This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 30 April 2012

Spot the frippet: froth.

The Word Den is, obviously, a work of stern endeavor.

But, I don't know, I can't help being aware that it could very easily be taken for a load of froth.

But, hey, froth can be serious and useful. Froth flotation is used to get rare minerals out of rock. You grind the rock up, mix it together with various chemicals, and then blow bubbles through it so that the valuable bits rise to the top with the froth and can be skimmed off.

Froth, of course, is all around us. It covers our washing and our washing up and it tops off our drinks, whether beer, cappuchino or cream soda.

It's not all lovely, though. A man frothing at the mouth is best avoided because he will be very angry, and a dog frothing at the mouth may have rabies.

In which case just run, okay? 

Then there's baby froth:

This sort of froth, which I call cuckoo spit, is the protective layer spittle bugs put round their young ones to hide them and keep them warm and moist.

Even more remarkably, the Tungara frog kicks up a froth to cover his mate's eggs until they turn into tadpoles. Not only does this substance contain an entirely new sort of detergent which may be of use in cleaning up oil spills, but the stuff is so good at warding off germs that its use is being investigated for burns victims.

I'm not sure, though, that the doctor saying we're just going to apply some frog froth will do much to reassure the patient.

Spot the frippet: froth. This word comes from the Old Norse word frotha or frauth. It's related to the Old English āfrēothan, to foam, and also to the Sanskrit prothati, which means he snorts.

Sunday 29 April 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: fascicule.

Is there a more revolting word than fascicule?

It sounds like a symptom of a disease: a fascicule of the left kidney...eeergh!

As it happens, a fascicule is actually something quite harmless. It's an instalment of a story.

'Peter!' cried Ginger, his legs kicking wildly as he tried to find a purchase on the crumbling rock of the cliff. 'Peter, save me!'

Will Peter save Ginger, or will the pharoah's curse strike again? See next week's thrilling fascicule!

Terrible things, are fascicules. Now I'm dying to know what happens next - and I don't even know who Peter and Ginger are, yet.

Word Not To Use Today: fascicule. Look, using fascicule instead of instalment will just make you look ridiculous. Don't do it!

The word fascicule comes from the Latin word fasciculus, a small bundle, from fascis, a bundle.

Saturday 28 April 2012

Saturday Rave: Bluebeard

Heroines of fairy stories are noted for their beauty and sweetness, but brightness tends to be optional.

Bluebeard is a very silly story, and its heroine is sillier yet. Its saving grace is that it's so over-the-top that by the time it finally comes down to earth it's in such a bizarre place that we accept everything.

' "You must die!" said Bluebeard, and taking hold of her hair with one hand he went to cut off her head.

His poor young wife, filled with terror, begged him to give her one last moment of life.'

If you want logic, or balance, or humanity, then...well, let's face it, you shouldn't be reading fairy tales. But if you fancy something torrid and full of terror, gore, and savagery, then you'll enjoy this one.

It's got unwashable blood in it, and a last-minute rescue - and a villain unsurpassed in his villainy, too.

This story was first written down by Charles Perrault. It may have been based on an early Breton king most spendidly called Conomor the Accursed. But on the whole I doubt it.

Word To Use Today: terror. This word comes from the Old French terreur, from the Latin terrēre, to frighten, which is related to the Greek word trein, to run away in terror.

Friday 27 April 2012

Word To Use Today: cockatrice.

We are right to beware the Jubjub bird, of course, as well as to shun the frumious Bandersnatch: but we need to keep a jolly careful look-out for cockatrices, too.

A cockatrice is a two-legged dragon with a cock's head and, quite often, wings.

Cockatrice BW
The first mention of a cockatrice in the English language was by Alexander Neckam in about 1180. He tells us that the cockatrice is born from a cock's egg hatched by a toad.

And who, after all, is to say that he's wrong.

Anyway, wherever they come from, cockatrices are tough cookies. The mere gaze of one is said to turn people to stone (though the old look-in-this-mirror trick has been used time and again to turn the stone-magic back on the cockatrice itself).

Unfortunately, the mirror-trick doesn't always work that easily. When a cockatrice was found in the dungeons of Wherwell Priory in Hampshire, a man called Green duly showed it a mirror. But instead of being turned to stone, the cockatrice was roused to a fury. It fought its reflection so mightily that (sadly, I think) Green was able to get close enough to kill it.

Ans more deadly even than a cockatrice's gaze is its breath. This is so poisonous that in the 800s a hiding cockatrice is said to have killed many of the people of Rome.

