This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 31 May 2012

Grexit - a rant.

On the whole I welcome new words into the English language, but this one sounds like the death-rattle of a piece of seized-up machinery...

Perhaps it's a better word than I thought.

Grexit is a squeezing together of the words Greek and exit - exit from having the Euro as its currency, that is.

Apart from the resemblance of the word to the cry of a constipated corncrake, grexit takes the eek out of Greek exit: and I really don't think that this is what the people who use it are trying to do.

Word Not To Use Today: grexit. Look, it doesn't take much longer to say Greek exit, does it. It's not as if grexit has any wit or flair.

Unlike Eurogeddon, which has both.

Grexit was coined on 6th February 2012 by Willem H Butler and Ebrahim Rahban. I don't know if it was a slip of the tongue, or whether they were just having a rather dull day.

STOP PRESS: things have got even worse. Today, 31/05/2012, I regret to announce first sightings of Spexit (Spanish exit) and Spanic (Spanish panic).

I don't know, I think I might eventually get to like Spanic, though.

Wednesday 30 May 2012

Nuts and Bolts: rivers of derivation.

So, what do bacteria and baguettes have in common?

Hm, it does sound alarming, doesn't it.

Here's a clue: they share this same thing with bails (as in the game of cricket), a debacle, a tropical American palm, and the many- many-times great-granny of the octopus.

What is it? Well, it's the Greek word, baktron, which means rod or staff.

It's easy to see what a baguette has to do with a staff because it is, well, staff-shaped. Some bacteria are, too, though they're so small you can't actually see them. Appropriately enough, the word bacteria comes from the diminuative of baktron, baktērion, which means little staff.

Cricket bails:

well, you can see where people are coming from with that one.

Nothing would seem less staff-like than an octopus, but the fossil of the shell of the bactrites:

makes all quite clear.

Palm trees are of course all staff-like. This is the bactris.

Peach palm (<i>Bactris gasipaes</i>)
Photo by Chris 73.

But where's the staff in debacle? Well, a debacle is when things fall apart, and it comes from a French word, desbacler, meaning to unbolt. And there, with the bolt, is the staff-shape.

Isn't it amazing where the current of a word-river can take you?

Word To Use Today: derivation. This word comes from the Old French deriver, to spring from, from the Latin dērīvāre, to draw off, from rīvus, a stream.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Thing To Do Today: pulse.

Hey, how easy is this? I mean, if you're reading this your heart must be pulsing already, mustn't it?

One of the nice things about your pulse (apart from the keeping-you-alive-thing, natch) is that it's allowed to get lazier as you get older. When you were newborn your pulse had to vibrate away at as much as 150 frantic beats a minute, but by the time you're grown up it only has to do a laid-back 60 or so.

It's not just our hearts that pulse, of course. We're affected by pulses of various kinds all the time. Even something as big as a city is said to have a pulse, which most mysteriously sweeps up pretty much everyone in the whole place and has them living to its beat.

Then there's the pulse of the tides, and the pulse of the seasons...I understand that even some of the stars give out bursts of...well, something or other jolly powerful...* and that's why we call them pulsars.

Music has a pulse, too, of course, which is the general speed at which it bumps along, and this is used all the time to manipulate our own pulses and the feelings which come with them. Bach was brilliant at this, and so is a marching band, and so were the Sex Pistols. Practically every advertisement we've ever heard, too, is trying to change our pulse rate: quick quick buy buy you can be beautiful and happy but you must act at once!

Yes, dangerous things, are pulses.

Though not as dangerous as if they stop.

Thing To Do Today: pulse. This word comes from the Latin word pulsus, a beating, from pellere, to beat. Pulsar is a shortened form of pulsating star.

*Polarized radiation, apparently.

Monday 28 May 2012

Spot the frippet: polka.

Polka dots are, obviously, traditionally associated with that popular dance style...


Yep. They are. Sorry about that. The name polka dots seems to have been made up in the USA in the mid 1800s because the polka was a fashionable dance and it seemed a good way to off-load a lot of spotty fabric.

This extreme version of the polka dot:

Fabian Wegmann Bergtrikot.jpg

is the maillot de pois rouge, which is worn by the leader of the mountain section of the Tour de France. Hideous, isn't it.

There are a couple of popular songs featuring polka dots by, firstly, Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss, and, secondly by Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke, but it's much too early in the day to listen to them.

Slightly more restful, if not much more tasteful, is the Madagascan Hypoestes phyllostchya, the polka dot plant.

If all else fails, you could always learn to polka yourself:

and if you get really very expert you might even end up being able, most strangely, to polka in triple time, as in this polka mazurka:

Happy spotting!

Spot the frippet: polka. This word came to us from French. The French got it from the Czech pulka, which means half-step, from pul, which means half.

