This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 30 June 2012

Saturday Rave: The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

I was there at the beginning of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I was living in a small room at the bottom of the house of a lady who had once been secretary to the secretary to the secretary to His Majesty King George VI.

My dad had bought me a radio in case I was lonely. I wasn't, but, oh, THGTTG was the most mind-expanding, joyful, snort-worthy thing.

From being a radio show THGTTG developed into...well, more or less everything, really. Books, a towel, a television series, a film. But it's the book I'm raving about at the moment.

THGTTG is a book about Life, the Universe and Everything. It's gob-smackingly intelligent, massively original, and hugely, inspirationally silly.

As well as being the book of the radio series (by the way, the THGTTG trilogy happens to be made up of five books) THGTTG is also the book of the book: THE book, that is, the guidebook called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is produced on Ursa Minor Beta by Megadodo Publications and, as I seem to recall, has the words DON'T PANIC inscribed on the cover.

If you don't know the story of Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Zaphod Beeblebrox and Marvin the paranoid android then...well, you've got a treat in store. Really. I haven't got enough superlatives for this one.

By the way, if you read all five books you'll hear God's last message to creation.

It'll make everything all right, too.

Word To Use Today: hike. This word appeared in English in the 1700s. No one is sure where it comes from, but there's a Maori word, hikoi, which means a walk or march, especially a protest march.

Friday 29 June 2012

Word To Use Today: crane.

Here's one sort of crane:

Sandhill Crane
Sandhill crane. Photo by PM Barbour.
Cranes fly with their necks outstretched, otherwise they're quite like herons.

Cranes are great gossips. Some have bare patches of skin on their heads which they inflate or change in colour to show their feelings, and some do the same thing with their head feathers.

Crane calls can be very loud indeed: some can be heard several kilometres away. They can also sing duets of great splendour. 

Lastly, famously, and bewitchingly, they dance:

Of course we humans are gossips, too, and there are plenty of stories about cranes. One old Greek story is about a guy called Ibycus who got his revenge on a mugger by asking a flock of cranes to hover over the thief's head until he confessed to the crime.

And on the subject of stories, we mustn't forget Walter Crane, though he wasn't as character in a story but an illustrator of them:

Brothers Grim
This is from the tales of the Brothers Grimm.

Here's another sort of crane:

Photo by Iwan Gobovitch.
You can see why they have the same name, can't you.

(The bird had the name first.)

You may not be able to sing, dance, lift heavy weights, or persuade muggers to confess, but if you make your neck as long as it will go so you can see something, you're craning it.

I suppose that's something, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: crane. This word comes from the Old English cran, and before that from the Latin grūs and the Greek géranos.

Thursday 28 June 2012

The Gates of Wrath - a rant.

Look, there's no use putting up a sign saying:


when it plainly isn't.

I realise that people don't want dirty great big vehicles blocking their entrances, but quite frankly making silly claims like that - especially when the gate is question is DUSTY WITH DISUSE - isn't going to get anyone on their side.

Just saying, okay?

Word To Use Today (but not on a gate): constant. This word comes from the Old French, from the Latin word constāns, standing firm, from constāre, to be steadfast.

Just to be clear, constant means all the time.


Wednesday 27 June 2012

Nuts and Bolts: yesterday's bogan.

My copy of the Oxford English Dictionary is about twenty years old. I don't reckon there's much in it that's more recent than 1930.

Nowadays, with the internet, things are much quicker, of course: but are they quick enough?

The policy of the Oxford English Dictionary is to include a  word once it has become established. The trouble is, by the time that's happened a word can have changed its meaning twice.

Now, some people say that the way the meanings of words change is wicked...


...wicked... does wicked mean this week, exactly? Evil? Bad? Good? 


(Though what bad means at the moment I'm not at all sure - and the same goes for good.)

So anyway, what is a dictionary writer to do?

I've been thinking about this because the OED has got into trouble with the word bogan. It comes from Australia and means...

...but that's the problem.

Bogan is defined in the June 2012 update of the OED as a "depreciative term for unfashionable, uncouth, or unsophisticated person, especially of low social status".

The trouble seems to be that Australians rather revel in being bogans - so much so that a bogan is now a fashionable, fun and desirable thing to be.

Dave Snell, a New Zealander who's done a doctoral thesis on bogan identity, and so should know, said: "I like to say it's like taking aspects of Australian culture and concentrating it."

If that helps you at all.

 So. Does that mean you can't be a bogan unless you're Australian? Not even if you're unfashionable, uncouth and unsophisticated?

Oh dear. Another ambition bites the dust...

