This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Nuts and Bolts: a big difference.

Yes, yes, I know that apostrophes have been used in varied ways over the centuries, but sometimes they do make a big difference.

Sir Robin Mountfield has died. He was a very senior civil servant, and also a grammatical stickler, who came up with my favourite example of how, occasionally, apostrophes really matter.

This example was a World War 2 headline, and it described a German army advance which had succeeded in surrounding part of the French army.

It said:


As Sir Robin pointed out so persuasively, without the apostrophe it could have had a rather different meaning.

Thing To Use Today: apostrophe. This word has come to us through Latin from the Greek word apostrephein, which, oddly, means to turn away.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Thing To Do Today. Or possibly not. Screeve.

Screeve is a lovely word, now sadly fallen into disuse.

It can mean to write quickly or continuously, which is surely something to be encouraged.

Or it can mean to ooze, which surely none of us ever aspires to do.

Or, if you're a horse, it means to fall with the legs apart while running on ice.

What a language, eh? How marvellous to have a word for that.

A screeve can be a piece of writing, a banknote, or a begging letter.

Whereas a screever is a pavement artist. This is a very fine thing to be as long as you work in something washable, like chalk.

So there we are: screeve. It's what I'd call a really generous word, too.

Thing To Do Today. Or possibly Not. Screeve. The ooze meaning comes from the Old French escrever, where it is used of wounds (lovely!). The reading-and-writing meaning comes from the Latin scrībēre, which means to write; and the falling-on-ice meaning comes from the Norwegian word skreva, to straddle.

Monday 28 November 2011

Spot the frippet: fungi.

There are fungi wibbling all over the fields and woods of England at the moment - we have some lovely lilac blewits on our front lawn - but of course most of the fungi which exist around us (and inside us) are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.

Pause to shudder with wonder, here, I think. Invisible fungi include yeasts, and antibiotics, as well as being part of what is rather spookily called gut flora.

Hey, and did you know that fungi are nearer to animals than plants?

That they are farmed, not only by people, but by ants and wasps and termites?

That fungi have cells made with chitin, which is the same stuff of which lobsters' skeletons are made?

That fungi are used to "stonewash" jeans?

That some fungi are utterly delicious?

(This is a stilton cheese, and the fungus which inhabits it is called Penicillium roqueforti. Yes, it's used in Roquefort cheese, too.)

Spot the frippet: fungus. If you can't find a mushroom-type thing then any piece of bread or any alcoholic drink will contain fungi -  and anyone with a beard or moustache is sporting face fungus.

The word is Latin for mushroom, and before that it came from the Greek word sphongos, which means sponge.

Which brings us back to the wibbly woods rather beautifully. doesn't it.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: ubiquitous,

The dreadful thing about some words is that they're too useful. For instance, ubiquitous. It's a horrible, oily, orange-lamp-lights-on-wet-streets word, but it gets everywhere.

I suppose one could use omnipresent, instead, but omnipresent has a great lumbering hump at the beginning and a spit in the middle, and I think might be slightly uglier even then ubiquitous.

Basically, the world would be a better place if we avoided both of them. It's quite possible to do so. After all, I've written rather a lot of novels and I don't think I've used either ubiquitous or omnipresent in any of them.

Actually, I've just checked, and I haven't even used them in Goldkeeper - and that's all about God.

So I'm calling for a unilateral ban.


Thank you very much. I appreciate it, I really do.

Word Not To Use Today: ubiquitous. What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, they've given us ubiquitous. It comes from the Latin word ubīque, which means everywhere.

Saturday 26 November 2011

Saturday Rave: Rapunzel.

Ooh, there's a lot of misery in this story, and the plot gapes with holes at every turn.

But then putting characters somewhere where they have great trouble getting in or out will always cause trouble.

In some ways it's a shame the arch-plotter Agatha Christie wasn't around when the story was first being put together - though, I don't know, the whole thing has such an air of danger and strangeness and mystery that the holes serve to give us glimpses of mysteries and horrors yet more enticing than those before us.

