This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 30 September 2013

Spot the frippet: high-muck-a-muck.

Words are magical things. Uttering the word high-muck-a-muck will cheer everyone up, even on a Monday morning.

No, it does.

Try it. All together, now:



One of the most wonderful things about this word is that its meaning is quite plain even though it comes from a language spoken chiefly by Native American Indians.

Yes, a high-muck-a-muck is a conceited or a haughty person.

So, an easy spot, this. Just have a look around you. The only difficulty will be remembering that it's rude to point. 

Oh yes, high-muck-a-muck is a gift for life, because however annoying those stuck-up people are, and however clever they imagine themselves to be, all you have to do is look them in the eye and say high-muck-a-muck to yourself.

All irritation will disappear as the morning mist.

And you never know, it might even do something for your blood pressure, too.

Spot the frippet: high-muck-a-muck. This word comes from the Chinook Jargon hiu muckamuck, which means plenty food.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Sunday Rest: infundibuliform jowls.

I've just got round to reading CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller. On page eighteen I've come across this:

...that patriotic Texan with his infundibuliform jowls and lumpy, rumpleheaded, indestructible smile that cracked forever across the front of his face like a black ten-gallon hat.

CATCH-22 is by almost all accounts a very good book (I haven't yet got far enough into it to judge for myself) but I'm afraid that  infundibuliform really does annoy me.

Yes, it may be one of Heller's characters showing off his knowledge, or his bitterness, or his obsessiveness, but I can't help but feel I'm being patronised, here.

So, what does infundibuliform mean?

No idea. Hang on, I'll look it up... we are. Having the shape of a funnel.

Jowls, in the shape of a funnel?

But you can't have...

Well, never mind that, perhaps I'm missing something. It's a horrible horrible word.

And really very few funnel-shaped things deserve it.

Word Not To Use Today: infundibuliform. This word comes from the Latin infundere, to pour in, on, or out, from the Latin forma, a shape or likeness.

Saturday 28 September 2013

Saturday Rave: Genevieve by William Rose.

If there is a perfect film to lift the spirit while simultaneously teaching us a little about very old cars and a great deal about human nature, then it's Genevieve.

Genevieve, unlike the stars of most films, is permanently on display. She can be seen here:

Den Haag - Louwman Museum.jpg

For Genevieve is a car - a special car - a 1904 Darracq, to be precise, and her tale was told by the screenwriter William Rose.

Genevieve's driver Alan McKim ends up in a very unofficial race with his great friend Ambrose Claverhouse, the driver of a 1905 Spyker, during the London to Brighton rally.

The men squabble like schoolboys, and like schoolboys they get into one scrape after another, despite the protests of Alan's wife Wendy and Ambrose's girlfirend Rosalind. At last, utterly exasperated, Wendy lets fly with this immortal line:

This is the end! Making a public spectacle of  yourselves. I couldn't have believed you could have behaved like this, either of you. Just hauling like brooligans.

And, do you know, that makes them all laugh so much that they actually stop.

For a minute, anyway: soon the mayhem returns.

Here, to give you a flavour of the film, are John Gregson and Dinah Sheridan as Alan and Wendy McKim.

Word To Use Today: hooligan. Hooligans may well be named after the Houlihan family, who were presumably a loud and rather rough lot. The word first appeared in the 1800s.

Friday 27 September 2013

Word To Use Today: corbie.

What's a corbie?

Why, something that walks up corbie steps, of course:

Zunfthaus zur Haue in Zürich.

And who would walk up those? Well, chimney sweeps and roofers, though the reason for corbie steps is probably more to do with the fact that stone blocks tend to come square-cut than to help them.

They're rather grand to look at, are corbie steps, although unfortunately they're not the most sensible things if you want to keep the rain out.

Ah well.

So, is a corbie a chimney sweep or a roofer, then?

No, neither of those.

This fine fellow:

is a corbie.

In most parts of the world we call them crows, and they're black; but they're called corbies in Scotland and are quite often largely grey.