That one was killed by the prayers of Pope Leo VI.

The great expert on the cockatrice remains Edward Topsell, who wrote about them in 1608. He was no fool, was Mr Topsell, and not to be taken in by any old tale:

'I cannot without laughing remember the olde Wives tales of the Vulgar Cockatrices that have bin in England; for I have oftentimes heard it related confidently, that once our Nation was full of Cockatrices, and that a certaine man did destroy them by going uppe and downe in Glasse, whereby their owne shapes were reflected upon their owne faces, and so they dyed. But this fable is not worth refuting, for it is more likely that the man should first have dyed by the corruption of the ayre from the Cockatrice, then the Cockatrice to die by the reflection of his owne similitude from the glasse, except it can be shewed that the poysonous ayre could not enter the glasse wherein the man did breathe.'

Bur I don't want to leave you all in fear and trembling, and luckily there is one piece of good news: a cockatrice is only about thirty centimetres long.

So now we can all sleep at night.

Word To Use Today: cockatrice. This word comes from the Old French cockatris, from the Latin calcatrix, which means trampler or tracker, from calx, which means heel.

Thursday 26 April 2012

Getting the pip: a rant.

I'm told, and I'm in no position to argue, that the space /time continuum is curved. I even understand* that quantum theory depends upon things being in two different places at once. But, come on, actual day-to-day time just goes...well, forwards.

Doesn't it?

(The novelist in me is whispering things about flashbacks, prophesies, prolepsis, and all the various ways a modern writer likes to baffle his readers, but I shall not be distracted.)

So. 12pm. When's that, then?

PM stands for post meridiem, which means after noon. Noon is twelve o'clock in the day time, so therefore 12pm must be twelve o'clock at night.

No arguing with that.

Then there's AM, which stands for ante meridiem, which means before noon. Noon is twelve o'clock in the daytime, so therefore 12am must be twelve o'clock at...

...oh dear. Bang goes our chance of meeting under the clock and living happily ever after. 

Look, as 12 am and 12 pm cause difficulties then why not use either a) twelve noon and twelve midnight; b) noon and midnight; or c) the perfectly serviceable twenty four hour clock that gives you 1200 for noon and 0000 for midnight?

Then we'll all know when we are, won't we.

Word To Use Today: noon. This word is from the Old English nōn, from the Latin nōna [hōra], which means the ninth [hour] (after sunrise).

This, of course, was at three o'clock in the afternoon.

*Sorry, that's a very loose way of using of the word understand.

PS I wrote this post a few days ago, only to find that the new redesigned blogger clock is enmeshed in just this confusion, which is why (I think) my posts have been posting themselves at odd times.


Wednesday 25 April 2012

Nuts and Bolts: shelta.

Shelta is one of the languages of the Irish travellers. Sometimes it's called the cant, and in Ireland it's called Gammon.

Shelta is a creole - a mixture of languages that's taken on a life of its own.

The ingredients of the mixture in the case of Shelta are Irish-English, Gaelic and Irish, with some borrowed Romani words, too.

Shelta may have been spoken since the 1200s, but the mix of languages in it has changed a lot, with the trend towards more English. Nowadays Shelta is mostly English, but it has thousands of extra words. Many of these extra words are at root Irish (often reversed, or with deliberate variations such as added syllables).

This, together with a custom of speaking very fast, means that Shelta can be used as a code language if necessary, though Shelta has a life of its own, and isn't only used to exclude outsiders.

The borrowing of words hasn't been entirely in on direction: one British English word, bloke, meaning man, probably comes from a Shelta word for boy.

Word To Use Today: a disguised word like the ones sometimes used in Shelta.  That might involve reversing a bit of a word and then saying it fast: nobkers instead of bonkers, perhaps.

The word Shelta first appeared in print in 1882 in Charles Leland's book The Gypsies. It probably comes from the Irish word siúl, which means to walk.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: be a snob.

Yes, I realise that all your neighbours are ghastly. I realise that they mow their lawns much too often, or not enough, and that they drop their aitches or use one in the most irritating manner when they really mean I.

I realise that their extension is far too big for the house, that their net curtains need cleaning, and that you can see right in if you go out after dark (and, honestly, if your wallpaper was in that state you'd think you'd want to keep it to yourself).

I realise that their taste in music is dreadful, their barbeques noxious, and their car-owning friends numerous beyond belief.

I realise that they make far too much of that baronet they once met, and that great-uncle's cousin who was said to be a runner for the Krays; and of course it's really not at all necessary to keep on and on about the Lodge.

