This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 30 November 2013

Saturday Rave: Madam Eglantine by Geoffrey Chaucer

Who was the Prioress Eglantine?

She was one of the pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer's introduction of her is clever, subtle, and in every way glorious.

This nun has so many good points, you see: she's demure, nicely-spoken (though her French accent comes from Stratford), sings her prayers in the fashionable nasal style, and has the most beautiful and courtly table manners.

She's so soft-hearted that she weeps over dead mice, and she feeds her pet dogs on roasted meat and fine white bread.

She's a nice-looking woman, too, not under-fed herself, and her large green prayer beads bear a golden brooch ornamented with the legend Amor vincit omnia.

Love conquers all.


So. What more could you want in a nun, then?

Word To Use Today: eglantine. This word also means the sort of wild rose also called sweetbriar. Eglantine comes from the Old French aiglent, from the Latin acus, needle, from acer, sharp and keen.
The story the Prioress goes on to tell is religious, sweet, and remarkably full of spiky hatred.

Friday 29 November 2013

Word To Use Today: trespass.

We had a glorious walk through the autumn woods the other day. The floor was scattered with little lemon birch-leaf hearts, and from the beeches great slashes of amber were suspended in shafts of sunshine.

File:Autumn colours (3030599812).jpg
Photo from russavia

When we were nearly back at the car we saw a sign on a gate

It said:


It made us laugh (well, we were almost sure it was a joke).

But we didn't go through that particular gate, all the same.

It did make me wonder about the sign-writer's passionate need for privacy, though. Did he have a slightly unreliably-tamed dragon in there? Or a goose that lays eggs of sparkling diamond?

Or, you never know...

...perhaps he was just suffering from a very very bad haircut.

Word To Use Today: trespass. This word comes from the Old French trespas, a passage, and before that from the Latin passus, which means a pace.

Thursday 28 November 2013

65% less: a rant.

My washing machine has bust. No, really bust. Even the repair man said, gently and with quiet sympathy, that it had got to the end of its natural life.

Now, choosing a new washing machine turned out to be a bit of a problem. The thing is, all washing machines are just boxes with doors in the front. How can you tell which is the one for you?

I wanted a machine that would carry on working uncomplainingly for many years; but on looking through the advertisements I found that strangely enough none of the manufacturers was admitting to their machines' breaking down at the first sight of a pair of unmatched socks.

I wanted a machine that washed the clothes without taking hours about it. The advertisements weren't much help with that, either, but eventually I did find a machine made by the people who made my nice old one. Their website claimed to wash clothes sixty five per cent faster.

And, do you know, I was going to buy it until I read some more and found out that it was actually more than twice as slow as my old machine.

You see, I hadn't realised that sixty five per cent faster meant sixty five per cent faster than a three-legged sleep-walking tortoise, or a jet-lagged snail that's tried to take the short cut across the wet cement, or an adolescent room-tidier.

In the end I spoke to a charming lady in a shop and my new  machine is not only less than one per cent slower than my old one, but it has a picture of a sheep on the front and plays the theme from Schubert's The Trout when it finishes a wash.

I think we'll be very happy together.

But it was a jolly narrow escape.

Thing To Do Every Day. Ask yourself: sixty five per cent faster than what?

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Nuts and Bolts: tic tac.

What language do you speak with white gloves on, and standing on a crate?

The answer is tic tac. (Or tick-tack or something similar, there are lots of variations.)

As the white gloves suggest, tic tac is a sign language, and, as the crate indicates, it's for communicating across distances.

Tic tac was used to let people know betting odds at race courses, and until recently its use was fairly widespread. It used to be secret, too, but now the mobile phone and computers have almost entirely taken over tic tac's function there's no need for it to be secret any more.

File:Degas, Race Horses in a Landscape.jpg
Edgar Degas, Race horses in a landscape.

Odds of 9/4, for instance, were conveyed by touching both hands to the top of the head. Odds of 33/1 were represented by crossing the arms across the chest.

Within tic tac there were dialects - the south of England's touch of an ear was the touch of an elbow in the north.

