This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 31 August 2013

Saturday Rave: Mr Happy by Roger Hargreaves.

Mr Happy lives in Happyland, where even the worms are happy.

One day he finds a staircase inside a tree.

'The stairs went round and round and down and down and round and down and down and round.'

At the bottom of the staircase he finds...

...hey, you really want to know, don't you?

Well, I'm afraid that all I'm prepared to say is that the story ends with some practical advice which has, since the publication of the book, proved to have a sound scientific basis.

And what it tells you is how to be happy.

File:Mr Happy.jpg
Graffiti in Centre Place, Melbourne. Photo by Rowpindi

Word To Use Today: happy. This word comes from the Old Norse happ, good luck, and is related to the Old English gehæplic, which means convenient, and the Old Slavonic kobŭ, which means fate.


Friday 30 August 2013

Word To Use Today: gale.

Here's a word with a definite scientific meaning.

A gale is a strong wind of between 45 and 102 kilometres an hour.

There. We know where we are there, then. The only slight problem is that if you're reading old poetry then a gale is quite likely to mean a gentle breeze, as in Thomson's 1728 poem Spring: While every gale is peace, and every grove is melody.

Ah well. You can probably tell which is which from the context.

Then there's the gale which is otherwise called Myrica gala or Bog Myrtle:

It may not look much, but it's said to be good for stomach-aches, acne and flavouring beer, and it's tradionally put in the bouquets of royal brides. (It's also excellent as an insect repellent, but presumably there's no connection there with the royal brides.)

If you have to pay a regular rent, a royalty on mining rights in the Forest of Dean, or a toll on fish, then you're paying a gale.

More cheerfully, a gale is a song, or singing, and, linked to this meaning, gale means a state of hilarity, though it's been used in that sense more commonly in America than in England.

Best of all, why not mix the word gale in two of its senses and indulge in a gale of laughter.

Word To Use Today: gale. The plant name comes from the Old English gagel; the wind possibly comes from a shortening of gull wind; the singing word comes form the Old English galan, to sing.

Thursday 29 August 2013

Cannon fodder: a rant.

Every day my diary kindly informs me of an event that's occurred on that day of the year.

The entry for the 25th August goes like this:

A woman fired from a cannon fails to break the English record for the second time 1974.

Now I want to know three things:

first, is the 25th August really as deeply dull as that entry suggests?

second: did the woman (I like to think of her as a Tracey. Possibly a Tracey Huggins) experience her second failure at breaking the record, or did she fail in her attempt to break the record she'd gained previously?

third: what else did the poor woman break?

I really do want to know, you know.

Word To Use Today: cannon. This word comes from the Italian canna, which means tube.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Nuts and Bolts: why grammar is


*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Thing To Use Today: grammar.

Well, we can't do without it, can we?

The word grammar comes from the Greek word grammatikos which means concerning letters.

Tuesday 27 August 2013

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: diddle.

Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle...
hey diddle cat with a fiddle 2

On a fiddle diddling is playing fast. If you're diddling on a wind instrument then you're probably using the front and back parts of your tongue alternately to separate one note from the next (particularly useful when tootling would create too much air pressure for the low notes to sound cleanly.)

Diddling is akin to fiddling in another sense, too: if you're doing something fiddly, like trying to get a too-big nutmeg out of a jar, then you might in your frustration give the thing a quick diddle - that is, shake it violently up and down - in the hope that that'll make the thing come out.

It won't, though it might relieve the feelings. The only thing to do with the nutmeg is either to smash the jar, or drill bits off the nutmeg. That nutmeg has been forced in, and nothing will persuade it to come out again.


(I speak from bitter experience.)

If your problem is not caused by a nutmeg in a jar but a pig in a poke then I'm afraid you've been diddled: that is, cheated by being given a promise that hasn't been fulfilled. Which, come to think about it, is also called being fiddled, isn't it.

Lastly we have the originally North American term diddly-squat. According to my Collins dictionary, in America diddly-squat means anything, as in that don't mean diddly-squat; but in Britain I've only ever heard it used to mean nothing, as in the agents get a £50,000 fee and the writers get diddly-squat.

Hm. I'm beginning to wonder if my dictionary is right. Perhaps someone from North America would let me know.

