This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 30 September 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: sphygmoid.

Yes, I know, you have more taste than to use the word sphygmoid on any occasion.

Still, for those thinking of inflicting sentences like:

The club was pounding with the sphygmoid beat.


Between the rows of cheering, terrified women, the boots of the soldiers sounded sphygmoidally on the flags.


the ribs of the great ship echoed to the sphygmoid crashing of rivets being hammered home.

Just don't.


Word Not To Use Today: sphygmoid. This is a medical word meaning resembling the pulse. Any but a strictly technical use will make you look like an idiot.

Ther word comes from the Greek word sphugmos, pulsation, from sphuzein, to throb.

Saturday 29 September 2012

Saturday Rave: Piers Shonks

This is a wonderful story, not nearly as well known as it should be, and the whole thing takes place in Hertfordshire, the county of England in which I live.

'The Pelham district was troubled with an enormous dragon 

dragon 4

that committed great havoc with the flocks and herds of the neighbourhood.

'Piers Shonks, a valiant man and a renowned hunter, determined to destroy the reptile; therefore fully armed with his hounds, so swift of foot that they were said to be winged, he sallied forth in search of the monster. The dogs soon gave tongue, and by their attacks and noise so distracted the attention of the dragon that it gave Piers an opportunity to thrust his spear into a vulnerable part and speedily despatch it.

Instantly the death-struggles had ceased the Evil One appeared,

Free Devil Clipart

vowing vengeance on our hero for having destroyed his emissary, and threatening to have Shonks after his death, body and soul, whether buried in the church or out...'

...which was, obviously, a bit of a problem for our hero. But luckily Piers Shonks was a cunning man, and if you visit Brent Pelham church you can see how he escaped the eternal clutches of the Evil One.

For there you will find Piers Shonks' tomb, neither in the church nor out of it, but built snugly within the church's walls.

Is there anything anywhere more deeply satisfying than a tale of cunning triumphant? Or anything more disconcerting than the idea that the Evil One has a pet dragon?

Not that I can think of at the moment.

The above version of the story is by W B Gerish.

Word To Use Today: shonk. This is a version of shank, meaning part of the leg. It probably means that Piers Shonks was very tall (huge human bones are said to have been discovered in the church). The word comes from the Old English scanca.

If you're in Australia or New Zealand then shonky means dodgy and possibly illegal, unreliable or unsound.

Nothing like the story of Piers Shonks, then.

Friday 28 September 2012

Word To Use Today: stammel.

You don't know what stammel is?

Well, be grateful.

Stammel is a sort of coarse woollen cloth. It's usually dyed a rather unpleasant red:

This colour is called stammel.

and it's used to make underclothes.

I'm itching already!

A stammel can also be a large awkward mare, or what John Ash in 1775 called a bouncing wench. John Ash also said that stammel is a sort of bay colour, but as far as I know no one else agrees with him.

The janissaries, the fierce fighters of Ottoman Turkey, are said to have worn stammel breeches:

So now we know why they were so bad-tempered, don't we.

Word To Use Today: stammel. This word comes from the Old French estamin, from the Latin stāmen, a thread.

Thursday 27 September 2012

Falling in love: a rant.

I got an invitation the other day:

Fall head over heels with the new IKEA catalogue, my inbox suggested.

Presumably they've printed them with camouflage paint and are planning to leave them piled up at the top of the steps.

Ah well. I suppose it was nice of them to warn me.

Falling Man In Organge Clip Art
Picture: Falling Man in Organge [sic] by bharath

Word To Use Today: heel. The word meaning bit of a foot comes from the Old English hēla and is related to the Old Frisian hēl.

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Nuts and Bolts: anapaest.

Anapaests are feet.

They're not the sort of feet people or ostriches have, though, but the sort that keeps English poetry from falling over.

Actually, now I come to think about it, though, triffids might have anapaests. If triffids existed. Which I hope they don't.