As well as these signs, there were words, too. Some were based on rhymes (Burlington Bertie, 100 to 30); some on backslang (net, 10 to 1); some on the sign language (ear'ole, which was 6 to 4); some on the numbers themselves (century, 100 to 1); and some have  German or French influences (elef a vier, 11 to 4). Exes, 6 to 1, is German (sort of) and backslang.

Though why 5 to 1 should be called ching I have not the faintest idea.

Alas, alas, tic tac is nearly gone. I wish someone would write a musical with a tic tac chorus.

That's the only way I can see of keeping it alive.

Thing To Do Today: some tic tac. When someone says do you think it's going to rain? show the odds by touching your ear (6-4) or crossing your hand on your chest (33-1) and think of beautiful horses.



Tuesday 26 November 2013

Thing To Do Today: waltz.

I've been doing a fair bit of waltzing, lately.

Pierre-August Renoir

I'm glad to report that I did it without putting a foot wrong, too, even though yesterday the waltzes happened to be rather complicated things by Brahms and Liszt.

Well, I was sitting down at the time, which helps.

So how do you waltz sitting down? Well, I was playing the piano (and though my feet didn't stray I can't vouch entirely for my fingers). I'm usually more of a Bach type, but the odd waltz is good fun from time to time.

Even if you don't play a musical instrument you can still waltz; even if you can't sing you can waltz (though very nearly everyone can sing); and not being able to dance shouldn't stop you, either.

All you have to do is suddenly take yourself off somewhere without a care in the world.

So, will you waltz off to the pictures?

Waltz off to the shops?

Or even waltz off to go, well, waltzing?

There is a slight idea that the waltzer is leaving someone resentfully behind to do all the work, but...

...hmm, that is a bit of a problem, isn't it.

Ah well. I suppose you could always go on a waltzer:

or perhaps waltz Matilda, which in Australia means to travel the road carrying your possessions in a bag as you go:

Extra points if can do it in triple time without a care in the world.

Thing To Do Today: waltz. This word comes from the German Waltzer, from the Middle High German walzen, to roll. 

Monday 25 November 2013

Spot the frippet: smoke.

It's not as easy to spot as it used to be, smoke, is it?

Cigarettes have mostly gone electric, and heating generally comes in radiators, or under the floor.

Long ago, when my grandparents used to run The Beehive pub, the ceiling in the bar used to be amber with pipe and cigarette smoke. It got so filthy so quickly that a regular job in the summer was using the nicotine-infused dirty water from washing off the smoke-stains to kill the black fly on the broad beans.

It worked very well, or so I understand.

I can't say I regret the disappearance of smoking, but I do miss the scent of wood smoke and the crackle and spitting of open fires.

But still, if smoke itself is difficult to spot then smoked glass can still be seen both in the houses of people with no taste, and on the windscreens of cars and public transport:

First Wright Eclipse Gemini 01.jpg

Then there are smoked kippers:

 smoked salami and cheese:

File:VS smoked cheese.jpg
Smoked cheese and salami on a stall in Fundata, Romania.
Photo by Vlad.saileanu.

and smoked bacon:

And I suppose, if pressed, you could always try making some toast.

Easiest of all, ask your friends if they'd like to hear your Hammond Organ CD.

Yes, that's right. They'll run away so fast you won't be able to see them for smoke.

Spot the frippet: smoke. This word comes the Old English smoca and is related to the Middle Dutch smieken, to emit smoke.

Sunday 24 November 2013

Sunday Rest: sodality. Word Not To Use Today.

Some things are truly dangerous:

A Honey Bee collecting pollen.

Yes, that's a bee. I love bees, but I don't go around annoying them.

And some things only appear dangerous:

File:Hoverfly flying midair.jpg
That's a hover fly, Simosyrphus grandicornis . Photo from Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

When an animal looks like something more dangerous than it is itself, it's employing Batesian mimicry.

The word sodality is something of a Batesian mimic.

A sodality is actually a charitable society. It can also mean a  brotherhood or fellowship.

Unlike the hover fly, it's not that easy to see what advantage the word sodality gets from sounding so dodgy and dangerous.

But then it probably does keep out the ignorant, doesn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: sodality. This word is mostly used in the Roman Catholic church. It comes from the Latin sodālitās, fellowship, from sodālis, comrade.


Saturday 23 November 2013

Saturday Rave: The Ship by Ira Gershwin.