Word To Use Today: bogan. This word seems to have originated in Melbourne in the 1980s. To start with bogans were heavy metal fans who favoured mullets (the haircuts) and flannel shirts.

Nowadays they're said to like personalised number plates, fad diets, and Shane Warne.

Tuesday 26 June 2012

Thing To Do Today: dig.

We dig dig dig dig dig dig dig dig Dig the whole day through...

Or so Walt Disney's seven dwarfs claimed in Frank Churchill and Larry Morey's song.

(As a writer, I can't help wondering wistfully how much money the lyricist earned for each of those digs.)

Few of us, unless we are miners, gardeners, or earthworms (hi there!) dig the whole day through, but not many days can go by without a bit of a dig, whether it's digging in a bag for a ballpoint or digging in a kitchen drawer for a bottle opener.

The unkind or impatient of us may have a dig at someone, which involves making a hurtful remark.

Or, in America, to dig can mean to study hard for an exam.

Those of us who are still hippies may still dig, in the sense of liking, all sorts of things: as in hey man, I really dig the smell of those tie-dyed goatskin flares.

A true hippy may well live in digs, that is, cheap rented accommodation. The rarity of cheap rented accommodation is possibly the reason why hippies are all but extinct.

So rare and ancient is the hippy that any moment now one of their old digs is bound to become the focus of a dig: that is, an  archaeological excavation.

The oldest thing I've ever dug up myself is a stone age handaxe...hang on, no it isn't. There was that fossil devil's toenail. Hey, and even older, a thousand pebbles that probably got spewed out of a volcano when the earth was so young it was still having major tantrums.

We're standing on history. So, dig!

Thing To Do Today: dig. This word has been around since the 1200s, but sadly no one's sure from where it was dug up.

Monday 25 June 2012

Spot the Frippet: cell.

Prisoners, monks and nuns have got it easy today.

Hi there, guys!

For those of us not incarcerated, there are other sorts of cells all over the place. Look at a fly or a bee: an area on an insect's wing that's bounded by veins is a cell.

A single cup in a honeycomb is a cell, too.

cell can be an electrical battery; or, if you're in America, what in England we call a mobile will be a cell phone, so you may well be Spotting this Frippet even as you read these words.

Of course every living thing (including you) is made of cells, but they're usually too small to spot without a microscope. An egg, however, is a cell, and they're easily visible in a fridge near you.

I note, finally, that of all the many special cells which go up to make up your incredible body, one kind is called a  Merkel cell.

It, most surprisingly, is the one which is sensitive to light pressure.

Spot the frippet: cell. This word comes from the Mediaeval Latin word cella, which means monks' store room. It's related to the Latin word cēlāre, to hide.

Sunday 24 June 2012

Sunday Rest: word not to use today: hebdomad.

Hebdomad: is there anywhere a more ungainly camel of a word than this?

There's really no excuse for using this one: only irretrievably pompous people even know the meaning of the word hebdomad.


(That was the sound of someone shooting himself in the foot. Unfortunately, it was me.)

Ah well, it's too late now. It really wasn't my fault. I was romping quite happily through a dictionary and then I went and fell over this monstrosity.

Still, I hereby vow never to use it, not even in anger.

I think that lets me off.

Word Not To Use Today: hebdomad. This ghastly word means week. It used to mean seven, or a group of seven: Snow White and the Hebdomad Dwarfs, Lucky Hebdomad, that sort of thing.

The Hebdomadal Council rules Oxford University, so I suppose we'll have to allow that one* as it's stonily traditional.

*How many Oxford Professors does it take to change a lightbulb?


Saturday 23 June 2012

Saturday Rave: Donkey Skin.

The story of the Donkey Skin was first written down in verse by Charles Perrault in 1695. It's basically the same story as The Dirty Shepherdess except that it involves, yes, the heroine disguising herself in a donkey skin. The reason for this frankly bonkers behaviour being that she's trying to escape from her father the king.

I wouldn't really recommend it as a story, though I must admit that it does feature a donkey that does golden poos, which is really rather a charming idea.

The other donkey skin story, however, is quite different. It's also told in verse (this time by Lorenzo da Ponte) and is a song sung in the opera The Marriage of Figaro. The music is by WA Mozart (what was Mozart's first name?Johannes. Second name?  Chrysostomus. Third name? Wolfgangus. Fourth name? Theophilus (which tends to get used in its Latin translation, Amadeus)).

I couldn't find a video of this song in English, but the story is of a man who is given a donkey skin. It seems a strange gift until there's a great storm and he uses the skin to protect himself. Soon along comes a fierce beast. The man prepares to be eaten, but the donkey skin smells so disgusting that the beast leaves him unharmed.

