This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 29 February 2012

Nuts and Bolts: which way to leap.

Today is a leap day, though, hang on, what's leapish about it? 

I mean, changing the calendar so we have to wait an extra day to get to the month of March is making time go into reverse, if anything. So, unless it's possible to leap backwards, (oh, and wouldn't that make the Olympics more exciting?) then leaping is exactly what we are not doing. 

I think I must be missing something here, though, as the Welsh call a leap year bleyddan naid which means jump year. So perhaps there's something in the idea, after all.

In any case, you won't catch the French, Italian or Spanish leaping about on Febrary 29th: they'll be having, not a leap year but a année bissextile, anno bisestile or año bistesto respectively. 

I suppose you could say that if a leap year isn't much to do with leaping then it's not much to do with two sixes (bissextile etc), either: and it wouldn't be, except that the Romans (whose calendar ordinarily involved counting backwards from the next New Moon) put in an extra sixth-day-before-the-New-Moon every so often, and this extra sixth day is still commemorated in the French, Italian and Spanish names.

The fact that it wasn't actually the sixth day before the New Moon, but the fifth, because the Romans couldn't count, just makes my head hurt.

Now, you may think that's complicated enough, but it can be even worse. If you're working on a system like the Hebrew one, then you'll add a whole month seven times every nineteen years - and also sometimes bung in a variable number of postponement days before the start of the year, as well, to even things up a bit.


Anyway, happy leap day. In Northern Europe a lady is traditionally allowed to propose marriage to a man (there are various fines to be paid if the man refuses) but in Greece it's extremely unlucky to be married in a leap year, no matter whose idea it is.

It only remains for me to wish health and happiness to everyone for the next four years,: and especially to leaplings, who are those born on February 29th.

Isn't that lovely?

Word To Use Today: leap. This word has been around for ages. It comes from the Old English hleapen and is related to the Gothic hlaupan.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Thing To Do Today: shuffle.

Some of us may leap out of our beds with a song in our heart and a spring in our steps, but, let's face it, most of us start the day shuffling.

It's a lovely word - the sound of soft shoes sliding across carpet.

And talking of soft shoes:

And, gosh, if Oliver Hardy can do it at his age, and with his girth, then I'm sure the rest of us can.

You can also shuffle cards, of course, or play shuffleboard, which is pretty much a huge floor version of shove ha-penny.

If you have an MP3 player, or a newer CD machine than I have, then it can probably shuffle your tracks for you.

Just don't do a Shakespearian shuffle, all right? Because that'll be the last thing you ever do.

Keep a very tight hold on your mortal coil.

Thing To Do Today: shuffle. This word arrived in the 1500s, probably from Holland, where they had a similar word, shüffeln.

Monday 27 February 2012

Spot the frippet: goose.

For many of us an encounter with a goose will be as a wing-clipped ornament of a park.

That must tell us something about our sense of beauty. 

I mean, I love birds, but geese, ornamental? Flying through a cloud-torn sky, yes:

 but sitting in a pond, not very.

I mean, look at this:

Egyptian Goose

That's an Egyptian Goose. Okay it's technically a duck, not a goose, but it makes my point, I think.

In any case, seeing a wing-clipped bird always makes me wince. It condemns the poor bird to panic-stricken circles of flapping that hardly get the poor thing off the ground.

Yes. I think we can all empathise with that.

Anyway, if you haven't got a goose anywhere near you, not even in a park, then there's always the patchwork pattern called flying geese; or a tailor has a curved pressing-iron called a goose, though of course tailors are much harder to find than a member of the genera Anser or Branta.

If desperate, you can probably grow you own goose flesh or goose pimples by sticking your leg in a fridge for a little while.

But you'd be a goose to do it.

Spot the frippet: goose. This word  comes from the Old English gōs. The word has relations all over the place, including the Old Norse gās, the Old Irish gēiss, which means swan, the Czech husa, and the Sanskrit hainsas.

Sunday 26 February 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: limousine.

Oh, this word is really nasty, isn't it: an ooze of smugness.

Limousines are practically always stretched, nowadays, which does make them fun - especially when they're trying to inch their way round the ridiculously narrow streets of an English town.

And, hey, it's nice that people, especially young people, get the chance to pretend to be rich and important.

But, I don't know, whenever I see a stretch limousine I always sort of wonder how many people have been ill over the seats.

