This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 28 February 2013

Rant: exceptions that prove the rule.

That's the exception that proves the rule, people say.

And is it? Really?

Well, call me pedantic, but it can only be an exception that proves the rule if 1) there is a rule, and, 2) the exception is indeed proving it. 

Look, the sun is shining! In England! It's the exception that proves the rule!

No it isn't. There isn't a rule. Not about English weather. That's why English people spend half their lives talking about how surprised they are by it.

An exception that proves the rule will be something like this:


See? If there wasn't a rule there would have been no point in putting up the notice in the first place. I mean, you don't get notices saying THURSDAY 28TH FEBRUARY WILL BE A NO-GIRAFFE DAY, do you.

There we are. It's simple, logical...

...and almost universally ignored.

Ah well.

Word To Use today: exception. This word comes from the Latin word excipere, to take out. 

Wednesday 27 February 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Linear A

Linear B, the most ancient form of Greek writing, is quite well-known:
NAMA Linear B tablet of Pylos.jpg
But doesn't a Linear B imply a Linear A?
Well, yes, it does, and it looks like this:
Linear A cup.png


Can't make head nor tail of it?

No, neither can anyone else.

There are a few things we do know about Linear A. It was used in the second millennium BC in Crete. It was first written about by Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated the ruins at Knossos and also happened to live in the same street in the same Hertfordshire town as me (though not at the same time. Well, he died in 1941.).

Evans called the script linear because it's made up of, er, lines, as opposed to the little pictures familiar from hieroglyphs.

Linear A uses hundreds of signs. About fifty of them are quite like Linear B, which can be read, but about 80% of Linear A's signs are quite different from anything else.

No one has much of a clue what any of it means. People are even still arguing about what language Linear A represents - some sort of Greek, Hittite-Luwian, Phoenician, Indo-Iranian or Tyrrhenian.

Ah well. Whatever it says, if it's anything like other ancient languages then the chances are that most of the inscriptions are tax returns.
And, lets face it, anyone sane does their best to avoid those even when they're in plain English.
Word To Use Today: linear. This word comes from the Latin word līneāris, which means to do with lines.



Tuesday 26 February 2013

Thing To Do Today: compare.

The other day I happened to mention my lovely Collins Dictionary, which helps me so much with writing The Word Den.

Unfortunately the person I mentioned it to works as a publicist for Oxford University Press dictionaries.

Oh Sally, how could you, said Hattie: which was fair enough, because the OUP publish my novels.

(I didn't like to point out that Collins publish me, too. )

Anyway, yesterday the elegant and efficient Hattie sent me a lovely new copy of the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (I already  possess copies of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (which is, inevitably, longer than the one Hattie has sent me) and also the big daddy of all dictionaries, the Oxford English Dictionary itself).

So, let's compare the word compare as they are treated in both dictionaries.

First of all, the Collins wins slightly on presentation because the defined words are all printed in a rather nice shade of blue. I couldn't say it's clearer, but it's prettier.

As for the text, both dictionaries agree on the meanings and derivation of the word, and both dictionaries give a helpful example of the word in context. The Oxford dictionary's example is: salaries compare favourably with those of other professions; and the Collins example is: gin compares with rum in alcohol content. I would say the Collins dictionary wins, here, as their example is, pleasingly, both informative and slightly bonkers.

On the other hand, the Oxford dictionary knows that a ferret isn't necessarily an albino polecat, so Oxford win on accuracy in that case.

And I must admit that accuracy is mostly the point of a dictionary.

The last word?

Well, in the Oxford dictionary it's zymurgy, and in the Collins (which includes quite a lot of proper names) it's Zyrian. (One is the chemistry of brewing and the other is a language spoken in Russia.)

One more thing: the Oxford dictionary smells nicest, but that's probably because it's new.

So which is best? Well, I think there's going to be room in my heart - and on my desk - for both of them.

Thing To Do Today: compare. This word comes from the Latin comparāre, to couple together or match, from com, together and par, equal.

Monday 25 February 2013

Spot the frippet: mail.