Ah well, at least everyone understands each other.

That doesn't always happen, you know.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: diddle. This word is probably a variant of doderen, to totter or tremble. The cheating sort of diddle is named after Jeremy Diddler:

Doyle HB Sketches 1841 Jeremy Diddler 681 Hand Col

a scrounger in J Kennedy's 1803 farce Raising the Wind.

Monday 26 August 2013

Spot the frippet: jet.

Here's a word with something for everybody.

The sort of jet I can see most easily from here is a jet-black crow, but sometimes, very high up, nearly at the jet stream, I'll see a shining jet making its way south-eastwards towards Heathrow.

If you can find a fountain or a hosepipe then there'll be jets of water coming out of it, and, still on a watery theme, in New Zealand a jet boat is powered by jets of water.

If you manage to spot a very tired person in diamonds riding on one of these:

File:Jet skis at Downhill - - 222964.jpg
Photo Kenneth Allen

then you can award yourself triple points, because that could well be a member of the jet set with jet lag on a jet ski.

Then there's this:

Personally, I find jet a bit creepy because it's associated with mourning brooches (complete with the hair of a dead person inside them...ergh!). The Romans thought jet was creepy, too, but in a good way, and used it for warding off the evil eye. Burning the stuff was said to drive away snakes and show up fake illnesses. Jet is easy to burn because it's basically a sort of very hard shiny coal.

Best of all, of course, is one of these:

File:Jet lev jet pack.jpg
Photo Maxence piot

And this really is one for absolutely everybody.

Because everyone, but everyone, wants his own jet-pack. Don't they?

Spot the Frippet: jet. The word to do with fast movement comes from the French jeter, to throw, from Latin jactāre, to toss about. The jewel comes from the Greek lithos gagatēs, stone of Gagai, a town in Asia Minor.


Sunday 25 August 2013

Sunday Rest: lentigo.

Do you have a case of lentigo?

It's quite likely that you do.

No, no, there's no need to panic. Lentigo may sound like some dread disease which will devour you agonisingly from within, but luckily it's something entirely different.

Lentigo is a medical term for a freckle, and it's one that doctors have used for centuries to worry their patients into parting with large fees.

The power of language, eh?

I mean, no one, but no one, would eat a trout if they knew it had lentigines, would they?

File:Rainbow trout FWS 1.jpg
Rainbow Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)

I should think not, indeed.

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: lentigo. This word arrived in English in the 1300s from the Latin lēns, which means lentil.


Saturday 24 August 2013

Saturday Rave: The Irish Dancer.

Ich am of Irlaunde,
Ant of the holy londe
Of Irlande.
Gode sire, pray ich the,
For of saynte charite,
Come ant daunce wyth me
In Irlaunde.
No one knows who made up this poem, but it is thought to have been written in the 1300s.
The joy of it is still echoing down the centuries.
a scene from Clann Lir by the national Folk Theatre with the wicked stepmother Aoife dancing with the children of King Lir
Word To Use Today: Ireland. Ireland is also called Éire, but it's basically the same word. The name first appears as Ierne in Greek texts, perhaps as early as the 5th century BC.

Friday 23 August 2013

Word To Use Today: bouncer.

The word bouncer could easily have been a spot-the-frippet, but unfortunately Test Matches have developed a habit recently of avoiding Mondays.

Yes, I'm talking cricket, here. Now, I realise that most of the world's knowledge of cricket comes from a novelty tea towel:

but cricket is really not difficult to understand. As so often, the last thing the jargon is designed to do is to make things clear to outsiders.

The main idea of cricket is that someone throws a hard ball at three small upright sticks, and someone else stops the ball hitting the sticks by whacking it with a bat.

bouncer happens when a ball hits the ground quite a long way short of the batsman and then bounces up to the height of his chest or head. This is unnerving for the batsman, and occasionally also dangerous to him.

File:Beamer bouncer full toss distinctions.jpg
Ptok Bentoniczny

Ah, you will say, but surely such a high-bouncing ball won't go anywhere near the three little sticks the throwing guy is supposed to be trying to hit?

Hmmm... be honest I can't say that cricket has quite sorted that problem out, yet.