Poor Rapunzel, anyway. Not only does she suffer horribly, but she's called after a vegetable - and not even a nice vegetable, but something, a rampion, which I understand has a root which tastes like a not-very-nice parsnip, and leaves which taste like not-very-nice spinach.

Oh, but I do wish the story was Scandivavian instead of German (or possibly French, or Persian, or Roman), because then she'd be a Swede, as well.*

Word To Use Today: rampion. Hm, the opportunities for chatting about obselete vegetables are, I must admit, few. It's a lovely word, though, and may be of use in such phrases as I'd rather eat a mouldy rampion. Or you could ask for rampions in your local supermarket and get a reputation for being...well, utterly bonkers.

The word rampion comes from the French raiponce and before that from the Old Italian raponzo, from the Latin pa, which means turnip.

*Sorry, this joke doesn't work in America - a swede is what I believe Americans call a rutabaga.

Friday 25 November 2011

Word To Sing Today: cockle.

Mary Mary quite contrary
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

But what the cockles mean in this nursery rhyme - if anything - is anyone's guess. If the rhyme is about being a Roman Catholic, then they're perhaps a symbol of pilgrimage; if it's about Mary Queen of Scots, then they might be a snide joke about her husband's not being faithful; if it's about the English queen Mary Tudor then they might even be a sort of instrument of torture - which is a horrible use of a lovely word.

Anyway, we're lucky enough to have another cockle song to sing, too, if we feel like it: there's an Irish one about Molly Malone, who:

        wheeled her wheelbarrow
Through streets broad and narrow
Crying cockles and mussles alive alive-oh.

Now, this song seems to be about - well, a young lady who sold shellfish.

And thank heavens for that.

Now, cockles: they're not stupid, you know. They spend their lives lying about on sheltered sandy beaches, which surely proves it.

They have a sucking-in water hole, a blowing-out water hole, and a foot hole (they can jump about if they want to); and as the sea water in which they live is a sort of thin soup of their food, plankton, they never have to go shopping.

In England our ancient (1215) Bill of Rights, Magna Carta, gives everyone the right to gather eight pounds of cockles without a licence, hurray!

 How nice to think of all those ancient barons worrying about the common people's need for shellfish. Why, it's enough to warm the cockles of your heart, that is.

What? Oh. Well, cockles are heart-shaped, which is possibly something to do with it.

Word To Sing Today: cockle. The word for the shellfish sort of cockle comes from the Old French word coquille, which means shell, and before that from the Greek word konkhulion, which means little mussel.

As for cockles of the heart, well the scientific name for a cockle begins Cardium, which is the Latin for heart. Little heart is coculum.
Or perhaps it's come from the scientific name for part of the heart, the ventricles, which is cochlea cardis.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Your word is your bond: a rant.

There are seventeen countries which use the sort of money called the Euro. Some of them are quite hard up, and these countries think it would be a jolly good idea if the others shared their money around a bit.

For some reason, however, the countries with plenty of money don't seem to agree.

Faced with this difficulty, I was charmed to see that Olli Rehn (whose job it is to keep the Euro countries friendly with each other) has come up with a cunning plan.

One way money could be shared around is by making things called Euro bonds, which, as you can tell from the sound of them, are a way of tying all the Euro-using countries together so that all their money is in the same pot. 

And what is Mr Rehn's cunning plan? Well, he's suddenly started calling them stability bonds instead of Euro bonds.

Now, of course everyone wants stability: and all of a sudden instead of being ropes to tie people to their needy neighbours, the bonds have become guy ropes to prevent the whole caboosh blowing away in a storm.

Cunning, eh?

And, given the immense power words have over the human brain (which is the same sort of power that air has over the human lungs)  it might even work, too.

All because of one small word.

Cunning. Devilish cunning.

Word To Use Today: stability. This word comes from the French word estable, from the Latin word stabilis, which means steady, from stāre, to stand.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Nuts and Bolts: molossus.

A molossus may sound slimy, large, and rather stupid, but that's not its fault at all.

A molossos is quite an innocent thing: it's three extra-loud or heavy syllables all in a row.

They're hard to use in English, but WS Gilbert used them marvellously in the Mikado when Pish-Tush, Ko-Ko and Pooh-Bah sing:

To sit in solemn silence in the dull dark dock
In a pestilential prison, with a life-long lock.
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big black block.

