This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 28 February 2014

Word To Use Today: pandora

Yes, Pandora was the one who opened the box (except that it wasn't a box, but a jar: Erasmus apparently got his pithos and his pyxis mixed up when he was doing the translation. Still, nobody's perfect). Unfortunately Pandora's box contained all the troubles of man.

Mind you, in another version of the story, Pandora was the first woman. She was made by the Gods to punish mankind after Prometheus stole fire, and they made her beautiful to enslave men for ever.

Neat, eh?

A pandora is one of these, too:

Pandoura 001.jpg

That's a 4th century image of a Muse playing a pandora. Nowadays you're more likely to hear someone playing its descendant, which has come to be called a banjo.

A pandora is also a fungus that infests aphids (not much of a life, eh?), a sort of sea bream, a shellfish, and a moth:

The moth larvae live in pine trees in California. The Forest Service hate them for eating the leaves of the trees, but the Paiute Native Americans find the larvae jolly tasty. They roast the larvae:

for half an hour in sand, then they dry them. The larvae can then be stored for up to two years before being boiled to reconstitute them.


Symbion pandora is a tiny aquatic animal that lives in lobsters' mouths. Symbion pandora is an odd thing - the way it reproduces involves the females' digestive systems collapsing and turning into a larva.

And if that sounds tough then pity the poor male, who has no digestive system at all.

It really makes all the troubles of man seem quite manageable, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: pandora. This word comes from the Greek and means all-gifted.

Thursday 27 February 2014

Bankruptcy: a rant.

I wrote a book about a big bad troll the other day.

This big bad troll, as you will already have inferred, was big and he was bad. In fact, he was a complete menace.

Yes, the clue was in the name.

A committee of the EU wants to banish the word bankruptcy and replace it with a phrase such as debt adjustment.

The idea is to make it easier for people to rebuild their reputations after a financial disaster by disguising the fact that they've, well, been bankrupt.

I wonder what they would have made of the big bad troll? It would have been kinder to his reputation to have called him the colossal independent-minded troll, but it wouldn't have been half so useful as a warning to the poor people who lived near him to keep out of his way.

Of course going bankrupt doesn't mean someone is necessarily bad at business. He may have just been very unlucky indeed. But the fact is that he's got into a situation where he's been unable to pay people the money he's owed them.

Would you do business under a system that calls bankruptcy debt adjustment? A system  where you know you might be deliberately deceived as to a business's history?

Ah well. It'll prove such a obstruction to trade that soon they'll have to invent something called a Permanent Debt Adjustment, or something similar.

Which everyone will know will be bankruptcy under another name.
Word To Use If That's What You Mean: bankrupt. This word comes from the Old French banqueroute, from the Old Italian bancarotta meaning broken bench. The first bankers used to set up their stalls on benches, and if one of the bankers couldn't pay back the money he owed people his bench was broken.


Wednesday 26 February 2014

Nuts and Bolts: syllepsis or zeugma.

Syllepsis is good fun as long as you're not bothered that no one is knows what it is, or whether or not it's actually a zeugma.

The basic idea in both is that one word is used in two different senses.

But, you will say, hold the page and your horses! In that case, which is a zeugma and which is a syllepsis?

Well, the term zeugma is used more commonly and begins rather thrillingly with a z. Syllepsis is a nice, slithery word. I suggest you take your pick and enjoy some examples.

'I just blew my nose, a fuse, and three circuit breakers.' That's from the Jim Henson Hour.
'[H]e was alternately cudgelling his brains and his donkey when, passing the workhouse, his eyes encountered the bill on the gate.' Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist.

'She lowered her standards by raising her glass,/Her courage, her eyes and his hopes.' Flanders and Swann, Have Some Madeira, M'Dear.

Here's a very old one:
'Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey,/Dost sometimes counsel take—and sometimes tea.'  Alexander Pope, Rape of the Lock.
And a new one:
'You held your breath and the door for me.' Alanis Morissette, Head over Feet.
There are also examples of zeugma or syllepsis that aren't at all amusing, or even really noticeable.
But I'll fear I'll lose patience and your attention if I go into those.
Thing To Use Today: zeugma. Or syllepsis. Well, it's something to think about at bus stops. The word zeugma is Greek and comes from zeugnunai, to yoke; and syllepsis is also Greek, from lambanein, to take.