Apart from cricket, (and, hard though it is for some people to believe, there is a world apart from cricket) a bouncer is someone who stops undesirables going into a club or restaurant, and who also ejects people who have got inside and begun to make a fuss.

A bouncer is also a cheque written when there aren't funds enough for the bank to honour it.

Hm. It's altogether a rather dubious word, bouncer, isn't it.

Though not quite always:
Tippitoes Doorway Baby Bouncer Black
Word To Use Today: bouncer. This word is probably an imitation of the sound something makes when it bounces.

This post was inspired by THIS ONE.

Thursday 22 August 2013

Being cryptic: a rant

Here's another quote from the language expert Sugata Mitra, who's professor of educational technology at Newcastle University.

“I often skip grammar and write in a cryptic way.”

Well, I agree that being cryptic is sometimes useful. I write birthday and Christmas lists in Γρηκ* letters, for instance, to baffle snoopers.

I hope Professor Mitra has an excellent memory, though, because cryptic writing has a habit of becoming swiftly impenetrable.

I've got a note here that I made only last week. It says celadon crank pub date.

Now, why did I write that? To remind me of something I should be doing? Or someone I should be meeting?

Or someone I should be avoiding?

Crank..., that doesn't help. That could be almost anybody.

Thing To Be Jolly Careful About Being Today: cryptic. This word comes from the Late Latin crypticus, from the Greek kruptein, to hide.

*Pronounced Greek.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Nuts and Bolts: How To Start Your Story

The easiest way to discover how to start a good story is to look at the beginnings of some admired and successful books.

So here we are. See if you can spot something they all have in common.

They're all identified at the bottom of this post.

1. It was a morning when all nature shouted ‘Fore!' The breeze, as it blew gently up from the valley, seemed to bring a message of hope and cheer, whispering of chip-shots holed and brassies landing squarely on the meat. 

2. There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise was now out of the question.

3. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

4. The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold, wet day.

5. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.

6. A Saturday afternoon in November was approaching the time of twilight, and the vast tract of unenclosed wild known as Egdon Heath embrowned itself moment by moment. Overhead the hollow stretch of whitish cloud shutting out the sky was as a tent which had the whole heath for its floor.

7. Thunder and lightning. Enter Three Witches

First Witch
When shall we three meet again
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

 8. The beginning is simple to mark. We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind.

9. It was clearly going to be a bad crossing.

10. The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through.

And here, to sum up, is a nice handy rule from the very much admired and successful writer Elmore Leonard:

Never open a book with weather.


Thing To Describe Today: the weather. This word comes from the Old English weder, and before that the Old Saxon wedar. Yes, that's right, we've been talking about the weather in England for a long long time.

Still, mustn't grumble.

1. P.G. Wodehouse,The Heart of a Goof.
2. Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
3. George Orwell, 1984
4. De Suess, The Cat in the Hat
5. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
6. Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native
7. Shakespeare, Macbeth.
8. Ian McEwan, Enduring Love
9. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
10. Johnathan Franzen, The Corrections.

Afterword: Oh no! I have just this minute seen the sad news of the death of Elmore Leonard.

I am an admirer of his, and I hope this post will be viewed as an affectionate, if slightly cheeky, tribute.

Tuesday 20 August 2013

Thing To Do Today: twirl.

Go on: give us a twirl.

It's most fun if you're wearing a big floaty skirt, but even someone in a suit can twirl beautifully if he puts his mind to it. The way to do it is to spin round neatly and then open the jacket wide at the last minute.

Hm...well, it looks great on a cat-walk, but perhaps on reflection it's not something to try in a dark alley.

A proper twirl is most fun:

File:Twirling dancer, Tajikistan.jpg
Photo by Brian Harrington Spier, Tajikistan.

but the more sedentary of us could limit ourselves to twirling a lock of hair round a finger; the more bald of us could twirl a shoe round by its laces; and the more macho of us could twirl a lasso, all ready to catch something large and meaty.

Lastly, you can always finish off your signature with a twirl.

Sometimes that sort of swank has made people quite famous.

Thing To Do Today: twirl. This word arrived in English the 1500s and is probably a mixture of twist and whirl.

