This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 31 January 2014

Word To Use Today: cinch.

It's a cinch.

Yes, it's dead easy, like falling off a log or taking candy from a baby.

In fact sometimes a cinch is even easier than easy, because if a bet is a cinch then it's a certainty (though of course that's a racing certainty, so not actually a certainty at all).

If you're in the USA or Canada then a cinch is as much involved with winning a race as with coming last, because there a cinch is the band that goes round the horse's belly and stops the saddle slipping sideways. (Here in England we call it a girth.)

Tony Dobbin on Al Eile in the 2007 Fighting Fifth Hurdle

But even in England we do sometimes use cinched to mean held firmly. Someone, for instance, can be cinched in at the waist by a belt or girdle.

A highly compressed Queen Maud of Norway.

Lastly, cinch is a card game, and although I'm not usually much of a one for card games I am intrigued by this one, because in the game of cinch the highest card is the five of trumps.

It probably makes sense if you know how to play it.

Word To Use Today: cinch. This word comes from the Spanish cincha, saddle girth, from the Latin cingula, girdle, from cingere to encircle.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Having a bash: a rant.

Someone phoned us the other day and asked for our account details.

They claimed to be from our bank.

But you already know our bank details, I pointed out, cunningly.

Anyway, in the end we arranged to phone them back. They gave me a reference number and told us to ask for the Fraud Department.

The Fraud Department???

Good grief.

I mean, I know that banks are in business to make money from their poor customers by any means is available, but a Fraud Department? The HSBC have a dedicated Fraud Department?

That's a bit blatant even for a flipping bank, isn't it?

Word To Use Today: fraud. This word comes from the Latin fraus, which means deception.

PS It was all right, there was no fraud at all, the bank had just taken fright at our trying to make a payment to Millwall FC.

Millwall FC

A fine example, I would say, of the pot calling the kettle black.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

Nuts and Bolts: the insufficient suffix.

A beautiful thing is the aster:

File:Michaelmas daisy (Aster lanceolatus x novi-belgii) - - 1522705.jpg
                              photo: Rod Allday

Well, it's a beautiful thing until the slugs get it, anyway.

However beautiful an aster may be, though, you wouldn't want one attached to your rear end.

Aster as a separate word is the Latin for star, which is rather nice. If, however, aster is stuck onto the back of another word it means poor imitation of a.

The commonest example is poetaster, which means a poor imitation of a poet. But, just to prove that lovers of long words aren't necessarily the kindest people, also to be found are medicasters, grammaticasters (ouch!) politicasters, witticasters (people who think they're funny), philosophasters, criticasters, and theologasters.

I don't think there's a word artaster, but surely, surely that should be the commonest word of them all.

Word To Understand Today: one ending in aster

Even suffixes are subject to fashion. Nowadays every scandal is something-gate, and in the early 1800s there was a trend for conflicts to be something-loo. Aster as a suffix got fashionable in the 1600s. Milton used politicaster, and the playwrights Ben Jonson, John Marston, and Thomas Dekker managed to have a long quarrel that ended in the production of Jonson's play The Poetaster in 1601.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Thing To Do Today: be musical.

How music works I do not know.

Well, I suppose I do know why any two Cs played together sound rather boring. And I know why a C and a Csharp played together sound wincier.* But why a tune can lift the spirits, or induce a deep healing calm, I've no idea.

But it can.


I reckon it's worth trying, don't you?

Thing To Do Today: be musical. If you can't play a conventional instrument then you can sing, and if people say you can't sing then I'd suggest assembling some non-sentient objects of various shapes and sizes and hitting them, though probably not hard enough to break them.

Or you could always play a carrot:

The word music comes from mousikē, belonging to the Muses.
*Basically, if you pluck a tight string it will vibrate all the way along its length and a note will sound. If you push the string against something hard at a point exactly half way along its length and pluck it again, the string will now only vibrate along the half of the string you've plucked. This will make the vibrations half the length, too, and the note much higher. 
As it happens, if the first note was a low C, say, the second will be a C, too, though a higher one. Now, because the vibrations of the second note are exactly half the length of the first note this means that the two sets of vibrations fit together really nicely, thank you, and this makes the two Cs played at the same time sound calm and sweet and inevitable and even a bit dull.
The more complicated the relationship between the length of the string needed to make a note and the other notes that are playing at the same time, the stranger the noise will be.
Fifteen C vibrations go into sixteen C sharp vibrations. This is about as strange as it gets in Western music.

