This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 31 August 2012

Word To Use Today: silicide.

Pesticides kill pests, herbicides kill herbs, insecticides kill insects, and silicides...

...are, luckily, nothing at all to do with killing silly people.

(Good grief, the world would be a lonely place if all the silly people were wiped out. Let's face it, The Word Den would probably be one of the first victims.)

As it happens, a silicide is nothing to do with killing at all. Silicides are all substances with silicon in them.

Sodium silicide is used to make fuel hydrogen, and it's also being used in a new sort of mobile phone charger which will run on water. It can even run on puddle water as long as it isn't muddy.

Magnesium silicide is used to make very hard aluminium alloys, platinum silicide is used to make infrared detectors, especially for looking into space, and tungsten silicide is used in microelectronics.

A silicide is made by a process is called salicide.


Now, I'm worried....

Word To Use Today: silicide.

I think the idea of a water-powered phone charger is marvellous. Do spread the word.

The word silicide comes from silica, from the Latin word silex, which means hard stone or flint.

Thursday 30 August 2012

Unprecendented deja vu: a rant.

So who can you trust?

Satellites See Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Surface Melt

That's a headline from the NASA website.

Well, you must be able to trust NASA, surely. They're scientists, after all. They're the ones who do clever things like putting traffic on Mars.

Here's more from NASA:

As a whole, they [that's the satellite pictures] provide a picture of an extreme melt event about which scientists are very confident.

Hmmm...very confident. That's one of those uses of very which just raise awful doubts.

Here's some more:

"Ice cores from Summit show that melting events of this type occur about once every 150 years on average. With the last one happening in 1889, this event is right on time," says Lora Koenig, a Goddard glaciologist and a member of the research team analyzing the satellite data.

Once every 150 years...but hey, what was that headline?

Satellites See Unprecedented Greenland Ice Sheet Surface Melt

Hm. Clearly a use of the word unprecedented with which I was not previously familiar.

We'll just have to hope that NASA is better with sums than headlines, won't we.

Word To Use Today: unprecedented. This word means has never happened before. The word comes from the Latin words prae, before, and cedēre, to move, with an un at the beginning which means (pretty much) not.



Wednesday 29 August 2012

Nuts and Bolts: the world's oyster.

English, like a fruit salad, is full of delights from all over the world.

The word hammock, for instance, comes to us from a language called Taino, which was spoken by some of the people of Caribbean.

Kylie comes from Noongar, an Australian aboriginal language (it means throwing stick).

Mojo comes from from the Senegal River valley. It's the Fula word for medicine man.

Tea is from the Chinese city of Xiamen, a word of the language usually called Amoy

Person is probably an Etruscan word, phersu, which meant mask. (Etruscan was spoken in Italy before the Romans took over.)

Bangle is Urdu, from Bāngṛī बांगड़ी.

Chipmunk is from the Odawa  jidmoonh. Odawa is a native language of Canada and the USA.

And bosh is Turkish.

I could go on like this almost for ever. Speaking English involves showering oneself with exotic jewels.

But is much much cheaper.

Word To Use Today: one from a really surprising language. How about bosh, meaning rubbish. That'll be fun - and easy, too.

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: quarrel.

Yes, yes, he's an obnoxious idiot.

Yes, so is she.

And as for them...good grief! How on earth can anyone THINK that?



Sometimes it is a good, honest, and necessary to take a stand. But you know you'll be a lot better off if you do it calmly and thoughtfully, don't you.

Anyway, just think how much it'll annoy the person you're disagreeing with.

But beware, beware, for there is an even worse sort of quarrel than a shouting match; one that's even more to be avoided then the arguing kind.

This sort of quarrel is an arrow with a four-edged head, and it's fired from a crossbow:

File:Crossbow (PSF).png

Not good at all. In fact the only quarrel I can really recommend is a small square or diamond-shaped pane of glass like one of these:

 Mystical Window

See the light, don't feel the heat!

Thing Not To Do Today: quarrel. The word meaning argument comes from the Latin word querī, to complain.

The word meaning arrow and piece of glass comes from the Mediaeval Latin quadrellus, which means little square.

Monday 27 August 2012

Spot the frippet: spud.

We're going to have to get down and dirty, here.