Monday 19 August 2013

Spot the frippet: tweed.

When the world around me gets particularly over-excited, one excellent remedy is to meditate on tweed.

There's the lovely Scottish river:

River Tweed at Coldstream.jpg

and then, of course, there's the hairy stuff:

Tweed used to be dyed with lichen, which is why traditionally it comes muted, calming colours.

There's something deeply comforting about tweed. Even wikipedia loses its scientific terseness when considering it:

Tweeds are desirable for informal outerwear, it says, being moisture-resistant and durable.

The portliness of tone doesn't imply that tweed is uncool, though. Far from it.

Look at this:

Yes, that's a guitar amp. A Fender guitar amp. A Fender Tweed Guitar amp. It's covered with tweed. As used by Eric Clapton.


In fact tweed seems to be inherently musical stuff. Some Danemann pianos have a tweed backing, and bagpipes are also sometimes covered in tweed.

And there's the waulking songs. These are songs sung by women as they waulk the tweed - that is, bash it about a bit to rough up the thread and make the cloth waterproof.

I'd love to put in a video of a waulking song, here, but YouTube won't let me at the moment. There are several to be found, though. One of them is HERE.

Even if you can't spot any Scottish tweed anywhere then it should be easy enough to spot some Australian tweeds.

Because in Australia tweeds are simply trousers.

Spot the frippet: tweed. This word comes from tweel, the Scots for twill, the cloth being woven in a twilled pattern. The story goes that about 1830 a London merchant received some tweel cloth, but the letter which came with it was in such bad handwriting that he mis-read it as tweed, and the name stuck.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: berm.

I suppose the good thing about this word is that it sounds like Inspector Clouseau trying to say bum.

Sellers pinkpanther7.jpg

The other good thing about berm is that the only people who use it are mediaevalists, military engineers, Pink Panther obsessives, and New Zealanders.

But just think, if all of them get together...

...ah, but let's face it, it's never going to happen.


When a New Zealander uses the word berm he means the mown grass verge of a suburban street. When a mediaevalist uses berm he means a narrow ledge between a moat and a rampart; a military engineer's berm is a ridge of sand designed to expose the soft(ish) underbelly of a tank; and a Pink Panther obsessive's berm...

File:Pink Panther.png
The Pink Panther from the Region 2 DVD ''The Pink Panther Cartoon Collection'', released in 2004 by MGM Home Ent. (Europe) Ltd. a result of being really very silly indeed.

Word Not To Use Today: berm. This word comes from the Old French berme, from the Dutch berm, and probably from the Old Norse barmr, which means brim.

Saturday 17 August 2013

Saturday Rave: The Twelve Dancing Princesses.

If it isn't enough to be a princess, and beautiful with it, then how about being a princess who goes out dancing all night, every night?

And with a prince, at that?

How about being in a place where the trees are made of silver, gold, and diamonds?

How about being the sort of girl who will happily drug and engineer the death of anyone who tries to stop her incessant clubbing?

Um...well, yes, things do look a little grim all of a sudden. In fact, Grimm.

Still, the eldest and bossiest princess gets her comeuppance. She's out-smarted by an old soldier, who defeats her with the help of an invisibility cloak and some inside information he gets from a...well, let's just say an old woman who lives in the woods.

And exactly what her agenda is I'd be very interested to know.

Word To Use Today: grim. This word comes from the Old English grimm, and before that from the Old High German grimm, which means savage, and the Greek khremizein, which means, oddly, to neigh.

Friday 16 August 2013

Word To Use Today: plumbum.

Here's a word to spread joy throughout the English-speaking world.

 Photo by Fir 00002

Surely everyone will seize upon this one and use it today and every day.
It's not as if it's a difficult word to get into the conversation, either, because plumbum isn't anything rare or complicated, it's just an old word for lead. That's lead, as in the metal. The word plumber is connected.
Plumbum plumbum...
These bags feel as if they're full of plumbum!

You haven't got a limp, you're just swinging the plumbum.