A good story, I think, and certainly very well told.

This is Kobie van Rensburg singing with the Koncerto Koln conducted by Rene Jacobs.

In case any of you decide to watch the whole of The Marriage of Figaro hoping for the donkey song, I ought to warn you that it's usually left out. Having said that, The M of F is one of the very most marvellous things that human beings have ever made, and very well worth your time.

It's funny, too.

Word To Use Today: skin. A rather horrid word, I must admit, and it's been the same more or less forever. It comes from the Old English scinn from the Old Norse skinn.


Friday 22 June 2012

Word To Use Today: chine.

Chine is one of those lovely words which can mean two opposite things.

English has a few examples of these contranyms, like quite (how full is quite full?) and cleave (cut apart or cling together?) that I think of as the sherbert of the English language - fizzy and fun, but seldom appearing in the diet.

Chine is a beautiful word, like the far-away ringing of a temple bell. In fact it sounds so much like the far-away ringing of a temple bell that it can be used as another word for chime.

It's used in boat-building, too. In this case it means the place where the sides of the boat curve round to form the bottom.

Chine's main meaning, though, is backbone. It's used to describe cuts of meat, but it's also used to describe a long ridge of land.

But how does this make chine a contranym? Well, of course it doesn't, until you know that in Southern England a chine is a deep crack in the wall of a cliff.

This is Blackgang Chine on the Isle of Wight.

So there you are: a backbone-like ridge and a deep gully.

And, echoing across the landscape, the chine-tingling tolling of a bell...

Word To Use Today: chine. The word meaning backbone comes from the Old French eschine, and before that it was connected with the Old High German scina, which means needle or shin. The word meaning fissure comes from the Old English cīnan, to crack.

Thursday 21 June 2012

Axed police: a rant.

From Yahoo:


Good grief, that's worrying. I mean, I still find those new police truncheons a bit scary.

I think Yahoo really meant ROBBER ARMED WITH AXE HUNTED BY POLICE: but I suppose that was too long to fit on the page.

POLICE HUNT AXE-MAN would fit, though.

And so would AXE-MAN HUNTED BY POLICE: which is better still because the exciting bit comes first.

Which is the point of a headline, after all.

Word To Use Today: police. This is a French word which comes from the Latin polītīa, which means administration or government.

Wednesday 20 June 2012

Nuts and Bolts: tilde.

These are tildes:

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The tilde was first used in Ancient Greek, and was reintroduced in Mediaeval times as a way of saving parchment. A tilde was put over a vowel normally followed by an n or an m (a tilde is more or less the shape of a stretched n, when you come to think about it) to save having to write in the following letter.

Parchment must have been very expensive.

Nowadays the tilde is used in some languages (eg Spanish, Filipino, Chamorro) to indicate a nasal sound; though in Vietnamese it indicates a dipping tone, and in one version of Ancient Greek it indicated a temporary rise in pitch.

In Japanese email it sometimes acts, rather charmingly, as a sarcasm mark; and in East Asia, even more charmingly, as a sigh.

In music a tilde above a note indicates a twiddle: you play the note written, then the note above it, the first note again, the note below it, then the first note again.

If the tilde is crossed out you do the same thing, only backwards.

Maths treats tildes as twiddles, too: x ~ y is said x twiddle y. It means x and y are nearly equal.

Lastly, and really rather illogically given its use in Maths, in Logic a tilde means not. So ~ p means not p.

Word To Use Today: tilde. This word comes from the Spanish, and before that from the Latin titulus, which means title or superscription (ie, something written along the top).

Tuesday 19 June 2012

Thing To Do Today: pose.

But surely, you cry, we should not be posing at all. We should be making our way in the world with the frank, trustworthy eyes and modest air which are such a feature of the criminal courts.

Come off it. We are eels, twisting and turning. Even we don't know who we are. The most we can do is take a snapshot: and that will be out-of-date by tea-time.

Oh yes there will be an ocean bed of truth somewhere, but it'll be deep under the buffeting sea of life.

So. What shall we pose as today?

Sane, to start with, I think. Those straws in our hair will just worry people.

Honest. Clever (we'll have to hope no one poses any hard questions). Kind. Funny.

Confident, perhaps, though not too much.

And as we go on we must hope is that our pose will become a habit; and of course if that happens it will have stopped being a pose and become true.

Oh, but that man who phoned earlier, offering to mend your computer?

He really was a poser. Report him at once.

Thing To Do Today: pose. This word comes from the Old French poser, to set in place, from the Late Latin pausāre, to put down or to cease.

The pose which is to do with asking questions comes from the other Late Latin word appōnere, which means to set against.