If you're in America this is an easy spot because I expect you have mail delivered to your mailbox every day.

Here in England, however, we don't have mail. In fact we seldom have a mailbox. Instead we have post, delivered by the postman through an inconveniently small and sometimes draughty hole in the door.

Mind you, no one in England - or anywhere in the world as far as I know - ever receives an epost. And junk mail is everywhere.

If you're in a place which doesn't have mail delivered then you could try looking out for a knight, though not one in shining armour but one wearing the sort of metal knitted-looking stuff that's called chain mail. Chain mail is particularly useful for protecting the underarms, and other places which have to be especially bendy. It's also much the best stuff if you have to borrow someone else's armour. Guest armour so seldom has its elbows in the right place.

If you happen to live with 21st century people then there's other sorts of mail. Like this:

Animal - Turtle - Spotted Turtle
That's a spotted turtle. A turtle's shell is sometimes called mail.

and so is the shell of this creature:

Photo of a lobster by Anna Langova.

If you're in Australia, a mail sometimes means a rumour or a report (often a racing tip) but of course they're almost impossible to spot.

Lastly, if you're in Scotland, then your mail is quite likely to be a payment of your rent or your taxes.

Oh dear. Let's hope no one anywhere spots one of those.

Spot the frippet: mail. The word meaning letter comes from the Old French male, which means bag, which in its turn probably comes from the Old High German malha which means wallet.

The armour word comes from the Old French maille, mesh, from the Latin macula, which means spot.

The payment word comes from the Old Norse māl, which means agreement.

Sunday 24 February 2013

Sunday Rest: word not to use today: hypogeal.

Here are four reasons reasons why hypogeal is a rubbish word.

First, the meaning is obscure.

Second, the pronunciation is unguessable.

Third, it's largely Greek, so it probably doesn't mean anything useful.

Fourth, the look of the thing reminds us of hypodermic syringes and congealed things.

(Oh dear...I find myself beginning to feel quite sorry for the poor word...)

Hypogeal (you say it in the worst possible way, HYpoGEEul) means occurring or living below the surface of the earth. I cannot deny that this is quite a respectable sort of a meaning, but that doesn't stop it sounding gluey and patronising. Hypogeal also describes a plant whose first leaves stay permanently under the soil.

There we are. Hypogeal. A serviceable word for describing diamonds, badgers, and peanuts.

Unless you have any taste, obviously.

Word Not To Use Today: hypogeal. This word comes from two Greek words, hupo, which means under, and gē, which means earth.

Saturday 23 February 2013

Saturday Rave: The Screwtape Letters by C S Lewis.

I have no intention of explaining how the correspondence which I now offer to the public fell into my hands

says CS Lewis, and then he goes on to explain why:

The sort of script which is used in this book can be very easily obtained by anyone who has learned the knack; but ill-disposed or excitable people who might make a bad use of it shall not learn it from me.

Screwtape, you see, is a devil - by which I mean not a nasty human being but genuine devil from Hell. Screwtape, in fact, has quite a senior position in the Lowerarchy there. 

His letters are written to his nephew Wormwood, who is a mere Junior Tempter.

Wormwood is having trouble with his patient (that's the human he is charged with...what's the opposite of saving? With leading down the primrose path to damnation, anyway).

Screwtape's wit and cunning are both charming and fascinating. No one could more delicately exploit our human frailty. Here he is on one of his own patients.

I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way...I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control and suggested it was just about time he had some lunch. 

If you're looking for an appallingly funny book about the way people's minds really do work, then Screwtape is a most expert guides.

Don't forget, though, as CS Lewis reminds us on the very first page, that the devil is a liar.

Word To Use Today: primrose. This word is from the Old French primerose, from the Mediaeval Latin prīma rosa, which means first rose.

Friday 22 February 2013

Word To Use Today: scullion.

We can never have enough polite insults, and scullion must be  one of the best.

You utter scullion! we might cry; or perhaps say, consolingly, don't mind him, he's nothing but a scullion.