A plumbum sailor:

Lead soldier

Plumbum can mean a ball of lead or a lead pipe, too. That'd liven up Cluedo: in the conservatory with the plumbum.
Once or twice it's even been used to mean pencil.
Hm, yes. You could have a lot of fun with that.
Lastly, (and thanks to Ed at Lexicolatry for this suggestion) plumbum is excellent as an expression of rage or disgust.
Oh plumbum!
Word To Use Today: plumbum. Plumbum is the Latin for lead. (Although plumbum album is tin, because Pliny thought it was lead with silver in it.) The word is related to the Greek mólubdos, and before that may have been borrowed from Etruscan, Iberian or some other pre-Indo-European Mediterranean language.

Thursday 15 August 2013

Unnecessary bits: a rant

Sugata Mitra is professor of educational technology at Newcastle University.

In a recent interview with the Times Educational Supplement, he is quoted as saying: 'This emphasis on grammar and spelling, I find it a bit unnecessary because they are skills that were very essential maybe a hundred years ago but they are not right now.'

Now, I'm a writer of fiction, so imagination is supposed to be my strong suit. But I'm having trouble conjuring up an image of a manager thinking: this CV has been written by someone very careless, or possibly merely illiterate. This person will be an asset to my business.

I must admit I'm not bending my whole mind to the job, though, because I keep finding myself wondering out how something can be a bit unnecessary.

Or, indeed, very essential.

Professor Mitra suggests that a mobile phone can be used to correct all our deficiencies of spelling and grammar.

I rather doubt that.

But, even if it's true, a phone can't stop people speaking ungrammatical rubbish, can it?

Word To Use Today: unnecessary. This word arrived in English in the 1300s, from the Latin necessārius, which means indispensable, from necesse, unavoidable.



Wednesday 14 August 2013

Nuts and Bolts: hapax legomena

Nortelrye must be one of the most lovable words in the universe. It means education, and it's a great shame it isn't used more often.

In fact, it's used so seldom that it's a hapax legomenon, which is a word that only occurs once in a particular body of work. Nortelrye occurs exactly once in the works of Chaucer, but the body of work in question might be an entire language or just one particular book.

Unfortunately hapax legomena can be a real nuisance, because if you only have one example of a word then it's jolly difficult to work out what it means. A lot of still-mysterious hieroglyphs are hapax legomena.

Scholars sometimes find hapax legomena useful, though. Each of Shakespeare's plays contains a roughly similar number of hapax legomena which aren't found elsewhere in his work, and this has been used as an argument that the same person wrote them all, and that Hamlet, for instance, wasn't written by someone much posher and dead, as is so often claimed.

For the non-scholars amongst us, hapax legomena are rather lovable things. I don't know why it's so satisfying to know that biblical Hebrew only contains the word for cheese, gvina, once...

...but it is, isn't it.

Thing To Put Into A Piece Of Writing Today: a hapax legomenon. This is the Ancient Greek for said only once.

In this post there are quite a lot of hapax legomena: but I can't point them out, or they wouldn't be, would they?

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Thing Not To Do Today: phub.

The verb phub is new. In fact it's so new it's news.

What does it mean?

I'll give you a clue. It's made up of two words rammed together.

Got it?

No, I didn't think you would.

The words that make up phub are phone and snub, and to phub is to answer your phone while in the middle of a conversation with someone else.

There are campaigns against it in Britain and Australia, apparently. People are even starting websites.

Good heavens, but passions must be running high.

Phub...'s not a very passionate word, phub, though, is it. And I'm not sure it describes anything new. A person who interrupts is just a person who interrupts.

Receiving a text message is surely exactly like receiving a letter. If it's done in company then it should usually be left for later. If it's very urgent, or likely to be of interest to everyone present, it can be read after an apology, an explanation, and permission has been given.

A phone call works the same way, though there is the added complication that the phone call needs to be kept as short as possible. This means that an apology and an explanation must be given to the person who's phoning, too.

It all sounds rather exhausting, I agree, but much less exhausting than getting offended and outraged.

And at least it means we won't have to bother our heads about the rather unconvincing word phub.

Thing Not To Do Today: phub. This word seems to have appeared in the last year. Phone comes for a Greek word for voice or sound, and snub comes from the Old Norse snubba, to scold.

Ah well, there's nothing like a new word to make us think, is there, so it does have its uses.

Monday 12 August 2013

Spot the frippet: mopoke.