If you want to know who you're going to marry, then a corbie is what you want. You go out on the morning of Candlemass (February 2nd) and you throw a stone in the general direction of a corbie (you don't want to hit it). If it doesn't budge you then throw a bone towards it, and then if it's still refusing to move, a clump of turf. If it flies off over the sea, you'll marry a foreigner; if it lands on a farm or house, it'll be someone from home; but if it stays put, you'll never marry at all.

Well, that's what the Faroe Island legend says, anyway.

Word To Use Today: corbie. This word comes from the Old French corvin, from the Latin corvus, a raven.

The word corbie sometimes refers to a raven even now.

Thursday 26 September 2013

Ambient juice: a rant.

Save 50 pence on Cherrygood Ambient Juice, said the supermarket coupon I was given the other day.

Ambient juice.

Ambient juice?

...but what on earth...

...hang on, let's calm down and think about it properly.

Ambient means to do with the surroundings. So ambient noise is the average amount of noise in a place, rather than the level directly in front of the loudspeakers; and ambient temperature is the temperature of a room in general rather than that of the bowl of ice cream on the table.

So...ambient juice...

...that would be juice that you spray into the atmosphere, then, so you can put out your tongue and lick a few drops out of the air whenever you like.


...or, well, this is just a guess, but could it possibly be that calling the stuff ambient is a totally meaningless and infuriating marketing ploy by illiterates for illiterates?

I'll leave it to you to determine.

Word To Use Today: ambient. This word comes from the Latin ambiēns, which means going around.

That's like my head, then.

Ambient juice indeed...


Wednesday 25 September 2013

Nuts and Bolts: bathos.

Bathos is the pits.

No, really, that's what it means. The pits, as in the depths. It's Greek.

As a language term bathos is when something starts quite loftily and then comes down to earth with a bump (how about that, even in modern English we still use height and depth words to convey this idea. Neat, huh?).

This example of bathos, by 'a Housemaid Poet' is quoted in D.B. Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee's The Stuffed Owl: An Anthology of Bad Verse.

O Moon, when I gaze on thy beautiful face,
Careering along through the boundaries of space,
The thought has often come into my mind
If I shall ever see thy glorious behind.

Bathos is usually, as in the example above, unintended. Here's a brand new example I came across just the other day. It's from the IKEA furniture catalogue.
 This sofa can easily suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. It has a removable machine washable cover.
That one's been making me laugh for days.

Nuts and Bolts: bathos. This word comes from the Greek bathus, which means deep. The term is said to have been first used in its current literary sense by Alexander Pope in his treatise Peri Bathous; or, The Art of Sinking in Poetry (1728).

Tuesday 24 September 2013

Thing To Do Today: blather.

Or should blather be a Thing Not To Do Today?

After all, life is stern, or so they say, and life is earnest. Perhaps we should be terse and consisely logical at all times.

Perhaps we should think what we are going to say, and then say what we think.

Perhaps we should omit unnecessary words.

Be unambiguous.

Be business-like.

Perhaps even be laconic...

...oh, but good heavens above, where's the fun in that?

No, let's have a good blather (or a blether if you're from the north of Britain). Let's talk a bit of nonsense, even if it's foolish and people call us blatherskites.

It's useful, after all.

Well, who's to know what's foolish until someone's said it?

Thing To Do Today: blather. This word comes from the Old Norse blathra, from blathr, which means nonsense. In Northern England, though, to be blethered means to be weary.

Monday 23 September 2013

Spot the frippet: quoin.

Q words are special,* and quoin is a particularly satisfying example, I think.

I'm sure you've seen them, even if you've never realised it.
Quoins are decorative blocks on the outside corners of a wall.

Can you see them?

Sometimes they give strength to a wall made mostly of stuck-together rubble, and sometimes they're just to show off.

The keystone of an arch can be called a quoin, too:

And so can a wooden wedge used to lock up type firmly into a frame:

Quoins are also wedges used to get a cannon to point up at the right angle.

Quoins: yes, they're all over the place.

And isn't it good to have a name for them?

Spot the Frippet: quoin. This word arrived in English in the 1500s. It's a variant of coin meaning corner.

*All right, you can spell this word coign or coigne, but it's not the same.

Sunday 22 September 2013

Sunday Rest: autarky. Word Not To Use Today.


The first question with this word is, obviously, what's an aut?

