This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 31 March 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: orgulous.

Orgulous wouldn't be quite such a bad word if it meant gargling. It sounds as if it should mean gargling

Unfortunately it means...well, it means rather a lot of things: proud, haughty, disdainful, ostentatious, showy, swollen, augmented, excessive, threatening and dangerous.
Thomas Malory used the word in 1485 in Le Morte D'Arthur:
At that time there was a knight...the which was an orgulous knight, and counted himself one of the best of the court; and he had great despite at Balin for the achieving of the sword.
and it was picked up by Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey and Virginia Woolf who used it to create historical atmosphere.

It's surely much better left in the cupboard as a curiosity, though, with the castor oil, the moustache curlers, and the bust of Ozymandias.

Word Not To Use Today: orgulous. This word comes from the Old French orguillus, from orgoil, which means pride. There's a related Old High German word urguol, which means excellent.

  • 1966, Eric Walter White, Stravinsky the Composer and his Works, University of California Press (1966), page 5:
    Her nephew describes her as 'an orgulous and despotic woman', and it is clear that he noticed and resented her numerous unkindnesses.
  • 1975, Georgette Heyer, My Lord John, Arrow Books (2011), ISBN 0099476428, pages 14-15:
    They knew that my lord of Arundel had grown so orgulous that he had lately dared to marry the Earl of March's sister, without license.

Saturday 30 March 2013

Saturday Rave: The Princess and the Pea.

Of course I was a princess.

The distinct lack of a palace, royal relatives and sticky-out dresses...well, it just made my position all the more romantic, that's all.

So all I had to do to prove my royal birth was to get hold of about fifteen mattresses...

The Princess and the Pea
The Princess and the Pea - Credit: Tomasz Sienicki

...well, perhaps one would do. I had one.

Then I just had to put a pea underneath the mattress...

...unfortunately my mattress proved to lay upon wire mesh. A pea would fall through that.

Okay then, if I put my pea on a book before I put it under my mattress then...

...the real problem was that I'd only ever comes across fresh peas. Which, (because I was quite a hefty child) would obviously immediately get squashed.

Ah well. I would prove my sensitive royalty in other ways, like crying bitterly whenever I saw something dead.

Because of course I was a princess...

Word To Use Today: pea. This word used to be pease, but it got shortened because everyone thought it was a plural. Pease comes from the Old English peose, from the Latin pisa, which is a plural (of pisum) from the Greek pison.

Friday 29 March 2013

Word To Use Today: trapeze.

In the circus that has been Cyprus during the last week, I was surprised to see that signs for the Laiki Bank looked like this:


(I note in passing that Laiki Bank is being translated Popular Bank, which must make it the most inappropriately-named bank in the known universe.)

That sign, written in English letters, says pretty much Laikee Trapeza. This fits in nicely with the circus theme, but what has a Cypriot Bank got to do with a trapeze?

Er...well, what has a Cypriot bank got to do with a trapeze apart from the obvious shooting-up-and-down, and the being highly unsafe though entertaining in a horrifying sort of way to look at from a distance thing?

Well, you have to look at the root of the Greek word trapezion, which comes from trapeza, table.

If the connection is still unclear, then we can look at our own word for bank, which comes from the Italian banca, which also means table - in this case a moneychanger's table.

And what has a flying trapeze got to do with tables? Well, nothing, really, but it has got something to do with trapeziums, which (in most parts of the world) are four-sided figures with two sides parallel. (In the USA and Canada a trapezium is a four-sided figure with no sides parallel, but that's because the man who wrote the first American Maths book got his terms muddled.)

A trapeze is probably called a trapeze because, as they swing, the cross bar, ropes and ceiling form a trapezium.

The only problem with that is, of course, that they actually form a parallelogram.

Word To Use Today: trapeze. Or trapezium. Or trapezoid (which, whever you are, means the thing the others call a trapezium).

Thursday 28 March 2013

Motes: a rant.

'The one that tipped me over the edge', wrote Dave Bush to me in some exasperation, 'was "It should sometimes examine the religious mote in its own eye." '

Oh no! Please, hang on there, Dave! Grab hold of a tuft of grass or something and hang on. Really. I feel your pain.

The piece of writing that's so irritated Dave ('it was the third such usage in about two weeks') comes from Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian of 14/03/13. Simon Jenkins is himself quoting the King James Bible.

