This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 30 April 2013

Thing To Do Today: morph.

Are you pleased with yourself?



If you're not that pleased with yourself then there's good news: it is possible for you to morph a bit...

(no, I know that jaguars can't go dark at will, but individuals of a single species that exists in different forms are called morphs).

Time can do amazing things all by itself, for a start:

No, I think you probably do know those nice young men.*

And here's someone who regularly transforms himself quite triumphantly:

Tootsie 060609.jpg

Do I have to say that both those pictures are of Dustin Hoffman? The second one is him in the film Tootsie.

So, what do you really want to turn yourself into?

A rock god?

Ah. Really?

Oh dear. Well, that's a challenge. Well, at least looks and talent aren't actually compulsary...

...perhaps you could start by buying a guitar, learning to pay three chords (D, A and G are probably the easiest useful ones). And then hiring a hall.

electric guitar solo

Good luck!

Thing To Do Today: morph. This word comes from the Greek word morphē, which means shape.

*These are the shapes into which those nice boys, above, morphed.

Tragedy or triumph?

Monday 29 April 2013

Spot the frippet: sword.

I came across a St George's Day celebration recently. It mostly seemed to consist of children rampaging happily about trying to kill each other. Some of them had wooden swords bought specially for the purpose, and the rest had swords made of sticks they'd found in the woods.

And not a computer game in sight.

Well, given the chance to kill people in real life, what child would plump for virtual carnage?

For those of us too old to rampage about with swords, there are still swords to spot. The sword lily is another name for the gladiolus (which Latin word is also to do with swords) and is named for its sword-shaped leaves; then there are sword plants and sword fish

and swordbills

File:Sword-billed Hummingbird (Ensifera ensifera).jpg
Photo by Michael Woodruff

and swordtails.

File:Swordtail cultivar.JPG
Photo by Pharoah Hound.

But, sadly, none of these is native to Bitain, where I live.

So what can I do? Well, there's a faint chance of my seeing a sword dance:

and a slightly greater chance of seeing a sword-swallower. It's certainly not uncommon to see people crossing swords with each other - that is having an argument - or perhaps they'll be indulging in a bit of swordplay, instead, which is the same as crossing swords but where the argument is more about logic than ill-feeling.

The sword that's before us all, though, is the sword of Damocles. Damocles was an Ancient Greek idiot who so annoyed Dionysius II with his greasiness and general you're-so-lucky-to-be-king stuff that Dionysius offered to change places. Well, Damocles jumped at the chance - but above Damocles' head the king hung a sword held on a single horse hair, to show how dangerous is any position of power. Damocles soon got the point (not literally) and went back to happy obscurity.

Painting by Richard Westall, 1812.

Actually, come to think about it, I doubt Damocles was happy. He was plainly a natural whinger, and they seldom are.

Spot the frippet: sword. This word comes from the Old English sweord, as is related to the Saxon sverd.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: demiurge.

What's a demiurge?

Yes, it does sound like an inadequate quantity of something overcooked that's been dropped, scraped up off the floor, and then served in a dim cafe where ninety nine per cent of the customers have far too many legs and are walking up the walls.

That demi doesn't help, does it. I mean, it usually means half.

On the other hand demiurge also sounds a bit like a sort of weak temptation that you can resist really easily, like licking your finger to pick up the crumbs from those totally tasteless breadsticks.

But, as it happens, a demiurge is either the creator of the universe (who's sometimes the Supreme Being, but sometimes not) or an Ancient Greek magistrate.

I'm afraid the word gives us the even more frankly revolting demiurgeous and demiurgic.

The only thing going for these horrid words is that no one has even the slightest intention of using them.

Word Not To Use Today: demiurge. This word comes from the Greek dēmiourgos, which means skilled workman, from dēmos, people, and ergon, work.

Saturday 27 April 2013

Saturday Rave: a literary hole.

Today, as I'm sure you'll know, is World Tapir Day.

I thought I'd celebrate this auspicious occasion by featuring a literary gem featuring tapirs...

...except that I couldn't find one.

Not one single masterpiece that gives the lovely tapir:

 so much as a mention.

But then at the last minute I came across this creation story from the Bribri people of central America.

