This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 30 June 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: ingurgitate.

The good news is that, despite appearances, this word is nothing to do with eating stuff that's been regurgitated (and some of us do: baby pigeons, for instance).

No, ingurgitate means to eat greedily and in large quantity.

But even if you do know what ingurgitate means, regurgitate still casts a nasty and rather sticky shadow over the word.


Word Not To Use Today: ingurgitate. This word comes from the Latin word ingurgitāre, to flood, from gurges, abyss.

Even more yuk.

Saturday 29 June 2013

Saturday Rave: One, two, buckle my shoe, partly by Agatha Christie.

But One, Two, Buckle my Show is just a counting rhyme, you will say.

The thing's total nonsense.
One, two,
Buckle my shoe;
Three, four,
Open the door;
Five, six,
Pick up sticks;
Seven, eight,
Lay them straight:
Nine, ten,
A big, fat hen;
Eleven, twelve,
Dig and delve;
Thirteen, fourteen,
Maids a-courting;
Fifteen, sixteen,
Maids in the kitchen;
Seventeen, eighteen,
Maids a-waiting
Nineteen, twenty,
My plate's empty.

My family (except me) were firm believers in the poets-choose-words-just-because-they-rhyme school, I was going to say thought, but that's much to of opinion...and, really, in this case I'm afraid they were right.


Could the rhyme make sense?

Well, in a way it can, because my rave isn't about the rhyme at all, but really about Agatha Christie's plots. In Agatha Christie's 1940 novel One Two, Buckle my Shoe, she uses the rhyme as a basis for her story.

If you've ever wondered how on earth Agatha Christie came up with her intricate plots, well, this novel is full of clues as to the process - as well, of course, as clues to the mystery.

I can, naturally, say no more. But do keep the words of the song carefully in mind as you read.

Word To Use Today: buckle. This word comes to us from the Old French bocler, from the Latin buccula, a little cheek, which in this case refers to the cheek strap of a helmet, from bucca, cheek.

Friday 28 June 2013

Word To Use Today: epigone.

The classical scholars amongst you will have clocked epigone as a Greek word straight away. Aha, you'll say: that word, despite appearances, will be pronounced ePIgonEE.

On the other hand those of you who don't know your Aries from your Echo will probably come up with an uncertain EpiGOHN.

And those are the ones of you who'll be right.

In any case, ancient though epigones may be, they are still to be found all over the place.

An epigone is an inferior follower or imitator.

So, yes, that's right, most writers of fan fiction are epigones. And so are writers of sequels to Jane Austens novels (which doesn't necessarily make the sequels bad, though they usually are).

Far too many directors of thrillers since Alfred Hitchcock handed in his clapper board are epigones, too.

In fact, every time anyone says they don't make them like they used to, an epigone is bound to be involved.

Politicians; new 'improved' fizzy drinks; there's an epigone to annoy us every day.

Name and shame, I say. Name and shame.

Word To Use Today: epigone. This word is Greek. It comes from epigonos, which means one born after, from epigignesthai, to be born.

Thursday 27 June 2013

Personal and Private: a rant.

Email is wonderful.


It's necessary to bear in mind, though, that the title box of an email is of limited size.

This would surely have prevented a certain large and, one would have thought, media-savvy organisation from sending me something very dodgy indeed.

At least, it looked jolly dodgy.


it said.

I deleted it unread.

Word To Use Today: message. This word comes from the Latin missus, which is part of the word mittere, to send.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

Nuts and Bolts: RkReÜAÜG

No one needs RkReÜAÜG any more.
In most ways this is a good thing, because RkReÜAÜG is a law ordering that cattle must be checked for mad cow disease. We must all rejoice that these checks no longer required.

To make things even better, the removal of the word RkReÜAÜG from the list of official German words will save quite a lot of ink. (The full version of the word, Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz, is almost enough to empty an ink cartridge all by itself.)

The slightly sad thing about RkReÜAÜG's loss is that it was the longest official word (that is, one that appeared in official texts) in the German language.

German words that consist, as Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz does, of lots of words tacked together are called Bandwurmwörter - "tapeworm words", and, in theory, a German word made like this can go on forever.