Having said all that, I must point out that you're really quite odd and difficult to live with yourself, you know.

Well, aren't we all.

Thing Not To Do Today: be a snob.  This word appeared in the 1700s, when it meant shoemaker. By 1831 it had come to mean any member of the lower classes; by 1838 it meant someone with no taste; and by 1848 it had pretty much its present meaning, except that nowadays snobbery can be employed to disapprove of...well, every sort of people, really, not just the poor and vulgar.

I'm not sure if that's a move in the right direction or not.

Monday 23 April 2012

Spot the frippet: arrow.

It shouldn't be difficult to spot one of these:

Though one of these:

Bow And Arrow Clip Art

may be harder.

If you can't find that sort of an arrow, then there's always arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima/palustris):

Triglochin palustre L.

or if you're in the West Indies (or a kitchen) there's the plant Maranta arundinacea, or arrowroot. The starchy stuff you get from it is good for making biscuits, thickening fruit sauces, and drawing out the poison from arrow wounds.

Of course if you want a really poisonous arrow, then you need something like this to rub on the tip:

That's the yellow-banded poison arrow frog. The photo is by Arpingstone.

Even smaller than that beautiful frog is the arrowworm:

 Arrow Worm
Don't underestimate the arrowworm just because it's small, though. They have hooked spines round their mouths for getting hold of their prey.

The arrow of time is used for thinking about why some actions look just the same when watched backwards (like throwing a ball into the air and then catching it) and some things don't (eating a doughnut).

Even the cleverest people can't actually see it, though.

Spot the frippet: arrow. This word comes from the Old English arwe, and before that from the Latin arcus, which means bow.

The arrow in arrowroot may come from its use in sucking out arrow poison, or perhaps from the Arawak aru-aru, which means meal of meals.

Sunday 22 April 2012

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: effulgent.

Effulgent could never be an elegant word. It could be rather a useful one, though, if its meaning matched its sound. Then, of course, it would mean needing to burp.

Unfortunately effulgent doesn't mean needing to burp. It means radiant, as in the effulgent bride...

...actually, not as in the effulgent bride. That would surely be enough ruin the poor girl's day.

Effulgent is really best saved, a group of vicious, over-fed, radio-active rats might qualify, I suppose.


 I do hope you don't find yourself having to use effulgent today.

Word Not To Use Today: effulgent. This word was made up in the 1700s by some fool with more Latin than sense. It comes from effulgēre, which means to shine forth.

Saturday 21 April 2012

Saturday Rave: Chocky by John Wyndham

Dad is oiling the lawnmower when he hears Matthew's voice.

'I heard him say, on a note of distinct irritation, and apropos, apparently, of nothing:
"I don't know. It's just the way things are." '

But when Dad goes to find out who's annoying his son, he discovers that Matthew is alone.

Is this is simple game of make-believe?

Is Matthew going mad?

Or could there, just possibly, be something real about the voice in Matthew's head?

Gosh, this is one of the stickiest books I ever read: it's a book that sticks to your fingers, I mean, so you can't put it down.

It's an oddly beautiful book, too, full of compassion as well as excitement.

And how clever John Wyndham was to start the book with that lawnmower, which places disquiet right in the middle of our everyday lives.

Don't start Chocky unless you've got time to finish it, that's all.

Word To Use Today: nothing. This is two words put together, of course, no and thing. No comes from the Old English , which was from nān, which means none; and thing is also an Old English word which meant assembly.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Word To Use Today: sloth.

Sloth, the unwillingness to work (or, indeed, move) has got itself a bad name.

Actually, what am I saying? It's got a lovely name. Sloth. A  beautiful husky sliding name that couldn't be more relaxed if it was wearing pyjamas and drinking cocoa while watching a re-run of the potter's wheel:

Yes, sloth is a happy thing:

This photograph is by Stefan Laube.

Sloths live in the jungles of Central or South America. They aren't entirely idle, because they spend a lot of time eating. In fact they eat so much that two thirds of a sloth's body-weight consists of the contents of its stomach.

To be fair, though, it can take a month for a sloth to digest the leaves it eats (though sloths do come down to the ground to poo about once a week) so they aren't quite as greedy as they seem.

Sloths spend so much time hanging upside down that you have to stroke them the other way from most animals, from the feet towards the back. I don't know if you'd want to stroke a sloth, though, because a sloth's fur is covered with green bacteria. This makes them hard to see (though keeping still so much of the time helps with this, too).

