This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 31 December 2012

Spot the frippet: something auld.

This is the day for the casting away of the auld.

And so we bid a fond (possibly) farewell to 2012 and gaze ahead with happy or fearful anticipation.

What will happen next?

The chances are, I believe, that it will be 2013 - but then I'm no Mayan, and neither am I a Nostradamus nor a Cassandra, so don't necessarily take my word for it.

Anyway, old stuff. Or auld stuff, as the word is sung in Auld Lang Syne. (Though why that song is traditionally sung at midnight on New Year's Eve I have no idea. I mean, I can see why you might want to look back fondly at the end the auld year, but why march into a new one looking backwards? Is this where we've all been going wrong all the time?)

The song Auld Lang Syne (Syne with a proper hissing s, apparently, not a z sound) is said to be written by the fabulous Robert Burns, though Burns himself said he "took it down from an old man" and presumably Burns should know. The tune isn't by him, either.

As for spotting something auld, this should be no problem if you have either a parent or a mirror. Big trees are also auld, and stones are even aulder, and if you want to be competitative about it then this:
This Is the Oldest Space Object Ever Found
is a Galaxy with the snappy name of UDFy-38135539, and it's the oldest thing anyone has ever seen. Unfortunately, though, you can only see it with the Hubble telescope. With the naked eye the oldest thing we can see is the Andromeda galaxy, which fortunately has a much snappier and more memorable name.
If it's cloudy...I'm not sure.

Bruce Forsyth?*
Spot the frippet: something auld. This word is the Scots version of old. The word old comes from the Old English eald, and is related to the Latin altus, which means high.

*Sorry, British joke. Sir Bruce is an entertainer still causing wonder, awe and amazement round here by dancing and telling gags well into his sprightly eighties.

Sunday 30 December 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: rumen.

Rumen is a queasy, first-stirrings-of-nausea sort of a word.

This isn't surprising, because the rumen is the first stomach of an animal like a cow or a buffalo (which are both ruminants, geddit?). The rumen starts the process of digesting the animal's food, and then the food is sicked back up into the animal's mouth (lovely!) so it can be chewed again.

Oh, how different our table manners would be if we all ate grass...

Ruminating, if you're a ruminantis the re-chewing of this partly-digested food, which has the nice name of cud

If you're a human, however, ruminating usually means thinking about something; and what I'm thinking is that being a ruminant may sound pretty disgusting, but it's not at disgusting as the system faviured by rabbits, who also put their food through their innards twice, but do it by eating their own poo.

Word Not To Use Today: rumen. Well, let's face it, why would anyone want to use the word rumen? Rumen is a Latin word and it means throat or gullet.

Saturday 29 December 2012

Saturday Rave: I saw three ships

This is a song, but it's a story, too.

I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day, on Christmas day
I saw three ships come sailing in
On Christmas Day in the morning.

And what was in those ships all three?

Well,  what was in those ships all three? Oh, the usual sort of stuff: angels etc (though you'd have thought angels would have flown, wouldn't you? I suppose they must have been too fat after all the mince pies).

In some version of the song the ships don't contain angels of any size, but three pretty girls. 

And it isn't Christmas, either:

And one could whistle and one could sing
And one could play on the violin
Such joy there was at my wedding
On New Year's Day in the morning.

Considering that the Christmas story is really a rather happy and in parts a hilarious one (and when the angel turned up we were, like, OMG!!!) it's much too often told with a long face. One of the lovely things about this story is that it's set to a nice cheerful jig (which some say is a version of Greensleeves,'s just not, is it?).

Oh, and by the way, those ships, said in the song to be sailing into Bethlehem. Can I just point out that this would have been much easier if the place weren't twenty miles from the sea?

Still, as long as it's cheerful...

I Saw Three Ships was first sung in the 1600s, perhaps in Derbyshire, England. The three ships may be a reference to the ships which brought the remains of the Three Wise Men to Köln, or perhaps to the coat of arms of Good King Wencelas, which had three ships on it.

Word To Use Today: ship. This word comes from the Old English scip, and before that from the Old High German scipfī, which means cup.

I think that's lovely.

Friday 28 December 2012

Word To Use Today: turkey.

It must be about time to be saying goodbye to the Christmas turkey.

It's been salted, roasted, curried, rissoled and souped, and now the streets of the land are turned into the traditional communal gibbet as the bones are put out in the garden for the birds to pick.