The lyrics to this song have been called sentimental, unrelieved by wit, tangled, uninvented and cloying.

And that was just by one person, Philip Furia.

But, you know something? I don't care. Because if there is anything more sumptuous than this it would involve a couch of cloud-stuffed velvet and a barrel of whipped cream.

The music for Ira Gershwin's words was written by Kurt Weill for Moss Hart's play Lady in the Dark. It was first performed by Gertrude Lawrence in New York in 1941.

My ship has sails that are made of silk,
The decks are trimmed with gold,
And of jam and spice there's a paradise in the hold.

My ship's aglow with a million pearls
And rubies fill each bin,
The sun sits high in a sapphire sky when my ship comes in.

I can wait the years
Till it appears
One fine day one spring,
But the pearls and such
They won't mean much if there's missing just one thing.

I do not care if that day arrives
That dream need never be,
If the ship I sing doesn't also bring
My own true love to me,
If the ship I sing doesn't also bring my own true love to me.

Okay, okay, perhaps I admit the sentimentality. But what's wrong with a bit of sentimentality from time to time?

One note: the third stanza originally began I can wait for years, but Gertrude Lawrence asked why four, and not three or five? And so the lyric was changed.

A great man, Ira Gershwin.

This is the wonderful Dawn Upshaw's version of the song.

Word To Use Today: sail. This word comes from the Old English segl.

Friday 22 November 2013

Word To Use Today: sennet.

We must start today's post with a fanfare:

(The long trumpets that heralds play are traditionally valveless (which is why they can only play fanfares) but the valved trumpet in this video could play anything for as long as the trumpeter's arms can hold the thing up. Actually, by the look of it, the end of that trumpet has been welded on. And why not. The intrumentalist is Randy Dunn.)
The reason we're being so grand is that a sennet, in addition to being a nice crisp word, is a fanfare. 
Sennet has most commonly been used as a stage-direction in Elizabethan plays, so it's overdue an outing.
So, do sing yourself a little sennet at appropriate moments as you go about your day. The opening of the lunch box, the entry into the office/classroom/house, the exit from the train or bathroom, all deserve a little sennet to acknowledge anticipation or success.
Possibly not too loud a one in public, though.
For those poor souls amongst you who refuse to sing, a sennet is also a barracuda shark, especially Sphyraena borealis.
He went for me like a starved sennet is a nice turn of phrase.
Though I hope not a very useful one for you during the course of your day.
Word To Use Today: sennet. No one knows why the shark is so called, but the fanfare is probably a form of signet, which means sign.

Thursday 21 November 2013

International Committee for Robot Arms Control

 I've recently come across the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

It's a serious organisation with an important message to convey, and I don't have any quarrel with its aims. It's just the name that bothers me.

Robot arms? But what about robot laser-emitting eyes, and diamond-encrusted teeth?

And what if they started kicking people?

The ICRAC didn't think of that, did they?

Yep. Robots' legs can be jolly dangerous, too.

Capek play.jpg
Scene from R.U.R.

Word To Use Today: robot. This word was used in the play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek. It comes from the Czech robota, work, from the Old Slavonic rabota, servitude.

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Nuts and Bolts: clicking.

The most widely-used click languages are to be found in South Africa, and Zulu and Xhosa are perhaps the best-known. Whereas English speakers only make clicking sounds on special occasions, click languages use them often and easily, in the same way as we use consonants like k or t.

There are various ways of making a click. You can make a tut-tut sort of a sound; you can make a click with the side of your mouth (the sort of noise people use to talk to horses); you can make a cork-out-of-a-bottle sound by pulling your tongue away from the top of your mouth.


Well, let me introduce you to the ǃXóõ language. It's spoken by about four thousand people in Botswana and Namibia. ǃXóõ is also called Taa, which is easier to say, though not as exciting to look at.

 ǃXóõ has five basic click types, but the variations of these five sounds add up to an amazing eighty three different clicks. At least. The grammarians are still not sure what counts as a click and what is a cluster of several clicks. West ǃXóõ has 111 clicks in 23 series: which is a lot however you split them up.

Just to give you the idea, here's an instruction video.

I couldn't find a video of ǃXóõ clicks, so this is Xhosa.

Have fun!