Tuesday 25 February 2014

Thing To Do Today: utter.

The only difficulty here will be deciding what to utter.

A growl? An oath (by Jove!)? A snarl?

If you have nothing to snarl, swear, or growl at, then any public announcement is technically an utterance: so that must include anything on Facebook,or Twitter.

Or, I suppose, on a blog post.

For lawyers (English criminal lawyers, anyway (who aren't necessarily criminal: it's just that they deal with criminal law)) uttering involves the distribution of fake coins or banknotes. The utter in utter barrister, though, means a junior lawyer.

If you're utterly miserable that's another sort of utter entirely.

Unless you're a lawyer who's really really desperate to get promotion.

English lawyer, early 20th century. by liftarn - English lawyer, early 20th century.

Thing To Do Today: utter. The speaking word comes from the Middle Dutch ūteren, to make known, and is related to the Middle Low German ūtern to sell or show. Utter meaning total comes from the Old English utera, which means outer.

Monday 24 February 2014

Spot the frippet: something uvular.

My first-school headmaster used to make us all recite this piece of verse:

I must open my big fat mouth
And show my big fat tongue
And my big fat teeth
And the wiggly thing that hangs down at the back.

The wiggly thing that hangs down at the back is the uvula. (Our headmaster , by the way, was trying to improve our singing.)

A mirror will probably help with spotting a uvula. That, or finding an infant in full mouth-quivering howl, or making someone laugh a lot.

If you're a dentist then you'll have no trouble at all even though people are unlikely to be laughing.

If, however, you're not a dentist but an pediaphobic (child-fearing) vampire (no reflection) with an inability to time a joke, then you could always keep an ear out for something else uvular, namely the beautifully spittle-infused sound that the French write as an r, or the sound the Scots say at the end of loch. Or och, for that matter. That's a uvular consonant. Other languages that use uvular consonants include Japanese, Inuktitut, Kazakh, Castillian Spanish, Lakhita, Quechuan, Arabic, Norwegian and Mam.

The language Tlingit has ten different uvular consonants - though unless you're in Alaska you're not likely to hear them - and Tlingit is beaten by the Ubykh language of Turkey, which has twenty.

I have piano lessons today. I think a little Bach will be just the job.

File:Malelion with uvula.jpg

Spot the frippet: something uvular. This word is the Mediaeval Latin for little grape. Eeuurgh!*

*See what I did there?

Sunday 23 February 2014

Sunday Rest: staycation.

In Britain you only ever have a vacation if you're a student at one of the poshest universities. 

Everyone else has holidays.

Sometimes a newspaper will pretend that the fashionable thing to do is to have, not a holiday, but a staycation. But it isn't true.

staycation involves living at home, but going out a lot to enjoy yourself.

I'm trying to work out why I loathe and abhor this word so very much. It's not because it's new. It's not because it's obscure. It's not because it's ugly.

Is it because it cuts the head off the word vacation (from the Latin vacātiō, which means freedom)? That would be a silly reason to hate it so much - but I mus admit it is one of the reasons for my dislike.

But I mostly loathe this word because it doesn't make sense. A vacation - or a holiday - is a break from work. If you say I'm on holiday/vacation next week, people will ask are you going away? The word holiday/vacation has nothing to say about where the holiday/vacation takes place.

And apart from's the freedom thing. A holiday is about freedom. And attaching the word stay to it is like putting leg irons on a butterfly.

Yes. That's why I really hate it.

A photograph of a butterfly on someone's fingertip.

Word Not To Use Today: staycation. Merriam-Webster says this word was coined in 2005, but it came to prominence after the 2008 financial crash when being hard-up (a novelty to the chattering classes) became rather fashionable. Staycation is an unholy mix of stay and vacation.

Saturday 22 February 2014

Saturday Rave: The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde.

All right, I admit it: I have some low tastes.

At the theatre a good farce will fill me with quite as much joy as the most improving work of stern modernism complete with baffling suicide, lampshade-wearing women, and a video-loop of a dog scratching itself outside a decaying garage.

In fact, if I'm being honest, it will bring me much more joy.