Heart-warming, or what?

Hm...I'll go for what, I think.

Anyway, the turkey is a magnificent beast:

That's the North American variety, which is called Meleagris gallopavo, but there are Central American turkeys, as well: 

Ocellated turkey, Meleagris ocellata.

and Australian turkeys:

File:Alectura lathami - Centenary Lakes crop.jpg

That's the Australian brush turkey, Alectura lathami. Photo by JJHarrison.

Then there's the water turkey, or anhinga, Anhinga melanogaser

File:Anhinga b.jpg

And it's not only birds that are turkeys. No, turkey is a word of contradictions. It's very beautiful country, of course, but also, sadly, a play that flops. In ten-pin bowling it's three strikes in a row, which is good. If you're in America then a turkey can be a stupid person, though someone talking turkey is being practical and effective.

Cold turkey is eaten in huge quantities in the aftermath of Christmas, but going cold turkey means suddenly stopping consuming something to which you are addicted.

Fortunately no one has ever, ever managed to get themselves addicted to eating turkey.

And hence the communal gibbet.

Word To Use today: turkey. The first English-speakers in America thought the turkey was a sort of guinea fowl, which in those days was called a turkey fowl (as it happens guinea fowls don't come from Turkey, either, but they were imported through the country).

These first English-speaking Americans were also under the impression that America was stuck onto Asia, so I expect that to them turkey seemed near enough.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Plebs - a rant.

The pleasingly-titled Gategate scandal has been rumbling on for ages here in England. In fact, it's been rumbling on for so long that it's now changed its name to the less charming Plebgate.

The basic story is that a senior politician, Andrew Mitchell, was rude to the policeman who told him the politician's bike couldn't be ridden out of a particular gate in Downing Street.*

The really dangerous word the politician is said to have used, the one which has destroyed Mr Mitchell's career (the 'senior' bit of it, at least) is pleb.

According to a police logbook Mr Mitchell said: 'Best you learn your —— place … you don’t run this —— government … You’re —— plebs'.

The logbook goes on to explain that: The members of public looked visibly shocked - though how anyone could look invisibly shocked I do not know.

Anyway. Pleb. Plebs are the common people, the masses. But what's wrong with that?

Personally, I'm honoured and thrilled to be just like the rest of you.

In fact I think I may have to get a T-shirt printed:

to be a

Word To Use Very Carefully Indeed Today: pleb. This word is from the Latin word plēbs, which means the populace.

By the way, isn't it odd how the people who are most keen on equality tend to be the ones who like ordinary people the least?

*Downing Street is the British Prime Minister's London house and office.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Nuts and Bolts: revitalisation.

You've had Christmas, you're as stuffed and torpid as yesterday's turkey, and now you need a bit of revitalisation.

There are stories everywhere of languages which are dying, but, hey, it's Christmas, let's celebrate with the story of a language which was dead as a mother tongue for nearly two thousand years and has now roared triumphantly back to life.

Hebrew died out as an everyday language in the first century AD. From then until about 1880 no one spoke it as a mother tongue.

The revival came from several sources, and happened for several reasons. Oddly, the revival of written and spoken Hebrew occurred in entirely different places; but, hey, it's the festive season so what we really want is a story.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was passionate about establishing Hebrew as the language of Palestine, and he decided to bring up his son Ben-Zion entirely in Hebrew. Eliezer was careful never to let his son hear any other language. This wasn't easy, as the boy's mother was a speaker of Russian. 

One day, so the story goes, Eliezer caught his poor wife singing Ben-Zion a Russian lullaby; upon which Eliezer was thrown into such a terrible rage that the frightened child, who had never said a word before, burst out into lamentations... the Hebrew language.

And this it came to pass that little Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda became the first modern native speaker of Hebrew.


Word To Use Today: Hebrew.This word The original word, 'ibhrī, means one from beyond [the river].

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Thing To Do Today: gaudete!

The carol concert in town last week was called Gaudete!

This is the song of that name, though in our concert it was sung by an amateur choir.

Gaudete? It means rejoice!
(No, the singers in the video aren't exactly glowing with joy, but, hey...)
Here is the rest of the song, in Latin and in English:
Gaudete, gaudete! Christus est natus
Ex Maria virgine, gaudete!
Rejoice, rejoice! Christ is born
Out of the Virgin Mary, rejoice!
Tempus adest gratiæ
Hoc quod optabamus,
Carmina lætitiæ
Devote reddamus.

