This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 31 July 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Nootka

The language Nootka is said to be 5,000 years old. It's spoken by just a few hundred people on or near Vancouver Island, nearly all of them over the age of sixty - and these people speak over a dozen different dialects.

What's so special about Nootka, or Nuuchahnulth, as it's now called? Answering that question properly would take all day, but, for one thing, Nootka is very good at getting across a complicated idea in a short space of time. For instance, the way you say to wipe the tears from one's eyes with the back of one's hand in Nootka is fib. Or, according to another source I found, t'ih.

In Nootka you can describe the physical features of a person by putting extra sounds into the middle of a word. In this way you can mark someone as a child, fat, heavy, left-handed or short.

There's now a dictionary of Nootka, and many young Nootka people are eager to learn this wonderful language and become a faafaaqsapa, that is, someone who's mastered Nootka.   

As Nootka is one of the treasures of the world, we must all wish them luck.

Thing To Do Today: put a description inside a word. You can do this in English rather the same way as you can in Nootka.

As in hippo-fatty-potamus, for instance. 

Hippopotamus by papapishu - This image was donated by Pearson Scott Foresman, an educational publisher, to Wikimedia Commons, and is thereby in the Public Domain.
Drawn by Pearson Scott Foresman

Tuesday 30 July 2013

Thing To Do Today: plodge.

Well, here's your excuse to have a good plodge.


Plodge plodge plodge plodge.

So what do you think it means? You might know what it means if you come from the North East of England, but the rest of us will have to use our ears.


It sounds heavy and rather sticky, doesn't it. Like porridge, perhaps, or mud.

If you think it does then you're nearly there, because to plodge means to wade through water, especially the sea.

I'm a quite long way from the sea, here (not that you get more than seventy two miles from the sea in Britain) but I think I might see if I can have a good plodge in a paddling pool (there isn't a maximum age limit for paddling pools, is there?).

Or, if the worst comes to the worst, perhaps even a splash about in the bath might do.

Archimedes in his bath, Johann Petrejus, 1547
Archimedes in his bath. Johann Petrejus 1547.
Thing To Do Today: plodge. This word was invented because it sounds like what it is. It's related to plod, which is another imitative word. Plod was made up in the 1500s.

Monday 29 July 2013

Spot the frippet: luthern.

Sometimes a word can cast a romantic glow over something quite ordinary.*

I mean, how can a luthern be anything but magical?

Luthern: the elf-queen who held one of the three stars of the West, but who faded away to a yearning shadow because she was so entranced with its shining that she could not take her eyes away to eat.

Fortunately for the frippet-spotters amongst us I just made that up. A luthern is really something much more prosaic:

File:Flat Roof Dormer windows on George Street - - 1286093.jpg
Oast House Archive

I've always called windows with their own little roofs dormer windows until now, which is sadly prosaic. But from now on they're going to be lutherns.

This is as it should be, for windows, like cats and mirrors, are extraordinary and other-worldly things. Rapunzel surely stood at a luthern. Sister Anne, looking out for Bluebeard, could surely never have been peering out of something as dull as a dormer.

When you spot your luthern, look at it properly and see if it'll tell you its story.

 I'm certain it will have one.

Spot the frippet: luthern. This word arrived in English in the 1600s. It's probably a version of lucarne, which is a similar sort of thing. Lucarne comes from the Provençal word lucana, but where lucana comes from is a mystery in itself.

*No, sorry, guys, this still doesn't mean you'll get away with buying your girl a calamondin for her birthday present.


Sunday 28 July 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: lustrum.

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.*

It's as true for words as for flowers. Full many a gorgeous word lies neglected in the dark recesses of the larger dictionaries when it could be bringing joy to the world.

But lustrum isn't one of them. Lustrum is much best left in the dark recesses.

It's heavy, pondorous, and pompous, and no one with the faintest sense of his own essential ridiculousness would ever let it fall from his lips.

What does it mean?

A lustrum is a period of five years.