English words often have bits in them that are said loudly, and other bits that are said more softly So: ENGlish, for example (and, for another example, exAMPle). This is jolly important in English poetry, which tends to be arranged so the loud bits come along in a regular pattern: for instance, MAry HAD a LITTle LAMB, where the loud bits and soft bits take it in turns.

Mary had a little lamb goes loud/soft, loud/soft etc, and each loud/soft is called a foot.

All feet in all verses have just one loud bit in it, but the soft bits can come in various positions and numbers.

An anapaest is a foot which goes soft soft LOUD. For instance, the lyrics of the song You'll Never Walk Alone begin with some anapaests: If you WALK, through the STORM, hold your HEAD...

The example that's usually given of verse containing anapaests is this one:

The ASSYRian came DOWN like a WOLF on the FOLD
And his COhorts were GLEAMing in PURple and GOLD
And the SHEEN of their SPEARS was like STARS on the SEA
When the BLUE wave rolls NIGHTly on DEEP GaliLEE.
That's from The Destruction of Sennacherib by Byron.

Anapaests do gallop along very nicely. Here's one last example from Lewis Carroll and The Hunting of the Snark:

In the midst of the word he was trying to say
In the midst of his laughter and glee
He had softly and suddenly vanished away
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.
Illustration by Henry Holiday. It's from The Hunting of the Snark, but it doesn't show the Snark itself: Lewis Carroll rejected Holiday's illustration of the Snark because Carroll wanted the Snark to remain pleasingly mysterious.
Thing To Hear Today: an anapaest. If stuck, all you need to do is say: will you come? or in a hole?
The word anapaest comes from the Greek word anápaistos, struck back (because the pattern LOUD soft soft, which is a back-to-front anapaest, seemed more normal to the Greeks) from ana, which means back, and paiein, to strike.

Tuesday 25 September 2012

Thing To Do Today: gossip.

Have you heard?


She's only been and gone and done it.


Oh yes. It's all over town. Three people have knocked on the door since dinner.


I've been saying this'll happen for years, haven't I. That woman'll have that poor child done away with, I've said.

But...are you really sure...

I'll tell you this. The huntsman was seen coming home alone with a bag, yesterday. And it was dripping blood.


Gossip is great. It's useful. It's sometimes even necessary. It helps join us together. It helps us keep our consciences in good order.

It beats bottling things up, or thumping people.

And it needn't be nasty, so enjoy yourselves, do.

Ooh, and have you heard?


Thing To Do Today: gossip. This word comes from the Old English godsibb, which means godparent. Later the word came to mean close friend, especially a friend who attended the birth of a child. From there it came to mean a woman fond of light talk, and then the act of talking itself.

Monday 24 September 2012

Spot the frippet: gnome.

Don't talk to me about garden gnomes.

They borrow your books:

stink out your garden with smoke:

German garden gnome
photo by Colibri1968

and have even been known, most horribly, to play invisible accordions:

Photo by Vivienne.

Gnomes even pop up...but hey, why inflict this aesthetic shock on you, especially in your weakened Monday-morning state? Enough.

Real live gnomes are harder to spot. This is for two reasons: a) they live underground; and, b) they're all old men and so have great trouble producing offspring.

Any small wrinkly old man can be called a gnome, but this is unkind and not to be recommended.

Bankers can be called gnomes, too, especially if they come from Zurich. This is rather unkind, too, but...well, let's face it, I rather doubt in this case that all that many people care.

There is another sort of gnome, pronounced in the same way, which means a short saying expressing some truth or principle. Like, for instance (while we're on the subject of bankers), look before you leap, or a fool and his money are soon parted.

Or even, coming back to garden gnomes there's no accounting for taste.

Spot the frippet: gnome. And hurray hurray, the word gnome was coined by that old foe of The Word Den, Paracelsus the Bighead. The word came to us through French (and where was immigration, that's what I want to know) from the Latin word gnomus.

The word meaning a saying comes from the Greek gignōskein, to know.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: hue.

The word hue may sound like someone about to vomit, but it's quite interesting for all that.

You can have fifty shades of grey (if for some odd reason you should want to) but you can't have fifty hues of grey, because hue can't be applied to white, grey, or black.