Sunday 27 May 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: dolly.

I've hated this word ever since old ladies used to come up to me and say what a nice dolly. It was never anything of the sort. It was a queen-enchantress or a fairy princess which just happened to and made of plastic.

Dollys are put-upon, whether they're the trolleys that hold film cameras, the trolley-dollies that serve drinks on aeroplanes, or whether they're being hit with hammers to form rivets or sheet metal or to drive piles.

When they're not put-upon they're silly. A dolly is an easy catch at cricket, a dolly bird is a girl of more prettiness than wit, and if you can have a silly sweet then it's dolly mixture (which also looks much too much like dried vomit). A big silly hat is a Dolly Varden.

Actually, a Dolly Varden can be a red-spotted trout, too. And it's the trout I feel sorry for.

Lastly, and quite bafflingly, in Northern England dolly-posh means...can you guess?*

Word Not To Use Today: dolly. This word is a pet form of a pet form (Doll) of the name Dorothy. It came into use in the 1500s and unfortunately never died out.

Dolly Varden is a character in Dicken's novel Barnaby Rudge. I haven't read it, but presumably she's a hat-wearing red-spotted trout. 

*Left-handed. Which I must admit isn't silly at all.

Saturday 26 May 2012

Saturday Rave: The Dirty Shepherdess.

The great thing about this French story is its name:

The DIRTY Shepherdess

The thing was that I was a naturally grubby child, and I'd always been realistic enough to know that even if I became the heroine of a fairy tale I unlikely to bag a handsome prince because my floating chiffon skirts were more likely than not to be off-puttingly splodged with gravy.

But if there was a fairy story about someone dirty. Hm. Perhaps I could hack the whole heroine thing after all.

Now, this:

is Paul Sébillot, who first wrote down the story of The Dirty Shepherdess. I agree he's not that decorative, but I've put him in so we can admire the beautifully waxed tips to his moustache.

As for the story itself, it begins with yet another king demanding to know how much his children love him, has a Cinderella moment in the middle (only with a ring, not a slipper) and ends, of course, Happily Ever After.

The disappointing thing about the story is that the shepherdess heroine is only beautiful when she's clean and wearing her princess clothes.

Ah well. At least the idiot king gets to look very foolish indeed.

Word To Use Today: heroine. This word comes from the Latin word hērōina, which the Romans pinched from the Greek hērōine.
It didn't arrive in England until the 1600s.

Friday 25 May 2012

Word To Use Today: ramp. By Katherine Langrish

Today we are honoured to have a guest post, hurray!

Katherine Langrish was obliged to start writing really seriously when she discovered as a ten-year-old that CS Lewis hadn't written nearly enough Narnia books. Her books of historical fantasy include the marvellously atmospheric Troll Fell trilogy and Dark Angels. She blogs at Seven Miles of Steel Thistles.


Ramp.  Not a very promising word, you might think.  One of those concrete slopes for wheelchair access, useful but boring. 

File:Non-wheelchair Ramp IMG 0908.JPG

Or so I thought, if I ever gave it any consideration; till a couple of days ago, when my daughter asked what some lines from a poem by Coleridge (called ‘France: An Ode’) might mean.  And I have to say they seemed, on the face of it, quite difficult.  The poem is all about the French Revolution, and how upset Coleridge felt when it all turned into a bit of a bloodbath.  He describes France as being like a woman, wearing a wreath of victory to hide her scarred and wounded face (‘front’ in this poem means ‘face’), and advancing with her arm raised to deal with her enemies.  So – when we read:

When France her front deep-scarred and gory
Concealed with clustering wreaths of glory;
When, insupportably advancing,
Her arm makes mockery of the warrior’s ramp

- are we supposed to imagine the warriors rushing towards her (France) up some kind of ramp? 

I thought not.  A vague memory stirred of ‘lions rampant’ which we see on the Royal arms: a term from the colourful and archaic language of heraldry.  It describes a lion standing on one back leg and waving its front paws in the air in a manner which you may regard as threatening, or cheerful, or helpful, if it’s actually trying to hold up that shield?

File:Lion rampant element.svg

So I looked it up.  And yes, ‘to ramp’ is a verb which deserves to come back into fashion and not merely be used for lions. 

To ramp:

1          To act threateningly or violently: rage.
2          To assume a threatening position.
3          (Heraldry) To stand in the rampant position.

So the warriors in the poem haven’t got anything to do with ramps that slope up (or down); they’re acting threateningly, as warriors tend to.  Which makes much more sense.

In fact I quite fancy the idea of ramping.  It gives a whole new slant on losing your temper.  You’d have to raise your fists like paws and rush about the house, growling or roaring. And it might be colourful, the next time your mother yells at you for not picking up the socks from your bedroom floor, to describe her as ‘ramping about the house.’