Here's a bit more of the Simon Jenkins piece:

[The Catholic church's] influence...remains powerful and reactionary. The west waxes eloquent in denouncing the role of religion in the politics of Muslim states...It should sometimes examine the religious mote in its own eye.

And here's the verse of the King James Bible (from Matthew chapter 7) that Simon Jenkins is quoting:

'And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?'

So, that explains it all clearly, doesn't it: motes are to be ignored, are forgiveable, and not influencial or powerfully reactionary at all. It's beams that are the problem.

Right, that's sorted, then. And look, here's Dave, safe and sound, climbing back up over the edge of his cliff. Phew. 

All the same, it is a rather loveable word, mote, isn't it?

Word To Use Correctly today: mote. This means a tiny speck. It comes from the Old English mot. The same word in Middle Dutch means grit, and the Norwegian mutt means speck.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Nuts and Bolts: haiku.

Haiku were originally short poems written in Japanese.

It's often said that they have five syllables in the first line, seven in the next, and five in the last.

This isn't usually true.

No, in fact Japanese haiku have five moras in the first line, seven in the next, and five in the last.

So what's a mora?

Well, it depends on which language you're talking about, and even then it's not easy to be exactly sure, but a short vowel is generally one mora, and a long one is two.

No, no, that isn't all there is to it. The English word rot is a two mora word because the end consonant of a stressed syllable counts as a mora. But then the last consonant of carrot isn't a mora, because it's not at the end of a stressed syllable. That's what people say.

On the other hand other people say something entirely different...

Anyway. In Japanese, a long vowel counts as two mora, and an n at the end of a syllable counts as one mora.

Take the word syasin, which means photograph:

Its syllables are two: sya and sin.

Its moras, though, are three: sya si and n.

There we are. A feast for bigheads and nit-pickers everywhere - and a reason why writing haiku is even harder than we thought.

Word To Use Today: haiku. Haiku are short, and pleasingly the word haiku itself is shorter than it was originally. To start with it was haikai no ku, which means light verse.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Thing Not To Do Today: be mordant.

To be mordant is to be cutting, and perhaps sarcastic.

Here are a few things not to say unless you really must:

I am not young enough to know everything.

That's Oscar Wilde's line, bless him, and is useful for being cruel to children. Not that you should, obviously.

And then there's:

I have had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn't it.

That's from the very great, but thankfully nowadays easily avoidable in person, Groucho Marx.

Or how about:

The covers of this book are too far apart.

Ouch! That's Ambrose Bierce.

Mordant can also mean pungent, but I wouldn't recommend being that, either.

A mordant can be either a substance that helps fix a dye, or one that etches lines on a metal plate, as well. 

By the way, a mordent (with an e) is a very short trill-type thing in music. The definition in the Collins dictionary is slightly wrong, but then perhaps the Collins people have Van Gogh's ear for music.

That last mordant quotation is from Billy Wilder.

Thing Not To Do Today Unless You Really Must: be mordant. This word comes from the Old French, from mordre, to bite, from the Latin mordēre.

Monday 25 March 2013

Spot the frippet: clew.

A clew is a ball of thread, but the word has branched out (as words do) and now it also means the lower corners of a sail (or, if it's a triangular sail, the back bottom corner).

Clew lines are ropes attached to the clews as a means of furling the sail. From here clew has also come to mean the rigging of a hammock.

I must agree that hammocks and sailing ships are hard things to spot, but, hey, they're nice to dream about, aren't they, as we face the doleful battle that is so often Monday morning.

The ball-of-thread sort of clew is quite easy, though: and if you haven't got one of those you can always can clew something yourself, because as a verb clew means to roll into a ball.

The thing I like most about the word clew, though, is that it's basically the same word clue. Isn't that great?  You unravel a mystery just in the same way as you might unravel a ball of string.

I suppose this means that clew/clue is yet another contranym, doesn't it, because it means to roll up as well as to tease out.

And you know, there seem to be so many of contranyms about that sometimes it seems a wonder that any of us have a clue what we're going on about.

Spot the frippet: clew. This word comes from the Old English cliewen, and is related to the Old High German kliu, which means ball.

Sunday 24 March 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: imbroglio.

No, really, to use this word is to invite ridicule.