But all is not lost, for just occasionally low tastes and high art converge in a sherberty fountain of deliciousness. 

The Importance of Being Earnest is so well-known that it's full of quotations, but luckily even the non-quotation parts are worth quoting. Here's a passage completely at random:

GWENDOLEN: (severely): Had you never had a brother of any kind?
JACK (pleasantly) Never. Not even of any kind.
GWENDOLEN: I am afraid it is quite clear, Cecily, that neither of us is engaged to be married to any one.

Two lines later Jack says: Pretty mess you have got me into, which is very nearly a quotation of someone else.

The only thing wrong with The Importance of Being Earnest is that it's very hard to act. The timing has to be perfect, and the actors have to be charming, attractive and intelligent. So it's not easy to cast.

But when it is, it's glorious.

Michael Denison and Micheal Redgrave as Jack and Algernon.

Especially the bits between the quotes.

Word To Use Today: earnest. This word comes from the Old English eornost. It's related to the Old High German ernust, seriousness, the Old Norse ern, energetic, and the Gothic arniba. secure.

Friday 21 February 2014

Words To Use Today: lemurs and lemures.

So what's the connection between lemurs and lemures?

Er...well, to start with, what are lemurs and lemures?

lemur is a primate, which makes it the same sort of animal as you are (assuming you're human). There are about a hundred types of lemur of various shapes and sizes - in fact until man arrived on the lemurs' homeland of Madagascar there was a lemur as big as a male gorilla - but most of the species have only been identified since the 1990s.

A sportive lemur (small body, long legs, brown fur, large eyes, and thick, furry tail) clings to the side of a tree, with its head turned towards the camera.
Sahamalaza sportive lemur. It's called sportive because jumps around a lot.

So, what's so special about lemurs? All sorts of things. Some hibernate, some are awake in both the day and the night, some breed all year round.

Some lemur societies have female bosses.

Many lemurs have a toilet-claw (but it's all right, your mind can stop boggling, it's only used scratching and grooming).

And last, but not least, some lemurs are impossibly cute:

A tiny mouse lemur holds a cut piece of fruit in its hands and eats
Mouse lemur

And so what about lemures?

Well, lemures are not at all cute. They're Roman spirits of the dead, and nasty, vengeful they are too, often with a chip on their shoulders about not being buried properly. Brrr! They were such a nuisance to the Romans that the Romans held a festival called Lemuria every year to exorcise them.

Right. So what's the connection between lemurs and lemures?

Well, when Carl Linnaeus was giving all the living things on Earth their names he wasn't always entirely clear which creatures were related to which, and as it happened he bunged all the lemurs in with the lorises and colugos.

I call them lemurs [after the ghosts], he said (talking about the slender loris) because they go around mainly by night, in a certain way similar to humans, and roam with a slow pace.

In some ways calling lemurs after ghosts is quite reasonable because lemurs do tend to have reflective eyes, and some of them make spooky noises. But that wasn't why they got called lemurs.

By coincidence, there's an old Malagasy tradition that lemurs are the souls of ancestors. But, I mean, look at this sweetie.

Cat-sized primate with large, membranous ears, black, coarse fur, long, skinny fingers, and forward-facing eyes climbing along a tree branch; its eyes shining yellow, reflecting back the light from the camera flash

A ghost? How unfair is that???

Word To Use Today: lemur/lemures. These words come from Linnaeus and the Romans.


Thursday 20 February 2014

Bankrupt: a rant.

This post will appear next Thursday if I don't go and mess up the scheduling on the post again.

The experts: a rant.

This is Harry Ritchie in the Guardian newspaper of 4th March 2014:

"The modern study of language has shown that all native speakers are experts in their language."

Really? Experts?

There's no one anywhere who's ever tongue-tied, then?

No one forced to express themselves by violence, or tears, or jumping up and down and punching the air because they're bursting with some emotion they can't express in words?

No one ever left groping for exactly the expression that'll show sympathy without seeming to be insincere, or disapproval without seeming to hate; no one taken in by, or found out in, a lie; no one ever had a joke fall flat.

No one ever had a word stuck on the tip of their tongue, or left groping for a word more formal than stuff.

No one ever felt the need to expand their vocabulary.