Monday 18 June 2012

Spot the frippet: maroon.


Can you hear the darkness, and the slightly bitter edge?

Like cherries.

cherries 3

Maroon isn't a word you hear very often nowadays, but that hasn't stopped it being around. If you can't find any deeply coloured cherries then there are flowers that are maroon: just look at the falls on this iris.

Or, if you're lucky enough to be in Latvia then there's bound to be maroon all over the place. This is the Latvian national flag:

Latvia flag

It's a fine flag, though to an English speaker it sounds slightly unfortunate because in English maroon also means a warning or distress signal.

I do hope you don't see one of those today.

One of the people who might send up a maroon is someone who is, well, marooned. That is, someone who's been abandoned somewhere (usually an island) without the means to get home. This meaning has given us maroon meaning a descendant of runaway slaves living in the Caribbean or Guyana. The Jamaican Maroons, for example, still have their own territory and culture and rule themselves to a large extent.

In America a maroon can mean any person who is marooned, and in the southern USA it can also mean to hang around doing nothing very much.

Though I'm sure it's a hive of activity, there's a Maroon Town in Sierra Leone; and, lastly, the very beautiful Mount Maroon:

[Mount Maroon: one of five peaks in the park]

 in Queensland.

Spot the frippet: something maroon. The word meaning someone cut-off comes from the Spanish cimarrón, wild, literally living on peaks, from the Spanish cima, summit.

The colour is from the French marron, which, oddly, means chestnut. The distress-firework comes from this word, too, though I can't find anyone to explain just how.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: gaunt.

Here we are, misery, despair and hunger all in five letters: gaunt.

I suppose it's quite clever having one word for tall, unhealthily thin, drawn, and really rather scary.

Yes, gaunt is such a croaking sort of a word that you can hear the black wings of death approaching as you say it, see the rain-bruised cloud reaching out to smother the miserable ruins that top the crag, feel the charnel-house shiver of gathering doom, and smell the decay of each struggling hope.


...or is that just me?

Well, I wouldn't risk it, if I were you.

Word Not To Use Today: gaunt. This word arrived in the English language in the 1400s, probably from Scandinavia, because there's a Norwegian dialect word gand which means tall thin person.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Saturday Rave: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.

Every writer's life edges its way into his work, though not usually in the form of writing down stuff that's happened.

A pressured writer may well choose to make his novel a respite from his troubles. A sad one may want to write about joyful events and deliriously happy people.

Rebecca is the creepiest, most nerve-jangling book, and it's imbued completely with the scents, moisture and mist of the West Country of England.

It's no surprise to me to discover that it was written in Alexandria in Egypt, and it would be no surprise either to discover that it was written at a very happy time of Daphne du Maurier's life.

For the reader it's a terrific, hair-raising read from its famous first sentence* to its equally marvellous last words:

And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.

How's that for rhythm?

Prepare to be haunted. Prepare to have your principles tested. Prepare to be enthralled.

Read it if you dare.

Word To Use Today: ashes. The word comes from ash, of course. In this plural form it tends to means ruins or remains.
The Ashes are the regular series of Test Matches (cricket) between England and Australia. They are named after a joke obituary for English cricket which was published after the Australian victory of 1882. There is a small pottery urn containing the ashes of a cricket stump for which the teams play.

Ash comes from the Old English æsce, from the Latin aridus, which means dry. 

*Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Friday 15 June 2012

Word To Use Today: frazil.

Frazil is a jumble of small pieces of ice. It's to be found in water that's moving too fast to form an ice-sheet.

File:Frazil ice in Yosemite Creek.png
This frazil is in Yosemite National Park, California.

You say it FRAZil - to rhyme with Angela Brazil (though not, of course, with the beautiful country of Brazil).

Can there be a more loveable word in the language than frazil?

Well, if there is, I haven't found it yet.

I'm going to keep on looking, though.

Word To Use Today: frazil. Hint for use: Call this midsummer? I've practically got frazil forming in my lemonade!

The word frazil comes from the Canadian French frasil, from the French fraisil, cinders, and before that from the Latin fax, which means torch.

From fire to ice in one word. How about that!

Thursday 14 June 2012

Better to be thought a fool: a rant.

It's better to keep quiet and be thought a fool

goes the old saying

than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

These are wise wise words. And uncomfortable ones, too, for someone writing her 514th post for this blog.

Oh dear.

Still, not long ago we were on a journey along the motorway. It was raining, and had been raining hard for several days (Britain is in the grip of its wettest drought ever*). It was also a Bank Holiday.

All these factors - motorway, rain, and Bank Holiday -  increase the chance of traffic problems, and so when we saw that there were lights on one of the message boards that hang over the road we were naturally rather anxious.