If anyone had ever asked me (and luckily no one ever has), I would have said that a mopoke is a donkey.

Goodness knows what mental connections would have led to that conclusion, perhaps a confused conflation of slowpoke and mosey - but in any case I would, as so often, have been quite, quite wrong.

This is a mopoke:

Now, before you start spluttering stuff about owls being difficult to spot because they only come out at night, and that in any case you only get mopokes in Australia and New Zealand which makes it jolly hard for the rest of us, firstly may I say that some owls do come out in the daytime; and, secondly, that I'm pretty sure there is a mopoke or two near you.

For a mopoke is not only an owl (Ninox novaseelandiae, though people often call Podargus strogoides:

File:Podargus strigoides -West Ryde, Sydney, New South Wales-8.jpg
photo by Andrew Beeston from Australia

a mopoke, too) but also a slow and lugubrious person. Someone, in other words, who enjoys being miserable so much that they seldom rush the experience.

I bet it won't take you more than half an hour to spot one of those.

Spot the frippet: mopoke. This word was coined in the 1990s and imitates the birds' call. Mind you, it has over twenty names, including morepork, ruru and boobook, so it probably isn't a very good imitation of the birds' call. 

Sunday 11 August 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: guipure.

Guipure might sound like a nasty tropical disease, but it's actually much lovelier than you'd think:
File:PSM V08 D543 Honiton guipure.jpg
Honiton guipure lace.
Yes, guipure is a sort of lace. And what makes it guipure?
Well, as you know, lace is traditionally connected with brides; but guipure is connected by brides.
No, really. You can see the brides in the picture. They're the little loopy strings that hold the leaves and flowers together.
Hand-made Honiton lace takes about seven hours per inch to make.
Seven hours...and you end up with something that sounds like a stomach upset.
Sometimes there's just no justice, you know.

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: guipure. This word comes from the Old French guiper, which means to cover with cloth.

Saturday 10 August 2013

Saturday Rave. The 39 Steps, partly by Alfred Hitchcock..

The novel called The 39 Steps was written by John Buchan, but what I want to rave about today is from the film of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock.

The film doesn't bear all that much resemblance to the book, but it's terrific, all the same.

The 39 Steps 1935 British poster.jpg

In fact, this being a blog about words, I only want to rave about one single line from the film. It's one of my very favourite movie lines of all time.

Our hero, Richard Hannay (played by the swoon-inducingly suave Robert Donat) has been picked up at a music hall by a beautiful and mysterious foreign stranger (who claims her name is Annabella Smith, and who is played by Lucie Mannheim).

Annabella Smith is one of the most obviously dodgy people ever to appear on celluloid, but she makes it clear from the outset that she's after two things. Firstly, she needs to be saved from assassination by an international spy ring; and secondly - well, the second thing is something Richard Hannay is prepared to do something about. Because she's hungry.

And what does a romantic hero give a beautiful dangerous stranger whom he's taken back to his flat?

Caviar? Champagne? Pâté de Foie Gras?

Not even close. Hannay, you see, is a straightforward sort of a chap, and no one has bothered to tell him he's in the middle of a spy thriller.

'Can you eat haddock?' he asks.

And then he gets some raw fish out of a meat safe and cooks it for her.

That moment still gives me joy.

And I'm pretty sure it always will.

Word To Use Today, Preferably In A Romantic Context: haddock. This word appeared in the 1300s, but no one's sure where the word came from.

Friday 9 August 2013

Word To Use Today: fell.

I do not like thee, Dr Fell
The reason why - I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not like thee, Dr Fell.

It's only just occurred to me, but perhaps one of the reasons Tom Brown disliked the poor man (John Fell, 1625–1686, was the dean of Christ Church college, Oxford) was because he went by the name of Fell.

I'm afraid it's a word of ill-omen.*

All right, fell seams in needlework aren't particularly sinister, except that they're associated with sides-to-middling. (This is an ancient and very dull craft previously employed by poor people. You cut a worn bed sheet down the middle lengthways, turn the less-worn sides to the middle and sew them together. It means you're always sleeping on a seam. A fell seam.)

Definitely sinister is the fell of one fell swoop, where fell means cruel or terrible or even deadly.

