This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 31 January 2013

Negative growth: a rant.

I don't mind so much when the financial wizards get the future wrong.

I don't even mind that they haven't got much of a clue about what's going on at the moment.

And the past, of course, has always been subject to manipulation by anyone with a tongue or a pen.

Having said all that, I do wish these experts had the decency to be wrong in clear straightforward English.

Negative growth?

Humph. I can only assume they mean positive shrinkage.

Really, anyone would think that these experts were using these new-fangled terms so it's not so obvious that the experts are miles out of their depth.



Oh dear.

We're doomed...doomed...

Word To Use Today: growth. From the Old English grōwan, and before that it's related to words meaning green, and probably grass, as well.

Wednesday 30 January 2013

Nuts and Bolts: mumpsimus.


 Mumpsimus: here's a lovely bouncy word to bring joy to your heart.

The word contains an implied sneer, as it happens, but it's not a cruel or nasty one.

Mumpsimus is when someone sticks to an old tradition despite the fact that it's utter and complete rubbish.

You know, like starving a fever. Or having a drink to cure a hangover.

Mumpsimus was originally applied to a misuse of language. For instance, I had a great uncle who always would say
ko-isk instead of kiosk no matter how often he was told.

It wouldn't have mattered so much if he hadn't worked for a telephone company all his life.

Nowadays, however, clinging to any ancient mistake can be called a mumpsimus.

Thing To Cast Off Today: mumpsimus. The first official mumpsimus was, well, mumpsimus. The word seems to have been first used in this sense by Richard Page, but Erasmus was the first to write about it. The word comes from the story of an illiterate priest of the 1500s, who, when saying Mass, instead of saying sumpsimus in the phrase quod in ore sumpsimus 'which we have taken into the mouth' said quod in ore mumpsimus.

When his mistake was pointed out to him, he is reported to have declared: ‘I will not change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus’.

Sumpsimus comes from the Latin word sūmere, which means to pick up.


Tuesday 29 January 2013

Thing Not To Do Today: witter.


It means to chatter or babble pointlessly or at unnecessary length.


Does it?


In that case I'd better be off, then...

Thing Not To Do Today: witter. This word arrived in English in the 1900s from a dialect word. It's very similar, and may be related, to the word twitter.

Twitter is much older (1300s), though it has recently begun to mean much the same thing as witter, except for the length thing.

Monday 28 January 2013

Spot the frippet: cincture.

This is the best time to spot a cincture.

It's because at the moment cintures are bigger than at any other time of the year.

We tend to have them on our minds, too, as we reproach ourselves for our season of greed and self-indulgence.

Yes, a cincture (the first c has an s sound) is a belt.

Don't despair, though: there are bigger cinctures around than yours.   
Here's one:

Photo by Rod Ward of the Knor Garden at the Red Lodge, Bristol, England.

and here's another:

Yep, that's Switzerland.

 Yes, that's right: any belt or border is a cincture.

There. That makes you feel quite trim and insignificant, doesn't it?

Jolly good.

Spot the frippet: cincture. This word comes from the Latin cingere, which means to gird.

Sunday 27 January 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: furkid.

This word means to do with furks, right?

Right. is a furk, exactly?


All right, furkid must mean something else, then.

It's actually one of these:

beagle puppy

or these:

or these:

File:Bob, the guinea pig.jpg

Do you get it?



Furkid is a word used mostly in the USA. I can see, as they say, where they're coming from.

But I jolly well hope they're not coming here.

Word Not To Use Today: furkid. That is, kid that's furry. I find this whole idea jolly creepy and dubious, myself. Still, apparently some of the animal rights people like it.

Personally, though, I think that the chief right of any animal is that it should be allowed to be an animal.

Saturday 26 January 2013

Saturday Rave: There was an old woman

There was an old woman...

Actually, there were several old women - or possibly one very adventurous one.

There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.

There was an old woman who swallowed a fly.

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket.

Now I'm very fond of feisty old women, so this last one is my favourite.

