This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 31 January 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: let things rankle.

As Norm has so wisely drawn to our attention, sometimes things just aren't fair, and he suggests that watching sport gives us useful practice in the acceptance of injustice.

However, that doesn't mean we're going to do it cheerfully.

Yes, occasionally things will rankle. I mean, I'm still slightly bitter about the "Hand of God" incident - and I'm not even that interested in football.

As for the corrosive effects of history...well, just don't mention the war, okay?

No, please don't mention any war.

Although...I don't know: a problem shared is said to be a problem halved, so perhaps we should make a point of sharing our grievances.

Mind you, that does leave us listening to a lot of people moaning. 

And that would certainly rankle after a while, wouldn't it.

Thing Not To Do Today: let things rankle. This word is from the Old French draoncler, to fester, from draoncle, an ulcer, and before that from the Latin dracunculus, a small snake* from dracō, a presumably rather bigger snake.

*It's rather sweet, isn't it, to have a word for a small snake.

Monday 30 January 2012

Spot the frippet: radula.

What's a radula?

Well, here's a picture from the marvellous wikipedia:

Yes, it does look like a piece of wallpaper designed by William Morris's ghost, but in fact it's something altogether different and much commoner.

In fact, I'd imagine there were thousands and thousands of these within a just a few metres of you.

A radula is a mollusc's tooth.

No, wait, wait! They're incredible. Sometimes they're just used for scraping off bits of leaf, but there are all sorts of deep dark and dangerous things going on in the slimy world of the mollusc.

For instance, some sea snails excrete acid and use it, together with their radulae, to make holes in the shells of other molluscs so they can get at their innards.
Some others have a special radula which acts as a poisononed harpoon.

The ghost slug has extra-long razor-sharp radulae which it uses to devour earthworms.

And as for giant squid, ooh, they can chomp up more or less anything.

Ooh yes. Be afraid, be very afraid...

and be very very careful...

...there are hungry molluscs out there!

Spot the frippet: radula. Radulae are very small, and also inside the mouths of slugs and snails, so spotting them isn't easy. You may see trails like these, though,

File:Land Snail radula tracks.jpg

which are scrape-marks from the less vicious sorts of molluscs.

Other than that, your best chance is watching a snail eating the algae on the walls of an aquarium. Or at a snail dentist.

If you can find one.

The word radula is the Late Latin word for a scraping iron, from the Latin rādere, to scrape.

Sunday 29 January 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: fecula.

Yes, yes, I realise that you probably weren't considering using the word fecula anyway. Of course not. The Word Den's inhabitants are creatures of fine intelligence and taste.

And fecula is plainly a vicious word. It sounds like root beer*: something that's so disgusting you just can't help but spit it out at once.

Fecula does have a faint and bonkers charm, though, because it means two crazily different things: it can be the gluey starch you get from washing crushed vegetables such as potatoes.

Or it can be insect poo.

I suppose that's quite endearing, really.

Words Not to Use Today: fecula. This is the Late Latin word for burnt tartar, which is the crust you sometimes get on wine. It comes from the Latin faex, which means sediment.

*The only root beer I've ever drunk tasted somewhere between  cheap disinfectant and old ladies' wee, but I'm prepared to accept there may be pleasanter kinds out there somewhere.

Saturday 28 January 2012

Saturday Rave: Money From Home by Damon Runyon.

When people (usually non-writers) try to tell other people how to write books they often say find your voice.

Oh, but how dull, how deeply dull. And, even worse, how limiting.

The idea that a writer, who can travel the universe and inhabit every creature which dwells there, should have just one voice.

Having said that, sometimes a voice emerges which, in the hands of a genius, does manage, magically, to illuminate the whole universe and every creature which dwells there.

Damon Runyon was the creator of such a voice.

His unnamed narrator, a down-at-heel observer of urban American low-life, sees everything, and tells everything, and every line fizzes with life and wit and danger.

She is such a doll as enjoys going round and about, being young, and full of vitality, as well as blonde, and if Philly the Weeper is too busy, or does not have enough dough to take her round and about, Miss Lola Ledare always seems able to find somebody else who has a little leisure time on their hands for that purpose, and if Philly the Weeper does not like it, he can lump it, for Miss Lola Ledare can be very, very firm when it comes to going around and about.

How will the story of Miss Lola Ledare and Philly the Weeper end? Well, I'm not telling.

But you want to know, don't you.


Word To Use Today: blonde. This word is French, and before that probably German, and it's probably related to the late Latin word blundus, which means yellow, and to the Spanish blondo.

Friday 27 January 2012

Word To Use Today: frisson.

