This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 31 October 2013

A Terror for Halloween: a rant.

Yes, it's Halloween and what more terrible creature can I bring you to freeze your young blood and make each particular hair to stand on end like quills upon the fretful porpentine than (drum roll and man in a barrel going Mwa Ha Ha Ha!):

Moloch horridus!!!!

(Is your blood frozen yet?)

Now, Moloch, as you may know, was a nasty Caananite God who later was given the job of Prince of Hell. The poet Milton described him as smeared with the blood of human sacrifice.


As if that's not bad enough, this creature's second name is...


That's Latin, as you can probably guess. Horridus can mean rough or bristly, but obviously it's its other meaning, dreadful, that comes to mind once you've seen the Moloch.

So, what sort of creature is this rough and dreadful man-eating Prince of Hell?

One of these:

Its English name is either the thorny devil or the thorny dragon, and those names aren't very flattering, either.

So, is Moloch horridus really a man-eater?

Well, as the biggest of them only gets to be eight inches long, it's unlikely. In fact the poor thorny dragon lives almost entirely on ants. If you're an ant it's a terror - they can eat up to forty five ants a minute - but otherwise Moloch horridus is pretty harmless. Even their spines are mostly used to collect dew from the air: they have grooves in them that channel the water to their mouths.

So...can they sneak up on you and go boo? 

No, I'm afraid not. The thorny dragon is a plodder.

Can they bite?

Not generally, unless you're an ant. It has a hump on its neck:

and when threatened it tends to offer the hump in the hope of satisfying any predator with this small snack.

Can it turn into a...a...a werewolf?

Well, when they get cold or frightened they turn from pale yellow and red to a dark olive colour. But that's as far as it goes.

Oh. it's not really that scary, then.

No. It's rather a sweet little thing, and all the poor creature's names are thoroughly unfair.

And do you know what? I'm very cross indeed about it, too.

Word To Use Today: horrid. This word comes from the Latin horridus and originally meant prickly or rough.

The rotter who in 1841 gave the thorny dragon its nasty name (and I'm pretty sure it was just a marketing ploy to gain attention for its discovery) was the biologist John Edward Gray.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Nuts and Bolts: code talkers.

Why, in the 1930s, did a crazy white man send experts to America to study the languages of the Native American Indians?

It was because one of these Native American languages, Choctaw, had helped win the First World War.

In the WW1 trenches, Choctaw was used as the basis of a communications code. It proved very secure because even if the  messages were intercepted almost no one in Europe understood the language behind it.

As it happened, there proved to be far too many Native American languages for the crazy white man's experts to learn properly, and so in WW2 Native American language speakers (known as code talkers) were used successfully again.

This time the language Comanche was used extensively, even though many of the necessary technical terms didn't exist in the language. So, the Comanche code word for bomber meant pregnant aeroplane, machine gun was sewing machine and Adolf Hitler became crazy white man.

Navaho speakers were used in the fighting in the Pacific, and other languages used for code-talking included Cherokee, Lakota and Meskwaki. Sixteen per cent of the Iowa's Meskwaki speakers enlisted in the US Army in January 1941 (that was twenty seven people): rather wonderfully, Meskwaki was extra valuable because it had so few speakers. 

As the war progressed, more new terms had to be invented. One of the last of the Navaho phrases to be coined was béésh łóóʼ, or iron fish, which meant...

...but you can guess that, can't you.

Thing To Do Today: some code-talking. It doesn't have to be in Native American. Basque has been used for code-talking, and so has Welsh. It doesn't even have to be in a foreign language: after all most jargon works on much the same principle.

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Thing To Do Today: juggle.

The thing about juggling, as with playing the piano or the Three Card Trick, is - but others have put it better than me.

Doubtless the pleasure is as great
Of being cheated, as to cheat.
As lookers-on feel most delight,
That least perceive a juggler's sleight,
And still the less they understand,
The more th' admire his slight of hand. 
Samuel Butler (1612-1690)

Shakespeare had rather the same feeling about jugglers, I think. Certainly when he was juggling the elements of his farce The Comedy of Errors he had them in his mind.