And if there is anyone in the universe who says two lustra instead of a decade then you have my leave to pull faces at them.

Photo Sam Fentress
And I hope it stings.

Word Not To Use Today: lustrum. This word comes from a Latin word for a ceremony of purification, from lustrāre, to brighten or purify.

*That's from Thomas Grey's Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard.

Saturday 27 July 2013

Saturday Rave: Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary.

Growing up takes a long time, and Ramona is a girl in a hurry.

Ramona's first day at school reminds me very much of my own first day at Nash Mills C of E Primary School. It's true I didn't pull a girl's hair so I could see her curls bounce back (there were only two other girls in my class (and seventeen boys) and they both had straight hair) but I felt just the same frustration as Ramona at the ridiculous shilly-shallying when it came to the business of the day, which was surely learning to read and write.

Also like Ramona, I had some deeply annoying children in my class - there was a boy called Gary, in particular - but I honestly think Ramona's classmate Howie might even be worse.

Right away Howie said, 'Ramona got benched, and she's the worst rester in the class.'

After all that had happened that morning, Ramona found this too much, 'Why don't you shut up?' she yelled at Howie just before she hit him.

Now, that's what I call a real heroine.

Go Ramona!

Word To Use Today: pest. This word comes from the Latin word pestis, which means plague.

As a matter of interest it has nothing at all to do with the word pester, which comes from the Latin word pastor, which means herdsman.

Friday 26 July 2013

Word To Use Today: clishmaclaver.

Some words are much too much fun to ignore.

Scots English is a cornucopia of gorgeous words, but they tend to be a trifle too theatrical for English people to use without feeling a bit, well, un-English.

On this occasion, though, I think the people of the whole world should throw off their inhibitions and let the word clishmaclaver* fall ringingly from our lips.


Yes, just like that. I know it's a bit long and attention-seeking, but it won't kill us, will it.

What does it mean?

Clishmaclaver means idle talk or gossip.

So it's not even as if anyone's going to lack the opportunity to use it.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Word To Use Today: clishmaclaver. This word comes from clish-clash, which is an imitation of the sound gossiping makes, plus claver, which also means gossip.

Yes, the whole thing's been put together entirely for fun. Hurray for Scots!

*You say it KLISHmaCLAYver.

Thursday 25 July 2013

Unprintable: a rant.

For every book that comes out, the publisher and the writer make a list of promises to each other.

This is called the contract.

I've just had a contract sent to me. One of the promises I have to make is that my book contains absolutely no...

...well, what do you think?

What do you think my book mustn't contain? I'll give you a couple of clues: the book's for the international market, and it's a children's book.

No, not that.

Nope, not that, either.

Well, that's an intelligent guess, but you're still nowhere near it.

Give up?

All right, then.

I'm having to guarantee that my book contains absolutely no sausages whatsoever.

Yes, that's right.


You know something? Sometimes the world seems so utterly and completely mad that I wonder if I'm hallucinating.

Ah well. All mad together.

File:Reunion sausages dsc07796.jpg
Copyright © 2005 David Monniaux

Word To Use Today: hallucinate. This word comes from the Latin word ālūcināri, to wander in mind, from the Greek aluein, to be distraught.

Though, actually, I don't really give a sausage.


Wednesday 24 July 2013

Nuts and Bolts: schwa.

You're always using schwa, you are.

No, really, you do it all the time. For that matter, so do I. I used it once in that last sentence, for instance. And twice in that one.

Schwa is the sound someone old makes when they sit down.

It's the vowel-sound in the, and in the accent of South-East England it's found at the end of tiger, cheetah, and jaguar, and also at the front of astonish.

As these examples show, schwa pops up all over the place in many different guises. In the word rhythm it doesn't actually appear at all. In Hindi writing there are all sorts of complicated rules which mean that a lot of the time the sound schwa has to be left out.

Schwa makes spelling a lot harder than it might be, but I suppose it does make speaking rather easier.

