This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 31 July 2012

Thing To Do Today: hop.

Hop. That's a one-footed jump.

Isn't it?

Well, not if you're a frog or a rabbit (hi there!). They hop on two legs. In America a bouncing ball hops on no legs at all.

Even a person who hops over a gate or onto a bus will probably not be doing quite what we usually think of as hopping.

And if you hop on a bus you'll be sitting still for most of the time.

In America you can hop a train. In Britain we'd be launchng ourselves over it, but in America all you have to do is take a ride on it.

In Britain hop it! is an order to go away far and fast; if you're on the hop you might be very busy, but you're more likely to be being faced with a situation for which you aren't prepared: the arrival of seven hungry Great Aunts caught me on the hop.

A hop used to be a dance of the sort that was later called a disco, but nowadays hops are much more likely to be the flowers of the climbing plant Humulus lupulus:

Hop Flower

 which are used to flavour beer.


Thing To Do Today: hop. This word for the action has around more or less forever. The Old English form was hoppian.

The plant name comes from the Middle Dutch word hoppe, and is related to the Norwegian hupp, which means tassel.

Monday 30 July 2012

Spot the frippet: hurdle.

This is a silly word, but there's nothing wrong with a little silliness from time to time.

Hurdle hurdle hurdle hurdle...

People are hurdling over hurdles in races at the moment (though, really, wouldn't it be easier to go round them?)

hurdle fence

but there are other hurdles about for those determined to avoid sport.

Any light temporary fence is a hurdle. They're traditionally woven from twigs, and you see them all over the place in gardens at the moment.

A hurdle can be a sort of sled, too - one that's dragged along the ground. You carry things on it. It looks very much like the fence. In fact, if you stood it up and tied it to some posts it would be a fence.

hurdle rate is the amount of money you need to get back from a scheme to make it worthwhile taking a chance on it. You work it out by multipying the amount of money you're planning to risk by the chance of the whole thing going horribly horribly wrong.

Spot the frippet: hurdle. This word comes from the Old English hyrdel. It's related to the Gothic word haurds, which means door, and the Greek word kurtos, which means basket.

Sunday 29 July 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use today: puck.

Here we are, a sporty word which no one need use. There's no ice hockey at the Summer Olympics.

(The word puck is also part of the sport of hurling, but hurling hasn't appeared at the Olympics since 1904. I understand that in this game to puck means to hit the ball.)

To puck has an unsporting use, too: it's an Irish word for to punch.

Of course Puck is also a mischievous sprite-like creature:

He appears most famously in the play A Midsummer Night's Dream.

He's not seen too often nowadays. So unless your 

'wisest aunt, telling the saddest tale,
Sometime for three-foot stool mistaketh me [Puck];
Then slip I from her bum, down topples she...'

then there's no need to refer to this Puck, either. And if you do, then you can always call him by his other name of Robin Goodfellow.

Word Not To Use Today: puck. The word meaning ice-hockey disc appeared, no one knows from where, in the 1800s.
The sprite was called Pūca in Old English, but no one seems to know where that name comes from either.

Which just goes to show what a very irritating word it is.

Saturday 28 July 2012

Saturday Rave: Fat Boy Swim by Catherine Forde.

Books let you enjoy the things you hate doing. You get the experience, you see, without the effort.

Fat Boy Swim...well, it's about a fat boy who begins to swim. It's a good title that way.

It's also very funny, and gloriously well written. I loved it, and I'm the sort of person who loves sport so much that, with the main Olympic site less than twenty five miles from my house, I'm making plans for spending my free time for the next fortnight painting a picture.

As it happens, Fat Boy Swim starts, not with swimming, but with a soccer game:

He only shuffled a few steps, each one making his thick flesh judder. The impact of his foot hitting the ground had him wheezing like an old accordion.

It was hopeless.  Pointless. Jimmy halted, Leaned forward, hands on knees.



Great, isn't it? And not only do we see Jimmy starting to swim, but we discover that he's surrounded by secrets, too.

Word To Use Today: swim. This word comes from the Old English swimman. It's related to the Gothic swumsi, which means pool, and the Norwegian svamla, to paddle.

Friday 27 July 2012

Word To Use Today: Olympic

Sorry, but I'm afraid the Olympics is inescapable.

Now I can't see the point of the Games, myself. I mean, it's not as if we don't know what'll happen. People will run around a track, and one of them will get to the finishing line very slightly before the others. Or they'll throw themselves or some other object slightly further than their brother competitors.