My Collins dictionary defines scullion as a mean and despicable person, so this is a jolly useful word, especially if you're watching the News.

In former times a scullion was someone employed to do the rougher sort of work in a kitchen, and I'm sure that many of these scullions were fine hard-working members of society.

Still, although scullions have come sadly down in the world, we do now have a lovely word for shouting at the television.

 You dirty rotten stinking scullion!


Word To Use Today: scullion. This word comes from the Old French escouillon, which means cleaning cloth, from escouve, a broom, from the Latin scōpa.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Charming! A rant.

They can be many-edged things, words, you know.

Take the word charm.

It can be an attractive personal magnetism.

It can be a small piece of jewellery.

It can be a magic spell.

In WINDOWS 8, the things previously called icons are called charms.

They're a bit different from icons because they're generally invisible. If you know they're there you can hover your cursor in the right place they'll sort of loom up.

If you don't know they're there...

Charm is a beautiful and interesting word, but in the WINDOWS 8 instance it didn't put me in mind of Watteau:

Datei:Antoine Watteau 027.jpg


 or Cary Grant:


No. It put me in mind of nasty silver dangling teddy bears and the first scene of Macbeth.

Ah well. I'm dug in with WINDOWS 7, now. I wouldn't say it's  charming, but it works.

That, and being able to see what I'm doing, are enough for me, you know.

Word To Use Today: charm. This word comes from the French word charme, from the Latin carmen, which means song or incantation, from canere, to sing.

Wednesday 20 February 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Zyrian

Zyrian is the language of the Komi Autonomous Republic.

Which is here:

It belongs to the same group of languages as Finnish and Hungarian.

Zyrian, or Zyryan, or Komi-Zyrian, is spoken by getting on for 300,000 people, and the very oldest of them are to be admired and possibly pitied. The thing is, Zyrian has been written down in a bewildering variety of alphabets. It started off written on Old Permic script, which was replaced by Cyrillic-with-extra-letters (which were needed to represent Zyrian's non-Russian sounds). Then in the 1920s the writing system changed to the Molodtsov alphabet, in the 1930s it switched to Latin, and since the 1940s it's used Cyrillic again plus the additional letters І, і and Ӧ, ӧ.

Phew. And those of us who were taught ITA at school thought we'd had it hard.

Just in case you were wondering, the Zyrian for knee is пыдзöс. (Well, you never know when these things might come in useful.)

Zyrian is also the last word in...

...well, the dictionary, actually.

What more could anyone want?

Word To Use Today: Zyrian. Hint for use: how about having a last-word-in-alphabetical-order competition?


Tuesday 19 February 2013

Thing To Do Today: eschew something.


Bless you!

Of all the things one may wish to eschewpeople who sneeze must be near the top of the list.

According to my Collins Dictionary you can only eschew things which are unlikeable or injurious, so that makes eschewing something a simple delight and almost a duty.

So, things to eschew today:

Ready meals. The fact that many British ready meals have been stuffed with horsemeat for no-one-knows-how-long and no one has noticed tells you everything you need to know about them as a culinary experience.

Nylon vests. Nylon vests are shocking. No, literally shocking. Especially if you shake hands with someone who is wearing one. Ouch!

Vests of any other fabric. And playing hockey. Obviously. I swore to eschew both of these as a teenager and it has improved my life immeasurably.

So be happy: work out what you don't want and eschew something nasty today.

Thing To Do Today: eschew something. This word comes from the Old French eschiver, and is probably something to do with the Old High German word skiuhan, to frighten away.

Monday 18 February 2013

Spot the frippet: pawn.

The present state of widespread financial droopiness is at least being kind to the pawn shops.
The easiest way to spot a pawn shop is to look out for the three golden balls hung outside. These were the symbol of Lombardy:

That's Lombardy.

This was because the pawn industry was traditionally run by Lombards. Later, after a member of the Medici family in Charlemagne's army had killed a giant with three rocks, it became the Medici family symbol, too.
The three balls may also be the symbol of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of pawn brokers, who gave a poor man's three daughters purses of gold so they could get married.
Pawn shops have a long and quite respectable history: not only did the English king Richard II pawn his crown, but Queen Isabella of Spain pawned her jewellery to finance Christopher Columbus's first voyage west.