Frisson...that shiver you get when something startlingly marvellous happens.

It might involve diamonds (yes, there are plenty of very shallow people about) or a sleeping child (I'm afraid the sleeping thing does help, doesn't it?) or sunlight on water.

A cathedral, a Vermeer, a steam train, a goal, a wedding dress.

A whale, a flower, an eagle, a butterfly.

A song.

I hope you feel a frisson today.

Here's something that might help:

Word To Use Today: frisson. This word is French, and means shiver. It arrived in English in the 1700s, but has only been common for the last hundred years or so. It's related to the Latin fricare, which means to rub or chafe, and to another Latin word frigere, which means, amongst other things, to be cold, or, oddly, to roast.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Reichenbach Day: a rant.

Sherlock Holmes?

No, I can't say I've ever fancied Sherlock Holmes. Dr Watson, of course, is lovely, though the way Watson's wife (if there is just the one wife) has such trouble staying dead is a bit worrying.

Anyway, the BBC has come up with a TV programme called Sherlock. It's a quirky, fast-paced, modern-day version of Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories.

Yes, it sounds dreadful, doesn't it. But really, it's not. It's brilliant.

So anyway, on the night of the transmission everyone sits down, all ready to be transfixed and bewildered (so many conversations the next day will begin but why...? how did...?). 

And then some idiot announcer goes and asks: 'Can Sherlock solve the puzzle set by his ultimate nemesis?'


Ultimate nemesis.


That means Sherlock dies, then.

Yep. Nemesis means just deserts (originally) or (more often nowadays) downfall, and ultimate means final.

So he's going to die.*

Now, as it happens I had a good idea of this, anyway, because I knew the baddy was called Moriarty, and you seldom hear anyone with a good word to say about Moriarty.

In future, though, I can see I'm going to have to spend the few seconds before the start of  TV programmes with my fingers in my ears going la la la la la.


I hate to think what Sherlock Holmes would have made of that.

Word To Use Today: ultimate. This word is from the Latin word ultimus, last, from ulter, which means distant.

*But don't forget that in Sherlock few things are quite as they seem...

Oh, and Happy Australia Day to all The Word Den's friends in Oz.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Nuts and Bolts: mixed metaphors.

Mixed metaphors aren't easy to explain, but, hey, I'll take a stab in the dark at them.

"All the world's a stage" wrote Shakespeare., actually it's not. Very little of the world is a stage. Two thirds of the world is covered in water, for a start.

Of course what Shakespeare meant is that we, like actors, tend not to have too much control over what we're doing. (He probably meant all sorts of other stuff, too, but that'll do for now.)

Anyway, all the world's a stage is a metaphor. That's saying a thing is something it plainly isn't, in order to highlight something interesting about it. 

The trouble is, once you've started using a metaphor you have to stick with it, because if you try to change horses mid-stream you're likely to find yourself high and dry up the creek without a paddle.

And then everyone will know you're not the brightest tool in the box.

A memorable example of the thoroughly mixed metaphor came from Boyle Roche, in the Irish Parliament:

'Mr Speaker, I smell a rat,' he said. 'I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.'

Oh dear. The trouble is that Mr Roche so surprises us with the rat in the first place that the poor creature stays firmly in our minds even when Mr Roche has forgotten all about him.

This is from a BBC Radio Sheffield phone-in:

'Steve Cotterill had already turned down one job, as he knew there was a bigger fish just round the corner.' 

We can only hope Mr Cotterill took to his new job like a fish out of water, because you can't blame him for wanting to butter his own nest, can you.

There are loads of examples of mixed metaphors, and of course I don't want to go on until the cows turn blue in the face, especially as I'm sure we're all keen to see the light at the end of the rainbow.

Let's all enjoy our metaphors: but let's not try too hard, because it seems to be when people start burning the midnight oil at both ends that things go just horribly horribly wrong.

Have fun!

Thing To Use Today: a metaphor. Metapherien is a Greek word which means to transfer.

Tuesday 24 January 2012

Thing To Do Today: solve something.

So, how many roads must a man walk down before they call him a  man?

Does living your whole life through a phone screen make your brain go rectangular?

What's holding you back?

Hm...perhaps these questions are a bit hard to get solved before midnight. Perhaps we'd better lower our sights a bit. (Though, come to think about it, if you lower your sights, aren't you likely to...well...miss what your aiming at? Surely what you should be doing is moving your target closer.)


What is that stuck to the bottom of your shoe?

Why did you come upstairs?

Just who do you think you are?

And, hey, if all else fails:

1 + 1 = ?*

Thing To Do Today: solve something. This word comes from the Latin word solvere, which means to loosen, release or free from debt.