If you must use it (and at least you'll be livening up a dull Sunday by giving us someone to snigger at) then do remember that the g is silent. As in tagliatelle.

An imbroglio happens when people disagree, not in a straightforward sock-him-on-the-nozzle sort of way but when  people aren't quite sure exactly what's wrong, how to solve it, or what anyone wants, but are still determined to make a fuss about it.

Imbroglio used also to mean a confused heap or jumble (which is again very like tagliatelle) but now we tend to use the phrase teenager's bedroom instead.

Messy Room X Clip Art
Image by Nick.

Word Not To Use Today: imbroglio. This word came to English in the 1700s from Italy. Imbrogliare means to confuse or embroil.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Saturday Rave: Robin Hood and his Merry Men.

I didn't have many books when I was young, but one book I did have was The Adventures of Robin Hood. I think it must have been bought for my elder brother.

It was great stuff. Lots of fighting. I loved knowing the joke about Little John (who was so very big) and I rather fancied the young and fashion-conscious Will Scarlet (scarlet because of his stockings). The others all wore Lincoln green, which I imagined to be a sort of sludgy colour, suitable for hiding in a muddy wood.

There was even a love interest.

Then there was the very very bad Sheriff of Nottingham (booooo!) and jolly Friar Tuck, and of course Sherwood Forest itself, huge, shadowy and sun-splashed, and older and greater than any of the arguments.

I loved it all.

Well, is there anywhere a young person, school-imprisoned and family-imprisoned, who doesn't want to be an outlaw?

Phrase To Use today: Lincoln green. This was a yellowish or brownish green, called after a cloth which used to be made in Lincoln, England. Unfortunately the colour wasn't so named until the 1500s, which makes it much too recent to have been worn by Robin Hood.

Lincoln greyne, however, was scarlet. It is said that Robin Hood sometimes wore Lincoln greyne on posh occasions: though not, presumably, when he was trying to avoid being spotted by the Sherriff of Nottingham.

Friday 22 March 2013

Word To Use Today: titi.

Even the dictionary goes into raptures over titis.

Long beautifully-coloured fur, it says: and the dictionary is quite right.

This is the rather dull-sounding Brown Titi:

but just look at that lovely silver tail. There are Red-bellied titis, White-eared titis, Coppery titis, and even Lucifer titis, too.

The monkey titis live in South America, but there are also titis in North America. In this case they are trees, especially the small evergreen ones presumably called after someone called Cyril, the Cyrillaceae:

This is Cyrilla racemiflora, also know as the swamp titi. Or the red titi. Or the black titi. Or the white titi.

Finally, a titi is one of these:
Sooty Shearwater by Chester A Reed.

There we are: three different sorts of titis from three different continents, and all of them glorious.

What more could anyone possibly want?

Word To Use Today: titi. The monkey word comes from the Aymaran for little cat. The tree is from an American Indian language, but no one seems to know which one. The sooty shearwater is from a Māori word which imitates its call.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Colourful language: a rant.

So, tell me: what colour is this?

Red Metal

Did anyone out there say Gypsy Blush? 

Carnival Fantasy?

Rich Rose?

Passion Glow?


You mean you went with red?

Well, all I can say is that I do wish the people who write catalogues would follow your example.

Geranium. What colour is that? Red? Pink? Orange? Because you can't always be sure from the picture.

Sea Mist: grey? Blue? Turquoise?

Evening Hills: green? Blue? Mauve? Sly-blue flipping pink?

Look, just stick some useful signal - like the actual colour - under the picture, okay?

Carnival Fantasy Pink, for example.

And then we won't plan to wear it with our scarlet heels.


Word To Use Today: red. This word came to us all the way through the whole of Europe from the Sanskrit word rohita.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Nuts and Bolts: virgule.

Some things matter, and some things don't.

Unfortunately one of the things that matters is the endless capacity of humans to care passionately about things that don't matter.

There are numerous examples of this: football and stamp collecting, for instance. Trouser-leg widths. Coffee spoons.

To this list I think I'm justified in adding the thickness of a slash.

That's slash as in one of these:


This punctuation mark is sometimes called a forward slash to distinguish it from a backward slash:


but only a fool would be really really annoyed by this.

Or so I tell myself.

