This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Nuts and Bolts: bad spelling.

It's Halloween.

So, the language of magic. Unlike most languages, this one is specially constructed so that no one can understand it.

Some magic words are all about pattern rather than meaning, like abracadabra:

A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B - R - A
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B - R
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A - B
A - B - R - A - C - A - D - A
A - B - R - A - C - A - D
A - B - R - A - C - A
A - B - R - A - C
A - B - R - A
A - B - R
A - B

Sometimes magic words are plain nonsense, like bippity, boppity, boo.

Sometimes a magic word is in a language no one's spoken for...ooh, ages. Hocus pocus, for example, may be short for the sort-of Latin phrase hax pax max Deus adimax, or perhaps it's based on a bit of the Latin Mass.

On the other hand, hocus pocus may have been originally Ochus Bochus (who may be the Greek god Bacchus) or it may be from the Welsh Hovea Pwca, which means goblin's trick (Pwca being the same person as Puck.)

Not knowing the origin of hocus pocus is rather the point, of course, because if you can peg a thing down so you can understand it thoroughly then it can't be magic at all. 

If people do happen to understand a word, then the letters of the word are quite likely to be mixed up in some way before it's used in magic.

Word To Use Today: Halloween. The hallow bit comes from the Old English hālgian, from hālig, which means holy, and the een bit is short for even, which means eve or evening and comes from the Old English ǣfen.

It may seem a bit odd that the word Halloween is anything to do with holy unless you know that tomorrow, November 1st, is All Saints Day.

The saints, luckily, always come out on top.

**All best wishes to the victims of Storm Sandy. We're thinking of you, and in England we've even taken a day off from moaning about the weather.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Thing To Try Today: be a paragon.

Are you a paragon?


Do you want to be a paragon?

Well, none of us would mind a model of excellence, I'm sure, except that the poor word is practically always shackled to virtue, as in a paragon of virtue, which sounds no fun at all.

Perhaps, though, we could be a paragon of something else. It needn't be anything too difficult: train-spotting. Napkin folding. Beard-growing.

Or, if even this is a bit much, we can use paragon to mean to regard someone as a paragon. And that's quite easy.

I'm quite happy to paragon Rudolf Nureyev, for a start.

Apart from this, a paragon can be 20 point type, an unflawed diamond weighing at least 100 carats, or a large spherical pearl.

Thing To Try Today: be a paragon. This word comes from the Old Italian paragone, from paragonare to test on a whetstone, which is in turn from the Greek para, which is one of those bits of words which can mean more or less anything, and akonē, whetstone.

Monday 29 October 2012

Spot the frippet: tragus.

I didn't know I had one of these.

And actually, such is my good fortune, I've discovered I have two.

Two tragi. That's the plural form of tragus. It looks rather ordinary until you realise that the g in tragus is hard, as in goat (more goats later) and the g in tragi is soft, as in jaw. (That i at the end of tragi is pronounced as is the word I, by the way.)

And do you have tragi? Well, probably, because this is a tragus:

See the label? It's the gristly bit that protects your earhole. If you look, you'll see you have anti-tragi, too.

If you're an over-mature man you may well have hundreds of tragi, because the hairs sprouting out of your ears are called tragi, too.

There we are. I hope you're pleased.

If an ear tragus is too easy to spot, then these are also tragus:

Image of Tragus racemosus

Or, at least, those are tragus seeds. Tragus is a genus of grasses. They originally comes from Africa, but have now spread all over the place.

The Tragus was also a river in Arcadia in Ancient Greece. No one knows where it was, but, hey, if you have a time machine and fancy a real challenge...

Spot the frippet: tragus. the word to do with the ear comes from the Greek tragos, which means hairy bit of the ear, or literally, goat.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: jujube.

How on earth anyone can bear to put a jujube in his or her mouth beats me.

Apart from sounding heavy, gluey, and oozing, the word sounds much much too like do-do.


It's bad enough that the word jujube means a chewy sweet, often with medicine hidden in it, but the wretched word means other things, too.

Zizipus jujuba, also a jujube, is a spiny tree with yellow flowers:

Image of Ziziphus

The edible fruits are called jujubes, too:

Jujube fruits

I must admit they look nice, and they may well be delicious.

Could I bear to try one?

Well, yes, I think I could, despite the do-do thing... long as it had been really really thoroughly washed.