Not that sloths can't move if they need to. A sloth in danger can cover, ooh, as much as four metres a minute - though of course they're slower on the ground.

Oh, and just in case of confusion: the Two-Toed Sloth does of course have three toes.*

Word To Use Today: sloth. This word comes from  Old English word slǣth, from slǣw, which means slow.

*It has two fingers, though.

making things: a rant

"The Association of Teachers and Lecturers [yes, them again]warned that pupils risked being failed by a...curriculum that will emphasize core knowledge. It claimed that the move would 'kill children's creativity.' "

I'm ashamed to admit it, but I'm afraid that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers is a British affair. I expect (actually, I'm not sure I do expect this, but I'm pretending I do to be polite) that other countries have much more sensible teachers' associations.

Because, look, please don't come at me with the learning-facts-kills-creativity thing.

It's nonsense. Really it is. So you're saying that spending years  learning lists means you'll never be able to come up with anything even mildly original, are you?

Take that JRR Tolkien. Knowing loads and loads of old words went with his job (Merton Professor of English Language and Literature). So he couldn't have had an ounce of  creativity in his body. Could he.

Saying that learning things inhibits creativity is like saying that eating cabbage every day stops you liking chocolate. Well, it just might do, but it's more likely to make you enjoy chocolate even more.

Did reading hundreds of pages about Neanderthals hinder me in the writing of my Ice-Age book? (It's not out yet, thank you for asking. But, no, it didn't.)

Anyway, is there a fifteen-year-old boy anywhere who's ever thought to himself I'd like to have a fantasy about Angela, but since they made me learn about the Battle of Bunker Hill I just don't have the imagination?

Finally, do you remember what Sir Isaac Newton said about standing on the shoulders of giants?* What he meant was that he  couldn't have discovered anything very much without the help of the people who'd discovered things before him. 

Yes, that's right: all his new ideas had depended on knowing stuff.

And, let's face it, you don't get more creative than Sir Isaac.

Do you.

Thing To Do Today: create something. This word comes from the Latin word creāre, to produce or make.

*Bernard of Chartres seems to have said it first.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

Nuts and Bolts: solidus.

A solidus, oddly, is one of these:


Yes, that's right: it's just a line: so not very solid at all.

Nowadays we tend to call a solidus a forward slash, but this not only takes a little longer to say and write but is confusing because it doesn't really go actually forward at all.


In fact, I would say that a solidus slopes backwards, myself.


Just to make things even more complicated, the backwards slash slopes forward:


(If you're being technical, that's a reverse solidus, but that doesn't help matters at all.)

Perhaps we should have called the solidus a standard slash, or just a slash. It would have surely been easier for everyone, but, hey, it's almost certainly too late, now.

Solidi can be seen all over the place: in abbreviations (w/e (week ending)) in fractions (14/24, which means fourteen twenty fourths, which is the same thing as fourteen divided by twenty four) and of course in dates (DD/MM/YYYY). Or, if you're in the States, MM/DD/YYYY.

A solidus will often also mean or, as in M/F (male or female) or Y/N (yes or no).

In fact they're useful beasts altogether.

Pity about the name, though.

Thing To Use Today: a solidus. A solidus used to be a Byzantine gold coin: solidus meant solid, which is of course what you want your coins to be. By Medieval times a solidus meant a shilling, and was indicated by a long s, which eventually stretched out into our slash/solidus.

Tuesday 17 April 2012

Thing To Do Today: snig.

Still working off the Easter Eggs?

What you need to do is have a good snig.

To snig is a word now sadly confined to New Zealand and Australia. It means to drag along a log by means of a chain fastened to one end.

And how can we resist?

Think how healthy we would be if we all took to snigging. Think what a happyplace the world would be if we all took our logs for a drag first thing every morning.

Think of the community-spirit as we all stop to discuss the technicalities of chain-fixings and the merits of cedar versus oak.

Think of the educational aspect: the introduction to life and death when the family log eventually succumbs to fungus, woodworm, or being eaten by next-door's bull mastiff.

Think of the discipline of applying preservative and anti-rust; the flowering of creativity with the emergence of the log-dragging song and the fancy log-coat; the galvanising of the economy as entrepreneurs grasp the possibilities (as they will) for hammer-on log faces and bijou log kennels...

...hang on, I think I may have gone and convinced myself, now.

Anyone got a log anywhere they don't want?

Thing To Do Today: snig. This word may only be used in New Zealand and Australia nowadays, but its origin is as an English dialect word.