Well, the easiest sort of spud to spot will probably be a potato:


whether in its natural growing form:

Potato flowers
(these are potato flowers)

 sliced thinly as crisps (as we call them in England):


in long rectangular prisms as chips (also known as fries), or sautéed, mashed, creamed, hashed, roasted, caked, boiled or baked.

If you're spud-bashing then you'll have no trouble spotting spuds  because it means peeling potatoes. It's a British military term, to describe a spell of potato-peeling given as a punishment.

(Does this go to show that a soldier is less tough in some ways than your average housewife?)

Another sort of spud is a narrow spade designed for cutting through roots or digging up weeds. A spud (or spudder) is a tool a bit like a chisel for removing the bark from trees.

To spud can either be to use one of these tools, or, oddly, to start drilling an oil well.

Spud Island is more properly known as Prince Edward Island. I suppose it's because they grow spuds there.

Spot the frippet: spud. This word appeared in English as spudde in the 1400s, when it meant short knife. It was later used for the digging tool, and then by extension for the potato. The word is possibly connected to the Latin spatha, which means blade.

In the 1800s there was a group dedicated to keeping the potato out of Britain. It was called the Society for the Prevention of an Unwholesome Diet.  It was named after the vegetable, not the other way round.

Sunday 26 August 2012

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: feculent.


This word sounds dirty and disgusting, but as that's what it means I suppose it's fair enough.

Feculent: filthy, scummy, muddy or foul.

Or, containing waste matter.


Word Not To Use Today: feculent. This word comes from the Latin word faeculentus, from faecēs, which is the plural of faex, which means dregs or sediment.

The other reason for not using this word, of course, is that no one will have a clue what you're on about.

Saturday 25 August 2012

Saturday Rave: The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carol Collodi.

I've never got very far with watching the Disney version of Pinocchio.

It's the cricket.


Carlo Collodi's original story is wild and bonkers, as is Geppetto's home-made marionette Pinocchio. Pinocchio is forever being imprisoned, fooled, hanged, or eaten, but, hey, he always bounces back, and in the end (which wasn't Collodi's original ending, which was very sad) he makes good.

Oh, and that fairy. In the original story she isn't blue at all, she just has turquoise hair. She starts off as Pinocchio's substitute sister and ends up as his substitute mother.

Well, why not? It's that sort of a story. Wild and quite quite bonkers.

Word To Use Today: marionette. This word comes to us from French, and manages to be a sort of double diminuative. Marie has been 'shortened' to Marion, and the ette is another way of making something smaller (as in cigarette).

The original Pinocchio, though, was quite tall. For a puppet.

By the way, while I'm here, perhaps I should mention the Pinocchio paradox. Pinocchio's nose grows when he tells a lie, so what happens when he says "my nose will grow now"?

I don't know, either. It's interesting, though, isn't it.

Friday 24 August 2012

Word To Use Today: sanction.

Sanction is contranym: that is, a word which means both itself and its own opposite. 

Contranyms are, of course, very confusing for everyone.

Does sanction mean to give permission for something to happen...

...or, as when you're imposing sanctions, to do your best to stop it happening?

Good grief, it's no wonder the countries of the world are always squabbling. Even if they manage to work out what everyone means by the word sanction, then ten to one they'll get in a mess deciding whether to table a motion in the sanction's support; because in some parts of the world tabling a motion means putting it forward for a vote, and in others it means not putting it forward for a vote. So that's another contranym.

Perhaps diplomats should restrict themselves to offering each other biscuits, smiling, and showing each other pictures of their grandchildren.

I think it might save the world a lot of trouble.

Word To Use Today But Only Accompanied By A Smile And The Offer Of A Biscuit: sanction. This word looks as if it's something to do with the Latin word sanctus, which means holy, but it isn't: it comes from the Latin word sancīre, which means to decree.

By the way, a sanction mark is to be found on French furniture of the 1800s which has met the standards of the Parisian guild of ebonists. Ebonists make furniture in ebony:

File:Kamagong (Ironwood) Chair.jpg

like this.

Thursday 23 August 2012

Bird-brained: a rant.

Such small things, commas, but capable of bestowing much joy.

I came across a lovely one - or, rather, failed to come across it - in The Guardian of 28th July 2012, in a review of a book called Paris by Julian Green.