 Here's Antipholus of Syracuse:

They say this town is full of cozenage,
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,

and here's his twin Antipholus of Ephesus*:

Along with them
They brought one Pinch, a hungry lean-faced villain,
A mere anatomy, a mountebank,
A threadbare juggler and a fortune-teller,

Neat, huh? How easy it is to step in meaning from someone who deceives the eye to someone who deceives the soul.

Of course, I must make it plain here that when not in Shakespeare's plays jugglers are remarkable for their integrity and honour. They also give us a lot of fun.

If you're a beginner, I understand that practice with chiffon scarves is recommended.

File:Munich - Two clown musicians and a pretty juggler - 6858.jpg
Jorge Royan

Beware, though, because juggling can become compulsive: you may have noticed that it's always the person who's already juggling two jobs, three children, a house, a garden, and a book group who decides to run the charity marathon.

Ah well. As long as everyone is enjoying themselves.

Thing To Do Today: juggle. This word comes from the Old French jangler, from the Latin iocor, which means I make a joke.

*No, I have no idea at all why anyone would give both their twins the same name.

Monday 28 October 2013

Spot the frippet: jugum.

You don't know what a jugum is???

Good heavens. Why, I've known about juga for least five and a half seconds.

Although a jugum sounds like a sweet made for Alice while in  Wonderland, in fact there are juga all over the place. You'll probably be close to some every day unless you live somewhere extremely cold and eat only very plain food.

A jugum can be one of the ridges found on the seeds of umbelliferous plants.

File:130 Heracleum Sphondylium L.jpg
That's hogweed. (An umbelliferous plant is one that has that sort of cow parsley/Queen Anne's lace type flower.) Sorry the labels are in French.

And if it's not the season for flowers where you are then not to worry because the kitchen cupboard may well provide a glimpse of juga.

Fennel seeds. Caraway, celery and dill are umbelliferous plants, too, so their seeds should display juga.

A jugum can also be a pair of opposite leaflets:

Blechnum appendiculatum

As if that's not enough for one small word to do, jugum also describes the mechanism some moths use to fix their fore and hind wings together when they want to fly, and a fold in the membrane at the base of a beetle's wing. 

Juga, juga, everywhere.

It really makes the world an even more wonderful place once you know.

Doesn't it?

Spot the frippet: jugum. This word is the Latin word for yoke.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Sunday Rest: plantigrade. Word Not To Use Today.

So just who are you calling a plantigrade, huh?

You trying to tell me that my grades are lower than a potato's?

That I'm a turnip-head or something?

That my intellectual attainments are...



Well, hey, that's what it sounded like.

So. You're saying that a plantigrade is just a sort of animal that walks with its whole foot on the ground, like a skunk or a rat -

- hey, just a flipping minute, who do you think you're comparing to a skunk or a rat -

 - or a bear. I see.

Or a human being.

Oh.'s nothing to do with plants, then. Or grades.


Well, I suppose I'll have to let you off, this time.

But just don't do it again, okay?

Word Not To Use Today: plantigrade. This word comes from the Latin words planta, the sole of the foot, and gradus, which means a step.

Saturday 26 October 2013

Saturday Rave: The Emigrant's Return. Anon.

There's nothing like a good long read for catching up a reader and transporting him to an alternate universe - and this is nothing like a good long read.

I don't know who wrote The Emigrant's Return, but it's quoted by Samuel Reynolds Hole in his 1892 book The Memories of Dean Hole.

Here it is in full.

Scene - a cottage in Ireland, Enter EMIGRANT, who surveys the dwelling with emotion, and knocks on the door. Door opens. Enter INMATE.

EMIGRANT: Is my father alive?
INMATE: He is not.
EMIGRANT: Is my mother living?
INMATE: She is not.
EMIGRANT: Is there any whisky in this house?
INMATE: There is not.
EMIGRANT: [sighs heavily] This is indeed a woeful day! [Dies]
Slow music. Curtain.