*2 - unless you're a computer, when the answer will be 10. Or possibly even higher if you're a rabbit.

Free from debt? Good grief, and the economists are currently refusing to think about even the last problem.

Monday 23 January 2012

Spot the frippet: balloon.

A sight of a hot-air balloon is surely one of those things which make everyone happier.

But smaller balloons are also a cause for joy and a sign of celebration - and that's what we have here now, because today The Word Den is one whole year old.


It's been great fun and I've enjoyed almost every minute of it, especially welcoming visitors from all round the world. I've also learned a simply huge amount.

The first balloon was probably made by Zhuge Liang in China in about 220 - 280 AD (unless it was made by the Nazca in Peru to help them with drawing their huge earth creatures).

Zhuge used his balloons for signalling, but he wasn't fool enough to go up in one. That was left to the Montgolfier brothers in France in 1783.

Small balloons are generally made of latex, nowadays, but before that they were made of animal bladders. A blown-up pig's bladder on a stick is still often carried by one member of a band of morris dancers (he's called the fool) which he uses to hit the other dancers.

Well, there's no accounting, is there.

California is the only place I know about to have a Balloon Law, which is designed to protect wildlife and power lines.
That means, presumably, that Californians can't have balloon races as we do in England, where you let a helium balloon go and the person whose balloon goes the furthest wins the prize.

As if that's not enough to make balloons a very good thing, heart conditions - including the Duke of Edinburgh's recent illness - are sometimes sorted out with balloons, in these cases very small ones, to open up blocked arteries.

Spot the frippet: balloon. This word is basically the same word as ball. It's come to English through the Italian dialect word ballone, from balla, which is from a German-type word to do with blowing or swelling.

Sunday 22 January 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: ointment.

Well, is there anything good about the word ointment?

I suppose it does sound quite thick and greasy, which is appropriate. The first bit sounds far too much like oink, though, so I can't help but be reminded of pig fat.

In any case, the word rings, dully, with disappointment and pain; with grazed knees, invasions of pimples, and unspeakable embarrassments.

I don't know about you, but in future I think I'm going to annoint myself, if necessary, exclusively with lotions, or rich but soothing creams.

Word Not To Use Today: ointment. This word comes from the Old French word oignement, and before that from the Latin unguentum.

All these rather nasty words mean ointment, pretty much.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Saturday Rave: Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

There's nothing like a good baddy, and in this story Ali Baba is up against forty of them.

In fact, if you include Ali Baba's greedy brother Cassim, not to mention Cassim's nosy wife, we have forty two.

As if this weren't enough, we also have the tailor Baba Mustafa, who gets to sew a corpse back together, and, of course, the servant Morgiana (who is not only very clever and very brave but can dance, too) who ends up satisfyingly happy, married, and rich.

All that, and magic words, too.

Open sesame!

Word To Use Today: sesame. Nowadays we are so sophisticated that even hamburger joints are no strangers to sesame seeds, but when I was young none of us had a clue that sesame was anything other than a magic word like abracadabra.
My friend Lynda, though, did always have a suspicion that the thieves had Italian accents and were just saying open says-a me.

I do wish that were true, but sesame is, sadly, a plant grown, especially in India, for its seeds.

The word comes from the Greek sēsamē, which is related to the Arabic simsim.

Friday 20 January 2012

Word To Use Today: frost.


Isn't it a fantastic word? You can taste the crisp furriness of it as you say it.

Our lawn (and the car) have been upholstered most intricately in matt white velvet this week, and I have been sitting here wrapped in a blanket.

Yes, I suffer for my Art. Well, I'm hoping it's a step towards genius.

It's powerful frost, as well as beautiful. When water below ground freezes it can make the earth rise and crack as if the vastest dinosaur ever is emerging from its subterranean nest. That's called frost heave.

A frost stud or a frost cog is - well, guess!*

We also have frosting, of course, which is a gungy sort of cake icing. This is also to be celebrated.

Frostwork is a collection of needle-like crystals sometimes found in caves. Like this:


And for the surface dwellers amongst us, here's the real thing.

Photograph by Petr Kratochvii.

Very nearly magic!

Word To Use Today: frost. This is such an absolutely pefect word that it hasn't changed for ages. Even the Old High German, Old Norse and Old Saxon words are the same, as well as the Old English.

Told you it was brilliant.

*It's actually an anti-slip device on a horse shoe.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Setting an example - a rant.

There are loads of wonderful things about being quite old. It's true the frame is sagging a bit, and the memory rather less sure of itself, but there are a lot fewer people telling you what to do.