So I think we should all make a point of enjoying saying our schwas today.

Sound to enjoy today: schwa. The word schwa is from the Hebrew word shva, which is the name of a Hebrew vowel.

Tuesday 23 July 2013

Thing To Do Today: coo.

"Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cambridge was safely delivered of a son."

How about that. A new baby.



I'm cooing already.

Yes, I admit the world isn't exactly short of new babies, but how can anyone fail to be thrilled and enchanted by the arrival of a completely new human?

I agree that the new prince is probably a bit squashed, and a bit red, and a bit outraged at the extraordinary thing that's just been forced upon him without so much as a by-your-leave (breathe? I have to breath?? Like, all the time, forever, non-stop???) but I'm sure he's still gorgeous, if possibly in a slightly alien kind of way.

Just gorgeous...


Oh, all right. I suppose there may be people out there who aren't melted to mush by tiny new babies. If there are, then they can always do a bit of billing and cooing with their sweethearts - if such hard-hearted folk have sweethearts.

Or, I suppose, one of these grim people can use of the old British expression of surprise coo! I'm fairly sure that if these kill-joys research how much the Duchess's hospital stay will cost her they'll probably find themselves saying it quite naturally.

Meanwhile the rest of us will be carrying on like love-struck doves.

A baby! A brand new baby, with tiny fingers and scanty hair and a slightly drunken expression...

How could anyone not be utterly and completely charmed?

Thing To Do Today: coo. This word comes from the pigeon, possibly the Turtle Dove Streptopelia turtur. Then we humans borrowed it.

Monday 22 July 2013

Spot the frippet: cake.

It was my daughter's wedding recently. Amongst a thousand delightful memories a surprising number involve cake.

There was a wedding cake itself, of course (but not actually this one):

File:Wedding Cake with Hydrangeas.jpg

but there was more or less every other sort of cake as well. This was unavoidable because, under SPECIAL DIETARY REQUIREMENTS on the invitation replies, it turned out that nearly everyone had answered Lots of cake.

I realise that spotting cake is so easy that it's, well, a piece of cake; but then we can't always be stern and earnest about everything.

I suppose that if you want to be stern and earnest then you could seek out a cake of soap, or some sort of a savory cake such as a fish cake.

Or you could look out for a bit of beefcake:

It was a film!

or just someone caked in make-up:

A really big firework crammed with roman candles is also a cake:

as is the form of uranium ore known as yellowcake.

Personally, I'm going to stick at the yummy stuff.

Spot the frippet: cake. This word comes from the Old Norse word kaka.

Sunday 21 July 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: gangue.

I suppose this isn't really such a bad word. The only really horrible thing about it is the spelling.

You say it gang. In fact, the alternative spelling of it is gang. So, let's face it, gangue only exists to be ugly and to confuse and upset people.

The meaning of gangue is nothing much to do with the sorts of gangs we usually think about, though. Gangue is valueless and undesirable material found in metal-bearing rock. It's quite often small bits of quartz.

Stuff like the white bits of this:

So, gangue. Another autological word, I'd say.

Word Not To Use Today: gangue. This word comes from the French, and before that from the German Gang, which means vein of metal.

Saturday 20 July 2013

The Ying Tong Song by Spike Milligan.

Sometimes words don't need either rhyme or reason.

I've no idea what this is about, but it's given the giggles to generations.

NB: the first bit, and several of the middle bits sound quite sensible.

In a way.

But it doesn't last long.

Word To Use Today: Ying. As far as I know this word doesn't mean anything at all. 

Friday 19 July 2013

Word To Use Today: tana.

Here's a small, ringing word that describes some lovely things.

For a start, not only is Lake Tana in Ethiopia the source of the Blue Nile, but on its islands are kept the treasures of the Ethiopian Church:

Priest going to church.

and in its waters seventy per cent of the fish species are to be found nowhere else in the world.