There are those who say that a slash is a slash whatever it's used for, but on the other hand there are those who insist with great passion that a thin slash, used for showing where the ends of the lines in a poem are, is not a slash at all, but a virgule.

There are also those who say that a slash used to show an alternative, as in and/or is also a virgule.

The best advice that I can give/Assuming that you wish to live,/Is, when you see a grammar bore,/To duck/run/hide/or hit the floor.

Word To Use Today (or perhaps not): virgule. This is the French for a comma, which was originally slash-shaped. Before that the word comes from the Latin virgula, which means a little rod.

Tuesday 19 March 2013

Thing Not To Do Today: be garrulous.

Garrulous means talking a lot, but it's more than that. There's something a bit aggressive and unsavoury about someone who's garrulous.

Someone garrulous isn't just a chatterer or a twitterer: a garrulous person is one whose opinions are forced (at length) upon others. I was going to say upon anyone who'll listen, but there's nothing optional about listening to a garrulous person: for him (or her) all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely audience.

Yes, a person may be cheerfully garrulous, but that's a sign he (or, let's be fair, she) is confident they'll not be interrupted.

The Ancient Mariner:

was garrulous. So, as it happens, was his creator Coleridge. There's a story told of a man who, buttonholed by Coleridge, cut the buttonhole from his coat, went about his business, and came back an hour later to find Coleridge still talking to the air.

On the other hand, here is someone garrulous but still gorgeous in every respect:

He's Garrulus glandarius. This picture is of an English jay (the original jay, after whom all the other jays in the world are named), but there are thirty three sub-species.

The jay does make quite a lot of noise from time to time, and he is a superb and probably rather annoying mimic of other birds.

I can't say he bother me too often with his opinions, though.

Thing Not To Do Today: be garrulous. This word arrived in English in the 1600s and comes from the Latin word garrīre, to chatter.

Monday 18 March 2013

Spot the Frippet: temple.

This is an easy one.

If you don't happen to have a place of worship nearby (and to be a temple it really needs to be designed for worshipping one (or several) of the ancient gods; or else, especially if you're in the USA, to be a place of worship for Mormon or sometimes Jewish people) then there are always those places which used to be owned by the Knights Templar:


 These places include Temple Meads Station in Bristol, England, as well as buildings in London and Paris. The London site houses England's chief law societies:

File:Crown Office Row at Inner Temple.JPG
Inner Temple. Photo by Mclmcj.

If there's no temple building anywhere near you then a temple is the bit of a loom that keeps the cloth stretched sideways - and if you're nowhere near a loom, either, then a mirror will of course reveal two temples situated neatly at the sides of your forehead. My Collins dictionary says they're in front of the ears, but unless your ears are in very strange places then this won't, I think, be so.

Unless it's my ears that are stuck on in the wrong place...

If you get a hollow block of wood (hang on, how can you have a hollow block? That's what it says in my Oxford dictionary, though. Have all the lexicographers gone mad?) and strike it with a stick, then you'll be playing an instrument called a temple block.

Lastly, any place very much devoted to more or less anything can be called a temple. I think you'll find it remarkably easy to spot a temple to beauty, commerce, or greed.

Spot the frippet: temple. The religious meaning comes from the Latin temenos, which means a place cut off, from temnein, to cut; the part-of-a-loom meaning might come from the Latin templum, a small piece of timber; the part of the head is from the Latin tempus.

Sunday 17 March 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: wacky.

Apart from its perfectly respectable use in the classic Wacky Races:


using this word will only serve to make you look desperate and slightly pathetic.

No, really, it will.

If you wish to be wacky then that's terrific.  Go for it.

Wear the green wig.

Play those bagpipes in the butchers.

Swim in the lake in the shark suit.

But for heaven's sake do it for the fun of it, and not to try to make yourself look interesting.


Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: wacky. This word, meaning a fool or an eccentric, surfaced in the 1800s. It describes someone who behaves as though they've been whacked over the head.

Saturday 16 March 2013

Return to Sorrento (3rd class) by Spike Milligan.

Most jokes wear thin rather quickly, but some give joy for ever.
Spike Milligan's take on John Masefield's poem is short enough to quote in full, though it's not easy to find a definitive version as far as details of punctuation are concerned.

