This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 31 May 2013

Word To Use Today: flummery.

Well, here's a lovely, gallumphing sort of a word.


Okay, basically flummery is cold porridge that's been allowed to go off (in the US I understand you say allowed to spoil); but only in a good way.

Or so they say.

For a classic flummery you need:

500g fine oatmeal, 1 litre water, 1 litre buttermilk, salt to taste.

Heat the water and buttermilk to body temperature, then pour it over the oatmeal, cover, and leave in a warm spot to ferment.

After three days (when the liquid will be sour) strain the mixture through muslin and discard the oats. Transfer the liquid to a large pan and bring to a boil. Continue cooking, stirring all the while, until the mixture thickens almost to the point of being solid and then season with salt.

Ladle into bowls, allow to cool until completely cold, pour over hot milk, and then - this is the problematic bit for me - I'm afraid you have to eat it.  


Still, never mind, there are other sorts of flummery. Flummery can be nonsense that's used to something to make something seem more important or interesting than it actually is.

Lastly, and most lovably, flummery can also mean harmless flattery. And even those who don't fancy a bowl of cold rancid porridge are bound to enjoy a little of that.

Word To Use Today: flummery. This word comes, like the recipe, from Wales. It's an English approximation of llymru.

Thursday 30 May 2013

Every Little Helps.

They're out to get you.

Yes, there is now a Bad Grammar Award. It seems to have been started by Tom Hodgkinson.

Here's a passage from Toby Young's article about it in The Spectator of 11th May 2013.

"Another contender for the main prize was the text of a recent Tesco ad: ‘Enjoy the taste of England. Working with local producers to bring you a wider range of seasonal locally sourced products. Every little helps.’

The judges felt that ‘Enjoy the taste of England’ was just about acceptable, but thought the second sentence should have a comma after ‘seasonal’ and ‘locally sourced’ should be hyphenated to make it clear that ‘sourced’ is what is being qualified by the adverb ‘locally’. ‘Every little helps’, while a common phrase, is incorrect because ‘little’ is not a noun."

Okay then. Well, let's start from the beginning. 

Grammar is an attempt to analyse one aspect of the joyous thing we call language.

Very often (but not always), the purpose of language is to communicate an idea or fact.

If efficiently-communicating language fails to fit the rules of grammar, then who's to say it's the fault of the language, and not of the grammatical rules?

Well, the answer to that question is the people who think the grammatical rules are both right and sacrosanct. Unfortunately they are likely to be the people who run the world, or think they run the world, or think they ought to run the world.

Every little helps is a proverbial phrase that's been used for generations, and...

...oh, for heaven's sake!

Just invent some new rules!


Word To Use Today: little. This word comes from the Old English lȳtel and is related to lȳr, few, and the Old High German luzzil.

Wednesday 29 May 2013

Nuts and Bolts: on the double.

Is it possible to make a list of twenty six words, each one  containing a different doubled letter of the alphabet?

(It was the lovely word screwworm that started me wondering.)

Well, let's see:

Aardvark, bobble, tobacco, waddle, dweeb, faff, gaggle, withhold, skiing, j (hm, I'll have to research that one) bookkeeping, loll, mummer, cunning, loon, popper, q (something Arabic?), barrage, rattle, vacuum, screwworm, x (someone must have made one up at some point, surely) y (um....), huzzah!

So, how about j, q, x and y? Well, apparently English has avijjā, huqqa and cubbyyew.

Avijjā is a Buddhist term for ignorance; a huqqa is an alternative spelling for a hookah; and a cubbyyew is a large sea fish, Elacate canada.

As far as I can discover from Those Who Know, though, there's no genuine double x word in English. Which is sad.

Never mind. I send this list to you with all best wishes, anyway,



Tuesday 28 May 2013

Thing To Do Today: clamber.

There are those who climb every mountain, but for the majority of us the most we ever do is have a bit of a clamber.

And what's wrong with that? For most of the time the top of a mountain is a much too windy, cold, and dangerous place for us to want to be.

Clambering may not be elegant or dignified, but it's good enough to get us somewhere that's free from the risk of flooding.

Clambering is the way a baby finds himself a nice comfy lap to sit on.

Clambering is the way to get to the very best rock pools.

Clambering is what you do when you can see the car, but reaching to it via the footpath is going to take you another twenty minutes.

