onions are purple, red-heads are orange, red admirals are black,
red clover is pink, red setters are copper, a red run is white, the Red Sea is blue,

(yes, that is genuinely the Red Sea as a matter of fact)
...and a red herring can be any colour at all.

There are also red-eyes* but, come off it, no-one notices what colour a red-eye is.

Why are so many 'red' things actually other colours? Well,  languages tend to add colours to their vocabulary in the same order, and red is almost always the first one to be named after black and white, so perhaps that's something to do with it. 

Just to even things up a little, though, the traditional bright red coats of huntsmen are called pinks.

Word To Use Today: red. This word is from the Old English rēad. There are similar words in Latin ruber, Greek eruthros, and Sanskrit rohita.

*A red-eye is a very early morning or late night plane.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

Thing To Do Today: mince.

Well, why not? It's not as if you don't have a choice of activities. You can divide something into small pieces, or you can walk the walk, or you can talk the talk.

Now, my Collins dictionary says mince means to chop, grind or cut into small pieces: but that can't be right. That gives you chopped, ground or cut stuff. Mincing is different. Ground coffee beans aren't minced.

Surely the only way you can mince something is with...well, with a mincer. Traditionally it should be one clamped onto the kitchen work surface, and it should need the strength of a silver-back gorilla to work and the engineering skills of Isambard Kingdom Brunel to take apart to clean.

There's something squashy about the act of mincing that chop, grind or cut just doesn't cover.*

Ah well, perhaps the walking sort of mince is easier. Small dainty steps, and hands held above waist level. That's it. Lovely.

The talking sort of mince is interesting because no one ever does it. They only don't do it. I didn't mince my words, they say, meaning they said exactly what was on their minds and didn't bother about softening it for the sake of politeness.

Hm. Not sure whether to recommend that or not.

Ah well. Have fun, anyway.

Thing To Do Today (or Possibly Not): mince. This word comes from the Old French word mincier, and before that from the Latin word minūtia, smallness.

*I've just remembered that minced beef is called ground beef in the USA. So I suppose my theory falls down there. Whoops...

Monday 17 October 2011

Spot the frippet: antler.

There are more places than you might think where you can spot an antler.

Some are obvious:

(This is what I call an elk, but in the New World I understand it's called a moose. The brilliant thing about these antlers is that they act as hearing aids. No, really. An elk has natural ear trumpets.)

There are also smaller antlers like this:

That's a stag beetle.

There are even, or so it appears, rabbits with antlers. These are called jackalopes.

Hm...not entirely convinced about those.

Antlers are wonderful things wherever you find them. They are the fastest-growing bones anywhere, and take so much energy to make that a deer with big antlers really is fit in every sense of the word.


The Abbots Bromley Horn Dancers must be quite fit, too. They are to be seen every year in Staffordshire.

Reindeer antlers (New World caribou) are unusual in that they appear on the females, too. They're useful for sweeping away snow and fighting over tasty bits of lichen.

Oh, and one last thing. The antlers of male reindeer fall off in early December: so Rudolf and friends were all ladies.

Spot the frippet: antler. This word comes from the Middle English hauntelere, from the Old French antoillier. Some people have suggested that before that it comes from the Vulgar Latin rare ante ocularis, meaning branch before the eyes, but if you'll believe that you'll believe anything.

Even jackalopes.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: ward.

Oh, this is a dry, wooden, empty word.

It's hard to say, too (I'm an expert on this because Ward was my maiden name: it either sounds like wood or it goes on forever).

It means nothing interesting, anyway. It's usually an enclosure for dull things like sick people or councillors, and if it's not that then it's a way of stopping people doing what they want to do (as in a ward of court) or stopping people getting where they want to get (as in the wards in a lock. The wards are the things that stop the wrong key opening it).

In fact it's a word which brings a permanent rain cloud with it, so let's blow it far away and let a bit of sunshine in.

Ooh, that's MUCH better.

Word Not To Use Today: ward. This word comes from the Old English word weard, which means protector.

It's a boring, ugly relation to the word guard.

Saturday 15 October 2011

Saturday Rave: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

This story comes, of course, from Walt Disney.

Well, all right, the story of Snow White is really older than that, but Walt's version is surely the one nearly everyone thinks of first. It was the first full-length animated film, and in some ways I don't think it's been bettered. Yes, Snow White herself is ludicrously doll-like, but I've never seen fabric ripple so beautifully anywhere.

No, really, it's worth watching the whole film just for that.

It's a great story, anyway. Innocent heroine, wicked step-mother, mirror, dwarfs, apple, prince...but you know it already.