If there's no pawn shop to be found near you then there's almost certainly several of these:

black, white, recreation, chess, games, pawn, pawns

A pawn is the lowliest but most numerous of the pieces of a chess set, and the one most likely to be sacrificed to save one of the more powerful pieces.

Unless by some miracle you have avoided being buffeted by the current financial troubles then probably the very easiest way to see one of these is to look in a mirror.

Spot the frippet: pawn. The money-lending word comes from the Old French pan, which means security, from pannus, cloth, probably because clothing was often left as a pledge.
The word pawn meaning chess piece comes from the Mediaeval Latin pedō, which means infantryman, from the Latin pēs, foot.


Sunday 17 February 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: laundry.

I'm not long back from a book tour in which I visited Dublin, Glasgow, Manchester and Bristol in the company of three brilliant writers, Gillian Cross, Geraldine McCaughrean and Tim Bowler. We were looked after by Harriet and Nicola and Jennie and Liz from the OUP and spent a lot of the time in fits of laughter.

I came back, of course, with a young mountain of laundry.

I'm afraid that there's something desolate about the word laundry. Perhaps it's the laun bit, with its echoes of forlorn and mourn and torn.

(And corn, I suppose, but until now I can't say that's ever occurred to me.)

Anyway, laundry: a sad tangle of legs and sleeves reeking gently of mortality and reproach. 

For myself, I never do laundry, but washing. It's a much more cheerful thing altogether, washing: well, it rhymes with sloshing, doesn't it.

So, just the ironing to catch up on, now, then. Whatever I do, I don't want to get caught with any creases in my elbows.

Word Not To Use Today: laundry. This word has really come down in the world. In the 1300s it meant someone who washes linen. Before that the word was the lovely lavender, which meant a washerwoman. It comes originally from the Latin word lavāre, to wash.

Saturday 16 February 2013

Saturday Rave: The Three Little Pigs.

"Little pig, little pig, let me come in."
"No, no, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin."
"Then I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house down."

The trouble with the story of the three little pigs is that the silly animals are so irritating that I've always felt they rather deserve to be eaten.

The hair on my chinny chin chin?

What on earth is that all about?

But then I came across this picture by L Leslie Brook:

And, oh, what tenderness and pride is shining from the face of the mother! And look, the little ones are only piglets, really, just starting out in life. How thrilled they are to be grown up. And how much their mother loves them.

Oh dear. Suddenly I really do care about those pigs.

This old story, like most old stories, exists in lots of versions. The Disney one doesn't involve anyone getting eaten, but most versions end up with just about everyone yummed right up.

The very best versions (because the longest and funniest and most cunning) include a series of attempts by the wolf to lure the last pig out of his brick-built house.

Here's what must be the best picture ever drawn of a pig climbing an apple tree:

In the end of all the versions the big bad wolf gets his come-uppance, of course. Sometimes he gets his bottom toasted, and sometimes he's just...well...toast.

The L Leslie Brooke version from which that these pictures have come is available here, for free.

So all hail the glory of the internet.

Word To Use Today: chin. This word comes from the Old English word cinn, and is related to the Latin gena, which means cheek, and the Old Irish gin, which means mouth.

Friday 15 February 2013

Word To Use Today: spurdle.


So, you have an automatic soup-maker, do you?

And a nutmeg grater?

And a pasta server?

Ah, but do you have a spurdle? Or, alternatively, a spirtle?

Or even a spurtle?


Well, I can't say I'm surprised.

So what is a spurdle?

A spurdle is a porridge-stirring stick.

They look like this:

This one has a Scottish thistle-shaped top.

Unlike the automatic soup maker, spurdles have a long history of loyal usefulness to mankind, and have been around since at least the 1400s.

To start with a spurdle was a spatula-like thing for flipping oatcakes, but gradually the spurdle achieved its destiny: it grew rounder and sturdier (don't we all) and began being used specifically for stirring.