Personally I think the Olympics would make more sense if we required, as in ancient times, that all countries taking part were at peace; or if the Games were played in order to flatter and pacify some great power with a penchant for hurling thunderbolts about.

(It was Zeus in Ancient Greece:) 


Zeus looks rather sweet (and camp) in this statue, but he was seriously dangerous when he was riled, was Zeus.

Olympic means to do with Olympus, which is a mountain in North West Greece. It's where the gods lived. There are actually two other Mount Olympuses, one in Washington in the USA, and one on Mars.

The one on Mars is the highest of the three by about 24 kilometres.

Things to do with Olympus can be Olympian, as well as Olympic. Olympian can mean majestic or god-like, to do with the mountain, the gods, or the Games, or so superior as to be utterly useless.

Or, in America, a competitor at the games.

Good luck and much joy to every one of them, I say.

For me, I genuinely hope they all win.

Word To Use Today: Olympic. The Games are called after the place where the god Zeus defeated his father Kronos and set up home.

Thursday 26 July 2012

Passwords - a rant.

Oh, I suppose we have to have passwords.

I can even see why passwords shouldn't actually be words (because they can be guessed more easily by a pesky hacker).

And of course we should have a different password for each site we use: except what's the chance of our remembering that toothpaste-ordering password from six months ago, or that wallpaper-choosing site from 2003?

If a site decides to choose a password for you it's always something like: sjP1*hg?n4.

Ha! And then they say don't write it down...

But these are old injuries. I've really got over them. Lately, however, my bank has begun to inflict a new password torture on me. Instead of asking for the whole password they ask for just a few of the letters of it. The third, eighth and tenth, say.

And what do I have to do?

I have to take this password from my memory, write it down on a piece of scrap paper, carefully underline the required letters, type it in...

...and then, of course, I have to eat the piece of paper.

Word To Use Today: a password. Literary passwords are fun: 2Bornot2B for Shakespearians, or 3bm3bm (Three blind mice...) for lovers of Nursery Rhymes.

Or any variation on D0LetMe1n works very well for the simply desperate.

Wednesday 25 July 2012

Nuts and Bolts: txt.

Shorthand is a bad thing.


Then what's all the fuss about texting, then?

A study has found* that adults text their friends and family more often than they speak face to face. This is odd, unless the word family has got itself a new meaning while I wasn't looking. Okay a lot of family talk is in the form of grunts, but surely few families can exist without someone saying we're going to be late! or where's the remote? several times a day.

Anyway. Text. I think it's rather 1drf [wonderful]. I mean, it uses all sorts of cunning wheezes like acronyms and even pictograms ;) [wink] to get its message across.

It's remarkably flexible, too: tomoz or 2mro [I'm sure you can get that one]? 10q, thnq or ty [thank you]? It doesn't matter.

I admit this flexibility can cause trouble. Our Prime Minister used to have a habit of using lol to sign off his texts, thinking it stood for lots of love. Well, it can do, and has done, but not a lot of people know that and so he's been teased for being out-of-date and ignorant. When he was only really quirky.

People complain that texting makes people (other people, obviously) less able to spell, Can you run through your reasoning on that, please? Oh, and some proof would be nice, too.

In any case, how can anyone not have an affection for a system that's given us a word to represent evil laughter?


ty 4 rdn**



Word To Use Today: text. This word arrived in the 1300s. It came from the Mediaeval Latin textus, which means version, from an earlier word which means texture, from texere, to compose.

*I know that any figures following this phrase are almost always dodgy, but just for the sake of argument...

** Thank you for reading.

*** Have a nice day.


Tuesday 24 July 2012

Thing To Do Today: be gorgeous.

Oh yes you can.

Be gorgeous!

Show people you like them and it'll happen all by itself. Honest.

Cleanliness, kindness, a welcoming smile, and not having whiskers or a lumberjack shirt will help.

The weather can be described as gorgeous, too.

And here, miracle of miracles, it is.

Thing To Do Today: be gorgeous. This word has come a merry route. It came to England from France, where gorgias meant elegant, and also wimple.

This is Anna Jugiellon, who was Queen of Poland. The wimple is the bit round her neck.

Gorgias came from gorge, meaning throat, and that came from the Latin gurges, which means whirlpool.

This is the whirlpool galaxy.

A fantastic journey, I think.

Monday 23 July 2012

Spot the frippet: birds' feet.

It's the way English works, isn't it: you just know that there are going to be all sorts of things called after birds' feet.

Does that tell us something profound about our brains, and how we use them? Quite possibly, but if it does I haven't a clue what.