And what did the message say? Did it tell us that there was an accident ahead? A fifty-six-mile tail-back from the Hammersmith Flyover? The road turned into a roaring torrent, amphibious vehicles only south of Watford Gap?

No. What it said was:


Now, apart from the fact that the Olympic Games are months away, could the person who wrote that message really imagine that  anyone who'd gone to the great trouble of getting a ticket (and, believe me, it's not easy) was that big a fool? That he was going to set out without a clue where he was going with the intention of arriving half an hour after it was all finished?

What on earth made the poster of that message imagine that anyone could be as silly as all that? 

And then as we drove on, baffled, another proverb came to mind:

it takes one to know one.

And that explained everything.

Word To Use Today: journey. This word comes from the Old French word journee, which means a day's travelling, from the Latin diurnum, a day's portion.

*We have hosepipe bans here in England after two dry years. It hasn't mattered because ever since the ban came into force it has been pouring.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

Nuts and Bolts: Chinook Jargon.

Chinook Jargon must be the only language in the world that started off as a joke at a dinner party.

No, really. The party took place in Nootka Sound in the 1790s. Eating were Captains Vancouver and Bodega y Quadra, and the entertainment was provided by Chief Maquinna and his brother Callicum. (I do hope they were guests, too).

Chief Maquinna and Callicum were comedians, it seems, for they performed a sketch using mock European words and mimicking European dress and manners.

The mangled language they came up with turned out to be an extremely practical way of understanding each other.

There had probably been a Trade Language, Chinookan-Nuu-chah-nulth, used in the area by all the different Amerindian language-speakers for some years, but the new language - Chinook Jargon - proved wonderfully elastic at accommodating words from all over the place - France, China, Norway, and Hawaii.

Chinook Jargon was a pidgin - it had a limited vocabulary and a very simple grammar - but it developed into various creoles in different areas of Canada and the Northern United States, and one of these, Chinook Wawa, is still spoken today in the state of Oregon.

There are still a few Chinook Jargon words used in English. Chum was one we came across yesterday, but there's also the gorgeous high muckamuck, meaning big boss. Moolah means mill in Chinook Jargon and might be the origin of the English word meaning money; and iktus, which meant stuff, is now sometimes used in American English to mean junk.

Word To Use Today: muckamuck. In Chinook Jargon this word means big feed, ie guy at the High Table.

There are said to be only about a hundred speakers of Chinook Jargon left in the world, so let's give this precious word a boost.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

Thing To Do Today: be a chum.

chum is a happy friend.

A chum is probably a good friend, too, but the essential feature of chums is that they have fun.

Eating ice creams is a chummy thing to do, and so is going shopping. The high seriousness of a football match, though, calling as it does for deep concentration, might be too much for true chumminess except during the interval.

If you're in Scotland then to chum is very easy, because it means to go with someone. You could chum someone down to a canteen, for instance, or to the bus stop.

American anglers and birdwatchers go in for a different sort of chumming. This involves grinding up the smelliest sorts of fish and then either using the resultant gunge as groundbait (anglers) or for spreading the stuff, mixed with oil, on the water (birdwatchers).

This water-floating sort of chum generally attracts petrels and albatrosses:

File:070226 southern royal albatross off Kaikoura 2.jpg
Image: Southern Royal Albatross. Photo by Mark Jobling.

more than humans.

The last sort of chum is the most difficult of all to be because it would involve turning ourselves into Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus keta.

I couldn't honestly recommend it even if you could, as they are found so often in tins.

Thing To Do Today: be a chum. The word meaning friend appeared in the 1600s when it meant a room mate and was probably Oxford student slang for chamber fellow. No one knows where the word meaning fishy stuff comes from, but the salmon comes from Chinook Jargon (nothing to do with helicopters) tsum, which means spots or marks.

Monday 11 June 2012

Spot the frippet: feather.

The feathers I can see at the moment are on the back of a fat woodpigeon:

Wood pigeon  Columba palumbus

 which is busy pulling a frond of ash tree leaves to bits. Why it should be doing this I don't know, but I suspect there are caterpillars involved.

There's also a beautiful dark turquoise feather on my desk, part of a quill pen, which was given to me as a momento of a literary prize in, I think, Halifax in Yorkshire.

The cushion upon which I'm sitting is probably stuffed with feathers, too, but obviously I can't see those.

Is there anywhere in the world where you can't see a feather really easily? If there are no birds (which is a terrible thought) then any piece of wood designed to fit into a groove is a feather.

If you're out at sea, then the wake of a submarine's periscope is a feather, too.