Could any social occasion not be the better for its performance?
Step 2: Add some new customers(Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Word To Use Today: whisky. As it's presumably Irish whiskey the poor Emigrant is after, I'm surprised it isn't spelled with an e. But there you go. This word comes from the Scottish Gaelic uisge beatha, which means water of life.

Friday 25 October 2013

Word To Use Today: hubbub.

England isn't really a place for hubbub. It seems that the people of many other places like to bellow and shout when exciting things happen, but English people tend to rely on a twitch of a single eyebrow to register emotion.

Well, it does save a lot of energy.

Some people have even managed to make a career out of the eyebrow thing.

Roger Moore in 1973. Mind you, the tie is emoting like mad.

Still, even in England you might come across a hubbub in a school corridor, or..., that's about it.

Though, come to think about it, seagulls and crows can make a lot of noise. And so can sheep. Yes, the sheep near us can get very  noisy (yes, yes, all right, they're vocal local sheep) if you walk past their field wearing a green jacket. Presumably this is because they usually get fed by someone in a green jacket. Or perhaps it's a fashion comment. I don't know.

Anyway, hubbub is far too entertaining a word not to use today, even if you have to start one yourself.

Raising a simple chant of I love cheese should do the trick, I think.

Word To Use Today: hubbub. Why should teachers have all the best words? Hubbub comes from the wonderful Irish word hooboobbes. No, really, it does. There's a Scots Gaelic word ubub! too, which is an exclamation of contempt.

Thursday 24 October 2013

A sense of humour: a rant.

Poor Professor Robert Brout. Although he was one of the physicists who helped develop the theory behind the Higgs boson, he didn't get so much as a mention from the Nobel Prize Panel when they were awarding the prize for Physics.

Robert Brout.jpg
(Oh look, he must have been a recorder player. Good for him. All recorder players are both brilliant and very nice.)

As it said in the Telegraph online on the eleventh of October:

Professor Brout died in 2011 and could not share the prize post

Post humorously...

...well, under the doubly trying circumstances I'm not surprised that poor Professor Brout had lost his sense of humour.

Word To Use Today: humorous. This word comes from the Latin humor, which means liquid, and the Greek hugros, wet.

PS I bet post humorously was a 'correction' done by a computer.  You know what computers are like. Now my own machine has got WORD 2013 loaded it's got completely above itself and started sneaking in extra capital letters when it thinks I'm not looking, blast it to blazes.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Nuts and Bolts: the rhetorical question mark.

I mean, what has punctuation ever done for us?

No, no, it's all right, that was a rhetorical question. I don't want you to answer it. I'm just bringing the matter to your attention.

As it happens I'm rather fond of punctuation. Having said that, I have to admit that the rhetorical question mark did very little for anybody. It was invented, by Henry Denham, in the 1580s but died in the 1600s. It was used at the end of  a rhetorical question to signal that no answer was required.

It often went by the off-putting name of percontation point.

It looked like a backwards question mark:

but it turned out no one needed it because we could tell quite easily when a question was rhetorical without it.
I mean, did Henry Denham think we were idiots?
Thing To Use Today: a rhetorical question. The word rhetoric has meant the same thing since Ancient Greek times. It was called after a rhetor, who was a teacher of rhetoric. Rhēma is the Greek for word.


Tuesday 22 October 2013

Thing To Do Today: sketch.

The artists among you will I'm sure be delighted to be given an excuse to sketch something.

Like this:

File:Carlo Bisiach sketch portrait.jpg
by Carlo Bisiach

But what about you others?

Well, you could sketch a wavy line and call it Worm. Or possibly Storm, if the line comes out a bit blotchy.

Or you could sketch a straight line and call it either Horizon, Ladder or Take Off, depending on which way it is pointing.

You could sketch a circle and call it Moon, or Pond; or perhaps, if you're feeling amibitious, you could draw two dots above it and call it Surprise.

If you're feeling really ambitious, then sketch your best friend sitting in an armchair. Then give it the title Number Two On The Edge Of Tomorrow. If nothing else, it'll give people hours of fun trying to work out what it's supposed to be.