Born in Paris in 1900 to American parents, Green spent most of his life there. He wrote in French and Penguin...

...and this of course filled me with amazement, longing, and wonder.

A book in Penguin?

I have had books translated into quite a few languages - Hungarian, as well as Chinese, Slovenian, Catalan, Thai and even American English amongst them - and previously my ambition has been to have a book translated into hieroglyphs, like Peter Rabbit.

But now, oh, Penguin! I want a book in Penguin! It doesn't have to be by me, I just want to look at it, learn it, read and speak it, even if it involves having my ankles tied together and doing a lot of huddling.

He wrote in French and Penguin...

...are to congratulated for publishing this as a bilingual edition.


Penguin are just the publishers, then.


I'd still like to have a book in Penguin, though.

Or even guinea pig would do.

Word To Use Today: penguin. This word is, astonishingly, probably Welsh. If it is, it's from pen, head, and gwyn white.


But penguins have mostly black heads. Don't they?

Wednesday 22 August 2012

Nuts and Bolts: sic.


I can't think of another word which is so often locked up in brackets, poor thing.

I suppose it's free in sic transit gloria mundi* but otherwise sic is almost always imprisoned.

As often as not it's misused, too.

(Sic) is generally used after a quotation, which is fine: but (sic) is much too often used to mean good grief, how stupid is that? Or don't think for a moment that I actually agree with that statement.

What (sic) really means is: although that quotation has something wrong with it, the mistake is in the original, not put in when I copied it.

Basically, (sic) means this is their error, not mine.

So, for instance in "the Olympic champion was absolutely at the peak of fatness" (sic) we know we're laughing at the idiot who originally wrote that.

(Sic) comes in especially useful with spelling mistakes. We wouldn't want anyone to think we would write give peas a chance ourselves, or do what the copy editor of the very serious novel once did, and print the River Ouseburn as the River Ousebum. 

That small error still gives me joy; and so does the one in another novel where a man in the depths of despair and anguish exclaims dramatically: 'Oh Cod!'


I bet the poor writer was. As the proverbial parrot.

Word To Use Correctly Today: sic. Sīc is the Latin for thus. In English sic is short for sic erat scriptum, which means thus it was written. 

Sic is sometimes also used as a Scots form of such, which is rather lovely.

It's also occasionally used as an order to a dog to attack, but then it's not lovely at all.

*On Monday, Gloria was ill in the van.**

**Oh, all right. It really means thus passes the glory of the world.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Thing To Do Today: hobnob.

Why be alone when there are people all over the place longing for a good hobnob?

Hobnob is a word I haven't heard for a long time, but it would be dreadful if it died out. It means to hang around [with someone] for some purpose or other. Mind you, the purpose may only be a good gossip or a good drink.

As if that wasn't enough to bring the word hobnob to everyone's lips, a Hobnob is a very excellent brand of biscuit, small, crunchy and buttery:

Photo by Sargant.

The question would you like a Hobnob? is possibly the most endearing in the English language, and it makes the forming of a life-long friendship almost certain.

Why not have a good hobnob today.

Thing To Do Today: hobnob. This word appeared in the 1700s. It came from the expression hob or nob, which meant to take turns to drink to each other, and so to be friends. It comes originally from the Old English words habban to have and nabban not to have.

Monday 20 August 2012

Spot the frippet: cobble.

A cobble isn't just any old round bit of rock, you know.

No, to be an official cobble it has to be 64 - 256 millimetres across. That's what the geologists say.

Any bigger than that and it's a boulder; any smaller and it's a pebble.

If you can't spot any of that sort of cobble, then perhaps you might find a cobbler, which is either someone who makes or mends shoes, a fruity alcoholic drink, or a hot fruit pie covered in a crust of what I'd call scone mix but which I believe in the USA would be called biscuit.

If you're in Australia you might find Bidens pilosa, a weed known there as cobbler's pegs:

 Bidens pilosa.jpg

And if none of those things are to be found then I'm sure there'll be something near you that's been cobbled together, or assembled in an insecure way.

Something like this, perhaps:


 Or this:

Or even a blog post...

A load of old cobblers is a lot of nonsense, which will be the easiest thing in the world to spot. My Collins dictionary says that expression is hardly rude at all, but I couldn't recommend it for formal use.