Do you know abut her?

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket
Seventeen times as high as the moon.
Where she was going I couldn't but ask it
For in her arms she carried a broom.
'Old woman old woman old woman!' quoth I
Where are you going to up so high
'To brush the cobwebs off the sky.'
'May I come with you?'
'Aye, by and by.'


I like to sing this rhyme to the tune of Lilliburo, but this tune is called The old woman tossed up:

So always, always always watch out for old women. 

You may just get a lift.

I'm always hoping.

Word To Use Today: basket. This word comes from no one knows where, but there's an Old Northern French word baskot, and a Latin word bascauda which means basketwork holder, and they both probably have something to do with it. Before that, the word was probably Celtic.

Friday 25 January 2013

Word To Use Today: furfuraceous.

Oh, this is a lovely word: fluffy and magical and sounding just like its meaning.


...well, what do you think it means?

I suppose it could mean someone who fur-fur-fumbles with their words.

But it's not that.

It could be, but isn't, something furry and adorable like a chinchilla; or something furry and not adorable like a dust bunny.

I'll give you a clue: the blizzard here yesterday brought the word to mind.

Yep. That's right. Furfuraceous means resembling dandruff.

Hm.  Come to think of it, that's a resemblance our greatest poets, oddly, seem to have missed...

The word furfur means dandruff or any scaly bit of skin.

And how on earth have we lived without it?

Word To Use Today: furfuraceous. This word comes from the Latin furfur, which means bran or scurf.

Thursday 24 January 2013

The Missing Link: a rant.

A word in your shelllike, if you please.

I was queueing in the local Coop behind a shiny helmeted man (presumably a reenactor: I would have asked him, except that for him English seemed to be a nonnative language) who was hoping to buy an antiinflamatory because his artificial knee surgeon couldn't do him a quick fixup when I saw a notice about the reuse of deicing fluid above the processed baby food shelf...

Well, no, of course I didn't.

Although hyphens have a natural tendency to fade away over time (e-mail, for instance, is steadily becoming email: and why not), some hyphens we really do need forever.

Otherwise reinvented can look at first glance as if it has something to do with reins, and we have no way of knowing what is the region of expertise of a Chinese cookery teacher.

Having said that, I must admit that a world in which a transport authority does not produce a headline proclaiming:


would undoubtably be a poorer one. Wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: one with an non-negotiable hyphen. Like smear-resistant, perhaps.

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Cherokee writing.

Written Cherokee is special. It is written in special characters:

and it was probably invented from scratch by one very special man. He was called Sequoyah:
Even more remarkably, although Sequoyah had a Bible (whose "talking leaves" alerted him the concept of writing) he couldn't read it. He couldn't read anything.
He started off trying to make up a symbol for each word in his language, but he soon changed his system to what is mostly a syllabary (which has, as you'd expect, a symbol for each syllable) though he made up some vowel symbols, too. He ended up with 86 characters.
He started his project in 1809 and finished his system in around 1821.

The stupendous thing is that by 1824 most Cherokees could read and write.
Very wonderfully, his system is still in use today:

Thing To Do Today: make up a symbol. It could be one that means I have read this, or boring, or rubbish, or this was done under protest.

Then tip your hat to the marvellous Sequoyah.

PS From the birth of a writing system to another birthday: The Word Den is two years old today.

May I take this opportunity to wish Many Happy Returns to every single one of you who comes to play.


Tuesday 22 January 2013

Thing To Do Today: sledge.

People come to play in The Word Den from all over the world, and I try to bear in mind that, although I personally am frozen and the view from my window is...well, best seen from indoors, quite frankly...our friends in the Antipodes and South America are sweltering in the middle of summer.

So, let's look at the word sledge from their point of view. In New Zealand a sledge is a farm vehicle mounted on runners for use on rough or muddy ground.

In, hang on, I'd better be careful, here...what I want to say is that, in places where cricket is played (and of course Australia comes to mind because of the excellence and skill of its countrymen) to sledge is to tease a cricketer (especially a batsman) in order to spoil his concentration. A sledge is also any insult aimed at a player by another.

