This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 31 March 2012

Saturday Rave: Beauty and the Beast.

Beauty and the Beast is that rare thing, a fairy story in which the hero and heroine really get to know each other before they fall in love.

The heroine is unusual, too, because she's neither very poor, nor a princess.

As for the hero, though he is understandably cranky at times, he's actually quite a sweet guy. He's not just rich and powerful.

The story was, also unusually, first written down by a woman, Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (gosh, she must have had a really hard time at book-signings, thank heavens my own name has only nine letters). She wrote the story down in 1740, though the story is probably much older than that.

Beauty and the Beast is a great story with a perfect ending, but, I don't know, my very favourite stories have heroines who are much less inclined to endure everything so patiently.

Never mind. At least she gets to wear lots of really nice frocks while she's suffering.

Word To Use Today: beast. This word came to English in the 1200s from the French beste, which means animal or idiot, and before that from the Latin bestia, which means animal.

Friday 30 March 2012

Word To Use Today: tutu.

I don't know if there's a sillier garment than the tutu:

File:Tamara Toumanova & Serge Lifar.jpg
Dancers: Tamara Toumanova and Serge Lifar. Photographer: Max Dupain.
but, hey, why shouldn't clothing be silly?

(The tutu is the sticky-out skirt.)

I suppose a tutu does allow a ballerina to be more or less naked and yet look sweetly innocent at the same time. That's quite an achievement.

Talking of achievements, we mustn't forget the lovely Desmond Tutu: archbishop, opponent of apartheid, and winner of the Albert Schweitzer and Pacem in Terris Prizes, as well as the Sydney, Gandhi and Nobel Peace Prizes. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, too.


As if that wasn't enough for one man, in Britain a second class degree of the second rank, a 2:2, is sometimes called a Desmond.

A 2:2. Geddit?

Lastly (as far as I know) there's the New Zealand tutu, which is a shrub, Coriaria arboria, which has seeds poisonous to farm animals.

What a word, eh? I'm beginning to feel amazed we don't use it every day. 

Word To Use Today: tutu. The dress sort of a tutu is a French word. It comes from the nursery word cucu, which means backside, from the Latin cūlus, which means the buttocks.

The bush tutu was named by the Māoris.

The archbishop got his name from his dad.

Thursday 29 March 2012

car crash: a rant.

The other day, in the New Forest:

File:New Forest ponies.jpg

We saw a notice.

It said:


And it was a good job they'd told us, because we'd been planning to drive really fast round all the bends because, hey, if we pranged the odd pony we could just haul it off to the panel-beaters and get it made as good as new.


Look, no one, no one in the history of the entire world has ever driven too fast round a corner thinking it won't matter if I hit another car, it'll only dent it.

What people think when they drive too fast round corners (if they think at all) is it'll be all right.

If you want to persuade these idiotic and self-centred people to watch out for other road-users, then I think something like:


will probably do a much better job. 

A little further along the road, we saw three road signs all on the same post. One was warning of the possibility of cattle in the road ahead, one was warning of deer, and one was warning of horses.

We drove carefully round the bend...

...and only just avoided colliding with a flock of sheep.

Word To Use Today: notice. This word came to us from France. Before that there was a Latin word notitia, which means fame, and nōtus, which means known or celebrated.

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Nuts and Bolts: the lorem ipsum.

Why would anyone greek a piece of writing?

Well, to see how the layout works. To greek a piece of writing  means putting in a block of text to see what a page is going to look like.

As you'd expect from the name, the block of text you put in will probably be

Well, more or less Latin, anyway.

The passage traditionally used for this purpose begins lorem ipsum. No one knows quite when this passage was first used, but it seems likely it's a relic from a time when every letter you saw on a page had to be arranged by hand. It was a lot of trouble, so when people needed a bit of print to stick in to see how a page looked the obvious thing was to pick up a bit of type someone had already arrranged, and use that.

If the lines of text were the wrong length then obviously you'd just leave out the unwanted letters. You didn't need anything that made sense, after all.

Here is the text of the most commonly used block of writing. It's called a lorem ipsum, and it's sometimes still used on websites.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipisicing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

An expanded version was originally written by Cicero, but this version has so many blocks of letters missed out that it doesn't really mean anything any more. The first bit should really read:

Neque porro quisquam est qui dolorem ipsum quia dolor sit amet... which means "neither is there anyone who loves grief itself since it is grief".

So the lorem ipsum is nonsense. But useful and posh-looking nonsense, all the same.