The idea of having a special word for large expensive car is just horrible, anyway. Can anyone who's impressed by the length of your bonnet* be worth impressing, after all?

Word Not To Use Today: limousine. This word is French, means from Limousin and it started off meaning a shepherd's cloak. When first applied to a car, it meant one where the roof of the passengers' section extended forwards to shelter the driver.

*I think in America you call them hoods.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Saturday Rave: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The eponymous hobbit isn't tall, dark, handsome, strong, youthful, clever, enthusiastic, brave, well-educated, or even very well-connected.

He has the misfortune to be called Bilbo Baggins, too, which is ridiculous.

And yet, eventually and very much against his better judgement, the hobbit becomes a hero.

What more can you ask for in a book than that?


Oh yes, there's a dragon, as well.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort.

Word To Use Today: hobbit. JRR Tolkien tells us that this word came from the Old English hol byldan, to build a hole, which led to the imaginary compound hobytla (plural hobytlan).
However, Tolkien seems to have made up the word before he worked out its "derivation".

Since 2004 hobbit has also become used as the name of a kind of small primitive human, Homo floresiensis, whose remains have been found on the Indonesian island of Flores.

Friday 24 February 2012

Word To Use Today: ramshackle.


Ramshackle means badly made, or about to fall to pieces: rickety or derelict.

It's almost always buildings that are ramshackle

Oh, and you can hear the self-righteousness of the speaker in the sound of it.

A speaker of the word ramshackle is keen to convey the disgrace of an unpainted door or a rotten window sill.

As for some slipped tiles, or the odd tree growing through a roof...well, that's an utter disgrace.


And there we have the magic of words: not only does ramshackle cast shame on others, but it asserts the self-righteousness of the speaker, as well.

Hm. Perhaps it's a word not to use today.

Word To Use Today If You're Smug And Disgusted: ramshackle. This word appeared in the 1600s. It comes from ranshackled, to ransack, from the Old Norse rann, a house, and saka, to search.

Thursday 23 February 2012

Inflation: a rant.

Look, if you're involved in a sport, or a business, or an essay, or a piece of art, giving it a hundred per cent is an admirable thing.

A hundred per cent means a hundred out of a hundred: or, for the numerically confused, everything.

So, does it matter if people (especially footballers, I'm afraid) keep talking about giving a hundred and twenty per cent?


Look, once they've burst through the hundred per cent barrier then they're flying through infinite space, and we end up in the silly situation where don't know how many everything is.

It's like an exam where no one knows what the top possible mark is. Is ten marks brilliant? Or appalling?

This per cent lunacy came to mind when I discovered recently that, not content with inhabiting the utterly blissful cloud nine, there are some people out there claiming to be on cloud ten.

I watched an excellent film called THIS IS SPINAL TAP, too. In it Nigel Tufnel's Marshall guitar amp dial famously goes up to eleven.

Mind you, nowadays some Marshall amps go up to twenty.

Ah well. To exaggerate is human...

Phrase To Use Correctly Today: a hundred per centHundred comes from the Greek word hekaton, and per cent is Medieval Latin for out of a hundred.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Nuts and Bolts: pilcrows.

We can think about anything, can't we.

We can think about things even if we don't know what they're called.

We never have to think the words what-do-you-call-it or wotsit or thingummy.

I've got a feeling this must prove something profound about the connection between language and thought, so do tell if you know what it is.

Anyway, pilcrow. This is something we've all seen, and which I, personally, care about a great deal, but which few of us can name. 

Pilcrows cause me pain because they mean something has gone horribly wrong with one of my manuscripts. Either that, or I'm trying to format an ebook, which is in itself a cause of deep unease and bafflement.

So what is a pilcrow?

One of these:

¶They're found on every WORD toolbar, and they can pop up irritatingly all over the page if you press the wrong key on a computer.

¶So. We know what they're called, now. Will that alter the way we think about them?

¶And if not, why not?

¶Thing You Can Now Think About Even If You Couldn't Before: pilcrow. This word used to be pelagraphe, which is a French form of paragraph. The sign started off as a C for the Latin capitulum (which means chapter, more or less) and the double slash through the letter was a sign that marked an instruction from one scribe to another, rather than something in the text itself.

¶A pilcrow is sometimes also called an alinea, from the Latin phrase meaning off the line.

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Thing To Do Today: spatchcock.

You can often guess what a word means from its sound, of course.