Word Not To Use Today: jujube. This word comes to us from the Mediaeval Latin jujuba, from the Latin zīzyphum from the Greek zizuphon.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Saturday Rave: Hop o'my Thumb

This story has a silly title. Not only that, but it features a character who sounds thumb-sized. This is deeply worrying to anyone who's quite small themselves, ie me a long time ago.

I'm still not completely happy, either, about where the apostrophes and capital letters should go in Hop o'my Thumb's name.

The good news is that Hop o'my Thumb himself, although the youngest of seven brothers and really rather weedy, is pretty much of normal size. The other good news is that he gets to wear seven-league boots and have a battle of wits with a particularly nasty ogre.

The ogre has a very kind wife. And seven daughters.

These young Ogresses had fair skins, because they fed on raw meat like their father; but they had small grey eyes, quite round, and sunk in their heads, hooked noses, wide mouths, and very long sharp teeth standing a great way off each other. They were too young as yet to do much mischief; but they showed that if they lived to be as old as their father, they would grow quite as cruel as he was, for they took pleasure already in biting young children, and sucking their blood.

I can't help but admit that Hop o'my Thumb is a rather nasty and hypocritical story. Hop o'my Thumb's parents twice try to abandon him and his brothers to the howling wolves:

Hop o' My Thumb by Peter Newell
Illustration by Peter Newell.

and Hop o'my Thumb, though he never actually hurts anyone, takes after his father in being quite happy to arrange the deaths of people as long as he doesn't have to be around when the actual deed is taking place.

The story was first written down by Charles Perrault in 1697. The beautifully nasty version quoted above is by Dinah Maria Mullock.

Word To Use Today: thumb. This word comes from  the Old English thūma, from the Old Norse thumall, which means the thumb of a glove, from the Latin tumēre, which means to swell.

Friday 26 October 2012

Word To Use Today: megamullion.


Just saying this lovely word will make you feel luxuriously happy and at ease.

No, try it.


What does it mean?

Well, does it matter? The mere sound is enough, isn't it?


The word is a bit of a puzzle, because it sounds as if a megamullion should be something to do with a huge column dividing two windows:

Open sky
Photo by Etienne.

And one of those is indeed a mullion. But a megamullion is something entirely different.

This is the only megamullion to be seen above sea level on our planet:

That's the St Peter and St Paul Rocks in the Atlantic Ocean.

A megamullion is a hump of rock formed when rock from the earth's mantle wells up from a mid-ocean ridge.

File:Megamullion by JAO.JPG
Illustration by Frink182. Sorry the labels are in French. Still, it's all educational: I thought a croûte océanique was some sort of fish pie.

As I said, the only megamullion to break the ocean surface is the St Peter and St Paul rocks, but the biggest megamullion ever discovered goes by the utterly charming name of the Godzilla Mullion.

Isn't that lovely?

I think the word megamullion could be very usefully employed to describe something which only becomes apparent some time after the triggering factor.

Hm. Yes.

It would be a really peachy new term for a hangover, wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: megamullion. Mega is the Greek word megas which means huge or powerful. Mullion is from the Middle English word munial, and before that, perhaps, from the Old French moinel, middle, from Latin medius.

No one seems to be admitting to coming up with this gorgeous word.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Introductions: a rant.

Introductions to novels, eh? 

Yes, that's right, the bit at the front which gives away the plot.

Good grief, most of the time introductions don't even have the SPOILER ALERT notice you get in on-line writing.

(Hey, how about that? An example of modern on-line manners that are more truly polite and intelligently considerate than your conventional ivory-tower academic stuff.)

An introduction to a book is, infuriatingly, usually more of a life-story than an introduction. Read the introduction before you read the book and you will find out that Daphne is doomed and that Dodi did it; that the mysterious visitor on page 56 stays mysterious; and that the carefully constructed revelation of eternal truth that the novel invites us to contemplate can be summarised in six ugly words.

I accept that it would be odd to put an introduction at the end of a book, but this is only because the thing has been given a silly name. Why not split introductions into two parts: firstly, a genuine introduction which consists of information that readers need to know before they start reading; and, secondly, an afterword which discusses what the book was all about.

That's surely simple enough.

So why on earth - why on earth -  don't people flipping do it?