Thing To Try Today: some click sounds. Tut-tut will do, if you don't talk to horses much.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Thing Not To Do Today: scuffle.

My Collins dictionary says that to scuffle is to fight in a disorderly manner

My mind's boggling a bit at the idea of an orderly fight (a duel, perhaps?) but it's true that you don't arrange a scuffle beforehand. A scuffle breaks out spontaneously. This means that most of the scufflers won't have a clue what they're scuffling about. That tends to stop things getting too passionate.

It also means, of course, that you can never have a successful scuffle.

Still, scuffle is a lovely word, and a scuffle is often no more than a bit of barging about in a crowd: good fun for the scufflers, though not for anyone who wants to go his way without getting pushed or kicked.

Still, if you do come across a scuffle then with any luck you'll be able to scuffle out of the way. This sort of scuffle seems to be halfway between a scuttle and a shuffle, and may well involve scuffing your feet along the ground, which would make, yes, a scuffling sound.

But easily the most productive way of scuffling is the sort done in the USA which involves using a scuffle, which is a sort of hoe you operate by pushing.

A scuffle.

A scuffle is also said to be a pinafore or a bib, but if this is so then I can't find an image or any example of anyone using it.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: scuffle. The word meaning fight came from Scandinavia in the 1500s, and before that it came from skuff, to push, which makes scuffle is a frequentative. Scuffle meaning sound is probably an imitation of the noise it makes. The hoe sort of scuffle comes from the Dutch schoffel, which means shovel. Having said that, the fact that a scuffle is a push hoe makes me wonder if it isn't also bound up with skuff in some way.

Monday 18 November 2013

Spot the frippet: mondain, mondaine.

We don't go in for endings much in English - except And they lived happily ever after to the end of their days, of course - but we do have some. We have blonde as opposed to blond, for example, and  fiancée as opposed to fiancé

We also, less commonly, have mondaine, which is the female variety of mondaine.

All these words have been borrowed from French, and they're all pronounced in French ways. Well, more or less French ways: the muscle-movements needed for talking French don't come easily to English speakers.

Anyway, never mind if you can pronounce mondain(e), can you see one?

A mondain(e) is a person who moves in fashionable circles (no, not someone with one stiletto shorter than the other, not that sort of circle) and as the whole idea of fashion is mixed up with the desire to be seen, one shouldn't be difficult to spot.

Any newspaper or celebrity magazine will give you numerous examples: the mondain(e)s will be the very thin ones with the professional smiles and the uncomfortably inadequate clothes.

That's the actress Amanda Bynes.

Once you've spotted one, go and find yourself a biscuit or a piece of cake.

And enjoy every single mouthful.

Spot the frippet: mondain(e). This French word can also mean worldly, and as well as mondain(e) it gave us the word mundane. Before it was French it was Latin: mundus means world.

Sunday 17 November 2013

Sunday Rest: pumice. Word Not To Use Today.

Here's a tough little word that always comes out fighting.


If it were pronounce PEWmiss then it might be rather sweet, in a spinster-cycling-to-church sort of way, but PUMMiss is like being pummelled and spat upon.

I can't deny that Pumice Country, in the North Island of New Zealand, seems to be an interesting, atmospheric place:

A Creek in the Rough Country
photo by E Earle Vaile

And I can't deny that pumice is useful: ground up and made into concrete it was used to make the dome of the Pantheon:

Pumice also used in polishes, erasers, toothpastes, and is the 'stone' bit in the stone-washed jeans process.

It's formed in a most exciting way, too - thrown out of a volcano so rapidly that the gases inside it expand and form bubbles before the rock can solidify.

But I don't care. Even if pumice is worth its weight in gold and cures the common cold, it still punches your earholes rather painfully, and I don't like it.

Word Not To Use Today: pumice. This word comes from the Latin pūmex. Which sounds horrible, too.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Saturday Rave: fantasy football.

Why was Cinderella so bad at football?

a) Because the town council had lined their pockets selling off all the public playing fields. 

b) Because the prince hadn't stopped the town council selling off the public playing fields. Why, if the poor people got fit they might start a revolution.

File:Cinderella 1 from The Blue Fairy Book 1889 author Andrew Lang.jpg
G. P. Jacomb Hood

c) Because Cinderella's fairy godmother was a victim of conditioned sexism and saw her task as ushering Cinderella straight from one form of slavery to another, namely marriage.

