This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 30 November 2012

Word To Use Today: tod.

Tod: one word, three letters, and three quite different meanings.


Tod started off as a unit of weight for wool (neat, isn't it, to have a unit specially for wool). A tod was usually equal to 28 pounds, says my dictionary, which is a quarter of a long hundredweight.* 

(I love that usually: the world of tods must have been a charming Alice-in-Wonderland sort of place if even the words for measuring things didn't have a fixed meaning.)

The second meaning of tod occurs in a slang expression which means to be alone. I'm on me tod, a Londoner might announce. (My dictionary hilariously lists this expression as on one's tod, but this could only conceivably be uttered a peer of the realm pretending to be a London barrow boy.)

The third tod you'll find in Scotland or the North of England, where it's a fox.

As if that wasn't enough, TOD has a varied life as an abbrebriation for Time Of Day and Time Of Death; Television On Demand and Television On the Desktop; Top Of Descent (in aviation) and Transit-Oriented Development (in planning).

Then there's El-Tod, which is an archaeological site in Egypt, and Mount Tod, which is in British Columbia in Canada:

File:Mount Tod.jpg

Isn't that lovely?

Word To Use Today: tod. Hm, so we have a piece of cockney slang, an obsolete measure of weight, and a dialect word for fox. This isn't going to be easy to use, is it.

I don't know, though, perhaps I'm on me tod should be used more widely. It has the advantage of not being self-pitying or pathetic, which I'm alone tends to be.

The weight sort of a tod is probably related to the Old Frisian todde, which meand rag, and the Old High German zotta, a tuft of hair. On me tod is rhyming slang, after Tod Sloan (alone**), who was a jockey. Tod meaning fox has been around since the 1100s, but slunk in from no one knows where.

*A long hundredweight is of course one where a hundred =112.

**This is what it says in my Collins dictionary, but, as my husband points out, surely the rhyme should be with own, ie: on me tod = on me own, not on me tod = on me alone.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Not even once: a rant.

A new review popped up on recently:

It's by CDoug.

Cold Tom (Paperback)

I read this novel recently in preparation to teach it to a Year 7 English class, and it really didn't capture my imagination to the same extent it seemingly did the critics. I found its structure very repetetive; the amount of chapters ending in 'and then he looked the stars' made it a fairly unengaging read, and 40 chapters for a 130 page book led to far too many climaxes in a book where in honesty not too much happens. Tom's escape, housing and rehabilitation could have been narrated far more succinctly.

I appreciate that it is intended as an allegorical novel for youngsters, but I really think that the twelve-year-olds I will be reading it with this term will struggle to warm to it, as did I.

Okay, okay, it's a fair cop, I wrote the book he's talking about, but...good grief, where do I start?

Well, with some facts, perhaps. Cold Tom doesn't have 40 chapters.  None of them end with 'and then he looked the stars' (as a matter of fact only three of them mention stars at all).

In any case, how can a book have too many climaxes if not much happens?

Okay. That's the mini-rant. 

The BIG RANT is about the standard of the...I suppose I must be generous and call it English.

This is a teacher? A teacher, with a responsibility to teach children?

Good grief.

And God help us all.

Word To Use Today: review. This word comes from the French revoir, which means to see again, from the Latin vidēre, to see.

See again? Sometimes I just wish reviewers would look at the flipping book once!

Wednesday 28 November 2012

Nuts and Bolts: Saramaccan


The language Saramaccan is a most wonderful sort of stew.
It's spoken by only about 26,000 people, mostly in Suriname, and one of the gorgeous things about it is the way it's been mixed together: here some Portuguese sloshing gravy-like all over the place, there some bits of English and Dutch bobbing about like potatoes, and over there some herby African languages such as Fongbe and Akan.
The African words may make up a small proportion of the Saramaccan vocabulary, but Saramaccan's African heritage is important all the same, for Saramaccan uses tones (when the meaning of a word depends on whether you say it in a high or low voice, more or less), which European languages mostly don't.
In this glorious casserole of a language there'll be Portuguese-based words popping up, like faka (Portuguese faca) knife, and kendi (quente) hot.

Then there are glimpses of English, too: adantifi, toothpaste, is a charming example; and of the African words adjáansi, which means spider, may have a familiar ring to it.