Barbus tanapelagius. Photo by M Grimm

The River Tana is the longest river in Kenya:

File:Tana River ferry, Hola, Kenya.jpg
Photo by Chking2. This is the River Tana ferry.

- unless, of course, you're talking about the River Tana in Norway, which leads to Tana Fjord and forms part of the border between Norway and Finland.

Photo Karl Brodowsky

Then there's the tana, also known as Phaner furcifer:

which is a lemur from, of course, Madacasgar; and as if those weren't riches enough there's also the completely different tana Tupaia tana:

which is a tree shrew you may see if you are lucky enough to be in Sumatra or Borneo.

There we are. Tanas.

All lovely things, and I shall cherish them.

Word To Use Today: tana. The word for the animals comes from the Malay tūpai tana, which means ground squirrel.

Thursday 18 July 2013

Definitions: a rant.

According to the dictionary, a definition is a formal statement of the exact meaning of a word.

And what does meaning mean?

Sense or significance.

Okay, so let's see if we can discover the meaning of one or two words by looking them up in a dictionary.

Elastance: physics the reciprocal of capacitance. It is measured in reciprocal farads (darafs).

Hm, well, that's cleared that up, then (though I note with delight the use of backslang: farad/daraf. Neat).

In case you're thinking, yes, but that's science and no one can understand that stuff anyway, here's a definition of becket:

a clevis forming part of one end of a sheave, used for securing standing lines by means of a thimble.

Got that, have you?

No, I thought not. I think it's something to do with the ropes that hold up the sails of a ship.

Finally, here's a definition from the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson.

Network: Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

But of course Dr Johnson was taking the mickey.

Don't you just love him?

Word To Use Today...good grief...I think we'd better go with network, don't you. The net bit comes from the Old English net, which meant net.

Wednesday 17 July 2013

Nuts and Bolts: fingers and thumbs.

Talking with Hands - Wikimedia Commons

How do you count on your fingers? 
I go from my left thumb to my left little finger, then proceed to my right little finger and then on to my right thumb.
If you use your fingers in some other order then it doesn't make any difference.
Well, it doesn't if you're speaking English.

If you were speaking Zulu it would matter very much indeed.

A Zulu speaker will start counting with the little finger of the left hand and proceed to the left thumb. Then he or she will continue with the thumb of the right hand.

Why does this matter?

Well, because in Zulu the names for the numbers six to nine are to do with the fingers used to count them.

For instance, the Zulu word for six, isithupha, means “thumb”; the word for seven, isikhombisa, means “the one that points out”; eight, or isishiyagalombili, means “two remain”; and nine, isishiyagalolunye, means “one remains”.

This is a beautiful way of making words, but no one can say it's quick or easy to use. The number fifty nine, for example, is amashumi amahlanu nesishiyagalolunye.
In practice, Zulu speakers tend to use English numbers. In fact this happens so commonly that Zulu enthusiasts have made up new shorter numbers for Zulu people to use in their everyday lives.

It's too soon to say whether they'll catch on yet.

I can see the reason behind the new numbers, but I can't help hoping the beautiful, if impractical, traditional Zulu numbers will survive, for special occasions, at least.

Thing To Do Today: count up to ten in a language not your own. In Zulu it goes: kunye, kubili, kuthathu, kune, kuhlanu (or isihlanu), isithupha, isikhombisa, isishiyagalombili, isishiyagalolunye, ishumi.




Tuesday 16 July 2013

Thing To Do Today: natter.

It's only the British, I understand, who make a habit of nattering, but I think the rest of the world would be very happy if it joined us.

To natter is to have a nice long talk. It's different from chatter, which is rather loud and excited. A natter is comfortable and basically friendly.

A quarrel isn't part of a natter, and neither are instructions or speeches. A good natter is utterly absorbing, if without any obvious purpose.

Sometimes a natterer will get carried away by the sound of her own voice, and then people will get fed up with the sound of her nattering on all the time. But mostly a good natter, probably starting with the weather and moving on to the state of the world, football, or fashion, is a source of continual interest and comfort.