Ramp’ has another meaning, too.  It’s the name of the bitter herb rampion, which is what got Rapunzel shut up in that tower…

but that’s a whole other story.

Word To Use Today: ramp. This word comes from the Middle English rampen, from Old French ramper, to rear, rise up, of Germanic origin. 

Thursday 24 May 2012

Under the weather: a rant.

It's quite bad enough being subjected to weeks and weeks of grey skies, cold winds, deluges, and hail, without the idiot weather forecasters describing the possibility of the rain breaking off briefly to give us a day and a half's weak sunshine as more settled weather. 



Oh, if only it was!

It's the rain that flipping settled.

And right over my blooming head.*

Word To Use Today: settle. This word has meant, well, settle more or less forever, so the weather forecasters should really have worked it out by now. It comes from the Old English setl, and it's related to the Old Saxon and Old High German sezzal.

*This was true until two days ago. Now, just to be awkward, silly sun's gone and come out and it's shining away like anything.

Wednesday 23 May 2012

Nuts and Bolts: happy talk.

English is a glorious language, but I can't deny it has a dull attitude to plurals.

Basically, English uses them for all numbers except one.

Oh yes, it does: twenty seven baboon-infested hotels; minus eleven nostrils; 0.5 screwdrivers...


In the South Pacific, however, and in particular on Vanuatu, and even more particularly in the two villages where the language usually called Mele-Fila* is spoken, things are much more interesting. Mele-Fila has a really neat device called a greater plural, which people can use when they're faced with a surprisingly large number of something.

This, obviously, isn't a particular number. It might be used of twenty bees if they're on your kitchen table, a hundred if they're in your garden, and a thousand if they're swarming all over the path that leads to the nearest public convenience.

You know, I think I may be suffering from grammar-envy, here. I mean, what can we English speakers do if we see a thousand swarming bees?

Basically, we're reduced to going pale, pointing a nerveless finger, and saying guk.

Word To Use Today: Vanuatu. The Republic of Vanuatu, also known as the Ripablik blong Vanuatu came into being in 1978-80. Vanua means land or home in several Austronesian languages, and tu means stand.

*Mele-Fila isn't strictly speaking one language, but two similar ones. Of course this makes the chances for survival of these beautiful languages even more hair-raisingly fragile.

The total number of speakers is about 4,000.

Tuesday 22 May 2012

Thing To Do Today: be Hovisian.

I think this rather lovely word may be a brand-new.

Hovisian, as in Hovisian childhood.

I saw it in The Daily Telegraph on May 12, in Neil Tweedie's interview with Andy Kershaw, and at once I realised that this is a word the English language has been needing for a millennium without knowing it.

And what does it mean? Well, with a brand new word it's not possible to be quite sure, but I think I have a general idea.

In Britain, Hovis is a well-known brand of brown bread, but Hovisian (surely pronounced ho-VEE-sh'n) is nothing to do with bread. It's more to do with Ridley Scott.

And Dvořák.

And Dorset.

No, really.

The thing is, in 1973 the advertising agency Collett Dickenson Pearce put together an advertisement for Hovis bread. It was filmed in Shaftesbury in Dorset, but it had a Lancastrian voice-over and a sound-track of the New World Symphony tenderly arranged for brass band.

It was directed by Ridley Scott.

Here it is.

Such is the power of advertising (or this advertisement, anyway) that Hovis is forever associated with a down-to-earth (and probably northern) nostalgia for juvenile hardship.

And who hasn't fallen prey to that.

So, all together now: when I was a girl I didn't have a coat, not even though the snow came right up over my wellies - and my dad knitted them out of old bicycle tyres stuck together with spit.

Wellies? Why, we ran barefoot all year, we did, frost or not, with nothing but dripping to rub on our chilblains.

Chilblains? Chilblains?? We could never afford luxuries like chilblains. The best we ever had was half a verucca between us and a touch of athlete's foot.

Have fun!

Thing To Do Today: be Hovisian. This word comes, I think, from a 1973 advert for the brand of bread, though as far as I can tell it doesn't seem to have appeared in print until 2012.

Monday 21 May 2012

Spot the frippet: chuff.

Spot a chuff?

Oh, yes, they're all over the place. Really.

If you're in Britain you might even be lucky enough to see someone who's well chuffed, which means very pleased indeed. A chuff can also mean a fat cheek - and it's probably fat because it's smiling.

I must admit that smiles aren't easy to spot on a Monday morning, though.

In fact it will almost certainly be easier to find another sort of chuff, which means a boor or a sullen fellow.

Hm...that might be the easiest Spot the Frippet ever.

Of course if you're VERY lucky, you might be able to hear a steam engine's chuff-chuff as it steams past.