I suppose that's one of the features of a truly great poem: people have taken it to their hearts, and, believing this means they've got it by heart, they don't bother with looking it up before they write it down.
This, as far as I can tell, is how the glorious Return to Sorrento (3rd class) goes:
"I must go down to the sea again,
To the lonely sea and the sky;
I left my vest and socks there -
I wonder if they're dry."
I hope it gives you joy for ever, too.
Word To Use Today: vest. This word comes from the Old French vestir, to clothe, from the Latin vestis, which means clothing.
I suppose I should mention, before people start jumping up and down on me, that in the original Masefield poem the first line has seas, and not sea; though personally I can't see that it matters here one way or the other.

Friday 15 March 2013

Word To Use Today: agog.

Some words are elegant, some are charming, and some are just ridiculous.

Agog, meaning eager for something to be revealed, is neither elegant nor charming. In fact it's the sort of word that's hardly ever used for fear of ridicule.

This is a waste of an excellent word.

So next time a teacher or manager says do I have everyone's attention? Then please reply yes, we're all agog.

(Do everything you can not to make it sound sarcastic, though, or this will be less than soothing.)

Next time the poor Honorary Secretary has to read out the minutes of the last meeting, then a simple ooh, great, I'm quite agog, will offer support to the performer of a usually thankless task...

...though, again, this might be hard to carry off with conviction.

Hm...'s not easy, is it?

Perhaps, if we want to use the word agog, the safest thing is to describe the watching of YouTube clips of people walking into lamp posts.

Word To Use Today: agog. To me, because I associate it with the word goggles, this word implies a wide-eyed attention. In fact agog comes from the Old French en gogues. The en bit means in, and gogue means fun.

Thursday 14 March 2013

A real landmark: a rant.


I once wrote a small book telling the story of The Giant's Causeway (or Giants' Causeway? There were two giants, after all: the one who built it and the one who tore it to pieces) and I still like to keep an eye on developments there.
The latest development there is a £100 million golf course just up the coast.

As the Telegraph online reported on 27/2/13:
"Work...on Ulster's north coast is due to get under way later this year after a landmark ruling at the Northern Ireland High Court today."

A landmark ruling?

Okay, okay, I admit it: this isn't a rant at all.

Oh, but that turn of phrase did give me great joy.

Word to use today: causeway. This word comes from way plus cauci, which meant paved road, from the Mediaeval Latin calciātus, paved with limestone, from the Latin calx, limestone.

The Giant's Causeway is actually made out of basalt.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Nuts and Bolts: pleonasm.

Pleonasm is using more words than you need.


That's it.


I suppose I'd better shut up, then.

Word To Use Today: pleonasm. This word comes from the Latin pleonasmus, from the Greek pleonazein, to be redundant.

The word that reminded me of pleonasms was skordalia, the Greek dip. There was an ancient food called skorothalmi, but if skordalia doesn't come from that word then it may be from the Greek skordo, which means garlic, plus the Italian agliata, the Provençal aïoli or the Catalan allioli, all of which mean garlicky.

So, that means that skordalia is garlicky garlic.

Probably best avoided on hot dates, then.

Actually, it probably wouldn't be that good with most fruit.


Tuesday 12 March 2013

Thing To Do Today (or Possibly Not): thirl.

The heavy responsibility of writing The Word Den...

...oh, all right, not really. It's a blast. But even so, it's not easy to know whether I should be encouraging people to thirl things or not.

In its Scots meaning, to enslave, I certainly couldn't recommend it.

But then thirl means to bind, too, and that's fine you're trying to stop your haystack falling to pieces, you hair getting in your soup, or your bike being stolen.

Then there's the other thirl, which means to bore (as in make a hole). Again, I wouldn't want to suggest that anyone makes a hole in the bottom of a dam or a flour sack or a Ming vase; but if you want to hang up a picture or build a nest for a woodpecker then of course that's a fine and useful activity.

Best of all is the third thirl. This is the at heart same word as thrill.


Go for it!

Choose the highest flume, or the vindaloo, or the next bus that comes along.

Watch the late-night movie:

Or the big match:

rugby, sports, players, competition, rough, tackling

Go on. Give yourself a thirl.

Thing To Do Today: thirl. The word meaning to bind or enslave is connected with the Old English thrǣl, which means slave; the word meaning to drill comes from the Old English thyrelian, from thyrel, which means hole. Pleasingly, it's the same word as you find in nostril.