Nattering can of course be done by electronic means.

But it's cheaper (and there's much more chance of cake) if it's face to face.

Thing To Do Today: natter. Until the 1800s this word used to be gnatter, but then it meant to grumble which is quite different.

Monday 15 July 2013

Spot the frippet: ikat.

This has to be the coolest word in the English language.


There's the i bit to begin with, which obviously stands for, well, something electronically sleek that just owning it implies that people need and desire to be permanently connected to you.

And then there's the kat.

Well, obviously, kats (especially misspelled ones) are the coolest things on the planet.

Or, indeed, any other planet, as far as I'm aware.

So, are we trying to spot a super-cool feline wearing earphones?

This cat is so super-cool he's called Wordsworth. He's one of the Catillac Cats.

Good luck if you are, but ikat is actually a way of...sorry about this...dyeing fabric. In fact it's a way of tie-dyeing the yarn before you weave it.

Yes, yes, I know that tie-dye is the polar opposite of sleek.

Still. I love the fabric.

File:Tenun Ikat Lombok 3.JPG
Photo by Midori.

Ikat. Probably available on a cushion, table cloth or tunic near you.

Of course, you might just see one of these:

Discourage your feline companions from living near the computing equipment as much as possible.

In which case you needn't bother with the cushion.

Spot the frippet: ikat. This word comes from a Malay word which means to tie or bind.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: chasmogamy.

The waterlilies,
Awakened by the sun,
Unclose their shining petals
In crowns of glory.

Or, if you're a flat-footed botanist, they exhibit chasmogamy.

Chasmogamy means their flowers open to allow pollination.

Chasmogamy. I ask you.

Science doesn't have to be so ugly, you know.

Word Not To Use Today: chasmogamy. This word was made up in the 1900s. It comes from the Greek khasma, which means chasm, and gamos, which means marriage.


Saturday 13 July 2013

Sir Charles Grandison by Samuel Richardson.

You'd have to be mad to read Sir Charles Grandison. It's hugely long, for a start - seven volumes in the version I read - and it's all about a good man, which of course cuts down the action a great deal.

The reason I'm raving about it today is that pretty much one whole volume of Sir Charles Grandison consists of a list of the details of the hero's wedding.

At the time I read it, I thought this was a bit over-the-top.

But, today, being the day of my younger daughter's wedding, I begin to see that Richardson actually managed to give us quite a concise account of all the necessary arrangements.

In case you're thinking of reading Sir Charles Grandison despite my warning, I can tell you it's quite fun if you're not in a hurry. It's really very like a soap opera: people spend most of the time sitting around drinking beverages and yacking, and then just occasionally something terribly dramatic happens.

We won't have as many countesses at my daughter's wedding as Sir Charles Grandison had at his, but we hope to have a good time all the same.

There'll be lots of cake, anyway, if not countesses. And I know which I prefer.

Word To Use Today: wedding. This word comes from the Old English weddian, and is related to the Gothic wadi, which means pledge.

Friday 12 July 2013

Word To Use Today: scruncheon.

If Newfoundland had given the world nothing else, then it must be forever covered in glory and garlanded with laurels and gratitude for having dragged up from who-knows-where the word scruncheon.

Which is obviously too gorgeous a word not to use on every possible occasion.



Isn't it satisfying?

A scruncheon is a small crisp piece of fried pork fat, and I admit this means it isn't going to be easy to ease the word into ordinary conversation, but,'ll make the world a better place if we can, won't it.

The sun was so hot I practically got fried to a scruncheon.

The snow the dogs had weed on was exactly the colour of fine scruncheons.

For luncheons
Put pork
On your fork.

Okay, I'm getting a bit desperate, here.

Scruncheons with fish and brewis.

Still, scruncheon.

It's just lovely, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: scruncheon. This word comes from Newfoundland, but otherwise it is a mystery.

Thursday 11 July 2013

Confused in black and white: a rant.

It's not easy making up new words.