Words To Use Today: I think lorem ipsum could easily be used to mean meaningless guff put in to make the writer/speaker look clever.

Good grief, though, if everyone used it on every relevant occasion, we'd be sick of it in a fortnight*.

Lorem is a bit of the Latin word dolorem which means sadness, and ipsum means itself.

*British English for two weeks.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: be surly.

I've always enjoyed my trips to Scotland, despite the fact that when I'm in Lanarkshire everyone calls me Surly. It's not that I snarl at people, it's just the local accent.

It makes me sound like the eighth dwarf, but, hey, you get used to it .

You wouldn't have thought that being surly was a way to attract people, but in the USA there's a firm which makes Surly bikes (do they make a point of running through puddles to spash pedestrians, I wonder, or do they just ride slowly in the middle of the road, making overtaking impossible?)

There's a make of Surly beer, too. The beer company has as its motto It's never too early to get surly.

Really? Apart from being deeply unattractive, being surly is a lot of effort.  In fact all that grumpiness makes me feel tired just thinking about it.

Ah well. It takes all sorts, doesn't it.

Thing Not To Be Today: surly. This word comes from the Middle English word serreli, which means lordly or haughty. It's probably connected with the word sir.

Monday 26 March 2012

Spot the frippet: nit.

This little word stretches from stupidity to wisdom, from religion to science, and from dark deeds to light.

Let's start with the stupidity, as that's easiest to spot. In Britain a nit is someone who's done something a bit stupid. It's short for nitwit.

Sadly, the word is quite rarely used nowadays. People now are much more likely to be numpties than nitwits.

As for the wisdom, well, the Egyptian godess Nit was rather wonderful. She was goddess of all sorts of things - war and hunting and weaving, as well as wisdom. She was so wise she was even roped in to try to sort out the other Egyptian gods' disputes, which wasn't easy with that lot. In her spare time she was often to be seen either nursing a baby crocodile (er...and she was supposed to be wise???) or else wearing one of her spare heads, which came in the shape of a lion's head, a cow's, or a snake's.

Thumbnail for version as of 13:03, 14 September 2010

Nit is the one on the right.

Nits are the eggs of lice, as well, though in Britain, Australia and New Zealand the term nits usually includes the lice themselves, particularly if they're headlice.


A nit is also a unit of luminance equal to one candela per square metre. Or it can be a unit of information equal to 1.44 bits.

In Australia nit is keeping watch, especially during a criminal activity.

Lastly, there are quite a few schools, especially in India, called the National Institute of Technology. It may be true that their acronym, NIT, means stupid, but hey, I think that's just nit-picking.

Spot the frippet: nit. The word meaning louse comes from the Old High German hniz; the unit of luminance comes from the Latin nitor, which means brightness; the unit of information comes from N(aperian Dig)it; and the Ozzie on watch comes from nix, which is from the German nichts, which means nothing.

Sunday 25 March 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: puce.

'And here,' said the Duke, leading the way through a pair of gilded doors, 'is the puce drawing room.'

No, not really.

I mean, it's never going to happen, is it? No one is going to decorate a room in puce. And even if they did, then they'd call it recently deceased mole, or murmur something about berry shades, or yearning autumn hues.

Let's face it, the only thing that's ever puce is the complexion of someone extremely angry, and ancient with it.

Poor puce. But then what can you expect from a word that is much too like a mixture of puke and puss?

I'm going to stick with dastardly mauve, I think, myself.

Word Not To Use Today: puce. This word is shortened from the French couleur puce, which means flea-coloured, from the Latin pūlex, flea.

PS The definition of puce in my Collins dictionary is "a colour varying from deep red to dark purplish brown".

An image search on Wilimedia Commons, though, comes out strongly in favour of a dull mauve.

File:Flea Scanning Electron Micrograph False Color.jpg

A bit like this flea, really.

Saturday 24 March 2012

Saturday Rave: Stig of the Dump by Clive King.

If you went near the edge of the chalk pit the ground would give way.

And so it does, and Barney falls through the rubbish and creepers that fill the bottom of the dump and into someone's home.

There was a pile of bracken and newspapers that looked as if it were used for a bed. The place looked as if it had never been given a tidy-up.
'I wish I lived here,' said Barney.

And whose home is it? Why Stig's of course.

I read this book many times when I was young, and although it says quite plainly that Stig is a caveman he always seemed more of a cave boy to me. Edward Ardizzone's pictures certainly give quite a youthful impression. Well, they did to me, anyway.

I still feel in my bones that Stig is quite young because, although Stig of the Dump is a story of discovery and adventure, above all it's one of friendship.