Monday 16 April 2012

Spot the frippet: rogue.

Rogue is a growly sort of a word, and what it's saying is beware baddies.

A rogue always seems to be male, although it is sometimes used jokingly, as in oh, you are a rogue! to mean someone no worse than mischievous.

There are vegetable, as well as human rogues - no, not runner beans with a propensity to jump up from the plate and strangle people, but any crop plant which is a bit, well, weedy, or of the wrong variety. The word has the same sort of meaning when it's used to describe something unfit for its purpose, as in I bought a pack of rogue underpants.

There are animal rogues, too. This is usually some unfriendly or fierce creature, perhaps one that's escaped from a farm. Quite often, it's a dangerously irritable elephant. The word rogue started off meaning someone homeless and jobless, but nowa days it's more often used of an animal in that sense than of a human.

There are even mechanical rogues. A rogue dialler is a computer program which secretly connects a somone to a very expensive  phone number.

So there we are. A veritable rogues' gallery for us to spot.

Spot the frippet: rogue. This word appeared in English in the 1500s, when many people were forced to become vagrants and rogues. The word may come from the Latin word rogāre, which means to beg.

If you really can't spot anyone even slightly dodgy (unlikely, I know), and you don't live in a rogue state, then you can always go out and do a bit of roguing, which means weeding out your weak plants.

Sunday 15 April 2012

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: mirth.

There's something sinister about the word mirth.

Mirth is the grin of a white-faced clown which hides who-knows-what desire for disaster and mayhem.

Mirth is the echo of cruel laughter...

...actually, at this point I'm forced to wonder if my problems with the word mirth are entirely my own; but how about Edith Wharton's book The House of Mirth, which will, I fear, disappoint those looking for a comedy; and how about The Mirth Corporation, whose mission statement, Powering Healthcare Interoperability, suggests that the waters may be even darker than I'd thought.

Hey, and do you know about the USS Mirth? She was a mine-sweeper.

Her eventual fate is unknown...


Word Not To Use Today: mirth. This word comes from the Old English word myrgth, which doesn't sound much fun, either.

Saturday 14 April 2012

Saturday Rave: Puddocky.

Poor stupid Puddocky. After she nags her mother into stealing some parsley from a witch's garden (what utter fools the pair of them were!) the witch insists that Puddocky comes to live with her (why? The girl's a plainly a self-centred idiot); as if that's not bad enough, after Puddocky's beauty has set off some highly anti-social behaviour in three passing princes, the witch turns Puddocky into a puddock, which is a toad.

A bit of a set-back, that, especially in the fairy-tale heroine game, where even a case of mild dandruff is enough to threaten one's right to a Happy Ending.

But, hey, in the end...

But no, it would be mean to tell you what happens. It is a fairy-tale ending, though.

The Brothers Grimm first wrote this story down. There was another, much prettier, version by Madame d'Aulnoy which had Puddocky turned into a cat, but I like the toad version better. Cats are self-centred enough as it is, and I don't think Puddocky would have learned her lesson.

Word To Use Today: puddock. Nowadays this word is usually a Scottish form of paddock, but it does mean toad, too.

The rarer of the two British toads, the Natterjack, is Bufo calamita.

I would imagine Puddocky thought that very appropriate.

Friday 13 April 2012

Word To Use Today: emunctory.

I've only just discovered this word, and I fell in love at first sight.

Okay it's not tall, dark or handsome - or even rich - but, I don't know, the heart has its reasons...I think that in this case they might be that emunctory sounds both loveably daft and staggeringly clever at the same time.


As if the mere sound of it isn't enough, emunctory is a word I've been needing all my life without knowing it.

It means to do with nose-blowing.

How have I survived without a word meaning to do with nose-blowing? (I wonder, reaching in my pocket for an emunctory tissue).


...oh, there's nearly always a but, isn't there. 

You know how it is with love at first sight. Sooner or later you see the guy eating cereal, and everything just goes pfft!

It was only a few minutes into my relationship with emunctory that I discovered that it isn't just to do with nose-blowing. It's to do with any bodily organ or duct that has...oh excretory function.

Well, that's to do with crying, then. Well, that's romantic.

And sweating. Hmmmm... 

And poo, and wee, and earwax...

Ah well.

Another romance bites the dust...

Word To Use Today: emunctory. This word comes from the Latin word ēmunctōrium, from ēmungere, to wipe clean.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Empty heads - a rant.

"We no longer live in a world where a substantial 'fact bank' in our heads is required"

said teacher Joe Overton* last week, speaking to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.