The shape is said to be perfect for stopping porridge clogging up or becoming unappetising.*

The Annual Golden Spurtle World Porridge-Making Championship is held in Carrbridge each year. They complete, of course, for the Golden Spurtle.

And as if that's not enough glory for one word, a spurdle is a dance, too.

Word To Use Today: spurdle. No one knows where this word comes from, but there's another Scottish word, spurkle, which means a stick used for beating flax or for thatching, and it may be related to that. 

*Yes, I know, they really must be magic.


Thursday 14 February 2013

The end of the affair. a rant.

Yes, it was only a laptop. And yes, it only ran Vista. But it's been the companion of many trips into other worlds and times (in my writing, naturally. I'm not Dr Who) and the friend of many a romp in The Word Den.

Ah well. At least I shall no longer spend so much time looking at the little label on the keyboard which said: 


which I must admit has been irritating me slightly ever since I took the thing out of its box.

When my dear old laptop died I went out straight away and bought another one. The latest thing. Windows 8.

It lasted two days. Either it had to go or I had to kill myself.

It went.

I now have a Windows 7 machine in a box downstairs, but I don't dare open it. (I'm on an old XP machine at the moment. It's working perfectly, thank you.)

The thing is, I don't think I'm quite ready to plunge into another new relationship yet.

That WINDOWS 8 machine. It's left a scar. It looked handsome and shiny, but, but, but... 

I suppose our basic problem was that (sob) we didn't talk. The words just weren't there.

There was a full screen picture of a mysterious tower, possibly on the Planet Zog, but it just sat there impenetrably for ages and ages until the computer settled itself down to sleep again.

A simple inscription would have helped. Something like PRESS ANY KEY TO CONTINUE.

Communication. Any relationship will go sour without it, you know.

No, no, it's all right. Really. I expect by next Valentine's Day I'll have found a new computer with which I can have a meaningful relationship.

Anyway, please don't let the thought of my misery spoil your day.

After all, I still have XP.

Word To Use Today: eight. This word comes from the Old English æhta and probably comes from a Proto Indo-European word something like okto(u). The Sanskrit form is astau.

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Thorn Soup

Thorn or þorn is a letter or þ) that was used in several extinct alphabets, including Old English, and is used currently in Icelandic.
In most instances it's been replaced by th.
 Þ usually sounds like the th in thin, but sometimes it's sounded like the th in this.
Early Modern English found thorn quite useful, especially in the mediaeval version of text, where þ followed by an e, t, or u was a  common abbreviation for the, that or thou.
This beautiful and unassuming letter has been causing all sorts of difficulties, though. People have been asking if, as it's not used in many languages, can't it be got rid of altogether?
Does it count as a real letter at all?
If we must have it, where does it go in the alphabet?
Well, I'm glad to report that þ has a passionate fan group, so it doesn't look as if it's going to go away any time soon.
And as its history can be traced back a lot further than modern fripperies like the letter G (some people say þ has its roots in the Etruscan or Phoenician languages) no one can really say it isn't a proper letter.
But where should it go in the alphabet? Well, it's been put between T and U, (because it sounds like th);  after TH and before TL; mixed up with TH; mixed with P (because it does look a bit like a P); written as Y and mixed with the other Y s; written as either TH or T and bunged in there; or put in after Z.

The Icelanders put þ after Z. Adding new letters to the end of the alphabet has quite often happened with new letters, so this does seem a reasonable solution.

In any rate, it's one that's been going since the 1000s, and it hasn't done any harm so far. So why not.

Thing of beauty to appreciate today: þ. The letter was first seen as the rune Þ in the Elder Futhark. It's called thurs or giant in the Scandinavian rune poems, and its Proto-Germanic name may have been thurisaz.

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Thing Not To Do Today: gyromancy.

Well, this is an easy thing not to do today.

It's quite an easy thing not to do tomorrow, as well.

Let's face it, the chances are you've never ever done any gyromancy at all, and never will.