Monday 11 March 2013

Spot the frippet: ruff.

Fashion can still be gloriously silly, but at least we're not wearing ruffs at the moment.

So let's stop and give thanks. I mean, just think how difficult it would be to eat soup if you had to wear one of these:

round your neck.

And just think of all the ironing, too.

There are a few of us who so still wear ruffs to work:

but they are, though glorious, few.

Unless you're a, well, ruff:

though these ruffs only wear their ruffs in the spring to chat up the ladies. In any case, this is surely more pleasure than work.

A ruff can also be a trump (as in a card game); in Australia it can be either something unfair (especially an unfair trick) or an unfancied horse that wins; and there's also a fishy ruff, Acerina cernua.

I must admit that spotting this frippet is going to be far from easy. I can really only suggest a game of cards, or else a trip to a cathedral, a nature reserve, an art gallery, or a race track.

Or you could always go Australian and play a trick on someone. Challenging someone to a race and then shouting look, superman! before running like mad would probably, well, do the trick.

Spot the Frippet: ruff. The frill comes from ruffle (there are similar words meaning to crumple and to scratch); the card term comes from the French roffle, and probably from the Italian trionfa, which means trump. The fish and the Oz meanings come from rough.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: turbot.

I don't think I've ever eaten turbot, but there's something about the bot that makes me feel that if I did I'd be chewing my way through gears and springs.

As it happens, a turbot looks more like a ghost than a robot:

That's Scophthalmus maximus.

Turbot is one of those irritating words, like herb, which is pronounced differently depending upon where you say it. As noted above, a British turbot is a TERbot, whereas a USA one is a TERbo - and I definitely wouldn't want to eat a TERbo in case it fought back and chopped me into a million screaming pieces.

Well, they can grow up to a metre long, you know.

As if the fish sort of turbot weren't worrying enough, there are also two submarines and a war called turbot.

The war was about the illegal fishing of...

...Greenland halibut.

Ah well.

Word Not To Use Today: turbot. This word comes from the Old French tourbot, from the Mediaeval Latin turbō, which means spinning top.

Saturday 9 March 2013

Saturday Rave: The Book of Heroic Failures, by Stephen Pile.

It's hard to say what is the funniest book I've ever read, because humour comes in lots of shades and can be a source of silent delight as well as guffaws (actually, I don't think I've ever guffawed: that can only really be done by people with hair growing out of my ear holes).

Anyway, the book which I think has made me laugh the most is The Book Of Heroic Failures by Stephen Pile. My copy has cartoons by Bill Tidy.

It claims to be the Official Handbook of the Not Terribly Good Club of Great Britain.

The book is full, as one might expect, of people failing on a heroic scale. Like this example of someone picking the worst possible moment to pursue his chosen career path:

Mr David Goodall of Barnsley...set off in January 1979 to do a bit of shoplifting. He had hardly entered Barnsley's British Home Stores when he was simultaneously seized by eight pairs of hands. The shop was holding a conference of store detectives at the time.

The book is chock-full of brilliant stories; but, with writing as with shoplifting, it's all in the timing, and at this Stephen Pile is no sort of failure at all.

Word To Use Today: failure. This word has been in English since the 1200s. It comes from the Old French faillir, from the Latin fallere, to disappoint, and is probabaly something to do with the Greek phēlos, which means deceitful.

Friday 8 March 2013

Word To Use Today: tiktaalik.

Here's a pretty word to brighten up your day:


You say it TIKTARlick.

Tiktaaliks are sadly extinct, but tiktaalik is still a useful word because tiktaaliks are missing links - not the missing link between apes and man (which has pretty much been found now, anyway) but the missing link between water and land animals.

Tiktaaliks looked a bit like this:

The tiktaalik's full name was Tiktaalik roseae*.

Neil H Shubin, one of the people who discovered the fossil of the tiktaalik in Northern Canada, has called the tiktaalik a fishapod because it was a walking fish. It had gills and scales, but also lungs, a neck, and ribs. Just to mix things up even more, it had wrists, but fins on the end of them instead of toes.

The tiktaalik lived about 375 million years ago, but there are still plenty of missing links that need to be identified today: the link between the edible and the inedible, for instance.

In that case I should say the tiktaalik is pot noodle.