Anyway. This:

is a goosefoot plant, the sort called Strawberry Blite, Chenopodium capitulatum. You can eat both the leaves and the nice red juicy-looking bits, but unfortunately they both taste of its fellow goosefoot plant, spinach.

The mangel-wurzel is a goosefoot too.

Then there are crows feet, which are very easily to be spotted in every school, office, shop, or factory...

Three Kinds Of Wrinkles

...and, unfortunately, in my mirror. (Though neither of these people is me.)

Of course birds almost always come with two feet...

Flamingo Outline Art Clip Art
(picture by Kelly)

...though not quite always.

Hensfoot, for instance, is in New Jersey, and Turkeyfoot is in North Carolina. But how about a crane's foot?

Crane Clip Art

We all have one of those. Really. Even some of our dogs and cats have them.

Oh yes you do, but you have to go back in history a little way to see how. We all got our crane's feet in the 1400s from France. You see, the French for crane's foot was pie de grue, and that gave us our word pedigree, because of the way the lines of our family trees spread across the page.

File:Robert Glover Pedigree de Euro.jpg
This is the pedigree of the de Euro family of Northumberland in England.
Neat, or what?

Spot the frippet: something with a pedigree.

The plant Chenopodium's name comes from the Greek words khēn, goose and pous, foot.

Sunday 22 July 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: gyrose.

No, of course you weren't intending to use the word gyrose.

You have much better taste than that, and in any case no sane person has a clue what it means.

Er...until now.

Gyrose means marked with winding lines.

Like the surface of your brain:

Brain Clip Art

Or a maze:

File:Wandiligong maze.jpg
This is Wandiligong Maze. Picture by Felix Dance.

Or a record:

Or this initial from the Book of Kells:

A close-up of the book's fine detail


hey, but it's a day of rest, isn't it.

Word Not To Use today: gyrose. This is a heavy word which almost no one understands and which I intent to forget as soon as possible. It comes from the Latin word gȳrus, which means circle.

Saturday 21 July 2012

Saturday Rave: The Fish and The Ring.

'Once upon a time, there was a mighty baron in the North Countrie who was a great magician that knew everything that would come to pass. So one day, when his little boy was four years old, he looked into the Book of Fate to see what would happen to him. And to his dismay, he found that his son would wed a lowly maid that had just been born in a house under the shadow of York Minster...'

Can there be anyone in the whole world who doesn't want to know what happens next?

This, as is obvious from the quotation above, is an English folk tale (though there have been similar tales told in mnay parts of the world). It was collected by the Australian Joseph Jacobs around the end of the 1800s.

The mighty baron is of course defeated in the end. The great thing about this story is that he gets defeated near the beginning, too. And in the middle.

As if this wasn't enough, the story also features some fine and crafty robbers.

And a ring and a fish, naturally.

Word To Use Today: baron. This word arrived in English from France in the 1100s. There was an Old High German word baro, which meant freeman, and an Old Norse word berjask, which means to fight, which might have had something to do with the word.

Friday 20 July 2012

Word To Use Today: spam.

Want to know about Spam? Then visit the Spam Museum in Austin, Texas. If you're there at the right time you may even catch the Spam Jam, the world's finest Spam Carnival.

If you go at the beginning of April you'll be able to take part in Spamarama, but that's not a serious celebration, it's just a bit of fun.

Spam was born in Austin, but it is now to be found in more than a hundred countries in many different forms. As well as Classic Spam you can get Spam Hot & Spicy, Spam with Bacon, Spam with Cheese...

...Hawaii, for instance, is famous for its Spam Musabi, which is spam on rice wrapped in nori seaweed.

Of course, as well as a kind of processed meat, spam is also electronic junk mail.

Unfortunately we all know all about that.

Word To Use Today: Spam. Spam was first made by the Hormel Company in Austin, Texas, USA in 1937. The word made up of the words spiced and ham.

Spam meaning electronic junk mail comes from a comedy sketch by Terry Jones and Michael Palin.

This one:

That's from Monty Python's Flying Circus. Early internet users flooded websites with the word Spam in imitation of the sketch, and a new word was born.

Spamalot is a Monty Python musical by Eric Idle, the computer programming language Python uses spam as one of its metasyntactic variables.

Oh, and spam is also a secret code written with genetically engineered bacteria: Stenography by Printed Arrays of Bacteria.

Thursday 19 July 2012

Growing nowhere: a rant.

My dad used to grow vegetables. Yes, I grew up on home-grown produce, and very good it was too. (I've tried to follow in Dad's footsteps, but mostly my efforts have turned out to be an elaborate and expensive slug-rearing exercise.)