Brilliant, isn't it?

And if that wasn't enough, a molossos is also a sort of dog, and several sorts of bat.

Thing To Use Today: molossus. This is a Greek word. It's always meant molossos, which is rather dull.

Still, you simply must admire its blunt moist sound,
Whether it's a squeaking bat or large-fanged hound.

Tuesday 22 November 2011

Thing To Do Today: twinkle.

Twinkle twinkle little star
How I wonder what
All that twinkling is all about.

We'd see a star as a steady point of light, without all the romantic wobbling and blinking and colour-changing, if we didn't have all this air all over the place.

As you may have noticed, air's runny stuff. It's always being blown about, and when the light from a star gets bashed about by air currents it gets bent into a collection of very tiny rainbows, which we see as twinkling.

Now, I realise that you personally are unlikely to be able to exude rainbows, even fleetingly; but if you look at someone with affection then your eyes may well go twinkly.

Jewel-studded false eyelashes will help if you're having a hate-everybody day.

Or perhaps you could persuade your toes to twinkle, which in this case means to move lightly and delicately and very fast.

The great thing about twinkling is that you only have to do it for a... well, for a twinkling, which is the blink of an eye.

If you're in New Zealand, and you're feeling slow and you happen to hate everyone, then you can always twink out something, which means to delete it with correction fluid.

But still, do see if you can manage to be a bit of a star.

Thing To Do Today: twinkle. This word is from the Old English word twinclian, and is related to the Middle High German zwinken, to blink.

Monday 21 November 2011

Spot the frippet: aglet.

This must be one of the most charming words of all time, and it's not very well known even though we live our lives surrounded by them.

No, though aglets may sound like a particularly endearing form of young animal (a newly furred, wide-eyed ag, obviously. Whatever an ag might be*)  they're actually those things that are clamped around the ends of shoelaces to make them easier to thread through the holes.

As if that isn't a reason enough for the word aglet's existence, it's also a much easier spelling of aiguillette, which is one of those bits of metallic cord which soldiers like to wear across their chests to make themselves look more important.

If you're wearing Tudor costume, then you'll probably be using aglets to keep your sleeves on and your hose from falling down, too.

They can also be metallic spangles or studs sewn onto clothes, or  catkins, or a corset-laces.

Spot the frippet: aglet. This word comes from the Old French word aiguillette, which means small needle.

*Apart from a much-used exclamation in South Africa and the chemical symbol for silver, naturally.

Sunday 20 November 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: euro.

Yes, I know, I know.

I'm hugely fed up with the revolting little object, too, so I'll restrict myself to pointing out that giving a currency a name which sounds like either a dying car engine or a fluorescent 1950s washing powder was never a good idea.

I think it showed a lack of imagination: and without imagination, obviously, the future is bound to involve walking over rather a lot of cliffs.

Word Not To Use Today: euro. This word comes from Europe, the continent. Europe may be called after Europa, who was a Phoenician or Cretan princess abducted by Zeus (who was in the form of a big white bull at the time); or it could be from the Akkadian erebu, meaning to go down.

I'll just note two curiosities: in official documents the word euro must be used in the nominative singular at all times (a rule ignored, of course, throughout the continent); and that in the Greek language the word euro is indeclinable.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Saturday Rave: Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

This picture book is a work of genius.

It's savage and strange and full of monsters with big triangular teeth.

(Maurice Sendak based the monsters on his aunts and uncles. Being able to base monsters on your relations is possibly the best thing there is about being a writer.)

The cross-hatched illustrations are energetic and angry and full of  fierceness and joy, and the text is sinewy and poetic and both full of mischief, and bursting with the frustration of being very young.

'Let the wild rumpus start!' orders Max.*

Oh, and who wouldn't be the better for the occasional wild rumpus?

Word To Use Today: rumpus. This wonderful word has been around since the 1700s, but unfortunately no one knows from where it came. The Oxford English Dictionary says probably a fanciful formation - which means that probably someone made it up because they liked the sound of it.