Like this:

Shhhht-i-cff, shhhht-i-cff...

Surely no one can watch Ivor the Engine without feeling very chuffed indeed.

Word To Use Today: chuff. The word meaning the sound of a steam engine is an imitation of the sound. All the other meanings come from the obsolete word chuff, which means fat cheek.

Sunday 20 May 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: carbuncle.


Isn't it nasty? It's ludicrous, as well: and awkward and spiteful.

In fact carbuncle is such a horrible word that even when it means an uncut jewel it still sounds ugly. (A carbuncle is usually a garnet, but not always: the one Sherlock Holmes investigated was blue. And stuck in the neck of a goose.)

In Britain an ugly building will often be described as a carbuncle. The Prince of Wales is to blame for this: he described the proposed extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London, as 'a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend'.

Mind you, the thing was never built, so blame is possibly the wrong word.

The sort of carbuncle Prince Charles had in mind in this instance was not, I should imagine, any sort of a jewel, but an enormous bulging area of infected skin.


Carbuncle is also a reddish-greyish-brownish colour, which I'm having trouble imagining.

Quite honestly, I have not the faintest intention of even trying.

Word Not To Use Today: carbuncle. This word comes from the Latin word carbunculus, which comes from carbō and means little bit of coal.

Saturday 19 May 2012

Saturday Rave: The Story of the Amulet by E Nesbit.

The Story of the Amulet was my very favourite story when I was about nine or ten.

I've just gone back to look at it again after many years and I've discovered it's about three times as good as I'd remembered it. It's funny and sharp and full of real people being stoutly themselves despite being surrounded by magic and time-travel.

You learn a lot when you read The Story of the Amulet, too. I mean, I still occasionally delight my friends with merry snippets on the subject of Tyrian purple.

The amulet in the story looked like this:

but the thing was that it shouldn't have done, because half of it was missing. As it was, it was a time-machine. If it was ever complete, it would give you your heart's desire.

How did the children know all this? Well, they had some help from an old friend.

They stood there on the pavement, a cause of some inconvenience to the passersby, and thus beguiled the time with conversation. Cyril was leaning his elbow on the top of a hutch that had seemed empty when they had inspected the whole edifice of hutches one by one, and he was trying to reawaken the interest of a hedgehog that had curled itself into a ball earlier in the interview, when a small, soft voice just below his elbow said, quietly, plainly and quite unmistakably--not in any squeak or whine that had to be translated--but in downright common English--
'Buy me--do--please buy me!'

The friend was a psammead (E Nesbit helpfully informs us that it's pronounced Sammy-ad, but I seem to remember pronouncing it PUSS-a-meed anyway). The psammead is a grouch, but it leads the children (and us, as well) into a world of wonders.

This is an utterly birlliant book. Read it--do--please read it!

Word To Use Today: amulet. This word, meaning a piece of jewellery or a trinket worn as a protection against evil, or as a charm, comes from the Latin word amulētum.

Friday 18 May 2012

Fairytale childhood

Just in case anyone's interested, there's an account of the part fairytales played in my childhood HERE.

Word To Use Today: plonk.

Here's a treat. Who could be impervious to the charms of the word plonk?


Plonk is the sound of something falling a small harmless distance onto a hard surface, and the act of putting something down hard enough for it to

People can plonk away on a piano or a guitar, too. Well, it gets the rest of us out of the house, doesn't it. 

A plonk can be a female police officer, and perhaps in this case it's connected with the word plod, which in Britain is a none-too-flattering term for policeman. In the same sort of way, plonking means plodding or foolish or inept, and a plonker is a stupid person - though this word is tinged with affection as well as exasperation.

If you're in Britain or Australia or New Zealand plonk is cheap wine. There's a tinge of affection to plonk in this sense, too. Just bring a bottle of plonk, people say when giving invitations. In Australia a plonko is an alcoholic.

Lastly, to plonk can be a jargon term for blocking someone from your computer. It's said to be an acronym for something like Please Leave Our Newsgroup: Killfile! but it's probably an imitation of the satisfying sound of the pressing of the computer key when you banish someone.

Word To Use Today: plonk. The word meaning to put down is an imitation of the sound. Plonk meaning wine is said to come from a mishearing of the French blanc, as in vin blanc (white wine) during the First World War.

Plonk itself, though, can be white, red, or rosé.


Thursday 17 May 2012

To the bitter end: a rant.

Once upon a time, in a far-away country, a king sent his brother king a message:

Send me a blue pig with green spots, it said. Or else

Now, the brother king (let's call him Herbert) was seized by a great fury at this terrible insult, and he called up his army to avenge it.

Biff! Boing! Clang! Take that, varlet! Ow! Zap! Pow! Ouch!

Several years later the two kings met amidst the ruins of their battle-torn countries.