It may not be athletic, it may not be pretty, but, oh, but the triumph of getting there in the end.

Thing To Do Today: clamber. This word has been around in English since the 1400s and is probably a version of the word climb, which is in turn related to the Old High German climban, which means to clamber.

This means, oh so neatly, that the meaning of clamber has been clambering around in a very slow circle.

There's an old meaning of clamber which means to cluster together, and this word may from the German klammer, which means to clutch or seize with claws.

That's quite a lot to do with our usual sort of clambering, too.

Monday 27 May 2013

Spot the frippet: roller.

There's been a bit of excitement round here over the last day or two: a roller has turned up in Hampshire. (That's the English Hampshire.)

No, not one of these:

or one of these:

File:Fowler Steam roller sn 15981 of 1923.JPG
Photo by Bulldozer D11

or even one of these:

File:Paint roller 3.jpg
Photo by Erik bij de Vaate


One of these:

File:European Roller.JPG
Photo by Gouldingken

Rollers are quite unusual in England, so every bird-watcher who possibly can will be getting his skates on: 

File:The Childrens Museum of Indianapolis -Roller Skates.jpg
Photo by The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

and hoping the roller is still there when he (or she, but it's generally a he) arrives.

In short, their journey, dodging through the Bank Holiday traffic and hoping not to get news that the bird has flown, is bound to be a bit of a roller coaster.

Photo by Chris Hagerman from New Port Richey Fl US

Ah well. If they miss it, there's always a good chance of seeing a pigeon. One like this:

is a roller, too, so-called because it does acrobatics as it flies.

And in Australia a roller is a man who packs sheep fleeces.

But I doubt it'll be the same.

Spot the frippet: roller. This word comes from the Old French roler, from the Latin rotulus, little wheel.

Sunday 26 May 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: genteel.

This word, as anyone can hear, is made of jelly.

Belch-flavoured jelly, at that.

Now, I realise I'm wasting my time, here, because visitors to The Word Den are all people of exquisite taste who would never think of using such a completely disgusting word as genteel in the first place, but just in case some tin-eared interloper has got in* then I suppose I should point out that, unless you want to show the world that you are extremely old-fashioned, have no taste, and are a snob, the word can have no place in your vocabulary.

The wretched word has an offshoot, genteelism: but, like all sane people, I wish it didn't.

Word Not To Use Today: genteel. This word comes from the French gentil, which means well-born, from the Latin gentilis, belonging to the same family, from gens, which means race.

*No, it's all right, you're very welcome anyway.

Saturday 25 May 2013

Saturday Rave: Wit and Mirth by John Taylor.

John Taylor, in as much as he's remembered at all, is known as the Water Poet, but he was a working writer who wrote all sorts of stuff. I can't claim to have come across more than a handful of the jokes in his book Wit and Mirth, but some of them stand the test of time very well: in fact, some of them have been recycled endlessly to this day as new idiots come along for us to laugh at.

When Taylor's book came out in 1630 the people to laugh at were - but you'll soon see.

A nobleman (as he was riding) met with a yeoman of the country, to whom he said, 'My friend, I should know thee. I do remember that I have often seen thee.'

'My good lord,' said the countryman, 'I am one of your honour's good tenants, and my name is T.I.' 'I remember thee better now' (saith my lord) 'There were two brothers but one is dead. I pray, which of you does remain alive?'

And who would we be laughing at now?

Personally, I don't dare even make a suggestion.

Nobleman riding with a cheetah he has taken hunting by Rudolf Kleinpaul.

Word To Use Today: noble. This word comes from the Latin nōbilis, capable of being known, from noscere, to know.

By the way, I see that the nobleman met with the yeoman.

And I thought that met with was a new irritation...

Friday 24 May 2013

Word To Use Today: tissue.

I could tell you all sorts of things about the word tissue.

I could tell you that it's the word for the sheen on a narwhal's horn; I could tell you it's the term for the misty halo of light that you get round street lamps; I could tell you that it's the name for a cloud less than three hours old.

Unfortunately, if I did, I would be making up a tissue of lies...


So. Tissue. Mostly we sneeze into them (though the fact that we make the sound tissue when we do is a coincidence.)

So is the fact that tissues aren't made of tissue paper.

And what's the connection between tissue paper and tissue culture, which is to do with keeping parts of a living thing alive in a laboratory?