This sort of sledge is probably connected with sledgehammer, which is a big hammer with a long handle you grip with both hands.

For those of us in the North, and therefore in the grip of winter, a sledge is a slidy thing, possibly drawn by dogs or horses, for getting about on ice or snow.

If you don't have a proper sledge, you can sledge on a tea tray.

Or, wherever you are, you can insult someone just as they're about to do something that calls for a lot of concentration.

Take care, though: obviously it would be mad to try it if the activity involves a sledgehammer.

Thing To Do Today: sledge. This word comes from the Middle Dutch sleedse, from the Old Norse slethi, which is to do with sliding.
The sledgehammer sledge comes from the Old English slecg, a large hammer. This word is related to the Old Norse sleggja.

Monday 21 January 2013

Spot the frippet: furbelow.

Some words are a constant source of delight, and furbelow is one of those.

I've known this word since I was very small, when, hazily, I assumed it referred to luxurious underwear.

I found out exactly what it meant, ooh, it must have been about..., eight thirty last night.

Furbelow almost always appears with its non-identical twin, frills. Frills and furbelows, people say (well, actually they don't: only retired colonels in old-fashioned novels ever say frills and furbelows, but you know what I mean).

And what is a furbelow?

One of these:

This is William Pitt the Younger – the painting is attributed to Thomas Gainsborough (c. 1804)
No, not a Prime Minister.
Here are some more:
See? Round the cap.

And some more:

Frill-necked lizard (dragon) by worms_x - Frill-necked lizard aka Frilled dragon typical to Australia

That's a frill-necked lizard. You get them in Australia. Lucky Australia!

By now it should be clear that furbelows are flounces or frills or some other bit of (usually fabric) bling.

It will also be clear that the phrase  frills and furbelows is saying the same thing twice.

But wouldn't the world be a greyer place if we banished furbelow just because we didn't need it?

Spot the Frippet: furbelow.  This word comes from the French dialect word farbella, and has attained its current form because people associated frills with underwear and fur with luxury: so it's really a very happy accident.

Sunday 20 January 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: turdine.

Yes, this word means relating to, or characteristic of...

Well, what do you think?

The word certainly has a warm feel about it, doesn't it?

And a certain round brownness...

And of course this is just what you'd expect, because turdine means to do with...


Yes, that's right. Thrushes. The spotty singing things:

Wood Thrush

That beauty is a Wood Thrush, Hylocichla mustelina, from America.

And here's an English Song Thrush, er, singing:

Both turdine, without a doubt.
But glorious, all the same.
Word Not To Use Today: turdine. I mean, what's wrong with thrush-like? Or thrushy? Turdine comes from the Latin turdus, which means thrush.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Saturday Rave: stone soup.

This is a special sort of a story, and one that hasn't featured on The Word Den before. Verrsions of it are told all over Europe, where it's sometimes called Axe Soup and sometimes Nail Soup.

It goes more or less like this:

A poor man stops beside a village road, where he makes a fire and puts on it a pot containing some water and a large stone.

Well, naturally a whole series of villagers come along to ask him what on earth he's doing. He tells each of them that he's making some delicious stone soup, and that they're welcome to share it once it's done.

The villagers are naturally intrigued, and so when the poor man  remarks that it's a pity he's not got an onion or a bunch of parsley or a potato or two to add to the stone soup so it'll be just perfect, they nip off to get them to help the miracle along.

You can see where this is going, can't you.

Now, whether the moral of this story is that it's easy and clever to fool country folk, or that it's all right to cheat people as long as you only take a small portion of what they possess, I'm not quite sure.

But at least everyone ends up glowing with the satisfaction caused by full tummies, communal eating, and helping others.

Whether this tale counts a story or merely a joke, I'm not sure, but the Portuguese version takes place near Almeirim, and many restaurants in Almeirim serve stone soup, or sopa de pedra to this day: so if it's a joke, then presumably it's the dentists of Almeirim that have the last laugh.