Eel, for instance, sounds so slippery and long that surely it just has to mean eel.

Sometimes this feeling is so strong it can even change the meaning of a word, and I think this is what must have happened to spatchcock.

Spatchcocked together means cobbled together, or shoved together until the thing is stuck, that sort of thing.

Spatchcocked is plainly the ideal word for this meaning, but, strangely, the word started off describing a chicken or grouse that had been split down the middle and then opened out so it can be grilled.

So how has spatchcocked come to mean squashed together? (It means, very often, extra words that have been shoved into a sentence when they don't belong there.)

No one seems to know for sure.

But surely, surely, it must be all in the sound. Spatchcock: why, you can practically hear the scrunch.

Thing To Do Today: spatchcock. This word is probably from the word spitchcock, an Irish word which emerged in the 1700s to describe a spit-open fried eel.

There's also an alternative theory that it's short for dispatch the cock.

Vegetarians might like to stick with the inappropriate-word-squeezing-in-custardy-option.

Monday 20 February 2012

Spot the frippet: brownie.

Oh yes, I was a Brownie, once. That was in the old, tough days, when the initiation was long and your tie had to be folded from a triangle and fastened behind your head with a reef knot.

We had just a simple brown uniform with small pockets: nothing to protect our necks from the baking sun:* .

Oh, but that was long ago. I doubt I have the strength to serve in a paramilitary organisation, now. Still, I have the memories, and the discipline. And I have the respect and trust of the others in my pack.

And my Hostess badge, of course.


Anyway, when I was a Brownie, brownies had both disappeared from England, and they had not yet arrived.

The brownies that had disappeared from England were the small gnome-like creatures who used, it was said, to get up early and do all the housework for the household.

The brownies that had yet to arrive were the square chunks of cake.*

Nowadays the cake brownies are probably the easiest to spot, and, while you're spotting one, may I mention the recent research which "proves" that eating chocolate cake for breakfast is the best way of keeping off that extra weight?

It's a nice way to try, anyway.

Spot the frippet: brownie. The word meaning gnome is from the 1500s and just means little brown man. Brownie points (which are pretend good-conduct stars) arrived in the 1900s, and came from the mistaken idea that Brownies get points for good deeds.

* Mind you, this was in England.

**The Australian currant-bread brownie still hasn't arrived in England, unfortunately.

Sunday 19 February 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: debacle.

I love the way that English steals words from all over the place and then misuses them with such verve and enthusiasm.

I love the way that French involves speaking-very-fast-and-rather-like-a-machine GUN, too.

The trouble is that when English steals from French we sometimes end up with a word that we can't use unless we're prepared for  machine gun fire to erupt most uncomfortably in the middle of a perfectly ordinary sentence.

Debacle is a beautiful French word, but to make it fit comfortably into an English sentence you have to say it dayBARKle, which is ridiculous.

Now, a debacle is never a ridiculous thing (it can be a chaotic  collapse or retreat, or the floods caused by the breaking up of ice in spring, or a violent debris-charged rush of water).

But, let's face it, a dayBARKle sounds as if someone's lost a sock, or forgotten the password to a supermarket account.

All that weight of tumultuous fate dwindled to...well, something small and annoying, like a dripping tap.


Word Not To Use Today in English: debacle. Before this word was French, débâcle, it came from the Old French desbacler, to unbolt, from the Latin baculum, a rod or staff.

Saturday 18 February 2012

Saturday Rave: Finn McCool and the Giant's Causeway.

This is one of my very favourite stories ever.

There's no fool like a big fool, they say, and they don't come much bigger than the Irish giant Finn McCool.

Now...the giants gave little trouble except for one terrible big, boasting fellow who was called Finn McCool.
Finn McCool was fifty-two feet and six inches tall, and the little people were always having to run for their lives when he came clumping along not looking where he was going.

In fact the only bigger fool than Finn McCool was the Scottish giant Benan Donner.

And at the third bang the door fell off its hinges and Benan Donner stood there, as tall as a cliff and twice as ugly.

As in all the best stories the poor hero gets into all sorts of trouble.

But luckily, like all married men, he has a secret weapon...

Word To Use Today: giant. This word comes from the French word geant, and before that from the Greek gigas.

The quotations are from my own version of this lovely story, which is called The Path of Finn McCool.

Friday 17 February 2012

Word To Use Today: mustard.