One of Gustave Doré's illustrations of "Cinderella" in "Les Contes de Perrault" by Charles Perrault

d) Because the ideals of western history, embodied in the prince, had imposed a cult of passive decoration on all women.

e) Because if Cinderella were allowed out in the town people would realise afresh just how ugly Cinderella's sisters were.

f) Because you don't have time to practise your ball skills when you're running a household.

g) Because Cinderella was a victim of fashion, and you can't play football very well in glass slippers.

h) Because Cinderella was a victim of poverty, and you can't play football very well barefoot.

i) Because no one worth marrying was going to fancy someone with, like, messy hair, runny make up, and thick thigh muscles. I mean, duhhhhh...
j) Because Cinderella was a victim of the class system. (If she were going to pay a sport it would have had to have been either dressage or lacrosse.)

k) Because the ball's roundness is an image of fertility. Assaulting it would be subconsciously abhorrent to Cinderella as a rejection of her own femininity.

l) Because she kept running away from the ball.

But, most of all:

m) Because her coach was a pumpkin!


Away with Literary Criticism: the last's my favourite!

Word To Use Today: pumpkin. This word comes from the Old French pompon, from the Latin pepo, from peptein, to ripen

Friday 15 November 2013

Word To Use Today: mutchkin.

Mutchkin is too splendid to leave cold and unused in the dark pages of a dictionary.

Why, mutchkin is a word to make the day sparkle. Just saying it out loud is enough. Try it!

Mutchkin. Mutchkin! Mutchkin, mutchkin, mutchkin.

There we are. You're feeling happier already, aren't you?

Mutchkin not only a heart-lifting word, but it's a useful one, too. A mutchkin is measure of volume equivalent to about three quarters of a pint, 425 ml, or about 1.8 cups US.

You can use for liquids, for powders, and for granules such as sugar.

'Some custard with your pie, sir?'

'Just a mutchkin, if you would be so kind.'

How could anyone, anywhere, possibly resist its charms?

Word To Use Today: mutchkin. This word comes from the Dutch mudseken, from mud, which means, more or less, hectolitre.

Thursday 14 November 2013

Banning English: a rant.

'I want to invite the French to go on strike,' said the French philosopher Michel Serres in an interview with la Depeche du Midi.

(M Serres is a member of the Academie française, which aims to keep the French language pure and flourishing, so presumably he was speaking in French. I'm afraid I've only seen this English version, though.)

'Each time that advertising is English,' M Serres went on, 'you don't buy the product, each time a film's title is not translated, you don't go into the cinema.'

Poor M Serres. He must care very much about the purity of the French language. In fact, it looks as though he fears for its very existence.*

But the thing is, if a word is understood and used by French speakers, doesn't that by definition make it French?

And in the swift, thrilling, living thing that is language, won't the creative impulses of many millions of people conjure up something more elegantly fitted for its purpose than the careful cogitations of a committee?

Well, I can't be sure of that. But, gosh, it's worked quite well for many other languages of the world. So I think it's worth a try.

Word To Use Today: advertise. This is an extremely useful word that the English borrowed from the French. Before that it came from the Latin word advertere, to turn one's attention to.

*I've no idea why existences are practically always very existences, but there you go.



Wednesday 13 November 2013

Nuts and Bolts: Non-English English

Do you know what I mean?

I hope so, even though this blog appears in British English, which is a minority form of the language. 

Well, I live in Britain. That's my excuse.

English is a pluricentric language - which means it comes in several varieties - and, although England is the place where English was first spoken, only eighteen per cent of the English speakers in the world actually speak English in a more-or-less English way.

I'd be more comprehensible if I changed to American English, which is used by two thirds of English speakers (though when I say American, I really mean the language of the USA. Canadian English, like Australian English, is spoken by about seven per cent of the English-speaking population of the world).

Of the people not of the world - that is, in space - at the moment the only people who speak English as their first language are both from the USA; so perhaps aliens will speak of boondocks and sidewalks.

Actually, what will probably happen is that an entirely new form of Space English will come into being, that requires the use of several antennae and a third foot.