Word To Use Today: tiktaalik. This word is the Inuktitut for burbot.

*When I say was, I actually mean is: because of course there were no people around to know what the poor tiktaaliks called themselves at the time, and they may well have had quite different names amongst themselves, like Cynthia, or Algernon, or  Doris.

Thursday 7 March 2013

Just good friends: a rant.

Being a writer of children's literary fiction involves...

...well, having other sources of income, quite frankly.

For instance, I get about 6p every time one of my books is borrowed from a British library. I also get paid for school visits and for writing educational and popular children's fiction.

Then there's the other job teaching piano and recorder.

Lastly, there's the lovely ALCS, (Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society) which collects up all the tiny fees from things like photocopying for me. It's never a lot, but always very welcome.

The ALCS also produces an on-line magazine, ALCS Review. It interviews important and fascinating people, and is always worth a read.

I don't know the writer Katie Fforde, but she seems a lovely person. I know she helps new writers a lot.

Here she is in the February 2013 ALCS Review, talking about the joy of physical books:

“I treat my books as my friends. They are not to be revered. I want people to take my books into the bath and spill wine on them, and enjoy them. I think it’s a very sensual pleasure."

Hm...on the whole I'm not sure I'm going to be seeking out the lovely Katie to be a bosom buddy.

For one thing, I suspect there'd be quite a queue.

Word To Use Today: sensual. This word comes from the Late Latin word sensualis, from sēnsus, from senre, to feel.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Nuts and Bolts: mongrels.

If you ask someone if they're English, and they are, then ten to one they'll immediately qualify it by saying oh, but I've got an American/Egyptian/Angolan/Inuit grandfather/godmother/parrot.

Yes, the English are almost compulsively mongrel - and so, of course, is our language.

For instance:

the word hammock comes from the Taino word hamaka, from the Caribbean.

Yabber (meaning to talk) comes from Australia.

Jukebox comes from Africa.

Alcohol comes from Arabia.

Typhoon comes from China.

Jute comes from India.

Gingham comes from Malaya.

Tundra comes from the Arctic.

And chocolate comes from South America. (Hurray!)

And do I want the British Government to set up a committee to invent properly English words and exclude all the odd untidy borrowings from all over the place?

No, no, no!

Because being mongrel is serendipitous, joyous and terrific!

Word To Use Today: mongrel. This word isn't all that English, either. It comes from a Germanic language and probably originally meant mix.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Thing To Do Today: be a gricer.

Well, I expect you're a gricer anyway. It seems to be a natural instinct, like preferring not to sit with your back to the door and eating chips.

When I was very young, my gricing largely involved hoping that our train to London would be a steam train (yes, a gricer is a railway enthusiast) and that someone would forget to close the window before we got to the Watford tunnel. This last would result in our getting engulfed by acrid grey smoke, stung with burning cinders, and smeared with smuts.

Yes indeed, I did have an exceptionally dull childhood.

Anyway: is there anyone anywhere who can deny the romance of the train?

A gricer would probably already know that this locomotive was christened The Black Prince by the famous elephant portraitist David Shepherd**.


I thought not.

Diddle dee DEE, diddle dee DEE, diddle dee DEE...

Thing To Do Today: be a gricer. Electric trains aren't quite as glorious as steam trains, but even so they're surely* far more glamorous and magical than any other form of transport.

The word gricer, with the verb grice meaning to collect things or visit places connected with railways, arrived in English in the 1960s. It's said to be an imitation of the upper-class pronunciation of the word grouser, that is, a grouse-shooter.

*Note use of the word surely here to mean not surely at all.

**David Shepherd painted elephants: he wasn't, sadly, an elephant himself.

Monday 4 March 2013

Spot the frippet: manchester.

Of course the easiest way to spot manchester is to go, but even if you can't go there yourself then this is a nice satisfying thing which it would be madness to shun.

In any case, the first thing you saw when you woke this morning was some manchester.

No, not an alarm clock.

Nor your false teeth grinning at you mockingly from a glass.

Nor an impatient-to-play dog, spouse, or child.

No, Manchester, in the meaning invented by the Australians and New Zealanders, is household linen: sheets and towels and the like. Possibly the occasional pillowslip.

You know, those things that are hardly ever made of linen.