If the visual arts leave you cold then perhaps you could try making some other sort of a sketch: a short descriptive piece of writing, perhaps, or something similar but for a musical instrument.

You might also see if you can acquire a sketchy knowledge of something.

Though I'm sure we've all got that already.

Thing To Do Today: sketch. This word comes from the Dutch skets, from the Latin schedius, hastily made, from the Greek skhedios, unprepared.

Monday 21 October 2013

Spot the frippet: skep.

A skep is a lovely thing.

It's a beehive, especially one made of straw.

This is one from 1800s Switzerland:

You get them in other places, too - here are some British ones:
File:Skeps in the bee shelter at Hartpury - - 686836.jpg
These are at Hartpury in England. Photo by Pauline Eccles.
If you come from a place where beehives of any kind are hard to find then fortunately a skep is also the amount of stuff you can get in, well, a skep.
In this case a skep is any kind of a large basket of wickerwork or straw.
Round here, a skep is most likely to be holding dirty washing, slightly broken toys, and possibly a spare battery for the bathroom scales (though that might be in the garage, the bathroom cabinet, or the tin in the kitchen instead).
They used to be popular for holding pot plants, too.
Finally, for a miner a skep is a more substantial thing altogether. It's a square metal container for holding coal or ore.
For anyone who is reading this on an electronic device - ie everyone - then, you never know, a skep might have been part of the process involved in bringing this account of itself to your attention.
Spot the frippet: skep. This word comes from the Old English sceppe, from the Old Norse skeppa, which means bushel, a unit of volume.

Sunday 20 October 2013

Sunday Rest: dawk. Word Not To Use Today.

We have so many way to communicate: smoke rings, email, drums, semaphore...
...and then there's dawk.
No, it doesn't sound very cutting-edge, does it: but for a long time dawk was the very best system of communicating over laong distances there was.
Dawk is a way of delivering messages (or sometimes people) by relays of horses or bearers. The Romans used something like it, though they had more sense than to call it dawk.
Rather horribly, a delivery service isn't the only meaning of the word dawk. A dawk can also be a hand, though it sounds like a rather grubby, clumsy sort of a hand, and not one with which I would wish to have anything to do.

File:Dirty Hands.jpg

Lastly, and most recently, a dawk is a hybrid of a hawk and a dove. No, not a monster of genetic engineering, but someone who has neither an aggressive nor a passive attitude to the issues of the day.

A meaning which manages to be dull, as well as ugly.
Word Not To Use Today: dawk. This transport word comes from the Hindi dāk from the Sanskrit drāk, which means quickly. The word meaning hand is a dialect word from North Eastern England. The issues word appeared in the second half of the 1960s, and is a mixture of the words dove and hawk. Well, I suppose hove would have caused difficulties with pronunciation.
People have been known to use the word dawkish. But it would be really much better if they didn't.

Saturday 19 October 2013

Saturday Rave: Cranford, by Mrs Gaskell.

Cranford is a small town in England, though it doesn't appear on any official map.

As to exactly where it is, well, Mrs Gaskell lived for many years in Knutsford, and it may be that some of her Cranford stories are borrowed from her experiences there.

If they are, then good grief Knutsford is well named.

An old lady had an Alderney cow, which she looked upon as a daughter.

As an opening to a story, I'm not sure anything could be better. You can find the whole tale HERE. It starts on page six.

Illustration by Hugh Thomson.

And by the end of the story, the Alderney cow was jolly well worth looking at, too.

Word To Use Today: daughter. This word comes from the Old English dohtor and goes right back to the Sanskrit duhitá.


Friday 18 October 2013

Word To Use Today: tincture.

[This post first appeared last Friday, but that was an accident.]


It sounds like the clink of a penny dropping into a collecting tin.

This is appropriate, as a tincture is a small amount, though it's not usually anything to do with money.

A tincture can be one of the colours on a heraldic shield (when I say colours I include white and yellow, even though strictly speaking in heraldry these aren't colours at all but metals).

This is the coat of arms of Peru.