It's strange and sad, but does give us yet another reason for loving and respecting tapirs.

Sibú, the Creator God, was thinking about how to create the earth. His sister Tapir had a daughter Iriria. Sibú thought he would send a vampire bat down to where the sun rises to bite Tapir's daughter and find out whether she could become the earth. So the vampire bat went down and bit Tapir's daughter. When the bat came back to where Sibú was resting in his hammock, and vines and bushes began to grow from Sibú's excrement, so Sibú saw that his idea would work. Now, Iriria's grandmother was Bikakra, who was in charge of the chocolate ceremony. Sibú needed Bikakra to come and bring the Tapir's daughter to him, so that he could change her into the earth.

Sibú went to Bikakra and invited her to celebrate a festival. He invited everyone, including the mother and grandmother of the tapir girl.

Sibú wanted to dance the Sorbón dance at this festival and so he invited all the devils, too.

Before the sun rose, Sibú prepared the banquet, the tables, and the festival, and called everyone to dance the Sorbón. When the Sorbón dance began, Tapir and her daughter got up to dance and her mother gave out chocolate. They danced one dance, two dances, three dances, but during the fourth dance young Iriria fell and her blood spilled across the floor. And all the devils who were dancing the Sorbón trampled Tapir's daughter until her body became pure earth.

Then Mother Tapir began to cry:

"How my brother has betrayed me! If you had told me what was going to happen I would never have come."

And from that day on, the Bribris consider the tapir a sacred animal and never consume its flesh except during a special ritual.

There we are. I am a complete perissodactylaphile, myself, and am thrilled to know that the whole world grows from the body of a tapir.

But I would never consume a tapir's flesh.

Happy World Tapir Day!

Word To Use Today: tapir.  This word comes from the Tupi tapiira.

Friday 26 April 2013

Word To Use Today: prune.

Is calling someone a prune an insult or a term of affection?

My Collins dictionary says that in Britain a prune is a dull, uninteresting or foolish person; but surely when someone says hello old prune then all that's implied is a fond camaraderie.

Of course if the person addressed is a woman then, whatever is meant, it's likely to be met with a smack round the chops, for a female is likely to be sensitive to any reference to prunes.

Because prunes, it must be admitted, are not known for the freshness of their skins.  Prunes are not only wrinkled, but they are pitted both within and without.

I suppose that if you leave your plums on the tree until they shrivel you might end up in the delightful position of being able to prune your prunes - though sadly this is unlikely to happen in the USA, because there the use of prunes as a laxative has apparently rendered them so embarrassing that the word prune has been taken off packaging and replaced with the frankly dull dried plum.

Well, that just means there's all the more need for us to be brave and bold and to channel our inner PG Wodehouse so we can keep the word prune in circulation.

This is from The Go-Getter.

"Mark this, old prune," amended Freddie, "And mark it well. Beefers is tried, true and trusted. A man to be relied on..."

...Gertrude resumed her playing. Her mouth was set in an obstinate line.

I leave it to you to decide if it's worth the risk.

Because on the whole I think Freddie got off lightly.

Word To Use Today: prune. The fruit comes from the  Latin prūnum, which means plum. The verb comes from the Old French proignier, to clip, and is probably to do with provignier, to prune vines and the Latin propāgo, which means a cutting.


Thursday 25 April 2013

Shades of Grey: a rant.

I have been reliably informed that there is a school in England where the words blackboard and whiteboard have been banned.

A blackboard must be referred to at all times as a chalk board.

A white board has to be a pen board.

Why should this be?

Well, I can only imagine it's because the idiots in charge of the school imagine that black and white are rude words.

So, do we have to live in a world of albescent swans and leucodermous lilies?

Of fuliginous ravens and melanistic horses?

I do hope not...and anyway, perhaps that doesn't help.

A game of grey chess, anyone?


I thought not.

Word Not To Use Today: grey. This word comes from the Old English grǣg and is related to the Old High German grāo and the Old Norse grar.

By the way: I'm more or less the colour of cooked pastry, but calling me white will do fine.


Wednesday 24 April 2013

Nuts and Bolts: picong.

Picong is rude.