I mean, I only eat my greens when I feel like it.

So there!

The fly in the ointment - apart from taxes, and the approaching-death thing - is having to set a good example. The being-good-when-the-kids-are-watching.

Being a rôle-model.

Ah well, it's an honour, really, I suppose, and that's why the huge toy warehouse called TOYS R US is so incredibly annoying.

Apart from the backwards R - why? WHY? And the fact that R, even the right way round, doesn't mean anything, what the flip does it mean?



It's utter balderdash.

Can I be the only person never to buy anything from them purely on the grounds that their trade name is illiterate?

Well, possibly, I suppose...

But in any case, it should be TOYS R WE!

Word To Use Today: toy. No one is sure where this word came from, but when it started off in the 1500s it meant to flirt or canoodle.

PS You know what I just said about non-reliability of the ageing brain? Well, this rant was really supposed to be for the 19th, rant days being Thursdays.

Ah well! I'll re-post it agan then.

If I remember.

Setting an example: a rant.

There are loads of wonderful things about being quite old. It's true the frame is sagging a bit, and the memory rather less sure of itself, but there are a lot fewer people telling you what to do.

I mean, I only eat my greens when I feel like it.

So there!

The fly in the ointment - apart from taxes, and the approaching-death thing - is having to set a good example. The being-good-when-the-kids-are-watching.

Being a rôle-model.

Ah well, it's an honour, really, I suppose - and that's why the huge toy warehouse called TOYS R US is so incredibly annoying.

Apart from the backwards R - why? WHY? And the fact that R, even the right way round, doesn't mean anything, what the flip does it mean?



It's utter balderdash.

Can I be the only person never to buy anything from them purely on the grounds that their trade name is illiterate?

Well, possibly, I suppose...

But in any case, it should be TOYS R WE!

Word To Use Today: toy. No one is sure where this word came from, but when it started off in the 1500s it meant to flirt or canoodle.

PS You know what I just said about non-reliability of the ageing brain? Well, this rant was really supposed to be for the 19th, rant days being Thursdays.

Ah well! I'll re-post it agan then.

If I remember.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Nuts and Bolts: flaming words.

Oh, thank heavens for the word flammable.

It means, obviously, something which can be set on fire; but how about inflammable? Will something inflammable burn or not?

I mean, ingenious means having genius; but inexpert means having no expertise.

I suppose, now I come to think about it (and it's only taken me about fifty years to sort this out) inflammable is the same word as inflamed, and something inflamed is hot to the touch. So inflammable means that, yes, it can be set on fire.

All the same, inflammable is a dangerously confusing word, and that's why everyone sensible uses flammable and non-flammable, instead.

Word To Use Today As Long As You Don't Mind No One Being Sure What You're Talking About And Are Prepared To Risk Things Going HorriblyWrong. Inflammable. This word comes from the Latin inflammere, which means to set on fire. The in bit looks as if it's the Latin in which means not, but actually it's the Latin in which means extra.

PS As a kid I was often told that imflammable was the opposite of inflammable, but hurray hurray, imflammable doesn't exist. It never has existed, either. And thank heavens for that.

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Thing To Do Today. Or perhaps not. Scramble.

Sometimes things can get a bit out of control. The alarm fails to wake us and we have to scramble for the bus, or someone drops an open purse on the pavement and this leads to a bit of a scramble to pick up the coins.

A scrambler is a plant which grows all over everything because it's too weak to hold itself up.

On the other hand, there is no finer way to start the day than with a plate of nicely scrambled eggs* and there's no more bracing activity than a scramble up your nearest steep hill.

If you're on a motor bike, then in Britain a scramble is a race across rough ground.

People do a lot of scrambling in the armed forces. It can mean either to hurry to get ready for action, or to make a voice-transmission impossible to intercept.

Military folk just adore scrambled egg, though they don't eat it: military scrambled egg is the gold embroidery on a high-ranking officer's cap.

Thing To Do Today: scramble. This word was invented in the 1500s. It's a mixture of scrabble and ramp. Ramp is from an Old French word ramper which means to crawl or rear up.

*That is, not made by a hotel. You might as well serve up bits of watery polystyrene as hotel scrambled eggs. In fact, I think I've stayed at some places that have.

Monday 16 January 2012

Spot the frippet: sponge.

Yes, of course there's SpongeBob Square Pants, but although you're unlikely to find any other sponges with quite such a good line in wise-cracks, they're fascinating all the same.

Sponges are animals. Mostly they don't move around much once they're grown up (in this way they're not unlike humans) but some sorts of sponges can move at a rate of..ooh, several millimetres a day. If they're roused.