Word To Use Today: introduction. This word came to English in the 1500s from the Latin word intrōdūcere, to bring inside, from intrō, which means towards the inside, plus dūcere, to lead.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Nuts and Bolts: scare quotes.

Find punctuation scary?

You should do.

Okay you may not get mugged by a semi-colon in a dark alley, but those scare quotes, eh?

Yep. They're enough to send a shiver down the spine of a menopausal, thermal-underwear-wearing polar bear.

I can't deny that people find scare quotes useful. They make it easy to be sarcastic, ironic, or scornful; to make it plain that ordinary-people-may-think-that-but-I'm-much-too-sophisticated-and-wise-to-entertain-the-notion-for-a-minute.

As in: I have 500 "friends" on Facebook.

The army "liberated" the city.

The Folk Dancers "entertained" their audience.

Scare quotes are also the only bit of punctuation which is regularly expressed in sign language.

So what's not to like?

Well, firstly if you do the sign-language scare quote thing people will think you're a dork. Secondly, with the miracle, delicacy and infinite variety of language at your command, why brutalise it with the sledge hammer of scare quotes?

Because it's easy?

Oh all right, then.

Fair enough.

Word To Use Today: scare. This word comes from the Old Norse skirra.

The phrase scare quotes was coined in the 1940s or 1950s, but there is no agreement as to who was the first person to use it.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: cringe.

There's no need to cringe.


Not even in restaurants.

So what if Grandma is telling the maître d' exactly what onions do to her insides?

So what if deaf Uncle Crispin is making his opinions about  foreigners known VERY LOUDLY INDEED?

So what if Cousin Celia's baby is wiping gravy all over the tablecloth?

So what if Little Maisie has just asked why that lady at the next table is so very fat?

So what...

...look, you're out with the wrong people, okay? Put a paper bag over your head, educate your family, or scarper.

It's no use cringeing, is it?

Thing Not To Do Today: cringe. This word comes from the Old English word cringan, to yield in battle? Cringe is related to the Old Norse krangr, which means weak, and the Middle High German krenken, to weaken.

In Australia the cultural cringe kowtows to foreign cultural standards.

Monday 22 October 2012

Spot the frippet: lobster.

A marvellous thing is the lobster:

Photo by Anna Langova

They have blue blood (based on copper, like Mr Spock's, rather than on iron like human blood), ten legs, a green liver, swim backwards, and, scientists are beginning to think, may be effectively immortal.

If you can't see a lobster in a river, sea, or on a plate near you, then a pop-eyed red-faced man is sometimes called a lobster (though not, if you've got any sense, to his face). A boiled lobster is an old rude name for a British soldier (because they wore red coats (some of them still do for special occasions)); a raw lobster was, by analogy, a rude name for a British policeman, who wear blue  (though this, too, has fallen into disuse).

If you're in Eastern England, then a lobster, confusingly, may actually mean a stoat.

Lobster is also a word for jointed armour. The Lobsters were the name of Haselrig's famous regiment of Cuirassiers which fought on the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil War: 

Our cuirassiers have burst on the ranks of the accurst illustration from Ballads of Famous Fights - William Henry Charles Groome
Painting by William Henry Charles Groome.

Other than that, there's a lobster in The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley:

Tom and the lobster

And Lewis Carroll has given us a lobster quadrille:

Mock Turtle and Gryphon demonstrating the Lobster Quadrille to Alice
Picture by Tenniel

And if you're really lucky you just might come across someone lobsterizing - that is, moving backwards.

Watch where you're going, now.

Spot the frippet: lobster. This word comes from the Old English loppestre, from loppe, spider.

Sunday 21 October 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: environs.

Environs is just horrible: honking and ungainly; imperiously bullying; sarcastic and aggressive.

It means surroundings, that's all, especially the surroundings of a place where people live.

What cloth-eared idiot would want to weigh down such a lovely thing with such a bully of a word?

The good thing is that unless you're a cloth-eared idiot, you won't.

Will you?

Word Not To Use Today: environs. This word comes from the Old French environner, to surround. Virer means to veer or to turn.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Saturday Rave: Tom's Midnight Garden by A Philippa Pearse

If, standing alone on the back doorstep, Tom allowed himself to weep tears, they were tears of anger.

How about that for a first sentence to a book?