Mostly, though, Saramaccan has gone off in its own glorious way. The word maaní means screen or sieve, and tjuba ta maaniit means that it's drizzling; paati means to separate, and paati baka ku baka, means to go in opposite directions, wántú means a few, and wánwan means alone.
You know, suddenly I feel terribly sad that I don't speak all the wonderful languages of the world.
Word To Use Today....hmmm. I'm not sure what to suggest. How about ignorance? This word comes from the Latin ignōrāre, which means not to know.






Tuesday 27 November 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: be bland.

Watch out! Bland-alert! There's someone over there dressed from head-to-foot in beige!

Pudding? Oh no, not...not...not blancmange!!

Aarghhh! Lift-music!!!

If variety is the spice of life (and it's certainly one of the spices of life) then blandness is the sliced white bread of life, a substance so unappealing that even mould hardly likes to touch it.

So don't be bland: wear scarlet, laugh out loud, dance, sing, fall in love, argue, smell the coffee. Look out for something beautiful, ugly or dangerous. Be something beautiful, ugly, or dangerous.

Don't be calm. Don't be soothing.

All right, bland can mean suave, smooth, and on the whole rather agreeable if you're in the diplomatic service, but, let's face it, life is too short for on the whole rather agreeable.

So don't be bland.

Be interesting.

Thing Not To Do Today: be bland. This word comes from the Latin word blandus, which means flattering.

And that brings us rather nicely back to diplomats, doesn't it.

Monday 26 November 2012

Spot the frippet: recorder.

No, no, come back!!!

There's nothing wrong with recorders. Honestly. It's not recorders who torture people, it's the people who blow them.

And they can be full of joy:

Of course there are other recorders about the place: almost every bit of techno-kit nowadays includes a recorder of some kind, whether  it's a phone, camera, or computer.
Then there are the security cameras that are more or less  everywhere; and as if that's not enough then there's the self-recording possibilities of Twitter, Facebook, etc and, ahem, blogs (although blogs don't necessarily have to be all about the writer, obviously).
Good grief, I think it might be easier to live for an hour and not spotting a recorder. The chance of not being spotted by a recorder must be somewhere between a hundred per cent and zero, I should say.
You know, I'm being to wonder if even Little Brother can be entirely trusted...
Spot The Frippet: recorder. This word comes from the Old French recorder, which means to call to mind, and before that from the Latin recordārī, to remember. The cor bit is the Latin for heart.
The musical instrument is probably named from the old word  record, which means to sing like a bird.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: fascinator.

A fascinator is a tiny hat which isn't solid enough actually to be


They're worn on formal occasions by people who, presumably, think that having sprouts and tufts coming out of their heads makes them more attractive.

In fact, generally, the wearing of a fascinator is a sign that the person wearing it is so deeply dull that she has to rely on her headgear to be interesting for her.

Ah well. I suppose that's good to know. Then at least we can avoid being cornered.

Word Not To Use Today: fascinator. This word comes from fascinate, of course, which comes from the Latin word fascinum, which means a bewitching.

Saturday 24 November 2012

Saturday Rave: The Love of Three Oranges.

This isn't necessarily a story about oranges. There's a three pomegranates version, and in various parts of Italy this tale features a whole salad of fruit.

The tale tells of a prince looking for a beautiful wife. (This alone tells you he's an idiot, because, of course, you need more than beauty for a happy marriage.)

Anyway, he goes on to take advice - and three oranges - from a woman who lives in a place called The Isle of Ogresses (which you'd have thought would have been a bit of a clue that things aren't going to turn out too well).

Anyway, he's too slow to catch the fairies that come out of the first two oranges, but when he catches the fairy from the last orange he decides that this is the woman for him.

He takes her home and hides her up a tree (up a tree?) and then...

...well, there's a thoroughly evil servant woman who makes the poor fairy suffers very much for a long time. The idiot prince stays in character throughout, believing everything everybody tells him, the poor mutt.

Ah well. The non-evil people do get to live happily ever after, even possibly the poor fairy, because with a husband that stupid she'll be able to do anything she likes without him so much as noticing.