I'd tend to finger someone's aunt, myself.

*But do see the comments, below, to see How I Messed Up Big Time. Ah well!

Friday 18 November 2011

Word To Use Today: sauce.

Here's a jaunty word to spice up a dull November day.

Traditionally in England we have only two sauces. Both of them came in bottles, and one is red (tomato ketchup) and the other brown (and, like its ingredients, nameless).

I'm delighted to report that now as a nation we've moved onwards and upwards, largely because the English are compulsive borrowers.

Yes, we've stolen recipes for sauces from all over the world, made them slightly less tasty, and claimed them for our own.

In some parts of the USA and Canada sauce can, oddly, mean stewed fruit - unless you're in the even odder parts of the USA, where it means vegetables eaten with meat.

In England we just call that a meal.

A few warnings:

You can't sail anywhere in a sauceboat.

Most saucepans aren't designed for making sauces (ALWAYS ask the cook first).

The function of a saucer is now completely different.

And a saucebox always was something completely different. (It's an out-of-date word for someone who's cheerfully rude, or saucy.)

Word To Use Today: sauce.  This word comes from the Latin word salsus, which means salted. Saucer comes from the French saussier, a container for sauce.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Before what? A rant.

The trouble with these rants is that by the time I've done a bit of research I often find I've simmered down rather.

I was going to have a nice rant about the idiocy of changing the Western calendar system from AD/BC to CE/BCE. I still find it deeply irritating, but it seemed only fair to look at other people's calendars first to see how they work.

Well, for a start, there are over fifty different calendars used in the world today, and some of them are really bizarre.

A suprising number of them have years which aren't actually...well, a year long.

The Islamic calendar, for example, drifts through the seasons and comes back to where it started every thirty three years.

More or less.

There's a 360 day calendar used by prophets, and, oh joy, the financial markets, which involves sort of pretending some days don't exist.

The Akan calendar doesn't seem to bother to number years at all, as far as I can see.

The Buddhists have at least four different starting years. Mind you, because they count years-that-have-happened (as we count our own ages) they are all Year Noughts.

You know, suddenly the changing of a few initials seems a minor matter.

Still, while I'm here, can I make the point that if Anno Domini (AD: it means In the Year of Our Lord) and Before Christ (BC) have become embarrassing in a largely secular world, then how does it help matters to call everything that's happened since the birth of Christ (give or take a few years) common?

Common Era?

Before Common Era?

Hey, just who are they calling common, anyway?

Word To Use Today: calendar. This word comes from the Mediaeval Latin word kalendārium, which means account book. This in turn is from kalendae, which are the days when interest become due.

Rats! And I was hoping to get away from the financial crisis, too.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Nut and Bolts: the Elder Futhark.

The Elder Futhark...

Hm, sometimes words are so brimming with magic they're practically luminous, and the Elder Futhark is like that.

The Elder Futhark is the oldest sort of runic writing. It was invented somewhere near where Germany is now, and it probably started off as a secret language. It's based on Latin letters, so the inventor could well have been a soldier in one of the Roman armies around about the time of Christ.

One suggestion is that it was first used to write rude (but secret) graffiti. ROMANS HAVE KNOBBLY KNEES, that sort of thing.

The Elder Futhark spread widely, to Iceland, Scandinavia and England, where in the course of time it changed into the slightly less romantic Younger Futhark.

Soon the Elder Futhark, which probably started off as a secret language, became even more secret still, and no one could make head nor tail of it until 1865, when a Norwegian bloke called Sophus Bugge managed to decipher it.

The Elder Futhark looked like this:

It's still excellent for writing secret messages, too.

Words To Use Today: Elder Futhark. I can't honestly think of any occasion when anyone might want to say Elder Futhark, but it's still really cool. As you can see, the word futhark consists of the first six letters of this runic alphabet.

I don't know, though - I suppose Elder Futhork! might be quite useful if you stub your toe.

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Thing To Do Today: be giddy.

The easiest way to be giddy is to whirl around in a circle a few times, but I'm not sure I'd recommend this to anyone over the age of...oooh, about seven.

If you're seventeen then you probably need a roller-coaster.