Well, not a lot is the answer to that question, but tissue culture   gives us tissue type, which tells us who can give bits of themselves (a kidney, for example) to whom successfully.

Lastly, there's the fabric sort of tissue, which is a fine gauzy cloth, originally threaded through with gold or silver. From this we get the name of the fabric-wrapped acrobatic display Aerial Tissue:

which is nearly as marvellous and extraordinary as the sheen on a narwhal's horn.

Word To Use Today: tissue. This word comes from the Old French tissu, from tistre, to weave, from the Latin texere.

Toilet Paper Roll Clip Art

Thursday 23 May 2013

Rising Damp: a rant.

I saw a headline not long ago inviting me to join Greenpeace, an organisation which is trying to stop the world getting warmer.

You see, if the world does get warmer then lots of the world's ice will melt.

The melt-water will flow down into the seas, which will rise and cause floods and annoyance to all and sundry.

This prospect is worrying to many people.

The Greenpeace headline said:



...but isn't that just what they're trying to prevent?

Word To Use Today: arctic. This word comes from the Greek arktos, which means bear.

Photo: Steve Hillebrand / USFWS

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Nuts and Bolts: three times lucky.

I was delighted to come across the word screwworm the other day.

It's not that I'm a lover of worms, especially, it's the double w that's so satisfying. It made me wonder if I could make a list of double-letter words for the whole alphabet.

Well, can you?

But how about words with triple letters?

Yes, there are some, although many triple-letter words, like yayyy and buzzz, are cheating, rather, and triple-letter scientific names don't quite count, as far as I'm concerned, as completely English.

Laparohysterosalpingooophorectomy is an obvious example of one of these.

But there are some really gorgeous triple-letter words, like jibbboom, freeer, frillless, and goddessship.

As if these weren't luxuries enough, there are even a couple of quadruple-letter words, though sadly both are slightly dodgy. There's brrrr, for one, and there's also eeeeve, which the Oxford English Dictionary gives as an early spelling for what we now call the 'i'iwi:

An 'i'iwi is a Hawaiian honeycreeper.

It eats nectar. In Hawaii.

What a life...

Word To Use Today: one with a triple letter in it. Hostessship might be the easiest, as in I'm going to think about my hostessship of our next party very carefully.

Or, if you're male, how about: what on earth is a jibbboom, anyway?

The word triple comes from the Latin word triplus, which means threefold.



Tuesday 21 May 2013

Thing To Do Today: pulsate.

If you have a pulse (and I hope you do) then your heart and arteries will be pulsating already, though the jellyfish amongst you will be making a more thorough whole-body job of it.

Music pulsates too, of course, and sometimes headaches.

The pulsations of the soft coral Heterxenia help to sweep food particles within reach. Rather charmingly, though, Heterxenia knock off the pulsating every afternoon for an hour's nap.

There's a sort of electricity called Direct Pulsating Current:

(My physics teacher would have gone bananas at that graph. Mark your axes, she would always say.*)

On the subject of electricity, if the atmosphere is electric then all sorts of things pulsate: a play may pulsate with tension; a room may pulsate with passion; and even the hills may seem to pulsate with menace.

Is it possible to pulsate with joy?

Hmmm...well, it has to be worth a try, doesn't it.

Thing To Do Today: pulsate. This word comes from the Latin pulsō, to strike repeatedly, from pellō, which means strike.

*That's axes as in the plural of axis, not as in wood chopper. Though marking your wood chopper is also a good idea if you're thinking of lending to someone.

Monday 20 May 2013

Spot the frippet: assassin.

Oh dear. I think I may be about to unleash worry, suspicion and possibly a bit of fear upon The Word Den's dear and cherished readers.

Ah well.

An assassin is a murderer, usually one that's been paid/inspired/instructed to do the job by someone else. I do hope you haven't got one of those about the place.

There are other assassins about, though, who do their dirty work with their tongues rather than with knives or bombs or guns. A dealer in character-assassination is to be found in every newspaper, and nearly every factory, office, church, and school.

They don't do much harm as long as everyone knows who they are.

Then there are assassin bugs. These aren't devices used by newspapers to gain access to celebrity secrets, but things like these:

File:Assassin bug on a green leaf with moisture beads.jpg

Assassin bugs are sweet little creatures who inject lethal saliva into their prey - sometimes animals larger than they are themselves - causing the animals' insides to turn to liquid. The assassin bug then sucks this liquid out.