'I can't see why you had to start all this war business, anyway,' said King Ethelred (if that was indeed his name), mournfully.

'Because you insulted me!' cried King Herbert, fumbling furiously in his furbelows. 'You sent me this terrible message, look!'

King Ethelred sighed deeply, took the note, turned it over, and pointed to the writing on the other side. It said:

a pig of some other colour, because your country has just the finest pigs to be found anywhere. Just drop me an invoice, okay? Love, Ethel.


You always have to assume that people may not read to the end. This is from a simply wonderful book called THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MAMMALS, edited by Dr David Macdonald.

When caught young, honey badgers make interesting pets

 - no, no, please! Don't go and buy one yet! First read the rest of the paragraph:

but it may become dangerous when an adult, given to sudden bursts of fury, attacking friend or foe indiscriminately.


You know, I'm really not sure that interesting was quite the right word...

Word To Use Today: fury. This word comes from the Latin word furia, rage, from furere, to be furious.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Nuts and Bolts: the Queen's speech.

Queen Elizabeth II opened a new session of the British Parliament the other day.

It's really not much of a gig, the State Opening of Parliament. The poor Queen has to balance a huge crown on her head, tow around a long cloak with several small boys attached to it:

 and read out a speech written for her by the government.

And her Majesty doesn't so much as wince. What a trouper.

As if this wasn't enough, the Queen is also landed with the responsibility for keeping the English language in good shape. The Queen's English, people say, meaning English as it should be spoken or written.

As far as I know the Queen's English is indeed entirely correct, but this doesn't mean that copying Her Majesty doesn't sometimes lead people into difficulties.

One tries to avoid the raindrops, the Queen might say: and what she'd mean if she did say it (because I'm sure she knows all about the English language's odd nooks and crannies) is that people try to dodge showers.

What the Queen wouldn't mean is that she, herself, in particular, tries to avoid the raindrops: because one used in this way doesn't mean I at all, but people generally.

This use of one is very formal, of course, and getting it wrong makes one look an utter fool, so I think that for myself I'm going to avoid it altogether.

very few people will look down on me for this, but they'll probably be the sort of people who think that one awarded the prizes yesterday at the regatta is admirable English.

And those people are of absolutely no consequence at all.

Word To Use Today: one. This word comes from the Old English ān, and is related to the Latin unus and the Greek oinē, which means ace.

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Thing To Do Today: be swasivious.

Well, why not be swasivious? The world will be a better place for it, after all.

Yes, I know the idiot who sit next to you in the office/train/ bus/classroom would be all the better, both in character and beauty, for having his face rearranged with a firm fist: but, hey, think how your innocent fist will suffer.

So, be swasivious, okay? 


Swasivious? Oh, it means agreeably persuasive.

Yes, it's a great trick if you can do it. And you can.

Pretend you're talking to George Clooney (no, no, please don't dribble, you'll short-out your keyboard. You're just trying to come over as really warm and admiring, okay? Then people will do anything for you.).

Offering people cake might help, too.

And so will not trying to cheat them*.

Thing To Do Today: be swasivious. This word comes from the Italian suasivo, from the Latin suāsivus, from suādēre to be persuasive.

*Yes, yes, sorry: But then there's always a flipping downside, isn't there.

Monday 14 May 2012

Spot the frippet: pow.

I tend to associate the word pow with Batman:

POW cartoon sound effect

But just in case you don't get a chance to see the caped crusader today then there are some other sorts of pow to spot.

A POW is a prisoner of war, of course. Here's to the day when 
spotting them will be absolutely impossible.

The easiest pow to spot is someone's head, especially a head of hair. This is of course VERY easy, but we could perhaps look out for the most extraordinary head of hair of the day.

Crazy and Weird Hairstyles Seen On

Something like this, perhaps.

pow can also be a creek or a stream. And if it keeps on raining like this that won't be difficult in my corner of England, either.

Word To Use Today: pow. Is anyone ever too old to play at superheroes? I don't think so.

The word pow meaning the noise of a punch is an imitation of the sound. The word meaning head is Scots and comes from poll, from the Middle Low German polle, which means head of hair or the top of a tree.

The word meaning stream is Scots, too, and also comes from poll.

Sunday 13 May 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: ruddy.

A ruddy complexion is said to be healthy, but would you like to be described as ruddy?

It surely describes someone more weather-beaten than blushing: the ruddy bride...doesn't really work, does it.

Ruddy used to be used as a fairly polite swear word in Britain, but it's such a blustering, aggressive little word that using it is like bouncing a very hard rubber ball at someone's face. It may be a good thing that people nowadays tend to have abandoned it.

I must say I do have a soft spot for the Ruddy Duck, though.