If you're seventy, then just getting up quickly may do the trick. Or even forgetting that you're wearing your varifocals.

The other sort of giddiness is much more fun, though. It means to be scatterbrained or impulsive.

Now, scatterbrained is Homo sapiens' natural state of mind (let's all stop for a moment to laugh at that sapiens, shall we? Because it means wise); and impulsiveness is full of delights.


What a lovely day to skip down the aisle of a supermarket.

What a lovely day to see how many people you can persuade to join you in a conga.

What a lovely day to...

...but this is no good. If I suggest something, then by definition I'm stopping you being giddy.

Anyway, I'm off to see if I can kick some leaves back up onto the trees.

Have fun!

Thing To Do Today: be giddy. This brilliant word is from the Old English gydig, meaning mad, or frenzied, or possessed by God.

Monday 14 November 2011

Spot the frippet: a flying pie.

I wouldn't say my husband was a pessimist, but yesterday when we were out for a walk he saw two magpies, sighed heavily, and said: two for sorrow.

And when I pointed out it was actually:

One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl
And four for a boy
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
And seven for a secret
Never to be told;
Eight a wish
And nine a kiss
And ten's a bird you're
Best to miss.

he just looked puzzled and said:'s not one for sorrow, two for even more sorrow, then?

Anyway, flying pies. If there are no magpies where you live (though there are magpies almost everywhere except South America and the arctic regions) then surely pies are everywhere, and can easily be made to fly.

Juggling a hot pie is, after all, an ineradicable human instinct.

You know, I'm hungry already.

Spot the frippet: a flying pie. No one's quite sure where the word pie meaning something-to-eat-wrapped-in-pastry comes from, but some people say it's from the word magpie, which has a habit of hoarding things in its nest, just as all sorts of odd things can end up in the pies you eat.

The word pie meaning magpie is to do with being black and white. It comes from the Latin pīca, which means magpie, and is related to pīcus, which means woodpecker.

The mag bit of magpie is from the girl's name, and implies chatterbox.

If you do see a magpie then it's supposed to be lucky to take off your hat and say good morning Mr Magpie, how are your wife and children?


Sunday 13 November 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: gamboge.

I once had a book with a lovely story in it about the colours in a paintbox. I can't remember much about it, except that gamboge was the loveable but naughty one.

Even at the time this seemed perverse, when it was quite clear from his name that he was a depressive, self-pitying, flatulent - and the colour of sludge.

It wasn't until...oooh, about thirty seconds ago...that I Googled gamboge and discovered to my amazement that actually I LOVE gamboge.

It's this colour:

And, good grief, this whole blog is adorned with a colour very like it.

But of course that just makes the word gamboge even nastier: a grubby, sullen word which masks something joyful and sunny.

I would say don't use it - except, on reflection, it occurs to me that no one ever does.

So, that's all right, then.

Word Not To Start Using Today: gamboge. Gamboge is a sort of resin that you get from a gamboge tree. You use it to make lovely bright yellow paint. One of the places you find gamboge trees is Cambodia, and the word gamboge is a rather bruised version of that.

Saturday 12 November 2011

Saturday Rave: Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers.

Every Englishman loves a lord (or so they say) and the hero of Murder Must Advertise is Lord Peter Wimsey.

I must state here, however, that I do not, and have never, loved Lord Peter. In fact, he's often insufferable.

Dorothy L Sayers, though, is one of my great all-time literary heroes, and this book is a masterpiece.

It's set in an advertising agency in the 1930s. There's high-life, murder, drug-dealing, scandal, a wonderful cricket match, and a simply brilliant and hilarious account of office politics.

No doubt it was because agreement on any point was so rare in a quarrelsome world, that the fantastical announcements of advertisers announced it so strongly and so absurdly...In this place...the spiritual atmosphere was clamorous with financial storm, intrigue, dissention, indigestion and marital infedelity. And with worse things - with murder wholesale and retail, of soul and body, murder by weapon and by poison.

And you even get the painstaking Chief Inspector Parker, as well.


Word To Use Today: clamorous. This is a gorgeous word that should be used much more often. Clamour is an Old French word, and it comes from the Latin clāmāre, to cry out.