Word To Use Today: cobble. The word meaning stone is probably something to do with the Icelandic kobbi, which means seal (I assume that's the animal sort of a seal). No one knows where the shoe-making word comes from, but the drink may be a shortened form of cobbler's punch, and the word meaning nonsense is rhyming slang, and is a shortened form of cobblers' awls.

Sunday 19 August 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: hemipode.

What's a hemipode?

Well, hemi means half, and the pode bit is to do with podos, which means foot.

So. A half-foot...

...nope. No idea at all. What has only half a foot?

Half a slug? 

Whatever it is, the poor thing has the ugliest, heaviest, most clumping name.

As it turns out, the hemipode not only has two feet but also a rather lovely alternative name.

A hemipode is a button quail. Button quails are little round birds that run about in warm grasslands and look very much like ordinary quails, though they're probably really specially adapted shorebirds: that means their aunts and cousins include the avocet, the herring gull, and the jack snipe.

This hemipode is a quail-plover, from Africa.

This is a painted button quail from Southern and Eastern Australia.

Button quails are small but peculiar. Not only do the ladies wear the brightest feathers and keep several husbands at a time, but they also do all the chatting-up, and require the male to do all the hatching and looking after the babies.

How do the females do it? Well, they do have a unique stracture in their chests which means they can make a surprisingly loud booming noise, so I rather suspect it comes down to nagging.

And the half-foot thing? Well, they don't have a hind toe. But, I don't know, that's a bit like calling a rhinoceros a trunkless.

Word Not To Use Today: hemipode. Unless you have koumpounophobia* then button quail is a much brighter and friendlier way of describing the members of the family Turnicidae. 

I mean, you really don't want to get on the wrong side of one of those females, do you.

Hemipode really does mean half-foot in Greek.

*A fear of buttons.

Saturday 18 August 2012

Saturday Rave: The Frog Prince.

The proper title of this story is The Frog Prince or Iron Henry.

And who, you may ask, is Iron Henry?

Well, he's the poor guy who's got air-brushed out of our usual version of the story.

Nowadays the story starts with the princess losing her ball in the pond and the frog retrieving it for her.

(May I just remark here that the princess is an entitled little beast (and not just literally)? Mind you, in the older versions of the story she is even worse, because there she breaks the spell that's changed the prince into a frog by throwing him against a wall. And still he marries her. Good grief.)

But in former versions the story starts with the poor prince and Iron Henry. Iron Henry is the prince's faithful servant. The Iron bit is because, to stop his heart breaking with sorrow when his master is turned into a frog, Henry builds a cage of iron round it.

Now that's genuine love, I reckon: and it casts a new light on all the relationships in the story. Doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: henry. There have been many kings called Henry, and they've been a mixed bunch; but Good King Henry:

 is a sort of edible weed-type thing, Chenopodium bonus-henricus.

A henry, symbol H, is the unit of electric inductance (sorry, I've read the definition several times but I still don't understand what that means) and Henry's Law is to do with the rate at which gasses dissolve into liquids. The unit is named after Joseph Henry the US physicist, and the law after William Henry the English chemist.

Henry comes from the German name Haimric, which means home ruler. In mediaeval times you said it Harry.

Friday 17 August 2012

Word To Use Today: sumptuous.

Sumptuary laws are ones which aim to restrain luxury, especially by limiting people's spending.

They've rather gone out of fashion, haven't they. Hurray!

So let's have a sumptuous feast:

Peter Claesz. Still Life with a Peacock Pie. 

Peacock pie? Can that be more sumptuous than a juicy peach?

In any case, whatever you eat, why not do it dressed in sumptuous silk?

Jacob Andiaensz

Or velvet:

Jacopo Amigoni.

While ingesting some sumptuous verse:

A casement high and triple-arch’d there was,
All garlanded with carven imag’ries
Of fruits, and flowers, and bunches of knot-grass,
And diamonded with panes of quaint device,
Innumerable of stains and splendid dyes,
As are the tiger-moth’s deep-damask’d wings;
And in the midst, ’mong thousand heraldries,
And twilight saints, and dim emblazonings,
A shielded scutcheon blush’d with blood of queens and kings.

(That's from The Eve of St Agnes by John Keats.)

And that luxury is absolutely free.