The fondness of the German language for Bandwurmwörter does produce some oddities, but it's a good way of making new words because the results are usually easy to understand. The trouble is that they're often too long to use easily: even the German word for lorry - Lastkraftwagen - is usually said Lkw.

German-speaking people have a lot of fun with Bandwurmwörter. There's a game which begins with Donaudampfschiff - Danube steamship - the point of which is to see what can be done to make it even longer. The champion, so far as I know, is  Donaudampfschifffahrtselektrizitätenhauptbetriebswerkbauunterbeamtengesellschaft, or the Association for Subordinate Officials of the Head Office Management of the Danube Steamboat Electrical Services.

Yes, it's ridiculous. But, as I must point out, it's shorter than the English translation.

Word To Use Today: The longest word in the English language is of course the word smiles, because there's a mile between one end of it and the other.

It comes from the Middle High German smielen.


Tuesday 25 June 2013

Thing To Do Today: sporulate.

I realise that sporulating (that is, giving off spores) sounds an extremely difficult thing to do unless you're a mushroom, a moss, an alga, a protozoan, a bacterium or a fern:

 File:Tree Fern Spores.jpg
Photo of fern spores by Anca Mosoiu

but sporulate is such a splendidly nasty and vivid word that I really think we ought to try.

File:Agaricus bisporus spores SEM 3.jpg
Spores of the mushroom Agaricus bisporus. Dartmouth Electron Microscope Facility, Dartmouth College

How can we do it?

Well, given that only one in ten of the cells in a human body is actually, well, human, the rest being viruses or bacteria or fungi, then it turns out that sporulating isn't that difficult after, all.

All we have to do is sneeze.

Thing To Do Today: sporulate. This word comes from spore, of course, which comes from the Greek word speirein, which means to sow.

Monday 24 June 2013

Spot the frippet: bunting

File:Flags and Trees (7889846002).jpg

It's always been good stuff, has bunting. The word used to mean a coarse woollen fabric which was used, rather surprisingly, for sifting grain; but from about 1600, or so they say, this cloth began to be used for making flags for the Royal Navy. Bunts is still used as a name for a ship's communications officer.

A bunting is also a bag with a hood that you put a baby in to keep it warm. Now, naturally you wouldn't make one of those of coarse wool. No, that sort of bunting seems to be called after the bunting in the nursery rhyme Bye Baby Bunting.

And the connection?

Well, it seems to be to do with fat things.

The Old French bonnetin means good little thing, an obvious nickname for a baby. In Scotland the word buntin came to mean short and plump.

The word branched out to mean the wide middle part of a ship, or the baggy part of a fishing net, or to haul up the middle part of a sail to furl it...which perhaps gives us a connection with the flags, and one much more convincing to me than the idea that a loosely-woven cloth suitable for sifting grain would be used to make flags, which would need to be closely-woven so you could see what colour they were.

Lastly, buntings are birds. No one is quite sure where this word comes from, either, but they're quite plump little things, too:

File:Lark Bunting Image.jpg
Louis Agassiz Fuertes: Lark Bunting.

Just like Billy Bunter:

Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School

Spot the frippet: bunting.  No one is sure where this word came from, but perhaps from the Middle English bonting to sift, because of the use of the cloth in sifting grain, which in turn may be from the dodgy Latin bonitare, to make good. As far as the flags go there may be some connection with the German bunt and the Dutch bont, which both mean parti-coloured.

Sunday 23 June 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: faucet.

The trouble with the word faucet is that it goes on for far far too long.

It's the or-i vowel combination. It takes ages to turn the corner, as it were - and when you manage it all it does is make you sound like a backward donkey.

In England, a faucet is the contraption to let liquid out of a barrel, but in North America I understand that there are faucets all over the place - in fact, more or less everywhere that we in the Old World have taps.

File:Brass water tap.jpg
Photo Anita Martinz from Klagenfurt, Austria

I realise that it would be unreasonably difficult to avoid referring to these appliances altogether; but perhaps an effort might be made to keep the dratted word as brief as possible.

It's fun practising, anyway.




Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: faucet. This word comes from the Old French fausset, from the Provençal falset, from falsar, to bore.

Well, that's no surprise. The word goes on for so long that's exactly what it does.

Saturday 22 June 2013

Saturday Rave: The Seafarer.

I can make a true song, begins this poem, one of the oldest we have in English.

And what could there be more precious than that?

Þæt se beorn ne wat,
sefteadig secg, hwæt þa sume dreogað
þe þa wræclastas widost lecgað.

Blithe heart cannot know,
Through its happiness, what hardships they suffer
Who drive the foam-furrow furthest from land.

The seafarer looks back over a life of hardship - and of delight, too - and shares the wisdom he has gained.

The thing has a surging pace to make your heart sing: and then, like a man's strength, it falters.

there are not now kings,
nor Cæsars,
nor givers of gold
as once there were,
when they, the greatest, among themselves
performed valorous deeds,
and with a most lordly
majesty lived.

Being a true song, then the seafarer, near the end of his life, goes on to look steadily at his future.

The whole text, with a translation, can be found HERE.

Word To Use Today: fare. This word comes from the Old English faran, and it's related to the Old Norse fara, to travel, and the Greek poros, which means ford.

Friday 21 June 2013

Word To Use Today: gallipot.

Gallipot, or galipot means...well, what it means depends on which dictionary you consult. Collins says it's resin gathered from pine trees, especially Pinus pinaster, a tree of Southern Europe.

The OED, on the other hand, says a gallipot is a small glazed earthenware jar once used for holding ointment and medicine. 

This meaning has been extended to give us a nickname for the  pharmacist who makes the ointment.

On-line I found a reference to gallipot words, which are obscure words used to make the speaker look clever. (This means that the phrase gallipot words is autological, then.)

Oh dear...It seems that no one's agreed on what gallipot means, and it's far, far too charming a word to ignore. I think I shall go with the pharmacist meaning. But probably not when he's listening.

Word To Use Today: gallipot. The galli bit of this word probably comes from the sort of galley that's a ship, because that was how the medicines (and resin, I suppose) arrived. The phrase gallipot words comes from pharmacists' habit of using baffling Latin abbreviations when labelling their gallipots.

Thursday 20 June 2013

Hittiles: a rant.

May I just point out that it really is completely ludicrous that something that's designed for the sole purpose of hitting things:

File:Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missile launch.jpg
Sea sparrow surface-to-air.
should be called a MISSile?

Thank you.

File:HK Hennessy Road Wan Chai Honolulu Cafe Bakery 菠蘿包 Pineapple Bun.JPG
Some more missiles. Photo by Luluhenryc.

Word To Use Today Even Though It's Silly: missile. This word comes from the Latin word mittere, to send. This means that missile could easily have been a mittile, which would have been slightly less bonkers. Though, admittedly, slightly more dull.

Wednesday 19 June 2013

Nuts and Bolts: eggcorn.

Eggcorn is a term invented on a blog called Language Log in September 2003. Mark Liberman wrote an article about a woman who always called an acorn an eggcorn (which, although technically wrong, has a certain relevance and beauty about it) and Geoffrey Pullum suggested that eggcorn should be the term for this sort of wise mistake. 

An eggcorn is a bit like a pun, except that the speaker doesn't know he's making it. An eggcorn is also a bit like a malapropism, except that the result is interesting and wise.

I think we should embrace the eggcorn. I mean, I've never thought that language should be put on a pedastool, though I can't agree that there should be no holes barred, or that we should be able to give completely free range to our tongues. No, we do need to keep on the straight and arrow to a large extent, even though the nature of  communication is such that the lame man is bound to be affected by his ethnic routes, which have been travelled since we first acquired our posable thumbs, so that many changes are constantly being made and lots are now a fate accompli.

But what a joy it is, nevertheless, to imagine an ex-patriot watching a preying mantis as he pours his breakfast skimp milk.

Word To Use Today: eggcorn. This is a nice new word. Enjoy it!

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Thing To Do Today: tinker.

Do you know exactly what you're doing?


Well, the chances are that you'll be having a bit of a tinker, then.