Mr Overton's idea seems to be that people don't need to remember lists of facts any more because they can always look them up on their smart phones.

Oh yes, I can't wait to be in a plane where the pilot's reading the manual as he's coming in to land. Especially as the phone signal is quite likely to wipe out his connection with Air Traffic Control.

And what fun to see a referee scrolling through the rules on his smart phone as the most blatant foul in the history of the game takes place right in front of his screen.

Still, I'm sure a surgeon can operate one-handed while he consults his electric memory (to sterilise a phone just drop it into boiling water). We just have to hope that no trolls have been tramping through the HOW TO SAVE A LIFE website lately, that's all.

I don't know, though...I must admit I haven't actually got a smart phone, myself, so perhaps they're truly wonderful. I know some of you read The Word Den on your phones (and you're really  extremely welcome), so perhaps you can help me, my memory not being a hundred per cent reliable, with these facts.

1. Where did I leave my glasses?

2. What's the name of that flower I saw the other day?

3. And how on earth can I understand how things fit together if I only know the stuff that's showing on my phone?

Word To Use Today: fact. This word comes from the Latin word factus, which means something done, from facere, to make.

* I've seen Mr Overton's name given as Jon, too, but of course he won't mind my having got it wrong. It's just a fact, after all, so why should any of us bother?

Wednesday 11 April 2012

Nuts and Bolts: intensifiers

Intensifiers are words like extremely, or hugely, that make a statement stronger.

They're very over-used, but still interesting.

Aren't they?

Actually, intensifiers are interesting. For one thing, the most commonly used intensifier, very, often makes a statement weaker instead of stronger. For an example you only have to look at the second sentence of this post.

For another thing, if someone uses lots of intensifiers - fabulously, genuinely, wonderfully - then he or she is more likely to be lying than if they're left out.*

Some of the commonest intensifiers are swearwords, of course: there's ******* and ******, and not to forget *******, as well.

There are other ways of using an intensive. Adding ard to the end of an English word will do it, as in drunkard or dullard.

The Romans could either put per on the front of a word or, rather charmingly, they could put e on the front of a word, which made the word mean with an effort. Ructa means burp, and eructa means...well, a burp with an effort behind it.

Terrific fun!

Word To Use Today: an intensifier. The word intensifier comes from the Latin word intensus, which means stretched.

*Or so some scientists claim to have proved.

Tuesday 10 April 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: panic.

It's in the woods that panic strikes hardest.

Or so they say.

It's when you're trapped in the labyrinth of the trees that you panic; when the branches are catching your sleeve, and the leaves are full of sinister whispers.


Mind you, seeing some boiling milk climbing up the sides of a saucepan can have very nearly the same effect.

Most things with panic in their name - panic attack, panic-button - are to do with being very afraid, but panic grass is a name for the grasses of the family Panicum, which includes millet. Panic grass is used to feed animals, and is therefore, thank heavens, a Calming Influence.

I'm afraid panic of a particular sort has been all around us here in England just lately: panic-buying. An announcement that there wasn't going to be a strike by fuel-tanker drivers was enough to clean out every petrol station in town.

Yes, I really do wish that made sense, but then I suppose the essence of panic is that it doesn't make sense. Ah well.

Just DON'T panic!

That's Clive Dunn, Ian Lavender, Arthur Lowe and John Le Mesurier in the WW2 Situation Comedy Dad's Army, written by Jimmy Perry and David Croft

Thing Not To Do Today: panic. The word meaning fear comes from the Greek god Pan, who had a habit of scaring everyone witless.
The grass comes from the Latin pānicum, which is probably from pānicula, which means tuft. Panic meaning grass is the older word in English by about two hundred years.

Monday 9 April 2012

Spot the frippet: flannel.

There we are. That's a flannel flower. You're not likely to come across one unless you're near Sydney, but I thought it would be a good way to start the week.

Otherwise, for most of us, flannel is a fabric, originally made in Wales.

Welsh flannel was wonderful stuff. The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in North Wales, constructed by Thomas Telford in 1805, was, almost unbelievably, caulked with a mixture of flannel and boiling sugar.

At about the same time in England flannel waistcoats (what in America are called vests) were worn on campaign by military men, though a fondness for flannel waistcoats (rather than the flashier silk) was almost enough, in Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, to stop Colonel Brandon getting the girl.

Mind you, she was a rather a silly girl. 

In the 1900s wearing a flannel vest became a status symbol among rural people in the USA, Canada and the USSR. In England cricketers were already wearing flannel trousers, also known as flannel bags:

The bearded man in the photo is the great WG Grace.