There might even have been a real Snow White. There was once a beautiful girl called Margarete von Waldeck who lived in, um, Waldeck, where the children who worked in the mine were known as dwarfs. 

Margarete (who didn't get on at all well with her step-mother) was courted by noblemen but was poisoned at the age of twenty one - though certainly not her step-mother who was already dead.

Mirror, Mirror, on the wall
Who's the fairest of them all?

Brilliant, eh? Proof to every child that one day the weak SHALL PREVAIL!

Word To Use Today: mirror. This word is from the Old French word mirer, to look at, from the Latin mīrārī, to wonder at.

Friday 14 October 2011

Word To Use Today: morris.

There are morrises galore, you know.

There's morris dancing, of course. Grown men (usually men) with bells and beer bellies, leaping about to folk music and often brandishing handkerchiefs or sticks or bladders.

Then there's Nine Men's Morris, a board game that's probably been played since Roman times.

And don't forget the cars produced by William Morris's car factory, of which the Morris Minor has to be the most famous, and probably the most loveable.

As if that isn't enough, there are all the works of the other Willam Morris. That's William Morris the artist, furniture designer,

 novelist, poet, revolutionary, mediaevalist, socialist, founder of the fantasy genre and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, translator, publisher, weaver, and embroiderer.

You know, the one who's famous for

Ah well!

Word To Use Today: morris. The car and the chair are named after their respective William Morrises, and the dance name originally meant Moorish, that is, North African Islamic.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Going right down the toilet - a rant.

People are afraid, you know. Very afraid.

You see, there's a WC sign on the new Porthmadog bypass, and apparently people are in terror of its becoming a rallying-point for Welsh nationalist campaigners.

(That Porthmadog bypass is causing no end of trouble. There's already been a huge fuss about the £650,000 they spent on a bridge to help bats cross the road.)

Anyway, Eric Jones, an Independent member of the district language sub-committee said: 'There's nothing wrong with WC, we all understand what it means...but...I wouldn't be surprised if somebody does not agree with me.'

He's right about WC. Large numbers of people, even in such far-flung places as Germany, Italy, Holland, Hungary and France use WC all the time.
But in Wales, apparently, rouses desperate passions.

So what to do?

Well, I would suggest the district language sub-committee meeting should go something like this.

Can we have a sign saying Toiled as well as WC, please?

Yes, all right.

I think that would solve the problem.

Because I'd really hate to think of the poor Welsh Nationalists hanging round under the WC sign on the Porthmadog bypass.

Word To Use Today: nationalist. This word is from nation, of course, from the Latin word nātiō, birth or tribe, from nascī, to be born.

Wednesday 12 October 2011

Nuts and Bolts: trials.

Trials are really special. No, really really special. You'll find them in an Austronesian language called Manam, but seldom anywhere else - and never, sadly, in English.

A trial is a sort of word you use when there are three of something.

In English we only get to choose between a singular word (that's if there's just one single thing, for instance dog) or a plural word (for more than one, in which case dog becomes dogs). As you'll have noticed, singulars and plurals usually look different.

If you spoke the Austronesian language called Sursurunga, though, you'd have much more choice. Sursurunga has a singular, a dual* (for two things) a paucal (for a few things) a greater paucal (for a surprisingly large number of things) and a plural, as well.

If you, as an English speaker, are feeling a little limited, take heart. If we were speaking Chinese we wouldn't even have a singular or plural to choose between - though we would have a gorgeously large number of words for some.

Word To Use Today: trial. This word is of course from the Latin trēs and Greek treis, which both mean three.

*Duals are fairly common compared with trials: you'll find them in Scottish Gaelic, Slovenian and Frisian, for instance.

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Thing To Do Today: cootch.

What a lovely day for a good cootch. Or even a cwtch, if you're feeling particularly Welsh.

It means to cuddle up, or to be cuddled, or to clasp something to you.

Come to think about it, every day is a good day for a cootch, but if you're really not in the mood then cootch also means to hide. 

The cleverest thing might be to do both sorts of cootch at the same time, because secret cuddles are often the best of all.

Thing To Do Today: cootch. This word comes from the French word couche, meaning a bed or a lair, which is in turn from the Latin word collocāre, which means to arrange.
There's probably a bit of the Welsh word cwt, which means hut, in there somewhere, too.

Monday 10 October 2011

Spot the frippet: beard.

The Word Den has talked about the action of bearding someone, but not about beards themselves.

You never know what you might find in a beard: this is their essential fascination and mystery, as Edward Lear has explained in words and pictures.