Should you wish to (and I trust you won't) you must first make a big circle on the ground and draw the letters of the alphabet around it.

Then you must either spin round on the spot in the middle of the circle, or else run round the circumference of it, until you stumble or fall over. 

Then you carefully write down the letter you've fallen on.

Eventually you either end up with a message: 


for example; or alternatively you die or go mad.

Personally, if you're bored enough even to contemplate a spot of gyromancy, I'd recommend watching paint dry instead.

Thing Not To Do Today: gyromancy. This word derives from two Greek words: guros, which means circle, and manteia, which means oracle.

Monday 11 February 2013

Spot the frippet: clobber.

Here's a lovely word, and something that's the easiest thing in the world to spot.

Let's face it, you're surrounded by clobber. What are you reading this on? Probably a bit of clobber.

What are you wearing?

Almost certainly clobber.

What will you take with you when you move house?

A load of clobber.

Yes, clobber means your possessions, and especially your clothes and accessories (though it also means anything that clutters up the house).

Not quite all your possessions are clobber, though: your Raphael Madonna, if you should happen to possess such a thing, isn't clobber; and neither is your diamond ring or your First Folio Shakespeare. But everything you don't prize as irreplaceable is clobber.

Opinions will vary as to what constitutes clobber, naturally. I mean, there are those who prize their collections of old beer bottle labels. There was a man on the radio who owned over a hundred thousand car tax discs.

Some people infest their gardens with gnomes:

Design - garden_gnomes

Although practically all of us will have no trouble at all spotting clobber, for completeness I ought to acknowledge the sort of clobber which means to thump or to criticise someone; and also the sort of clobber which means to paint over existing decoration on a piece of pottery.

So if someone tells you they're going to clobber your amusing frog vase don't clobber them; they might just possibly be meaning to do you a favour.

Spot the frippet: clobber. This word arrived in the English language in the 1800s. The possessions and the painting meanings are thought to be connected, but no one really knows from whence the word arrived.

Sunday 10 February 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: esurient.


No, it's all right, no one understands this one.

Even if someone did, they wouldn't use esurient because it sounds so greasy and extruded, and there's nothing nice that's greasy and extruded unless your idea of fun involves the sort of cheese that comes in tubes.

(Yes, I know, everyone over a certain age has eaten celery-and-processed-cheese canapes. But we know better, now, okay?)

So what does esurient mean?

Greedy. That's all, greedy. Which is rather a satisfying word, I think.

Just like someone who'll even eat celery piped with processed cheese.

Word Not To Use Today: esurient. This word comes from the Latin edere, to eat.

Saturday 9 February 2013

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

"When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen."

But who wants to begin with a disagreeable-looking child?

Who is going to be interested in her?

Ah, but look at that sent. Mary has been ordered away. By whom? Doesn't anyone want her? And to live with an uncle, too - not Uncle George, or Uncle Tom, just uncle. A man unknown.

There's obviously something gone very wrong, here.

Then there's that everybody said. More unknown people, that means, and none of them prepared to like this small stranger. Not only do they not like her, they have got together and made an arrangement not to like her. To dislike her more than anyone else they've ever seen.

We may not feel we'll like Mary much either, but already we have some sympathy for her. There's no one to be her friend if it isn't us, after all.

The sentence quoted above is the first of The Secret Garden.


A lot of the other sentences in the book are good, too.

And Mary isn't so very disagreeable by the end.

Word To Use Today: manor. This word comes from the Old French manoir, dwelling, from the Latin manēre, to remain.

Friday 8 February 2013

Word To Use Today: spagyric.

No, it's all right, no one knows what spagyric means.

I'm afraid it's one the more useless words in the English language, but, hey, I expect you can find a use for it. Anyway, it's good to have a challenge from time to time.

Spagyric means to do with alchemy - but not, strictly speaking, the glitzy turning-base-metal-into-gold alchemy, or the mysterious how-to-live-for-ever sort of alchemy. No, spagyric is really the this-will-cure-anything stuff.