The thing is, if you can be friends with a caveman then surely you can be friends with anyone. Even, possibly, with really rough boys like the Snargets.

Word To Use Today: dump. This word probably comes from Scandinavia. There's a Norwegian word dumpa which means to fall suddenly. There's also a Middle Low German word dumpeln which means to duck.

Friday 23 March 2012

Word To Use Today: humdrum.

Humdrum means dull and ordinary, which is the last thing I want to be.

In fact, this blog is an attempt to prove that humdrum doesn't exist. That everything, but everything, is utterly, gob-smackingly, fascinating.

Lady Mary Wortley Montague is one of The Word Den's great heroines. This is largely because her last words were it has all been most interesting.

I mean, did you know that when a carpenter bee is at rest, its wings hum a reliable Middle C?

Did you know that a woodpecker has an extra stiff tail that acts as a seat when it's climbing trees?

Do you know why your keyboard spells out QWERTY? Where to grab a sally? What a bogeyman has up his nose?

In fact, in the words of that great star of the silent screen Lena Lamont:

'If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'. Bless you all. '

Word To Use Today: humdrum. This word appeared in the reign of the English queen often known as Bloody Mary, when things were generally very exciting indeed.

It was probably made up of hum plus something which rhymed with it, to make it sound as dull as possible.

Thursday 22 March 2012

Being wonderful. A rant.

Well, I suppose I did quite well.

Fish and chips, please, I said to the nice young waiter came to take my order

Amazing, he said, scribbling.

Amazing? Really? I'd chosen what I wanted, and I'd remembered what it was. I'd said please, which in England is only polite .


Mind you, not long after that I heard him say awesome to someone at a table behind me. Someone there may have been balancing a fork on his nose while making his order entirely by   means of balloon sculptures.

But I doubt it.

Now, what I want to know is, what will that waiter say if he ever finds himself sitting next to Elvis on the train?

Or, indeed, if he ever sees a green alien singing Yankie Doodle Dandy riding along on warthog?

I'm not even really sure what he would have said if I'd ordered some mushy peas to go with my fish and chips.


I'd be amazed if he could think of anything more powerful than that.

Word To Use Today: amaze. This word has been meaning to cause wonder since before the Norman Conquest, and it would be a huge loss to us all if it's allowed to lose its strength. The Old English form was āmasian.

Wednesday 21 March 2012

Nuts and Bolts: cedilla.

English doesn't use accents much. At least, I don't mean the sort of accent which means English has several different ways of saying hair and bath and terror. No, I mean the marks that are written over or under or through letters, like these, ū é ö è đ ǥ, for example.

Language anoraks tend not to call them accents, by the way, but diacritics, or diacritical marks.

They can show how to pronounce a letter, or whether to stress a sound.

A cedilla is one of those diacritics, and it's an unusual underneath-a-letter one.

Like this:


You can find them in English very occasionally - the word façade is sometimes given one - but they do pop up in all sorts of other languages including French, Turkish, Occitan, Manx and Marshallese. In fact Marshallese goes mad for them and uses them under l, m, n, and o, as well as the more widely used c, d, e, g, h, k, l, s and t.

I'd like to show you examples of all those letters with cedillas, but I'm afraid my computer converts them all to underlined commas for some reason, and that isn't the same at all.

What a cedilla does when it's used in English is to turn a hard c (as in cask) which you usually get before an a, o or u (as And cove, and cult) into a soft hissing s sound.

Cedillas also crop up in the International Phonetic Alphabet. There it represents the sound you get at the beginning of the English word huge, which I can only describe as a sort of squeezed pant.

Which are two words I wasn't expecting ever to use together. 

Word To Use Today: Hm. It's probably got to be façade, hasn't it. Unless you're going to Besançon to have a soupçon of curaçao.. The word means little z in Spanish.

Nuts and Bolts: abjads.

Now, I've heard of the screaming abdabs* but abjabs are new to me.

They're writing systems which don't have any signs for vowels.

All abjads I know about come from the Middle East, and developed from Egyptian hieroglyphs. Abjads are much simpler to learn and to write than hieroglyphs, but they do have the disadvantage of making it a bit harder to be sure what people are trying to say.

I am wearing a hat would come out m wrng ht, for example.

The first abjad was created by those busy people the Phoenicians, and they, top traders that they were, sold the idea all over the place.