Okay. What else grows, apart from vegetables and children?

Hair. Toe nails. Problems (as in I regarded my growing problems with horror); success (the growing success of the mine meant that soon it was employing seven dwarves); size (the number of ants in my sandwich is growing rapidly); friendship (we grew together  because of our shared love of barbed wire and antique underpants); and, lastly, feelings (I am growing morose).

Now, the reason I am growing morose is that, as if that's not a lot of work for one small word, grow, to do, the poor thing is being  brought in to do other jobs it can't quite manage.

Like this:

Grow your business

Growth and Improvement Service

Access information to help your business work better
  • Find videos, tools and case studies to help take your business forward
  • Search the events finder for business related training
  • Access government support online

(I'm afraid this is from a UK Government website.)

Look, you can't grow a business. No, really, you can't. A business can grow, but you can't grow it. Yes, I know what you mean, so I agree that it shouldn't matter, but, consider, there's always a chance your customers won't care to do business with language-manglers. Some customers don't.

Neither can you grow economics. In this case not only do I have no idea at all what the expression means, but I rather doubt anyone else does, either.

In the first case the word that's needed is develop. (In the second case, of course, I haven't a clue which word people need.)

Develop. Develop. It's not the loveliest word in the dictionary, but it doesn't deserve to disappear altogether.

And you wouldn't want me to develop a sense of despair, would you.

Word To Use Today: develop. This word comes from the Old French desveloper, to unwrap.

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Nuts and Bolts: out of order.

Here's a rule that most of us never think about.

It goes like this. When you describe something in English you first of all describe how many of them there are. Then you describe the thing's quality (that's what you think of it: nice, nasty, or peculiar, for example). Then its size, age, shape, colour, origin (a country, perhaps) and lastly purpose.

People don't usually use all of these categories to describe any one thing, but it can be done: three wicked big old knobbly red  Kentish spell-casting witches.*

If you use only a few adjectives then the order above is still used: for instance, number still comes before shape in six fat celebrities, and size comes before colour in enormous green bogies.

As far as I know you can't go wrong with that rule, though of course sometimes you can choose not to follow it. For instance a little old lady (which follows the rule) is an old lady of no more than average height who presents little apparent threat to anyone; but an old, little lady will be very small indeed.

Unfortunately the rule doesn't cover all words. Slimy, for instance. A big slimy old slug or a big old slimy slug or a slimy big old slug?

All I can say is that between them they've eaten half my garden.

Words that describe things are called adjectives, as it happens, but please don't be alarmed: I mean, you've been using them nearly all your life and one's never bitten you yet.

Word To Use Today: a string of nice juicy adjectives. The word adjective comes from the Latin word adjicere, which means to throw to.

* Not that Kentish witches are especially wicked, of course.

Tuesday 17 July 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: flirt.

What's wrong with flirting? you may ask. Flirting is fun.

Yes, but flirting is fun on the edge of danger. A motorcyclist flirts with disaster when he goes round a blind bend at seventy miles an hour; a trapeze artist flirts with death every time he goes to work; practically everyone who's ever taken an exam flirts with fate by being not revising all the syllabus.

As for the sort of flirting that takes place whenever we meet a possible partner, ooh, that's the most exhilarating and dangerous flirting of all.

If you must flirt (and really I'm afraid that we must) then take care.

Thing You Have Been Warned Not To Do Today: flirt. This word arrived in English in the 1500s. To start with it meant to sneer, but very soon it came to mean something witty. The word flirt may originally come from the Old French fleureter, which means to talk sweet nonsense, and is to do with fleur, flower, and the idea of a bee flitting from bloom to bloom.

Monday 16 July 2012

Spot the frippet: mop.

Have I mentioned the drought we've been having in England this year? It was made official in the Spring and since then it's rained just about every single day...except for the days when it's poured.

Yes, I think I have mentioned it from time to time, haven't I.

The good news is that the drought is now officially over. We can use our hosepipes again if we should wish to. Which we won't, because it's STILL RAINING. Rivers are bursting their banks, flood defences are submerged, towns are under water. It won't be hard to find a mop:

mop and bucket

 in use round here, I can tell you.

If you happen to live in a place where it hasn't rained for ever, then you might be able to spot another, hairy sort of mop, like this:

And if everyone around you is dry and impeccably groomed, then to mop (often in the expression to mop and mow) is to make a sad face:

Free Monster Clipart

Or, finally, a mop can be a hiring fair, especially for servants, who used to attend holding a mop to show they were looking for a job.