Now, anyone can be rude: the skill is to make it funny, too.

The other skill is to avoid getting clobbered while you're doing it.

To make things even trickier, the tradition is that in picong you're being rude to someone who's right there beside you on the stage - and holding a microphone so they can insult you back.

Let's face it, for the audience that's a lot of the fun.

Picong is a West Indian art form especially popular in the Eastern Caribbean. It's associated with calypso music, and the ability to entertain without starting a fight is highly prized, as indeed it should be.

What you're supposed to be doing is teasing, being satirical, or engaging in friendly insults. To music.

Here's a lovely example:


Thing To Do Today If You Dare Though Don't Blame Me If Someone Thumps You: picong. This Caribbean word originally meant a verbal duel in song. It was first used in the middle of the 1900s and comes from the Spanish picón mocking, from picar to pierce.

It has nothing to do with the region of the Philippines of the same name:

Though this Picong is still quite interesting because it was named Picong in 2006 after the Muslim Mindanao Autonomy Act. It used to be known as Sultan Gumander.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

Thing To Do Today: wrangle.

Quarrels tend to be short and sharp: wrangles take longer, because a wrangle will involve argument and probably even a bit of logic.

Sometimes, indeed, a wrangle is almost friendly: if you're wrangling you may use charm and possibly a little encouragement to get what you want. On the other hand you may just argue people into submission.

If you're in the American West or in Canada then a wrangler will be trying to persuade a whole herd of individuals to do as he says. Still, they'll all be horses or cattle, so argument won't have much to do with it.

A Senior Wrangler is someone who's been the top undergraduate in Mathemathics at the University of Cambridge. Jacob Bronowski and Lord Rayleigh are among them.

An ordinary (but obviously not that ordinary) wrangler can be someone who's got a First in Maths from Cambridge, or it can be an animal herder (especially someone who looks after the animals on a film set).

Now it's turned warmer here in England I'm going to have to start wrangling slugs: rounding them up and taking them a long way away, that is, not grooming them for show business.

And I can assure you that I won't be listening to a single word of argument from any of them.

Thing To Do Today: wrangle. This word comes from the Low German wrangeln, which is a frequentative of wrangen, to struggle.

Monday 22 April 2013

Spot the frippet: twin.

I'd intended to feature the glorious word twerp today, but find to my disappointment that, apart from the fact that it means ineffectual idiot and was first used in the 1920s, nothing is known about it.

So let's take a word from the same page: twin.

You can have twin people, of course, (and twin twerps)

 but in England at the moment it's much easier to see twin lambs:

Photo by Falcoholiker

 Some of our lambs are wearing plastic macs to protect them from the vicious weather we've been having - though I've yet to see a lamb in a twin set:

Twins are always born at the same time, but according to the twin paradox they are not always the same age. The theory of relativity says that if one twin stays on earth, and the other takes a long trip at very high speeds in a space ship, the travelled one will return to earth younger than his sibling.

Yes, I know: but then I suppose that's why it's called a paradox.

Almost anything that comes in a more-or-less identical pair can be a twin. I understand that there are such things as twin carburettors, for example, though I have only the haziest idea what they might be, or, indeed, why anyone should want one.

Twin beds, however, I've come across; and there are twin towns littered all over the place. I'm not entirely sure what is the point of them, either, but, hey, if they make people happy...

And finally, some good news: a twin bill is not, as an English person might expect, a request to pay for something twice, but a chance to see two films at a cinema in the USA. This one and this one, perhaps.

Spot the frippet: twin. This word comes from the Old English twinn and is related to the Old Norse tvinnr, which means double.

Sunday 21 April 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: rident.

Strident isn't a very nice word, but at least it means, well, strident.

Rident sounds even barer and harsher.

But what does it mean?

No, of course you don't know. That's because it's such a horrible word that no one uses it.


So...I'm wasting my time here, aren't I.

Ah well.

Word Not To Use Today: rident. Ludicrously, this word means laughing, smiling or gay (in the joyous sort of way).

I suppose it might be useful for describing a monster just before it delivers the coup de grâce, but that's about it.

The word comes from the Latin word rīdēre, which means to laugh.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Saturday Rave: Cuckoo Song.