The assassin fly hunts in the same way, but it has five eyes and a very dense moustache.


Suddenly all those acid-tongued character-assassins seem almost loveable.

Spot the frippet: assassin. This word comes from the Latin word assassīnus, from the Arabic Ḥashshāshīn, those who eat hashish.

The first assassins were members of a secret sect operating in Persia and Syria from the 1000s to the 1200s who murdered inconvenient people, usually Crusaders. The name Ḥashshāshīn was originally a contemporary insult which was more to do with the Assassins being a low-class rabble than actually taking drugs.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: spatula.

Spatula, sounding as it does like some particularly painful and disfiguring disease caused by foul living conditions, is something one would surely wish to avoid on all occasions, and most especially when preparing food.

(Sorry, I must pause here so I can give way to an intense shuddering aversion.)

I must admit that spatulas are useful things - indeed, presented with an wobbly fried egg it is hard to manage without one - but luckily they have a much less sinister name.
Cartoon spatula by purzen - A cartoonish spatula to turn burgers with.


And slice sounds nice.

Word Not To Use Today: spatula. This word comes from the Latin word spatha, which means a broad piece, from the Greek spathē, which means blade.

Saturday 18 May 2013

Saturday Rave: The Sharp Grey Sheep.

The trouble with the story of Cinderella, as I'm sure you're already aware, is that it doesn't have any sheep in it.

Well, the story of The Sharp Grey Sheep sorts out that problem.

The Sharp Grey Sheep is a lovely Scottish tale in which the wicked stepmother makes her beautiful step-daughter work as a shepherdess.

The plan is that the step-daughter will starve to death, but the clever sheep foils the plot, hurray!

As if that wasn't enough to make a thoroughly satisfying story, there's a stepmother's daughter who not only acts as a spy but she has a literal eye in the back of her head. 

Being a Cinderella story, there are some gorgeous golden boots (you need stout footwear on the Scottish hills) and a handsome prince to provide a prosperous ending.

So there we are: The Sharp Grey Sheep has all the elements of a perfectly popular story.

Except possibly for a car chase. And an albino monk.

And possibly a few more shades of grey.

Word To Use Today: sheep. This word has been English for a long time. The Old English form was sceap.

Friday 17 May 2013

Word To Use Today: whakapapa.

Whakapapa is a Māori word. It lists the descent of all living things from the gods to the present time. Since the gods made everything then even rocks possess whakapapa, and this means that whakapapa is also a way of organising everything everyone knows.

Amongst the Māori people whakapapa is an essential part of who they are: it has a role in everything from sports teams selection, to health records.

For the many English speakers who live far away from New Zealand, the word itself is far too full of delight for us not to grab it with glee.

We may already have genealogy and family tree, but how much sparkier and filled with fire-eaters, quacks, inventors and thespians does a whakapapa promise to be than either of those.

The dull and glue-like word genealogy promises only to be cluttered with antimacassar-knitting maiden aunts and someone who was once the mayor of East Grinstead; and a family tree is, equally obviously, going to be laden with nuts and fruits.

Being lucky enough to have been adopted, my ancestors are unknown; but given the choice of a whakapapa, a genealogy and a family tree I'll go for the whakapapa every single time.

Wouldn't you?

Word To Use Today: whakapapa. This word is Māori. It means base or foundation. You can pronounce it either hwakkapappa or fakkapappa.

Thursday 16 May 2013

The THE, a rant.

Look, I know that the phrase hoi polloi is Ancient Greek, and that the hoi means the, and I realise that saying the hoi polloi is technically saying the the masses, but I still maintain that someone who leaves out the the when using the phrase (as in 'eating peas with their forks upside down, like hoi polloi'), as some people have recently begun to do, only reveals them to have little understanding of the illogical glory that is the English language (the al in alkaline, for example, means the, and so does the la in lariat) -

- and to be Grade A pompous dorks, as well.

Just saying.

Phrase Not To Use Today: hoi polloi. The trouble with this phrase is that it implies that the great majority of the people are vulgar, ignorant, and probably unwashed. And that's not only untrue, but unkind, as well...

...except, apparently, in the USA, where hoi polloi seems to be coming to mean the elite.

Unfortunately this makes hoi polloi even less useful as a phrase, as now no one will know whether they're being insulted or flattered, and what's the point of that? 