Hm. Perhaps, with unemployment as it is, we could do with a bit more of that sort of thing nowadays.

Spot the frippet: mop. The word meaning cleaning tool comes from the Latin mappa, which means napkin, and the word meaning sad face comes from the Dutch moppen to pout. It may also have something to do with the other Dutch word mop, which means pug dog. 

Sunday 15 July 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: factoid.

Here's an ugly little word.

Factoid was first used by Norman Mailer in his 1973 biography of Marilyn Monroe. He used the word to mean a piece of unreliable information which people believe to be true, either because it's repeated or simply because it's appeared in print.

Mailer said factoids were: "facts which have no existence before appearing in a magazine or newspaper, creations which are not so much lies as a product to manipulate emotion in the Silent Majority".

How do you spot a factoid? Well, sentences beginning with the word apparently often lead to them.

Apparently, the Great Wall of China is the only man-made object you can see from space.

Apparently, not eating breakfast stops your brain working properly. (Tell that to Sherlock Holmes.)

[There are] One million UK children not knowing where their next meal is coming from. (That's from Netmums in the media, by the way.)

Oh dear. No apparently with that one. Still, if you'll believe that... 

Now, all that's bad, but I'm afraid it gets worse. The word factoid has also come to mean something true but largely useless, like that the word strewth! is a shortened form of His (ie God's) truth.

This means that no one has a clue what anyone means when they use the word factoid and so, as the word is ugly as well as incomprehensible, there seems to be no reason for anyone using it ever again.

Word Not To Use Today: factoid. This word is made up of the word fact, which comes from the Latin factum meaning something done, and oid, which means likeness, and comes from the Greek eidos, which means form.

Saturday 14 July 2012

Saturday Rave: Enjoying Moths by Roy Leverton.

Yes, I know this seems an unlikely thing to do - enjoy moths?

Look at it this way: a new source of pleasure is not to be sneezed at, and this is a book to provide much delight.

'The Common Clothes Moth Tineola bisselliella...has been declining for half a century and is now local and scarce. I have not seen one for many years, though several of my jackets still bear feeding scars.'

It delighted me, anyway.

'Attracting this moth [the Convolvulus Hawk Moth] is pure self-indulgence. There is no conservation value as it hardly ever breeds here, [in Britain, though it occurs all over Europe, Africa and Australia] but only a puritan would cavil at such harmless pleasure.'

Who could possibly fail to be charmed?

Word To Use Today: moth. This word comes from the Old English word moththe, which is worth cherishing if only for its spelling.

File:Agrius convoluli (pupa).jpg
This is a pupa of a convolvulus hawk moth.

Incredible, or what?

Friday 13 July 2012

Word To Use Today: siren.

Siren is another contranym, now I come to think about it: it can mean a sound that warns you to get out of the way, or one that lures you closer.

The luring-closer sirens were originally sea nymphs whose singing lured sailors onto the rocks.

The Siren, by John William Water House (1900). Public Domain
This picture is by John William Water House, but of course no one's sure what sirens really look like. Apart from anything else, they're unlikely to exist. Here's another version:

The guy tied to the mast in this picture is Odysseus. The other people all have their ears stopped up with wax to stop themselves being lured onto the rocks.

The story of Odysseus and the sirens is ancient Greek, but there are still sirens about: any attractive woman can be called a sirens if she's using her beauty to exert power over people.

This modern sort of siren definitely exists.

Also definitely existing is the last sort of siren. You find these in North and parts of Central America, but only if you're prepared to look in damp places.

This is the Greater Siren, Siren lacertina. It's probably a sort of salamander, but it lacks hind legs and eyelids, and it has a horny beak. It can grow to nearly a metre in length and it eats slugs and snails (oh, I wish I had one in my garden) and sometimes fish. If there's a drought then they make themselves a burrow and then make themselves a water-tight coating with stuff that oozes out of them.

A habit, I would think, unlikely to lure anyone anywhere.

Word To Use Today: siren. This word arrived in English in the 1300s from France. The Old French word was sereine, from the Latin sīrēn, from the Greek seirēn.

Thursday 12 July 2012

Guarding the guards: a rant.

"Who will guard the guards themselves?" asked the Roman poet Juvenal. Only of course being a Roman he said it in Latin: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Here in Britain we have school inspectors, inspect schools and give them ratings such as outstanding, good, satisfactory, in need of improvement, that sort of thing.
The feeling at the moment is that the inspectors have been too generous with their ratings, and so from now on they're going to have to be fussier.
From September, I understand, the rating satisfactory will no longer be good enough.
This may, I suppose, be the birth of a new contranym, but personally it makes me want to curl up in a ball and cry.
Word To Use Today: satisfactory. This word comes from the French satisfier, from the Latin satis, enough and facere, to make or do.