Or you may be unfortunate enought to come across a featherbrain, (all visitors to The Word Den are themselves, obviously, extremely discerning and clever) or lucky enough to have something  decorated in feather stitch:

File:Chained feather stitch.gif

 If you're in Ireland and manage not to upset someone, you'll not have knocked a feather out of him - and of all the people you really don't want to upset, a featherweight boxer (professional weight 53.5 - 57 kg, amateur weight 54 - 57 kg) or wrestler (57 - 64kg) must rank high.

Sadly, you're unlikely to spot a feather star:

 unless you're a mermaid.

In which case, well, you'll be able to knock me down with a feather.

Spot the frippet: feather. This word comes from the Old English fether and is related to the Old High German fedara, which means wing, the Greek petesthai, to fly, and Sanskrit patati, he flies.

Sunday 10 June 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: asafoetida.

Surely no one would ever eat anything called asafoetida.

Well, if you've ever had a dash of Worcester Sauce in your tomato juice then you have. It's used in Indian cooking a lot too.

It's difficult to imagine why anyone ever decided to eat it, though, because the stuff smells so awful that you have to keep it in a sealed container, and even then it's recommended that you keep the sealed container inside a couple of bags.

You get asafoetida from a plant called Ferula asafoetida, which is a sort of fennel:


The asafoetida is gummy stuff which oozes out of the root (lovely). You cut the plant down, cut a slit in the root, and eventually a walnut-sized knob of stuff looking like this:

asafoetida clump

will be produced.

If its foul smell, its appearance, and its name put you off, then you could try wearing a clothes peg on your nose, closing your eyes, and thinking of it by its other name, which is devil's dung.

It's also called Food of the Gods (a marketing ploy if ever I saw one) and, pleasingly, ting.

On the plus side, asafoetida has proved to be effective against 'flu (hence the former custom of hanging some in a bag round the necks of sniffly children), and is said to be useful in cases of intestinal worms, hysteria, and, in Jamaica, evil spirits.

It's certainly loved by Texan wolves, and some moths, pike, and catfish.

As for me...I don't think I'd knowingly eat asafoetida very enthusiastically, but I'd be very happy to eat something flavoured with ting.

Word Not To Use Today: asafoetida. This word comes from the Persian asa, which means resin, and the Latin foetida, which means smelly.

Saturday 9 June 2012

Saturday Rave: The Billy Goats Gruff.

Trolls have made a bit of a comeback, haven't they.
Yes, I'm afraid they're still reaching out to swipe people. It's not even because they're hungry, either, but through pure spite, and there's hardly a comments section of any website safe from them.

Perhaps we need a story about these new trolls, pointing out to them how stupid and boring they are.

Anyway, the Three Billy Goats Gruff features a pre-internet troll. This Norwegian folk tale is very simple, but it has a monster,  a beautifully satisfying third-time-lucky structure, a cunning twist, the triumph of the under-goat, and a happy ending.

It's pretty much perfect, in fact.

Hm...perhaps we need a Society of Gruff Goats to patrol the internet.

Word To Use Today: troll. The supernatural troll is an Old Norse word. The nasty internet commenters come the Old French troller, to run about, from the Middle High German trollen, to run with short steps.

Lovely image, that.

Troll can also means to fish by trailing a line through the water, to sing heartily, or, in Britain, to stroll around.


Friday 8 June 2012

Word To Use Today: caparison.

Now here's a word which breathes colour and romance.


To begin with it was to do with clothes for animals - splendid clothes, decorated so richly that you forgot that the whole idea of clothes for animals is ridiculous.

(Though I must admit the fashion for covering up war horses was sensible when they were campaigning under a burning sun. In those cases it was generally the campaigns which were ridiculous.)

Nowadays, animals are more often caparisoned for religious reasons than for war:

File:Thrippunithura-Elephants2 crop.jpg
Photo by Kjrajesh

These elephants were taking part in the Sree Poornathrayesa temple festival at Thrippunithura, Kerala, South India.

But usually it's not actually animals that get to be magnificent because we can caparison ourselves, too, in rich and elaborate clothes and ornaments:

This gorgeous drawing is, of course, by Aubrey Beardsley.

We can caparison ourselves to dance:


And to party:

Mardi Gras Carnival Procession

And do you know, I think the world would be a brighter place if, occasionally, we did.

Dress up Friday, anyone?

Word To Use Today: caparison. Don't just get dressed, caparison yourself, just for the sheer pleasure of the word. Caparison comes via France from Spain, where the Old Spanish caparazón meant saddlecloth and was probably something to do with capa, which meant cape.

No, do caparison yourself. You must have a splendid tie or a sparkly brooch somewhere.