Friday 11 November 2011

Word To Use Today: eleven.

It's the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year two thousand and eleven.

At eleven o'clock there will be a minute's silence to commemorate the dead of all the wars.

Oh, this must be an awe-inspiring day for anyone with a trace of imagination in their bones.

Eleven is a strange number (as well as, obviously, being an odd one). It's a left-over from when we used to count in dozens, and that's why it doesn't follow the ten-plus-something pattern of thirteen, or fifteen, or nineteen.

But why is the eleventh hour the last possible opportunity for salvation before disaster strikes?

Why is it so many games - soccer, hockey, cricket - have teams of eleven players? (an elfmeter in Germany, which means eleven metre, is a name for a penalty kick at soccer). 

Why does the sunspot cycle last eleven years?

Well, there are always more questions than there is time to consider them.

But today, at the hour when in less busy times people used to stop for their elevensies, for once we'll all have the opportunity to consider.

And we'll have time to remember, too.


Word To Use Today: eleven. This word comes from the Old English endleofan. There were similar words in Europe: Old Norse ellefo, Old Frisian andlova, Old High German einlif.

Thursday 10 November 2011

Mrs Malaprop - a rant.

Words are precious, and every single one deserves to be treated with care and love and respect (except groovy, obviously).

Only a bully, though, gets vicious when someone makes a mistake.

There's no need to get angry or disgusted, is there. No, because occasional slips are there to be savoured.

Take a recent offering from the Daily Telegraph journalist Tanya Aldred. I don't suppose that boosting tourism in the sadly declining English seaside resort of Blackpool:

was her intention when she wrote her piece about Blackpool Football Club.

But she might have done it by broadcasting the news that in Blackpool 'pound shops procreate on every corner.'*

Yes, now the curious crowds will surely surge back, and Blackpool will soon rise to its former glory.

You know, I think I might even go along myself.

Word To Use Today: proliferate (probably a wiser, though much less amusing, choice of word than procreate). Proliferate, meaning to increase rapidly in number, comes from the Mediaeval Latin prōlifer, having offspring, which comes from prōlēs, offsring, plus ferre, to bear.

*A pound shop is one where everything is sold for the very reasonable price of £1.
A 99p shop is, however, even better value.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Nuts and Bolts: Australia's finest.

The English Language isn't really all that English at all. It's full of words borrowed from all over the place (though when I say borrowed I suppose I really mean ruthlessly stolen, for few of them are ever returned).

But look at it this way: imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, okay? And we English are prepared to flatter just about everyone. 

Take the Native Australians.

The best-known example of a Native Australian word that's been borrowed by English is probably kangaroo (which DOESN'T mean there he goes! at all. It's a word used by one group of Australians for one particular and rather rare species of large jumping marsupial. The first Aborigine asked about it identified it correctly as a kangaroo, but the second, who happened to speak another language from the first, didn't recognise the word (or the beast). The legend was born in all the following confusion.)

Native Australians have given us wombat, cooee, boomerang and bunyip, too. They're generous guys.

Then there are the words which, in their slippery way, have come to us via Australia, but didn't originate there. Emu comes originally from the Arabic for big bird, didgeridoo is a description of the sound the instrument makes, and goanna was iguana to start with, which is an Arawak word.

Pleasingly, Kylie is a genuinely Native Australian word. It means throwing stick.

I could go on, but bearing in mind that other genuinely Native Australian word, yabber, I won't.

Have a g'day.

Word To Use Today: Australia. This word was first used of the legendary Roman Terra Australis Incognita, or unknown southern land. The word Australia itself was first used for a real place in 1625 - though it wasn't Australia itself, but an island in Vanuatu. Australia wasn't officially Australia until 1824.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

Thing To Do Today: chuckle

I was planning to bring you a cheering joke or two, but having just Googled chuckle, I'm feeling a bit depressed.

The poor word is asked to do far too much. It's supposed to describe a gentle pleasure, not create jump up and down screaming hilarity all by itself 

(And what are the people screaming? Well,  look at me, mostly.)

Oh dear. 