No one...

...but you get the idea.


Well, I'll tell you something: I wish I were one.

Word To Use Today: study. This word comes from the French estudie, from the Latin studium, zeal or inclination, from studēre, to be diligent.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Nuts and Bolts: homophones

The poem below, or variants of it, are to be found scattered throughout the Internet. A depressing number of them include the misinformation that a homophone is a word that sounds the same as another but is spelled differently.

A word like that - bare, for example - is indeed a homophone because it sounds the same as bear. But then Bourbon is a homophone, too, because Bourbon meaning a member of a French royal family is different from Bourbon meaning a sort of biscuit.

(Bourbon meaning a type of drink isn't a homophone at all because you say it BERbn and the other meanings are BORbn.)

Another sort of homophone is something like ph, because it usually sounds the same as f. Though not as in of or (usually) phthalate.

I must also say here that spell-checkers, however imperfect, are a boon. I mean, how can they make things worse?

You can certainly have a lot of fun with them.

Regarding Computer Spell Checkers.
Eye have* a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my re view
Miss steaks eye can knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather aye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh.

As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare lea ever wrong.

Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh
My chequer tolled me sew.

(Sauce unknown)

My own spell checker did indeed pass the whole piece sound as a bell.


Thing To Be Aware of Today: homophones. Well, there awl over the plaice, aren't they?

*Every version of this verse I've found begins Eye halve a spelling chequer...but as halve isn't a homophone in any dialect of English I've ever come across I've altered it.

Tuesday 18 February 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: be drenched.

Dr Foster
Went to Gloucester
In a shower of rain.
He stepped in a puddle
Right up to his middle
And never went there again.

Dr Foster must be one of the first pieces of verse I ever heard.

It always rather worried me. Firstly, poor Dr Foster (I was a very soft-hearted child); and, secondly, why doesn't the verse  rhyme?

Gloucester is pronounced Gloster, so the first lines are all right; but what about the puddle/middle bit?

I know now that originally Dr Foster stepped in a piddle, and not a puddle (piddle and puddle used to mean the same thing). Sadly, piddle was too rude to say by the time I came along.

Of course, changing piddle to puddle not only messes up the rhyme scheme but also takes away the chief joke.

Ah well. Editors, eh?

Here in Southern England it is still raining. Now there are even floods in the commuter areas around London. Not that commuting is easy, what with the washed-away railway embankments.

We've all been getting drenched.

Still, it could be worse. There's probably a poor poorly horse somewhere near Windsor who is going to get drenched inside and out, because to drench a horse is to give it medicine.

I hope it's better soon.

Now. I have to go to town. Where are my waders?

Thing Not To Do Today If You Can Help It: be drenched. This word has, predictably, been used in England for a long time. It comes from the Old English drencan, to cause to drink.

Monday 17 February 2014

Word To Use Today: nickel.

Nickel is a brilliant word (you can hear the metal chinking, can't you?) and it's been generous enough to give us some lovely adjectives. Nickelic, meaning containing nickel, is perhaps my favourite, but there's nickeliferous and nickelous, too. They both mean pretty much the same as nickelic.

A pitted and lumpy piece of silvery metal, with the top surface cut flat

If you're in the USA or Canada a nickel is a coin worth five cents (though for a while it was worth three). That's never been a lot of money, but the word has a big enough personality to have given us nickelodeon. A nickelodeon can be can be a cinema with a five cent admission charge, a sort of jukebox, or a sort of mechanical piano.

Then there's the Nickel Belt - no, not something for carrying your money, but an area in Northern Ontario where people dig up nickel ore.

Again in the USA and Canada, the local form of football can use a nickeldefense. This will involve five people, one of whom is a nickelback.

The game nickels, however can be played more or less anywhere. All you have to do is to throw a coin in such a way that it ends up closer to a wall than anyone else's coin.

The nickel that's used in everyday life is almost always mixed up with other metals. It's used in silver plating and stainless steel, for example. You get it in some batteries, too.

All in all, nickel seems rather low-key, harmless stuff (unless it gives you dermatitis) but guess what? It may seem harmless, but...

...nickel is named after the devil.