There we are. Prokofiev did an opera of the story which celebrates the general bonkersness of the whole thing.

Word To Use today: orange. This word came to English in the 1300s from Old French, Old Provençal, Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit (nāranga) and probably from some Dravidian word before that.

Friday 23 November 2012

Word To Use Today: squid.

Admit it: you've been under-using the word squid, haven't you.

This is a shame, because squids are wonderful things. For a start, some of them can fly. All right, admittedly not very far, but, let's face it, probably rather further than you can.

Squids also have beaks, which is neat, too.

That's nowhere near the end of their wonders, either. A squid can change its colour to suit its surroundings (just think how different and more glorious the history of the world would have been if humans had the power to do that).

Not only that, but in almost every colour variation a squid's underside will stay lighter than its topside, making it almost invisible to both prey and predator.

How about that, it does invisibility, too!

Squid aren't dumb, either. Some of them, for instance, hunt in groups. (To grasp the significance of this, think how hard it is to organise a group of humans to catch even something fairly predictable, like a train.) 

Ah, you say, but do squid do marvellous stuff like novels and poetry?

Well, I don't know about that, but squid ceratinly have three hearts, so who's to say they don't have deep and tender emotions of which we know nothing.

Now, I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to feel a little inadequate, and that's before I've got as far as the Colossal Squid.  This may grow to 14 metres in length, which is, frankly, a terrifying thought.

Still, not to worry, we humans can soon get our revenge.

There's always calamari.

Word To Use Today: squid. This word has been used in English since the 1600s, but sadly no one knows where it came from.


PS In Britain, squid may be used as a term for pounds sterling, as in a million squid. In this case it's rhyming slang for quid.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Thanksgiving: a rant.

No one ever said thank-you* letters are easy.

Dear Aunt Ethel,

Thank you very much for your present, which was a great surprise to everyone, especially Fluffy. Still, we expect she'll come home again at some point. Katie and Flynn have enjoyed designing all the posters, in any case.

We've fixed your fantastic gift up on the landing, where it can be seen right from the street. It's been a real talking point, too. We had no idea we had so many animal-rights campaigner neighbours. I'm sure we'll all soon be remembering to duck as we go along past the bedrooms. It was silly of Bob to try to walk downstairs without putting the landing light on, anyway. The doctors says that he'll be able to take the plaster off in about six weeks or so if all goes well.

[delete delete delete]

Dear Aunt Ethel,

Thank you very much for your present. Did you shoot it yourself? I think when Bob said he was fond of a good mousse he was talking about the fruit-flavoured varieties...

[delete delete] 

It will always remind us of you...

[delete delete]

It brings a real whiff of the mountains with it, and I'm sure all the flies will soon get tired...

[delete delete]

We are all well. Unfortunately Katie's nightmares have come back, but I expect she'll settle down again. Eventually.

[delete delete delete]

Dear Aunt Ethel,

Thank you very much for your present. It was very generous of you, and we will think of you every time we see it.




However hard they are, we must always, ALWAYS, write them, especially if someone's done you a favour at your request. 

Even if all you can honestly be is brief.

Thing To Do Today: thank someone. The word thank comes from the Old English thancian, which is related to similar words in Old Frisian, Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German.

And if that all lot can do it, then so can we.

*That hyphen: not to be used when thank you is something that you're doing, but otherwise quite often recommended.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Nuts and Bolts, the very beginning: incipits.

Let's start at the very beginning. That's a very good place to start...

...and is what an incipit does.

An incipit consists of the first few words of a book (or the first few notes of a piece of music).

Nowadays we usually file books by their titles, but titles weren't invented until several thousand years after books came into being.

The clay tablets of Sumer, for instance, were catalogued under titles which included Where are the sheep and And with you I did not.

If that seems a bit silly, then consider: it's exactly the same system as is used to make up a title for a WORD document, isn't it.

Nowadays it's poems that most often are known by their incipits. This is often because the poems don't have proper titles, being labelled Sonnet, for instance, in which case we'll often refer to a poem as something like: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. rather than Sonnet from the Portugese No 43. Music has the same problem. With a million pieces called Allegro, an album of pieces will often begin with a page of first phrases written out so you can find the piece you want.