Tinkering is rather a lovely thing. Faced with some intractable problem, like a steam iron with no obvious hole to put the water in (and I've had one of those for about ten years), then instead of becoming enraged and throwing the thing against the nearest wall while emitting howls of rage and despair, we keep calm and...


The best thing is that we can't fail at tinkering because no one really expects a tinker to achieve anything. Tinkering is much more about exploration and experiment than success.

If the thing you're tinkering with is a saucepan, then you'll be tinkering in two senses at once, because in times past a tinker was a mender of pots and pans.

Nowadays in Britain a tinker is often a mischievous child; though a tinkerman is a soccer manager who keeps changing the tactics and players in his team.

A tinker is also a sort of mackeral, but this is unlikely to have any relevance to readers of The Word Den because mackeral are notoriously averse to reading blogs: in fact the blasted things couldn't give a tinker's cuss for any of them.

Thing To Do Today: tinker. Tinkering is the father of invention, but please don't try doing it to a vehicle in which you are currently riding.

Nor with anything that's plugged in, switched on, or conected to a gas main.

The word tinker probably comes from tink, which is an imitation of the sound of someone mending a pot.

Monday 17 June 2013

Spot the frippet: boss.

Being a novelist means that I don't really have a boss.

That's good: there's no one to order me around, no one to tell me off, no one to come round every week with a pay packet...

...ah well.

It's not that much fun being an underling, but then it's not all roses being a boss, either. For instance, bosses can often be recognised because they have to wear more uncomfortable clothes than everyone else:

File:General Antonio Ricardos (1727-94.jpg
General Antonio Ricardos, by Goya.

Even non-human bosses tend to look different. A boss bird may sport the widest scarf in all the flock:

Photo of a Great Tit by Andreas Trepte

 or a boss mammal the biggest horns:

If you, like me, have no boss then you will still have a chance of spotting one. You find them on the ceilings of mediaeval buildings:

File:Ceiling boss in Malmesbury Abbey.jpg
Malmesbury Abbey. Photo by Greenshed.

and also in the middle of wheel hubs, or as part of a batholith:

If all those alternatives fail you, then a boss is also a calf or a cow. This means that in a bovine family everyone will consider they've got a right to be known as the boss.

Many human families are pretty much the same.

Spot the frippet: boss. The word meaning person-in-charge comes from the Dutch baas, master, and, pleasingly, is probably related to the Old High German basa, which means aunt. The word meaning knob comes from the Old French boce and is probably something to do with the Italian bozza, which means swelling; the word for cow probably comes from the Latin bōs, which means cow or ox.

Sunday 16 June 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: burin.

It's such a boring word, burin. But that's quite appropriate.

It's quite a blunt word, too (you say it BYOORin); and that isn't appropriate at all, for a burin is a chisel with a sharp point which is used for making gouges in metal or wood or marble.


Burin Square #1

You'd use a burin to do an engraving.

An engraver's individual style is called his burin, too, which is enough to put you off acquiring one, but there have been artists so dedicated they didn't let it put them off.

That's a Bewick swan, engraved by, who else, Thomas Bewick.


was engraved by Albrecht Durer (no one ever named a rhino after him, but this must have been something of a relief).

People have used burins for thousands of years. There are even prehistoric burins, which are quite like the modern ones, except made out of flint.

File:Burin Brassempouy 213.3 Profil.jpg
Photo by Didier Descouens.

One thing is almost certain, though: and that's that prehistoric man had a better name for the thing than burin.

Word Not To Use Today: burin. This word has come to us from France, and before that perhaps from Italy, and before that from some Germanic language. The Old High  German boro means auger, the Latin forāre means to pierce and the Greek pharos means ploughing.

Saturday 15 June 2013

Saturday Rave: The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D. by James Boswell.

Book anniversaries are always popping up, but one of the anniversaries being celebrated this year is an unusual, and possibly a unique, one.

Two hundred and fifty years ago this year, in a London bookshop, an aristocratic and fashionable young man-about-town met an unclean, unfashionable, and rather gruff writer of a dictionary - and, in a way, he fell in love.