Because if a monarchy is ruled by one person (because mon means one, as in monocycle) and a matriarchy is ruled by mother-figures (because matri means mother, as in matrimony*), then an autarky must clearly be ruled by an aut.

...except that of course we none of those other archys has a k in it, and it is at this point that our whole theory falls flat on its face.

Because as it happens autarky is nothing to do with ruling anything.

Well, except carrots and loo roll and motor cars, perhaps.

Autarky - and it must be one of the most spiky and awkward word in the English language - means self-sufficiency.

It's usually used to describe countries which don't want to have to buy things from other countries:

King George V Docks in Hull, England.

and not to Uncle Reg's runner beans:

File:Allotment Gardens - - 832255.jpg
Photo Dennis simpson

so at least the word autarky is usually ignorable.

But it still sits there, all spiky, in a corner.

And I do wish it wouldn't.

Word Not To Use Today: autarky. This word comes from the Greek autos, which means self, and arkein, to suffice.

*Um. That's a bit odd, isn't it, come to think about it.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Saturday Rave: nonsense from Lear.

Just how much nonsense Shakespeare's hero King Lear speaks is something that could be fretted over for years.

And, indeed, some people have.

But this post is about another Lear, Edward. Whether his need for nonsense came as a result of his lack of success as a landscape painter, whether it was a desperate reaction to having been obliged to try to teach Queen Victoria to draw, or whether it was because of some strange but joyful tangle in the synapses of his brain I cannot say.

A loud hurrah, anyway.
This letter was written from Lear to Lord Cromer in 1850. I don't think that either of them would mind my sharing it.
Thrippy Pilliwinx,-
Inkly tinky pobblebockle able-squabs? Flosky! Veebul trimble flosky! Okul scratch abibblebongibo, viddle squibble tog-a-log, ferry moyassity amsky flamsky crocklefether squiggs.
Flinky wisty pomm.
And I'm sure that Lord Cromer was very glad to hear it.
Word To Use Today: abibblebongibo. A very cheering word when you've just dropped something. Mind you, a good rant at that flamsky crocklefether eases the burdened soul, too.
These words both come from a great and overflowing desire to be utterly silly.
Well, why not.

Friday 20 September 2013

Word To Use Today: lassitude.

No, not a state resembling one of these:

but feeling weary, either physically or mentally, like this:

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Lassitude
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

No, that's all right, no thanks required. It's a pleasure. Really.

I'd hate to think of the word causing you embarrassment and confusion.

Word To Use Today: lassitude. This word came into English in the 1500s from the Latin lassitūdō, from lassus, which means tired.


Thursday 19 September 2013


I know, I know, a lot of people don't understand about apostrophes, and historically they weren't blah blah blah, and, yes, there are much more important things than punctuation marks (like love, life, health and happiness) BUT....

...deep breath...

...if I were going to buy a car, it wouldn't be from someone who produced an advert like this: 

Embedded image permalink

I mean, if no one in the company can be bothered to work out how to use apostrophes, what chance is there of their bothering to understand really hard things, like crankshafts and catalytic converters?

Ah well, I would probably have been too busy wondering what cargiant means to buy anything from them anyway.

Word To Use Today: car. This word arrived in English in the 1300s from the Anglo-French carre, which is related to the Latin carra, a two-wheeled wagon, but is probably of Celtic origin. There's an Old Irish word carr.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Nuts and Bolts: say what you mean.

The English language was first cobbled together by English people.

Its manufacture was largely a matter of trial and error, together with a magpie-like stealing of pretty things from other languages.

English is still a work in progress, but luckily we now have half the people of the world chipping in to help get the thing working properly.

I say luckily because English people aren't really that good at speaking English.

Here, copied shamelessly from another part of the internet, is a list of some of the ways that English English is so often the opposite of clear and logical. 