Monday 27 January 2014

Spot The Frippet: musk.

Can you spot a smell? I don't see why not.

Musk is the smelly stuff that oozes from glands near a male musk deer's bottom - mm, lovely - and for centuries people have  rushed to rub it all over themselves.

No, really, they do: we humans really are very odd creatures, you know. 

Well, it does smell gorgeous.

Civets produce something similar, and so do otters, though people don't seem to be so keen on otter-oozings. Perhaps the smell of otter oozings reminds people of the fish that make up the otter's diet.

There are other things that smell of musk, too: various American Mimulus flowers:

File:Mimulus moschatus.jpg

the delightful musk duck:

the European Musk Mallow:

the muskmelon (which includes the canteloupe and honeydew);

the musk orchid: 

the musk ox:

and the musk rose:

The musk turtle is also known as the stinkpot. For this reason I suspect the people who named this creature of sarcasm.

The muskrat (a large vole-like creature used for fur coats) doesn't as far as I know smell of anything much. The musk in its name comes from an Algonquian word that's nothing to do with smells.

The easiest way to spot a bit of musk will probably be either on a fragrant lady near you - or perhaps a fragrant man - or at a melon stall.

I think I'll probably get into less trouble sniffing melons.

Spot the Frippet: musk. This word comes from the Latin muscus, and has come to us through Greek, Persian and Sanskrit from mūsh, which means mouse.

Sunday 26 January 2014

Sunday Rest: aperture. Word Not To Use Today.

File:Scope Aperture.jpg

en:I B Wright The oval image of the rear element seen from the front of a Cinemascope lens.

Aperture is a fluky sort of a word. It's okay if you're talking about photography or telescopes, but never never even slightly tolerable in any other context whatsoever.

Hole. Gap. Opening. All fine words that can be pronounced without the spraying of saliva. Not only that, but they're understood by everyone.

And so, if anyone ever does say, I'm having trouble inserting the thread through the aperture in the needle, he should immediately be walled up in a small room without so much as a crack (let alone a you-know-what) in the plasterwork until he's learnt his lesson.

It'll make the world a much less self-important place.

Word Not To Use Today: aperture. This word comes from the Latin aperīre to open.

Saturday 25 January 2014

Saturday Rave: Infamy! by Talbot Rothwell OBE

There are a hundred different answers to the question how did you find out you wanted to be a writer? but Talbot Rothwell's answer must be one of the most interesting.

As a young man Rothwell tried a variety of jobs. He was a town clerk, a police officer, and then a Royal Air Force pilot.

His career as a pilot ended when his plane was shot down over Norway in World War 2, and he was imprisoned in The Great Escape prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft Three. It was there that Rothwell started to write scripts for plays, partly as a means of passing the time, partly to keep up morale, and partly to disguise the sound of tunnelling.

After the war he carried on writing, most famously for the Carry On films. Carry On Cleo was made in 1964 using the costumes and sets originally intended for the Taylor and Burton Cleopatra before that production moved to Rome.

Carry On Cleo may not be the most sophisticated example cinematic art, but there's one line that has given joy ever since it was first uttered by Kenneth Williams playing Caesar.

Here it is. I think it's one of the finest puns ever perpetrated upon an unsuspecting audience.

Word To Use Today: infamy. This word comes from the Latin word infāmis, which means of evil repute.


Friday 24 January 2014

Word To Use Today:dinkum.

Am I allowed to use the word dinkum, or is it only for Australians and New Zealanders?

I can't honestly see myself being able to use it without attracting ridicule, and this is a real shame. Dinkum is so...perky...and, as you'll have noticed, there's nothing like a good perk.

Dinkum means real (in England we use the phrase the real deal, in Australia and New Zealand they have the dinkum deal), true (dinkum oil is the truth), genuine ("as every dinkum Aussie knows, booing the Prime Minister at sporting events is the Australian way") and honest.

Fair dinkum asks if what's been said is true. "You used to be a wombat juggler? Fair dinkum?" It can also reinforce the idea of fairness: "it cost a fortune, but fair dinkum considering it's made of kakapo droppings".
I feel greatly envious of those who can use the word dinkum. I did find a company online that declared that "Dinkum is the leading supplier of drinks concepts within the UK": but that just makes my head hurt.