Just for the record, satisfactory means good enough.


Wednesday 11 July 2012

Nuts and Bolts: wods.

A wod?

Oh, it's a word with a chunk missing from it.


Most words with chunks missing from them are either abbreviations or typing errors, but there are some words that have had chunks missing for so long that we leap over the gaps in them without even thinking about it.

These words are, rather unkindly, called defective. In English they're all verbs (that is, things that are done, like swimming or dancing or worrying).

Defective verbs are very common: they're mostly little words that we slip into sentences to skew the meaning a bit, like can, may, shall, and must.

For instance, we can't say I'd like to can to waggle my kneecaps. Instead we have to say I'd like to be able to waggle my kneecaps.

Do you must? is, sadly, impossible: so we say Do you have to? without even thinking about it.

Apart from these small common words, there are a few more verbs that have chunks missing. The word beware, for instance. You can say Beware of the gibbon! or you can say You want to beware of the gibbon, but saying He bewared of the gibbon isn't really English.

What can you say instead of He bewared of the gibbon?

He kept a wary eye open for the gibbon?

I think it's the best I can do, anyway.

Word To Use Today: defective. This word is from the Latin word dēficere, to forsake or fail.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Thing To Do Today: be nonchalant.

Be calm, be collected.

Be nonchalant.

So, don't get hot under the collar:

admire the curving lines of pretty red lights in the traffic jam ahead of you;

smile indulgently at the antics of all the funny little politicians;

wait for the next train;

notice the way the puddles reflect the silvery sky;

have a different sort of sandwich, then.

Make cool the new hot.

Thing To Do Today: be nonchalant. This word arrived in English in the 1800s from France. Their word nonchaloir means to lack warmth and came from the Latin word calēre, which means to be warm.

Monday 9 July 2012

Spot the frippet: scallop.

Does scallop rhyme with dollop (Sorry, I can't think of a proper word. And neither can my rhyming dictionary.)

Yes, scallops are mysterious things.

Dead, a scallop is tender and sweet. Alive, it's slightly sinister. Those dots round the edge of the scallop shell are all eyes. There may be as many as a hundred of them.

Watching you.

Scallops can come up on you surprisingly fast. Some swim (the Singing Scallops make a popping noise as they flap their shells) and some burrow.

Some are male, some are female, some are both - and some start off one and then swop to being the other.

Scallops are a sign of pilgrimage, especially of pilgrimage to Compostela to the shrine of St James. In mediaeval times someone who had been on a pilgrimage might wear a scallop shell on their hat in the same way that people nowadays use a holiday photograph on their Facebook profile. The scallop shell also acted as a begging bowl - pilgrims were allowed just as much food as they could scoop up in their scallop.

The scallop is also a symbol of new life, and this is why Aphrodite, goddess of love, has a connection with the scallop.

Second-century BC Greek terracotta from South Italy of Aphrodite flanked by cockle-shells
This statue was made in Southern Italy in the 2nd century BC.

So they're wonderful things, scallops. Tasty, too (though in Australia a scallop may be a sort of fried potato cake).

If you scallop something you may be decorating it with scallop shapes, and this may be the easiest way to spot one: on the edge of a sleeve or a lampshade or a pillar. Something baked with a covering of breadcrumbs is scalloped, too.

But do watch out for those hundred eyes...

Spot the Frippet: scallop. This word comes from the French word escalope, which means shell.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: scam.

The worst thing about the word scam is that it gives an affectionate tinge to a nasty thing. 

In India, where I'm told that people have to be particularly expert in surviving scams, there is a lovely term for a collection of scams, the rather bewitching scamayana.

Scambaiting is pretending to fall for a scam in order to waste the scammer's time, and perhaps to help bring him to justice. I like the sound of that.

Scam by itself is sneering, though.

And it's the wrong people who are being sneered at, I'm afraid.

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: scam. The Oxford English Dictionary says that scam is an obscure form of the word shame, but it's certainly not an obscure word nowadays, and I wonder if the source of our current word scam is entirely different.

I note that the ancient River Scamander was noted for its exceptionally devious course.

Saturday 7 July 2012

Saturday Rave: East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

East of the Sun, West of the Moon...somewhere where we can find our heart's desire.

That's what we all need to find, isn't it. We need first to discover our heart's desire, and then set out bravely to find it guided by our native wit and the wisdom of a thousand stories.