A tincture can also be medicine mixed with alcohol (or, for British posh old people, the same thing but without the medicine). A tincture can mean a slight flavour, a mild scent, an almost invisible trace, or a slight colouring.

It can be a small amount of something intangible, too, like a hint of contempt in an eye or a tinge of doubt in a voice.

A tincture started off meaning dye or a pigment, but this meaning has now faded away like the pattern on an ancient carpet to leave hardly a trace of its existence behind.

Word To Use Today: tincture. This word comes from the Latin tinctura, dyeing, from tingere to dye or colour.


from Ed @ Lexicolatry:

You're absolutely right, Sally - tincture does sound exactly like a penny dropping into a metal bin. What a brilliant description.

From Jingles:

I'm neither British nor posh, but I do rather like that meaning! :)

From Sally:

Thanks, Ed and Jingles. Sorry about the technical blip that caused this post to do its Cheshire cat trick. If I knew what I'd done the first time I'd make sure I didn't do it again.
Ah well.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Swearing: a rant.

Any member of the public who is called to speak in an English court of law has to promise to tell the truth.
At the moment there are two ways you can make this promise. A religious person says:
"I swear by .......... (according to religious belief) that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
A person with no religion says:
"I do solemnly, sincerely and truly declare and affirm that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth."
The Magistrates' Association are now wondering about changing the wording of the oath to:

"I promise very sincerely to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and I understand that if I fail to do so I will be committing an offence for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison."

Now, that a change is worth considering I do not dispute. Adding the bit about the penalty for lying may be a great idea. The leaving out of the option to swear by whichever God one happens to follow may have its advantages.

But why very sincerely? Is it possible to be slightly sincere, or mostly sincere?


In fact, as time is money (especially, let's face it, when lawyers are involved) why not miss out the sincerely, as well?

I promise to tell the truth.

That's elegant and unambiguous, and bunging sincerity in there just might give people the idea that  they're fine as long as they think what they're saying is true.

And that's an invitation not to look too closely into what they're talking about.

Portrait of a judge, bust-length, in wig and robes - English School

 Word Not To Use Today Unless Necessary: sincere. This word comes from the Latin sincērus, which means whole, pure, uninjured, truthful.

There's a theory that the word started off being sin cerae, without wax, but all the crustiest etymologists curl their lips with scorn at the very idea.

Wednesday 16 October 2013

Nuts and Bolts: clitics.

An affix is something stuck onto a word, right?

Well, not like this:

No, an affix is when you add extra letters to change the meaning of a word a bit.

Affixes are things like kindness, uncomfortable, gives, children.

So that's an affix...

...except when it's not.

Sometimes these stuck-on bits are clitics.

A clitic is when the stuck-on bit is part of a separate word.

English examples might be the 's in it's (which, as we all know, is short for it is) or the 't in 'twas (it was) or the n't in haven't (have not) or the l' in the French l'histoire (the story).

You may be asking why this matters.

Well, having read rather a lot about clitics, and found out that clitics are all sorts of other things, too, like, for instance, a word which can't be stressed (such as the French word te) I know I'm asking why it matters.

Ah well. It's a lovely clicky word, in any case.

Thing To Use Today: a clitic. Whatever they are, they're all over the place in all sorts of languages. The word is to do with the Greek proklinein, which means to lean forwards.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Thing Perhaps To Do Today: sponsor someone.

I'd like to thank my sponsors, but unfortunately I don't know who there are.

You see, I'd already been christened when my parents adopted me, and so I don't know who acted as my sponsors, that is my godparents, on that occasion. I can't say this has ever bothered me, though I must have missed out on a few birthday presents over the years.

Naturally I've had sponsors from time to time since then, and I've been a sponsor many times more. I've sponsored a daughter to jump out of an aeroplane*; I've sponsored a son-in-law to grow a moustache (it's amazing the things one will sponsor people to do, even when they're obviously very very bad ideas); most recently I've sponsored a singer to shave off all her hair.