But then up popped Joseph Wright. In his English Dialect Dictionary of 1896-1905 he found the word dinkum being used in quite a few parts of England. In this case dinkum meant a fair amount of work. He even found fair dinkum being used in Lincolnshire, where it was used as a plea for honest dealing.

So, does that mean I can use dinkum, now?

Um...still probably not, I'm afraid. Still, at least now I can think it with a clear conscience, can't I.

Word To Use Today, Though Possibly Only Internally: dinkum. There are those who claim the word comes from a Chinese phrase din gum that means real gold, but the English derivation, though obscure, is really more likely.


Thursday 23 January 2014

Strong language: a rant.

Oi! YOU!

Don't you already ******* know that strong ******* language isn't really ******* strong at all?

It's the ******* opposite, isn't it.

Yes, it's ******* weak ********language. I mean, if it were strong you wouldn't need to keep ******* swearing all the ******** time, would you.


Have you ******** got it, now?


Word To Use Today: asterisk. This word comes from the Greek asteriskos, a small star. Which is actually rather sweet.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Nuts and Bolts: the final frontier.

Jingles, that great friend of The Word Den, got me thinking with her comment on last week's camelcase post.

Jingles' comment ended like this:


So: why do we have spaces between our words?

Well, as Jingles has shown us, if you can mark the beginning of a word in some other way you don't need them.

In Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, nearly every word had a  determiner attached to it (that was a sign that meant something like their or this or bunch) and these acted as word dividers.

Traditionally, Chinese, Japanese and Korean are written without spaces (though Korean has quite taken to them in recent years). In Chinese, at least, where each character is more or less a word,  obviously word-end signs aren't necessary.

It's when you come to systems with an alphabet that things get harder. In cuneiform a vertical stroke or a diagonally sloping wedge was used to separate words. Ethiopic inscriptions used a vertical line, but manuscripts used double dots like our colon. Early Greek and Latin also used to put dots (single ones) between their words, but then they went through a stage of not bothering to mark where words began at all. By about 600AD, however, spaces were beginning to be used in Latin (firstly by Irish monks) and now all languages that use a Roman alphabet use spaces.

But spaces are not the final frontier.

The Nastaʿlīq form of Arabic calligraphy separates words by beginning of each word higher on the page than the end of the preceding word. Nastaʿlīq has spread across the world and today is used for Persian, Uyghur, Pashto, and Urdu.

You know, I'm beginning to wonder if using spaces isn't a little...dull.

And now we have keyboards it's as easy to press a key as a space.



Thing To Do Today: wonder if space really is the final frontier.

The word space has been around more or less forever. In Latin it was spatium.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Thing To Do Today As Long As No One Catches You Doing It: ogle.

It's a rather ugly word, is ogle...literally ogre-ish.

Ogle means to look at greedily. If it's a person you're looking at then you'll probably be drooling after that person's body rather than their mind.

Most people will resent this rather a lot. 

If, however, the individual being ogled has the brain of a doughnut - especially if this is because he or she is, in fact, a doughnut - then he or she won't mind being the object of an ogle at all. Well, they won't for long, anyway, because ten to one he or she will soon be washed down the great alimentary canal of death in bite-sized pieces, quite possibly along with a lashings and lashings of ginger beer.

There are, fortunately, situations actively designed to encourage  ogling, though I'm afraid they usually have to be paid for.

By this I mean of course the visual arts, and especially those on screen. These are usually full of ogle-friendly material: or, as it's usually rather neatly known in this context, eye-candy.

File:Red carpet 001.JPG
Photo: Warburg


Thing To Do Today As Long As No One Catches You Doing It: ogle. This word probably comes from the Low German oegeln, from oegen to look at.

Monday 20 January 2014

Spot the frippit: something lunulate.

The thing that's most obviously lunulate is, naturally, a lunula, which is the pale crescent that shows at the base of human fingernails. 

Ah good, I thought: spotting one of these is going to be easy.

And then I discovered that I don't have any. Nope. My nails are a uniform colour all the way down. Rats.

Ah well. I don't suppose it matters. In fact, if I do ever find time to worry about my lack of lunulae then that'll be a sign I'm leading a singularly blessed existence.

Anyway, lunulate. It means crescent-shaped.

The moon might be expected to be lunulate, and it is, though not at the moment because today it's very nearly full.