Then there's the fell of fell-walking. Now, the fells of Northern Britain are glorious and beautiful in good weather:

Fair Snape Fell.

but unfortunately it hardly ever is.

Lastly, we have the fell which means an animal skin or hide. And, I mean, eu!

Now, I'm sure there are thousands of lovely fluffy bright and beautiful people all over the world called Fell.

If you see one, do make a point of loving them as much as is humanly possible.

It can't be easy, you know.

Word To Use Today: fell. The falling-down and needlework meaning comes from the Old English fellan; the cruel meaning comes from the Old French fel, from the Mediaeval Latin fellō, which means villain; the animal hide comes from the Old Norse berfjall, bearskin, and before that from the Latin pellis, skin; and the tract of upland moor comes from the Old Norse fjall, related to the Old High German felis, rock. 

*Especially if you're a tree.

Thursday 8 August 2013

The Future's Future: a rant.

Appointments, tickets for concerts, plays and exhibitions: nowadays they all have to be pre-booked.

File:Michigan Theater Tickets.jpg
Photo by Andypiper.

The prefix pre (from the Latin prae, before) implies that I must do the pre-booking before the event in question.

Well, that's the only sensible - and, indeed, possible - way of doing it.

But what I want to know is, what in the name of Hades is plain booking supposed to do???

Word To Use Today: future. This word comes from the Latin fūtūrus, which means about to be, from esse, to be.

Hm, fūtūrus - esse. That's not that convincing, is it?

Wednesday 7 August 2013

Nuts and Bolts: a shorter the

I'm all for enthusiasm, but some subjects do raise alarming passions.

Oddly, grammar is one of them.

The Australian Paul Mathis has suggested the Cyrillic letter “Ћ” as a replacement for the established but, in his opinion, too-long word the.

Mr Mathis has even invested AUS $38,000 in an app (though so far it's not been accepted by Apple).

The word the is said to be the commonest word in the English language, and having a special symbol for it would certainly save English users some time.

Mr Mathis not the first to think so. Middle English used the letter thorn with a small e after it to stand for the, like this: þe . In later typefaces it came to be written ye, which is still be seen when people are trying to be cute, as in Ye Olde Worlde Computer Shoppe, etc.

An even simpler solution is used by the canny and famously careful people of Yorkshire. Up there in t'north they quite often drop the he of the word the both in speech and writing (and even the t isn't really said, either).
But these solutions have the same fault as Ћ. As Mr Mathis says, they're quicker than writing the
Why is that a problem?
Because it means that people will have even less opportunity to think about what they're writing.
And, as we all know, it's thought, not words, that's usually the thing that's lacking in human language.
Word To Use Today: the. How easy is this? The word the used to be a demonstrative adjective (the same sort of word as this and those). It's related to the Old Frisian thi and the Old High German der.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

Thing To Do Today: the fandango.

Skip the light fandango, suggested Keith Read in A Whiter Shade of Pale.

And, really, why not?

The original fandango looked like this:

A fandango from the 1700s, by Pierre Chasselat

But if that looks a little worrying - not to say camp - then do not fear. There are many sorts of fandangos for all shapes, sizes and conditions of men.

Fandangos grandes (big fandangos) are normally danced by couples, start out slowly and gradually get faster.

Fandanguillos (little fandangos) are lively dances for festivals.

In the Philippines, the fandango has developed into the Pandanggo sa Ilaw (Fandango of Lights). If you are a woman you have to dance this fandango balancing a small lantern on your head.

Hm. Perhaps you'd better not attempt that one. Not indoors, anyway.

In Portugal the fandango is basically a contest between (usually) two men to show off their best moves.

If you're not sure how to fandango then this should give you the idea:

So, really, anyone can do it. The story goes that when the dance was about to be banned by the Roman Catholic Church the judge-priests got so excited by the demonstration they were given that they jumped up, joined in...and the fandango was never banned after all.

You really can't dance?


Well, in that case then I suppose you'll have to go for the figurative sort of fandango, and just make a great big enormous fuss.

Word To Use Today: fandango. This word comes from Spanish, but no one's sure where it came from before that.

Monday 5 August 2013

Spot the frippet: crank.