Ruddy Duck Photo

This is a perky little South American species. They used to be quite common in England until the conservationists started shooting them. The males have the endearing habit of blowing bubbles to make themselves appear sexy.

Well, who wouldn't be bowled over by a chat-up technique like that?

Word Not To Use Today: ruddy. This word comes from the Old Englisg rudig, from rudu, which means redness.

Saturday 12 May 2012

Saturday Rave: Dick Whittington.

I was reminded of Dick Whittington because London has just elected a new mayor.

Well, actually they've just re-elected an old one, but Boris Johnson, though I'm sure he would perform magnificently in a pantomime (if that's not what he's been doing anyway for the last four years) differs from Dick Whittington in that Boris is Mayor of London and Dick was Lord Mayor of London.

Oh yes. Completely different things. The Lord Mayor is in charge of the City - all those nice bankers - whereas the Mayor is in charge of transport and useful things like that.

Anyway. Dick Whittington. He was born in 1354 and died in 1423. He married someone called Alice Fitzwarren, and left a lot of money to set up hospitals and prisons and stuff.

Here he is:

Yes, and there's the cat. It was actually a skull in the original picture, which is by Renold Elstrache, but the print-seller Peter Stent replaced it with a cat in the hope of shifting a few more copies.

And I thought that photoshop was a new wheeze...

The thing is, you see, Dick Whittingdon and his cat became the heroes of a stage play in 1604, and from then on people couldn't get enough of them. Well, I suppose it made for a bit of light relief after seeing that other great London hit of 1604, Othello.

There's no record that Dick really left London for some faraway place where his cat made his fortune - or, indeed, that he ever even had a cat - but it would be lovely if it were true.

There's no proof, either, that when Dick was leaving London in despair he was drawn back to the city by the sound of Bow Bells calling:

Turn again Whittington,
Lord Mayor of London.

But that song is still sung by bells in England to this day.

All we can safely say is, that if it isn't true, it jolly well should be.

Word To Use Today: mayor. This word is from the Old French maire, from the Latin maior, which means greater.

Friday 11 May 2012

Word To Use Today: punt.

We're well into May, which in England means Spring, the Sweet Spring, the year's pleasant thing...

...or, alternatively, iron grey skies and people peering out through the gloom to report in pleased voices it's only drizzling!

Ah well.

Any punt you see on any English river is likely to be up to its gunnels in rainwater, but they're still pretty things, much associated with the English university towns of Oxford and Cambridge. They're jolly useful for watching the rowing races in May-Week, too (though of course this takes place in June).

'Our river' by George Dunlop Leslie 1888.

I understand that this:

football punt
Picture from Wpclipart.

is some kind of football player punting, that is kicking, a ball. It must be a dangerous activity, too, judging by his head-gear. I know rugby players punt the ball, but I don't think this can be a rugby player  because if rugby players wore helmets they wouldn't have such squashed faces.

If you're in Britain or NewZealand or Australia you could have a punt on the outcome of the football or the rowing. That sort of a punt is a bet, and it's usually against a bank rather than with a friend.

Not so long ago you might have placed your bet in punts, too. This was the unit of currency in Ireland before they plumped for the excitements of the Euro.

Lastly, the Land of Punt is so deeply mysterious that no one knows whether it was in the Horn of Africa or the Arabian Peninsula, but it sold perfumes to the Ancient Egyptians. This:

is the wife of the King of Punt.

Hm. There's no accounting, is there.

Word To Use Today: punt.  The word for boat is an Old English word which comes from the Latin puntō, which means punt or pontoon. The kick sort of punt is perhaps a variation of the dialect word bunt, to push. The bet comes from the French ponte, from Spanish punto and Latin punctum, which mean a point.
The Irish money punt is the Irish form of the word pound, as in sterling.

Thursday 10 May 2012

Punc:Tu'ati.On. A rant.

Well, of course we can call ourselves whatever we like, and if we want to be famous then giving ourselves a strange name might help to make us stand out in the crowd.

(Some of us have quite strange names to start with. I realise that. Who better?)

Using punctuation to decorate your name seems to be fashionable at the moment. We have, P!nk, India.arie and of course that old favourite Hear'Say.

I don't know, though. Are the people who give themselves a novelty name the ones who fear they aren't quite charismatic enough to manage with an ordinary one?

I look back and find that Westward Ho!, named by Charles Kingsley, isn't the destination of choice for...well, most people. The Canadian town of Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! isn't actually very famous outside Canada, either. 

Or even quite possibly inside it.

Lastly, how about Nicholas Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon? He was named in 1640.

All those years, and he still hasn't really made it, has he.

Word To Use Today: punctuation. This word arrived in the 1600s from the Latin word punctuāre, to prick, from punctum, a prick, from pungere to puncture,

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Nuts and Bolts: alphabet soup.