The word (hue) in brackets on a paint pot, as in Cadmium Yellow (hue) means that although the paint is the same colour as Cadmium Yellow, it isn't actually made of cadmium.

The Linner hue index is used to describe the colour of beer.

Lastly, a hue and cry isn't a violent reaction to a bad decorating decision, but the loud pursuit of a villain.

Word Not To Use Today: hue. This word comes from the Old English word hīw, which means beauty, and is related to the Old Norse , fine hair, and Old Gothic hiwi, form.

Hue and cry is from the Anglo-French hu et cri, from huer to shout, from hu! a shout of warning.

Saturday 22 September 2012

Saturday Rave: The Bread Machine by Russell Hobbs

When I say The Bread Machine, that isn't actually the name of the work I'm about to rave about.

I rather doubt it's by Russell Hobbs, either. Russell Hobbs was probably some respectable bewhiskered gentleman with a gold watch chain and a nightcap (probably not worn at the same time), but I don't think he wrote this work. Why, Russell Hobbs might even have been two people, Mr Russell and Mr Hobbs. Or, for all I know, three girls and a parrot with a shared sense of humour.

I bought a breadmaker the other week, and naturally I was worried about the instructions. You know what instructions are like: written in twenty five languages, none of them bearing much resemblance to any tongue known to man.

And what did I find?


Real English, as clear as daylight.

If you're using the timer, it's even more important to make sure that the yeast/baking powder/baking soda and water/liquid are well separated.
a) they'll have all day to get together while you're not looking
b) the yeast will activate, grow, and die before the programme starts
c) your bread will be hard, dense, coarse, and about as edible as a house brick

See? I admit the piece above doesn't quite flow properly, but it's all quite easy to understand and there are even some jokes.

The writer of these instructions is sadly anonymous, but he or she deserves to be girded with praise.

Word To Use Today: Russell. The name Russell comes from the Old French rousel, which means red-faced or red-haired.

The most distinguished Russell as far as my dictionary is concerned is Bertrand Russell the philosopher.

 He gets an entry under Russell's paradox. Russell's paradox proves that you can't always split things into sets.

STOP PRESS: I was right about the whiskers! Here are Bill Russell and Peter Hobbs of breadmaker fame:

Bless them both!


By the way, today is the 75th anniversary of the first publication of The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien.

Another cause for celebration!

Friday 21 September 2012

Word To Use Today: syrup.


Isn't that nice?

A syrup is a thick liquid, usually made of sugar dissolved in water (syrups are thick because the hydrogen in the sugar sticks itself to the water molecules and makes the whole thing go gungy).

Syrups can be flavoured and used in recipes:

Employed to make medicine slightly less disgusting:

Or, like maple syrup:

Catching sap for maple syrup, Beaver Meadow Audubon Center, North Java, New York
Photo Dave Pape

swigged straight from the bottle.*

Syrups can be made of sprouted barley, birch sap, palm trees, corn, grass and even ferns.

Still on a sugary theme, a work of art so sweet that it induces feelings of nausea is syrupy:

And if that picture doesn't make you feel sick then there's always syrup of ipecacuanha. It's made of the poisonous roots of the ipecac plant and was formerly of use in making people vomit. Luckily it isn't used any more, and I only reason I really put it in because I can spell it. 

As a break from all that sweetness, I'm glad to say that in Britain a syrup is a slang name for a wig.

Word To Use Today: syrup. This word came to English from the Latin word syrupus, from the Arabic word for beverage
شراب‎, sharab.

The word meaning wig is rhyming slang from syrup of figs.

*Or is that just you?

Thursday 20 September 2012

Beware of the mole: a rant.

Flipping moles!

Just when you thought it was safe to go outside you get headlines like this in the Telegraph's online edition:

Wet season leads to mole explosion in gardens.

Good grief, that must be even worse than buying half a pound of tuppenny rice and half a pound of treacle.*

Take cover!!!!!!

Word To Use Today: explosion. This word arrived in English in the 1600s. It comes from the Latin word explodēre, which also meant to explode.