In Britain a crank is someone odd, and in the USA it's someone bad-tempered.

Hm. This isn't going to be difficult either way, is it.

Even if you're surrounded by models of good humour and balanced logic (do send your address, if so) then there are other cranks available for spotting.

A crank is basically a bent handle.

Here's one:

and here's another (the treadle bit)

And if you thought those were out-of-date, how about this paddle-boat:

that comes from the 1400s.

If that boat had had sails, then it might have been cranky, which means easily keeled over by the wind.

Cranks on vehicles are usually hidden inside crankcases, nowadays, but here's a compound crank that's not changed much in centuries:

Seeking out your nearest crowd is still going to be the easiest way to spot this frippet, though.

Spot the frippet: crank. This word comes from the Old English cranc, and is related to the Middle Low German krunke, wrinkle.

Sunday 4 August 2013

Sunday Rest. Word Not To Use Today: steatopygous.

Steatopygous is a nasty, tarry-sounding word which almost no one understands.

It's used only by those who are not only rather unkind, but arrogant with it.

Still, I can't help admitting to a certain glee in knowing a word to describe someone who has a fat bottom.

Tea in the garden, Beryl Cook 2003 

Word Not To Use Today: steatopygous. This word comes from the Greek stear or steat- which means fat, plus pugē, which means the buttocks.


Saturday 3 August 2013

Saturday Rave: Overheard on a Salmarsh by Harold Monro.

There may be goblins out there, somewhere.

I can't be sure.

I'm pretty sure a goblin will never come up to me and start talking about the weather, though, because if there are such creatures they'll not be interested in me or my world: not when they have their own to glory in.

But perhaps, if I was somewhere where humans can't live comfortably - the woods, perhaps, or a marsh - then just perhaps I might get a glimpse of something.

I can't help but hold onto some faint hope...


I love this poem for a dozen reasons. The two main ones are the sound of the words, and the inhuman energy of the dialogue.

(By the way, a salmarsh is the same thing as a saltmarsh.)


Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?

Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?

Give them me.


Give them me. Give them me.


Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them.

Goblin, why do you love them so?

They are better than stars or water,
Better than voices of winds that sing,
Better than any man’s fair daughter,
Your green glass beads on a silver ring.

Hush, I stole them out of the moon.

Give me your beads, I want them.


I will howl in a deep lagoon
For your green glass beads, I love them so.
Give them me. Give them.



Word To Use Today: goblin. From the Middle High German kobalt.

Friday 2 August 2013

Word To Use Today: ragamuffin.

Not all kids nowadays get the chance to explore the deep and fundamental fun of filth.

Ragamuffin (meaning a scruffy child) is too lovely a word not to use, though, so if you do happen to have a child about the place then do encourage it to explore a few thickets, or roll about in the dust or mud a bit.

However, if you'd prefer a clean, cuddly ragamuffin then you can have one of those, too:


The ragamuffin cat is the result of high and dangerous passions amongst cat-breeders. The Ragdoll breed of cat was strictly controlled by its originator, and, partly as a result of this, Ragdoll cats came to be bred with other sorts of cat with the aim of producing a new breed as friendly as the Ragdoll. The ragamuffin cat came into being in the USA in the 1990s.

The 1980s had also seen the appearance of a new sort of raggamuffin, this time in the French Antilles. (No, raggamuffin really spelt like that in this case, with two gs.) 

Raggamuffin music started when a musician called Kassav began using MIDI technology to record instrumental tracks. Wayne Smith's "Under Me Sleng Teng" was produced by King Jammy in 1985 on a Casio MT-40 synthesizer. It's generally recognized as the seminal ragga (which was short for raggamuffin) song.

 Raggamuffin Hip-Hop Mix Old School by Numan70ex.
There we are. Three sorts of rag(g)amuffins.
And all just the coolest of cool cats.
Word To Use Today: rag(g)amuffin. This word arrived in English in the 1300s when it appeared in the poem Piers Plowman as the name of a demon. The name for the cat was originally an affectionate nickname based on Ragdoll. Ragamuffin entered Jamaican patois after the British colonized Jamaica in the 1600s, and later the young people of Jamaican youth appropriated it as a badge of honour.