Ah well, it's quite fun to see an acquaintance make an idiot of himself, and I suppose it is some sort of indication that the cause is important.

File:U.S. Service members dressed as superheroes assigned to Combined Team Uruzgan pose at the end of the 5K Super Hero Fun Run June 7, 2013, at Multinational Base Tarin Kowt in Afghanistan 130607-O-CM658-827.jpg
 U.S. Service members 5K Super Hero Fun Run 2013, Afghanistan.

I don't know, though. The uncomfortable thing about raising money through sponsorship is that it displays the exact extent of one's meanness to all one's friends and relations. This can sometimes feel uncomfortably close to blackmail.

Ah well. As long as it's in a good cause.

2011 Cambridge Fun Run

Thing Perhaps To Do Today: sponsor someone. This word comes from the Latin spondēre, to promise solemnly.

*With the aid of a parachute, naturally.

Monday 14 October 2013

Spot the frippet: craze.

Well, this should be easy, because what makes a craze a craze is that it's all over the place.

Over the years I've joined in with the utmost eagerness in crazes for French skipping, French knitting, lemonade crystals (these came in different flavours and were sold by the ounce in a paper bag. The aim was to stain each finger a different colour), The Monkees, the tank top, spaghetti bolognese, the boot-cut trouser, the poodle perm, the bell-bottomed trouser (very dangerous, as anyone who's had a wasp zoom purposefully up a billowing hem can testify) and many, many other odd things including some that I'm still regretting, such as the wok and woodchip wallpaper.

To make things even easier for us there are other sorts of crazes, too. A pattern of fine surface cracks is described as crazing, as here:

A Song dynasty Celadon vase with crazed glaze.

Similar crazing can be found on badly-made concrete; metals; and the faces of people who have smoked for a long time.

If you don't know much about current fashion, look at heels, fonts on advertisements, and sandwich fillings, and you soon will.

But most of all, enjoy your own craze today.

Spot the frippet: craze. This word probably comes from Scandinavia. Sweden, for instance has a word krasa, which means to shatter.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Sunday Rest: tableau.

Is tableau really a horrible word?

It's quite gluey, and the spelling isn't easy, but there is a chance that the mixture of disappointment and horrified disbelief this word evokes in me stems, as so often, from a childhood trauma.

The thing is, I was tricked. I was told we were going to see a performance in which several old friends of the family were involved.

Now, naturally this appealed to me not at all. I'd seen them too often, their wrinkles filled in with Max Factor, carolling away lustily in some gay chorus.

My protests were stilled, however, when I was informed that one of my own friends was also to feature in the evening's entertainment, as, if I remember correctly, a water carrier.

This didn't sound much of a part, but obviously a lot of fun can be had with a large pot of water, and so I allowed myself to be dragged along quite hopefully.

Well, we arrived, found our seats, waited for ages, and then at last the curtain rose on a crowded scene of, as I recall, Biblical-era peasants. It was all rather colourful. So I settled down to wait for the action to start.

Well, I waited. And waited...

...and then after a few long minutes of watching all these people pretending to be statues the curtain fell again.

What? I demanded of my parents. What the...

Shhh! my parents said.

A long rustling interval. The curtain rising again on another crowded and slightly wobbly scene...

...and the curtain falling on it again.

It is still a matter of absolute outrage to me that I should have been dragged along to spend a whole evening watching a whole load of people doing absolutely nothing.

And it is still a matter of wonder to me that for weeks afterwards we were still having to tell old friends of the family that they'd been very good at it.

The way you held that jug, Sarah...


While I'm here, I might as well mention that a semantic tableau is a way of proving whether or not a set of statements is true. You do it by drawing a diagram.

And I can't say that sounds a barrel of laughs, either.

Word Not To Use Today: tableau. This word is French. The full description of the kind of entertainment inflicted on me above is tableau vivant, which means, laughably, living picture.

Saturday 12 October 2013

Saturday Rave: A Thousand And One Posts.

But surely, you will say, with your usual perspicacity, it's a thousand and one nights?