Nowadays, flannel, like this: 

Blue Plaid Fabric Texture - Free High Resolution Photo

is mostly used for sleeping in, or for shirts.

If you are in Britain, though, a flannel will be a square of thin towelling, still used by the occasional odd bod for washing the face.

Also in Britain, to flannel is to speak at length in order to distract or deceive or flatter.

Salemen tend to be experts.

Spot the Frippet: flannel. This word appeared in the 1300s. It's probably a variant of flanen, which means sackcloth, from the Welsh gwlanen, woollen fabric, from gwlān, wool.

Sunday 8 April 2012

Sunday Rest. Word not to use today: hegemon.


Let's face it, not only does this word sound like a Scotsman being exasperated, but hardly anyone has a clue what it means.

(A hegemon is a person, or group of people, with the power to get their own dull, political way).

Using the word hegemon, especially on a Sunday, will get you shunned, so don't use it unless you want to lose all but your deafest friends.

Don't say I didn't warn you.

Word Not To Use Today: hegemon. This word comes from the Greek word hēgenonia, which means authority, and before that from hēgeisthai, to lead.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Saturday Rave: Flour Babies by Anne Fine.

Flour Babies is one of the books I admire most in all the world.
It's very funny, it's full of vividly drawn people, and it's about a boy working out something hugely important.
"'You can carry on eating your voting paper, George Spalder, but I'm not giving you another...'
Shifting his vast bottom round, he tapped the blackboard on which, earlier, he'd chalked up the options"
Blackboard? Chalk?
Isn't that a bit out-of-date?
Oh no. Not a bit of it. Because you see, when something's really true (which it can be, even if it's made up) it will last forever.

And that's how long Flour Babies will have important things to tell us.
Word To Use Today: vast. This word comes from the Latin word vastus, which means deserted.

Friday 6 April 2012

Word To Use Today: scute.

Well, this is a word that needs using more widely.

You'll often have come across scutes, though perhaps more often in pictures than in real life.

Here are some pictures:

Northern Diamondback Terrapin

Do you know what they are, yet?

Here are some more:

and even here:

Yes, scutes are plates, a bit like scales, though scutes tend to be tougher and they don't usually overlap (though they do on the back of the beautiful pangolin). 

Pangolin- Wildlife - Nature - Animal. (ps1)

Scutes aren't joined together, as scales are, so when they're shed they tend to come off one at a time instead of in a sheet like a snake skin.

You find them on insects, too - the scute is a bit where the second pair of legs joins on. You'll see that sort of scute all the time, of course, though previously perhaps without knowing it. 

As if that's not enough, scute is also a nickname for the English coin the crown (which was worth quite a lot), and then later on for any sort of coin that wasn't worth very much at all.

A scute can be a coat of arms, too, or even a coat of feet - well, a patch on the sole of a shoe, anyway. It's sometimes used for metal heel or toe taps, too.

Word To Use Today: scute. This word has been used for coins since the 1300s, but the scale-like meaning wasn't invented until the 1900s. The word comes from the Latin scūtum, which means shield.

Thursday 5 April 2012

Nothing worse: a rant.

Catalogues are tempting things. Well, they have to be tempting, of course, or they'd be pointless.

Oh, but the things you can sometimes find in them. Plastic tree-faces. Rubber balls that make a dog look as if it's grinning.

Garden gnomes...

Catalogues are full of words, of course, too.

Last week I received a catalogue. It was hoping to sell me a bag in which to keep my toothpaste tube while travelling.

There's nothing worse than finding toothpaste everywhere, it said.

Nothing worse?


Good grief, that writer must have led a sheltered life.

So must have these:

There's nothing worse than:

               choosing a cellphone plan;

               washing sieves;

               going to the Post Office (I couldn't be bothered to read on to find out what happened at the Post Office, but, hey come on!);

              a chalky aftertaste.

Oh yes there are worse things. Stubbing your toe, for instance.

Or discovering half a maggot in your apple.

Or cheapening really important words like nothing and worse.


Word To Use Carefully Today: worse.  This word has been around, not much changed, for probably even longer than there's been an English language for it to grace. The Gothic form was wairsiza.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

nuts and bolts: pictograms

Without an alphabet The Word Den could not exist, so I'm not knocking alphabets.

I just want to raise a cheer for pictograms.

A pictogram is a drawing of something. At its most basic, a drawing of a duck-billed platypus used as a pictogram will mean...well, a duck-billed platypus.