Word To Use Today: sumptuous. This word comes from the Old French somptueux, from the Latin sumptuōsus, which means costly, from sumptus, expense, from sūmere, to spend.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Decimate: a rant.

Decimate means reduce by a large amount. I think it's the only word in the English language which does mean that, which makes it extra precious.

I'm not agreeing with those who insist that decimate must be used only in its original meaning (which was a system of punishment which involved one randomly selected Roman soldier in ten being killed by his nine comrades). That would shut up a valuable word in a box where it's not going to get a lot of daylight.

I can't see anything wrong with something like the string section of the orchestra was decimated by flu.

I can't see why decimate must always refer to humans, either. Oliver Cromwell came up with a decimating ten per cent tax in 1655. I don't know if it was understandable thing to do, but it was certainly comprehensible.

On the other hand, using decimate to mean destroy or hurt weakens a valuable word of unique meaning, and people who do this deserve to have their belly buttons invaded by palsied dust bunnies.

That's people who write stuff like: the muggers physically decimated him.

Or: when I found out it wasn't fancy dress after all I was, like, totally decimated.

Decimate. It means reduced by an important amount.

Otherwise use annihilate, embarrass, destroyed, devastated...


Word To Use Today But Only If The Circumstances Demand It: decimate. This word comes from the Latin word decimāre, from decem, ten.

If you're hung up over the ten bit I suggest you channel your energies into a campaign to get December reinstated as the tenth month of the year.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

Nuts and Bolts: pangrams.

Here are three examples of perfect pangrams:

Pójdźże, kiń tę chmurność w głąb flaszy!

That's Polish. It means Come on, drop your sadness into the depth of a bottle!

Lynx c.q. vos prikt bh: dag zwemjuf!

That's Dutch and translates, bizarrely, as Lynx, in this case fox, stings bra: hello swim teacher!

And, lastly,

Cwm fjord veg balks nth pyx quiz.

Believe it or not, that one is in English (but not, obviously, English as we know it). Normal English would give this as: Relaxing in basins at the end of inlets terminates the endless tests from the box.

So. Can you guess what a pangram is, yet?

A pangram is a phrase which uses every letter of the alphabet. A perfect pangram uses each letter only once. That Polish example is wonderful because it actually makes sense, but no English example does as far as I know, though Jump dogs, why vex Fritz Blank QC? isn't bad if you're prepared to accept foreign proper names and abbreviations.

Allow an extra letter or so and things improve: Bright vixens jump; dozy fowl quack.

Of course the best-known example is The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Pangrams are really only useful for testing a keyboard or a typist, but they're harmless enough as long as they don't become an obsession.

There is a slightly saner version of the pangram which includes not every letter but every diacritical mark (they're what we usually call accents). I like this Swedish one: Ölälskaråsna because it means Beer-loving donkey.

Thing To Use Today: a pangram. Well, why not. You can make sure all the letters on your keyboard are working.

The word pangram comes from the Greek pan gramma, which means every letter.

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Thing To Do Today: sigh.

Now, here's something we can all do: sigh.

It's all right, there's no need to be sad about it. We can sigh with pleasure as we throw ourselves into an armchair. Sigh with relief as we find the shop still has some of those voluptuous and decadent  chocolate doughnuts.

Sigh with delight (or possibly with revulsion, according to taste) at a baby's smiling face .

Sigh at the beauty of a sunset.

Sigh with yearning at a diamond. Or a beautiful young thing. Or a pony. Or a skirt.

On the other hand if you enjoy complaining you can sigh with annoyance as that dropped coin rolls under the fridge, or as it starts raining AGAIN, or as your garden gets over-run by luminous wombats who insist on eating your garden furniture and singing drunkenly in the moonlight.

But hey, don't just sigh if that happens. Make a video.

And a fortune on YouTube.

Do send us a link.

Thing To Do Today: sigh. This word comes from the Old English word sīcan, but no one knows where it came from before that.

Monday 13 August 2012

Spot the frippet: glove.

That's the way to do it!

In England we have Punch and Judy Shows, which are performed on the beach for the delight of small children. That's the way to do it! is Punch'  The shows are extremely violent and ugly and most young children find them utterly hilarious.