Now, not many tales change the world, but this one has. In the Second World War General Patton used the "rock soup method" as a way of getting troops into positions in which he had been  ordered not to place them. The first troops would be sent forward as scouts, the next lot would be sent to beat off any attack on them, and so on until he had advanced a whole army. 

This rock soup method was used when the US Army was halted near Metz during Operation Market Garden.

Word To Use Today: soup. This is an ancient word, versions of which have been found as the Late Latin suppa, Old French soupe, Middle High German suppe and Old Norse soppa.


Friday 18 January 2013

Word To Use Today: paradise.

Where will it all end, that's what I want to know.

Well, if I'm lucky it'll be in paradise.

I've never read a review of paradise from someone who's actually been, but it's supposed to be a pleasant spot. It's said that only nice people are allowed in, on the whole be a good thing.

Possibly slightly dull?

As with all destinations, advertisements for paradise must be viewed with caution, especially as in this case the Trades Description Act does not seem to apply. Is paradise merely a waiting-room for the big event? Is it the garden before Eve went and ate that fruit? Can we truly rely on there being a place where all our wants and needs will be met?

Those of a pessimistic or cynical disposition can of course discount the existence of all paradises, except for those earthly ones which are parks where foreign animals are kept.

While we're on animals, how about this?

Paradise Shelduck, Tadorna variegata - female with chicks

That's paradisal in all senses, I reckon.

And how about this?

File:DV Paradise fish male 05.jpg
Photo by Daniella Vereeken.

That's a paradise fish, Macropodus opercularis, from S and SE Asia.

It occurs to me that my own personal paradise will probably involve Handel and white chocolate: and, you know, I could arrange that quite easily.

How about arranging for yourself to have at least a glimpse of your own?

Word To Use Today: paradise. This word comes from the Greek paradeisos, which means garden, and was pinched from Persian. There's a similar Avestan word pairidaēza, which comes from pairi, around, and daēza, wall.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Percentages: a rant

The present financial...thingy (debt-crisis, recession, depression, cliff, whatever)...has of course been caused by footballers.

Well, it's been at least partly caused by all those idiots who think, like so many professional sports people, that it's a good thing to give more than a 100 per cent, anyway.

Because if you do give 120 per cent, as professional footballers are so often expected to do, then naturally you'll have to borrow 20 per cent from someone else to get it.

I think it explains a lot, myself.

Phrase To Use Today: per cent. This Mediaeval Latin phrase has been part of English since the 1500s and has been causing confusion ever since. It means out of every hundred.

The per cent sign, % evolved from the letter o, which in Italian was used in the same way as st and nd (as in 1st and 2nd) is used in English.

Wednesday 16 January 2013

Nuts and Bolts: cherokee.

This is a place for play, not brain-aching lectures, so here are just two wonderful things about the Cherokee language.

1. Regular Cherokee verbs have 21,262 different forms, depending upon how they're used in a sentence. (And that's even though Cherokee doesn't have gender distinctions: he is going in Cherokee is the same word as she is going.)

2. Cherokee has shape classifiers, where the form of a verb depends upon the shape of the thing it's acting upon. These classes are: alive; flexible (like a rope); long/indefinite (like a pencil); indefinite (like food); or liquid.

There we are. Now we can all go and lie down and be very glad indeed that some of the Cherokee people, at least, are clever enough to learn their beautiful language and keep it alive for the world so we don't have to.

Word To Use With Gratitude Today: a simple English verb like, well, like, which hardly changes at all whatever you do to it. Like comes from the Old English word līcian.

Tuesday 15 January 2013

Thing To Do Today: paint.

Go on, slosh it all about.

It's all right, if you can't produce a recognisable picture of anything then do what the rest of us do and decide what it is once it's finished.

If you have no paints then perhaps you have nail varnish. Or know someone who does have nail varnish (why should we ladies have all the fun?).