Now, as I have just demonstrated, vowels are jolly useful, and now just about all modern abjads are 'impure' which means that they do have the odd vowel sign when it's really necessary. Hebrew, for instance, uses hardly any vowel symbols in writing for adults (though there are symbols to help children who are learning to read), but it's no longer completely vowel-free.

T's nl snsbl, ftr ll.

Word To Use Today: abjad. Oh won't be easy to use the word abjad, will it. Perhaps this had better be a word to think today.

The word abjad was made up by Peter T Daniels. It replaced the rather lovely term consonantary.
The form of the word was inspired by the first four letters of the Arabic alphabet: ABGD.

*Being hysterical.

Tuesday 20 March 2012

Thing To Do Today: pootle.

Life is stern and life is earnest.

Or so I'm told.

Oh, but what about pootling? That is, wandering around enjoying the delights of wherever you happen to be.

No one stern or earnest, charging along intent on business, is ever going to notice one of these in their hurry:

Baby Lamb
Photo Petr Kratochvil:">Baby Lamb</a> by Petr Kratochvil

or one of these (look at the shine!):

or even one of these:

Red squirrel

Life is many, many things apart from stern and earnest.

And a pootler will discover this about a million times a day.

Thing To Do Today: pootle. This word is made up in the 1900s from poodle, in its meaning of to travel, and tootle, which is a relaxed journey in a car.

Pootle is also a character in the children's television series The Flumps, which is also neither stern nor earnest, but quite enchanting.

Monday 19 March 2012

Spot the frippet: pin.

See a pin and pick it up

as the old rhymne goes,

And all the day you'll have good luck.

See a pin and let it stay
Bad luck will haunt you all the day...

...probably, I always thought, because you're quite likely to go and tread on it.

Pins are easy to spot. If you haven't got a safety pin holding some part of your outfit together:

then you might be wearing a pinafore over your dress.

Little Girl In A Red Dress And White Pinafore - John George Brown

Which might even be pin tucked:

File:StateLibQld 1 196895 Sgt Major Nickel and his wife.jpg

(the pin tucks in this picture are round the bottom of the bride's skirt - they're the small sewn-in pleats).

Or if you're at work then you might be able to spot a pinstriped suit; or, if you're at college in the USA, that odd thing the fraternity pin:

Theta Nu Epsilon fraternity pin

In England this is the beginning of the primrose season, and the way the central spiky bit pokes out of the middle of the flower makes them pin-eyed.

Fichiér:Primula vulgaris.jpg
Photo by Chris Dixon.

Or if you're in Ireland you may see someone being put to the pin on his collar, which means being forced to make a huge effort.

But the pin I saw the other day, which thrilled me completely, was a pintail:

photo by JM Garg.

A real pin-up of a drake, he was, too.

Spot the frippet: pin. This word has hardly changed at all for a millennium. The Old English form was pinn, and the word is related to the Old High German pfinn and the Old Norse pinni, which means nail.

Sunday 18 March 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: tycoon.

Hardly anything that starts with a tie is a good thing, especially as most of them are days which involve working.

The word tycoon, true to form, is horrible. It's a way of showing disdain for someone else's success, for a start. It also tends to imply a self-made, bullying, swaggering, sort of a person - and the hint of crooked dealings, as well.

I suppose , though, that tycoon is remarkable to get all those shades of meaning into two syllables.

And, now I come to think about it, we would be would be immeasurably the poorer if PG Wodehouse's stories featured no tycoons - from the dog-biscuit tycoon of Blandings to, as I recall, the pickle tycoon who resides at the Villa Chutney, Putney.

Perhaps tycoon is one best left to the experts, though.

Word Not To Use Today Unless You're An Expert: tycoon. This word comes to us from the Japanese taikun, from the Chinese words ta, which means great and chün, which means ruler.

Saturday 17 March 2012

Saturday Rave - The Kildare Leprechaun.

It's not often that St Patrick's day falls on a Saturday Rave day, so here's a traditional story in celebration.

The Kildare Leprechaun

There was once a girl called Breedheen who lived near Castle Carbury.

One day Breedheen was going to the well when she came across a leprechaun. He was sitting in a corner singing to himself, and he was so busy making a dancing shoe for a fairy (for that's how leprechauns make their fortunes) that he didn't notice Breedheen until she grabbed him.

Well, he kicked and shouted and struggled, but Breedheen only held onto him all the tighter. She knew all about leprechauns and their fortunes, and she wasn't letting this one go until he'd handed over his gold.

Well, the leprechaun realised at last that it was no good struggling, for of course he was only a little fellow, and he called up all his cunning.