Never mind. We are surrounded by crescents in any case. Any orange, lemon or grapefruit is concealing quite a few of them. Here's a Leopard Lacewing, Cethosia cyane bearing some black crescents (it's very doubtful there are any Leopard Lacewings around at this time of year, but, hey, it's a nice picture).

File:Leopard Lacewing Cethosia cyane Richard Bartz .jpg
photo: Richard Bartz 

Or look at this Grey Reef Shark's mouth:

Grey reef shark

Beautiful, isn't it? Though I hope for your sake not easy to spot.

Still, the shark brings us neatly to the easiest way of all to spot a crescent shape.

What is it? 

Smile at people.

Do count how many smiles you have to give people until someone smiles back.

*It'd be really interesting to know the answer to this, particularly by location. Do people in rural places smile more or less than urban folk? Are city Africans better at smiling than suburban Russians? Do let me know what happens.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Spot the frippet: something lunulate. This word comes from the Latin lūna, which means moon.


Sunday 19 January 2014

Sunday Rest: lurid. Word Not To Use Today.

File:A lurid coloured fungus - - 604655.jpg
Photo by Graham Horn

Not only does this word sound as if someone has stirred glue into it, but it's a contranym. Yes, I know these are usually adorable, but this one...just isn't.

It means pallid or wan, but confusingly it also means glowing with an unnatural glare. 

You quite often have to stop for a moment to work out what's  happening when you come across a contranym, but with this word I can't see that there's any way you can work it out. Is the poor invalid flushed with fever or deathly pale? The l word certainly won't tell you.

L**** (I really can't bear to type it) can also describe a shockingly horrid story, or something my Collins dictionary thrillingly describes as "horrible in savagery or violence."

Anyway, it's thoroughly nasty. To be shunned.

So there you are: that's more than enough l**** details about l****, so I'm off.

Sunday Rest: l****. This word comes from the Latin lūridus, which means pale yellow.

Saturday 18 January 2014

Saturday Rave: Basic Engly Twenty Fido by Stanley Unwin.

How much do you understand?

No, really. How much do you really understand?

You can understand every single word in a book or a speech - and even every single sentence - and sometimes you can still come away none the wiser. Can't you?

"Professor" Stanley Unwin, on the other hand, used words that no one had ever heard before (basically because he'd made them up) and still managed to give people the feeling they understood, or were on the point of understanding, what he was saying.

Unwin made up Basic Engly Twenty Fido to enliven the stories he told his children.

(This means he's a hero and a definite good guy as far as The Word Den is concerned.)

Unwin was a radio technician who was heard using his personal nonsense language, Basic Engly Twenty Fido, during sound tests, and encouraged to turn it into an act.

He was the least glamorous of entertainers, but that didn't stop him reaching number 1 in the UK Albums Chart narrating "Happiness Stan" on the Small Faces' album Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake.

Unwin also collaborated with British dance music act Wubble-U on their single "Petal", and made an appearance in the Aardman Animations series Rex the Runt, in this case as an accountant.

It's clever stuff, Basic Engly Twenty Fido (also known as Unwinese). Unwin exploits brilliantly the suspension of understanding that every language requires.

The shape, which was so strangely...

See? All those words, and you've no idea what they're about yet.

Here is Stanley Unwin explaining a gadget:

And this was the farewell read out at Unwin's funeral:

"Goodly Byelode loyal peeploders! Now all gatherymost to amuse it and have a tilty elbow or a nice cuffle-oteedee – Oh Yes!"

I doubt we'll see his like again.

Thing To Use Today: a piece of your own personal nonsense: darkly short clocks snowlodes and if not then whoopsy brollies upsy-downsy splish slosh.
Deep joy!

Friday 17 January 2014

Word To Use Today: piccalilli/piccadilly.

Piccalilli: what a name, eh? It sounds as if it's come from somewhere mysterious and steamy, but it's actually genuinely English.

The most distinctive thing about piccalilli (in Britain, anyway) is its colour, which is a mustard so bright as to seem almost radioactive.

(British piccalilli. In the USA piccalilli is red or green.)

The next most distinctive thing about piccalilli could well be its taste; but I can't be sure about this because the colour (have you ever changed a new-born baby's nappy?) has always prevented me from eating it.

If, however, you should want to try piccalilli for yourself then there's a recipe HERE. The stuff is basically a spicy pickle of random vegetables, often including cauliflower and green beans.