Alien 555px.png

And as far as I'm concerned that'd be absolutely marvellous.

Word To Use Today: pluricentric. The pluri bit of this word comes from the Latin plures, which means several.


Tuesday 12 November 2013

Thing To Do Today, Or Possibly Not: be rude.

No, no, it's all right, I'm not going to say you're a pointy-headed gargoyle.

No, nor a bitter and twisted bungler, either.

And of course the last thing I'm going to call you is a thick-witted nincompoop. No, not by the rudest estimation could anyone think you were one of those.

Good heavens, no. There's always a friendly welcome here at The Word Den. I'm delighted to see you, and I hope you're in the very rudest of health, that your place of rest last night had nothing in common with a rude hovel, and that, wherever you were, you were coaxed gently into wakefulness by the muted singing of angels  bearing nectar and ambrosia, and had therefore the opposite of a rude awakening.

The Word Den is honoured to see you.

No, really.

We're absolutely overwhelmed with the privilege.

File:Gargoyle Sticking Out Tongue.JPG
York Minster. Photo by SaraJB

Or something.

Thing To Do Today. Or Possibly Not: be rude. This word comes from the Latin rudis, which means coarse or unformed.

Monday 11 November 2013

Spot: memorial.

Today is Remembrance Day in Britain and in many countries around the world (though some other countries give it different names, such as Armistice Day).

What are we remembering? Those killed in wars.

In St Albans, a town not far from where I live, there are memorials to commemorate the First World War dead of each few streets.

World War I Street Memorial, Verulam Road
World War I Street Memorial, Verulam Road, St Albans, England. Photo by Ian Capper
This memorial commemorates the dead of Cross Street, College Street, Queen Street, New England Street, and Verulam Road itself. They're all quite small streets.
I'm very much afraid that there will almost certainly be some kind of a memorial near you. Some are small and simple, like the one above, and commemorate many people; some are huge and grand and commemorate only one:
File:Albert Memorial.jpg
This is the Albert Memorial in London.
Some are beautiful:
Taj Mahal 2012.jpg
Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
Some are of people hardly remembered at all:
File:Part of the graveyard of the Old Church Penallt - - 473866.jpg
Old Church Penallt. Photo by Roy Parkhouse.
On this particular Remembrance Day, as well as those killed in wars, I'm going to remember the people of the Philippines.
All strength to those living, and all peace to those who have been killed.
Word To Use Today: remembrance. This word comes from the Old French remembrer, from the Latin memor, mindful. 


Sunday 10 November 2013

Sunday Rest: bangle.

Bangle: sounds like bungle. (Although, now I come to think about it, I have rather a lot of affection for the word bungle. Perhaps it's the bang that puts me off.)

Anyway, whatever the reason, bangle has a metallic taste that sets my teeth on edge; and, unless you are one of those rare people with perfectly tubular arms, they're jolly uncomfortable, too.

AND they clink and jingle all the time and scratch the furniture.

I can't deny that bangles have an impressive history, though, so perhaps they're fine if you're brought up with them. For instance, it's said to be unlucky for a Hindu married woman not to wear bangles; and actually this is quite true because her honeymoon ends when the last of her glass bridal bangles breaks.

Nevertheless, as far as I'm concerned I might as well do myself out in handcuffs and have done with it.

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: bangle. This word comes from the Hindi word bungrī, glass.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Saturday Rave: A Few Crusted Characters by Thomas Hardy.

There's no heating at all up in the church gallery where the village musicians play for services. So on one very chilly day they get in a gallon of brandy-and-beer to keep them warm.

'Twas a very dark afternoon....The sermon being ended at last, the pa'son gi'ed out the Evening Hymn. But no quire set about sounding up the tune, and the people began turning their heads to learn the reason why, and finally Levi Limpet, a boy who sat in the gallery, nudged Timothy and Nicholas, and said, "Begin! begin!"

"Hey? What?" says Nicholas, starting up; and the church being so dark and his head so muddled he thought he was at the party they had played at the night before, and away he went, bow and fiddle, at "The Devil among the Tailors", the favourite jig of our neighbourhood at that time.


Those village musicians were foolish, wicked, greedy and wrong.

Oh, but I do wish I'd been there when it all happened.

Illustration by Charles Green
Illustration by Charles Green.