*In the words of the old rhyme:

Half a pound of tupenny rice,
Half a pound of treacle.
That's the way the money goes
Pop goes the weasel!

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Nuts and Bolts: quirky subjects.

While I'm on the subject of being quirky, then how about quirky subjects?

(It occurs to me that Quirky Subjects might be an alternative title for The Word Den, but it's also part of the Icelandic language.
Tarzan uses them, too.)

Me love Jane, Tarzan might say. This is, of course, perfectly correct Tarzanese, but it's not really correct English. A more conventionally educated Lord Greystoke might have said I love Jane. (Well, he might have done if an English Lord of the mid-twentieth century could have brought himself to admit to such a thing. Which, on the whole, I doubt.)

Anyway. Quirky subjects are all the rage in Icelandic. Someone might say:

Henni var kalt. This translates literally as Her was cold, but of course it actually means She was cold.
People are still arguing about why this happens. There are rather similar quirks in Russian, Bulgarian (na Ivan mu (se) xaresvat tezi momicheta, which means, more or less To Ivan likes these girls)
Rumanian, and German ( Mir ist kalt, which means me is cold) as well as in Latin, Old Swedish and Old English. But the grammarians are still arguing about whther these cases are truly quirky or just odd in some slightly different way.
As far as English is concerned, quirky subjects do seem to be limited to Tarzan and very small children.
Me eat cake!

There's no doubt what it means; though, is there?
Word To Use Today: me. Me has been an English word since before the Norman Conquest, and is related to the Latin word , which means more or less the same thing.
Me is also the internet domain name for Montenegro, the chemical Symbol for the Methyl group, and an abbrieviation for Maine; Marine, Mining or Mechanical Engineer; Methodist Episcopal; Middle English; and myalgic encephalopathy.

Tuesday 18 September 2012

Thing To Do Today: be quirky.

Why be dull?

Why drink coffee for breakfast when you can have custard?

Why wear a suit when a toga is so much cooler?

Why walk to school when jumping is so good for the heart?


Oh, all right, if you want to be boring...

In that case you'll have to hope that you encounter some quirk of fate. That you drop a penny and find it blocking the burrow of a small snake whose bite makes you irresistible. That the bit of paper you find in your library book turns out to be the winning ticket for the lottery. Or the location of the buried treasure.

If that's still too exciting for you then I can offer you the sort of quirk which is a groove or a v-shaped cut in an architectural moulding, or a flourish, especially in handwriting.

Go on. Anyone can do one of those!

All the best,

Sally Prue

Thing To Do Today: be quirky. This word arrived in English in the 1500s, but from where it came is unfortunately a mystery.

Monday 17 September 2012

Spot the frippet: carousel.

As Monday comes round again, so does a carousel.

This word made its way into English in the 1100s when the crusaders saw Turkish and Arabian horsemen doing combat exercises that involved a fair bit of riding around in circles. 

Later, in Europe, a carousel became a different kind of training device. Rings were hung from bits of wood (sometimes horse-shaped) fixed to a central pole. Riders had to spear the rings as the carousel was turned round.

The term carousel carried on being used even when fighting with spears on horseback went out of fashion. It was used for horse ballets (which were formation exercises on horseback), especially in Italy and France.

Now a days the horses on a carousel are very grand:

File:Carousel at Hyde Park.jpg
Photo: carousel in Hyde Park, London, by Oxyman.

and involve no soldiers at all.

Carousel is a musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, as well. One song from the musical is so famous it's even inscribed above a gate:

The gate's at Liverpool Football Club, and the song is the club's anthem.

Carousel is also a fine magazine about Children's Fiction.

If you're nowhere near a fair or Liverpool or a theatre, then there are many more modest carousels. A circular rack for holding photographic slides is called a carousel, and so is a revolving tray for holding...well, more or less anything, really. Spices. Pots of paint. Pickled gherkins. 

Go on. Have a twirl.

Spot the frippet: carousel. The dictionary says this word is from the French carrousel, and before that from the Italian carosello, of unknown origin.