And that's what this story is about.

This wonderful Norwegian folk tale that was collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe. It has a white bear, a love story, a quest, and a cunning ruse to outwit a prospective mother-in-law.

Even without all these wonders, could anyone not be bewitched by the idea of a place so far away it can't exist in our world? It certainly bewitched JRR Tolkien:

Still round the corner there may wait
A new road or a secret gate,
And though I oft have passed them by,
A day will come at last when I
Shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.

An infinitude of wonders, only a step or a page away.

Word To Use Today: explore. This word is from the Latin plōrāre, to cry aloud. The people making all the noise were probably hunters sighting their prey.

I have to say that some of East of the Sun West of the Moon is very similar to the ancient Greek story of Cupid and Psyche. But it's none the worse for that.

Friday 6 July 2012

Word To Use Today: eclair.

Here's a treat for Friday:

Eclairs with chocolate icing at Cafe Blue Hills.jpg

Actually, now I come to look at the picture properly, three treats

(excuse me, I'm dribbling as I type).

There is a sort of éclair produced in some parts of the USA which is really a long doughnut filled with vanilla custard, but the original éclair, as shown here, is made with choux pastry and is filled with creamy stuff (perhaps even chestnut puree) and topped with icing.

If it's caramel icing then it's a bâton de Jacob.

The word éclair meaning a sort of cake arrived in English and French in the 1860s, but there are those who credit the very great chef Antonin Carême with its invention, even though he'd been dead thirty years by then.

Apart from cake, Éclair was a French camera firm. Éclair cameras are important, firstly because they developed an instant-change film-magazine system which allowed a freer form of shooting and made possible a new sort of film now called the French New Wave, and secondly because their NPR (Noiseless Portable Reflex) camera proved jolly useful for documentaries such as Woodstock. 

Though I would have thought that a bit of extra noise at Woodstock wouldn't have made a lot of difference, myself.

Word To Use Today: éclair. This word is the French for lightning. Whether it's because the cakes only last as long as lightning, or because the idea came like a flash of lightning nobody knows. Before that the word came from the Latin eclārāre, to make bright.


Thursday 5 July 2012

Total Immersion - a rant.

So, what is a shower moment, exactly?

Is it something that'll cause the roof on the Centre Court at Wimbledon to close?

I found this expression in an advertisement for Palmolive Aroma Therapy Absolute Relax Shower Gel, and apparently it's something which will massage my senses. Something which will make me unwind in the essence of relaxation (relax? Relax? When I'm reading this stuff?).

'Lose yourself in a relaxing shower moment...'

Look, you can have a moment of inspiration, or a moment of pain or of panic, but how can you have a moment of shower? 

A moment of shower is just a...drip.

In any case, how can anything massage my senses? You can massage my feet. You can massage some figures. But senses?

And how can anyone unwind relaxation, let alone the essence of it?

Please, please, my head is hurting. What does it all MEAN??????

Deeeeep breath.

And another.



I suppose the way to find out would be to buy some Palmolive Aroma Therapy Absolute Relax Shower Gel and try it out.

On the whole, though, I don't think I'll bother.

Word To Use Today: relax. This word comes from the Latin relaxāre, to loosen, from laxus, which means loose.

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Nuts and Bolts: more than symbols.

Words can be lovely, sour, barren, sweet, chiming, threatening, cruel, shimmering, flat, curvaceous...

Some ugly words are a nuisance, but then if something is nasty, then perhaps the word for it should be nasty, too.

Harsh, for example, isn't a very lovely word, but it is quite... well...harsh.

That must be a good thing. Mustn't it?

A lot of philosophers have spent a lot of time thinking about this sort of thing. Now, spending years thinking about something all too often stops people being able to explain anything very much about it to the rest of us, but how about this: how about if we divide words into those that describe themselves, and those that don't?

For instance, short is, indeed, a short word: but long isn't a long one.

Abbreviated isn't abbreviated, but outstretched is outstretched.

A polysyllable is a polysyllable, spelled is spelled, and word is a word.

On the other hand, a duck-billed platypus isn't of itself a duck-billed platypus. Neither are...well, most things. Like turnips, underpants and nostrils.

There are a few odd words which don't really fit into either category. Neologism, which means a new word, was indeed a new word when it was first made up, but now it's quite old.

Rhyming is sometimes rhyming: but here it isn't.When rhyming is chiming, though, it is.

The sort of word that means itself is called autological, and the sort of word which doesn't is called heterological.

But of course it's the thought that actually counts.