Word To Use Today: sermon. This word probably comes from the Latin serere, which means to join together.

Friday 8 November 2013

Word To Use Today: pannage.

Here's a lovely word: pannage. (You say it PANNidge.)

Pannage sounds like something that's been cooked so long you can't tell what it is any more, and in fact in some ways that's not far from what it is.

Pannage is the stuff that pigs find if they root about, especially if they're set loose in woodland. Round here in England that would be mostly acorns and beechmast (the seeds from a beech tree) and other nuts such as chestnuts.

Sometimes, if the nuts haven't fallen yet, a cunning pig-owner may need the trees a sneaky bit of help...

14th century English Queen Mary Psalter

 Pannage is also a place where your pigs can look for this food, the right to let your pigs forage about, and, as well, any money exchanged in connection with it.

A system of pannage still exists in England's New Forest, where there's a special court for deciding the exact dates each year upon which pigs (with rings in their noses to stop them digging the whole place up) can be set loose.

But surely a lovely word like pannage is too satisfying a word to leave to pigs. It should be used to describe any food that greedy animals pick up as they go about their business. Anything eaten from a street stall, for instance.

Seoul, South Korea. Steamed corn, grilled chestnuts and tteok* (which is white rice cake), persimmons, cuttlefish, squid, octopus and filefish.

As we all know, there's nothing so necessary at times as a little light pannage.

Might be an idea to pass by any actual acorns, though.

Word To Use Today: pannage. This word comes from the Old French pasnage, from the Latin pascere to feed.

*Word starting with a double t!

Thursday 7 November 2013

word lovers: a rant

John Simpson, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, is retiring.
He's taken advantage the occasion to let off a bit of steam.

'There is so much waffle and woolly-mindedness,' he says in an interview in The Telegraph. 'Our job is to analyse data, not to love words.'

Well, if there's anyone who knows about the editor of the OED's job it's John Simpson, so I can't argue with that.

But the interview also says that 'In common with most lexicographers, he has an innate distrust of people who claim to "love words" '.

I don't know if that's a fair representation of John Simpson's opinion. I hope not, because I love words.

Is it really a sign of untrustworthiness to take pleasure in the sound of the word ruffian?

Is it wrong to be cheered by the bounce of boing, or to cherish the pernickety precision of penultimate?

May I not have an affection for lush, wombat, sizzle, schloss, acciaccatura, bouteille and tingo?

Ah well. Away with respectability! I am going to love them anyway.

So there.

Word To Use Today: one you love. Go on, be a bit of a rogue...

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Nuts and Bolts: cynghanedd.

So what is this poetry thing, anyway?

As far as I'm concerned, poetry is the stuff that doesn't get as far as the right-hand margin. Having to start new lines all the time means that you read more slowly, and it also gives a bit of a thump to the beginning of the line. This means you can make the rest of the stuff sound quite jiggy.

If that sounds simple, well, perhaps English poetry is. French poetry works rather differently, and so do Japanese haiku; but the cleverest and most complicated way of making poetry in the world is said (and by no less an authority than the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics) to be Welsh poetry of the sort called  cynghanedd.

Cynghanedd was first written in the 1300s and is still practised today. Some English-language poets have had a go at it, too.

Cynghanedd is mind-boggling stuff. For instance, in one form of cynghanedd all the consonants surrounding the main stressed vowel in the first half of a line must be repeated in the second half. But, on the other hand, the final consonants of each half of the line must be different.

In another form each line is divided into three. The first two bits rhyme, and the third repeats the consonants of the second.

In yet another form (there are quite a few) the last syllable of the first half of the line rhymes with the last but one syllable of the second half.

Cynghanedd is to be found in poems at the National Eisteddfod. I'm completely amazed at the cleverness needed to write the stuff.

It's solved one problem, though: I realise now that the reason their great poets wear sheets on their heads:

Duke and Duchess of York, dressed in the robes of the 'Gorsedd of the Bards' at the National Eisteddfod of Wales in 1931

is because no one makes hats big enough.

Thing to marvel at today: cynghanedd. This word is the Welsh for harmony.


Tuesday 5 November 2013

Thing To Do Today. Possibly: pant.

I have spent the vast majority of my life wondering what on earth is going on.