Still, a chuckle is a lovely thing, and raising a chuckle isn't hard, really.

Have an arrange-your-dinner-in-the-shape-of-a-world-leader competition.

Watch an old lady in a supermarket being very suspicious of fruit.

Turn your socks into glove puppets and use them to act out your last school assembly.

Or, if you're desperate, you could always go on YouTube and search for pictures of cats.

Thing To Do Today: chuckle. This word was first used in the 16th century. It's probably a frequentative of chuck, from chukken, meaning to cluck.

Monday 7 November 2011

Spot the frippet: leaflet.

Sometimes it seems as if we live under a permanent avalanche of leaflets.

They fall out of newspapers, and through the letter box; they are thrust upon us as we walk along the street; they lurk blandly by check-outs.

Leaflets for night clubs, cheap tyres, pizza parlours, window cleaners, estate agents, chair covers, insurance, hearing aids...

Even leaflets, bizarrely, about leaflet distributors.

Frankly, Vallombrosa* has nothing on it.

At this time of year, though, I have one small consolation.

Outside my window there is a very large ash tree. Now the leaves of ash trees are rather fern-like, and each section of each leaf is called, yes, a leaflet.

At this time of year every single one of those leaflets is letting go of its hold on the tree, swirling elegantly to the ground, and then DYING.

Which means I spend the whole winter looking forward to the tree coming into leaf again.

Ah well!

Spot the frippet: leaflet. This word means small leaf, of course. Leaf is an Old English word. It's related to the Gothic laufs and the Icelandic lauf.

By the way, there's a scrumptious word, unijugate, which means consisting of two leaflets, but I'm still looking for the chance to use that one.

*Vallombrosa is in Tuscany, and Milton mentions it in Paradise Lost: "autumnal leaves that strow the brooks in Vallombrosa".

Sunday 6 November 2011

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: ukase.

I'm afraid English is a terribly greedy language that'll chomp up more or less anything it can get its teeth into.

There are just a few words, though, which get stuck half-way down, like a railway bolt in an ostrich's neck.

Such a word is ukase.

Ukase means an order from on high. Originally a ukase had to come from the tzar or a patriarch*, but now it can come from anyone who doesn't have to bother about listening to arguments.

The Collins dictionary tells us to pronounce it yooKAYZ, but as far as I'm concerned using it in any way at all is cast-iron proof of having absolutely no taste at all.

And in any case, people should ALWAYS listen to arguments!

Word Not To Use Today: ukase. This word comes to us from the Russian word ukaz, from ukazat, which means to command.

*Orthodox Church religious leader.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Saturday Rave: Witch Week by Diana Wynne Jones.

'I do not know, Nirupam Singh wrote musingly, how anyone manages to write much in their journal, since everyone knows Miss Cawallader reads them all during the holidays.'

Today is November 5th, which in England is traditionally Bonfire Night. We light bonfires and set off fireworks to commemorate the 1605 failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and his companions to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

Witch Week is a funny, tremendous, terrifying book. It's set in an alternative England in the week between Halloween and Bonefire Night.

On Bonefire Night, anyone who can be proved to be a witch is burned. 


That's the first line of the book. I really don't think there could possibly be a better one.

Word To Use Today: bonfire. This word was originally bone-fire, because people used to burn bones on them. It probably lost its middle e because of the French word bon, meaning good.

Friday 4 November 2011

Word To Use Today: spiv.

I'd thought the word spiv was sinking into the grave, all but forgotten, and now here it is popping up again, bright as ever.


Spiv is a British slang word for a particular type of minor criminal. The term became popular in Britain during the Second World War, and it describes someone who sells illegal goods - usually, in those days, rationed ones.

A typical spiv was charming, and definitely a smart dresser. A spiv could get you anything, even nylon stockings, so you could stop drawing lines up the backs of your legs and pretending they were stocking-seams.

Someone a bit like this:

There have always been spiv-type criminals about, of course, but the term had fallen into disuse until just the last week, when the clever people in Brussels, trying to find a way to persuade people they've got more money than they really do, have come up with an idea called a Special Purpose Investment Vehicle.