Hoi polloi is Greek (οἱ πολλοί). It means the many, or the majority.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Bube


Bube, Bohobé, or Bube–Benga, is one of the languages spoken by the Bubi, who are a Bantu people who live on Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.
I first heard about Bube on the BBC TV Quiz programme QI, where it was said that the Bube language can't be spoken in the dark because it relies so much on gesture.
I can't find any other reference to this fact (if fact it be) anywhere else, so I can't guarantee that it's true.*
But Bube, which has around 40,000 speakers, is an extraordinary language whether it relies on gestures or not (and the fact that it's written in Latin characters suggests, I think, not).
For a start, the Bube word for the Bubi people wasn't Bubi until quite recently. The original Bube word for the Bubi people translates literally as people of the land who are among the living, and in Northern Bube this word is the utterly enchanting bombilicious.

In case you're wondering, the plural of bombilicious is...

And you know, I don't really think that anything could be more extraordinary than that.
Word To Use Today: Bube. This word probably comes from the word boobè, meaning male. The name was given to the Bubi by visitors to the island of Bioko. It may come from the greeting A boobe, oipodi, which means good morning, man

*But I must say it doesn't seem at all likely to me: isn't after dark the time when people really need to tell stories?


Tuesday 14 May 2013

Thing Not To Do Today: simper.

No, please don't do this.

A single simper can be enough to wreck a huge and passionate  relationship:

'What do you want Rhett?'
'I'll tell you, Scarlett O'Hara, if you'll take that Southern-belle simper off your face. Someday, I want you to say to me the words I heard you say to Ashley Wilkes. I love you Scarlett...'

Simpering is for the self-important, the pompous and the patronising. That is, utter, utter fools.

Really, it'll do you no good. A simperer reeks of falsity and self-centredness. You can suss out a simperer in a second.

If you're not blind, probably even faster.

 Thing Not To Do Today: simper. This word arrived in English in the 1500s. It's quite like the Middle Dutch zimperlijc, which means elegant, but there's a Danish dialect word simper which means affected or coy.

Monday 13 May 2013

Spot the frippet: flange.

Flange is one of the God-given words, like mollycoddle and scrummage, which it is impossible to contemplate without joy.


Flange: flange, flange, flange, flange!

Do you see what I mean?

The fact that a flange is in itself rather a dull thing doesn't matter. A flange is glorified by the fact that it's called, well, a flange.

Flanges are used mostly for strengthening things - perhaps to make a collar round a hole in some metal, or as part of a metal joist.

Where to see them?

Well, flange rails are nice and obvious, because trains generally run on them.

5223696320 ccd0e1b18e The Nine Toughest Railway Stations in Europe

A closet flange:

may have been doing sterling service in a small room of your house for years, so in simple justice it's probably time it was appreciated.

The extra bits at the toe and heel of these ski boots, which are used to fix them onto the skis, are called flanges, too.

Apart from that, flanging is part of the process of blocking a felt hat, and, since the word flange was used on the BBC TV series Not The Nine o'Clock News between 1979 and 1982:


 it's been the collective noun for a group of baboons.

Spot the frippet: flange. This word appeared in the 1600s. It's probably a variation of flaunche, which is a curved section at the side of a heraldic field, and before that from the French flanc, which means flank.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: pone.

Pone can either be maize bread, or it can be the player to the right of the dealer in a card game (or opposite him if it's a game for two).

Now, it may be possible to say the word pone without making it a cross between a honk and a whinge, but if it is I've yet to hear anyone do it.

No, no. No need to practise...

Word Not To Use Today: pone. The word meaning maize bread comes from from Powhatan (Algonquian) apan something baked, from apen she bakes.
The card-playing word comes from the  Late Latin pone, from Latin pōne, imperative form of pōnere, to place.

Saturday 11 May 2013

Daddy Fell Into The Pond by Alfred Noyes.

I was going to start off by saying that this poem isn't a masterpiece, but as it's been giving me joy for getting on for half a century I think that actually it must be.

We didn't have a gardener when I was little, and my daddy never fell into the pond. But this poem, as all the very best poems do, gave me a sense of possibility: not necessarily of my daddy actually falling in the pond, but that the world might yield comparable delights.