I hear what you say I disagree and do not want to discuss it further He accepts my point of view

With the greatest respect

You are an idiot

He is listening to me

That's not bad

That's good

That's poor
That is a very brave proposal
You are insane
He thinks I have courage

Quite good
A bit disappointing Quite good
I would suggest Do it or be prepared to justify yourself Think about the idea, but do what you like
Oh, incidentally/ by the way The primary purpose of our discussion is That is not very important

I was a bit disappointed that
I am annoyed that It doesn't really matter

Very interesting
That is clearly nonsense They are impressed

I'll bear it in mind
I've forgotten it already They will probably do it
I'm sure it's my fault It's your fault Why do they think it was their fault?
You must come for dinner It's not an invitation, I'm just being polite I will get an invitation soon
I almost agree I don't agree at all He's not far from agreement
I only have a few minor comments Please rewrite completely He has found a few typos
Could we consider some other options I don't like your idea They have not yet decided

*     *      *    *    *

I suppose this does explain the rise of a special dialect called Business English, designed so that people across the globe can communicate with each other.

And, of course, it also explains why English people have such trouble speaking it.

Word To Use Today: incidentally. This word comes from the Latin incidens, an event, from the Latin incidere, to fall into.

Although no one seems to know who the author of the table above is, it's thought it may have originally been drawn up by a Dutch company to help employees working in the UK.

Tuesday 17 September 2013

Thing To Do And Not To Do Simultaneously Today: be ruthful.

So here we are back in Contranym Land, where everything means both itself and its own opposite.

These are John Tenniel's pictures of Alice, who knew what it was like.

Ruthful means causing sorrow, which no sane person would wish to do. It also means feeling sorrow, which similarly no one sane would wish to do - unless they're feeling particularly self-obsessed or self-dramatising, which I must admit is rather a lot of people rather a lot of the time.

Ah well. I suppose it keeps the book and film market afloat.

Ruthful means feeling pity, too, which is an important and necessary thing; but then it also means causing pity, which is something greatly resented by some people and greatly courted by others.

Oh dear.

Complicated, aren't we?

Thing To Do And Not To Do Simultaneously Today: be ruthful. Whichever way you do it, cause no harm. This word arrived in English in the 1100s from rewen which means to rue, from the Old English hrēowan.

Monday 16 September 2013

Spot the frippet: graffiti.

Graffiti has been around a long time.

(Yes, I know that technically graffiti is a plural, singular graffito, but not even a delight in odd plurals allows me to use the word in the singular. It would only make people hate me. It's the same with describing The Emirates and The Den as football stadia; technically correct, but in practical terms both aggressive and absurd.)

Anyway, here's some 7th century graffiti at New Grange in County Meath, Ireland.

Photo by Mc Glen.

Still older, the eruption of Vesuvius preserved lots of graffiti in Pompeii, including curses, declarations of love, spells, and political slogans.

In fact it seems as if there's graffiti defacing practically every ancient and beautiful building in the world.

(I expect it defaced every ancient and ugly building in the world, too, but luckily most of those have been pulled down.)

Is graffiti all bad? Well, the only known source of the Safaitic language, a form of early Arabic, is from graffiti inscriptions. So that's something.

Nowadays...well, you know about nowadays. It's the same old same old.

Occasionally it's funny:


Occasionally it makes money. Banksy has become famous for his careful and interesting graffiti,

There have even been attempts to run graffiti advertising campaigns.

There are galleries selling graffiti, too - except that, given that graffiti consists of unauthorised marks on someone else's property, being able to sell it must mean it isn't graffiti at all. Doesn't it?

Ah well. I do quite like the idea of reverse graffiti, which is when you make a message by cleaning away the dirt on something. The commonest message, of course, is WASH ME.

And I quite like some other graffiti, as long as it's more beautiful and entertaining than the building it's drawn on.

But there's not much of that about, is there?

Spot the frippet: graffiti. This word is Italian and means a little scratch. Before that it comes from the Latin word graphium, which means stylus.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Sunday Rest: impromptu. Word Not To Use Today.

It's the promp.

The im and the tu are not blameless: a bit more assertiveness from them and the loathsome promp might explode less hideously into our sentences, but it's the promp that's the main problem.

If the word meant person who barges to the front of the crowd and demands to be served first then, fair enough, the word might be appropriate.

But an impromptu (ouch, isn't it horrible?) is a lovely thing, a first fine careless rapture. Something created without forethought, begun without conscious effort, a gift from...well, whether Nature, God, Experience, Madness or simply Joy, who can say.

Sometimes they're miraculous.