The time of grace has come
what we have wished for,
songs of joy
Let us give back faithfully.
Deus homo factus est
Natura mirante,
Mundus renovatus est
A Christo regnante.

God has become man,
To the wonderment of Nature,
The world has been renewed
By the reigning Christ.

Ezechielis porta
Clausa pertransitur,
Unde lux est orta
Salus invenitur.

The closed gate of Ezekiel
Is passed through,
Whence the light is born,
Salvation is found.
Ergo nostra contio
Psallat iam in lustro;
Benedicat Domino:
Salus Regi nostro.

Therefore let our gathering
Now sing in brightness
Let it give praise to the Lord:
Greeting to our King.

You don't have to believe any of it, today is still a good excuse for rejoicing.


Word To Use Today: gaudete. At the time this song was written, probably in the 1500s, everyone in Europe would know someone who understood Latin.

It's a bit like the way nowadays that many Eurovision Song Contest entries are in English.

Gaudete was first published in Piae Cantiones, a collection of Finnish and Swedish songs which also included the tune for Good King Wenceslas, in 1582.

 Gaudete is part of the Latin word gaudiō, which means to rejoice.

Monday 24 December 2012

Spot the frippet: robin.

Robins have long been associated with the season of, well, er,


No, really. The red breast is supposed to have been caused when a robin was stained by Christ's blood when it sat on His shoulder ease His pain by singing to Him.

In fact robins have long had a taste for high company: they used to be associated with the god Thor, too. I must say, though, that nowadays  they're not so fussy: we have our own robin in the garden which sings to us and dances round our feet whenever we start digging.

Our robin is a European robin, but there are redbreasted birds called robins all over the world. For instance, there's the American robin, Turdus migratorius:


 which is a bit bigger than my robin; and there are Australian  scarlet robins:

File:Female scarlet robin.jpg

 as well.

So why are robins all over Christmas cards?

Well, it seems to be because in the 1800s in England the postmen wore red waistcoats. This gave the postmen the nickname Robin - and because then, as now, Christmas brought with it a lot of post there began to be a natural association of robins with Christmas.

My own robin keeps his bright black eyes on me as he hops round my feet (though he may be a she, it's not possible to tell) and those lovely robin eyes are extraordinary - or, at least, one of them is, because one of a robin's eyes can see the magnetic field of the earth. It helps them migrate - though my own English robin is too stuffed full to bother about migrating.

Happy Christmas!

Spot the frippet: robin. This bird was first called the redbreast, but a fashion in the 1500s for giving things the names of people led to Robin Redbreast, and hence to Robin.

If you don't have a local version of a robin then there's always Batman's friend, isn't there.

Sunday 23 December 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: turgid.

I suppose turgid is rather a good word, because it sounds boring, swollen, and uncomfortable, and this is just what it means.

It's a nasty, belching thing, like a stomach at Christmas, and much best left where it's most usually found, in a dictionary.

Word Not To Use Today: turgid. This word comes from the Latin word turgēre, to swell.

NB. Turgid language is the sort that makes you feel as if you're going down for the third time into an oozing swamp. I could give you an example, but, hey, there's probably a politician illustrating this word beautifully at this very moment on a TV near you.

Saturday 22 December 2012

Saturday Rave: Peter and the Wolf.

Anyone can make up a story. It's the easiest thing in the world.

I mean, just think how many people in the world have written a really brilliant story.



That's hardly anyone, isn't it.

So...could there possibly be something wrong with my reasoning somewhere?

Anyway, Peter and the Wolf. This is a story written by a celebrity, the very famous composer Sergei Prokofiev: and, as we know, stories written by celebrities are nearly always extremely profitable disasters.

Sergei Prokofiev wrote the story (and the music that went with it) in just a couple of weeks. He'd just returned home to the Soviet Union after many years away, and the mixture of memories of his childhood and a request from a Moscow children's theatre inspired a story about a house in the forest and a very naughty boy.

Peter and the Wolf is designed to introduce various musical instruments as well as tell a story. I'm particularly fond of the bassoon that plays the part of the Grandfather because, obviously, all music is more fun if it has a bassoon in it.