Perhaps you have a wagon or a door that could do with a coat of paint, or perhaps you have a pie that will look all the more golden and lovely for a wash of beaten egg.

You don't even need a brush: anyone who puts on make up can be said to be painted, although I must admit that nowadays a Painted Lady is usually one of these:

File:Australian painted lady feeding.jpg
That's an Australian Painted Lady. Photo by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

Here's something else painted, but on a much bigger scale: the Painted Desert in the USA:

And if that inspires you to start a really really big project then you can always paint the town red.

Have fun!

Thing To Do Today: paint. This word comes from the French word peindre, to paint, from the Latin word pingere, to paint or adorn.

Monday 14 January 2013

Spot the frippet: tangent.

This is a lovely juicy word:


Can't you just taste the citrus?



...well, perhaps I'm getting some sort of mental short-circuit from tangerine, then...


You know about tangents, of course - though, actually, it's more off course, because if someone's gone off at a tangent then they've veered widly away from the direction upon which they appeared to be set.

Tangents are also mathematical things you get when studying triangles and circles:

The thing to remember is that tangents are to do with touching. The circles above are tangent circles because the edges touch at just one point. You might spot the top sort of tangent circles in a cartoon's eye, or you could make some with coins or carrot slices or counters.

A tangent can also be a straight line which touches a curve. A wheel sitting on a road is an easy example.

tangent space is the same sort of thing, but in 3D. Think of a mortar board:

File:Mortarboard (PSF).png

the flat top is a tangent space because it touches the curved hat-bit at one point.

If you're talking about triangles (and you never know) then tangents allow people to work out stuff about the sizes of the triangles'  sides and angles. But you can't actually see this sort of tangent, so we needn't bother with it. Phew.

Lastly, a tangent is part of the inside of a clavichord. A clavichord is a sort of old piano-type thing:

woman playing a clavichord

and the tangents are small pieces of metal that jump up and hit the strings to produce the sound.

There we are. Is there anything else? Ah yes.

Going off at a tangent is one of the great joys of life.

And, come to think about it, it's what The Word Den is largely about.

Spot the frippet: tangent. This word comes from the Latin phrase līnea tangēns, whihc means touching line.

Sunday 13 January 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: stellify.

I came across this word only the other day and, ooh, I do loathe it. I loathe it passionately. I can feel a warm flush of revulsion running under my skin as I type.

No, there's no way I'm using this one.

It has the most gorgeously beautiful meaning: to be made into a star.

Could anything be more full of beauty and wonder? More mysterious, more sparkling, more numinous?

And what word we have for it?


And when are we going to use it?


Phew. That's better out than in. What a relief. Thank you. Thank you really very much...

Word Not To Use Today Or Indeed Ever If I Have Anything To Do With It: ********. This word comes from the lovely Latin word stella, which means star.

Saturday 12 January 2013

Saturday Rave: The Warden by Anthony Trollope.

The Warden was Anthony Trollope's breakthrough novel.

It's about a clergyman - the sweetest, most innocent old man who ever breathed - and his partly justified persecution by a vicious press.

There's also a love story.

The Warden is the first of The Barchester Chronicles (though the books which follow in the series are much longer and more complex than The Warden). After several thousand pages about the people of Barset, a few of the characters sort of branch out sideways and start off another series of books called The Pallisers.

If you have time to read thousands and thousands of pages about life in the 1860s (which is so very much like life in the 2010s) I would recommend them all.


Word To Use Today: warden. This word arrived in English in the 1200s. It comes from the Old Northern French wardein, from warder, which means to guard.

Friday 11 January 2013

Word To Use Today: dastard.

Is there any word in the world more fun to use than this one?



That picture is of course of the splendid Dick Dastardly, of Wacky Races fame. And when I talk of fame, I'm talking about a man so famous that he's changed the meaning of the word dastard.

To me, as to millions (billions, perhaps) a dastard is a deep-dyed villain.

But to the dictionary a dastard is a contemptible sneaking coward. (That's what it says: a contemptible sneaking coward. Presumably that's as opposed to an admirable coward, which of course we usually term a statesman.)