First he told Breedheen that he was as poor as a winter tiddler, but Breedheen was no fool, herself, and so that did no good at all.

Then the leprechaun called out to Breedheen that her shoe lace was undone (because if you stop looking at a leprechaun it can vanish into thin air as quick as the mist on a mirror).

But the leprechaun's gold was shining brightly in Breedheen's mind's eye, and she was having none of that, either. So in the end the poor  leprechaun sighed sadly and began to lead her up a little hill.

Well, Breedheen was busy planning how to spend all the leprechaun's gold when all at once the leprechaun screamed out "oh save us! Someone's set Castle Carbury on fire!"

Well of course at that Breedheen couldn't help but look up towards the castle.

And the moment she took her eyes off the leprechaun he was away as fast as a scorched weasel and in an instant he was right out of sight.


Personally I think it served Breedheen quite right, too.

Word To Use Today: leprechaun. This word comes from the Irish Gaelic leipreachān, from lū which means small and corp which is Latin for body.

NB: traditionally leprechauns wear red coats.

Friday 16 March 2012

Word To Use Today: mispickel.

Can there be a more cheerful word in the English language than mispickel?

And what is it?

Well, it's a rock that smells of garlic.

No, really.

It's all nice and sparkly, too. Here's a photo by Parent Géry:

File:Arsénopyrite et pyrite 2 .jpg

As if sparkles and smelling of garlic isn't wonderful enough, it's quite likely to lead you to seams of gold, too.

Mispickel's more official name is arsenopyrite, and it has the ridiculously attractive chemical formula FeAsS.

You get arsenic from it, as its official name suggests.

And that's jolly useful, too.

Word To Use Today: mispickel. This word comes to us from Germany in the 1600s, where it started off as Misspückel. The origin of Misspückel, though, is, sadly, a mystery.

Thursday 15 March 2012

A mission A rant

Complex thoughts usually get from one head to another by means of words.

We can argue about how we should put our words together, but it's when our words can't be understood - when this precious, magical way of reaching into each other's minds is spoiled - that things get serious.

Although even then they don't always get that serious.

This recent headline:


is a bit surprising, but we can soon work out what it's really trying to say.

I am a simple sole. (That's from a newspaper comments thread) also doesn't mean what it says, but of course we know what the poor fish meant.

But when we come across a company whose mission statement (that's a list of their aims) goes like this:

The New Ventures mission is to scout profitable growth opportunities in relationships, both internally and externally, in emerging, mission inclusive markets, and explore new paradigms and then filter and communicate and evangelize the findings.

Then we see words being thrown into such a muddy whirlpool of confusion that I, for one, have no chance of making out any thoughts at all.

Are these really the words of a group of people with a mission?

And can anyone begin to guess what they do?*

Word To Use Today: mission. This word comes from the Latin missiō, from mittere, which means to send.

In this case, to send people bonkers, I should think.

*Sorry, I've no idea at all. Not the foggiest.

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Nuts and Bolts: apocope.

I love the sound of this word - apocope (you pronounce the final e). Apocope. It sounds like champagne bubbles bursting, or someone dropping their false teeth onto a xylophone.

However, apocope is neither of these things, and nor is it the theme tune for a children's cartoon about a family of hyperactive rabbits. 

Apocape is what is happening when the last sound or sounds of a word get left off.

You come across it a lot with names: Will, Tom, Ros, Soph. Even Sal, although that doesn't work very well round here in South East England because it results in a sort of double apocope (because no one round here pronounces a final L to a word) and so Sal comes out as Sow. Which is a bit infra dig.*

People are always in a hurry, so apocopes are everywhere, natch. When we eat our veg while watching an anime on the tele, or, being a bit emo, hurl abuse at the ref on the way to the gym or the lab, or even if we stay in and play pop on the piano, we're apocopating like mad.

There are those who sneer, but just think, you're doing really sophisticated grammar with a Greek name.

I think that's a cause for congrats, myself.

Thing To Do Today: apocapate. This word comes from the Greek apokoptein, which means to cut off.

*Infra dig = infra dignitatem, beneath one's dignity.

Tuesday 13 March 2012

Thing To Do Today: be a spark.

The first meaning of spark in the Collins dictionary is a fashionable or gallant young man.

Now I could try to be fashionable, or even gallant, but the man thing would take a lot of surgery. As for young, that would, I fear require a Time Machine.

Luckily, to be a spark also means to be clever or witty, so..., that's not much easier, is it.

I needn't quite give up, though, because in England a bright spark is almost always used ironically, as in what bright spark forgot to put the handbrake on?