The young man was neither very wise nor very good, but somehow (to the lasting irritation of many wiser and better people) he went on to write an original and superb biography of the dictionary-writer, who was called Dr Johnson.

Here's a taste of the book. This passage concerns Dame Oliver, who was Dr Johnson's first teacher in his home town of Lichfield.

When he [Dr Johnson] was going to Oxford, she came to take leave of him, brought him, in the simplicity of her kindness, a present of gingerbread, and said, he was the best scholar she ever had. He delighted in mentioning this early compliment: adding, with a smile, that 'this was as high a proof of his merit as he could conceive.'

And there, in an incident that anyone else but Boswell would have left out, is Lichfield in the 1700s, clear before us. And there also, behind the gruff exterior, is the warm heart of the man who, thanks to Boswell, is still held in great affection to this day.

Word To Use Today: dictionary. This word comes from the Latin word dictiōnārium, a collection of words, from dictiō, which means word.


Friday 14 June 2013

Word To Use Today: limicoline.

Limicoline is, obviously, much too lovely a word not to use at least once a week.

It means to do with shorebirds of the order Charadrii, which includes plovers:

File:MASKED LAPWING (8552521221).jpg
Photo by CUATROK77PHOTOS.  That's a masked plover, Vanellus miles


File:Pectoral Sandpiper Mendocino.jpg
That's a Pectoral sandpiper,Calidris melanotos. The photo is by Alan Vernon.


File:African Snipe mburo dec05.jpg
An African snipe, Gallinago nigripennis. Photo by Aviceda.


File:Oyster catcher aerobics.jpg
this one's doing aerobics. Photo by John Haslam.

and avocets:

File:Avocet 4416.jpg
Taiwanese avocets. (I think they're Recurvirostra avosetta.) Photo by Alnus.

Yes, you may say, but why should I wish to refer to any of those birds, lovely though they may be?

Well..., that's a good question, isn't it.

Er...well, just think of the fun of coming back from a trip away and telling your friends the place wasn't exceptionally limicoline.

I mean, you'd be bound to acquire a reputation as a genius in a single word.

And what more could anyone want than that?

Word To Use Today: limicoline. This word comes from the New Latin Limicolae, which use to be the name of the order Charadrii. It comes from the Latin words līmus, mud, and colere, to inhabit.

Thursday 13 June 2013

A little rantette.

Tesco, which is British supermarket, has sent me a special offer: sweetcorn cobbettes at fifty pence off.


But what on earth...actually, come to think about it, I think I know what a cobbette is. I think it's half a cob. Tesco sells sweetcorn like that.

I don't know why, but there it is.

But, you know something?  If I wanted to buy my cobs chopped in half, then discovering that they are called cobbettes would make me change my mind.

Because nothing that ends -ette is classy, cool, or covetable.

Caravanette, laundrette, cigarette, leatherette, maisonette...

Even brunette is faintly patronising, now I come to think about it.

Yes, okay, there are some useful words where the -ette doesn't imply dinky, such as casette, omelette, and silhouette, and there are a few where being small isn't necessarily a bad thing, as in marionette and silhouette, but on the whole -ette words are a poor sad bunch.

And if for some reason I should hanker after a half-sized cob, I shall take a cleaver to it.

As I suggest Tesco does to the word cobbette.

Word To Use Today: one that doesn't end in -ette!

PS Why on earth is there an extra b in it?

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Nuts and Bolts: 404.

A 404 is a stupid or ineffectual person.

The word 404 - if it is a word - comes from a World Wide Web error message: 404 not found.

There's probably a literary term for this kind of word - again, if it is a word - but unfortunately I have no idea what it is.

In my Collins Dictionary it comes between four-o'clock and four-part, which means that the dictionary indexes it as four-o-four. But I don't know if anyone ever writes it that way.
It was certainly written in numbers during the 2011 protests in Greece, where one of the most popular slogans was "Error 404: Democracy not found".

In Tunisia, censorship of the world wide web (hmmm, so it's not that world-wide, then, is it?) led to 404 messages becoming so common that Tunisian bloggers invented a character called Ammar to blame for all the nuisance.

In England, 404 can also mean utterly clueless.