Dastard is called old-fashioned by the lexicographers, but it's too much fun to leave unused and I think we should take it out and give it a jolly good airing.

After all, if the person you call a dastard is a dastard in the old dictionary sense then you'll probably get away with it.

Word To Use Today: dastard. This word was first used in England in the 1400s, when it meant someone stupid. It probably comes from the old Norse word dæstr, which means exhausted or out of breath.

Thursday 10 January 2013

The bouncy bridge: a rant.

There's been a bit of a row about the word data.

Well, there's often a bit of a row about the word data.

Is it singular or plural?

When it was Latin it was definitely plural, but now it's English it's...well, it's either singular or plural, really. If you take really to mean what's being used and understood out there in the world.

Used and understood. That's what matters, isn't it?

One of the things language does is to make bridges between minds (it makes me shiver with wonder just thinking about it).

This means that whatever meaning a word has, it needs to be the same in at least two minds.

If the word is spoken, then it's likely to be not many more than two minds, and in this case it's easy to come to an agreement about the meaning of a word. In the wonderful but ancient TV drama Colditz, for example, the word HONEYMOON meant something extraordinarily awful to one man and his wife, but of course that doesn't mean that anyone else can use the word honeymoon to mean something extraordinarily awful if they wish to be understood.

The more people there are who need to cross the bridge, the more stable it has to be: but there's no point in trying to argue that words mustn't alter; and no point either in trying to argue that words can change all the time in all directions.

The important thing is that the bridge doesn't fall to pieces when someone is half way across.

Word To Use Today: data. This word is the Latin plural of the word datum, which means something given.

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Nuts and Bolts: mondegreen.

Hurray for the Bonny Earl of Murray, who gave us the word mondegreen.

No, I agree it's not a very nice word, but it's a pleasing and useful one to have around, all the same.

And what's the Bonny Earl of Murray got to do with it?

Well, it's all to do with this ballad:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And Lady Mondegreen.

...except that it isn't actually Lady Mondegreen who got it in the neck at all: the Earl of Murray was slain alone. What happened was that they slew him, and then they laid him on the green.


I think that Lady Mondegreen is quite possibly an improvement.

Childhood is full of mondegreens. There's the famous hymn about Gladly, my cross-eyed bear, for instance (or, as the grown ups imagine, Gladly my cross I'd bear), and I personally spent quite a lot of time wondering where the three kings' home town of Orientar was. I even looked it up in the atlas.

Then there was the hit song Oh a tree in motion. It did seem a bit strange, but didn't get that one sorted out until...oooh...probably two or three years ago.

Ah well. Isn't wondering what on earth's going on what life is all about?

And if it isn't, well then, it should be.

Thing To Enjoy Today: a mondegreen. Everyone has their own examples. The American writer Sylvia Wright coined the term in her article "The Death of Lady Mondegreen," published in Harper's Magazine in 1954.

Tuesday 8 January 2013

Thing To Do Today: shiver.

I'm wrapped in furry stuff, but I'm still shivering.

No, I know that it's not really that cold here in England, especially when you consider that the district of Oymyakon in Russia has a record high January temperature of -14C. But even 7C is quite cold enough for me.

Of course if you're in Oodnadatta in South Australia, which registered a temperature of  50.7 C on the 2nd January 1960, then you won't be shivering with cold.

But there are other reasons to shiver.

Shiver with awe at a mountain dawn, or an infant, or the exquisite shininess and grace of a single blade of grass.

Shiver with fear at...well, footsteps coming up from behind can be pretty terrifying. And so can cats jumping onto your bed in the middle of the night, especially when you haven't got a cat. And as for kebab vans...

You could sail close enough to the wind to make your sails shiver.

You could take a piece of ice or glass and shiver it into a thousand pieces.

Or, best of all, you could shiver with delight:

If all else fails, get someone to say once upon a time to you. A shiver of anticipation then is almost guaranteed.
Thing To Do Today: shiver. This word may be a variation of chevelen, which means to chatter (as in teeth), from the Old English ceafl, which means jowl.