And so, of course, it is. But as it happens The Word Den has reached its a thousand and first post, hurray, and so this seems a suitable time to pay homage to the wondrous Scheherazade.

According to Sir Richard Burton, Scheherazade:

"...perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things....She had perused the works of the poets...she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred."

We all know Scheherazade's story. The Persian king had developed a frankly deplorable habit of killing his wife every day after their wedding night, and Scheherazade, in order to stop him, volunteered herself as his next bride.

File:Scheherazade by L. Bakst 08.jpg
Léon Bakst.

During the wedding night, Scheherazade began to tell a story, but (as of course you know) she stopped half way through. So the king had to let her live for another day so he could find out what happened in the end.

And after a thousand and one nights...

Ah, but most of us don't know that bit nearly so well.

After a thousand and one nights Scheherazade tells the king she has no more stories. By then he's fallen in love with her, of course, and - here's the really important thing - he's been made a kinder and a wiser man by Scheherazade's tales.

And that's the reason he makes her his queen.

Mikhail Fokin and Vera Fokina in the ballet Scheherazade. 
Glass plate negative.
Mikhail Fokin och Vera Fokina i baletten Scheherazade.
Fokin & Fokina, Stockholm 1914

Rimsky Korsakov wrote the music for the ballet of Scheherazade's story, and, probably because I'm a children's writer, my favourite part of the music is The Young Prince and The Young Princess:

Scheherazade is a great, great heroine of stories. She told them, and she was the heroine of one herself, and she showed the power, delight, and importance of them.

And, best of all, although she spilled all those treasures before us, there are far, far more than a thousand and one tales still to be told.

May we be perpetually blessed with their delight.

Word To Use Today: thousand. This word has hardly changed in a thousand years. The Old English form was thūsend.

Friday 11 October 2013

Word To Use Today: squirrelfish.

So a squirrelfish is a fish, but why is it a squirrelfish? Does it have a bushy tail,?

So...does it have a serious nut habit, then?

No. Actually it -

- does it climb trees, look cute on Christmas cards, rob bird feeders?

Um. No, no, and no. Look, I don't think you're going to get this -

- don't tell me! Was it discovered by a Mr Squirrel?

Not -

Or did people squirrel them away, to eat in had times?

I really don't think -

Did a Mr Squirrel pay for the expedition that first found them?

Look, as a matter of fact -

 - do they look like squirrels?


...taste like a squirrel?

Not as far as I know, no.

Oh all right, I give up, then.

All right, then. A squirrelfish is called a squirrelfish because it makes a noise like a squirrel.

It does what?

See? I knew you wouldn't get it.

File:Spotfin squirrelfish Neoniphon sammara (5800428816).jpg
spotfin squirrelfish. Photo by Paul Asman and Jill Lenoble.
Word To Use Today: squirrelfish. But you know the derivation of this one, don't you.

Thursday 10 October 2013

A timely rant.

When Polonius bustles up to Hamlet and says:

'My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.'
Presently means now, at once. And so when Hamlet immediately starts admiring a camel-shaped cloud we know he's being annoying.
Nowadays, of course, presently no longer means at once but indicates some unspecified time in the not-too-distant future, like, say, when we have finished admiring that camel-shaped cloud over there.
But, hey, words change their meanings. Sometimes it's a help, and sometimes it causes annoyance.
Talking of annoyance, this is from a leaflet.
The frost-free mat works like magic. Simply place one in the bottom of your freezer...and it eliminates icy build-up. No more timely de-frosting.
No more what?
No more timely de-frosting?
But timely means at the right time. And, let's face it, there's never a right time to de-frost the fridge. Not if you have a life, or have ever bought a super-saver pack of frozen fish fingers, anyway.
No, no. It's not timely de-frosting at all, it's time-consuming de-frosting.
Hang on a minute, though. Now I come to think about it time-consuming is a jolly silly expression. I mean, what do we do that doesn't consume time?

...not de-frosting the fridge?
Oh dear. Have I just argued myself into getting a frost-free mat after all?

You must be joking.