In NZ and Oz they even have manchester departments in stores where you buy, not this sort of thing:

but possibly this sort of thing:

A manchester is also one of these:

319 Manchester Terriers Exhibition
Manchester terrier in a barn by Edwin Loder.

the small versions of which were traditionally to be found in a pouch hung from a huntsman's belt, hence their other name, the Gentleman's Terrier.

Word To Use Today: manchester. Everything is named after the city in North West England. The city was named by the Romans Mamucium, which most people think was a version of the Celtic for breast-like hill, from mamm, breast, and ceaster, town.

Or the city's name could come from the Brythonic mamma, which means mother, where the mother was the godess of the River Madlock.

PS and NB I am not a Manchester United supporter (MILLWALL!) but I know some very nice people who are. Okay?

Sunday 3 March 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: capsule.

So, what would you put in a time capsule?

No, it's all right, don't bother to try to think of an answer. There's no point. Time capsules are always failures, anyway.

Let's face it, the only people who feel the need for a time capsule are those who know they aren't interesting enough to leave a worthwhile trace in any other form.

Would I cross the road to see the contents of a time capsule?

Yes, of course I would: but only out of politeness, and for the exercise.

Capsules, capsules...they're a good things in themselves, of course. They mean you don't have to taste your medicine. They also protect the ends of wine corks, some internal organs, and the crew of aeroplanes in an emergency. Capsules distribute the seeds of violets and poppies, and space capsules are bits of space ships that can go off and do their own thing.

A capsule wardrobe is a small selection of clothes assembled by a smug person, which can be dressed up in a thousand ways.

On the other hand, the capsule of a bacteria is probably the bit that makes you ill.

So, why not use this hugely versatile and important word?

Well, because it sounds way too much like cats' drool.


Word Not To Use Today: capsule. This comes from the Latin capsula, which means little box.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Saturday Rave: The Magic Tinderbox.

The Magic Tinderbox is one of Hans Christian Andersen's first stories. The critics hated it because it lacked morals.

In this they were wrong. The story is packed with morals: they're  just not ones of which the critics approve.

(I must say that on the whole my sympathies are with the critics on this point.)

Still, although the poor soldier who is the hero of the story is untrustworthy, murderous, selfish, and foolish, he does share the stage with some excellent monsters.

This story fascinated me as a child, and the thing that fascinated me most was, how did the dogs with eyes as big as tea-cups, dinner-plates, or windmills keep their eyes in? Basically, were the dogs gigantic, with normal-sized eyes for their bulk (in which case, how did they fit into the soldier's attic?) or were they of more or less normal size, but with huge eyes?

I suppose I should be much more concerned about all the innocent people the soldier destroys in his bid for money, power, and the girl; but I'm afraid it's still the eyes that worry me.

This story, called originally Fyrtøiet, was first published in 1835.

It's worth reading for the monsters, despite the dodgy morals.

Word To Use Today: tinder. This word has hardly changed for a thousand years. The Old English form was tynder, and there's a Norse word tundr and an Old High German word zuntara, which are related.

Friday 1 March 2013

Word To Use Today: rigadoon.

Some words, though gorgeous, are really hard to use in everyday life.

I mean, how likely are we ever to need the wonderful rigadoon?

A rigadoon is an old Provençal couple dance. The dictionary calls it light and graceful, and notes that it's in lively duple time.

Yes, rigadoons do tend to be quite lively. As a musician (piano and recorder teacher. Over twenty five years' experience. Good fun) my first reaction on seeing the word Rigadoon (or, more likely, Rigaudon) at the head a piece is to settle my metaphorical hat firmly on my head and prepare for a bit of a skip.

Here's one of the most famous rigadoons of them all:

And here's the actual dance:
Yes, it's all very charming, but how can we use it?
Well, how about:
The children skipped round each other, wild with joy, to the silent music of the great celestial rigadoon.
The autumn leaves [I do try not to be too Eurocentric on The Word Den] twisted and skittered along the ground, as lightly and gracefully as a rigadoon.
There you are. See? Anything joyful and graceful will do.
Or even something that isn't:
You try getting through Waterloo Station in the rush hour. It's no flipping rigadoon, you know.
Word To Use Today: rigadoon. This word arrived in English in the 1600s from France. It's said to be called after M Rigaud, the inventor of the dance.