I have mixed feelings about Peter and the Wolf. Peter's tune is really rather annoyingly cheerful, and the duck's fate* still worries me even now. 

I'm glad that the brave, foolish, disobedient boy hero wins the day, though.


Word To Use Today: wolf. This word comes from the Old English wulf, and long before that from the Latin word lupus.

Wolf should mean dog, really, shouldn't it, because that's what they say: wolf wolf!

*An even worse fate than just being wolfed down.

Friday 21 December 2012

Word To Use Today: lizard.

It's a particularly friendly word, lizard.

Do you see what I mean? It sits comfortably on the page or in the ear, and doesn't try to throw its weight about.


It's true there are a few poisonous lizards (though only one, the Komodo dragon:

that's likely to eat you). Mostly, unless you're very small indeed or have just laid a clutch of eggs, lizards are harmless enough .

Even if you can't bring yourself to appreciate their beauty:

Collared lizard - click to see all state reptiles
This is a collared lizard. It's the state reptile of Oklahoma.

then you can always be glad they haven't grown into dinosaurs, can't you.

Though come to think about it, I did once have an editor I used to call Godzilla...

Word To Use Today: lizard. This word comes via the Old French from the Latin word lacerta.

Thursday 20 December 2012

Very best wishes: a rant.

I feel rather pleased with myself: it's not often I break a language rule so many times in just a couple of days

It's even less often that someone has a rant about it in the press as I'm doing it.

When David Foster Wallace died, God bless him, he left some notes for what's being called a dictionary, though what it really seems to be is a series of rants.
David Foster Wallace didn't like it, for example, when people used the expression very unique; and here any sane person must agree with him because unique means there's only one, and so very in this case is absolute nonsense.

But it seems that David Foster Wallace also didn't like very best, and I've spent rather a lot of the last week writing very best wishes on Christmas cards. Now, I can see that best has things in common with unique, but I think we can get away with very best.

Think of socks. Your best socks will be the ones without holes in them. You may even have a best sock drawer for their accommodation. But contained in that best sock group may be a couple of pairs, perhaps in the colours of the Weston-under-Lizard Croquet Club, or proclaiming to the world that you love bagels, that stand out as favourites. And these, surely, are the very best.

There might be those who would argue that the original best sock group is really a better sock group; but I rather think that your better socks are those with the holes that can't be seen unless you take your shoes off.

With Very best wishes for Christmas and the New Year,


Word To Use Today: best. This word comes to us from the Old English betst, and is related to the Gothic batista.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Nuts and Bolts: syllabary.

A syllabary is rather like an alphabet: it's a set of written symbols that represent language, but instead of each symbol representing a single sound, it represents a syllable.

A syllable might be just one sound, as in the sound we represent by the letter a, it might be more complicated, as in la or even as in lag.

Syllabaries sometimes have similar symbols for similar sounds, but a pure syllabary will have no link at all between sound and the shape of the symbol, so that the symbol for do will look nothing at all like da or to, for instance.

Japanese uses syllabagrams for some native and many borrowed words. For example mug is written マグ ma gu. The extra sound on the end of the word, the u, actually reduces the number of symbols the syllabary needs: if it wasn't there you'd need different symbols for mug, mub, muk, mud, muk, mun, mum, etc, instead of just one for ma and one for gu.

Other languages, faced with the same problem, sometimes leave out the final sound of a word so that cat, for example, might end up ca.

It's wonderful, isn't it - oh, but I am glad my language has an alphabet.

Word To Use Today: syllabary. Yes, this word comes from the Latin word syllaba, which means syllable. I can't think how you can use it except to say thank heavens English uses an alphabet and not a syllabary.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: be puckerood.

Are you puckerood?

I do hope not, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if you were.

I mean, there are the cards to write and the presents to buy and the food to plan and the ever-so-intricate packing of the fridge; and then there's the wondering how to stop Uncle Bob and Cousin Beryl starting World War 3 over the shape of the roast potatoes (they raise huge and terrifying passions, do roast potatoes); and that's without taking into account the broken sleep because we keep jerking awake and sitting up staring into the darkness shouting batteries!

Or brandy butter!

Or toilet roll!

Or perhaps you don't bother with any of that, and all you have to do is sing the Messiah, go to five parties, work out how to get the car to start in fifteen degrees of frost, make twenty four brownies for the Brownies' party (plus a gift for Brown Owl!), knit five shepherd costumes, and find out which wine goes with turkey.