Others speculate excitingly about the Spanish carosella, which means little battle. It'd be nice if it were true, wouldn't it.

Sunday 16 September 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: squamous.


(It rhymes with famous, for those in doubt.)

I mean, eu!

Squamous means covered with, formed of, or looking like scales. It's mostly used to describe cells on the surfaces of animals' insides.

Even lovely things can be described as squamous:

Eastern Box Turtle  Terrapene carolina
This is an Eastern Box Turtle.

File:Coat of Pangolin scales.JPG
This is a coat made of scales from pangolins*. It was made in India and was a present to King George the Third of England. (The mad one.) Photo by Gaius Cornelius.

Figure 012.
The scaly stems of Amanita phalloides. From The Mushroom, Edible and Otherwise by M E Hard.

But however lovely these things are, squamous manages to make them sound about as cuddly as a cat's curse.

You know, I think I might start a no-use-of-the-word-squamous-on-a-day-which-ends-in-a-y campaign.

Word Not To Use Today: squamous. This word comes from the Latin word squāmōsus, from squāma, a scale.

*This is a pangolin:

File:Pangolin Mivart.png
Illustration by St George Mivert.

Saturday 15 September 2012

Saturday Rave: The Golden Goose

I came across most of my fairy tales in Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. I still have a set, all scarlet bindings and gold lettering.

Arthur Mee had chapters of traditional tales: Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty...but occasionally instead of a proper story we'd have a section of fables.

As far as I was concerned fables were feeble. The worst thing was that they hardly bothered with characterisation. The second worst thing was that it often wasn't really a story.

Take the story of the golden goose. A goose lays golden eggs:

The Golden Goose Book by L. Leslie Brooke
by L Leslie Brooke

 and the fool who owns it kills it to get at the gold inside her and ends up...

...with a dead goose.

That's not a story, that's just something that, well, happened. For it to be a story we have to care.

Now, the proof that I'm wrong lies in the inconvenient fact that Aesop, who wrote down the fable of the golden goose more than two thousand years ago, is still read nowadays. And is, in fact, featuring in this blog.


This may make some clever literary people curl their lips, but I think it's because the fable of the golden goose is true. True in a way, in any case. Perhaps a goose has never actually laid a golden egg; but if one did, then we can be sure that sooner or later some fool would kill the poor thing to get at the gold inside.

And the moral of that story is... I think I'd better stop this post at once before I probe about too much and kill off something valuable.

Word To Use Today: fable. This word comes to us from the Latin word fābula, which means story, and before that from fārī, to speak.

Friday 14 September 2012

Word To Use Today: hadron.

There are some words we hear so often that we manage to forget that we haven't a clue what they mean.

Hadron. Yes, we know it's found in a large collider. We even know that it's helped Mr Higgs be more confident that his long-lost boson isn't just a figment of his imagination.

But what is a hadron?

Well, for a start, a hadron isn't one thing, it's a group of different things. All hadrons are tiny, even smaller than atoms.

The thing that makes a hadron a hadron is that it can take part in a strong nuclear interaction.

Hadrons are made up of stuck-together quarks*. Three-quark hadrons are called baryons, and the best-known baryons are protons (made up of two up quarks and one down quark) and neutrons (made up of two down quarks and one up quark).

Hadrons that have one quark and one antiquark are called mesons. For example, the pion, or pi meson, contains an up quark and an anti-down quark.

May I say at this point that I think it's absolutely wonderful that there are people out there willing to dedicate their lives to understanding all this?

I'm hugely grateful to them.

Largely because it means that I don't have to.

Word To Use Today: hadron. This word was coined by Lev B Okan in 1962. Hadron comes from the Greek hadros, heavy, from hadēn, enough.

*Quarks come in six flavours: up, down, top, bottom, strange and charm. Just so you know.

Thursday 13 September 2012

Lovely and fantastic: a rant.

Good grief, I'd only phoned to book a table.

Prue? Could you spell that for me?