Don't let their slowness lure you into a false sense of security, though, because there are sponges out there that are killers.

Well, they're not at all friendly to shrimps, anyway.

...not only that, but some of them are two metres tall, too.

Most marvellously, some glass sponges deep in the oceans are crowned with optical fibres very like those used in modern telecommunication systems. Glass sponges also may live as long as 23,000 years, too.

These are glass sponges.

The easiest sort of sponge to spot is, obviously, the plastic imitation used for mopping up.

Or you might know a sponger: that's someone who soaks up other people's money by begging and whingeing.

Or if you're lucky you might have a sponge cake. This looks quite like a sea sponge, but contains more sugar and tastes much nicer. Or so I should imagine.

Spot the frippet: sponge. This word has been English since before the Normans arrived, and before that there were Latin and Greek words that were very much the same.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: gaiter.


I don't know quite what it is, but there's something about the word gaiter that sounds arrogant and unfeeling.

It's not that they were only worn by early twentieth century toffs, of course. They're worn by rugged outdoorsmen, too.

(This picture is by Dion Clayton Calthrop.)

No, it's the lurching sound of the word itself that bothers me. Gaiters are suppposed to make walking easier, and they always sound as if they're making people hobble.

So I vote we all abandon the word gaiter and use the splendid word  spatterdash instead.

Word Not To Use Today: gaiter. Very oddly indeed, this word has nothing to do with the word gait, but is from the French guêtre. Guêtre probably comes from some Germanic word, but no one's quite sure what it is; though, even more oddly, people are pretty sure it's related to the word wrist.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Saturday Rave: A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble.

Is it possible for a man called Arthur Grimble to be a hero?

Well, only a very shy, gangling, diffident sort of a hero: and that is what Arthur Grimble proves himself to be in A Pattern of Islands.

A Pattern of Islands is the autobiography of a young English man who in 1914 sails out to the Gilbert Islands, small fragments of land about half way between Fiji and Hawaii. He 's an ignoramus and a fool, but he has the grace to recognise this.

And this, of course, is the first step towards wisdom.

The islands are a place of wonder and romance.

This is Grimble on the subject of cockroaches.

...we decided at last to count them in as an essential ingredient of the Pacific romance - it was either that or die of daily horror - and our only incurable pedantry about them was to keep them, if or when possible, out of the soup.

And here he is on sorcery:

...crowding in at you out of the dark the ghosts of the dead and the Things that lurked in things were the prowling familiars...It seems a marvel that the race remained cheerful under so many dreads, for it did remain cheerful.

And so does Arthur Grimble, mostly: cheerful, and full of love and respect for the islands and the wisdom of their people.

A true hero.

Word To Use Today: Pacific. The Pacific was named the Pacific by Ferdinand Magellan upon first sailing into it in 1521 (it had been called the South Sea before that). Mar Pacifico means peaceful sea.

Talk about a snap judgement...

Friday 13 January 2012

Word To Use Today: bonanza.

Is there a bouncier, more generous and all-round-optimistic word than bonanza?

Do tell if there is, because I'd love to know.

I first came across this word as the title of an ancient television series. As I recall (which is only dimly) it concerned a family of cowboys running a ranch while being nice to their eccentric neighbours. It had a rousing theme tune:

Here in England bonanza means a source, unusually unexpected, of riches or luck. In America it can mean a mine, or a vein rich in ore, too.

The important thing is that a bonanza is thumping good news, whether there's gold in them thar hills, lashings of ginger beer for tea, or the appearance of a collection of box-office stars on the stage.

And, hey, it's Friday. Perhaps that's bonanza enough.

Enjoy the day!
Word To Use Today: bonanza. This word comes from the Spanish word for calm sea, which is good luck if you're at sail on it. Before that there was a Latin word bonacia, from bonus good and malacia a dead calm, from the Greek work malakia, softness.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Ye: a rant.

Okay, spot the difference between these words: ye and ye.

What? Oh, come on, the word has at least four completely different meanings.

For a start, ye is an ancient Korean kingdom. It's also the country code for Yemen.

There are two English ye s, too. Okay, they're both a bit out of date, but everyone knows what they mean. Ye can mean you (well, it can when there are two or more of you, anyway. Otherwise it should be thou, unless you happen to be speaking Early Modern English (as one does) when it is politer to use ye even to a single person).

All right so far. But then there's the other English ye. As in Ye Olde Worlde Tea/Antique/Computer Shoppe.
This ye means the, of course. And that's how you say it. The. With a th.
It's spelt with a y because when printing started up the printers couldn't be bothered to carve the special letter that ye used to begin with - it was called a thorn, and looked like this - Þ or þ - and so they lazily used a y instead.