Even if you're lazy, the mere sight of the endless countdown-to-Christmas articles in every newspaper and magazine (brussels sprouts with almonds, chestnuts, and paprika, with home-made onion marmelade garnished with parsnip chips) is enough to make you feel faint.

I know it makes ME feel faint.

So... There really isn't any way out, is there?

We're all going to be puckerooed.

Thing We're Bound To Do Today: be puckerooed. This gorgeous word comes from the Maori pakaru and means shattered.

Monday 17 December 2012

Spot the Frippet: Neanderthal.

What? I hear you cry. You're asking us to spot a variety of human that went extinct 25,000 years ago and only ever lived in Europe, the Middle East and a wodge of Russia anyway?

Has the woman gone mad?

Well, the answer to that question is quite probably, but spotting a Neanderthal shouldn't be difficult, for all that.

Of course, if you live in the Neander Thal, that is the valley of the River Neander in Germany, you'll obviously be surrounded by Neanderthal stuff; but even for the rest of us there are bits of Neanderthals all over the place.

No, not bones. Neanderthal bones are very rare, and in fact we don't have a single complete Neanderthal skeleton anywhere. But bits of Neanderthal can probably be found in every town in the world.

You see, the tremendous, marvellous, exciting thing is that Neanderthals didn't really die out at all: instead they joined up with humans and had families, and it turns out that every single human in the world, except for those whose ancestors all come from sub-Saharan Africa, has bits of Neanderthal DNA in every cell.

I don't know about you, but I think that this is an honour.

But...weren't Neanderthals just grunting brutes?

Well, Neanderthal genes and skeletons suggest that there was nothing to stop them talking. And Neanderthal brains were quite a lot bigger than ours, so they wouldn't have been stupid.

Neanderthals did have heavy brow-ridges and big noses, but that doesn't make someone a brute, does it.

No, I'm definitely honoured to be typing this post with partly Neanderthal fingers.

*My soon-to-be-published novel SONG HUNTER is all about Neanderthals, and today I'm starting a new daily blog about the research and the thinking behind the book. It can be found HERE.

All visitors will be really very welcome indeed.

Spot the frippet: Neanderthal. This is easy, so how about trying to spot someone who looks like a Neanderthal? The name comes from the Neander Valley, where the remains of Neanderthals were first found.

Sunday 16 December 2012

Sunday rest: Word Not To Use Today: wordsmith.

No, don't use wordsmith. Really. It'll make you look such a dork.

It's nonsense, anyway: a smith is someone who makes things out of metal by hammering at them, and a wordsmith, as far as I can tell, doesn't make anything except people want to punch him.

Be a writer, or possibly an author if that title is thrust upon you (although author linked to authority, and really, you'd have to be mad to take any notice of what writers say most of the time).

Be a poet, or a journalist, or a hack. A columnist or a story-teller or a bard.

A historian, or a playwright, or a liar.

A biographer, or a screenwriter, or a comedian.

But please, please. keep away from wordsmith.

Unless you really want people sniggering behind your back.

Word Not To Use Today: wordsmith. This word comes, via the Gothis waurd and the Latin verbum, from the Sanskrit vratá, which means to command. Smith is Old English and is related to the Middle Low German smīde, which means jewellery, and the Greek smilē, which means carving knife.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Saturday Rave: The World Is Too Much With Us by W Wordsworth.

This poem, especially the first four lines, are never far from my mind in the weeks before Christmas. Whether I'm queueing in shops, or waiting for internet transactions to complete, it's a real boon, providing much comfort and soothing my...

...I was going to say wrinkled brow, but face contorted with bafflement and panic is more like it.

William Wordsworth thought that big cities are at their finest before everyone's woken up, and this poem is for everyone who is currently running around trying to find things to buy for people who really don't want anything.

The world is too much with us.
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not. Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

Mind you, the last thing I need is old Triton blowing his wreathèd horn: he'd probably be playing flipping Jingle Bells.

Word To Use Today: boon. The word meaning something beneficial comes from the Old Norse bōn, request, and is related to the Old English bēn, which means prayer. Boon, as in boon companion comes from the French word bon, which means good.

Friday 14 December 2012

Word To Use Today: pisiform.

What does something pisiform look like?