Or what bright spark left the lions' cage door open?

Or what bright spark forgot to put the plug in before we launched the boat?
I can do that sort of thing effortlessly.

If you're completely unable to be stupid in that way (unlikely, I know) then perhaps you could try re-wiring a plug, as Sparks or Sparkie is the traditional nickname for an electrician.

Or you could try being sparky, that is original and lively.

Be careful you don't annoy people and spark off any arguments, though.

Thing To Do Today: be a spark. Spark in this sense came to Engish in the 1500s, when it meant a beautiful or witty woman. It's likely to have come from Scandinavia as there's an Old Norse word sparkr, which means vivacious.

Monday 12 March 2012

Spot the frippet: ivory.

There's been a ban on trade in ivory for a good few years, now, but ivory can still be bought and used legally. It's used to make the white keys on the grandest of grand pianos.

How come?

Well, it isn't ivory from elephants that's used, but ivory from...

...well, guess. An animal that, strangely, is so rare it's no longer threatened.*

There are still plenty of ivory objects around from before the ban came into place. Apart from pianos there are chess pieces:


(these are the Lewis chessmen and they are in fact made of walrus ivory);

and ornaments:

(that's warthog ivory from the collection of Wayne Hepburn)

and jewellery:

Datei:Gewgaws of primitive society.jpg

(these bracelets and anklets are made of hippo ivory).

There's vegetable ivory as well, which is made from the tagua nut.

If you can't spot any of these, there's always the chance of an Ivory Gull for those of you near the North Pole; ivorywood for those of you in Australia; and Ivory Towers for those of you who haven't got much of a clue where you are.

If you can't spot any of those then smile anyway, and expose your ivory gnashers.

Spot the frippet: ivory. This word comes to us from the Old French ivurie, the the Latin ebur, which is related to the Greek word elephas which means elephant.

*Mammoths! They still get turn up quite regularly in the recently unfrozen north.

Sunday 11 March 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: cupola.

I quite liked this word when I thought it was said CUP-erla, but now I know it starts with a KEW sound then all the grace has drained right out of it.

KEWperla: I don't know, but somehow it just rings with hauteur, hairspray, and tweed.

It's a pity, because they're just right for adorning the most romantic buildings you could find anywhere.

Borodino's church. Views of the Napoleonic campaign area, Russian Empire

And sometimes they do.

Here's the best-ever cupola if you're looking for something utterly bonkers. The photograph is by Kevin Rae and the cupola is to be found at Dunmore Park in Scotland.

File:The Pineapple.jpg

Now I can forgive that structure anything!

Word Not To Use Today: cupola. This word came to England in the 1500s from Italy. It comes from the Latin word cūpola, which means a small cask.

Saturday 10 March 2012

Saturday Rave: Carbonel by Barbara Sleigh.

'I knew a witch once who was thrown.'
'Goodness!' said Rosemary. 'What did she do?'
'Nothing. There was not much she could do. It got clean away. Nasty things, runaway brooms, apart from the expense of getting a new one, and the trouble of breaking it in.'

So speaks Carbonel, the exiled King of Cats, bought by Rosemary from Mrs Cantrip but still enslaved and unable to come into his kingdom.

This lovely book comes from a time when mothers went off to work and left their children to their own devices all day.

This was convenient in lots of ways for all concerned, but it could be rather lonely.

Well, it was until Rosemary started understanding what her cat was saying, in any case.

Word To Use Today: cantrip. This lovely word is Scottish, and means magic spell, or sometimes a mischievous trick.
Where the word comes from before that is, I'm afraid, as great a mystery as the magic itself.

Friday 9 March 2012

Word To Use Today: pasta.

There are a hundred annoying rules about pasta - how long to cook it, what sauce you can eat with each variety, in which course you should serve it - but, hey, anarchy rules, okay, so away with all the guilt about liking the wrong sort of pasta and let's just delight in the truly disgusting things we're shoving in our mouths.

There are various creatures: vermicelli, for instance, which of course means little worms, and farfalle, which are butterflies.

If that's not revolting enough then there are the body parts: capellini, little hairs; mostaccioli, moustaches; linguine, tongues; orecchiette, ears.

Or to top it all you can have creature body parts: the charmingly-named occhi di pernice, which means partridge eyes; and occhi di lupo, wolf eyes.


Or, lastly, there's the pasta which fights back: strozzapreti, or priest-strangler.

Beware of what you eat today.

Word To Use Today: pasta. This word comes from the Italian, of course* and before that the Latin, where pasta meant dough or cake. This in turn came from the Greek pasta, which means barley porridge, and pastos, which means salted.