There was an Old Man with a beard
Who said, 'It is just as I feared! -
Two Owls and a Hen,
Four Larks and a Wren
Have all built their nests in my beard.

You can never be sure who is behind all the fuzz, either: sometimes it might even be a dragon.

Or a vulture.

And although you might think you know where beards are to be found, this is a bearded tit.

Bet you've never dreamed of such a thing!

Spot the frippet: beard. This word has been exactly the same ever since Old English times - that's before 1150. It comes from the Latin word barba.

Sunday 9 October 2011

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use today: vestibule.

Oh good grief. Where do I start?

Look, no one ever fell in love at first sight in a vestibule, did they?
Someone might have got stabbed by a poisoned coat hook while lurking in the murky corner of one, but, hey, few of us really are in the market for that sort of experience. 

In any case a vestibule sounds as if it should be a particularly hairy form of underclothing.

Away with it!

Word Not To Use Today: vestibule. This word has been borrowed from a Latin word, vestibulum.

I know it's hard to refuse when people want you to borrow something, but I really think that in this case someone should have tried a bit harder.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Saturday Rave: Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks by Alan Coren.

If Alan Coren's words are available then there's no need for many of mine.

I'll say just two things. 1)Alan Coren was a genius. 2)Alan Coren made me cry with joy and laughter.


"JULIAN: Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
The hols are but a short week old, and now
There comes such news as Hecate herself
Would quake to hear of! Five years of study gone
And now I learn that all I have to show
Is two O-levels, one Eng Lit., one Maths!
Five subjects failed, and I one subject felled
By failure to as fell a fall as folly

Enter Timmy, a dog.

         Ah Timmy! Had I but the joy
 Of e'en thy meanest flea, I were in luck!

TIMMY:  Arf! Arf!"

Sorry...must stop there...keyboard in danger of being short-circuited by tears of laughter.

And I've got THE POOH ALSO RISES to read, next, too.

Word To Use Today: subject. This word comes from the Latin subjectus, which means brought under, and before that from the Latin sub, which often means under, and jacere, to throw.

To throw???

Ah well! That probably makes sense to somebody. Somewhere.

Friday 7 October 2011

Word To Use Today: foible.

Surely there's no one in the whole world who could resist the charms of the word foible?

It means a small weakness or a slight peculiarity, in which the most loveable of us abound.

So let's make this celebrate our foibles day.

Now, please excuse me. I'm off to eat some white chocolate. Or sing along to We Are The Champions. Or have a bop to a bit of Mozart.

Do have fun, too.

Word To Use Today: foible. This word is from a similar French word, and before that from its enchanting adjectival form feeble.

Oh, and by the way, I have a foible leaning against the wall in my sitting room. It's the half of the blade of a foil (thin fencing sword with a safety button on the end) nearest the tip.

Thursday 6 October 2011

The tipping point: a rant.

In England a tip is a reward for good service.

Well, it's for service that's not deliberately bad, anyway. Even if the food gets dropped down the back of your neck and you get three liver and bacons when you asked for a fish pie and a soup, people will still tip as long as the waiting staff seem to have been doing their best.

In England, a tip will be about 10%, and it's entirely voluntary. It may be given out of either gratitude or pity. A desire not to look mean comes into the equation, too.

A service charge takes the place of a tip, even if the waiter is exceptionally charming, competent and handsome.

A discretionary service charge...

...hang on!

A discretionary service charge?

But discretionary means...hang on, I'll look it up...yes, here it is: having the ability to decide as one sees fit.

A discretionary charge???

Oh dear. I can forgive bad cooking, but careless language is beyond the pale. I doubt I'll be back.

So there!

Word To Use Today: tip. The Collins dictionary suggests that this meaning of the word tip comes from the Low German word tippen, to strike lightly.

No, I don't understand it, either, but there you go.

Wednesday 5 October 2011

Nuts and Bolts: tripping nicely.

I thought I'd write about pyrrhic feet.

The thing is, nobody loves them. (All together now: aaaah...)

In fact, some people do worse than hate them and try to deny their existence altogether.

So what are they? Well, a pyrrhic foot is a chunk of a poem where you have two weak stresses together. If you say Tennyson's line:

When the blood creeps and the nerves prick

from In Memoriam you'll find that "blood creeps" and "nerves prick" have to be said quite slowly and loudly, but "When the" and "and the" get hurried over. It's those "When the"s and "and the"s which are pyrrhic feet

See? Two weak stresses together.

Loads of people hate them. Edgar Allen Poe said:

The pyrrhic is rightfully dismissed. Its existence in either ancient or modern rhythm is purely chimerical, and the insisting on so perplexing a nonentity as a foot of two short syllables, affords, perhaps, the best evidence of the gross irrationality and subservience to authority which characterise our Prosody.