Word To Use today: an autological one. How about the name of a language you speak? You'll have to say it in that language, of course: English is English, but Anglais isn't.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Thing To Do Today: spend.

This illustration from David Copperfield is by Fred Barnard.

Charles Dickens' Mr Micawber famously said: 

"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."

Luckily, the bankers of the world agree with him.

Unfortunately it's Mr Micawber's other famous saying they agree with:

Something Mr Micawber used to say will turn up.

(I note with a sigh that Mr Micawber went to prison for debt and finally attained prosperity by getting a job in the public sector.)

Anyway. Spending. If we're British we spend pennies very regularly indeed, for here to spend a penny means to go to the lavatory.

But wherever we are, there's no avoiding spending. Even if we can manage not to spend any money, then we all must spend time constantly, whether it's on learning or playing or keeping ourselves from starving.

No wonder we end the day spent: that is, exhausted.

It's not just humans who get spent, either: a fish is spent when it's finished spawning, and a spent gnat is one that's lying on the water.

If we're shopping then we're probably spending in at least three difference ways (time, money, energy). It was Wordsworth's opinion that Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.

Now, there speaks a man with little dress sense and a wife and sister to look after him.

But there's no doubt he knew a thing or two, did old Wordsworth, for all that.

Thing To Do Today: spend. This word  comes from the Old English spendan, from the Latin expendere, from pendere, to weigh.

Monday 2 July 2012

Spot the frippet: symposium.

 As anyone who knows anything about words might guess, a symposium is an opportunity for people to get together and, well, pose.

Of course the real point of a symposium is to assemble a lot of experts in one place so they can solve the problems of the day.

There'll usually be a photograph involved.

And goodness knows we have enough problems, whether it's a need for a form of portable milk packaging which doesn't always spill itself down your crotch; or discovering why weeds are invisible until they're too big to remove without the chemical resources of one of the major economies and an excavator; or, indeed, the many problems of shoelaces; all these and many other difficulties can be addressed by a good symposium.

You may be asking how a symposium can be spotted by those of us who live far away from the intellectual cut-and-thrust, but, really, this is where the posing comes in. All you need for a symposium are two people and a problem. Or, at a stretch, one person and a dog.

So, don't chat about last night's telly, have a symposium on the moving image. Don't copy each other's homework, have a symposium on geometry, or Shakespeare, or the formation of mountain ranges. If someone asks you where you're going, don't say down the pub or to Starbucks/the canteen, say to a symposium.

And in that case, as you'll see below, you'll actually not be posing at all.

Spot the frippet: symposium. The pos in symposium is, very sadly, not really to do with posing. The word symposium has come to us from the Greek word sumposion, from sumpinein, which means to drink together, from sum-, which means together, and pinein, which means to drink.

The word symposium is used even now to mean a drinking party, ideally with clever conversation, and perhaps music.

Sunday 1 July 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: bogong.

You wouldn't want to be a bogong.

Would you?

For a start, you'd have to migrate up to a thousand kilometres every summer, travelling by night and resting in the shade during the day.

Mind you, you wouldn't have to negotiate Heathrow Airport.

It wouldn't be an easy journey, though. You'd be likely to be distracted by the bright lights of the towns. You'd also be in danger of being eaten by...well, more or less everybody.

bogong, you see, is a moth. Agrotis infusa.

Bogongs can't resist the bright lights, particularly those of Canberra in Australia. Buildings there can become covered with a thick coating of moths in the migration season.

In some of the Alpine caves where bugongs spend the summer there is a carpet of dead moth bodies 1.5 metres thick, built up from thousands of generations.

Bogongs are born around Queensland, but as the summer heat approaches they begin to move. They may fly several hundred kilometres each night, feeding on flowering gum trees as they go.
Some time in November, the moths arrive near Mount Bogong in the Bogong National Park. Up to 17,000 moths per square metre can pack the walls of the caves.

Spiders, lizards, birds, and the Mountain Pygmy Possums all start licking their lips.

So, until quite recently, did humans. Aboriginal people would come to the caves to carry out business, hold ceremonies...and eat the fatty moths.


You can burn off the wings and legs and then mash them, or you can mix them with flour to make a sort of moth biscuit. 

Sadly, the moths now contain arsenic, so they're a less tempting snack than before...

...if that were possible.

Word Not To Use Today: bogong. This seems to be an Australian aboriginal word. It may mean big fella, and orginally be the name of the mountains where they aestivate*. Or, alternatively, the mountains may be named after the moth.

*That's like hibernating, but it's done during the summer.