Punch and Judy and all their friends are glove puppets:

Here's a close-up:

If you can't spot a glove puppet of any kind anywhere (which would be very sad) then there are always oven gloves, goalkeeper's gloves, thermal gloves...

A glove compartment is to be found in the dashboard on the passenger side of a car. It contains maps of places you haven't  visited for months, half a tube of dusty sweets, and various letters that used to be urgent. Almost never gloves.

A glove box doesn't contain gloves either. It's a box with gloves sealed into the sides of it for handling toxic or radioactive substances.

If you're hand-in-glove, you and an associate are planning something closely; if you're handling someone with kid gloves then you're being very gentle and cautious. But if the gloves are off then you're being frank and merciless.

These are the sort of gloves that are off in that expression:

They're used, of course, to prevent serious injury when boxing...

...though not hitting each other at all would, I think, be even safer.

Spot the frippet: glove. This word comes from the Old English word glōfe, and is related to the Old Norse glōfi.

Oh, and by the way: bare-knuckle boxing was much less lethal than the wearing glove kind. It meant, you see, that it was the hands that got injured, rather than the head.

Sunday 12 August 2012

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: trampoline.


This is a horrible word, isn't it.

It sounds like something invented in the 1930s for getting the juice out of grapes.

It also sounds as if it's got something to do with trampling, but if you look at the history of the word it's actually something to do with stilts.

Hm...trampolining on stilts...

Now that would be worth seeing.

Word Not To Use Today: trampoline. Trampoline started off as a trade name. Trampolines were invented by George Nissen and Larry Griswold in 1936. The word is an English version of the Spanish trampolin, which means diving board.  Trampolin came from the Italian word trampolino, which came from trampoli, stilts, and was originally probably something to do with the German word trampen, to hitchhike.


Saturday 11 August 2012

Saturday Rave: The Sheep Pig by Dick King Smith

Sometimes you need a mystery to draw you through a book, and sometimes all you need is the hope of a happily-ever-after.

The Sheep Pig is a fine example of the happily-ever-after type of story.

The book is full of characters to love, admire, and care about.  There's lots of fun, although it's not all happy all the way through.

Even in the first hour he learned a number of useful lessons, as the puppies had learned before him: that cats scratch and hens peck, that turning your back on the turkey-cock means getting your bottom bitten, that chicks are not for chasing and eggs are not for eating.

But Babe the pig knows something that even Mum the sheepdog has never learned.

It gives him a chance to save his bacon.

Word To Use Today: pig. This word first appeared, as pigge, in the 1200s.

No one has any idea at all from where it came.

Friday 10 August 2012

Word To Use Today: baton.

Useful things, batons.

You can conduct a band with one:

 use them to show how important you are:

This picture is looks as if it was painted by Anthony Van Dyke, but it wasn't.

the baton in this picture shows a marshall's baton.

You can twiddle them in a parade:

Bedford River Festival. Photo Simon Speed.
 or, if you're a member of the police, use them to persuade people to behave.

A baton on a shield looks like this:

File:Chambers 1908 Baton Sinister.png

in this case, as the baton runs diagonally across the shield from right to left, it shows that parents of the owner of the shield weren't married. This sort of baton is usually called a bar sinister (sinister means it points to the left (if you're carrying the shield)) but it isn't a bar at all. It's a baton.

A bâton de commandement is a rod made from an antler in prehistoric times.

They were probably used when making shafts for arrows and spears.

Baton Rouge is the capital of Louisiana.

A baton round isn't anything at all to do with batons in any shape or form. It's the official name for a plastic bullet. Ouch.

A baton is also a stick passed from one runner to another in a relay race. It is traditionally dropped by at least one of the better teams.

Word To Use Today: baton. This word comes from the French word bâton, from the Latin bastium, a rod, and probably from the Greek bastazein, to lift up or carry.

The town of Baton Rouge got its name when the French explorer d'Iberville discovered a reddish pole festooned with bloody animals which marked the boundary between the Houma and Bayou Goula hunting grounds. He called the site le bâton rouge, or the red stick.

Thursday 9 August 2012

A Kingdom United: a rant.

If the United Kingdom were a family, it would be the sort of family where, when one person wants to go swimming, one person wants to go shopping and the others want to go to the cinema, they would all say, okay, have a nice time, see you later, and go off happily.