The easiest way to do it is to put together a couple of old ones. This has the advantage that people will have a good chance of being able to guess the new word's meaning.

Cavepool, for instance. Or ovenproof. Or discoball.

You need to be careful, though.

Take this word. It's the name of a company.


But what, you may ask (as I did) is a metech? And why would one want an extre one of them?

Extremetech's website makes it clear. There it's written:


And then it's as plain as black and...


Sorry. Bad choice of phrase, there.

Word To Use Today: a word with tech in it, preferably one people will be able to understand. Tech comes from the Greek tekhnē, which means skill.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Nerdic.

Who speaks Nerdic?
Well, you do.
Nerdic has billions of speakers. It may even be the most widely-spoken language in the world.
I think that's hugely exciting.

What is it? Well, now we have the internet a word can travel round the world and establish itself more or less everywhere more or less at once.

And that's what's happening with many new words, especially those that are to do with technology.

"It's incredible that I can describe an N96 with HSDPA, Wi-Fi with a 5 megapixel Carl Zeiss and GPS and be understood across Europe," said Stuart Miles of "although Brits may still be confused when they hear the French talking about their 'wee-fee'!"

Ah. So that's what they were on about.

I thought it was something to do with coin-operated lavatories.

 Language To Use Today: Nerdic. The word Nerdic seems to have been coined in 2008 by the Pixmania website. The first documented appearance of the word nerd is the creature in Dr. Seuss's book If I Ran the Zoo (1950), in which Gerald McGrew declares he will collect "a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too" for his imaginary zoo. The slang meaning of the term dates back to 1951, when Newsweek magazine reported on its popular use as a synonym for "drip" or "square" in Detroit, Michigan.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Thing To Do Today: be polled.

A referendum takes years and years to organise, so we can't do one of those today. But we could do a straw poll because that's practically instant.

Straw poll isn't a common expression in Britain, though it's well-known in the USA, Canada, and New Zealand. A straw poll more or less consists of saying hands up who thinks...and counting the results.

So: hands up who thinks that teachers should be required to smile at least three times every lesson - and not in a gloating, evil way, either.

Hands up who thinks that chocolate should be recognised as an essential part of the daily diet.

Hands up who thinks that tinned sardines have rights, too.

If so much thinking is too much all at once, and tends to make your head hurt, then be glad you aren't a cow: polling a cow involves taking its horns off, which would surely be even worse.

On the other hand if you're a sheep then to be polled might only mean to be sheared.

The important thing is to avoid being hit with a poll, which is the flat side of a hammer, especially on the poll, which, again if you're a cow or another grass-eating animal, is the back part of the head.

There's a special computer meaning of poll, too - something to do with automatically asking terminals if they're ready to send messages - but trying to understand that sort of stuff makes my head ache worst of all.

And anyway, you're not a computer.

Are you?

Thing To Do Today: be polled. This word comes from the Middle Low German polle, which means the hair of the head or the top of a tree.

Monday 8 July 2013

Spot the Frippet: pollex.

Unless you know a word for something you can't think about it.

Or so some foolish people say.

That's clearly not true (what's the word for the taste of ice cream that's just beginning to melt at the edges in the sun?) but it's certainly true that knowing a word for something brings it to the attention.

I've never thought about pollices (neat plural, huh?), but now I realise they're all around me.

And what are they?

A pollex is a lizard's thumb.

Or a bird's thumb, for that matter; or a frog's, or a fox's.

Okay, birds and frogs and foxes and lizards don't actually have thumbs as we know them, but a pollux is the inside digit on the forelimb of any animal that, digits on its forelimbs. (Yes, yes, I know birds don't have forelimbs: a bird's pollices are hidden inside its wings).

But the pollices of lots of animals are plainly visible.

A possum, displaying its pollices.

That goes for gorillas, dogs - and you, too.

Though this is a bonobo.

I feel rather pleased and proud, myself.