Yes, it was dead sloppy of them, and, look, they're still causing trouble half a millennium on.

The trouble is that now no one knows how to say ye. The might be the right pronunciation, but you won't half look an idiot if you try saying it.

Unless the people you're talking to are know-alls, when you'll look a right idiot if you say it as spelled.

So let's just use the, shall we? Spelled the. After all, it's been established as a word for hundreds and hundreds of years.

PS. You don't say the extra es on the ends of words like olde, either.

No, not even if you're desperate to look quaint.
Word To Use Today: ye. This word has been around in various forms more or less forever. There are Old Saxon, Frisian and Gothic forms, but it's all so complicated that I'm quite pleased that we can now all say you and not have to bother our heads.

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Nuts and Bolts: silence!

The detective thoughtfully hummed the opening of the 119th psalm as he regarded the receipt that lay on the cupboard. So the poison had been injected into the raspberries, and not the ptarmigan, after all. 

Hey, that's not a bad fragment of a story.

I don't suppose you noticed anything especially odd about it, except for a slight worry about the safety of any raspberries you might be planning to eat.

(I'd better say here that I've no idea whether you can actually inject poison effectively into raspberries. But if anyone could, it was probably the psychopathic butler.)

So what was peculiar about that passage? Well, as with so many murder mysteries, it was the silence. In particular, the silence of the letter p.

Receipt, cupboard, raspberry, ptarmigan, psalm.

To which I might add corps, coup, and pterodactyl.

Ptomaine (which was, of course, the poison which was injected into the raspberries). And psychopathic.

These p s are all historical left-overs and they serve no purpose at all, really, except to make spelling harder. The Portuguese have recently done away with such foolishnesses as silent letters, and there are many who say English would be better purged in a similar way.

I don't know, though. Those silent p s may be awkward and useless, but, gosh, the world would be a duller place without things that are awkward and useless.

Word To Use Today: one with a silent p. Words starting pt are usually originally Greek. A cupboard used to be a board to put your cups on. Coup and corps are French, and the French hardly ever think a word is complete without at least one silent letter. Receipt comes from the Latin recipere, to receive, and raspberries used to be raspis.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Thing To Do Today: be swashbuckling.

On guard!

Yes, it's time to grasp your swash firmly in both hands and give it a jolly good buckling.

(I speak as one of the few people in England to keep a fencing sword within handy reach of her kitchen.)

Anyway, enough of plodding our weary ways, let's seize the day and make it sparkle with verve and excitement.

So: do not avoid the puddles.

Greet your teacher or boss with the words Fair princess!*

Rescue a damsel. Or a kitten. Wear pink tights. Or, if you're having a truly dull day, at least wave your handkerchief about and try a few courtly bows.

Most of all, have fun.

Thing To Do Today: be swashbuckling. The swash bit comes from an old word which describes the noise a sword makes when it hits a shield. A buckler is a small shield. Buckler comes from the Old French bocle, which means a shield boss, and before that from the Latin buccula, which is the cheek-strap of a helmet, from bucca, which means cheek.

*If he objects, explain that it's Shakespeare. That might help.

Monday 9 January 2012

Spot the frippet: rice.

The holidays are over at last, and I, full to the gills with currants, butter, and cream, am craving rice. Just plain rice, possibly accompanied by a few steamed vegetables.

It's a sort of grass, is rice, Oryza sativa. It likes damp places, and its seeds are yellow until you polish them (which seems an odd thing to do to seeds) after which they become white.

Indian rice, however, comes from...well, from America, actually. Zizania aquatica has a purplish-black seed, and is known in England as wild rice, though it's now cultivated and is only a very very distant relation of the usual stuff.

A marvellous plant, rice. It feeds nearly half the people of the world. You can even use the straw to make an edible paper for stopping macaroons welding themselves to the baking sheet.

If you are American then you might rice your potatoes; that is, mash them into a slightly lumpy mush.

RICE as an acronym stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. It's what you do when you need to treat a strained limb or joint.

Well, that's one to bear in mind: what with the extra poundage we're lugging around since Christmas, we're quite likely to need a cure for strained joints.

Spot the frippet: rice. Is there a kitchen in the world that doesn't contain any rice? If there is, try to find a wedding, where rice is traditionally thrown over the bride.

Well, that explains the veil, then.

The word rice arrived in English in the 1200s. It came to us through French, Italian and Latin from the Greek orūza, and before that it might have come from a Dravidian word from India.

Sunday 8 January 2012

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: suburban.