All right, all right, so he didn't think much of the system! There was no need to be quite so pompous about it, though, was there?

Anyway, without pyrrhic feet we couldn't have:

When the dog bites.
When the bee stings,
When I'm feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don't feel so bad.

So who cares what anyone else thinks?

Word To Use Today: pyrrhic. This word comes from the Greek word purrhiknē, which is supposed to be named after the inventor of pyrrhic feet, Purrhiknos.

And good for him.

Hint for use: a pyrrhic is also a war dance, as in I think every nation should have its own official war dance. Ours should look like this.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Thing To Do Today: scamper.

The world would surely be a better place if there was a bit more scampering - that is, joyful running.

I suppose it's one of those actions with an age-limit, but this is surely deeply, deeply unfair, so let's reclaim scampering for older people.

(In this case this probably means everyone over the age of about seven.)

Yes, it'll make us look complete idiots, but think of the happiness that will be spread far and wide. What will add more joy to a supermarket visit, a day in the classroom, or a trip down a corridor to a meeting, than a good scamper?

You know it makes sense, don't you.

Thing To Do Today: scamper. This lovely word comes from scamp, which means mischievous child. Unfortunately scamp comes from the verb to scamp, which meant to be a highway robber.

(I must make it clear that I do NOT recommend highway robbery under any circumstances. After all, we pay our governments good money to install speed cameras to do that.)

Scamp probably comes via the Middle Dutch scampen, to decamp, from the Latin campus, which means field.

Monday 3 October 2011

Spot the frippet: marble.

An odd, unconvincing word, marble. Say it ten times, and it's hard to believe it means anything at all (go on, try it!) let alone a bit of super-polished stone. (Recrystallized limestone, if you're interested. Which, I should imagine, you probably aren't.)

You can find marble on the walls of posh banks; the surfaces of posh kitchens; in portrait busts; and in the tombs of long-dead VIPs  (those assailed when alive, I should imagine, with the fear that they weren't quite important enough).

Two of my favourite works of art ever are made of marble:


The first is an ancient sculpture called The Dying Gaul, and the second is the heart-breakingly beautiful tomb of Penelope Boothby, sculpted by Thomas Banks.

Of course some marbles aren't made of marble at all, but of glass.

And then there are the invisible marbles. In Britain, if you've lost your marbles you've gone crazy, and in Australia if you've passed in your marbles you've died.

But it's not all bad news on the marble front: an Australian who has made his marbles good has done the right thing, or been a big success.

Make your marbles good today!

Spot the frippet: marble. This word comes from the Latin word marmor, and before that from the Greek word marmarien, to gleam.

Sunday 2 October 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: swelter.

Sweltering is what we're all doing in Southern England at the moment. The temperature reached a record-breaking 29.9 degrees centigrade yesterday, and looks set to be even higher today.

That's ridiculous, quite frankly, but we're not complaining. Well, not much. We can't, really, having moaned about the cold all summer.

Anyway, swelter: the sound of sweat slowly forming and then dropping onto the baking ground.

As if that's not bad enough, swelter also means to exude venom.


I'll leave you with the pleasing fact that until yesterday the English record for the hottest October day was set in March.

Oh yes it was - the town of March, in Cambridgeshire.

I can't help feeling rather sorry March's record has been broken, quite honestly.

Word Not To Use Today: swelter. This word is from the Old English sweltan to die. It's related to the Old Norse svelta to starve, and the Old High German swelzan to burn with passion.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Saturday Rave: The Borrowers Avenged by Mary Norton.

Books come and go. Most often they come and go very quickly, before the library charge kicks in, and that's why my rave today is about The Borrowers Avenged, which I own, and not about one of the other Borrowers books.

It took me a while to get to like The Borrowers. I think it's because there's a melancholy about the books which wasn't what I wanted when I was young.

Once I had read the books two or three times, though, and no longer had to worry quite so much about what might be going to happen, I loved them very much.

The Borrowers aren't people, though they contrive to be quite startlingly human. But then the writing about all the characters is exquisite.

He put the wire-cutter and the chisel into the cat-basket. Mrs Platter added the sandwiches and a bottle of cold tea. 'Would you like a piece of cake?' she asked him. But he did not seem to hear her, so, picking up her coat, she followed him quietly out through the front door.

Was ever a pair of grown ups so utterly real?

Word To Use Today: chisel. This lovely word is from the Old French cisel, and before that from the Latin caesellum, from caedare, to cut.