Thursday 7 June 2012

And DON'T tell me to chillax! A rant.


Oh good grief...

This word has been around for a few years, but it's been ignorable until the other week, when they had the latest meeting of the G8. (The G8 is a group of the leaders of eight rich countries, though  not necessarily the very richest ones. No, don't ask me why they're not the very richest, I don't know. Nor why in the photos:

 there appears to have been ten of them.)

Personally, I would have thought the G8 would have had plenty of work to do solving the odd problem the world still faces, but apparently photo-opportunities and the football were essential, too.

They needed, apparently, to chillax.

What's so utterly infuriating about this word?

Well, for a start it has an awkward rhythm for an English word: daDAH. In fact it's so unusual that British English speakers, who tend to get bored half way through their words, anyway, have been heard to pronounce the word CHILLuxs.

Secondly, it's a monstrosity, a combination of CHILL and RELAX, half via Latin and half via Old English. This obviously only matters to poor sad people but...

...oh dear...


Anyway, moving swiftly on, thirdly, and this is the worst thing of all, chill means relax, and relax means chill. If you want to do either then the last thing you want is to have to make the effort of saying extra syllables. Chillax adds nothing to the meaning of either.

I know it doesn't matter really. I know it's not worth getting in a state about it.

But if anyone tells me to chillax then I might just have to become a hermit.

Word Not To Use Today: chillax. Half chill, half relax, and wholly unnecessary. Chill is from the Old English ciele, which is related to calan, which means cool; relax is from the Latin laxus, which means loose.

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Nuts and Bolts: first words.

Well, I know what your first word was. It was waaahhhhhhh!

(I don't see why this shouldn't count as a word. It's a sound made as a means of communication, and it certainly gets its message across.)

Yes, I think wah! is a word. I'm not so sure about hello.

Hello was a sound one of my daughters used to make when she was baby-babbling. We made a game of repeating it to each other, and soon when anyone went up to her pram and said hello, the six-week-old baby inside would say hello right back.

It gave some little old ladies quite a shock, I can tell you.

Ah, people said, but she doesn't know what it means. Fair enough: after all, I'm not sure what hello means, myself.

Not easy, is it?

As for the word that babies say first when they begin to build a vocabulary (oh, and how much easier everything is once they have) then I'm afraid Dadda is the commonest, followed by Mamma. Then, according to one survey, it's dog, cat, more, baby, ball, duck, teddy, milk, Gran, again.

More and again are not the names of things, and first words quite often aren't. My brother's first word was neath (his toy car had  vanished under the sofa) and other reported first words include cool, bye bye, oh dear, okay, garbage out! and let go!

What I'd really like to know is, do the babies who say duck first turn out to be animal-lovers, and the babies who say cookie turn out to love food?

Now, there's a nice fifty-year long research project for someone.

Word To Use Today: first. This word comes from the Old English fyrest and is related to the Old Saxon furist, the Old Norse fyrstr and the German Fürst, prince, one who is first in rank.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Thing To Do Today: celebrate.

Have your knees gone mouldy?


Then let's celebrate!

If your knees have gone mouldy, then many commiserations, but you must still have something to celebrate. Have a day-that-ends-in-a-y celebration. Just something small. Put an extra sugar lump in your tea, or wear socks without holes in them. That sort of thing.

If even that's a bit rowdy for you, then there are yet quieter sorts of celebration. Mass or Holy Communion is celebrated in a church, for instance, and that hardly involves smiling or speaking to other people at all.

The ungodly and unsocial amongst us can always fall back on celebrating the achievements of someone else: William Wilberforce, say, or Hannibal, or Shane Warne, or Tchaikovsky, or Walt Disney.

We can celebrate the first rose of summer or (hello Southern Hemisphere!) the lovely frosts of winter. We can celebrate our team's success, or celebrate its coming second. We can celebrate the fact that it's nearly the Olympics, or that the Olympics doesn't last that long.

If you're still breathing, then celebrate!

Thing To Do Today: celebrate. This word arrived in English in the 1400s. It comes from the Latin word celebrāre, from celeber which can mean numerous or thronged or renowned.

Monday 4 June 2012

Spot the frippet: diamond.

Spotting a diamond:

Diamond Clip Art

isn't really very difficult. For some reason billions of people (the majority women) carry at least one diamond about with them most of the time.

Odd, isn't it.

Nearly as easy to spot are the diamonds on playing cards; bits of coal (sometimes called black diamonds); a baseball field; or a person of great personal value but few manners (a rough diamond).

If you're in the USA there are diamondbacks, which might be either small edible terrapins:

Northern Diamondback Terrapin

or rattlesnakes.