Daddy Fell Into The Pond
Alfred Noyes
Everyone grumbled. The sky was grey.
We had nothing to do and nothing to say.
We were nearing the end of a dismal day,
And there seemed to be nothing beyond,
Daddy fell into the pond!

And everyone's face grew merry and bright,
And Timothy danced for sheer delight.
"Give me the camera, quick, oh quick!
He's crawling out of the duckweed."

Then the gardener suddenly slapped his knee,
And doubled up, shaking silently,
And the ducks all quacked as if they were daft
And it sounded as if the old drake laughed.
O, there wasn't a thing that didn't respond
Daddy fell into the pond!
Word To Use Today: pond. This is a rather staid sort of a word, though redeemed by the ease with which it can be mis-typed pong.  It's been around since the 1200s, when it meant enclosure. It's related to the word pound.

Friday 10 May 2013

Word To Use Today: limivorous.

Something carnivorous eats meat, something insectivorous eats...

...but you know all that.

The only exception to the -vorous rule, as far as I know, is that some herbivorous humans (who tend, as you will have noticed, to call themselves vegetarians) eat...well, more or less everything, really.

Will steak be all right?

No, I'm a vegetarian, could I have some chicken?

Crab sandwich?

Not for me, thanks, I'm vegetarian. I'll have the prawn mayonnaise.

Which, of course makes them omnivorous, as well as hypocrites and extremely annoying.

Anyway, limivorous, anyone?

Well, it's one of those words to make us glad to be human.

Yes, someone limivorous feeds on...


I mean, lovely.

Still, it's a useful word for describing some invertebrates:


Earthworms by Petr Kratochvil
as well, of course, as certain journalists.

Word To Use Today: limivorous. This word comes from the Latin līmus, which means mud and vorāre to swallow up.

Thursday 9 May 2013

good to go: a rant

I've got WORD 2013 on my new laptop.

Yes, there are some uniquely irritating things about it, but on the whole I'd give it the thumbs-up.

I would have more confidence in the spell-check function, though, if, once a document has been processed, the blasted thing didn't come up with a message which says:

Spell check complete.
You're good to go.

Good to go?

Good to go????

Would the wretched program have told Shakespeare he was good to go after he'd just killed off just about everyone at the end of Hamlet?

Er...yes, it would, wouldn't it.

Oh, and I bet that would prompted some new last words for the Dane.

Mark this, Horatio: this tablet here,
This casement, this dead eye, this soulless pane:
It has my words, my very heart's depths, caught
And whispered to me thus: you're good to go... 

Ooh, there's nothing like a bit of blank verse to relieve the feelings, you know.

I feel better, now.

And I suppose Hamlet might have died just a bit happier, mightn't he.

Word To Use Today: good. This word has hardly changed in a millennium. The Old English version was gōd.
Good to go, though, is modern. It's fine in an informal context, but I really expect my computer to be more professional.

Wednesday 8 May 2013

Nuts and Bolts: exonyms.

Here's a dashing sort of a word: exonym.

Can't you smell the excitement, danger and strangeness of it?

I think it must be the exo that does it. As in exocet, exotic and exoskeleton.

(Exocet, as in the missile, doesn't actually have anything to do with the exo in the other words - rather sweetly, the missile is named  after Exocoetus volitans, aka the flying fish, but, hey, it still sounds really smart, doesn't it.)

So what's an exonym? Well, it's that increasingly rare thing, the version of a place name used only by foreigners. Londres, the French form of London, is an example.

Here in England the trend is for us to give up using exonyms. We've lost Peking, for instance, which we now call Beijung; Bombay, which has become Mumbai; and Cologne, which is increasingly becoming known as Köln.

We're sticking firmly with pronouncing the s at the end of Paris, though, because any Englishman pronouncing Paris in the French way will be despised by absolutely everyone.

I do not understand this.

But should we say Basel or Basle? Well, we used to say Basle, and now usually we say Basel. I do not understand this, either. As it happens, the French name for the town is Bâle, and the Romansh name is Basilea.

It's when the English go to Wales that things get really strange, though. I can see why the town of Yr Wyddgrug is usually called Mold by most English people; but surely there's no excuse for Abertawe's being called Swansea, and Mongomery Trefaldwyn.

Though, come to think about it, Swansea is a lovely name.

Word To Use Today Or Perhaps Not: an exonym. Munich's still used round here most of the time instead of Mönchen, and we still talk about Naples, Rome, Milan and Venice.