Monday 7 January 2013

Spot the Frippet: pottle.

This is a word to bring a smile to the grumpiest Monday morning face.


Could any word be more fun to use?

Pottle pottle pottle pottle pottle POTTLE pottle pottle...

This gorgeous word has fallen into sad disuse everywhere in the world except, thankfully, for New Zealand, where it has not only been saved from extinction but has been given a new meaning which is actually rather useful.

Pottles aren't hard to spot, either.

pottle of the more-or-less-extinct kind used to be equal to half a gallon (that's about two and a quarter litres)* but nowadays, although it's only in New Zealand that they have their proper name, there are once again pottles to be seen everywhere. 

What are they? Well, a pottle is a plastic or cardboard container for foods such as yogurt or salad.

See? You never thought you could learn to love a plastic tub, did you.

And now you can.

Word To Use Today: pottle. This word comes from the Old French potel, which means a small pot, which might in turn come from the Latin word pōtus, which is a drink.

I think it's a word that deserves to travel.

*No, it really is: heaven help us all, but a US gallon is bigger than a UK gallon.


Sunday 6 January 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: perfume

It's not so bad when a horrible word describes a disgusting object(like last week's horror, rumen) but sometimes, sadly, something exquisite is weighed down by a nasty heavy word.

Like perfume.

See? Something airy and light brought down to earth by two stodgy syllables.

Of them the first, per, is dull, and the second fume, brings to mind (well, to my mind, anyway) the sinister fume cupboard in the Chemistry Lab at school which so often, like a dyspeptic ogre,  leaked throat-catchingly noxious niffs.

Luckily we have alternatives at our command, of which fragrance, sweetness (it's Waste its sweetness on the desert air, by the way, not fragrance) and scent are all lovely.

So why use the word perfume?

Because you have a tin ear, that's why.

People won't like you for it, you know. 

Word Not To Use Today: perfume. This word probably comes from the Old Provençal word perfum, which is in turn from the Latin per, which means through, and fumar, to smoke.

Saturday 5 January 2013

Saturday Rave: The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

A hero is usually brave, and quite often good-looking.

Rich is a wonderful bonus, kind is great, and of high social status (ie prince) is gorgeous.

Sometimes, though, all you want in a hero is for him to be someone...

...well, someone quite like you.

Someone not too bright; someone who spends most of the time wondering what on earth's going on...

...someone all-too-easily tempted...

...and then, of course, all he needs is rescuing.

Word To Use Today: sorcerer. This word comes from the French sorcier, from the Latin sors, which means lot (ie the sort of lot you cast, as in a lottery).

The Sorcerer's Apprentice (Der Zauberlehrling) is a poem by Goethe written in 1797. It was almost certainly based on a story by Lucien written in around 150 AD.

Friday 4 January 2013

Word To Use Today: spug.

After all that rich food and entertainment I thought it might be nice to reflect on something small and plain.

A spug, in fact. Or a spuggy: they're the same thing.

This, if you're from the North of England, is a spug:

House Sparrow
Photo by Darren Lewis.

I'm afraid that image is a bit big, but it's worth looking at, isn't it. A spug (or a house sparrow, as most people call them) isn't just a boring brown thing, is it?

Even the females are beautiful:

though they're rather bossy and tend to rule the roost despite being smaller than the males.

The spug comes originally from Europe and Asia, but it's been taken to Africa and Australia and America:

see the nest hole?

In fact spugs have got themselves more or less everywhere. They've bred in an English coal mine 640 m below ground, and fed at the top of the Empire Stare Building. They're the wild bird with the largest distribution in the world.

We humans have lived with spugs for around 10,000 years, and they've come to represent vulgarity (as in my little Cockney sparrow) and, rather surprisingly, romantic desire.

When I was young the old men used to talk of catching spugs with back-flapping nets. The nets were on large frames, and people would beat the hedgerows at night to make the spugs fly up into them.