 Eastern Diamondback rattlesnake  Crotalus adamanteus

Please do get this sorted out before you start lunch.

Australia has a diamond snake too: this one is not poisonous but a constrictor, and also a diamond bird.

A Canadian walking stick is quite likely to be made of diamond willow.

As for us here in Britain, we are enjoying a Diamond Jubilee - which means an extra day's holiday, hurray!

Spot the frippet: diamond. This word comes from the Old French diamant, from the Latin diamas, and before that from adamas, which as well as diamond meant the hardest sort of iron or steel. Adamas comes from Greek and might well have meant unconquerable, from daman, to tame.

Sunday 3 June 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: jamboree.

It's the street party today: we're going to barricade the road.

Everyone will cater for twice the number of people who are attending, and the place will be full of plaintive people wandering around with rain-puddled plates asking anyone for a wet sausage roll?

Still, it will be fun. People will be obliged to take a little something to ward off the cold, and that will encourage them to join in, even though the games are really only for the kiddies.

There will be bunting.

I hope the Queen will get a Loyal Toast, as it's all down to her sixty years of sterling service that we're having the party, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if everyone's too busy to think of it until afterwards.

Now, by this point you may have noticed I haven't mentioned the word I'm suggesting we don't use today.

Well, it would be hypocritical, otherwise.

Wouldn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: jamboree. No one will admit to having made up this heavy, sticky and ridiculous word, which means a noisy celebration. It could be Hindi in origin, it could be Swahili (from jambo, hello) it could be Native American, it could be Non-native American (from jam, to pack tightly, made into jamboree because that way it'll sound a bit like shivaree (which comes from the Old French chalivali which means to make a din with pots and pans)), it could be Aboriginal Australian, from the word caribberie, which is an Aboriginal ceremony.

The only certain thing is that it wasn't made up by the founder of the Scout Movement Robert Baden Powell.

And good for him, I say.

Saturday 2 June 2012

Saturday Rave: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

Queen Elizabeth II is celebrating her Diamond Jubilee this weekend, so I'm celebrating with a book in which she stars.

Now, even if you are neither a subject nor a monarchist, consider: the Queen has done this job for sixty years. Without once assaulting a Minister of State.

How can we be otherwise than awe-struck?

In The Uncommon Reader it's the corgis

 that start everything. They lead the Queen to the palace mobile libary, where she borrows a book by Ivy Compton-Burnett.

'She read, of course, as one did, but liking books she left to other people...Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people...Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself.'

 Remarkably, the Queen not only reads the book but survives the experience, and is set free to explore whole worlds until now closed to her.

Well, isn't that what books do for all of us?

Word To Use Today: preference. This word arrived in England in the reign of King Richard II. It comes from the Latin word praeferre, to carry in front or to prefer, from prae, in front, and ferre, to bear.

Friday 1 June 2012

Word To Use Today: badger.

Badger. You have to laugh, just at the sound of it.

They're found over most of the world, are badgers: in Europe and Asia, in America, and in Africa.

The Asiatic Stink Badgers were thought to be badgers, too (yes, that's why they were called...) but they have recently been expelled from the badger family.

The claim is that this is nothing to do with their body odour. However, as a badger's sense of smell is up to 800 times more powerful than yours I can't help but have my suspicions, myself.

They're doughty fighters, are badgers, and have been known to see off bears and wolves (and not only when drunk, which badgers sometimes are when they've been at the rotting fruit). But apart from the honey badger (which is notoriously bad-tempered)  badgers don't usually go around attacking other animals unless they intend to eat them.

Having said that, the easiest way to tell a male from a female badger is by the scars the males carry from fighting amongst themselves.

Badgers will eat more or less anything, from venomous snakes to honey to rabbits to fruit to earthworms ( a badger needs about 200 worms a day to keep him in good condition). There are limits, however, and a mother's habit of sicking up earthworms for her babies to eat does seem to encourage them to start foraging for themselves.

Badger hair is sometimes made into brushes, and badgers themselves are sometimes made into kebabs in Russia and goulash in Croatia. In Japan badger meat is traditionally meat for the humble. And probably, I should imagine, desperate.

It is possible to badger someone, which means to pester them, but this seems most unfair to badgers, who spend all their time either underground or trying to creep up on earthworms.

Sure enough, the verb to badger comes from the foul human habit of watching dogs slowly torturing a badger to death. 

Suddenly even the Asian Stink Badger seems rather endearing.

Word To Use Today: badger. This word probably comes from badge + ard, because of the white mark on the badger's head, though people do wonder if the word could be something to do with the Albanian vjed hullë, which means both badger and thief.