People quite often had mustard footbaths when I was a child. It was supposed to prevent chills. It seemed an odd idea even at the time, but, hey, Coleridge writes about mustard being good for rheumatism, and if it's good enough for Coleridge... I've just remembered all those drugs Coleridge used to take.
Well, that argument's fallen flat on its face, then.

Still, never mind, I'd rather use the stuff medicinally than eat it, at least in the form of the pungent paste with which an Englishman traditionally masks the taste of his roast beef.

Mind you, it was quite possible to have the worst of the two worlds: a 1737 medical journal* notes of one poor woman that: Her disease seemed...almost to be cured by mustard vomits.

Oh dear. Such a pity about the almost.

Mustard's strong flavour has given us the expression keen as mustard, of course, and the poet Marston writes splendidly of: 

Sharp mustard rime
To purge the snottery of our slimie time.

Which just goes to show how very valuable poetry can be.

Other than that, mustardavelles is a sort of grey woollen cloth, to cut the mustard means to prove fit for purpose (no one is quite sure of the origin of this expression) and the horrible First World War mustard gas, (ClCH2CH2)2S, banned as a weapon by the Geneva Protocol of 1925, has found to be useful in chemotherapy.

Word To Use Today: mustard. This word comes from the French moustarde, from the Latin mustus which means must, the newly pressed juice of grapes. Grape juice used to be used to make mustard.
The weaving town of Montivilliers in Normandy gave us the name of the cloth.

*Before my time.

Thursday 16 February 2012

Going for Broke - a rant.

Newspapers have to be written fast, and also quite often by non-experts.

That's why I pass over mistakes made in newspapers unless they're funny, interesting, important, or showing signs of starting an epidemic.

The one I came across the other day is a sort of zombie mistake, though. I first saw it last year and ignored it, but it's still lurching on, following me about all over the place. And after a while these zombies can begin to get annoying.

Look. You can break a record, a plate, a silence, your word, and, indeed, wind, but you can't break a speed.

It's some neutrinos that have been causing the problem. They're showing every sign of having nipped through the Alps faster than the speed of light.

If the science of much of the last century is right then this can't have happened, so all the poor scientists are a bit bewildered.

They've checked and checked but at the moment they can't find anything wrong with the figures. Not even taking off their socks so they can count with their toes as well has been of any use.

I truly do admire the scientists' honesty and their determination, but I do wish I didn't keep having to read headlines which say SPEED OF LIGHT BROKEN.

They mean exceeded, I think. Or surpassed. Or perhaps even outstripped.

But you really can't break a speed.

The Theory of Relativity, however, is beginning to look fragile.

Word To Use Today: neutrino. This word comes from the Italian neutrone, which means little neutron. Neutron is from the word neutral, because neutrons hardly cause any reaction with anything in the known universe...

...except scientists.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Nuts and Bolts: The Younger Furthark.

Our English alphabet has 26 letters.

It would probably make things easier if we had a few more letters to play with: one letter per sound, in fact.

But, hey, mostly we get by.

The Younger Furthark was an alphabet which evolved from, yes, the Elder Furthark, in around about 800 AD. Both furtharks used runes. (Runes work the same way as our letters, they're just pointier to look at.) 

The main difference between the Elder and Younger Furthark is that for some reason some idiot reduced the number of runes in the Younger Furthark from 24 to only 16.

Nine of the original Elder Futhark letters were dropped (g, w, æ, p, z, e, ng, d, and o), and a new one was created (R).

Imagine ditching a third of the letters in our alphabet. Well, the letter C isn't that useful, I suppose. And X could go...and perhaps J...but after that it gets jolly tricky.

And jolly tricky was what it must have been like to use the Younger Furthark, because some of the runes ended up having to represent a frankly ridiculous number of sounds.

It didn't stop things written in the Younger Furthark being full of beauty, though. Here's an Icelandic poem from the 1400s describing one of the runes of the Younger Furthark. It was translated by B Dickins.

 ýr, ‘yew’

bent bow
and brittle iron
and giant of the arrow.

In Scandinavia the Younger Furthark carried on being used fairly widely until about 1500. It was mostly a Viking system, and in the end the reason our own Roman alphabet took over wasn't so much to do with there not being enough letters in the Younger Furthark, but because people converted to Christianity.

Runes didn't quite die out completely, though, because they're still used by magicians today.

The top line shows Danish long-branch runes, and underneath are Swedish/Norwegian short twig runes.