Tom is angry because all his plans for the wonderful long summer holidays have been wrecked. Fate has descended in the form of the measles: Tom's brother Peter is infected, and Tom is to be exiled to his uncle's flat. Tom doesn't like his uncle and aunt all that much, and they aren't used to children.

At first things are quite as awkward as Tom expected. His aunt tries (much too hard) to entertain him, but her rich food makes it  difficult for him to get to sleep.

Perhaps it gives him extraordinary dreams, too; or perhaps what it does is allow him to travel in time.

There is a girl called Hatty, and a storm which brings down a huge fir tree, and a blissful garden...

...but only sometimes.

This book was written over fifty years ago. It's full of people who still seem completely real to me, even though, interestingly, they're not the sort of people you find in modern stories.

If you read it, it'll haunt you for ever.

Word To Use Today: midnight. Mid means middle, of course, and night has hardly changed from the Old English word niht. The Latin and Greek versions nox and nux respectively aren't that different, either.

Friday 19 October 2012

Word To Use Today: syzygy.

I love this word because of all the tails. If you wrote it in an eighteenth century font with a long s and a long z then the word would look like a branch full of monkeys. I think that's rather lovely.

How do you say it? The first bit as in sizzle, the rest to rhyme with midgy.

And what does it mean?

Oh, all sorts of things. It describes the moment when the sun, the earth, and another celestial body lie in a straight line; it's a technical term in classical verse; it can be a pair, usually of opposites (as in chalk and cheese or Laurel and Hardy); and it's what happens to protozoans when they begin to feel a bit frisky.

Altogether syzygy is a lovely word, though I must admit it's not likely to crop up unless you see a full moon (the moon is at syzygy when full) or know a couple who are completely unalike.

Walter Crane 1874.

Come to think about it, though, everyone knows one of those.

Word To Use Today: syzygy. This word comes from the Greek suzugia, which means yoked together, from sun, together, and zugon, which means a yoke.

Thursday 18 October 2012

War-whimpers: a rant.

Headline on the MSN home page the other day:


And, I don't know, I don't think that huge comeback needed works very well as a war cry.

Now, I admit there have been some odd war cries in the past - the ancient Athenians used to make the call of the symbol of their goddess Athena, which was a Little Owl:

but can anyone really imagine terror being struck into any opposition force by anyone, however bizarrely trousered, bawling 'huge comeback needed'?

I suppose, though, we can't expect a professional golfer to have the elegance of a Shakespeare (upon this charge cry God for Harry, England, and Saint George!); and the 'Dieu et Mon Droit!' of the Battle of Crécy is not, unfortunately, representative of the continent of Europe at its friendly best.

What else could Europe's golfers have used?

Ah but yes, I've got it. Perfect.

 How about that war cry of that great European folk hero Bob the Builder?

'Can we fix it? Yes we can!'

Word To Use Today: huge. This rather silly but endearing word comes from the Old French ahuge, but where it came from before that is, sadly, lost in the mists of time.

PS. Having said all that, huge comeback needed does seem to have worked, doesn't it. Ah well!

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Nuts and Bolts: synecdoche

Firstly, although synecdoche does look quite French (as if it should be said sinn-ek-DOSH) it's not (and you don't).

Secondly, synecdoche is a bit weird because it consists of two opposite things.

It's synecdoche when you talk about a part of something when you really mean the whole of it (as in many hands make light work, when unless the hands are connected to their bodies then they just! I don't even want to think about it).

Synecdoche can also be when you talk about something big and you really mean just a part of it: the conference has announced that from next Monday all teachers must wear school uniform (that's not true, though perhaps it should be). In this case, of course, a conference can't announce anything, and what's really meant is probably a spokesperson.

Simple, isn't it? And to be found all over the place, too. Even in the title of the occasional popular film.

Grammatical Oddity To Use Today: synecdoche. Perhaps as in (if you're at school) But the staff wear high heels!*

Saying the word synecdoche probably won't win you many friends, but if you must say it it's sinnEKdohKEE.

*If you have no tall male teachers then this might not be synecdoche at all but the plain truth. But I doubt it even then.

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: sneer.

The Mikado 3 Clip Art

'I am, in point of fact, a particularly haughty and exclusive person, of pre-Adamite ancestral descent. You will understand this when I tell you that I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule. Consequently, my family pride is something inconceivable. I can't help it. I was born sneering.'