And, having tried to write this post, I realise that describes me beautifully.

Word (if it is a word) to use today: 404. Or perhaps 747, which is a jumbo jet. Or 322, which is the bus that used to take us to town from my childhood home.

Or 2, which is a hair cut.

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Thing To Do Today, Possibly: be foxy.

There are so many ways to be a fox.

For a lady then mascara, a feather boa, and an inviting look is enough, but any person of any age or sex who's being cunning is being foxy

A time-traveller from several hundred years ago can be a fox simply by being drunk.

A barrel of beer (The Word Den does have some very odd readers)is foxed when it's gone sour; a fish is foxed when it's stupefied; a horse is foxed when it's had its ears trimmed; a book is foxed when its pages are marked with brown spots; and a shoe is foxed when it's had its uppers repaired, possibly with decorative strips of leather.

If you're not a barrel of beer, a fish, a horse, a book or a shoe, then you can always do an Australian fox, which will mean either to pursue someone stealthily, or to chase and retrieve a ball.

I think I'll go with the chasing-a-ball option, myself.

Thing To Do Today. Possibly: be foxy. This word has been the same for about a thousand years. It's related to the Sanskrit word puccha, which means tail.

Most of the fox terms are to do with a fox's cunning or its colour. The term for drunkenness is probably something to do with the colour of a drunkard's nose.

Monday 10 June 2013

Spot the frippet: sleuth.

I first came across this superbly slippery word in that great work Jennings Goes To School, when Jennings and his trusty friend Darbishire begin to write a detective story called Flixton Slick Super Sleuth.

Now, you may say that it's hard enough to spot an ordinary sleuth, let alone a super one, but, consider: there is almost certainly a spy satellite somewhere above your head; Google knew when it was my birthday; and even this computer, on which I now type, keeps trying to sell me things to match my outfit for my daughter's forthcoming wedding.

Apart from this sort of electronic sleuthing there are human sleuths behind almost every twitching curtain and garden fence. (It's all right, there's no need to worry: the chance of anyone spotting you doing anything even remotely interesting is vanishingly small.)

Spotting this frippet is actually even easier than that, because sleuth is a contranym - that is, a word that means itself as well as its own opposite. You see, sleuth is also a form of the word sloth. So, as well as meaning keen, dogged and bloodhound-like:

Pypaertv modyfikacja Pleple2000

sleuth also means lazy, slow, delaying and neglectful.

And, obviously, spotting that sort of behaviour won't cause anyone any trouble at all.

Spot the frippet: sleuth. The word meaning detective comes from the Old Norse slo, which means to track or trail. The word for laziness comes from the Old English sláw, which means slow or sloth.

Sunday 9 June 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: blackdamp.

If there's a word which has a greater air of despair, dirt and death than blackdamp then it's probably chokedamp; which is the same thing.

Blackdamp is a gas that's lethally low in oxygen and high in nitrogen and carbon dioxide. It's found in mines, especially after an explosion.

You can also find it (though I very much hope you don't) in ships' holds, tunnels and sewers.

The symptoms of blackdamp are very much like those of tiredness, but the effects can progress to unconsciousness and death in a matter of seconds.

Now I come to think about it, blackdamp, a nasty-sounding word for a horrible thing, is a superbly evocative piece of language.

But it's one we must all hope never to have to use, all the same.

Word Not To Use Today: blackdamp. Also called stythe, as well as chokedamp. The damp bit is believed to come from the German Dampf, which means vapours.

Saturday 8 June 2013

Saturday Rave: Brief Lives by John Aubrey.

Brief Lives is a book of anecdotes written by a dedicated gossip.

It has nothing to recommend it except its humour, liveliness and the gloriously varied view it gives us of people in high life.

Unfortunately John Aubrey was writing in the 1600s, so any celebrity value the book had has largely disappeared. But the book still abounds with excellent stories.

This Earl of Oxford, making of his low obeisance to Queen Elizabeth, happened to let a Fart, at which he was so abashed and ashamed that he went to travel, seven years. On his return the Queen welcomed him home, and said, My Lord, I had forgot the Fart.'