What if you need to talk about a singing creature with hands, feet, and six wings?

Well, you can describe the thing carefully, appendage by appendage; or else you can draw a diagram.

Soon, though, you'll need a word for the thing.

You'll be lucky in this case, because there's a word already in existence. It's:

If this doesn't help much then not to worry, because that Hebrew word was transcribed nearly two thousand years ago into a more modern alphabet, like this:


And if that's all Greek to you (sorry) then it's okay because quite soon after that it was put into yet another alphabet - the Roman one, which is more or less the one we're using here today.

Then the word looks like this


I've been thinking about Hebrew words because I've been needing a word to describe the parents of my daughter's fiancé. Now, I've not had any luck with finding a word for that exact relationship, but Hebrew does have a word for the parents of a child's spouse.

The writer Adèle Geras, a very good friend of this blog, has put this word into our alphabet for us (thanks Adèle!):


(the mother is the machteniste* and the father is the mechuton*).

So there I am. Last weekend I had lunch with my prospective mechutonim.

How about that.

Word To Use Today. As many of you won't have mechutonim yourselves then perhaps seraphim might be an easier word to use.

People have been arguing forever about where this word originated, but it may well have something to do with the Hebrew word meaning to burn (seraphim are said to burn with love). The singular is seraph.

If you don't want to talk about angels (seraphim are the highest sort of angel) then there's a seraph moth (one pair of wings is deeply divided so it looks as if it's got six wings), and also a Swedish order of knighthood (just whom are they trying to kid?) and a fossil called a seraph, too.

*Hebrew doesn't bother will vowels much, so there are a variety of ways of transcribing each Hebrew word into our Roman alphabet.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: be omnishambolic.

We're especially lucky to have this word because it almost died at birth.

It was coined by Armando Iannucci in a 2009 episode of the British political sit-com The Thick Of It, but it's only just recently that it's started popping up all over the place.

Why, the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition used it in parliament the other day.

(Oh dear, those boys will squabble. Really, with the amount of time and energy they spend working out how to be nasty to each other, it's a good job the world doesn't have any serious problems. I mean, what if the economy was in a mess, or we were involved in a war or something?)

In any case, omnishambolic is a beautifully endearing word which manages to create a picture of itself in the course of its lumbering length.

And, as surely none of us manage quite to be omnishambolic, it allows us to feel quite competent, too.

Thing Not To Do Today: be omnishambolic. This word comes from the Latin omnis, which means all, joined to shambolic, which means disorganised or chaotic. Shambolic comes from shambles, which used to mean either a place where animals were slaughtered or else a row of butchers' stalls. Shambles comes from the Old English scaemel, stool, from the Late Latin scamellum, a small bench.

Oh, and by the way: shambling is what you do if you have wonky legs, like a butcher's table.

Monday 7 May 2012

Spot the frippet: lode.

Here's a word of secret desire to perk up your Monday.

A lode is a pocket of valuable ore hidden amongst more ordinary rock.

I realise that the word hidden makes the task of spotting this frippet rather a challenge, but, hey...some of you may be miners by profession; and for the rest of us, luckily, the word has other uses.

There's lodestar, for a start. In the Northern Hemisphere this is usually the North Star, but there are fifty six other lodestars to choose from if you're elsewhere. In the Southern Hemisphere, for instance, there's Ankaa in the constellation the Phoenix.

You use a lodestar to help you find your way (though signposts  work well, too).

A lodestone has a similar purpose. They are made of magnetite, which means they are naturally magnetic, and you can use one of them as a sort of compass.

Though again, there's always signposts...

Lastly, a lodestone can also be someone to whom people are naturally attracted. Someone with warmth, charm, knowledge, or charisma...

...or possibly a large supply of cake.

That'd do it for me, anyway.

Word To use Today: lode. This word comes from the Old English lād, which means course.

Sunday 6 May 2012

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: tepefy.

Tepefy means to make something tepid.

Now, is there any reason at all why you might want to tepefy something?

Even those rare things that need to be tepid (like rising bread baby's bottle) aren't described as tepid, are they. We say blood-hot, or talk of something being lukewarm.

The only thing that's described as tepid is the reception of a dull play, and that's something which, by definition, is hardly ever mentioned.

Tepid must be just about the limpest and drippiest word in the English language.

And tepefy is pompous, with it.

Away with them!

Word Not To Use Today: tepid and tepify. These words come from the Latin tepidus, from tepēre, to be lukewarm.

Saturday 5 May 2012

Saturday Rave: The Clicking of Cuthbert by PG Wodehouse.

Eggs and bacon, love and marriage, a cup of tea and a good book.

These usually go together beautifully, but take heed: do not, I repeat, do NOT attempt to drink tea (or anything else) while reading The Clicking of Cuthbert. You will end up snorting it all over the book.