For you? Well, it seems a little early in our acquaintance for you to start asking favours, but, yes, I can certainly spell it.

That's lovely.

Prue? Lovely? No it's not. Prue is weird and unlikely. Bethany Honeyblossom is lovely; Estella Bunnynose is lovely. Sally Prue sounds like a cheap Country and Western singer.

Now, can you just confirm your address for me?

No, I can't, because I haven't told you it in the first place. But I can tell you it.


Fantastic? My address? So, is it 36 Unicorn Avenue? 16 Goldilocks and the Three Bears Drive? 173 Blue Beard's Coming To Get You Mwa-ha-ha Crescent?  Nope. Nothing like that at all.

Oh, but this woman is so nice. She's cooing at me like a love-stricken dove who's just got back from the advanced customer satisfaction course. So do I point out all the frankly ridiculous things she keeps saying to me? Or do I answer her questions politely and leave her to drive all her other customers to distraction?

Well, why do think I'm still fuming?

I was fantastic and lovely, of course.

Word To Use Today: fantastic. This word started off in English in the 1300s as fantastik. It came from the Greek phantastikos, capable of imagining, from phantazein, to make visible.

Wednesday 12 September 2012

Nuts and Bolts: being blue.

Blue, says my Collins dictionary, is a colour which has a wavelength from 490 - 445 nanometres.

I have no real idea what that means from a practical point of view, but I know that a Russian speaker wouldn't agree with the figures because to a Russian what I call light and dark blue are completely different colours.

A Turkish, Mongolian, Italian or Hebrew speaker won't agree with the figures, either, because those language make similar sorts of distinctions.

A Vietnamese speaker will be puzzled, too. To him xanh is the colour of both the sky and the leaves on a tree. Kurdish does the same sort of thing with şîn.

To the Chinese qīng can mean what we call blue, or it can mean green, or even black.

A Welsh speaker has the word glas, which can be the colour of the sea, or of the grass, or of silver. (Irish uses glas, too, but that colour is the green of plants.)

The Japanese describe 'go' traffic signals as ao, which also is used to mean what I call blue; and, just to confuse things further, in Arabic poetry the sky is sometimes called samā’, which means the green one.

How about that?

Every language leading to a different world.


Word To Use Today: blue. Blue comes to us through French and various Germanic languages and is related to the Latin flāvus, which means yellow.

Tuesday 11 September 2012

Thing To Do Today: shimmy.

Is a day complete without a bit of a shimmy?

I hardly think so.

Flappers in the 1920s did it, in Britain and Canada anyone wanting to climb a flagpole will do it (though why anyone should wish to climb a flagpole...), Russian gypsies do it; and so do bellydancers, badly maintained vehicles, and of course the inimitable Jeeves.

The 1920s dance was a vigorous shaking sort of thing (one of the first shimmiers, Gilda Gray, claimed to be shaking her chemise, geddit?), and the idea of the similar gypsy dance was to rattle the ornaments on the dancers' clothes. (Russian Gypsies called this shimmying dance a tsyganochka.)

A shimmying car is also shaking, probably because its front wheels or steering are faulty. That sort of shimmy is also known, worryingly, as a death wobble.

But shimmying needn't be energetic or undignified. The most dignified man on earth, Bertie Wooster's gentleman Jeeves, quite often shimmies into a room. In this case to shimmy seems to mean to appear silently, as if by magic.

If you manage to make people utter a squawk of terror when they discover you at their elbow then you'll know you'll have got it just  about right.

On the other hand, if you fancy something a little more active:

Have fun!
Thing To Do Today: shimmy. The word meaning a shaking dance may come from chemise, which means blouse and has sometimes mistakenly been thought to be a plural. Mae West claimed to have invented this dance, but probably didn't. There was a 1917 song called Shim-Me-Sha-Wabble by Spencer Williams which may have been the source of the name, too.

Monday 10 September 2012

Spot the frippet: ukulele.

Here's something cheerful to light our way to school and work:

Yes, it's a ukulele.