If, like Pooh-Bah in W S Gilbert's The Mikado, you're prone to sneering then I suggest you just hold on just a moment and look at the company you're keeping. Other notable sneerers include, for instance, Byron's Corsair, Emily Bronte's Heathcliff, and Shelley's Ozymandias. Not one of whom, as I need hardly remind you, came to a happy end. And, let's face it, their middles weren't that much cop as far as I can see, either.

Yes, yes, I know, these are all fictional characters. Well, if you want a scientific point of view then Charles Darwin, in The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, says that a sneer is basically the same thing as a dog's snarl.

Let's face it, as an argument it's just about as valid.

Thing Not To Do Today: sneer. There's a North Frisian word sneere which means contempt, and our word could well have  something to do with that.

Monday 15 October 2012

Spot the frippet: unguis.

Oh yes you can spot an unguis!

Yes, with no trouble at all. The chances are that you're carrying quite a lot of ungues round with you at the moment.

In fact rather doubt you ever put them down.

There are ungues to be seen in the trees, and ungues to be seen in the fields (and hearthrugs, holts, and holes are commonly inhabited by them too).

What is it? Well, an unguis is a nail - not an iron one, but the sort you probably carry at the ends of your fingers and toes:

 An unguis can also be a claw:

Photo by AnasiZ

 or a hoof:

Alice and pig baby

or it can be the part of the digit where the nail, claw or hoof grows.

As if that's not enough, the base of some petals are claw-shaped, and they're called ungues, too.

The word gives us the tempting though admittedly rather greasy adjective ungual.

There. I bet you've already seen several types of unguis today without even looking.

Spot the frippet: unguis. This word arrived in English in the 1700s. It's Latin for nail or claw.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: unguent.


You can practically hear the grease and gunge oozing out of this horrible word.

An unguent is a sort of cream designed to be rubbed into the skin. Fortunately the word unguent isn't used nearly as often as cream because an unguent is nearly an aid to beauty and hardly ever a medicine.

The mere greasy sound of unguent brings to mind old, mad, wrinkly, desperate women.

Non-desperate sane women will, of course, use an enticing lotion or cream.

Word Not To Use Today: unguent. The word unguent comes (and how I wish it hadn't) from the Latin word unguere, which means to annoint.

This unguent jar comes from King Tutankamun's tomb. I suppose, now I come to think about it, a mummy would need a good face cream.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Saturday Rave: King Alfred and the cakes.

In a historical novel, which things have to be true?

I do wish I knew the answer to that.

What I value above all in a historical novel is some attempt at the mind-set of another age. A spooky romance set in Tudor England will, ideally, have a different flavour from one set in the Italian mountains in about 1800.

For me, a flashing-eyed heroine saying la, sir! as she gathers up the skirts of her redingote just isn't good enough.

I have to say, though, that large fortunes are made by writers whose flashing-eyed heroines say la, sir! while gathering up the skirts of their redingotes, which just goes to show how much I know.


Anyway, King Alfred. It's a nice little story. The great warrior king, hero of all his people, gets it in the neck (not literally) because he fails to notice the housewife's cakes are burning.

Is it true?

I don't know. But once you've witnessed the vicissitudes of a man's relationship with his frying pan then you have to accept that the legend isn't outside the bounds of possibility.

And you also have to accept that, fortunately for the historical novelist, some things will always chime with the spirit of the age.

Word To Use Today If You Really Must: redingote. This word started off as riding coat, was exported to France, and came back redingote. A redingote is either a full-skirted coat of the 1700s or 1800s:

File:Redingote a la hussar.jpg
This is a redingote á la hussar.

 or a 1700s dress cut open at the front to show off a fancy petticoat:

File:Woman's redingote c. 1790.jpg


Friday 12 October 2012

Word To Use Today: nog.

As a child, the television programme Noggin the Nog consisted  of incomprehensible wonders glimpsed through grey and shifting mist.

Was it for children?

Was it funny?

I really still don't know.