Word To Use Today: nickel. This word is a shortened form of Kupfernickel, which means copper demon (the nickel bit is basically same word as in Old Nick). It's called this because German miners had such trouble getting copper out of nickel ore. Which wasn't surprising, as it didn't actually have any copper in it.

German miners had a similar opinion of cobalt, too.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Sunday Rest: spectre. Word Not To Use Today.

A spectre (specter in the USA) is a chillingly dreadful apparition. It's more terrifying than a ghost, even (ghosts can be quite chummy, sometimes, in a rather cold, regretful, and slightly clammy sort of a way). A spectre is a spine-dissolving echo of horrors past, and of more, still more deadly, yet to come.

A spectre is out to terrify, warn (though uselessly: you are DOOOOOMED!) and instil panic and dismay. It will turn your hair white, make your horrified eyes start glueily from their sockets, and cause your heart to die horribly in your breast.

It will loom, haunt, and cast a relentless deathly shadow.

And what does its name sound like, this shade, this ghoul, this eater of content?

By John Tenniel!

An under-qualified optician.

Ah well.

Word Not To Use Today: spectre. This word comes from the Latin specere, to look at.

Saturday 15 February 2014

Saturday Rave: not to mention Captain Flack.

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing...

So, are we in the dazzling, exciting, unpredictable world of jazz?


Just the opposite.

We're in a place where everyone plods. Even the fire and rescue service plod. Even when there's an emergency.

Plod. Plod. Plod.

Captain Flack is the chief fireman, and before his men plod dutifully to their fire engine to sort out the next emergency they make a point of wasting even more valuable time having a roll-call.

That's Captain Flack on the right. The other firemen are called:

Pugh, Pugh, Barney McGrew, Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb!

So, where are we? We're in Gordon Murray's 1960s stop-frame animation for pre-school children, Trumpton. Alison Prince wrote the script, which was chiefly about the firemen being marvellous. The only slight constraint on her was that she couldn't involve any fire, smoke or water in the stories because that would be too hard to animate.

The very excellent music was by Freddie Phillips, and the very excellent lyrics to the very excellent songs were written jointly by Phillips and Prince.

Phillips also claimed credit for introducing the first Pugh in the roll call, to fit in better with the swing of his six-eight music.

So that now, if you say Pugh, Pugh, Barney someone, more or less anyone, in Britain, they will respond with huge enthusiasm: Cuthbert, Dibble, Grubb!

In fact, you'll be lucky if you get past the second Pugh without everyone in the room joining in.

What makes this string of names so irresistibly satisfying? Is it the six-eight rhythm? Is it the sheer infectious pleasure of the SHOUTING? Is it the random silliness of the names?

In a way it doesn't matter. These small firemen have given millions of people much joy for many years, and will continue to do so for many more.

What more could we possibly want?

Word To Use Today: Cuthbert. Hints for use:
St Cuthbert's beads are the fossils of the stalky bit of a sea lily:

(you can put on string to help you count your prayers) and St Cuthbert's duck:

is the eider, which St Cuthbert protected on the Farne Island.

Friday 14 February 2014

Word To Use Today: cupid.

It's Valentine's Day, the day when people define their most intimate relationships in terms of red ribbon, pink hearts, and exophthalmic teddy bears.

Because you're worth it.

So. That Cupid guy with the arrows. Just who does he think he is causing all this trouble, then?

Unfortunately, as with many trouble-makers, no one is sure who Cupid is. Some say he came into existence before male and female were thought of, some say his mother was Venus.

As to who his father was, that's anyone's guess.
Léon Bazille Perrault's "Cupid's Arrows"
Whoever he is, he seems to have solved the never-growing-up thing, and perhaps it's being a mere child that explains why he's always up to mischief, firing his arrows at people and making them fall in love all over the place.

Even given that, Cupid's occasional habit of firing off his arrows blindfold is totally irresponsible.

As to the arrows Cupid fires, these also are a mystery. Some say he has two types of arrows, sharp ones which cause uncontrollable desire, and blunt ones which cause uncontrollable aversion. There's also a variation on this idea (possibly dreamt up by James I of Scotland, where Cupid has three sorts of arrows: the gold ones for causing a mild crush; the silver for a serious passion; and the steel for eternal love.