Ah well. The poor Earl's mishap seems to have given the queen a lot of joy, anyway.

And, thanks to John Aubrey, it's wafted delightfully down the centuries all the way to us, too.

Word Probably Not To Use Today: fart. This word may no longer be suitable for use in polite society, but it has been around for a long time. It comes from the Middle English farten and has very ancient roots going right back to the Sanskrit pardatē, which means he who breaks wind.

Friday 7 June 2013

Word To Use Today: bugle.

A bugle is a tube.

bugle brass

If you blow a raspberry down a tube it makes a noise. If you blow harder, it'll make a higher noise.

If you practise for long enough (and someone doesn't wrest your tube from you and jump up and down on it) then eventually you'll be able to play some tunes - but only some. You won't be able to make most of the notes you find on a piano unless you either make holes in the tube, or else you put in some valves so you can make the tube effectively longer or shorter at the press of a button.

And then it won't be a bugle any more.

Bugles used to be used for sending messages in battle. They were good for this because they have a wide bell at the end of the tube, which makes them good and loud for their size.

Here's a Roman bugle, but unfortunately its bell has been broken off.

I have rather a lot of bugles in my garden, but luckily this variety is unlikely to disturb the neighbours.

File:Ajuga reptans - Bugle rampante .JPG
photo by Patrice 78500

The scientists call this bugle Ajuga reptans.

Finally, bugles are beads, usually long glass ones, which are used to decorate fabric:


From war, to weeds, to party clothes.

Now there's word which really deserves a fanfare.

Word To Use Today: bugle. The musical instrument comes from the Latin word buculus, which means bullock, because the first ones were made of horns.
The weed comes from the Mediaeval Latin bugula, and the word for bead turned up in the 1500s. No one is sure where these words came from before that.

Thursday 6 June 2013

When wasn't isn't: a rant.

So why does I can't help wondering if it wasn't an accident nearly always means I can't help wondering if it was an accident?

Well, don't just sit there: tell me!


You mean you don't know either?

Ah well... may be illogical, but I suppose we manage, on the whole.

Word To Use Today: was. It may seem a bit unreasonable that the past tense of is turns out to be was, but actually was is the one that's been most consistent. It comes from the Old English wesan, to be.

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Nuts and Bolts: philippic.

'Mrs Ferrars looked exceedingly angry, and drawing herself up more stiffly than ever, pronounced in retort this bitter philippic, "Miss Morton is Lord Morton's daughter." '

I first read Sense and Sensibility more than thirty five years ago, and I've been wondering what a philippic is ever since.

Bitter philippic is such a lovely expression. You can taste the spite of it.

But who was Philip, and why was he so cross?

Well, Philip was Philip of Macedon, who was the father of Alexander the Great. Philip was rather a nasty piece of work, and certainly not the sort of guy to go around bestowing his name to figures of speech.

No, the originator of the philippic was a Greek called  Demosthenes.

Demosthenes' philippics were speeches warning everyone that Philip of Macedon:

Filip II Macedonia.jpg

 was an untrustworthy rotter.

Later, the Roman Cicero used the same format to warn people about Mark Anthony.

History tells us that giving philippics is not at all a healthy thing. Cicero was killed for his, and Demosthenes, although left alone by Philip, committed suicide before Philip's irritated army could get hold of him.

There we are. At last I know what a philippic is: but, to my complete horror, I've discovered that Mrs Ferrers' piece of spite wasn't actually a philippic at all.

Ah well. Jane Austen uses philippic more conventionally in Emma, when she's talking about houses where you can't get a nice bowl of gruel, thin but not too thin. That's good enough for me.

Thing To Do Today But Only If You Live In A Place Where Free Speech Is Completely Safe: let fly with a philippic.

Actually, even so, perhaps it might be safest to stick with describing a historical figure.

Like Philip of Macedon, perhaps.

Tuesday 4 June 2013

Thing To Do Today But Only In A Good Way: pillage,

I tend to blame the Vikings.

I know that few armies manage to resist the temptation to rob the enemy population (and, very often, everyone else as well); but in England, when we think of pillaging, we usually think of Vikings .