Take these lines:

As pants the hart for cooling streams
When heated in the chase

It was at least a decade before I realised that a hart was a deer, and even longer to work out that the whole thing was utter tosh. I mean, surely a cooling stream comes rather a long way down a hunted hart's wish list, below faster legs, bigger lungs, and someone to come along and see off all those blasted hunters.

Moche deer hunting scene, Larco Museum Collection, Lima, Peru

On the other hand, I suppose the chase might merely be an area of land, as in Cannock Chase; in which case those responsible for the verse, Nahum Tate and Nicholas Brady, should really have made it plain.

Anyway. Panting is said to be good for the heart, if not a hart, and I suppose that's as good a reason to do it as anything.

If moving quickly enough to get out of breath is too much trouble, then you can always pant for an ice cream, a pizza (which would be nicely alliterative) or, indeed, a sit-down.

In any case, whatever you're panting for, do enjoy it when you get it.

Thing Possibly To Do Today: pant. This word comes from the Old French pantaisier, from the Greek phantasia, fantasy.

Monday 4 November 2013

Spot the frippet: something tellurian.

Tellurian: that's all to do with space, right?

For a start, there's this thing here:

That tellurian (it's sometimes spelled tellurion) was made in 1766 to demonstrate the motion of the moon and the earth in space.

Then of course there are the Star Trek Tellurians, an alien species known, rather endearingly, for their mint truffles.

There are tellurians all over Dr Who, too: in fact there's at least one tellurian in the large majority of the episodes. This being the case, it's a good job the Time Lord knows what a tellurian actually is.

And that's what? Well, a tellurian is anything relating to, and especially an inhabitant of, the planet Earth.

Yes, so that probably means you, that's right.

A know, it makes me feel quite dashing and cool. Almost (but fortunately not quite) cool enough to get myself a skin-tight playsuit in some gleaming metallic fabric and some silver killer heels.

Mind you, I wouldn't say no to a mint truffle, either.

Spot the frippet: tellurian. This word comes from the Latin tellūs, the earth.


Sunday 3 November 2013

Sunday Rest: stirk.

Here's a painful belch of a word.

It doesn't help that stirk rhymes with shirk and berk. And jerk, now I come to think about it.

In fact, do any -irk words involve anyone having fun?

Hang on, I'll just go and get my rhyming dictionary...

...well, basically, no. There's patchwork, which can be glorious beyond belief (no, really, it can) but pretty much everything else is, well, irksome.

So what's a stirk? Well, it's a either a...hang on, is there a word for a...oh rats, there isn't, is there...the sort of animal which when dead turns into beef? There's cow and bull and calf and bullock and heifer and ox; and then there's cattle (but that acts as a plural); but there's no singular term for this animal that I can think of.

Well, so all I can say is that a stirk is a member of the commonest species of domestic cattle, either female and aged between six and twelve months old, or a specimen of either sex, heifer or bullock,  aged from one to two years.

Good grief. That was difficult.

I think I may even be developing some affection for the word stirk.

Word Not To Use Today: stirk. This word comes from the Old English stierc, and is related to the Old High German stero, ram, the Latin sterilis, sterile, and the Greek steira, which means the same thing.

Saturday 2 November 2013

Saturday Rave: My Witch by Nicholas Breton.


Are there such things as witches?

Well, sure there's magic in the world,
Or so it has long seemed 
To us poor souls
Who creep about upon it.

This poem, below, is by Nicholas Breton, who came into the world and left it so quietly that no one marked his passage.

(I'm not going to highlight all the witches in this poem or it'll look as if it's broken-out in some horrid sort of alien measles.)
My Witch
by Nicholas Breton 1545?- 1626?
Your eyes bewitched my wit, your wit bewitched my will,
Thus with your eyes and wit you do bewitch me still
And yet you are no
witch, whose spirit is not evil,
And yet you are a
witch, and yet you are no devil.
witching eyes, and wit, where wit and eyes may read,
witch, and not a witch, and yet a witch indeed.
Lais of Corinth by Hans Holbein the Younger, Kunstmuseum Basel
Word To Use Today: witch. This word comes from the Old English wicca, and is realted to the Middle Low German wicken, to conjure, and the Swedish vicka, to move to and fro.