And nog...what was a nog?
Well, dear readers, come closer. Gather round the screen, just as the knights used to gather round the fire in the land of Noggin the Nog, and I'll tell you of nogs and noggins in all their forms, some fleeting and some that will last to the end of time.
Er...oh dear. I'm afraid I can't keep up the nogesque style any longer, because as it turns out nogs aren't very romantic.
To start with, a nog is a drink. It's usually an alcoholic one with beaten egg in it (eu!) although in Eastern England it's strong beer.
If it's not a drink, then a nog is a wooden block built into a brick wall to which nails can be fixed.
A noggin can be a small amount of spirits, a little mug or cup, or, most commonly nowadays, someone's head, as in he got a bash on the noggin.
It's also a protein, discovered by Richard M Harland, which is important in bone-development and joint formation.
And, while we're here, nogging is a bit of a wall. It can be a piece of timber used in a stud wall, or the bricks filling in a timber-framed wall.
Just to confuse things even further, nogging is often called nog, unless you're in Scotland or New Zealand, where it's called dwang.
But what Noggin the Nog was, I still haven't the faintest idea.
Word To Use Today: nog. I suppose it's no surprise that although the words nog, noggin and nogging have existed for a long time and have many uses and meanings, where any of the words came from is a complete mystery.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Opportunity Knocks: a rant.

It's jolly useful to have signs by the sides of the roads marking the boundaries of places.

It's an added bonus if, as in England, there are places called Weston-under-Lizard, Limpley Stoke, Marsh Gibbon, and, most deliciously of all, I think, Wishmore Bottom.

It does no harm if these signs add a little extra information: Buggleswick: Home of Surgical Stockings, for instance, or Chantley: Historic Town destroyed by Hairy the Woadsman.

However, the signs around my home county which proclaim:


are merely embarrassing. A county of opportunity? Opportunity for what? Unemployment, famine and murder? 

Does my home county offer career-development courses for zombies? Or bareback giraffe racing?

Who can tell?

What people can tell, though, is that the members of the County Council who were responsible for putting up those signs have much, much more money than sense.

Ah well. At least they're giving fair warning to every single person who enters the county.

Word To Use Today: opportunity. This word comes from the Latin opportūnus, which means coming to harbour.

In Australia and New Zealand an opportunity shop, or op shop, is one selling second-hand goods on behalf of charitity.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Nuts and Bolts: forensic linguistics I.

What does the word snail mean?

Well, it's not easy to say, because snail, like most words, describes a group of things. What is the animal you think of when you hear the word snail like? Is it plain? Striped? Tabby? Is it eating a lettuce? Asleep in its shell? On a plate in a restaurant? In a rockpool?

The job of forensic linguistics is to work out exactly what language means when it's used in the law.

One obvious part of forensic linguistics is working out just what laws mean.

Laws need to be absolutely clear (what is a snail? As I recall AP Herbert wrote a lovely story, one of his Misleading Cases, in which a legal judgement depends upon whether snails are wild and ferocious, or whether they are better described as domestic).

As well as problems of definition, what if changes in the meaning of a words over time has led to a change in the law? There's a fashion at the moment for saying absolutely! in conversation, but you'd have to be very careful indeed when using it when making a will.

What if a law has to be translated into another language? (In England, law has been written in English, then French, then back to English again; with, of course, lots of Latin thrown in at various times to confuse things.) That's bound to cause all sorts of problems.

What about new words that come along? It's almost impossible to keep up with everything. In 1999, for instance, Judge Francis Appleby had to stop a case involving the theft of a Teletubby to ask what it was.

In this instance, the important thing, of course, is not that Judge Appleby didn't know what a Teletubby was, but that before the case was over he did. 

Word To Use Today: forensic. This word comes from the Latin word forēnsis, which means public, from forum, which means public place. 

The phrase forensic linguistics first appeared in 1968. It was coined by Jan Svartvik.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Thing To Do Today: sneeze.

Do you have a cold?


Well, I hope you've got some pepper, then.

What? You do have a cold?

Oh dear, I'm sorry. I hope it'll soon be over. Honey and lemon are very good. I can't guarantee they'll cure you, but as medicines go they're not to be sneezed at (though why on earth anyone would sneeze when confronted with something horrible I have no idea at all).

In China you sneeze when people are talking about you. One sneeze means that they're saying something good, two sneezes something bad, three sneezes means they're in love...and four sneezes means you've got a cold.

In the Odyssey a sneeze is all good news. Telemachus's sneeze is taken by his mother Penelope as a sign the Gods will help them in their revenge on Penelope's suitors.