Hymns tend to be listed by their incipits, too, which is fine unless they're best known for their chorus or refrain. It can take a long time to find O Still Small Voice of Calm* in a hymn book index, or To be a Pilgrim** or that one, you know, the Mr Bean one, which goes Hallelu-u-u-u-yah!***

Thing to use today: an incipit. This word is Latin, and means here begins.

* Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.
**He who would valiant be.
***All Creatures of Our God and King.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

Thing to do carefully today: be silly.

Why not be silly for a change?

Drink your coffee from the wrong side of the cup.

See if you can head your rubbish into the bin.

Do your barre exercises at the freezer in the supermarket.

Yes, there are a million silly things not to do, like walking out across thin ice, poking that crocodile, and pushing a custard pie into the face that teacher/boss/policeman (oh, but it'd be fun, though, wouldn't it?) but a little silliness is good for you. It stops your brain from getting in a rut.

I know that someone who's dazed after being knocked over the head is called silly (which I always associate, I don't know how correctly, with the cricketing terms silly mid-on and silly mid-off, which describe people who stand very close to the batsman and are therefore rather likely to get hit), and I'm certainly not recommending getting yourself into danger of any kind. 

And I suppose the real cowards amongst us could go in for another sort of silliness, the sort that means humble (as in silly sheep), and this is of course also healthful and charming.

Just do try to step out of your rut today.

People will love you for it.

As long as you're careful.

Thing To Do Carefully Today: be silly. This word meant pitiable in the 1400s. It comes from the Old English sǣlig, which means happy, and is related to the Gothic sēls, which means good.


Monday 19 November 2012

Spot the frippet: pug.

Here's a hard-working little word:


A pug's a dog:

A man wearing a red robe and a black hat in a mirror. A small yellow dog with a black nose and ears stands beside the mirror.
Hogarth the painter with his pug Trump in 1745. 

Pug dogs usually have wrinklier noses than that nowadays. They've been bred in China, where they were reckoned to look like lions, since before 400 BC. In fact they were thought to look so much like lions that statues of pugs were used to guard temples.

This other small snub-nosed thing is a pug, too:

"Nora No.5", a typical 'Pug' built in 1912

A pug can also be a moth (in fact there are lots of species of pug moth, many of which often look so much like each other that they seriously annoy moth recorders):

That's a Common Pug, Eupithecia vulgata.

Pug can be clay and water mushed up together to make a...well, a mush, which can be used to fill up holes.

Pug is also a slang name for a boxer (not the dog, this time, but the fighter).

Pug can be sawdust, mortar or similar stuff put between a wooden floor and a ceiling to cut down noise (this is sometimes rather charmingly called pugging). A Pug Impression Pad is an area of finely raked earth used to collect evidence of animal life from footprints, especially tigers.

And if all those things are nowhere to be found then there's always the lovely New Zealand word puggy (there's puggier and puggiest, too,) which means sticky and claylike. All the footpaths are pretty puggy round here at the moment.

Easier still, a pug nose turns up at the end; and, lastly, a pug can be a tangle in the hair.

There we are. Pugs? We're surrounded by them!

Spot the frippet: pug. Pug meaning boxer is short for pugilist, from the Latin word pugil, a boxer, which is related to pugnus, a fist. The train may be called after the dog, or perhaps from the dialect word pug which means monkey. Sadly, the origins of the other meanings have been lost in the midsts of time.

Sunday 18 November 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: odium.

This is rather difficult.

Odium is a hideous word, but what's the alternative?

We have repugnance, which means more or less the same thing, but repugnance is an even uglier word than odium

There's hatred, I suppose, but that's a bit more active.

What can we do?

I suppose all we can do is hold very few things in odium.

Let's see if it's possible. Here we are:

A redback spider on a pillow.
Photo by Dylan O'Donnell.

No, don't be arachnoidist. It's lovely!

Photo by Epukas.

Yum! (And is there anything anywhere more beautiful?)

There are, of course, some things which are very nearly impossible to like:

How Do Lice Reproduce? thumbnail

(that's a head louse).

So what can we do about head lice? I suppose we're going to have to make a proper job of it and hate them with some considerable passion.

I think we'd all be happier for it, myself.