I keep telling myself that if I keep writing about spring, glorious spring, then it'll eventually happen.

And, hey, it has. Sunshine, we've had, and even some warmth.

Here's the beginning of one of the oldest poems in Modern (ish) English.

Summer is y-comen in,
Loude sing, cuckoo!
Groweth seed and bloweth mead
And spring'th the woode now -
Sing cuckoo!

Though actually now I come to look at it,there is something slightly impatient about the injunction to the blasted bird to sing.

Perhaps the anonymous writer of this poem had been having an extra long winter, too.

Sing cuckoo, now! Sing, cuckoo!
Sing cuckoo! Sing cuckoo, now!

Not that I've heard a cuckoo, this year, yet. Personally I think they're all sitting wisely in Africa knitting themselves nice jerseys before they venture north.

Word To Use Today: cuckoo. Well, it's obvious where this word came from. Old French cuckoos go cucu, German ones go kuckkuck, and Greek ones kokkux.

Friday 19 April 2013

Word To Use Today: knave.

In Britain, a jack in a pack of cards is sometimes called the knave:

Knave is the older term. It used to be thought much politer than jack, and jack seems to have become common chiefly because the abbreviations for king (K) and knave (Kn) were too easy to confuse when the cards were fanned in the hand.

A knave is always male, and always a villain. The most famous knavish crime is this one:

Queen of Hearts.jpg

Yes, the Knave of Hearts, he stole the tarts. At the end of the story the knave swears he'll steal no more, but who believes that? The man's a knave, after all.

Knave is a glorious word that should have more outings. So, when a driver cuts you up, a brisk shout of you utter knave, you! Is gauranteed to ease the feelings.

Knave will give sterling service when shouting at referees, politicians, and dogs, too.

Of course, if someone really annoys us, then Kent in Shakespeare's King Lear has the last word to describe them:

“A knave; a rascal; an eater of broken meats; a
base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited,
hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave; a
lily-livered, action-taking knave, a whoreson,
glass-gazing, super-serviceable finical rogue;
one-trunk-inheriting slave; one that wouldst be a
bawd, in way of good service, and art nothing but
the composition of a knave, beggar, coward, pandar,
and the son and heir of a mongrel bitch...”   

I think that must cover it.

Word To Use Today: knave. This word comes from the Old English cnafa, and is related to the Old High German knabo, which means boy.


Thursday 18 April 2013

Temporary permanent: a rant.

Look, if you want me to buy your artificial flowers, as your sending of your catalogue suggests, then describing them as almost ephemeral only contradicts the main advantage of the things.

Anyway, how can anything be almost ephemeral?


Word To Use Today: ephemeral. This means lasting only a short time. The word comes from the Greek ephēmeros, lasting only a day, from hēmera, which means day.


Wednesday 17 April 2013

Nuts and Bolts: soramimi.

No, you must remember the Aero song.

One ton of Aero, da-dee-da
One ton of Aero...

Well, that's what it's always sounded like to me, in any case.

It can be difficult to make out the lyrics of a song when it's in your own language, but when a song's in a foreign language things can sometimes get very silly indeed.

That song is really about a girl from Guantanamo:

Guajira Guantanamera...

If the mishearing happens to a lyric in your own language it's called a mondegreen; but from one language to another it's called a soramimi.

I once had a long conversation on a train with a charming young Italian man called Beniamino who wanted to know why the commonest word in English songs wasn't in his dictionary. Everyone, he complained, sang of skirts. Luckily it was a fourteen hour journey, and so we finally did manage to get to the bottom of the problem (his English was about as good as my Italian) which centred on the ubiquity in English song of the word gonna.

Of course every pair of languages throws up the same problem. The Queen song Another One Bites The Dust is in Serbo-Croatian very like "a Radovan baca daske", or "and Radovan is throwing the planks".

And I must say that I personally am still very much intrigued by that happy though foolish young lady Sunny Lemon Tina in the old song Frère Jacques.

Thing To Own Up To Today: a soramimi. This word, 空耳, means mishearing or (feigned) deafness, or empty ear, in Japanese.

Tuesday 16 April 2013

Thing To Do Today: souse.