Spot the frippet. This is so easy that perhaps we ought to be spotting a pollex on a different species of animal from us. Pollex is the Latin for thumb.

Pollex gives us the lovely adjective pollical.

Sunday 7 July 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: charidee.

On the whole my principle with words is the more the merrier.

I'd happily make an exception in this case, though.

Charidee is an amusing (and I use the word here quite quite wrongly) mis-spelling of charity.

It's supposed to mimic the Mid-Atlantic* pronunciation of someone trying to say charity, and it makes fun of people who give money as publicly as possible.

Charity is a fine and noble thing, and I couldn't care less if people show off how rich they are as long as they put money in the pot.

As far as I can see, the sneering word charidee helps absolutely no one at all.

And I, for one, am going to disown it.

Word Not To Use Today: charidee. How this word got into a respectable dictionary I do not know - but then I suppose  lexicographers can't afford to be tasteful. The proper word, charity, which comes from the Old French charite, from the Latin cāritās, affection, from cārus dear.

*I wonder what the local accent is really like in mid-Atlantic? Anyone been to Ascension Island?


Saturday 6 July 2013

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain.

Look, you must already know that this book is brilliant, witty, human and humane.

If you haven't read it (and I understand there are such people) then here's a taster to show you what you've missed.

It's a beautiful day, but Tom Sawyer has been forced to stay at home and whitewash a fence. Tom's sorrows are many, for not only is he missing a day's freedom, but his friends will be certain to make fun of him. But then, being the irrepressible Tom, he has an idea, an inspiration, a stroke of supreme genius.

'Say - I'm going a-swimming, I am. Don't you wish you could? But of course you'd druther work - wouldn't you? Course you would!'
Tom contemplated the boy a bit, and said:
'What do you call work?'
'Why, ain't that work?'
Tom resumed the white washing, and answered carelessly:
'Well maybe it is, and maybe it ain't. All I know is, it suits Tom Sawyer.'
'Oh, come, now, you don't mean to let on you like it?'
The brush continued to move.
Like it? Well, I don't see why I oughtn't to like it. Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence every day?'
This put the thing in a new light.


«Метод Тома Сойера» - иногда...

Of course it does. And Tom ends up in profit to the tune of, amongst other things, two tadpoles, a small piece of chalk and a bit of a window sash.

Now that's what I call a real hero.

Word To Use Today: sawyer. A sawyer is someone who saws timber for a living. It comes from the word saw, of course, which in turn comes from the Old English sagu and is related to the lovely Old Norse word sog. Before that the Latin word secāre, which means to cut, probably has something to do with it.

Friday 5 July 2013

Word To Use Today: nescience.

Nescience is such a nice, nestling sort of a word - one in which to hide comfortably away from all danger and challenges.

This is just what you'd expect, because nescience means ignorance.

Oh, but if only we looked outwards what great wide spaces of the unknown.

I, for instance, know almost nothing of card games, current chart music, elastance, the intrafascicular cambium, Serbo-Croat, Viking underwear (if any) and zugzwang.

(I'd like to know more about Viking underwear and Serbo-Croat, but the rest I'm afraid for now I'm content to do without.)

Plainly I can't ever know a billionth part of everything, so I'm going to have to embrace my nescience.

At least that means I shan't make the great mistake of forgetting the tiny island in the midst of the great ocean of the unknown on which I'm marooned.

File:DSC00031 French Polynésia Mooréa Island (8044046451).jpg
Photo Daniel Julie.

Word To Use Today: nescience. This word comes from the Latin nescentia, from ne, which means not, plus scīre, to know.

Thursday 4 July 2013

There May Be Troubles Ahead: a rant.

I don't like to see people in trouble, but it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

Because now at last I understand.

I've been wondering for ages about the British Government's Troubled Families Unit.

The thing is, is it a Unit for Troubled Families, or is it a Unit for Families that has itself been going through some sort of a crisis?

Well, now I know.

The Troubled Families Unit has been having some difficulties recently and, yes, it's become a troubled Troubled Families Unit.