Thing To Use Today: some runes of the Younger Furthark. The word rune used to mean letter or text in Old Norse, but in the Old Germanic languages it meant mystery or secret.

I'd suggest you write TOP SECRET on something, but there isn't an E or an O.


Tuesday 14 February 2012

Thing To Do Today: be passionate.

This is what is usually called St Valentine's day.* It's the day that birds are supposed to pair up, and so it's a time for love.

So let's be passionate.


Who (and what) do you love?

Come to that, who (and, of course, what) do you hate?

Is there an overlap?

Well, whether there is or not, it's time to cast off your sensible winceyiette pyjamas and wriggle into your crimson satin undies** and indulge in an extreme passion.


You don't have a passion? 

Oh, but then you really must search for one. There'll be something out there. No, really, even railway timetables and ping pong have been known to move some people deeply.

Or, of course, there's always cake.

Why not eat a pink one today.

Thing To Do Today: be passionate. This comes to us from France, from the Church Latin pasiō, suffering, from patī, to suffer.

Oh dear. Perhaps we'd really be happiest sticking to the railway timetables and ping pong...

*It's really the festival of those two great heroes of language St Cyril and St Methodius, but more about them another time.

**Dark colours are best washed separately.

Monday 13 February 2012

Spot the frippet: cloud.

Well, today's Spot the Frippet is easy, especially if you live in Britain.

Clouds are really worth spotting, wherever you are. They're extraordinary. I mean, they look really light and fluffy, but the rain in a cubic mile of cloud can actually weigh as much as 400 elephants.

Or possibly even 402 elephants, if they've cut their toenails.

Clouds can be beautiful:


and sometimes deeply worrying:

No one knows all this better than the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Apart from the clouds in the sky, there's cloud computing, which as far as I can make out is when you use lots of computers from all over the place to solve your problems, instead of just the one computer and a lot of shouting.

Do hope you spend some of today on cloud nine*; or, if that's out of reach, cloud-cuckoo land**.

Spot the Frippet: cloud.  This word comes, bewilderingly, from the Old English word clūd, which means rock.

Rock? Good grief, that'd be even worse than 402 elephants.

*Cloud Nine is a 20th century expression meaning a state of bliss. It may be linked to the expression:

**cloud cuckoo land, meaning in a daydream. Cloud Cuckoo Land itself first appeared in Aristophanes' 414 BC play The Birds.

Sunday 12 February 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: irk.


Excuse you.

Really, you know, unless you live in a part of the world where belching is good manners, the word irk is safest avoided, especially at the dinner table.

Even the river Irk in Manchester has long been best avoided. Friedich Engels certainly didn't think much of it: "a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse", he said, though I understand there's a plan to clean it up a bit, now. I hope it turns out beautifully, but it's hard to believe that anything called the Irk will ever be genuinely picturesque.

Still, you have to admit that irk does what it says on the tin. It means to irritate, vex, or annoy and it does that brilliantly.


Word Not To Use Today: irk. Irken, meaning to grow weary, appeared in English in the 1200s. Before that it probably came from the Old Norse yrkja, to work.

Saturday 11 February 2012

Saturday Rave: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

Mrs Smiling's second interest was her collection of brassières, and her search for a perfect one. She was reputed to have the largest and finest collection of these garments in the world. It was hoped that on her death it would be left to the nation.

And so, in a tone as cool as her heroine Flora's eye, Stella Gibbons tells the story of Cold Comfort Farm, the story of the newly orphaned Flora's search for independence.

Flora soon finds herself in the country, amongst a highly dramatic collection of...well, one has to say lunatics...but lunatics of the sort much admired in the literary fiction in the first half of the 1900s.

There is much gloom and doom, and rather a lot of smouldering.

And, of course, there's also something nasty in the woodshed.

Word To Use Today: comfort. This word comes to us from the Old French confort, from the Latin word confortāre, to strengthen very much.

By the way, Mrs Smiling's first interest was writing to dumped boyfriends.

Friday 10 February 2012

Word To Use Today: snorkel.

This has to be one of the silliest words in the English language:

snorkel, snorkel, snorkel...

In fact, I think the word snorkel might be the literary equivalent of sunshine: I mean, is it possible to say the word snorkel three times without feeling just a bit happier?

I do hope not.

You use a snorkel to see the marvels of life underwater, of course:

(Gosh, that does look lovely at the moment, when our pond here is thick with ice).