But I do wish they weren't called...
...well, you know what.
Word Not To Use Today: impromptu. This word arrived in the 1600s from France, and before that it comes from the Latin in promptū, which means in readiness.
Which is, I suppose, in some ways the exact opposite of what it means today.

Saturday 14 September 2013

Saturday Rave: Pish's Song by WS Gilbert.

Sir Arthur Sullivan's contribution to The Mikado - that is, the music - is a joyous thing, but I want to rave about the words.

WS Gilbert is brilliant at plotting, and he's a master of comic verse. He'll take the silliest possible idea and turn on it a logical, affectionate and steely eye, summon up the most divinely focused language, and delight absolutely everyone who isn't a complete grouch.

Here's just one of many brilliant songs from The Mikado. It's sung by a character called Pish.

Our great Mikado, virtuous man.
When he to rule our land began,
Resolved to try
A plan whereby
Young men might best be steadied.
So he decreed, in words succinct,
That all who flirted, leered, or winked
(Unless connubially linked)
Should forthwith be beheaded.

And I expect you'll all agree
That he was right to so decree.
And I am right,
And you are right,
And all is right as right can be!

MEN: And you are right, etc.

PISH: This stern decree, you'll understand,
Caused great dismay throughout the land:
For young and old
And shy and bold
Were equally affected.
The youth who winked a roving eye,
Or breathed a non-connubial sigh,
Was thereupon condemned to die
He usually objected.

And you'll allow, as I expect,
That he was right to so object.
And I am right,
And you are right,
And everything is quite correct!

MEN: And you are right, etc.

PISH: And so we straight let out on bail
A convict from the county jail,
Whose head was next,
On some pretext,
Condemned to be mown off,
And made him Headsman, for we said,
"Who's next to be decapited
Cannot cut off another's head
Until he's cut his own off.'

And we are right, I think you'll say,
To argue in this kind of way.

And I am right,
And you are right,
And all is right too-loo-ral-lay! 

* * *

Now, how silly is that story? I mean, is it historically accurate? Does Gilbert's stance confirm the patriarchy? Where is the Mikado's motivation? That's what I want to know...

...well, actually I don't. Quite honestly I couldn't care less.

And that mown off/own off rhyme? Contrived? You bet.

But who cares? Not me.

For all is right too-loo-ral-lay.

File:Groucho Marx Koko the Mikado Bell Telephone Hour 1960.JPG
This is Groucho Marx playing Koko the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado.

Word To Use Today: decapited. Okay this isn't really a word - it should be decapitated, but that wouldn't scan. Still, we all know what it means, don't we, even though its middle has been cut out.

If anyone queries our use of it, a simple and dignified reference to The Mikado should sort out any problems.

Decapited comes from the Latin caput, which means head.

Friday 13 September 2013

Word To Use Today: ladder.

Yes, it's Friday the thirteenth today and so it seems a good day to think about luck and, especially, ladders.

In Britain, the commonest sort of ladder is probably one of these:

(Yes, they're called runs in other parts of the world, but you can see why they're called ladders over here.)

Then there's the social ladder, which is the idea that life consists - or should consist - of trying to reach a higher social position. Well, if it makes you happy...

...well, actually, it won't.

Look, just take my word for it.


You can take part in a ladder tournament, most often a badmington or squash one, in which a contestant can challenge any person above him on the list, and if the lower person wins the contestants swap places.

That's lucky, I suppose, for some.



are ladder-back chair - and, I can tell you, trying to climb one of those is a guaranteed disaster.

Lastly we have the original ladder after which all the others are named. They're inherently tricky things, whether you're climbing up or down or walking underneath them.

OK, they can be good luck on occasion:

but, let's face it, only if you're in a snake pit.

Thing To Avoid If Possible Today: a ladder. This word comes from the Old English hlǣdder.

Thursday 12 September 2013

positive shrinkage: a rant.

People keep going on stuff about negative growth.

Negative growth..., it's still not making any sense. Sorry.

Unless... negative growth the reason why old ladies are nearly always little old ladies?

File:Old lady buying flowers.JPG
Photo: Krystian Hasterok negative growth why my dress size keeps going down even though I'm certainly getting no thinner?