Member countries of the United Kingdom are seldom doing the same thing or even looking in the same direction.

Just occasionally, though, someone comes along and unites us. It's usually a comedian, but just sometimes it's a politician.

Even more occasionally it's a foreign politician.

Still, Mitt Romney did it.

No, no, we didn't mind him saying that the Olympics didn't seem to be very well organised. We never expected the Olympics would be well organised (and if we did, we would have thought it both bad manners and hubris to admit it). But when Mr Romney said he could see an Olympic site out of the backside of 10, Downing Street we were all united in one great cheer of sheer joy.

Because, I'm afraid, in Britain backside means buttocks.

And obviously, every government backside has to be left entirely unobstructed in case someone needs to make an announcement.

Word To Use Today: backside. This word has meant rump for a long time: the first mention of it in my Oxford English Dictionary is from a 1500 version of Robin Hood.
The meaning out-buildings or privy is later (1541) and is marked as a dialect term, though I suppose it must have greater currency in the USA.
Back comes from the Old English word bæc and is related to the Old High German bah.
Side comes from the Old English sīde, and is related to the Old High German sīta.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Nuts and Bolts: epinikia.

Pindar was the most famous writer of epinikia, or victory odes:

but my hero was Simonides.

Yes, Simonides was the first writer to charge for his work.

Pindar wrote most of his odes to celebrate victories in the Greek Games. There were four lots of Games in those days: as well as the Olympian Games they had the Pythian, Isthmian and Nemean Games as well (oh, HURRAY for modern times).

A victory at the Games in those days was a sign of the great riches of the athlete's* home town, and got the town a lot of respect. An epinikion would be performed in the victor's home town, perhaps on the anniversary of his victory. It would probably be sung and danced by a chorus to the music of a phorminx:

 or an aulos:

A epinikion would usually consist of a bit of praise of a god (Pindar never mentioned the gods' naughtier deeds) then go on to say how great the victor was - a real community man, a complete hero - and then end up with a warning to him not to forget he was just a man.

No one has ever found Pindar's odes easy to understand. The comedian Eupolis, who was born just a few years after Pindar's death, said that Pindar's odes would never last because people couldn't be bothered with all that elegant learning.

He had a point. But, hey, he was wrong, wasn't he. I mean, two and a half millinnia after he wrote his odes people are still wondering what on earth he was going on about.

If epinikia seem to have gone out of fashion, consider this: Nike was the goddess of victory. Think of that as you lace your trainers.

Thing To Compose Today: an epinikion. Well, why not? Epinikion is a Greek word. The epi bit means on and the nike bit means victory.

*Usually an athlete, though sometimes a musician.

Tuesday 7 August 2012

Thing To Do Today: jump.

No, it's all right, this needn't require too much effort. You can jump a fence if you like, but if not you can always jump on a bus - though please don't jump the bus, because that would mean travelling without paying.

You could jump-start a car with jump leads (but don't jump any traffic lights once you've done it).

You can jump one piece over another at draughts (checkers) to take it, or make a jump bid at bridge to show a very strong hand - behaviour which may make your partner jump with surprise.

You can jump bail, or jump a queue - though, again, I'd rather you didn't.

 I suppose, if too exhausted even for any of this, you could even jump a few lines of this post.

In Britain we all of us wear jumpers though in the USA they don't, because while the British jumper is a sweater, the US jumper is a pinafore dress. 

We can all wear a jump suit, though, if we have the figure for it and don't mind looking like aliens.

There are those of us who jump all the time - jumping spiders, jumping mice:

 jumping beans, and jump jockeys (who race over jumps).

Best of all, in the Caribbean we can have a jump-up, which is a carnival, or elsewhere we can have a jump, which can be a dance.

So let's all jump to it, shall we?

Thing To Do Today: jump. This word arrived in the 1500s and is said to be an imitation, my Collins dictionary isn't saying of what, exactly. Jumper meaning an item of clothing comes from the Old French jupe from the Arabic jubbah, a long loose coat.

Monday 6 August 2012

Spot the frippet: pommel.

Here's a lovely brave, galloping word: pommel.

To spot one you may have to find a horse or a camel.

Well, its saddle, at least.