To make a spagyric you have to get Mercury, Salt and Suphur working for you. First of all you have to boil a herb in alcohol for a bit to make a solution. The alcohol, being a liquid, is a bit like Mercury. Then you take another bit of the herb and burn it so that any goodness that won't dissolve in alcohol ends up in the ash. That's the Salt bit.

Then, to do the thing really properly, you should take a third bit of herb, extract any smelly bits you can, and that's the Sulphur bit.

Mix them all up:

 and that's your spagyric.

Does it work?

Well, given the prospect of taking that stuff, I think that most of us would get better immediately.

Don't you?

Word To Use Today: spagyric. Utter nonsense? Well, all I can say that the word was coined by The Word Den's old enemy Paracelsus the Bighead. His idea was that nature was a bit rubbish and needed polishing up a bit, and that it was man's job to do it (I told you he was a bighead).

The word comes from the Greek spao, to tear open, and ageiro, to collect.

Thursday 7 February 2013

Haycocks: a rant.

Yes, here I am ranting about haycocks again.

Well, actually, this isn't so much a new rant as the end of an old one.

Ages ago I was reading one of Trollope's Palliser series of novels and there was mention of haycocks at the Duke of Omnium's London garden party. I was annoyed because although the note to the text told me what a haycock was, which I knew:

 it didn't tell me what on earth haycocks were doing at a garden party.

But now, having read a couple more of Trollope's books, I have come across the answer in The Duke's Children . The haycocks were there to provide a rustic area for lovers to walk around, and provide small amounts of privacy for...well, whatever lovers do when nobody's looking. Which, of course, no one knows because no one is looking.

"Come and take a turn among the haycocks," he said.
'Frank declares," said Lady Mabel, "That the hay is hired for the occasion. I wonder whether that is true."
"Anybody can see," said Tregear, "that has not been cut off the grass it stands upon."
"If I could find Mrs Montacute Jones I'd ask her where she got it," said Lady Mabel.
"Are you coming?" said Silverbridge impatiently.
"I don't think I am. I have been walking round the haycocks till I am tired of them."

Oh dear. Doesn't bode well for poor Silverbridge, does it?

Oh, but how gloriously satisfying to know about the haycocks at long last.

I think I can be happy, now.

Word To Use Today: hay. This word comes from the Old English word hieg and may have some relation to hew.

Wednesday 6 February 2013

Nuts and Bolts: the Cupertino effect.

I don't text much.

This is partly because I'm a writer, and so I'm at home most of the time with my phone switched off, but it's mostly because my name isn't Otto.


Well, you see, Otto is how I sign practically all my texts.

Love...Otto. Like that.

Now, what I'm trying to write on these occasions is Love, Mum. But the auto-correct always alters Mum to Otto. Always. I've begged and pleaded with the thing, but it's no good.

(At this point someone always seizes my phone to sort out the problem for me. Then I get to watch the confidence on their face turn to puzzlement, and then bafflement, and then despair. The phone ALWAYS writes Otto when you try to write Mum.)

This sort of thing is known as the Cupertino effect. It's called that because, on Apple devices, trying to type in cooperation without a hyphen results in the device correcting it to Cupertino, which is where Apple's Headquarters is (or possibly are. Do feel free to take your pick).

Of course I'm not the only one to have problems. There's the lawyer who tried to use the Latin phrase sua sponte (which means of one’s own accord), only for his blasted machine to change it to sea sponge; but my favourite story of all is of the computer system which changes netware to knitware.

Sometimes it's just hugely satisfying to see the techno-world getting itself in a twist.

Word To Use Today: correct. This word comes from the Latin word corrigere, to put in order, from regere, which means to rule.

Tuesday 5 February 2013

Thing To Do Today: crack.

If you're in Scotland or the North of England then to crack means to chat or to gossip.

If you cracked open a bottle or two while you were chatting then crack hearty (in NZ and Oz that means put on a brave face): that headache won't last forever.

If missed the crack of dawn then you'll have to get cracking, and if the others are still yawning then I suppose you'd better crack the whip (but crack a joke and a smile while you do it or someone might crack you over the head).