Word Not To Use Today: odium. This word is related to the Latin word ōdī, which means I hate, and before that from the Greek word odussasthai, which means to be angry.

Saturday 17 November 2012

Saturday Rave: The Sick Rose by William Blake.

What does this poem mean?

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:

Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

It was written by William Blake:

1807 portrait by Thomas Phillips.

And was self-published in the 1790s.

(When I say self-published, I mean that Blake did the design, illustration, engraving and publicity, and that his wife Catherine did the printing, and any colouring not done by her husband.)

What does the poem mean?

Well, something between nothing-at-all and more-or-less-everything, I would say.

That's the most magical thing about it.

Word To Use Today: rose. This word has been English since before the Norman Conquest. The word comes from the Latin rosa, and probably from the Greek rhoden, both of which mean rose.

Friday 16 November 2012

Word To Use Today: tiller.

And all I ask is a tall ship
And a star to steer her by.

Isn't that wonderful? I know very well that really I have not the faintest desire to go anywhere in a tall ship, but John Masefield's  poem still makes me shiver with yearning.

(And, no, the preposition at the end of his sentence doesn't matter in the slightest. Only poor sad bitter people could possibly object. So there.)

But how are we going to steer our tall ship? Well, a huge tall ship will have a wheel, but anything else is quite likely to have a tiller.

That's Hubert Parry (the composer who wrote the tunes to Jerusalem and Dear Lord and Father of Mankind) at the tiller.

You'll also need a tiller:

Tiller by JicJac -

if you need to, well, till something, that is, break the soil up so you can plant seeds. And, rather neatly, what you'll be tilling may well be tillers, which are shoots which come up from the base of grass stems.

Finally, to bring us to the weekend in a cheerful mood, here are the Tiller Girls:

They were a dance troupe formed by John Tiller in Manchester, England, in 1890 who were famous for their linked-arms, high-kicking routines.

Do you know, I think that perhaps we should all celebrate the end of the week in high-kicking Tiller Girl style.

Word To Use Today: tiller. The steering tiller comes from the Anglo-French teiler, which is the beam of a loom, from the Latin la, which is a web.

The grass tiller comes from the Old English telgor, which means twig.

Thursday 15 November 2012

An ology too far: a rant.

It's November, and the Christmas catalogues are slithering fatly through the letterbox, spilling offers for walk-in baths and personalised wine bottles all over the place.

I must say I quite enjoy a good catalogue. I may not want to spend £70 on a model of a bulbous-headed puppy wearing a Father Christmas hat, but it enlarges my experience to know that, presumably, some people do.

(But who designs the things? Is there a special Art School for people with absolutely no artistic sensibility whatsoever?)

But I digress, and the reason I digress is that my subject for today is so horrifying that I don't really want to write about it. I came across it in a Christmas catalogue under the title...

brace yourselves, do...



See? Foul, utterly foul. In fact it's so horrible it gives me stomach-ache.

Look, ology implies science, and charm implies either mysterious pleasure or even more mysterious magic. You can't have...

...but of course you can't.

It says in the catalogue that the White Howlite bracelet = Guardian Angel. In what way the WHB = GA I cannot begin to imagine, and in fact my head is hurting now, as well as my stomach, so I'm going to go away and stare at true, beautiful things like the clouds until I feel peaceful again.

Do hope you recover soon, too.

Word To Use Today: ology. This is quite a new word when used by itself to mean a branch of science. It was popularised by a British telephone company advert from 1989 featuring Maureen Lipman as Beattie Bellman. Ology is more usually found as the end of a word, where it comes from the Latin word ending -logia, from the Greek logos, which means word.

My favourite example is oology, which, rather neatly, is the study of birds' eggs and nesting.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Nuts and Bolts: Forensic Linguistics 2.

This is a true and correct account of the fit and proper language  which aids and abets lawyers in making free and clear wills and testaments.

Yep. You noticed: I keep on saying everything twice.


Because it's what lawyers do, and so it's part of forensic linguistics.

The respectable reason for saying things twice is that when, in the 1100s, the French-speaking Normans started making laws in made a point of using both the English and French words for things to remove all possibility of doubt.