Oh, but piccalilli is such a lovely word...

...piccalilli. Piccalilli. Piccalilli!

Luckily, for pickle phobics, Piccadilly is quite as lovely as a word, and doesn't involve eating anything vinegary.

Piccadilly is the area of London where you can find this famous statue:

The guy with the arrow is usually called Eros, but Alfred Gilbert, who made the statue, meant it to be Eros's brother Anteros.

Quite a few people know it's not really Eros, but most of them tend to think it's The Angel of Christian Charity.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: piccalilli or Piccadilly. The word piccalilli appeared in the 1700s, originally as piccalillo, and may be based on the word pickle. The bit of London now called Piccadilly was bought by a tailor named Robert Baker from money made selling piccadills, which were stiff collars with scalloped edges and a broad lace border.

There are also Piccadillys in Canada and Australia, as well as a couple of others in England, in Manchester and Warwickshire.

Thursday 16 January 2014

The cross party: a rant

In Britain, some people have plans to make a law that will make it illegal for someone to “intend to control or coerce” his or her  spouse.

But...that would put an end to marriage as we know it. Wouldn't it?
To make things worse, the report I saw in the Daily Telegraph says that the plans have attracted cross party support. For a moment I was glad it wasn't cross-party support; but when I came to think about it I realised that absolutely all political parties are terribly cross nearly all the time, aren't they? And so I'm horribly afraid these plans are bound to become law.

Will a husband ever put an empty beer can in a bin again?

I fear for civilisation, quite frankly.

Word To Use Today: spouse. This word comes from the Old French spus or spuse, from the Latin sponsus or sponsa, betrothed person, from spondēre to promise solemnly.



Wednesday 15 January 2014

Nuts and Bolts: The Case of the Camel.

Oh, but surely you know about camels:

Photo by Jeff Kubina

That's a Bactrian camel. You can tell because it has two humps.

But what's camelcase?

Camelcase is a fairly new name for quite an old thing. Chemical formulae use it a lot: CsBr or Na2SiFfor example.

And in case you think that's something scientific and therefore not properly English, then there are DLitts and the PhDs, as well.

Yes, camelcase is to do with capital letters being introduced into a word, giving it humps.

The Word Den sometimes uses a form of camelcase to show stresses, like this: CAMulCASE.

Sometimes it'll be used where the second bit of a word is the name of a person or place. The amaXhosa people call their language isiXhosa, for instance. Which isn't all that unEnglish in form, is it.

Camelcase (I wish it were written camelCase, but it isn't, usually) has been used as a fashion statement for a long time. The DryIce Corporation, for example, was founded in 1925.

In Germany, camelcase has even become a feminist issue. MitarbeiterInnen ("co-workers, male or female") is sometimes preferred instead of Mitarbeiter ("co-workers", grammatically masculine) or Mitarbeiterinnen ("female co-workers").

Now camelcase is everywhere: MasterCard, HarperCollins, iPads, YouTube. It's very trendy indeed.

 But how soon will it be before fashion strands the poor camel in the cultural desert, I wonder?

Ah well. I suppose it'll feel pretty much at home, even when it is.

 Thing To Use Today: a bit of camelcase. The earliest use of the name "CamelCase" in writing occurs in 1995, in a post on USENET by Newton Love. "With the advent of programming languages having these sorts of constructs, the humpiness of the style made me call it HumpyCase at first, before I settled on CamelCase."

Tuesday 14 January 2014

Thing To Do Today: collect.

Cartophily is the hobby of collecting cigarette cards.

Humans, eh?

I've tried, I really have, but I don't understand this collecting thing.

It's not that I can't see the survival advantages: I mean, squirrels.

I can even see why the more Lego the merrier.

Agglomerations can be truly useful - of buttons, perhaps - but I never have the faintest desire to arrange them, and the essence of a collection is in the arrangement.

I don't know, though...having said that, I'd certainly find wall space if I were offered every Vermeer in the world (though however could I afford to insure them?) and of course once I'd bought my first lovely wooden apple then there was no choice but to carry on collecting wooden fruit of various kinds until my bowl was full.

Hmm...and I must admit I do have a lot of yellow things in my kitchen...

...and as for all the books...

Ah well. Perhaps collecting is an inescapable part of being human, after all. At least I don't possess one single cigarette card. That's some comfort.