Crack a nut, crack a riddle, crack those crackers you forgot all about on Christmas Day, perhaps even crack a wave.

Crack up, crack down, crack on -

But just don't crack!

Thing To Do Today: crack. This word comes from the Old English cracian, and is related to the Dutch kraken and the Sanskrit gárjati, which means he roars.

Monday 4 February 2013

Spot the frippet: spaewife.

A spaewife is a woman who can foretell the future.

All women claim this ability. Some do it professionally on weather forecasts and in fashion columns, but all women do it.

You'll catch your death of cold if you go out like that.

Don't leave it there, someone will come along and trip over it and break their neck.

All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter.

Men claim this ability, too (ooh, you don't want to go round the M25, you'll catch the traffic terrible on the way home), but I don't think you can call them spaewives.

You can't believe a word any of them, men or women, say.

But as a rule of thumb, the ones in the pointy black hats are the worst.

Spot the frippet: spaewife. This is a Scots word. The spae bit arrived in Scots in the 1300s, comes from Old Norse, and means to foretell the future.

Sunday 3 February 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: swastika

There really isn't anything good or loveable about this word.

No word has fallen further, either.

It used to be a symbol of good luck in India, though why something which looks like a mutilated spider should be a sign of good luck I do not know.

But then I don't have to live with Indian spiders.

Since then a swastika has become a symbol of very many loathsome things.

You can hear the nastiness of it in the tarry and hissing and spiteful sound of the word.

I can only suggest that if we must refer to one then we use its alternative name, fylfot.

The word fylfot word is, admittedly, silly.

But then silliness is a colossal improvement.

Word Not To Use Today: swastika. This word came into English in the 1800s from the Sanskrit word svasti which means prosperity.

Saturday 2 February 2013

Saturday Rave: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

This week has seen Pride and Prejudice's 200th anniversary, so I feel rather obliged to mention it.

If that sounds grudging it's not because I don't admire the book. I think that after 200 years it's still one of the best novels ever written.

Personally, I think that Jane Austen's other book Emma is even more astonishingly wonderful. But it's close.

The reason I feel reluctant to write about Pride and Prejudice is that the world is already full of a great clamour of voices proclaimng that the book is especially theirs because it's about love/class/property/self-deception/ordinary people/well hot guys/money/jokes/idiots/passion/morals/beautiful writing/wit/twits/philosophy/growing up, and, especially, all about MEEE.

Ah well. I suppose that if I want to get across the fact that Pride and Prejudice, as well as being an absorbing and amusing story about fascinating people, is a work of utter genius, then that's probably quite a good way to do it.

Word To Use Today: prejudice. This word comes from the French word préjudice. Before that it came from the Latin word prejūdicium, which means a preceding judgement or disadvantage. The Latin word jūdex means judge.

Friday 1 February 2013

Word To Use Today: triton.

Here's a fine clear-sounding and hard-working word:


I first came across this word in dear old Wordsworth's sonnet, which mentions Triton blowing on his wreathed horn. This Triton was the son of the sea god Posiedon and Amphitrite, and he's a merman who, as noted above, is seldom seen without a horn (the musical kind) made out of a conch shell.


The largest of Neptune's moons is called after him. 

It says in my Collins dictionary that triton is also the name of a class of minor sea deities. Good grief. I'm glad I'm not the teacher in charge of that lot.

Triton sounds as if should be something to do with three, and in physics it is: it's a nucleus of an atom of Tritium, a radioactive form of hydrogen. It contains two neutrons and one proton and you find tiny traces of it in natural hydrogen, and lots in a nuclear reactor.

Lastly, a triton is one of these:

Oregon triton shell - click to see all waterlife symbols 

Yes, it's a sort of mollusc. Most tritons live in the tropics, but that picture is of the shell of a rather beautifully named hairy triton. It's the state shell of Oregon.

Word To Use Today: triton. The word for the shell comes from the Greek word tritōn.  

Hint for use: raining? I just saw flipping Triton swim past the window!