All places worth talking about.

Exonym comes from the Greek words for outside of and name.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

Thing To Do Today: intrigue.

Well, if you've got this far, then there's a good chance I already have.

Intrigued you, that is.

But then who could be other than permanently intrigued in a world where tadpoles, Shakespeare, and sherbert exist?

In a world of hair relaxer, butterflies and bar codes?

Of smoke, sewers, and snapdragons ?

If there is someone out there so block-headed that they can't be bothered to wonder about...well, about anything much, really...then they can always be involved in an intrigue, whether it's plot to get to sit next to the brainest person during the French test, or to convince someone that their business trip wasn't all about golf.

I suppose the deceitful but perennially fascinating cuckoo, who lays her eggs in other birds' nests, is carrying on an intriguing intrigue: but personally I'm nothing of a plotter, so for myself I'll stick with spending way too much time being intrigued by the rainbows on washing-up liquid bubbles.

bubbles by George Hodan-1352653879Bgb
Photo by George Hodan.

Thing to do today: be intrigued, or intrigue. This word comes from the Latin word intrīcāre, to entangle or perplex, from trīcae, which are trifles or perplexities.


Monday 6 May 2013

Spot the frippet: something Swiss.

So, what do we associate with Switzerland?

Cuckoo clocks, chocolate, cheese, watches, mountains...

...yodelling... accounts...

The trouble is, none of these things is called Swiss - and the other trouble is, things that are called Swiss tend not to have much to do with Switzerland.

A Swiss ball, for instance:

was invented by Aquilino Cosani, an Italian, and first used therapeutically by Mary Quinton, who was British.

Swiss chard? It comes from Sicily.

The Swiss cheese plant:

is a native of Southern Mexico.

The Swiss Re Tower:

30 St Mary Axe from Leadenhall Street.jpg

is in London; and the swiss roll:

Brazo gitano - cyclonebill.jpg

comes from somewhere in Central Europe, no one's sure quite where, except that it's definitely not Switzerland.

Then there's the Swiss Guard:

which is, of course, to be found in Rome.

It is with some relief that I turn to the Swiss army knife, which has been made in Ibach, Switzerland since 1891.

Before that they were made in Germany.

Spot the frippet: something Swiss. The word Swiss comes from Switzer, from the Alemannic Schwiizer, which means an inhabitant of Schwyz. Schwyz is possibly from the Old High German Suittes, perhaps from suedan to burn, referring to the clearing of an area of forest.

This Spot the Frippet easy for me because I have a worryingly rampant Swiss cheese plant on my landing. Otherwise, any good supermarket should provide numerous examples of Swiss manufacture.

Sunday 5 May 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: ubiquity.

This word tastes, as any perceptive person will be well aware, of the orange sheen of street lights on wet tarmac.

The one good thing about the word is that the alternative is ubiquitousness, which is obviously ridiculous as ubiquitousness tastes of the orange sheen of street lamps on wet tarmac that has millions of mosquitoes squashed into it.

Ubiquity is to do with existing everywhere, and one other good thing about the word is that, people having on the whole fairly good taste, ubiquitous isn't anything like ubiquitous.

And thank heavens for that.

Word Not To Use Today: ubiquity. This word comes from the Latin ubīque, which means everywhere.

Saturday 4 May 2013

Saturday Rave: The Priory School by Arthur Conan Doyle.

I could have chosen any of the Sherlock Holmes short stories to rave about, and so I've opened my collected works at random and this is the passage I've found:

The duke leaned back in his chair and stared with amazement at my friend.
"You seem to have powers that are hardly human," he said.

Riveting stuff, eh? It's page 691 in my 1928 copy of the collected short stories, which seems to have first belonged to a Mr Wilbee of Sarratt House. I can see why he wanted to stake his claim to the volume, because it must be one of the most tempting books to borrow or steal ever written.

Of course I can't tell you the story of The Priory School because that would spoil it, but I can reveal the very end. I want to do this because in all the gushing over the hawk-like unemotional Homes and his uncanny etc etc, the humour and warmth of the stories - and the man - tends to get overlooked.

"Thank you," he said, as he replaced the glass. "It is the second most interesting object that I have seen in the North."
"And the first?"
Homes folded up his cheque, and placed it carefully in his notebook. "I am a poor man," said he, as he patted it affectionately, and thrust it into the depths of his pocket.