I don't know what herrings are like in their natural state, but I'm guessing their taste isn't usually much to be savoured, because otherwise why should herrings be so often soused? Sousing involves soaking the things in vinegar or brine, perhaps with the addition of cider, wine, tea, sugar, herbs, spices and chopped onion until they taste of...

...actually, sorry, I've never had the courage to try one.

I couldn't recommend being soused in vinegar (though vinegar is said to be a cure for verrucae) but a soak in salt water is supposed to be good for skin complaints and easing inflammation, so that can't do no harm.

Otherwise, someone who's described as soused may have been caught out in a sharp shower, but is much more likely to have been soaked in alcohol. From the inside outwards, naturally.

A sousing hawk is different, because it isn't wet at all: a sousing hawk one that's swooping down on its prey. This sort of sousing is, happily, quite easy: just keep an eye out for dropped coins, or visit a cut-price sale.

Word To Use Today. Souse as in soak comes from the Old French sous and is related to the Old High German sulza, which means brine.

The hawk type of souse may be connected in some way with the word source.

Monday 15 April 2013

Spot the frippet: tattoo.

Can you spot something you can't see?

I hope so, because so many tattoos are invisible.

tattoo can be any repeated tapping sound - rain falling on a tin roof, the sound of hurrying stilettos in a tunnel, or the beating of all but the biggest sort of drum.

Nowdays, by extension, a tattoo is often a military parade or entertainment, but they started off as a drum-signal for soldiers to get back to their quarters.

The whole point of the other sort of tattoo is, however, to be highly visible. It art of tattooing has been practised for...well, more or less for ever. Otzi the Iceman, who died about 3300 BC had 57 tattoos.

This is the mummified right arm of a Scythian chieftain from over 2,500 years ago. If you can get over the uuurrgghh factor it's actually rather beautiful.

This sort of tattoo has been used both as decoration, and as symbols of status, tribe, culture, religion, heritage, and age.

Tattoos have recently gone through a stage of being rather fashionable. Well, whatever turns you on. But I will just mention the experience of someone (not me) who had a neat posy tattoo. It was rather lovely, but unfortunately with age it gradually morphed into a hanging basket.

Spot the frippet: tattoo. The drum-beat meaning comes from the Dutch taptoe, from the command tap toe! meaning turn off the taps (of the beer barrels). The word for bodily marking comes from the Tahitian word tatau

Sunday 14 April 2013

Sunday Rest: moist.

I've been writing about horrible words for over two years, now, but I didn't know that the word moist attracts such opprobrium

Personally, I think that moist is a rather splendid word. It is perhaps rather hippo-like in the way it occupies its space on the page, but I'm surprised to find that 7,903 people have registered hating the word moist as an interest on Facebook.

I found that out here, in an article by Matthew J. X. Malady (who isn't, I would have said, in a position to throw stones about slightly unfortunate words, but, hey...) which I found via the Slate website.



Just reminds me of good soil and chocolate cake.

Ah well.

Word Not To Use Today If It Upsets You: moist. This word is related to the Latin mūcidus, which means musty, and mūcus, which, I'm afraid, means mucus.

But then you can't blame a word for its great aunts, can you.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Saturday Rave: Spring by Gerard Manley Hopkins

Nothing is so beautiful as Spring         

We're nearly half way through April, so surely this must be spring (or Spring, as Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it).

That's if you happen to live in the northern hemisphere, naturally.

When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

Though I can't say it's been much like that so far.
Gerard Manley Hopkins was a Jesuit priest who was very afraid that writing poetry was sinful. He used a way of arranging his poetry so that instead of walking along in regular steps it uses the rhythm of the words to create a pressure which pushes it forward.
Hardly anyone ever saw his poetry. He did get a commission to write one poem, but it didn't get published.
He died at the age of forty four, and his reputation as a poet was made after his death when his friend Robert Bridges arranged for the publication of those of his works which hadn't been consigned to the bonfire.
What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

It makes what we have of his work all the more precious.
Word To Use Today: spring. This word comes from the Old English springan and is related to the  Sanskrit sprhayati, which means he desires, and the Old Slavonic pragu which means grasshopper.