Well, it looks like a pea (as we all guessed, though in this case our spelling might not have been quite accurate).

But why on earth have a word for something which looks like a pea? A pea is just...round. Isn't it?

Isn't the word pisiform a complete waste of space?

Well, it's important if your wrists aren't working: 

That's a x-ray of a human wrist, and little knobbly thing with the arrow pointing to it is a pisiform bone.

Here it is again:

(Hey, but I'm glad I've never been served peas that look like that.)

Hm...what else is there to say about the word pisiform? Well, many sorts of monkey have pisiform bones, and, just think, without them we'd probably have monkeys falling on our heads whenever we went for a walk in the jungle.

And nobody wants that.

Other than that, there are pisiform seeds and berries, and pisiform eggs.

And, very importantly, pisiform dinners:

Green Peas In Bowl
<a href="">Green Peas In Bowl</a> by Petr Kratochvil

Basically, though, all I can say is that the word pisiform is like chocolate: we could live without it, but it wouldn't be nearly so much fun.

Would it?

Word To Use Today: pisiform. This word comes from the Latin words pīsum, which means pea, and forma, which means shape. I admit it's not the easiest word to bring into the conversation, but you should be able to tell yourself that someone you know has a pisiform brain.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Muppets: a rant.

Yes, yes, I know that words come to us along strange paths.

Usually I glory in it.

But when some of my dearest friends get insulted along the way I can't help but feel a bit miffed.

I mean, who could be a more truly admirable herp (whoops, that's a typo for hero, but having been accidentally witty, and in Ancient Greek too*, I can't bear to delete it) than Kermit?


Who epitomises true glamour and feminist principles better than the lovely Miss Piggy?

Who is more truly cultured and incisive than Satler and Waldorf (don't answer that!)

And Gonzo...

...well, he's brave, anyway.

But then...

...oh, but then...

...what has muppet come to mean?

An ineffectual idiot.

Quite frankly, it makes my blood boil.

Word To Use Respectfully Today: muppet. This word comes to us from those great disseminators of culture, science, and Swedish cookery, Jim Henson's brave band of friends, The Muppets.

God bless them.

* Herpetology is the study of reptiles and amphibians, from the Greek herpeton, which means creeping animal.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

Nuts and Bolts: singular plurals.

The banana hit the teacher on the nose.

That's one banana and one teacher: we know this because the words banana and teacher don't end in s.



How about the words news and physics?

Still simple. They do look like plurals, but they're not, so we say the news is good, physics is fascinating, etc.

How about the words audience and police?

Still simple. They look like singulars, but they're not: the police have arrested a man, etc.

How about data and media?

Still simple. They're plurals, but using them as plurals is beginning to sound old-fashioned and pedantic, so we can choose whether to be pedantic or trendy: the data are corrupted (pedantic); the media is out to get him (trendy). 

How about Manchester United Football Club? And family? And team? The team is doing well; the team are going to Norway. Um... one seems to be sure whether those are plurals or not.


Word To Use Today: a word that's neither reliably singular or plural.

By the way, the word news does consist of the initials of North, East, West and South, but, sadly, that's nothing to do with how the word originated.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Thing Not To Do Today: mump.

The season to be jolly is fast approaching, so this is no time for  mumping.

I'm using the word mump in its oldest sense of to be grouchy,  though according to my Collins dictionary the most up-to-date meaning is to be silent.

Now, although there are many good thing to be said about being silent, it's hard to be silent and jolly at the same time unless you're skipping down the road: in which case, watch out for trucks.

Mump also means to beg, but that's not very jolly, either.

It's not easy to write about mumping without mentioning the horrible disease mumps: but, as it's nearly the season tbj, I'll sail straight on to the district of Manchester called Mumps, which for all I know might be a very jolly place indeed.

Entertainingly, mumps is a problem experienced in filming when a person's face appears to stretch sideways as he or she gets closer to the camera.

Now that surely must automatically stretch your face into a jolly smile, mustn't it.

Thing Not To Do Today: mump. The word meaning to be grouchy or to grimace or to be silent probably comes from the shape of the mouth when sulking; the word meaning beg probably comes from the Dutch mompen, which means to cheat; mumps is to do with how sulky people look when their faces are swollen.

Monday 10 December 2012

Spot the frippet: jumbo.

Well, here's a big one:


How can we fail to spot one of those?