Does any other word evoke quite so much squat dreariness as suburban?

It has a dull, belching, padded-cell sound.

I have to admit this is the perfect representation of struggling pampas grass, smugness, and inconvenient parking facilities, but who wants that?

Look, let's dump the suburbs, we have no need of them, and go and live much more happily somewhere peripolitan, instead.

Why, even the pampas will look perkier.

Word Not To Use Today: suburban. Sub is the Latin for loads of things, in this case close to, and the urbs bit is Latin for city.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Saturday Rave: Little Red Riding Hood.

'What big eyes you have, Grandmother!'

Little Red Riding Hood is a story so simple, and at the same time so deeply serious, that if you looked I suspect you'd find its roots running deep through the heart of almost everything.

The story's been around since the 1300s, at least, and there are similar stories in the group of Viking myths called the Elder Edda, which were made up between 800 and 1100 AD.

In the story of Little Red Riding Hood an innocent girl meets a big bad wolf, and is either rescued in the nick of time, or cunningly manages to save herself, or gets chomped up.

The thing that's always puzzled me about this story is, where's the horse? I mean, why on earth would anyone have a riding hood if they didn't have something to ride?

If only the silly girl had taken her horse...

For me the very best thing about this story is that the heroine manages to wear a nice red hood without being a baddy. So often the slightest sign of a girl's taking pleasure in her appearance heralds a long and horrible descent into something very nasty indeed.

'Oh Grandmother, what big teeth you have!'

'All the better to eat you with, my dear!'

But don't worry, the ending of Little Red Riding Hood has tended to get happier (and fairer) as it's travelled through the centuries; so that  nowadays, even if Little Red Riding Hood does get eaten, she generally ends up safe and sound.


Word To use Today: ride. This word comes from the Old English rīdan, and before that it was probably something to do with the Old Norse rītha

Friday 6 January 2012

Word To Use Today: delinquent.

When I was young, a delinquent always sounded such a truly elegant, adventurous and glorious thing to be: it's such a lovely moonlit-waterfall of a word.

The mysterious but never-heard linquent sounded jolly juicy, too.

Of course now I know that a delinquent (practically always to be found, sadly, after the word juvenile) is a person who causes a lot of trouble. In some countries a juvenile delinquent still means someone not yet grown up who commits a crime.

It's too beautiful a word not to use and cherish, though; and surely even if every young person in your district is the epitome of graciousness and civilisation then you must surely have a delinquent dog, or squirrel, or old lady, to tut over. 

Gosh, it just me, or is the idea of a whole district full of gracious and civilised kids utterly horrifying and creepy?

I mean, who wouldn't swop a street full of Stepford kids for a little natural delinquency?

Hm. Perhaps I can feel a novel coming on...

Word To Use Today: delinquent. This word was made up in the 1600s from the Latin word dēlinquēns, which means offending, from linquere, to forsake.

Thursday 5 January 2012

Sanctions - a rant.

Oh, I know people rant and rave about verbification, which is using a noun (an object) to describe a verb (an action).

But of course it's too late to make a fuss now. Much, much too late. People have using objects as actions for...well, for centuries. At least.

Action words like access (as in an account) host (a party) email ( and, indeed, blog (okay, you've got the idea) all started off as objects and have now become actions, too.

To dress is another verbification, and, let's face it, we have been dressing ourselves for absolutely ages. Our whole life-times. Why, even my grandparents, I believe, dressed themselves.

But having said all this, the long history of verbification doesn't let you off thinking about what you're saying. Really it doesn't.

'More on the EU deal to sanction Iran's oil exports. A final decision will be made on January 30th on oil and bank sanctions.'

That's from yesterday's Telegraph. In the first sentence they've used sanction as an action, as you can see. Well, sanction has been used as an action for a long time, so what's wrong with that?

Well, absolutely everything, because it means exactly the opposite of what that quote is trying to say.

Look, sanction as an action means to allow.  And the sanctions they are talking about in the second sentence of the quote mean things to stop a country doing what it wants to do.

So you can't make a verb from the object sanction in that sense because it will mean the opposite of the verb sanction we already have.

Okay, yes, sanction (the object) is an odd word, and pretty much a contranym because sometimes it means a permission and sometimes it means a penalty (which is what has caused the problem here) but for heaven's sake!

It still doesn't sanction people talking nonsense!

Word To Use Today: sanction. This word comes from from the Latin word sancīre, to decree.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Nuts and Bolts: Klingon.

No, hang on! This is interesting.


The Klingons first appeared in the Star Trek episode Errand of Mercy, written by Gene L Coon. These Klingons shouted rather a lot, but fortunately in English. 