There we are: a Health and Safety warning. Never say I don't care about you.

The Clicking of Cuthbert must be one of the very funniest, most snort-inducing stories ever written. It's about golf, love, and literary folk - and surely there can't be anyone in the world who hasn't a soft spot for at least one of those.

Here, poor Cuthbert is meeting the girl he loves with all his soul.

Sadly, the girl is in love with the works of the miserably difficult writer Vladimir Brusiloff.

" 'Good morning,' said Cuthbert, hollowly.

'Such good news about Vladimir Brusiloff.'

'Dead?' said Cuthbert, with a touch of hope. "

But unfortunately for Cuthbert the great Vladimir Brusiloff is not only alive and well, but he's coming to Aunt Emily's Reception on Wednesday.

Just about every line of this miraculous story (which you can read for free online: which is ridiculous) is worth quoting, but I'll leave you with the sentence which so often rises to my lips when I'm faced with Literature at its most wilfully obscure, self-congratulatory and depressing. It's Vladimir Brusiloff's verdict on the works of a fellow countryman.

" 'I spit me of Nastikoff!' " he says.

And, you know, sometimes I know exactly what he meant.

Word To Use Today: plum. As well as a fruit and a colour, this was PG Wodehouse's nickname (his first name was Pelham). The word comes from the Old English plūme and is related to the Latin prunum and the German Pflaume.

Friday 4 May 2012

Word To Use Today: raffle.

What a source of excitement is a raffle.

Okay, if you win you'll probably only get a bottle of dodgy wine or a set of soaps all smelling slightly of something rotten: but, hey, it was all in a good cause, wasn't it. And you can always give the metre-high blue furry crocodile to the nearest child*.

Apart from raising money for charities, Raffles gave us a beautiful city state. That was Singapore, which was founded by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles in 1819.

We mustn't forget the cricketer and gentleman thief A J Raffles in the books by by E W Hornung, either.

And then finally there's Rafflesia arnoldi:

 which is a plant named after the leader of the expedition that discovered it,** the Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles mentioned above. 

Rafflesia arnoldi is a parasitic plant (so I suppose it's another thief, in a way, just like AJ Raffles) and it has flowers which grow up to 45 centimetres across and smell very strongly of...well, of rotting meat, I'm afraid. Hey, but at least it's popular with carrion flies.

Hmmm....that's almost enough to make me wonder if raffle is quite as lovely a word as I'd thought.

Word To Use Today: raffle. This word arrived in England in the 1300s from France, where it was the name of a dice game.

*As long as you aren't acquainted with its parents.

** It was really discovered by Louis Deschamps, but the British seized all his notes, and these didn't resurface until after Sir Thomas' lot had rediscovered the plant.

Thursday 3 May 2012

The next thing: a rant.

So, when is it? I'll ask, just to take an interest.

'Next Saturday,' they'll say: and I'll reply how lovely! or how awful! or are you looking forward to it? or which one are they taking off? depending upon the circumstances.

But I won't have a clue when the event is taking place. When is next Saturday? Is it the day after tomorrow, or is it a week after that?

I don't know - and I don't believe you do, either. Every time anyone uses this expression we all have to do a little jig of explanation while we agree whether we're talking about this Saturday coming or Saturday week.

The expression next Saturday has two mutually exclusive meanings, and is therefore a TOTAL WASTE OF TIME.

Phew. I'm glad to get that out of my system.

I shall be ranting away again next Thursday, I expect.

Luckily, as that's exactly a week today, we all know exactly when that is.

Word To Use today: next. This word comes from the Old English word nēhst, from nēah, which means near.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Nuts and Bolts: personable people.

There's nothing like a grammatical rule to bolster the self-esteen and to present an opportunity for sneering at others.

Or so some people think.

The story of the words persons and people is long, and has been made complicated by the rule-makers.

In the 1800s some of them decided that persons should be used for a distinct number of individuals, and people for a great mass of folk.

Well, all I can say is, tell that to Chaucer, who was writing about a thousand people five hundred years before.

Anyway, what's the best thing to do?

Well, if you want to sound like everyone else then you'll only use persons when you're using formal legal language (which includes describing how many humans are allowed in a taxi or a lift. Oh, and the police use persons a lot, too). Unless, of course, you're on the Indian sub-continent, where persons is used much more often and freely.

While I'm here, I must just point out that even though the word people sometimes means a great mass of folk (as the pedants like to tell us), nowadays it's always safest to use a plural with the word. So people say people say, and not people says.

The main thing, though, is not to worry.

Words To Use Today: persons or people. Person comes from the Latin persona, which means either an actor in a play or his mask. People comes from the Latin word populum, which means a group of people sharing the same culture.