We can have a jumbo portion of chips (though it's not recommended unless it's a really special occasion):

(these are, obviously, not USA chips)

 or a jumbo pack of washing powder or cornflakes or sawdust.

Then there are jumbo jets:

A jumbo can be a Dutch or South African shop, too: or a Laosian rickshaw; a US tank; a German glider; or a Pittsburgh sausage.

The most important jumbo to spot, however, is always mumbo jumbo, which is nonsense pretending to be either magic, or something very else important indeed.

Spot the frippet: jumbo. Mumbo jumbo probably comes from the Mandingo mama dyumbo, which is the name of a god. The other jumbos are named after Jumbo the elephant:

Jumbo (1861 -1885) was born in Mali, and spent time in zoos in Paris and London, eventually being sold to PJ Barnum who took Jumbo to America with Barnum's travelling circus.

Sunday 9 December 2012

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: platform.

Here we are, a word of two flat feet:


Oh, but a platform should be a leap, a cry of romance and promise (or bitter parting, or edge-of-adventure); an incarnation of the mystery of Somewhere Else.


Oh dear. It calls up the glazed-eyed glumness of the suited commuter, of leaves-on-the-line, of the heavy hand of an Invisible Contoller.

Platform: a place designed to make lingering as uncomfortable as possible...

...or is that just an accident?

Word Not To Use Today: platform. This word comes from the French platforme, from plat, which means flat, and forme, which means layout.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Saturday Rave: Sinbad.

Now, you'd think someone with a name like Sinbad would be a villain, wouldn't you.

But he wasn't.

The Seven Voyages of Sinbad are usually included in the Sheherazade's 1001 Nights, but the Voyages not really folk tales at all, but historical fiction: in them Sinbad's birthplace is clearly stated (Sindh) and the voyages are carefully dated to the reign of Harun el Rashid.

The story of Sinbad begins at the end. A rich man called Sinbad tells a poor man, also called Sinbad, the story of how he got rich.

Sinbad's seven voyages (in the end Sinbad, like Gulliver, finally gets enough sense to stay at home) take Sinbad to a City of Apes, trap him in a vast tomb, shipwreck him almost constantly, and even take him up to heaven. He encounters underwater horses, rocs:

 (though I never could believe in the name roc for a giant bird), kings and ogres, and even the terrifying Old Man of the Sea:

Sinbad the sailor
Illustration by William Strang.

And as with so many stories, it's the ones you haven't read before that are the very very best.

Word To Use Today: Sinbad. This word is Persian (though the original Persian version of the story has been lost). It means Lord of the Sindh River.

Hint for Use: "Can't you leave me alone for a minute? You're like Sinbad's Old Man of the Sea."

Friday 7 December 2012

Word To Use Today: antipodes.

I'm sitting here, wrapped in a blanket, looking out at the frozen wood. The only cause for optimism is that the weather forecasters are saying that we're going to have the coldest winter for a hundred years: given the accuracy of long-range weather forecasts, that probably means we're going to have a barbeque winter.

In any case, my thoughts keep turning longingly to the summer of the antipodes.

So my first thought is, hey, if Australia and New Zealand are the antipodes, does that mean I'm in the...podes?

My second thought is: podes, that's Greek for feet. Anti-feet? What's that all about?

My third thought is: that's a bit of a mad thing to be wondering about, I'd better keep quiet about it.

But that third thought I've brushed away.

Happily it turns out that the antipodes doesn't really mean Oz and NZ at all. Antipodal means the direct or exact opposite, and the antipodes is the point on the surface of the earth exactly opposite the place you yourself occupy. So that means that for a New Zealander I am pretty much in the antipodes myself.

If you're in California the antipodes will be in the middle of the Indian Ocean; if you're in the Philippines the antipodes will be in Brazil; and if you're where I am in England the antipodes will be in the South Pacific (and quite close to the Antipodes Islands, as it happens).

It turns out that only 4% of us have an antipodes that's on land. So...hey doesn't that mean that antipodeans don't need feet at all?

What's the Greek for fin?*

Word To Use Today: antipodes. This word is the plural of the Greek word antipous, which means having the feet opposite, that is, with the soles facing towards our own.

When the word was taken up by the Romans the word became really quite puzzling, so that some mediaeval illustrations imagine the people of the antipodes with their feet growing out of their heads.