When you look at various legal phrases such as fit (English) and proper (French), keep (E) and maintain (F) and true (E) and correct (Latin) then this does look quite convincing, too.

On the other hand, when you look at phrases like covenant and agree (both French) and force and effect (both English) then the theory does fall down rather.

So, why all the extra words?

Well, for one thing it makes legal language look complicated. This is good at keeping ordinary people from understanding it, which is good for keeping lawyers in employment.

It makes the lawyers look clever, too.

Another reason seems to be that saying everything twice became a bit of a habit for them.

Lastly, and perhaps not least importantly, in former times (and perhaps even now) lawyers used to get paid by the word.

So that explains it all, doesn't it. 

And so I can now cease and desist.

Word To Use Today: lawyer. This word comes from the Old English lagu. There's a related Icelandic word lög, which means things law or things laid down.

Tuesday 13 November 2012

Thing To Not Do Today: be churlish.

They say that people are getting ruder all the time (though of course the people who say that are all really old people, who complain all the time anyway) but it's a long time since anyone's called me a churl.

In fact, I'm not sure that anyone ever has.

A churl is a surly, ill-bred person (though you can be churlish even if you're quite high-up, like a Prime Minister or a President. Dukes in particular are noted for their churlishness. They have been  known to addressing even their boiled eggs with a sneer.)

Long ago a churl was a ceorl, who was the lowest sort of free man in Anglo-Saxon England. Later a churl became a term for a farm labourer (and who wouldn't be a bit grumpy when faced with digging up a whole strip of turnips? Let's face it, I'm not all that cheerful at the moment, and all I have to do is rake the lawn.).

Even if you're neither bad-tempered, a peasant, nor an Anglo-Saxon, it's still possible to be churlish in its sense of being miserly. That sort of churl is the sort of person who avoids eye-contact with people who have collecting boxes, uses his tea-bags more than twice, and always claims his sweets have all been dropped on the toilet floor.

Thing Not To Do Today: be churlish. This word comes from the Old English ceorl and is related to the Old Norse karl and the Greek gerōn, which means old man.
So there we are: that proves that people get grumpier as they get older, doesn't it.

Monday 12 November 2012

Spot the frippet: gossamer.

Here's something delicate and lovely to lift our spirits on a Monday morning.


If you live in England then the damp misty mornings mean the whole world is decorated with wheels and hammocks of cobwebs, each one starred with a thousand tiny diamonds of dew.

Gossamer means very fine silk, and that includes the fine silk of which a spider's web is made.

Anything particularly fine or wispy can be called gossamer, from clouds to candyfloss to the curling steam from a coffee cup to an insect's wing:

That's a gossamer-winged butterfly, of which there are many species, all members of the family Lycaenidae. This one is the Common Grass Blue.

There are wisps of gossamer everywhere.

On the ground:

Photo by Jon Sullivan.

and even in space. The planet Jupiter has some wispy rings which are called the gossamer rings:

That's a picture taken by the spacecraft Galileo.

So many wonders.

Hope you find one to light up your Monday.

Spot the frippet: gossamer. This word is probably from gos, goose, and somer summer, though the summer in question is actually in winter. That's because the summer it's a St Martin's summer, a time in November when goose was traditionally eaten. The name is probably connected with the fact that in England cobwebs are most easily seen in the misty November mornings.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Sunday Rest: Word To Hope To Use Very Little: war.

No one could like the word war.

It's a gut-wrenching roar of disgust and despair.

Yes, we can be proud of brave fighters and a just cause: but let's also remember that there's no such thing as a just war, because when there is justice there is no need for fighting.

And may all the peoples of the world, the living and the dead, rest always in peace.

Word To Hope To Use Very Little: war. This word comes from the Old Northern French word werre, and is related to the Old High German word werra.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Saturday Rave: Kate Crackernuts.

Andrew Lang found the tale of Kate Crackernuts on Orkney. It's a terrific story, and should be much better known.

It tells the tale of two sister princesses. One of them has her head transformed (by her wicked stepmother, naturally,) into the head of a sheep, and the story tells of the journey of the sisters to find a cure.

Their quest takes them to a castle where the king has two sons, (so we can hope for a double happy ending, hurray,) one of whom is not only very sick, but has an annoying habit of vanishing in the middle of the night.