*But does pasta really come from Italy?

The Roman writer Horace ate something similar, but he fried his. The first boiled flour-paste is mentioned by the Greek Galen, and by the third century AD they seem to have been eating it in Israel. By the 600s the invading Libyans brought pasta to Sicily, and from there they began exporting pasta all over the place.

Except to my house, where pasta didn't arrive until the 1960s, and then only, sadly, in tins.

Thursday 8 March 2012

Enough already?: a rant.

There was nothing wrong at all with the exquisite David Beckham saying recently 'We were just too happy to leave LA', but really someone should have thought carefully before they used it as a headline.

The annoying thing is that, having failed to read the article, I still don't know whether the Beckhams adored Los Angeles or hated it.


Word To Use Today: happy. This word is from the Old Norse word happ which means good luck.

Wednesday 7 March 2012

Nuts and Bolts: langue d'ock.

Is there a more endearing way of shrinking something than the ancient and rare device of putting an ock at the end of it?

Examples include hillock, of course, and dunnock (a dunnock is a small dun (dun = brown) bird).

Then we mustn't forget the lovely buttock (said to come from the Old English buttuc which means round slope, and before that from butt, which meant a strip of land).

Mustn't forget the poor bullocks, either: they are smaller than they'd like to be, I should imagine.

And then there's the lovely puddock, which had been shrunk from pad, and means a frog or toad.

There are not that many examples, though. I think we could do with some more little-ock words (there are quite a few other words which end in ock, but the ock in haddock or tussock or mattock, for example, doesn't mean small).

Wouldn't our world be an even sunnier place if we could take the occasional nippock of whisky, for instance? Or a bittock of chocolate? 

I think mine would.

Word To Use Today: one ending in ock. Words formed in this way have been around since before the Norman Conquest, when they were generally spelled -oc or -uc.

By the way, the word yolk was formed in pretty much the same way, from the Old English word geolu, which meant yellow.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Thing To Do Today: be simple.

Simple Simon met a pieman
Going to the fair
Said Simple Simon to the pieman
Let me taste your wares.

Said the pieman to Simple Simon
Show me first your penny
Said Simple Simon to the pieman
Indeed I have not any.

I wonder why Nursery Rhymes are so often difficult to understand?

Simple Simon, for instance, was deeply worrying to me as a child (was he a fool? Disabled? A peasant? And what was a pieman? A pieman sounded jolly sinister to me, frankly, like one of Batman's enemies. And what on earth were wares? In any case, surely a penny wasn't enough for a pie? Was penny a euphemism for something too nasty to print? And if everything was exactly as it seemed then, well, what was the point of the song?).

Poor Simon. Still, there's a lot to be said for being simple. Complicating something is often just a way of disguising the fact that it doesn't work very well or, indeed, make a lot of sense.

So let's be simple for a change:

Have a meal made up only of items you can taste.

Wear a set of clothes you can put on in less than three minutes.

Say I don't understand if you don't. (No, it's all right: ten to one no one else will understand, either, and you might just prevent a prolonged global recession.) 

There. Don't you feel unusually light-hearted and relaxed?

That's right: simply happy.

Thing To Be Today: simple.  This word comes from the Old French and before that from the Latin simplex, which means plain, or, literally, one-fold.

Monday 5 March 2012

Spot the frippet: barnacle.

Can there be any stronger proof of the power of love than that the great poet John Keats should fall for a lady, who was staying close by, who went by the unfortunate name of Fanny Brawne?

Well, possibly only that the great writer James Joyce fell for someone called Nora Barnacle.

We tend to feel, wrongly, that barnacles haven't got much to do with romance, but they're still extraordinary creatures. They look like little limpets, but they're not molluscs at all, but tiny crab-like things.

These are barnacle shells, but I'm afraid the barnacles themselves have tucked themselves up inside them and drawn their doors closed.

When a barnacle grows up, the first thing it does is to glue its forehead to a bit of rock, and from then on it lies on its back inside its shell and uses its legs to grope for food.

Although barnacles don't have a heart (their sinuses pump their blood round their bodies) they regularly get romantic, and here we're back to John Keats, because as a barnacle is stuck to a rock for the whole of its life it can only get romantic with someone living very close.

Do pause here to look at the person next to you and be grateful you're not a barnacle...

Okay. Now the thing about getting romantic after you've cemented your head to a rock is that it's very difficult each other. Barnacles get round this problem by putting out enormously long appendages, perhaps forty times as long as they are, to make a connection.