Yes, I know it sounds a little mad, but as it happens Penelope is right. 

Sneezewood comes from the tree Ptaeroxylon utile, which comes from South Africa. The wood is especially tough, smells of pepper (hence, presumably, the sneeze bit) and is used for making bridges, piers and fence posts.

Sneezewort is a Eurasian plant, Achillea ptarmica. The leaves, when dried and powdered, make people sneeze. As, surely, would any other powdered leaf, but hey...

Bless you, anyway.

Thing To Do Today: sneeze. This word is related to the Old Norse fnȳsa and the Greek pneuma, which means breath.

Monday 8 October 2012

Spot the frippet: counter.

Yes, I know, it's Monday morning and your brain, throbbing gently like an expiring octopus, is still under the impression that it's the middle of last night.

Never mind. This really is the easiest spot the frippet ever.


No, I don't expect many of you to be at gaming tables this early in the morning. I don't expect you to spot that sort of a counter.

No, nor the serving table in a shop, or the worktop in a kitchen. Who has their eyes open at breakfast time on a Monday morning?

I suppose if you'd tried to find out how many cars passed you on your way to work or school today then you yourself would be a counter...but, come on! It's Monday morning! It was quite enough effort working out how many socks you needed to cover your feet, wasn't it.

No, look:


Do you see the hole in that o? And the smaller one inside the e?

To someone who knows about type, then those holes are called counters.

So well done, you lot.

Mission accomplished.

Now pat yourself on the pack and sink gently back into your torpor, do.

Spot the frippet: counter. The word meaning gaming disc or table comes from the Old French comptouer, from the Latin computāre to compute. The word meaning hole in a letter comes from the Latin contrā, which means against.

Sunday 7 October 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: jejune.

I'm rather fond of the letter j, with its elegant tail and adorable dot, and this horrible word is not to be blamed on the twin j s.

Jejune (the j s are pronounced as in June, and the stress is on...well, mostly on the listener, but also on the second syllable).

It means simple, naive, dull, dry, insubstantial or barren. There we are: six much more usable words than the ghastly jejune.

The facts are simple: use the word jejune and everyone will hate you.

Got it?


Word Not To Use Today: jejune. This word crept into the language in the 1600s, presumably whilst all sensible people were looking the other way. It comes from the Latin word jējūnus, which means hungry or empty.

Saturday 6 October 2012

Saturday Rave: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

It is the fate of some books to be hated passionately. It's usually because they have been inflicted on poor little children at school, or poor little students at university.

Heart of Darkness is one of those books.

It doesn't help that the first few pages of Heart of Darkness are brain-numbingly dull (well, I think so, anyway: it took me three attempts over the decades to get past the story-of-the-man-who-tells-the-story) and it doesn't help either that there are no hi-speed helicopters, no high schools, nor any noticeable humour.

Oh, but that heart of darkness. Once you've been there, once you've smelled it, once you've felt it close around you, the brightness of the outside world will forever be more vivid against its shadows.

And as for the shadows...oh, the shadows will never, never go quite away.

Word To Use Today: darkness. This is a wonderful word which needs more careful exploration than I have space for at the moment. It comes from the Old English word deorc which is related to the Old High Grerman terchennan, which means to hide.

Friday 5 October 2012

Word To Use Today: umbrage.

I find The Word Den really a rather cheerful place, but here's a chance to walk on the dark side.


It's rather a silly word, is umbrage. Someone who takes umbrage is certainly offended, but the chances are that his revenge won't go further than a little outraged gossip or the pointed closing of a door.

Or just possibly an email beginning Dear Mr Bogworthy. That sort of thing.

(I remember a neighbour once saying to me ooh, I can't wait for him to speak to me so I can ignore him. Bless.)

If that sort of umbrage isn't dark and cloak-swirly enough for you then there's always the shadier sort of umbrage, umbrage meaning, well, shade. Umbrage meant first of all the foliage of trees, but it's also come to mean shade, as cast by leaves.

Darker still? Well, in that case you can have umbrage meaning a shadow or a semblance.

The sort of thing that leans forward silently, grinning from the shadows as you pass...


I think I'll stick with the foliage, myself.

Word To Use Today: umbrage. This word comes from the Latin word umbrāticus, realting to shade, from umbra, which means shade or shadow.