After that everything got a lot more complicated. For The Motion Picture James Doohan (who played Scotty) made up some genuine* Klingon words for the aliens to use.

Later, Marc Okrand used those words as the basis of a Klingon language, which at one point was claimed to be the fastest-growing language on Earth.

How about that?

Marc Okrand did his best to make Klingon as alien as possible to the majority of earthlings. The order of the words in a Klingon sentence, for instance, is what we English speakers would call back to front: so, instead of saying dog bit man you'd say man bit dog - but it would still mean dog bit man.

There are no adjectives in Klingon, nor any verb to be, which caused difficulties when director Nicholas Meyer wanted a Klingon to quote Hamlet. To be or not to be ended up taH pagh, taHbe! which of course translates as whether to continue or not continue.
The oddest thing of all about Klingon is that the Klingon Dictionary has sold 250,000 copies.
Though having said that, there are reckoned to be only about a dozen really fluent speakers.

Really? As many as that?
Word To Use Today: something Klingon. Possibly He'So'Qlchllj (your accent stinks) or jll moH ghajjej jaghHomllj (may your little enemy have an ugly neighbour).

The Klingons were named in honour of Lieutenant Wilbur Clingan, who served in the Los Angeles Police Department with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenbury.

*Yes, yes, all right: dodgy use of the word genuine.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: fuzzle someone.

I just came across this word by accident. Isn't it gorgeous?

To fuzzle someone means to confuse or muddle them, perhaps by making them drunk.

So, please, no going up to anyone and saying what a beautiful locust you have there, madam!

No trying to pay for your sandwiches with your library ticket.

And no walking backwards, especially up escalators.

Life's quite fuzzling enough as it is.
Thing Not To Do Today: fuzzle someone. This word is probably connected with the word fuzz in its old meaning of to fly out in light particles. This would naturally cause blurring and confusion.
There's a Low Dutch word voos and a Low German word fussig: they mean spongy, and they might be connected to fuzzle in some dark way.
Though I can't quite imagine how.

Monday 2 January 2012

Spot the frippet: horizon.

'Tis the season to be hopeful...
...All of our eyes on 
The distant horizon

as the old song says.

Mind you, if you're riding along on the crest of a wave (as the same old song also says) then the horizon will be rather further away than if you're in a trough.

I could probably base a whole sermon on that idea if I were a clergyman. Luckily for all of us, however, I never got further than Sunday School teacher - and that was a long time ago.
There are all sorts of different horizons. True horizon is the boundary between the earth and the sky, though getting a look at it is quite unusual because half the time it's covered up by trees and buildings and stuff. The edge between the sky and that sort of thing is the visible horizon.
An archaeological horizon is a band of earth containing artifacts of the same date; a soil horizon is similar, but usually much older. It might contain a band of fossils.
The cosmological horizon is the biggest of them all: it's the furthest distance a particle can have travelled in the time since the universe was created.
Most of us, however, have smaller horizons: like finishing the current book. Or having dinner.

Spot the frippet: horizon. This word is from the Greek phrase horizōn kuklos, which means separating or limiting circle. Before that the word's from horizein, to divide, and before that, perhaps from oros, which is a boundary or landmark, or from horos, which means limit.

Sunday 1 January 2012

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: janus.

Janus, eh? What a god. True, he had eyes in the back of his head, but there's nothing wrong with that.

Actually, he had a nose in the back of his head, as well - which is, I must admit, somewhat more disturbing.

Indeed, he had an extra mouth, too. History (or what Ovid and Virgil and all those Roman bods called history) does not tell us if Janus ever wooed nymphs by singing duets with himself, taking both tenor and bass parts, but I would like to think so.
Even if he didn't, the god Janus was kind enough to look after gateways - both the real ones, and also the invisible ones such as those between the old and new years.
Janus had a place or worship in Rome, where by custom the door was only closed when Rome was at peace. I think that was, about two or three times over the hundreds of years of the life of the Roman Empire.
Ah well.
Poor Janus, though. Not only has he become a proverb for being two-faced, which is not something you'd wish to say about anyone, but his name sounds harsh and grasping. And also like a non-friendly blue-tinged alien.
It's not always that great, you know, being a god.
Word Not To Use Today: janus. No one really knows where Janus' name comes from. It might be something to do with chaos, it might be something to do with Apollo and Diana, or it might be something to do with the Latin word ire, to go, and before that from the Sanscrit word yana, which is to do with going or passing through. 

May all The Word Den's friends pass
joyfully from the Old Year to the New,
and have a
happy, healthy, and prosperous 2012.