Honestly, you couldn't make it up. No, really, you couldn't: if I put  that in a novel everyone would mutter about its being contrived and unconvincing.

Still, it's great to see the word spiv getting a new lease of life.

Do enjoy it.

Word To Use Today: spiv. This word probably started off as racecourse slang. It might come from a dialect word, spiving, which means smart.

Other possibilities are that it comes from the Romany word spiv which means sparrow, or that it might be a back-slang form of VIPs, or a police acronym for Suspected Person and Itinerant Vagrant.

There was a character called Henry 'Spiv' Bagster in early 1900s London who was a small-time crook, and he might be the origin of the word, too.

Thursday 3 November 2011

Pomp and pies: a rant.

'I have not been at a prior meeting,' said the American economist Larry Summers recently, 'at which matters have had more gravity.'

Well, at least we all know what he means.

I, personally, though, would have been feeling a lot less inclined to hope that someone would push a custard pie in his face if he'd said: 'I've never been to a more important meeting.'

The trouble with this sort of pomposity is that it attracts attention away from the message and focuses it on the speaker.

But then that's often the intention all along.

Word To Use Today: gravity. This word comes to us from the Latin word gravitās, which means weight, and before that from gravis, which means heavy.

Wednesday 2 November 2011

Nuts and Bolts: bahuvrihi.

These are all over the place. No, really, they are, and the only unusual thing about them is their name, which sounds like something from the menu of an Indian restaurant.

There's a good reason for that, too.

Anyway, bahuvrihi. People argue about exactly what makes something a bahuvrihi, but basically a bahuvrihi is a two-part word which describes a part of something but actually means the whole thing.

For instance, a sabretooth describes...well, all it really describes is the tooth of an extinct big cat. It doesn't give us the whole picture -but if you read he got attacked by a sabretooth you don't start imagining a single tooth slashing down out of thin air. (Well, you might if you're a creative type, but otherwise you accept that it's the whole cat doing the attacking.)

Other examples of bahuvrihis are hatchback, redcoat and bluebell.

Bahuvrihis are always two-part words like these, and they're everywhere: used not only by the highbrows, but by the halfwits and boneheads, too.

Type Of Word To Use Today: bahuvrihi. This is a Sanskrit word and, rather neatly, bahuvrihi is itself a bahuvrihi because the word is made up of bahu, which means much, and vrihi, which means rice. Put together they mean a rich man.

Tuesday 1 November 2011

Thing To Do Today Unless You're Australian: perk up.

This must be easier for those in the Southern Hemisphere at the moment, because here in Europe the days are shortening and the nights are, naturally, lengthening, and quite honestly most of us are thinking wistfully about the possibilities of hibernation.*

So how to perk ourselves up? Well, if you're a coffee bean then all you need to do is to jump into a coffee percolator. If you're a human, then drinking the resultant fluid might do the trick.

If things are too gloomy to perk up properly then how about just perking up the ears? I admit this is easier for a dog or a horse than a human, but it can be done, with practice, and is said to be good for the jaw-line.

Or perhaps a trip to the wonderfully-named Perk Castle might help.

(It's in Belgium, in the equally wonderfully-named district of Steenokkerzeel.)

Your jacket can be perked up at the dry-cleaners. The stuff they use, tetrachloroethylene, C2Cl4, is also called perk. It was first made by Michael Faraday, and has been used to eradicate hookworm infestations, which surely must have perked up those concerned considerably.

If all else fails, then there are always perks to perk ourselves up. If you're a freeman of the City of London, you can, if you wish, drive sheep over London Bridge. A Freeman of the City of Dublin can graze his sheep on St Stephen's Green.

For those of us with our sheep already in the right place, then there are other perks to be had. A writer gets fan mail from time to time, and a piano teacher might even get the odd present.

Not that I'm hinting...

Thing To Do Today: be perky. This word appeared in the 14th century, and may have come from the Norman French word perquer, from the Latin pertica, a long staff.
Perks meaning benefits of a job is short for perquisite, from the Latin perquīrere, to seek earnestly for something.

* Having said that, you Ozzies had best ignore this one...**

**I'm afraid it's Ozzie slang for to vomit.