But of course there's no accounting for the ways people choose to have fun, and some people use their snorkels to play underwater hockey or rugby.

Or, indeed, to hunt fish with spears.

Most baffling of all, from my point of view, some people go for bog snorkling, where you get no view at all. This involves making your way through a muddy channel cut through a peat bog near  Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales. The current World Champion is Andrew Holmes.

Some people (there are all sorts) have even branched out into mountain bike bog snorkelling and triathlon bog snorkelling.

I must stop here, as the idea of triathlon bog snorkelling  is so bizarre that i find I've lost all belief in the existence of snorkelling as either a word or an activity.

Snorkel, snorkel, snorkel... Perhaps the word snorkel is also dangerously likely to nudge people towards gibbering madness.


Word To Use Today: snorkel. This word comes from the German word schnorchel, which in turn comes from schnarchen, to snore.

By the way, submarines have snorkels to allow them to take in air, too, although submariners tend to call them snorts.

Thursday 9 February 2012

Instructions - a rant.

Congratulations on buying your B32 Icezoid player with Krypton Zlurge.

The long wiggly rope-type thing included with your device is a lead. Leads can be lethal if improperly used. YOU WILL DIE unless you have the technical technical technical sort of electricity which technical technical technical.

So don't say we didn't warn you.

NB: 1) Frying this device in oil, or sticking the plug in your ear-hole while humming Yankie Doodle, will invalidate your guarantee.

So will taking the device out of its packaging.

2) Your device will only work if you are in an area where it works.


For further information about the safe and comfortable use of this appliance please read the Safety and Comfort Guide at

Using your B32 Icezoid Player:

[Ah! At last! Now: the important thing is to keep very calm and take everything step by step.]

First wagle your chirt.

[First wagle my what?

And what on earth's a...



Bash. Howl. Sob...]


Well, what I say is, no wonder the world's running out of landfill sites.

Word To Use Today: instructions. This word is from the Latin unstruere, to equip, set in order, or teach, from struere, to build.

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Nuts and Bolts: points of view.

Look at these:

White Wagtail

These little birds are white wagtails. There are lots of varieties, but they're all much the same. The English one is called the pied wagtail.

The reason it's called the pied wagtail is firstly because it's pied (ie black and white) and also because it wags its tail a lot, probably to frighten insects into moving so they can seen and snapped up.

That's one of the marvellous things about words: they tell us what people see when they look at things.

If you're from the English county of Sussex, for instance, you might see this little bird quite differently. There the pied wagtail is sometimes called a Dishwiper or a Dishlick (it spends a lot of its time beside water). In Hampshire and Somerset it might be called a Molly Washdish.

Spanish wagtails do washing, too: they're lavandera blanca: but in Italy, they are, most beautifully, the ballerina bianca, and the tail-wagging has become a graceful dance.

German wagtails are, oddly, rather idle. They just stand in streams on stilts (or perhaps the correct translation is knuckles, because they have quite short legs): Bachstelze.

In Shetland, however, the wagtail is associated, not with the countryside but with the church: it's a kirk sparrow, I suppose this is because it wears black and white like a clergyman (kirk is church).

In Holland, as in England, it's the flicking tails that are noticed: they're the witte kwikstaart.

They're white in Russia, too (they're the white shake-rump, Белая трясогузка) but in France they're grey: little grey sheperdesses (or possibly little grey hillfolk): bergeronnette grise. That's when they're not hochequeue, nod tails.

One small bird, and so many ways of seeing it.

What do you see where you are?

Word To Use Today: wagtail. This word...hey, but there's really no need, today, is there.

Tuesday 7 February 2012

Thing To Do Today: skive.

Life is hard and life is earnest, every minute is unforgiving, a stitch in time saves nine, and...

...oh, for heaven's sake!

Sometimes there are just so much better things to do than work.

Sing a song, dance a jig, spot a bird, drink some tea, tell a joke, juggle, try on an old dress, do an image search for sloth on Google, recite a poem, doodle...

...and then come back to work with new enthusiasm.

Or, at least, much happier.

For the impossibly earnest amongst us (though if you've got this far and you're still impossibly earnest then I've failed, haven't I) then you could always shave the hair off, or remove the surface of, leather. That's called skiving, too.

But once you've got your leather, make yourself some dancing shoes, okay? Or perhaps a handbag, as long as it's just slightly too small to take a work-accessory of any kind.