...or is negative growth why, over the years, the labels on identically-sized cereal packs have gone from standard to large to giant-size (though so far I've yet to come across one labelled full)?

...or, on the other hand, could it possibly be that the economists are in the midst of something so much too complicated for them to understand that putting it into sensible language defeats them?

I know where my suspicions lie.

Thing Not To Be Today: negative. This word comes from the Latin negāre, from nec, which means not, plus aio, which means I say.


Wednesday 11 September 2013

Nuts and Bolts: isograms.

People love words.

I love them for their sound, their history, and the magical way they allow me to pass a thought from my head into someone else's.

Other people enjoy arranging them in categories.

You can group words that sound similar (long wrong pong,) or have linked meanings (sock shoe stocking,) or ones that are isograms (fang toe bleat).

So what's an isogram?

Well, an isogram is itself an isogram because it has the same number of each of its letters - one i, one s, one o, and so on. Tiger, bucket, finger and explain are isograms, too. In fact it isn't hard to write a whole phrase in the things. Like that one. And that one.

Subdermatoglyphic is also an isogram, if you want to swank (that example is from Making the Alphabet Dance, by Ross Eckler.).

Boob is an isogram, too, because it has two of every letter.

On the other hand, if you have better things to do with your time, an isogram is also a line on a chart, such as a contour line, joining points that have the same value for some quantity.

I suppose it's a question of what sort of a nerd you are, really.

Thing To Use Today: an isogram. The word-play meaning was coined by Dmitri Borgmann in Language on Vacation: An Olio of Orthographical Oddities (Scribner, 1965). It is said to be a blend of isolated and pangram. The map meaning comes from the Greek words isos equal and grammē, line.


Tuesday 10 September 2013

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: hog something.

 Personally I think that hogs* are delightful creatures:

Attribution hthg1983's photo stream Flickr Photo Download: Dont ya think pigs can really fly? This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

but there's no denying they've got a bad reputation.

If you hog something then you're keeping hold of it so you can live high on the hog by taking more than your fair share. The lion's share, in fact.

Photo by Kevin Pluck.

The most likely animal to be hogged, though, is not a lion (though it could be done if the lion, asleep, drugged or dead, probably) but a horse. A hogged horse is one whose mane has been shaved off.

It must be admitted that, apart from the sort of hog which means to arch the back, none of this hogging behaviour is very lovely, and I can't help but feel sorry for all the kind, generous, loving hogs out there who are constantly having their reputation blackened.
And it's not just pigs who suffer. 
'Hedgehogs,' said Dan Antopolski, winning the prize for best joke at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival. 

'Why can't they just share the hedge?"


Thing Not To Do Today: hog something. This word comes from the Old English hogg from a Celtic word. The Cornish word is hoch.

*I think that hoggs are delightful creatures, too, but as half the time a hogg is a sheep and not a pig I'll leave that one alone for today.

Monday 9 September 2013

Spot the Frippet: skivvy.


In Britain you employ them, in America you hide them, and in Australia and New Zealand you show them off.

A British skivvy is someone who works very hard doing dirty housework (the dictionary says usually female. Ha! As if that needed saying).

The skivvy was usually the most junior of the indoor servants. Thankfully the need for a paid post of skivvy hasn't existed since the invention of the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, and, especially, central heating.

When skivvying is still needed nowadays it's usually done, unpaid, by the chief female of the household. This is because she is the only person in the family with the mental capabilities necessary for the perception of filth.

In America a skivvy is a man's T-shirt, but in the USA if you have skivvies then they're probably a set of men's underwear.

Australians and New Zealanders, both men and women, flaunt their skivvies quite openly.

In this case, however, skivvies are polo-necked sweaters, so it's not quite as exciting as it might be.

Spot the Frippet: skivvy. The T-shirt meaning seems originally to have been US Navy slang; the underwear meaning started off as a trade name. The origin of the name for a servant is a mystery.

For derivation-lovers I'm afraid can only really offer you skivie, which means bonkers and comes from the Old Norse skeifr, askew.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Sunday Rest: plastisphere. Word Not To Use Today.

It's just the sound of it that's horrible.