Word to use today: cheque. Or check, if you live in the US. This word is the same as the check which means making sure. In England cheques over £50 are no longer guaranteed by the issuing bank, so they're more uncheques, really. The word comes originally from the Persian shāh, the king! as in the chess term.

Friday 3 May 2013

Word To Use Today: bunyip.

Bunyip, as must be clear to everyone, is far too enchanting a word to ignore.

So what does it mean?

Well, many Aboriginal Australians will say "devil" or "evil spirit" (and, let's face it, they should know). There are those, though, who talk of the bunyip as the creator of all the watery places in Australia. The bunyip is certainly associated with swamps and rivers.

By the 1850s, the word bunyip had proved so irresistible that it had grown a new meaning and had come to imply imposter, or pretender. As an extension of this, the Bunyip aristocracy were Australians who aspired to be thought refined and important.

As for the original bunyip, this what The Geelong Advertiser had to say about it in 1845:
"The Bunyip, then, is represented as uniting the characteristics of a bird and of an alligator. It has a head resembling an emu, with a long bill, at the extremity of which is a transverse projection on each side, with serrated edges like the bone of the stingray. Its body and legs partake of the nature of the alligator. The hind legs are remarkably thick and strong, and the fore legs are much longer, but still of great strength. The extremities are furnished with long claws, but...its usual method of killing its prey is by hugging it to death. When in the water it swims like a frog, and when on shore it walks on its hind legs with its head erect, in which position it measures twelve or thirteen feet in height."

This is far from a definitive description, though, because some people have said the bunyip is really a stray seal; some have said it's a memory of an extinct marsupial; some have said it's inspired by prehistoric fossils.

The bunyip has also been said to look like an enormous starfish, and to have a dog-like face, a horse-like tail, walrus-like tusks and a duck's bill.

Some have even associated it with the bunyip bird, or Australasian bittern, which bellows mysteriously in the breeding season:

File:Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus).jpg

Perhaps we'll never be sure what a bunyip looks like. There's a theory that the bunyip is so scary that people don't bother to stop to get a proper look at it, they just run screaming and then make stuff up afterwards.

All we can say is that if it's big and scary and wants people to think it's dead posh, then the chances are it's a bunyip.

Word To Use Today: bunyip. Perhaps it's most easily used in its sense of a humbug or a pretender. Bunyip comes from the Wemba-Wemba or Wergaia language of the Aboriginal people of South-Eastern Australia.






Thursday 2 May 2013

Turning the other cheek: a rant.

'It's the oldest and simplest joke of all: the pratfall. If in doubt, fall on your face.'

That's from The Radio Times (the oldest British television and radio listings magazine) 27/4 - 3/5/2013.

Well, it made me laugh.

I suppose doing a pratfall while falling on your face is just about possible: but it would involve pretzel-like contortions.

Pratfall is marked in my Collins dictionary as a USA and Canadian word meaning to fall on the buttocks. Nowadays it's quite commonly used and understood in Britain (though, obviously, not universally understood, see above).

Never mind, it's a lovely word, pratfall, and prat is nice, too. In Britain it usually means an idiot, a fool, or an incompetent, but the old meaning of buttock still lingers in the insult, even if the word prat is no longer used in strictly anatomical senses.

The best thing about the word prat is that it's a reasonably polite way of insulting your friends (though not, if they're listening, those in authority), and as such will always be in demand and is greatly to be cherished.

Word To Use Today: prat. This word first appeared in English in the 1500s, when it meant buttocks. No one knows where it came from before that.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Nuts and Bolts: doublets

No, not one of these:

Giovanni Battista Moroni. 1570
but the literary sort of doublet.

These are two words which come from the same root word, but have evolved differently over time.
Sometimes doublets are very similar, like chief and chef; sometimes they're startlingly different, like cow and beef (in this case the common root is so far back it's in a language no one knows much about any more, Proto Indo-European); sometimes the meanings of doublets are clearly linked, as in warden and guardian; and sometimes the meanings are so different no one would guess their common origins, like mister and Mistral - or, most pleasingly, as in the opposites guest and host.
I'll leave you with one final example of a doublet: as a language enthusiast my very, very favourite is grammar and glamour.

I do try to aim for just a bit of both.

Words To Use Today: a doublet. The word doublet comes from double, of course, which is from the Latin words duo, two, and plus.