The pommel is the raised section on the front of the saddle. This picture is of a mediaeval-type saddle. The pommel is jolly  important for stopping you falling off your mount when you're fighting in a battle.

If you're hunting, though, and having to jump hedges, a big pommel like that is jolly uncomfortable, so a hunting saddle has a much smaller pommel, like this:

The Scythians seem to have invented the pommel in about 500BC.

If you happen to spot a knight in shining armour (you never know) then you might score a double frippet, because as well as his saddle the end of his sword is likely to have a pommel, too, like this:

Well, actually nothing like that because that is a rapier which is no good at all against shining armour, but you get the idea. The pommel is the knob at the end of the hilt. Pommels started off as a means of stopping people dropping their swords, and later became a counterweight to the blade.

Lastly, there's a pommel horse:

Schuhmann cavallo atene 1896.jpg

But where on earth you might see someone using one of those I've no idea at all.

Spot the frippet: pommel. This word comes from the Old French pomel, knob, from the Latin pōmum, which means apple.

Sunday 5 August 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: pankration

Pankration sounds like a very dirty cooking implement, but in fact it's TOTAL COMBAT.

Like this:

It was one of the original contests in the Olympic Games and was a mixture of wrestling and boxing.

The rules were simple: no biting and no eye-gouging. Everything else was fine.

Yes, pankration really separated the men from the boys...ah, come to think about it that was another rule: they had separate boys' matches.

There were no time limits. The fight went on until there was a submission or until the referees, who carried big sticks, stopped the bout.

Pankration is said to have been invented by the two heroes Heracles and Theseus. It was a good job they did, too, because Heracles needed pankration to sort out the Nemean lion:

Hercules And The Nemean Lion - Italian School
Italian School.

 and Theseus needed it to sort out the Minotaur:


The best thing of all about pankration as far as I'm concerned is that it's no longer an Olympic sport.

Otherwise the Games would go on even longer.

Word Not To Use Today: pankration. This word is Greek and comes from pan, which means all, and kratos, which means power.

Saturday 4 August 2012

Saturday Rave: The Hare and The Tortoise by Aesop.

This is the story where the boastful hare is challenged to a race by the tortoise, but the hare accidentally falls asleep (twice) and so the tortoise gets to the finishing line first.

The Tortoise and the Hare, by Arthur Rackham
This picture was drawn by Arthur Rackham.

There are two interesting things about this story: firstly, it's nice (especially for children) that the slow, small, weak one comes out on top for once.

Secondly, the hero, the tortoise, is not only deeply dull but bonkers with it. Things turn out well as it happens, but the tortoise really does nothing to earn his victory except plod on.

I've known this story for decades and I'm still trying to work out if the tortoise is any more than an idiot who gets lucky.

Zeno's 'hare and tortoise' paradox proves that it's impossible for the hare to win the race. I can't say I understand it, but will just point out that, actually, the tortoise can and in fact did win the race.

So there.

Word To Use Today: tortoise. This word comes from the French tortue, a word influenced by the Latin word tortus, which means twisted. The source was originally the Late Latin tartarucha, which means coming from Tartarus, the place of punishment under the underworld, from the belief that tortoises come from there.

Friday 3 August 2012

Word To Use Today: javelin.

Javelins have been around for at least 400,000 years.

That's longer than there have been people.

The 400,000 year-old ones found in Germany are made of spruce and would have been used by either Homo erectus:

or Homo heidelbergensis:

Homo heidelbergensis Used Spears to Hunt Game - Public Domain

These throwing spears are quite front-heavy, which is what suggests they were javelins and not just used for stabbing.

A javelin is designed to go far and fast, and javelins have given their name to various aircraft, plane engines, rockets, trains, cars, coaches, phones, racing dinghies and phones.

There's also a Javelin frog:

 a Javelin sand boa:

 a Javelin fish:

drawing by Dr Tony Ayling

(my dictionary says it has a long spine on its anal fin, but I can't see it here.)

and a javelin spookfish, which does look very like a ghost, especially when seen from the front:

File:Bathylychnops exilis.gif

A javelin argument is one supporting the infinite size of the universe: and, let's face it, if the universe can come up with you, me, and the javelin spookfish then it must be absolutely flipping enormous.

Spot the frippet: javelin. This word comes from the Old French word javeline, which is a version of javelot, which is Celtic.