Thing To Do Today: skive. The word which means to avoid work appeared mysteriously in the 20th century and no one knows from where, but the leather-shaving sense comes from the Old Norse skifa, and is related to the English dialect word shive, which means a slice of bread.

Monday 6 February 2012

Spot the frippet: crown.

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth the Second.


Sixty years...that's a heck of a long time to do a job, you know. Though I suppose you have to take into account the fact that the retirement rights are awful.

May every blessing be upon her Majesty, anyway.

Now, where can we see a crown? Well, if you're in Denmark, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Sweden, Iceland, Norway or the Czech Republic, your currency is still based on the local word for crown.

A crown can also be the place where the root of a plant meets the stem, or it can be the visible bit of a tooth.

A crown sits on the top of a monarch, of course:

and also on the top of hills, heads, arches, roads and trees.

Here's another crown:

That one is on a crowned crane.

A crown can be a watch-winding knob, a bit of an anchor, and a size of paper.

You can crown a king, or a queen, or a draught (we use draughts in England to play the game that's called checkers in America); and if someone's being annoying you may well want to crown him, too, though probably not with a golden circlet but with a baseball bat.

But you mustn't.

A crown cap is a bottle top of the sort still used for beer, a crown green is a place where you play crown green bowls, and a crown-of-thorns can be a bush or a starfish.

About half of you will possess some crown jewels, too.

But keep those to yourselves, do.

Spot the frippet: crown. This word comes from the Old French corone, from the Latin corōna wreath or crown, from the Greek korōnē, which means either a crown or something curved.

Sunday 5 February 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: troglodyte.

Well, here's an ungainly, stomping sort of a word.


It means someone who lives in a cave. My Collins dictionary says it's particularly used to describe prehistoric people, and though it's true we do tend to call early prehistoric people cavemen I must say that during all my recent researches for my Ice Age novel (it's not published yet, we're still at the arguing-about-the-title stage*), I can't say I ever came across the word so used.

Hey, and may I just take the opportunity to point out that there were never many caves, anyway? I mean, how many caves are there in your town?

It's a point that gets overlooked.

Modern troglodytes don't tend to live in caves, either, though the poeple who get called troglodytes do live a solitary and rather enclosed existence. They're probably be a bit odd, probably seldom leave their homes, and are possibly rather hairy.

I don't see why they should have to put up with being called such an ungainly name as troglodyte though.

What's wrong with hermit?

Or, if your hermit's a bit batty, you can always go with recluse.

All right, then, troglodyte means cave-dweller, so guess which animal has the scientific name Troglodytes troglodytes troglodytes? 

Well, it's a subspecies of the Winter wren, a tiny European bird shorter than its English, let alone its scientific, name. 

In England we sensibly usually just call it the wren. 

It doesn't live in caves, either.

Word Not To Use Today: troglodyte.  This started off as a Greek word, trōglodutēs, one who enters caves, from trōglē, a hole, plus duein, to enter.

*STOP PRESS. The book is to be called SONG HUNTER. I think that'll do.

Saturday 4 February 2012

Saturday Rave: Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Well, it seems there were always three bears, at least.

To start with the bears were bachelor bears, but quite soon after Robert Southey (the Robert Southey) wrote down the story in 1837 the bears became a family of Mother, Father and Baby (in a 1867 version the mother bear was called, most charmingly, Mammy Muff).

As for the bear's visitor, well, first of all she seems to have been a fox, and then an interfering old lady (who in one early version ends up impaled on the steeple of St Paul's cathedral*) and then, finally, a little girl with such extraordinary tresses that she was called, yes,  Silver-Hair.

Well, let's face it, Goldilocks is a very odd name.

Goldilocks is a simple story, full of repetition, and these qualities make it a wonderful tale for the very young.

Not only that, but the story gives the teller the chance to use silly voices.

There we are: three reasons at least to rave about the wonderful tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Word To Use Today: porridge. This word is a variation of pottage, which comes from an Old French word potage, the contents of a pot.

Hint for Use: Gerald Durrell once described his poor sister's acne as resembling pink porridge, and I've never been able to forget it.

*St Paul's steeple fell down in 1561. Perhaps this means the story is much older than we think, or perhaps this is just a cunning detail to embed the story firmly in the past.

Friday 3 February 2012

Word To Use Today: gorilla.

I wish I could make the gorilla a Spot-the-Frippit, but the chance of your meeting a gorilla coming down the street is sadly, all too low.