And if you're thinking, a ukulele's of no use or interest to me, then how about this:

Yes, it's a moustache ukulele. It's called a moustache ukulele because it illustrates all the moustaches of the world (there are more on the back). Now, who can say that's not useful? It was made by Andrew and Michele at Xylocopa.

Ukuleles were deveoloped in Hawaii after Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands introduced a small guitar called a machete.

Ukuleles usually have four strings, but those with six or eight are called taropatch ukuleles.

If you happen to be in a sad place where there is no ukulele to be found (and they sometimes come in groups:

(this is the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain)

then there's always this:

Do watch it. It will amaze you. Honest.

Spot the frippet (even if only on YouTube): ukulele. The word ukulele is from Hawaii, is probably from the word 'uku, which means flea and lele, which means jumping. This may because of the movement of the player's fingers, but there's a story that it was the nickname of the virtuoso ukulele player Edward William Purvis (who was small and figetty).

On the other hand, according to Queen Lili'uokalani, the last Hawaiian monarch, the name means “the gift that came here,” from the Hawaiian words uku (gift or reward) and lele (to come).

Sunday 9 September 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: umami.

Here's a young word.


It sounds like an race of evil extra-terrestrials with a propensity to smother whole settlements in surges of warm voilet-tinged mud, but it's okay, it's not. It's something you love.

The word umami is so young it's not in my 2010 Collins perhaps that means it isn't even English, yet. But it will be. Unfortunately.

Because although umami isn't yet definitely English, it is definitely already a scientific term. It's been a scientific term since 1985, when they held the First Umami International Symposium. In Hawaii.

Hm. Can I re-train as an academic, please?

Anyway, umami is a taste. It's a meaty, savory sort of taste that isn't bitter, sweet, sour or salty. I know the thing sounds a bit dubious, but we do have special receptors on our tongues to detect it, so it does exist - in our brains, if nowhere else.

The Roman sauce, garum, which was made of fermented fish (eeergh!) was apparently humming with umami. So are cured meats, some mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, cheese and soy sauce.

But as for the word itself - well, it sounds more like a groan of indigestion than a sigh of delight to me.

Word Not To Use Today: umami. This word comes to us from Japan. It was made up in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda from umai, which means delicious and mi which means taste.

I'm sure the word sounds much more elegant in Japanese.

Saturday 8 September 2012

Saturday Rave: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

What is there to say about Jane Erye?

Nothing, of course, because Charlotte Bronte said it all when she wrote the book.

Jane Eyre is poor and plain, but she believes with all her soul that she has a right to love, freedom, and respect.

But Jane lives her life surrounded by people who can't see past her poverty and plainness.

There is the man who tells Jane:

"you are formed for labour, not for love"

and claims to:

"want a wife: the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death"

There are also the aunt who hates her, the cousins who bully her, and the rich man who deceives her.

But Jane knows her chief duty is to herself - and to her best possible self, too.

And she's not going down without a fight.

Word To Use Today: love. This word comes from the ridiculous Old English lufu. It might have something to do with the Latin word lubēre, which means to please.

Friday 7 September 2012

Word To Use Today: wombat.


Well, why not? It's such a lovely word.

And such a lovely thing, too:

That's a Common Wombat, but there are also Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats and Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombats, a fact which almost makes me swoon with joy.

This is a Southern Hairy-Nosed Wombat.

Endangered ... the Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat, the rarest big mammal on earth.

And this is a Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat.

All wombats are about a metre long and eat vegetables.

And they're wonderful, too.

To start with, they have their pouches on backwards (with the opening at the back) so as not to throw earth at their babies when they dig.

A wombat's poos are famously cube shaped.

Wombat bottoms are made out of cartilage (the stuff your nose is made of) so predators can't catch hold of them with their teeth.

If a predator follows a wombat into its burrow, the wombat may let the predator get above it and then crush the predator's skull against the roof of the tunnel by pushing upwards.

See? Wonderful!

Word To Use Today: wombat. This word comes from the language of the Aboriginal Darug People, who used to live in the Sydney area. The word was first recorded in English in 1798 by John Price and James Wilson.