The mind boggles, quite frankly.

Barnacles aren't easy to spot, I know, unless you're at the seaside, but any clingy person who won't let you alone can be called a barnacle, and one of those shouldn't be hard to spot at all.

A goose barnacle lives on submerged wood, and was once supposed to be the egg of the barnacle goose. I don't know if anyone really believed this, but it proved jolly useful to Roman Catholics because it meant that barnacle geese were classed officially as fish and so could be eaten during Lent.

Spot the frippet: barnacle. This word comes from the Late Latin word bernicla, but sadly no one knows what bernicla meant.

Sunday 4 March 2012

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: gripe.

Endless whingeing, eternal resentment, all in one word: gripe.

Still, I'm sure the word is never used with reference to you, just about all the petty-minded eaten-up-with-envy idiots who surround you.


No, no, I was just...


Word Not To Use Today: gripe. This word comes from the Old English grīpan, and it's related to the Old High German grīfan, to seize, and also to the Lithuanian greibiu.

Gripe can also mean either terrible stomach-ache, or the action of a ship which won't obey the helm.

Hm. The poor word has accumulated some horrible meanings, hasn't it.

Mind you, there's always gripe water: I've been extremely grateful for that, on occasion.

Saturday 3 March 2012

Saturday Rave: The Elves and the Shoemaker.

I suppose, now I come to think about it, that this is a version of the parable we were told as Brownies.

I can't say that as a Brownie - or, frankly, at any point since - I was ever convinced of the delights of secret housework, but this story is much more satisfying than that. In this case the elves are helping a poor old couple who really need the help.

And the poor old couple, full of goodness as they are, repay the elves' kindness as soon as they can.

Makes you feel all warm inside, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: elf. There have been elves in England pretty much forever. There's an Old English word ælf that's related to the Middle German alf which means incubus, and also to the Latin albus which means white.

Friday 2 March 2012

Word To Use Today: stench.

This perfectly gorgeous word is hardly ever heard. This is a great shame.


Isn't it just hugely satisfying?

I suppose we do try to avoid stenches, but even if you live your life in a fragrant haze of eau de cologne and freesias, and are seldom the house-guest of a hippopotamus, have a picnic on a landfill site (landfill: what a perfectly bland euphemism that is), or wander through a tanning factory, then there's bound to be a stench of corruption somewhere not too far away, whether of a politician feathering his own nest, a teacher favouring his pet, or a journalist tapping the odd phone.

Oh dear.

Even if everyone you know is virtuous and odour-free (and how dull that would be) then you'll probably have a stench trap somewhere near you. A stench trap is oddly named as it doesn't trap stenches at all, it sets them free: it's a water seal in a sewage system that stops gases rising back to haunt us like the ghost of Christmas dinners past.

Word To Use Today: stench. This word comes from the Old English stenc, and is related to the Old Saxon stank and the Old Norse stökkva, to burst. 


Thursday 1 March 2012

Monoglots: a rant.

"Excuse my interruption, madam, but I believe that you are a fellow member of my Biology set. Would you do me the great favour of informing me in which room our next lesson is to take place?"

Well, what's wrong with that? It's grammatical, comprehensible, and polite.

Well, yes, you're right, of course: the most obvious thing wrong with it is that the madam in question will give the poor mutt who's speaking a withering look and stalk off.

And that's if she's being restrained. 

By someone strong.

Now, the reason such an exchange has come to mind is that I've been told that Sheffield Springs Academy has banned slang from its premises.

That's just really, really, really unnecessary, perverse and stupid.

Yes, of course people are at an advantage if they can speak formal, clear, grammatical English. Such English is essential in some situations, and they are often those in which people earn their crusts.

But saying good morning, Mr Brown. Not the most salubrious morning to a neighbour's nervous infant son; or now, the next item on the agenda is the gift to you of one dozen red roses to the love of your life will not win you friends or influence anyone.

We all need to be multi-lingual. We almost need a different language for every acquaintance.

Sit boy!

Two and a half for the Upper Circle, please.

Millwall! Millwall! Millwall!

We might even need several languages for some of our friends.

Sheffield Springs Academy's order to its pupils not to use slang on the premises ignores the gloriously subtle and flexible nature of language.

Oh, but I'd love to hear their football coach conducting a training session.

Word To Use Today: slang. This word appeared in the 1700s and has proved very useful ever since. It was first used by criminals. There's a Norwegian word slengenamm which means nickname, but no one can be sure if it's anything to do with the origin of slang.