Not until the sellers learn to write English I'm not.
Word To Use Properly Today: timely. This word used to mean early, but now it means on time - unless you sell frost-free mats, when timely means whatever you want it to mean.
The word time comes from the Old English tīma and is related to the Almannic zīme. It's connected to the word tide, too.

Wednesday 9 October 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Udi.

Udi is spoken by about 8,000 people in parts of Azerbaijan, Russia, Georgia and Armenia. Most of its speakers live in the Azerbaijani village of Nij.
Early Udi has been around since at least 2,000 BC, so it's way, way, older than English. The Udi people are mentioned by Herodotus, Pliny the Elder and Ptolemy.
All that time - and only 8,000 speakers left.
Luckily I bring good news. Since 1992 Udi has been the main language in primary schools in Nij. To begin with the Cyrillic alphabet was used, but they've now switched to the Latin alphabet.
Does Udi matter?
Well, Udi uses a bit of grammar called an endoclitic, which was long claimed to be an impossibility, so that's something special.
But if you really want to know if Udi is important, just watch this link to a video of someone reading a story in Udi. (Sorry, the video itself won't load into this window.) I've no idea what the story is about, but I can tell it's a very good one.
It makes me glad that the language of Udi still exists in the world.
Word To Use Today: er...I don't think any Udi words have made their way into English. But saying Nij is fun.
Just as a matter of interest
 śel cil mo-no bu-q’un ar-mux pasč’aluğ-un
means The children of the kingdom are the good seed.

And you don't get much wiser than that.


Tuesday 8 October 2013

Thing Not To Do Today: be stony.

Are you stony?

Does this:

File:Cute grey kitten.jpg
Photo by Nicolas Suzor.

cause your heart to remain unmelted?

Really? Good grief. Then how about this?

All right, then this:

will surely get you.

Yep. I thought so.

In any case, speaking as someone who can't help but feel sorry even for the tenth person in the day who phones me to suggest I might benefit from doing a short survey and could I go and find my gas bills, I find nearly all my attempts at being stony-hearted end up as utter failures.

Ah well.

Being the other sort of stony, as in stony-broke (in America it's generally stone-broke) is more endearing, but no more fun. I've just about managed to avoid this lately, but I do remember collecting  lemonade bottles from the hedgerows on occasion, and taking them back to the shop for the 2d refund.

Ah, those were the days...

...and jolly glad to be shot of them I am, I can tell you.

Thing Not To Do Today: be stony. The word stone comes to us very little changed from the Greek stion, which means pebble.

No one seems sure of the origin of the expression for having no money, but I suppose it's very like being hard-up.

NB A Stoney, with an e, may be both kind and rich: he or she is one of the Native Canadian people of Alberta.

Monday 7 October 2013

Spot the frippet: quinquagenarian.

You'll find quinquagenarians all over the place: schools, streets, supermarkets, stations, the Sahara, the sea, and even San Francisco.

I shouldn't be surprised if there were even some quinquagenarians in submarines and steam ships.

The only trouble is that being a quinquagenarian is a secret and almost a shameful thing; if you ask someone if they are a quinquagenarian you're likely to cause offence. And possibly even violence.

But here, to aid you in your quest, are some examples of quinquagenarians.

Barack Obama

Dawn French

Iconic black and white photograph of Lincoln showing his head and shoulders.
Abraham Lincoln

Salvador Dalí

So what did they all have in common when these pictures were taken?

No, they didn't all have ocelots as pets, that was just Salvador Dalí; and only two of them have ever been presidents of large countries.

No: only two of them are paid for acting.

Yes, they are all famous, but that's not it.

Another clue: I have myself been one for several years.

What? Is no one guessing genius?

Ah, I thought not.

One more clue, then: no one, but no one, has ever been one for more than ten years.

Yes, that's right, you've got it. A quinquagenarian is someone in their fifties.

And, yes, you're right, this must be one of the most dangerous Spot the Frippets ever.

Still, it's your mission.

If you should choose to accept it.

Spot the Frippet: quinquagenarian. This word comes form the Latin quinquāgēnārius, containing fifty.