Friday 12 April 2013

Word To Use Today: empester.

What's the difference between empester and pester?

Well, more or less everything, really.

It's a great word, too. I must allow that empester doesn't seem to have been used since 1611, but that doesn't mean it isn't a jolly fine thing deserving of resurrection.

And what does it mean?

Well, firstly, it means to hobble a horse while it's feeding, which I must admit is likely to be of very limited use to most of us...although, come to think about would be nice to be able to have a picnic, but we're not allowed.  School lunches are taken empestered in the dining hall.

Or: lunch in a pub? Ha! Chance would be a fine thing, I'm always empestered: chained to my desk, I am.

The other meaning of empestered means entangled, which I'm afraid few of us avoid for long:

Sorry, can't talk now, I'm empestered in the rush hour.

I have tried using a skipping rope, but I always get empestered.

Can't stop, the dog's pulled the colander off the work surface and he's all empestered with spaghetti.

So even though the last example of the use of the word empester in the Oxford English Dictionary is over four hundred years old, I can't imagine how on earth we've managed without it.

Word To Use Today: empester. This word comes from the French empestre, from the Latin in- which means, er, in, plus pastōrum, which is a tether for a horse, from pasci, to feed.

Thursday 11 April 2013

Relevant facts: a rant.

I had to change the dates when I was doing my children's version of Gulliver's Travels.

(No, believe me, the original Gulliver's Travels is a very grown up book indeed. Jonathan Swift has a history of being very fond of little girls, but he didn't write books for them.)

The original goes like this:

I began this desperate voyage on February 15, 1714/15, at nine o'clock in the morning.

The date in my new version was simplified to the frankly dull February 15, 1715.

Why does Swift date his adventure 1714/15? Well, the calendar year used to begin on March 25th (so that March 24th 1714 was immediately followed by March 25th 1715). Then it was decided it would make more sense to start the year on January 1st instead. In the period while one system was giving way to the other it was thus necessary to make it absolutely clear which year was intended when writing dates between January 1st and March 25th. Hence 1714/15.

Yes, my publishers said, we will be having footnotes. But the stuff about the dates isn't relevant to the children.

Relevant? Relevant??


Of course it's relevant. What piece of information can be more all-pervadingly relevant to everyone than that so many of the pillars of our existence, even our measures of Time Itself, are entirely arbitrary?

Anyway, blow all that, it's really interesting.


Deep breath....


Well, it was good to get that off my chest. Perhaps I'll start feeling a bit better, now.

Word To Use Today: date. This word comes from an Old French word, and originally from the Latin phrase epistula data Romae, which means letter handed over at Rome.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

Nuts and Bolts: boustrophedon

Boustrophedon is the easiest writing in the world:


Or that's the idea, anyway.

A picture is, they say, worth a thousand words. (Actually, my estimate of the value of the illustration above is about 153 words, but, hey, it gives you the idea of how boustrophedon text works.)

Which, as far I'm concerned, isn't very well at all. I can read it, and can skip merrily over the right-way-round lines; but the alternating mirror-image lines are like trudging through mud.

This is entirely appropriate, because the word boustrophedon is to do with the path of an ox as he ploughs a field.

The idea behind boustrophedon text is that it's quick to read because the eyes have to cover the smallest amount of ground. But as the system, invented by the Hittites, died out during Ancient Greek times:


 it seems that the human mind soon found that having all the letters the same way round was much easier.

Nowadays the term is sometimes used in America for numbering sections of towns, and in the UK for describing a rather eccentric house-numbering systems.

What the numbering system of my own street is called, where No 1 is opposite No 2, but No 55 is opposite No 22, I , however, do not know.

Nothing polite, probably.

In art history, confusingly, boustrophedon means that you read a series of pictures from the bottom left.

Writing System To Be Glad You're Not Having To Use Today: boustrophedon. This word comes from the Greek words bous, which means ox and strephein, to turn.

Many thanks to Roger Prue for persuading this computer to paste the first example of boustrophedon writing into this window. You wouldn't believe how long it took.


Tuesday 9 April 2013

Thing To Do Today: be portly.

Easter can't help but have an effect on the figure: all that chocolate, all that roasted food, all that staying in watching old films because the east wind has reduced the temperature to something on the blue side of freezing. 