The fact that the last instance of Viking pillage in Great Britain was about a thousand years ago has made no difference at all.

It must be the association with the Vikings, whom the English
imagine as particularly hairy and inclined to wear silly helmets (yes, the horns-on-the-helmets might not have been true, but the myth is, as so often, more powerful than the facts) that has given the word pillage a tinge of comedy and almost of affection.

Viking Warning Black White Line Art Coloring Book Colouring 555px.png


This is why we can pillage a biscuit tin, or a stationery cupboard, or even Wikipedia.

I would still recommend avoiding anyone you see with horns on his helmet, though.

Thing To Do Today But Only In A Good Way: pillage. This word comes from the Old French pillage from piller, to despoil. Before that it may come from the Late Latin piliō, which probably comes from pilus, hair (see Vikings) or from the Old French peille, which means rag, from the Latin pīleus, which means felt cap (don't see Vikings).

Monday 3 June 2013

Spot the frippet: foil.

Here's an easy thing to spot: just look in a grocer's shop or supermarket near you and you'll find foil-wrapped chocolate, crisps, football stickers...

If that's too boring (and it is), then you could look in a mirror: the backing of the glass is a bit of metal foil. The same principle is sometimes used to make jewels sparklier.

As it's Spot the Frippet day then you could always look out for the traditional pairing of the beautiful young lady with the plain friend. The friend is there to highlight the beauty of the other, in other words to be his or her foil.

A doubling-back sort of foil happened when a hunted animal retraces its steps in order to throw hunters off the scent.

A trefoil is used as a symbol by Girl Guides:


A quatrefoil is an architectural form much used in Gothic architecture:

Illustration by Anonmoos.

And a cinquefoil is a particularly annoying weed in my garden:

File:Sulphur cinquefoil (St Joseph I).JPG
Fungus Guy

Apart from that, a foil is a sword with a safety button on the end.

Word To Use Today: foil. The hunting and baffling word (foiled again!) comes from the Old French fuler, to tread down. The thin sheet also comes from Old French, from foille, and before that from folia, the Latin for leaves.

No one knows where the word for sword comes from, but perhaps it's because any attempt to stab someone is foiled by the button on the end.

Sunday 2 June 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: usufruct.

Well, this is a word of two halves. Unfortunately both of them are horrible.

We kick off with usu, which sounds like a frilly skirt worn exclusively for going out to get drunk, and then dive into fruct, which sounds like the reaction of a maiden aunt to the sight of someone wearing a usu.

She saw me in my usu, right, and she was well fruct.

Now, if only usufruct did mean something as interesting as that then it wouldn't be so bad, but the word usufruct is not only nasty and ridiculous, but boring, too.

A usufruct allows one to use a property not one's own, and to make money from it, as long as the property itself isn't diminished.

It's okay, you can wake up, now.


Because I'm certainly not going to use the word usufruct any more after this.

Word Not To Use Today: usufruct. This word arrived in the 1600s from the Late Latin ūsūfrūctus, from ūsus, use, and frūctus enjoyment.

Saturday 1 June 2013

Saturday Rave: hey diddle fiddle.

It's easy to get hung up on the meanings of words.

I must admit that having meaning is one of their main purposes, but it's not their only purpose.

How about this:

Hey diddle diddle
The cat and the fiddle
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed to see such fun
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

I realise that this rhyme may hide a deeper meaning - I'll look it up in a minute* - but if it does have a deeper meaning then it's hidden so completely that I can't begin to guess what it might be.

For all practical purposes the rhyme Hey diddle diddle is just for fun. It presents us with a energetic and baffling chaos that's thoroughly cheering.


...the trouble is, now I'm wondering if I ought to say something deep about post-modernism.

On the whole, though, it's generally better not.

Word To Use Today: hey. Similar words have been used for a long time in many languages. In Old French it was hay, and in Swedish hej. In South Africa hey is used for emphasis at the end of a statement and to ask for something ti be repeated.

*It turns out that there are loads and loads of theories as to the rhyme's hidden meaning - lots of them hinge on cat being short for Catherine - but quite honestly I don't believe any of them.