Gosh, we wouldn't be so fat if we'd had spuggy pie for dinner, instead of turkey, would we.

For one thing, hardly any of us could be able to bring ourselves to eat it.

Word To Use Today: spug. Sparrow is a lovely word, but spugs are birds with attitude and I think spug encapsulates that beautifully.

It's a variant of the Scottish sprug.

G37The sparrow hieroglyph was probably a sign meaning small, narrow, or bad.

On the other hand, there are those who say it meant "a prolific man" or "the revolution of a year".

If you see an Ancient Egyptian, do ask.

Thursday 3 January 2013

railway rant

Yep, it's still raining here in England.

Devon and Cornwall were practically cut off last week: even the buses which were replacing the trains cancelled because the railway lines were underwater couldn't get along because the roads were flooded, too.

There were railway lines not affected by the floods; but some of them were affected by landslides.

Ah well, it all makes for a little excitement: and never have I felt so grateful to live on a hill.

Now, as we keep being told, the important thing if you're obliged to travel is to keep an eye on the official announcements.

This one was in the Daily Telegraph on the 22nd December:

'Rail transport is being hampered across the South West. First Great Western is advising all customers with "non-essential travel" not to travel west of Taunton in either direction.'

It took me a little while to work this out, but I think they meant: rail customers west of Taunton are advised not to travel.

Ah well, I expect the poor railway announcers were much too busy with all those disasters all over the place to worry too much about being comprehensible.

Word To Use Today: west. This word is Old English. It's related to the Latin vesper and the Greek hésperos, which both mean evening.The word west is also linked to the name of one of the four dwarves in Norse mythology, Norðri, Suðri, Austri and Vestri, who each represented one of the directions of the world.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Sami.

You can't think of a New Year's resolution? Well, how about  learning a new language?
Yes, I know you're busy, but how about learning just a few phrases of a language that you're not going to need until right at the end of 2013? That gives you plenty of time.
Sami is a group of six languages spoken in Lapland, and which I assume must be Father Christmas's mother tongue (actually, does FC have a mother? Ah well, you know what I mean.)

None of the Sami languages has many speakers: Skolt Sami has only four hundred speakers, and the most widely spoken, Northern Sami, has only a few thousand
I know that Father Christmas' translation elves work very efficiently, but I'm sure the great man would be touched if we took the time to learn a few words of Sami.

So here we are.
Gii dovie lea? [Who's that over there?]

Ja, Father Christmas don leat. [Ah, you are Father Christmas.]

Buorre Beavi! [hello!]
Mu namme lea Sally [My name is Sally]

Giitu! [Thank you]

...and, er, sorry, that's as far as I've got with Sami. Still, it's start, isn't it. After that we can just smile a lot.

And, as with almost everything, it's the thought that counts.

Word To Use Today: something in Sami. Sami contains all sorts of useful words. For example: albmaolmmoš means a real person; dolin means in the olden days, monnut means to lay eggs, and vustet means to make cheese.

There we are. All useful words we don't have in English. Marvellous, or what?

Tuesday 1 January 2013

Thing To Do Today: recover.

Of course it's traditional to start the New Year with a nice festive hangover; to approach this fresh start, this glorious opportunity, this infinite marvel, with lightning-bolts of agony blasting through our brains at the merest crack of an eyelid; to begin our journey through a year of a thousand tantalising tastes and textures with a mouth apparently lined with mouldy cottonwool; to commence our conquest of a hundred mountains with a body so weak that opening the medicine cabinet door is eough to make the bathroom belly-dance worryingly around us.

Ah well. I hope last night was one to remember, anyway. And if you can't remember it, then, honestly, all those stories probably aren't true. At least, that one with the guinea pig and the vicar? Physically impossible.

I realise this screen is lungeing at you like a particularly irritable Mike Tyson, so I'll go away quietly, now.

Happy New Year.

Thing To Do Today: recover. This word comes from the Old French recoverer, from the Latin recuperāre, which means to recuperate.