So, as we're going to be occupying more space than previously, then I can only suggest we be portly.

Portly has a nice dignified ring to it, after all. Portly is impressive. Portly is comfortable in its own roomy skin.

Portly is unapologetic. Portly proudly follows its own paunch into the most glittering of social occasions.

Portly is cheerful and unthreatening.

So, if we can't be slim, then let's not be blubbery, gross, or fat.


Let's be portly.

Thing To Do Today If You Can't Be Slim: be portly. This word come into being in the 1500s and is basically the same word as is found in deportment. It used to mean stately or impressive, and still does have something of that ring about it. It comes from the Old French porter, to carry, from the Latin portāre.

Monday 8 April 2013

Spot the frippet: soutache.

We're only just emerging from the bleak mid spring in England at the moment - snow has fallen snow on snow, snow on snow, and the flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la, have spent far too much of the time, I'm afraid, buried - so here's something utterly trivial to divert us.


is soutache.

The decoration on this bit of curtain is, too.

And so the stuff round the bottom of this skirt, and on the sleeves:

If you should look out of your window and fail to see a lady in a crinoline then perhaps one of these:

Unidentified Confederate Captain

might come marching by.

(Actually, that's a confederate captain, so on the whole perhaps let's hope not. Lovely sleeves, though.)

Nowadays soutache is used to make some gloriously peachy jewellery:

Allegro Appassionato by Anneta Valious

Which is only to be expected, because it's an absolute peach of a word.

Spot the frippet: soutache. This word came to English from French, but it's one of the rare English words that originated in Hungary. It comes from sujtas.

As for spotting some soutache, I should think the best bet might be a bridal shop, a milliner's, a brass band, or a passing-out parade in Ruritania.

If none of these is possible, then soutache should to be found in any good shop selling sewing supplies.

Sunday 7 April 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: drupe.

I must admit that it doesn't help that drupe sounds the same as droop, but the main reason why this word should never be used outside a laboratory is that it's a truly dismal way to describe something as luscious as a peach, plum or cherry.

photo by Teodoro S Gruhl.

I suppose it could be worse, though - and in fact sometimes it is. Some poor fruits, such as blackberries and raspberries, are known scientifically as drupelets.

On the other hand, the walnut is a drupacious nut.

File:A walnut fruit unopened.jpg
Photo by Andrew McMillan

And you know something? I feel quite sure that now I'm aware of that then every walnut I eat will taste all the nuttier.

Word Not To Use Today: drupe. This word comes from the Latin druppa, which means wrinkled overripe olive.

And, hey, you know something? I think I used to know her.

Saturday 6 April 2013

Saturday Rave: Orlando by Virginia Woolf.

I did Virginia Woolf (To The Lighthouse) for 'A' level; and she, in her turn, very nearly did for me.

I was totally baffled.

I've tried Virginia Woolf again at intervals of about a decade, hoping it might begin to make - not sense, exactly, that isn't to be expected - sparks in one or two synapses of my brain, which might lead in turn to some sort of understanding.

And what did I find?

No idea. Haven't a clue. I might as well have been reading Swahili. Or HTML.

Anyway, enough history. Last week I had a go at Orlando, and it was great fun. Orlando is full of sumptuousness and silliness (as well as quite a lot of stuff about Time Itself and the male/female thing) as well as glimpses of notable historical personages.

It was written for the fun of it, and as a sort of tribute to Virginia Woolf's much admired friend Vita Sackville West. As such, Orlando is a bit like reading someone else's fan fiction: but it's worth it for the splendour, breathless excitement, and extraordinary generosity of style.

The poet then gave Orlando the full story of his health for the last ten years or so...He had had the palsy, the ague, the dropsy, and three sorts of fever in succession, added to which he had an enlarged heart, a great spleen, and a diseased liver. But, above all...

But such is the strangeness and joy of Orlando, that the said poet lives on triumphantly for several hundred years.

Word To Use Today: dropsy. Not a habit of dropping things, but water retention in the body. It can also mean a tip or a bribe. It's a shortened form of ydropesie, originally from the Greek hudōr, which means water.