I can't say I'm surprised. They probably weren't all that sure whom they were supposed to be helping.

A poor family with three small children.

Word To Use Today: trouble. This word comes from the Old French troubler, from the Latin turbidus, confused (how appropriate) from turbus commotion.

Wednesday 3 July 2013

Nuts and Bolts: puffing on the hills.

Does where you live affect the language you speak?

Well, of course it does - babies surrounded by Spanish speakers aren't going to grow up speaking Swahili, are they.

But is the native language of a place affected by its geography?

One new theory suggests that it is.

The sounds in question are called ejective consonants. You don't get them in English, but they involve building up pressure in your throat and then sort of spitting it out as you speak.

Caleb Everett of Miami University has done a huge study (covering six hundred languages. Respect!) and he's discovered that people who speak languages with ejective consonants tend to live over 1500 metres above sea level. His theory is that because the air is thinner at these altitudes, producing ejective consonants is fairly easy.

The only high populated landmass where you don't find ejective consonants is the Tibetan plateau. Mr Everett suggests the lack of ejective consonants occurs because Tibetans breathe faster than other humans, so ejective consonants aren't so easy to produce.

Ejective consonants certainly sound like hard work to a lowlander like me (I live about 120m above sea level).

They do sound rather fun, though.

Word To Use Today: eject. This word comes from the Latin word jacere, to throw.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Thing To Do Today: beetle.

When Darwin was asked what his studies had taught him about God, he replied that the Creator seemed to have 'an inordinate fondness for beetles'.

Now, I know about that sort of beetle:

File:Asian multicolored lady beetle.jpg
The Asian multicoloured lady beetle (Harmonia axyridis)

But what exactly what are people doing when they beetle off?

And what about people with beetling brows? Are they the ones with stray eyebrow-hairs that spring out like beetle legs?

Well, according to the dictionary, someone who beetles off is scuttling away rather as an alarmed beetle might do.

The beetling brows are nothing to do with beetle legs, though they are, neatly, something to do with Darwin. In this case beetle means to overhang. So beetling brows are bushy or prominent.

Darwin's beetling brows.

Beetle-browed also means sullen or scowling - but that's nothing at all, as far as I know, to do with Darwin.

Lastly, a beetle can be a thing like a blunt hammer, sometimes used for finishing cloth.

I do so hope that Darwin wore a beetled suit when he beetled off on expeditions to peer from under his beetle brows at lots and lots of...

...but you're ahead of me.

Thing To Do Today: beetle. The animal word comes from the Old English bitela, from bītan, to bite. The hammer word comes from the Old English bīetel, from bēatan, to beat, and is related ti the Middle Low German bētel, which means chisel, and the Old Norse beytill, which means...but perhaps I'll let you beetle off to your nearest dictionary and look that one up for yourself.

Monday 1 July 2013

Spot the frippet: hubble-bubble.

Hubble bubble toil and trouble
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Everyone knows that quote from...well, somewhere or other.

(It's not, I'm afraid, from Macbeth: the Macbeth witches' cauldron goes double double. No, really, it does. In Act IV, Scene 1. Look for yourself if you don't believe me.)

Right, having got that one out the way, a hubble-bubble is usually a water-pipe or hookah:

File:Man sitting and holding a hookah.jpg
Photo by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii

But if you can't find one of those - and I can't say they're too common here in Southern England - then a hubble-bubble is also a hubbub or a turmoil.

Well, they're common enough almost everywhere. Try any school gate, shop with a sale on, or pub at throwing-out time, and there you are.

Bus and railway stations in the rush hour are good for hubble-bubbles, too.

If you live in the Gobi Desert, or somewhere else where it's not easy to find two people to rub together, then a hubble-bubble can also be a gurgling sound.

I can only suggest in this case that you either eat lots of ripe fruit, or buy some mouth wash.

Spot the frippet: hubble-bubble. This word was made up for fun in the 1600s to make bubble sound even funnier.