Wikimedia Commons

Thing To Do Today: collect. I have known people who keep old batteries in the same tin as the new ones. This is insane. The word collect comes from the Latin colligere to gather together.

Monday 13 January 2014

Spot the Frippet: holland.

Holland. It gets all over the place.

There's the country also known as The Netherlands, a bit of Lincolnshire, and the place now called Jayapura in Indonesia used to be called Hollandia. There are Hollands in Canada, France, the USA and Singapore, too.

This is Holland House in London

One of the French Hollandes, Francois, is also co-prince of Andorra, which makes him a mind-boggling example of a democratically-elected prince who's elected by the people of another country. (The other co-prince, as a matter of interest, is the Bishop of Urgell. This makes my brain hurt.)


Apart from in all these Hollands in various countries, Holland is also to be found somewhere where there is no country at all, because Holland is a class of military submarines, often to be found, naturally, in the wilder parts of the sea. They were designed by someone called Holland.

You know, I'm beginning to feel slightly twitchy. As if I'm being invaded or something. As if someone is watching me:

Tom Holland Billy Elliott 2010 1b.jpg
That's Tom Holland, best known at the moment for being in Billy Elliot.

Hollands is also a type of gin, and hollandaise sauce, given the slightest encouragement, will spread itself all over fish.

Alarmingly, there will almost certainly be holland very very near you. Possibly within a hair's breath of your bottom.

Yes, holland is a coarse linen cloth that's used for covering furniture.

There. I told you. Holland. Gets everywhere.

Creepy, or what?

Spot the frippet: holland. Everything seems to be named after the country, or after someone named after the country. But where the name for the country itself came from I can't find anyone to tell me.

Sunday 12 January 2014

Sunday Rest. Eupatrid: Word Not To Use Today.

So this word starts with eu and ends with something that sounds way way too much like putrid. I mean, what's to like?

 And just what iseupatrid, anyway?

eupatrid is a landowner or aristocrat who's inherited his land and/or title.

Ah well, I suppose it's a good gig if you can get it. I suppose a really big inheritance, if it comes with the right to wear strawberry leaves on your coronet*, say, might even be worth the silly moniker. 

Still...the eupatrid does make the coming-into-wealth-and-title stuff seem just a bit fairer, doesn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: eupatrid. This word comes from the Ancient Greek eupatridēs which means, literally, having a good father.

Though of course your dad doesn't have to have been rich or aristocratic to have been that.

And Maggie Makes Three3

*British dukes, marquesses and earls have strawberry leaves on their coronets, but they only get to wear them at royal coronations.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Saturday Rave: Tall Nettles by Edward Thomas.

Sometimes when it's cold and dark and raining and raining and raining, it's good to be reminded that even the cold and the rain are to be cherished.

One of the reason I love the poems of Edward Thomas is that he notices small ordinary things.

And then he shows us their glory.

TALL nettles cover up, as they have done
These many springs, the rusty harrow, the plough
Long worn out, and the roller made of stone:
Only the elm butt tops the nettles now.
This corner of the farmyard I like most: 5
As well as any bloom upon a flower
I like the dust on the nettles, never lost
Except to prove the sweetness of a shower.


File:Bed of nettles - - 463116.jpg
Photo: Les Harvey

Word To Use Today: nettle. This word has hardly changed in a thousand years. In Old English it was netele.

Friday 10 January 2014

Word To Use Today: homage.

I'd like to pay homage to that transcendent genius JS Bach.

Unfortunately, though, I can't. Well, I don't know how to say homage, do I?

Is it HOMMidge?

Or should I go more French and say omAHJE?

I've even heard tales of US academics going with OMMidge.

Oh dear.
Well, I'm not a US academic, so I needn't bother with OMMidge; and although the pronunciation omAHJE is used to pay tribute to very artistic people, on the whole it they're usually relatively modern artistic people, like Pierre Boulez or Roman Polanski.

(Although I do remember a piece called Homage to Bach by a composer called Woof. No, really.)

As it happens, my dictionaries only recognise HOMMidge. And, do you know, I don't think that the intensely busy JS Bach would have had much time for listening to an omAHJE. The word gives the impression that the homage is at least as clever as the work it's taken as its inspiration - and also that the cleverness is quite as important as the work.

And that goes against the essence of JS Bach's genius, because Bach's cleverness, even though it was unsurpassed, wasn't the important thing about it at all.