Gorillas are mysterious creatures - so mysterious that people still aren't sure even how many types of gorilla there are. What's certain is that there are only about 620 mountain gorillas in the whole world (though there are 100,000 western lowland gorillas).

Every single mountain gorilla anywhere lives in the wild, so very few people have ever seen one.

Gorillas are big. Really big. They can weigh as much as 420 lbs (over 190kg), which isn't surprising as they sometimes eat 50 lbs of food a day (that's the same as twenty five large loaves of bread; or, actually, more like fifty large tins of bamboo shoots, which mountain gorillas adore. If you're a lowland gorilla, though, quite a few of those tins would contain termites. Yum.).

Gorillas have their own unique fingerprints, just like us; are a bit short-sighted, just like quite a lot of us; and burp when they're happy - and, hey, I've known people like that, too.

Gorillas live in troops, generally peacefully, unless some human idiot comes along and decides to cut down the bit of forest they live in.

Enjoy them while you can.

Word To Use Today: gorilla. This word comes from gorillai, which was first used by the Ancient Greek Hanno the Navigator to describe a tribe of hairy women he claimed to have seen in Sierra Leone.

This does raise the suspicion that the Navigator thing was just a scam to get himself bought drinks when he was down the pub.

Thursday 2 February 2012

The point of power: a rant.

Words get all over the place. When they're not being entertaining on cereal packets or bus stops (some of us read everything) then the calling of the kookaburra is all the more wonderful for us knowing that the word to describe it is laughter.

At the same time, sometimes the form in which a word appears can seriously affect its level of enchantment.

A word written with a reed pen on papyrus will probably seem mysteriously significant even if it only says brick.

A word written in a beautiful italic hand on vellum will glow with authority and elegance.

A word on a powerpoint screen...


A word written on a powerpoint screen will be muddy in colour, fuzzy at the edges, probably a bit too small, and above all DULL.

It seems to be something intrinsic to the medium, a dreadful catatonia-inducing dullness. Being at a powerpoint presentation (presentation! Yes, powerpoint is almost always pompous, too, as well as dreary) is like being trapped at the Telegraph Pole Society's AGM.

Actually, worse: I'd be quite interested to go to the TPS's AGM.

I suppose the nub of the matter is that anyone with the tiniest chink of charisma will wish to speak to his audience face to face. Let's face it, wanting to hide behind a wall of murk tells us everything we need to know about the message.

So, please - if you don't think your talk is interesting enough to listen to when given by a live person, take it away and make it shorter until it is.

Thanks. Really.

Thanks a lot.

Word To Use Today: dull. This word has come to us through the Old Norse dul, meaning conceit and the Old High German tol, meaning foolish, from the Greek tholeros, which means confused.
And now I come to think about it, confusion is at the bottom of most dullness.

Wednesday 1 February 2012

Nuts and Bolts aubade.

An aubade is an odd thing. It only exists at dawn, for one thing, and then only if you're standing at a window or in a doorway.

Sometimes, but not always, it has words (an aubade is usually a sort of poem, but it can be an instrumental piece, too).

In any case, even when an aubade does have words, the only people who are supposed to hear it are either fast asleep (and a woman) or about 93,000,000 miles away (and, as you may have guessed, the sun).

Despite the fact that aubades are really quite silly, they've been around for ages. Chaucer wrote one in Troilus and Criseyde. By Shakespeare's time, though, misery and hopelessness in poetry was so fashionable that an aubade was no longer a dead cert for stardom and celebrity (though Shakespeare, who doesn't seem to have cared in the slightest about stardom or celebrity, did write a poem beginning Hark! Hark! the lark).

Aubades didn't die out completely, anyway: they were still well-known enough in John Donne's time for him to have a bit of fun with them in his poem "The Sun Rising".

Nowadays, sadly, we hardly ever stop to admire the dawn, and so there aren't too many aubades about. Philip Larkin wrote a famous one, but unfortunately in his poem The sky is white as clay, with no sun.

And he seems to be quite alone in his room.

It's not the same, you know.

Poem To Write Today: an aubade. It's probably a bit late for you to make up an aubade for today's dawn, but you could perhaps aim to greet tomorrow's dawn with something more than usually delicately lovely when your alarm clock rings.

The word aubade is French, from the Old Provençal auba, which means dawn, from the Latin albus, white.