Of course the human-headed princess, Kate, follows him, and uses her nuts to such cunning effect that...

...well, they all live happily ever after, of course.

The story involves a nice little baby fairy, too.
Terrific stuff.

Especially all the nuts.
 Word To Use Today: cracker. This word comes from the Old English cracian, and its relations go right back to the Sanskrit word gárjati, which means he roars.


Friday 9 November 2012

Word To Use Today: pish.

I have to admit that there's no reason at all why anyone should ever use this word.


It's an exclamation of contempt or disagreement, and, yes, it's ludicrously old-fashioned. Nowadays the middle-aged might say nonsense! (if they were being polite) and the young might say yeah, right.

In pleading for pish I can only point out that you're saving a syllable...

...unless you use the form pish posh! which means the same thing.

But that's obviously ridiculous.

Pish-tushery is a term used to describe ridiculously elaborate language in historical fiction. You know the sort of thing, I'm sure: it's often when an author is determined not to waste any of her research.

'Pish, sir!' exclaimed Lady Charlotte, as she opened the patch box that she held on her hooped skirt which had been woven in Spitalfields by the newly immigrant Huguenots. 'La! How shocking! Do you not know that Lord Pumpkin's gout has necessitated his removal to Bath in his chariot? Tush!'

Good grief...I've spent twenty years being careful to avoid that sort of thing, and the effort of concocting that paragraph has nearly killed me.


Word To Use Today: pish. I've no idea where this word came from, and neither has my dictionary. Still, it'd be sad to see it perish.

Thursday 8 November 2012

Notes : a rant.

It's notes in a novel that have got my goat: footnotes or endnotes, that is.
Now, I wouldn’t want to be without notes because I like to learn things, but notes are often really really really annoying.
Look. Any sort of note is going to throw the reader out of the story, right? So the only excuse for putting in a note is if the reader is so baffled he’s been thrown out of the story already.
I’ve been reading the Oxford World Classics edition of Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope. The notes aren’t bad, mostly. Sometimes they’re quite understandable (by which I mean, more understandable than the book). Chapter 73, for instance, is entitled P.P.C. and I wouldn’t have had a clue what that meant if the notes (by Simon Dentith) hadn't explained that P.P.C. stands for pour prendre congé, which means to take leave. (I think you were supposed to write P.P.C on your visiting cards when you were going away on a journey; but I’m not sure because the note didn’t tell me.)
But then we get to the description of the Duke’s London party. Trollope tells us that the “haycocks...were ready prepared”. Well, there I am wondering why anyone should provide haycocks at a London party for posh people in the 1860s, and so I’m glad to see the asterisk which promises to tell me. And what does it say once I’ve leafed to the back of the book? It says “conical heaps of hay in a field”.

Yes, yes, I know that! But why are they there? Why? Why??
I understand that life is hard for a note writer. How can anyone know, after all, what other people know? I once wrote a children’s version of a classic book, and when it came out I discovered that the word famine had been given a note, but not the reference to Aristotle.
The hardest notes to justify are when the author of a novel has put in his own (why not write something comprehensible to start with?) and this is the reason why I haven't written this post with lots of footnotes.1

So everybody, please take note.

No, please.


Take them.

Word To Use Today: note. This word is from the Latin word nota, which means sign or notification.
1And you’re glad I didn’t, aren’t you.

Wednesday 7 November 2012

Nuts and Bolts: paragoge.

Paragoge sounds rather sweet, I think, in an ineffectual sort of way.

You say it parraGOHjee.

And what is a paragoge?

It's when the end of a word has been made longer. This may be because it's been borrowed by another language where words with the original ending don't make sense. (For instance Tom, the hero of my book Cold Tom, is sometimes Tomnak in the Hungarian translation, and Tomova in Slovenian.)

Some English words have forms with endings added onto them, even though it doesn't really make them mean anything extra. There's while and whilst, for instance, and among and amongst, and perhap and perhaps.

So there we are. Paragoge.

Sweet, yes: but not terribly effectual.

Thing to use today, perhaps whilst you are amongst friends: paragoge. This word comes from the Greek word paragōgē, and before that from paragein, to lead past or change.