It might mean that duck-billed platypuses are welcomed, banned, seen, fed or eaten. If you wanted to make clear which of these was the case you'd probably have to use an ideogram, too.

That sounds complicated, but pictogram/ideogram mixtures are used all the time. Like this:


The pictogram is the picture of the roundabout (the sort traffic goes round) and the red triangle is a ideogram which means WATCH OUT!

One great advantage of pictograms is that they can be used to communicate with people who don't know your language. A picture of a pig will get the message across whether you call it a pig or a schwein or a cochon.

The very first writing started off as pictograms. They are slower to use than letters, but they can be very beautiful:

That's the oldest music notation known in the world. It's a hymn to the moon god's wife. Stunning, isn't it.

Now I come to think about it, western written-down music has a pictogram element: the notes show their pitch, and to some extent their length, according to their position on the page.

Just sometimes pictograms can say things which are hard to put into words.

Like this, perhaps:

Lan Party Pictogram clip art

Crowd Clip Art


Thing To Use Today: pictogram. This word was made up in the early 1900s. It comes from the Latin word pictus, from pingere to paint, and the gram bit comes from the Greek word grammē, which means line.

PS I suppose the heart picture, above, is more of an ideogram than a pictogram. But you know what I mean.

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Thing To Do Today: have a lark.

Up on the Dunstable downs the air is full of larks. They're hard to see - just dots high up, hardly moving against the sky - but they make their presence felt all the same. Like this:

Lark pie was a delicacy in former times, but when I say have a lark the last thing I want anyone to do is go out and catch themselves a pieful of larks.

Instead, I think today would be a good day for having a different sort of lark.

So: sing in the street. Have a picnic consisting only of pink foods. Recite a limerick*. Wear shoes of different colours. Shout oh no it's not! at those in authority. Reintroduce a fashion for bowing and curtseying.

Have a lark.

Thing To Do Today: have a lark. The word meaning bird (sometimes various sorts of small brown songbird, and sometimes, oddly, a sort of fancy pigeon) comes from the Old English lāwerce and is related to the German Lerche and the Icelandic lǣvirki.

Lark meaning to be playful started off as slang in the 1900s, and may be related to the word laik, which means to play or be on holiday.

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

Many thanks, as so often, to Edward Lear for that one.

PS A Dunstable lark, meaning a great big lark, is mentioned by Swift in Gulliver's Travels. No one is sure what a Dunstable lark is, but the Dunstable Downs are a good place for migrating Ring Ouzels:

File:Ring Ouzel Grönvold.jpg

and my guess is it's one of those.

Picture by Henrik Grövald.


Monday 2 April 2012

Spot the frippet: fungible.

What could be more satisfying than a fungible?

No, seriously, don't you want to see one? To touch one? To have, in short, and to hold one, from this day forth etc etc?

It's clear from the sound of it that a fungible is something important, something mysterious. There's something about the word that conjures up images of things growing secretly in silent cellars until...

...well, it's hard to know until what, until we know what fungible means - and, of course, almost no one does know what it means.

Until now.

I mean, did you know you're a fungiblevore? Well, you probably didn't because I think I may have just made up the word, but the principle is good. Yes, you eat fungibles

It sounds suspiciously like a spongy fungus, but that's not it. A fungible is something perishable (usually some sort of food)  that you buy by weight or volume.

Wine counts as a fungible, and so, I should think, do peas, few if any shops selling peas by the dozen. Rice and pearl barley must count as fungibles, too.

So there we are. Instead of thinking I must buy some more flour and olive oil, we can say to ourselves we're getting a bit low on fungibles.

One small step towards a happy and rich life, I reckon.

Well, every little helps.

Spot the frippet: fungible. This word comes from the Latin word fungibilis, which is, oddly, from fungī, to perform.

Sunday 1 April 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not to Use Today: moron.

We're all fools, of course, especially today, which is April Fools' Day. But that doesn't mean that we're morons, does it.
Is there a heavier, more honking word in the language than moron?
One more full of bad-feeling and contempt?
Well, I can't think of one, at the moment.

Amusingly, there used to be a place called Moron in California, but its name has now been changed to Taft (a taft, as if happens, is a flattened end to a bit of lead piping). 

A moron is also an extra gene that's sometimes found in a bacteria-infecting virus.
Oh, and as a final word of persuasion on this subject, may I just remind you of an old saying?

It takes one to know one.

Word Not To Use Today: moron. This word comes from the Greek word mōros, which means foolish.