Adam Liu

Word To Use Today, Though Possibly Not Out Loud: homage. This word came from Old French in the 1200s, from home, man, from the Latin homo, which also means man. The pronunciation omAHJE seems also to have come from French, but much much later.

Thursday 9 January 2014

Hyphen-ventilating: a rant.

To hyphen or not to hyphen?

Well, it depends partly on when you are. When you are in the history of a word, that is.

Take a fairly recent example, I started off e-mailing people, but now email them. The same sort of thing has happened to the words pigeon-hole and hyper-link.

Sometimes the hyphen disappears in another way: for example, fig-leaf is now usually fig leaf, and ice-cream is now often ice cream.

Is there any rhyme or reason in these changes? Only that English words seem to abhor a hyphen (about 16,000 words lost their hyphens in the 2007 of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary). Except, except, except...

...are you talking about two-hundred-year-old ladies, or two hundred-year-old ladies? It that a man-eating snake:

Reticulated python.

or a man eating snake?

Snake soup.

Or, as I saw recently, is the new, possibly dementia-preventing drug solamezumab an antibody drug or an anti-body drug?

I'd be happy to take one, but you're not getting me within spitting distance of the other, I can tell you.

Word To Use Today: antibody. This word comes from the Old English bodig, and is related to the Old Norse buthkr, which means box. The anti bit is Greek.


Wednesday 8 January 2014

Nuts and Bolts: capitonyms.

What's the point of having both upper and lower case letters?

The Chinese, for example, get on perfectly happily with just the one case.

Well, the thing is that having two cases of letters is rather like having trousers: it's awkward to dispense with them once they've become a habit.

Every year, for instance, I'm disappointed when I realise that the  posters about the large and exciting 


aren't advertising a knees-up for book-lovers, but a pop shindig in the English town of Reading (as it happens you pronounce it Redding).

Reading is a capitonym, which is a word with different meanings depending on whether it starts with a capital letter or not.

If the capitonym begins a sentence, or happens to be written all in capitals, then this distinction of meaning disappears and confusion reigns.

But never mind, a sign proclaiming MARCH FOR DAFFODILS provides an opportunity for harmless wonder; as does an advertisement for AUGUST HOLIDAYS. (Would an august holiday include the services of a butler, one asks oneself? Would it take place in a seat of royalty?)

I may have catholic tastes, for instance, but I don't necessarily have Catholic ones. I may not be very pleased to find myself walking on earth in my stilettos, but I'm always relieved to discover that the Earth is beneath my feet.

Enjoying fish and chips (if you're English) is conservative, but not necessarily Conservative (the Conservatives are a British political party).

A Cuban heel is not to be depended upon; but a cuban heel will support you from dawn to dusk and back again.

Something Ionic looks, and perhaps is, Greek; something ionic can come from more or less anywhere in the Universe.

And don't even get me started on french polish...

Word To Use Today: a capitonym. This word is a joining together of the word capital with the suffix -onym, which means word or name.



Tuesday 7 January 2014

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: be horrent.

The word horrent has given me great joy.

These lines of verse are from James Montgomery's poem Freedom.
It's the critical moment of the Battle of Sempach (1386), and all  will be lost unless a Hero arrives to save the day.

It did depend on one indeed;
Behold him,—Arnold Winkelried!

Anyway, the reason I was reading James Montgomery's poem is that a bit later on he's describing the massed ranks of the Austrian army and it says this:

Impregnable their front appears,

All horrent with projected spears,

Which is really rather splendid.

So, horrent. If your hair is horrent it's standing up on end, and the reason it's standing up on end will probably be horror rather than hair gel, though not necessarily because horrent can also either mean covered with bristles, or bristle-like, as in the Austrian spears.

Horrent can also mean expressive of horror. So you can make a horrent cry if, for instance, the top comes off the salt cellar as you're seasoning your soup.
If, say, a gorilla arrives for tea, you might even manage both the hair-standing-on-end and the cry. simultaneously
A servant in Victorian livery stands awkwardly at an open door, his mouth open and hair standing on end, as a gorilla wearing a white tie full dress tailcoat enters.
And I don't think anyone could blame you. Especially if the thing's wearing a waistcoat.
Thing Probably Not To Do Today: be horrent. This word comes from the Latin horrēns, from horrēre, which means to bristle or shudder.