Plastisphere. So what's that? A garden cloche, a futuristic building, or something a hamster uses for exercise?

Actually the plastisphere is bigger than any of those. In fact in some ways it's a whole world.

We have Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler to thank for the discovery of the plastisphere - and also to blame, I fear, for the word.

The plastisphere is made up of all the plastic debris in the oceans. This discarded stuff is sometimes fatal to turtles and sea birds, but if you're small, really small, bacteria-sized maybe, then it's home. Sea creatures which rely on sunlight to make their food love it because instead of having to swim like crazy to stop themselves sinking into the dark depths they can hitch a lift on a handy bottle or food tray.

There are creatures in the plastisphere who eat these tiny sunlight-using creatures, and creatures who eat them. There are even creatures which appear to be eating the plastic itself, which is very useful and tidy of them.

Altogether the plastisphere is a wonderful, wonderful thing.

It's just the name...

Word Not To Use Today: plastisphere. This word appeared in July 2013 in a paper by Dr Mincer and Dr Amaral-Zettler. Plastikos is Greek, and comes from plassein, to form. 

Saturday 7 September 2013

Saturday Rave: Drinking, by Abraham Cowley.

I can't honestly say that this a good argument, exactly, but it's certainly a very well-made one.

The thirsty earth soaks up the rain,

And drinks and gapes for drink again;

The plants suck in the earth, and are

With constant drinking fresh and fair;

The sea itself (which one would think
Should have but little need of drink)

Drinks twice ten thousand rivers up,

So fill’d that they o’erflow the cup.

The busy Sun (and one would guess

By ’s drunken fiery face no less)
Drinks up the sea, and when he’s done,

The Moon and Stars drink up the Sun:

They drink and dance by their own light,

They drink and revel all the night:

Nothing in Nature’s sober found,
But an eternal health goes round.

Fill up the bowl, then, fill it high,

Fill all the glasses there—for why

Should every creature drink but I?

Why, man of morals, tell me why?

And I, for one, am too utterly charmed to worry about science and logic and such dry stuff as that!
Word To Use Today: thirsty. This word has been used in English for a long time. The Old English form was thyrstan, and before that there was a Latin word torrēre, which is also something to do with it.


Friday 6 September 2013

Word To Use Today: blunge.

Today's special offer: a chance to use the word blunge.

Yes, the word blunge.

You have to admit it's a gift to the wold. And, indeed, to the world(sorry, my fingers got crossed in my enthusiasm. Isn't it annoying that the funniest bits are so often typos? Mind you, wold is a superb word, too, which I shall file away for later.)

Anyway, blunge. What is it? It's a sloppy mixture of clay and water.

You can use it for making patterns on pots:

This pot was made by Michael Cardew.

or to stick bits onto them.

Wedgwood copy of the Roman Portland vase.

Predictably, you make blunge in a blunger, and in the potteries around the town of Stoke in England the blunger was loaded by the sliphouse blunger charger (blunge is also known as slip, though a blunger is not, as far as I know, known as a slipper.).

Ah, you may say, but I live in a blunge-free house, and my chances of tripping over a stray blunger charger are so small as to be negligible.

But how about those muddy shoes? Covered in blunge, quite probably.

And don't forget the power of metaphor.

Doesn't that morning fog cover the whole town in a sea of blunge?

And as for that school-dinner soup...

And how can anyone, but anyone be expected to do that Maths problem?

It's enough to turn your brains to blunge, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: blunge. This word appeared in the 1800s and is probably a mixture of blend and plunge.

Thursday 5 September 2013

The immune system: a rant.

This is from The Guardian newspaper of 10th August 2013. It's from a review of The Compatibility Gene by Daniel M Davis.

The reviewer shall remain decently anonymous.

...the immune system is thought to be involved in fighting disease, pregnancy and the brain.

Two thoughts, here (which is, I fear, at least one more than the writer seems to have bestowed on this bit of his review).

First: if the immune system didn't fight disease then it wouldn't immune system. Would it?

Second: if the writer had put fighting disease at the end of his list then he'd have saved himself embarrassment.

But, hey, it gave me a laugh.

Word To Use Today: immune. This word comes form the Latin immūnis, which means exempt from public service, from mūnis, which means duty.