Even if you are currently not in Cupid's power, then there are things around called after him. The flower catanache is also called Cupid's dart:

(you're supposed to be able to make a love-potion from the flower)

and Cupid's bows are upper lips shaped like, er, Cupid's bow:

That's Clara Bow and her Cupid's bow on the left, there.

Even if you are currently free of Cupid's power, then are you truly free of cupidity? It's basically the same word, though the passion here is usually for possessions or money.

It strikes me that life would be easier if Cupid grew up.

Oh, but it would be so much duller, wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: Cupid. This word comes from the Latin cupīdō, which means desire.


Thursday 13 February 2014

Entitled to success: a rant.

Titles are important.

I was put off reading the hilarious Diary of a Nobody for years because I thought it was going to be a dreary trudge through existential angst. The same thing happened with The Catcher In The Rye (I'm still slightly confused: is a catcher more or less what in cricket I'd call a wicket-keeper? Ah well, at least I know now that in this case Rye isn't the town on the South Coast of England).

I wasn't attracted by To Kill A Mockingbird, either, partly because it leaves one grammatically rather in the air.

Of course all three of these books have done very well indeed. But I still don't think the titles helped.

In the Book That Deserved To Do Better section of The Guardian newspaper there's a piece from a publisher that says: I was stung and puzzled that more people did not read Otto Dov Kulka's "Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death".

And I'm afraid I had to laugh.

Look, the purpose of a title is a) to let people know what the book's about, and b) to sound inviting. Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death does neither (apparently the book is a very fine meditation on the Holocaust).

But you can't tell what it is from that title, and landscapes and metropolis both have a strong whiff of pretension to an English speaker.

A View of the City of Death.

That's a book to send shivers of dread and pity down the spine.

You know, I think I'd have to read that.

Word Not To Use Today, Especially In A Title: metropolis. This word comes from the Greek words mētēr, mother and polis, city.

Wednesday 12 February 2014

Nuts and Bolts: IM R1CH

Douglas Adams described a theory that "if people don't keep on exercising their lips...their brains start working" but scientifically I understand that this is not literally the case. What is true is that however difficult the circumstances, and however limited the available language, people will still do whatever it takes to have their say.

So. Car registration numbers. Take, for instance, the cool and classy number SJP 1. What would that number convey?

Well, what it would probably convey is that the car belongs to Sarah Jessica Parker (they are exceptionally cool initials), but it would probably also convey the message IMR1CH. Or perhaps BIG5TAR.

But are people really so hugely keen to get across that sort of message? Couldn't these registration plates be nothing more than an amusing whim?

Well, the person with the car registration number F1 paid £440,000 for it.

Hang on, I just need to stop and let myself take that figure in.


Good grief.

Crikey, there's a car with ANG3L on the back not far from where I live. I wonder how much that cost? And, now I come to think about it, what is ANG3L supposed to be telling me? Am I supposed to think that the driver is the kindest and most beautiful person in the world? Because if I am, I'm afraid it's not working.

A little research reveals that, thank heavens, not all number plates are ludicrously expensive. BA11 BEN is currently on offer at £2,699. So, if you're called Ben and you have a lot to do with... I think I may be missing something about the attraction of that one.

Even cheaper is AMO 4 MOB, which not only involves a classy bit of Latin (amo, I love) but proclaims the driver's admiration for gangsters. A snip at £399.

And, I mean, how many policemen know Latin, nowadays?

At the same price you can get A VS1LAN (which nearly spells A VILLAIN. After all, someone stupid enough to carry that on their car is unlikely to be able to spell, is he.).

Having said all that, my favourite number plate of all is not a British one but one from Ontario. I don't know how much it cost, but it says, simply:


Nothing personal.

Word To Use Today: registration. This word comes from the Latin registrum, from regerere, to transcribe, from genere, to bear.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Thing To do Today: dredge.

The names of a couple of my local rivers, the Gade and the Ver, are said to be two the very few words that survive from the language spoken in this part of England before the Romans came.

The Ver and the Gade are small rivers, but after our very wet winter even they are threatening to flood (size isn't everything: an even smaller local river, the Bourne Gutter, causes more trouble than both the Gade and the Ver put together. The Bourne Gutter is a woe water. It's usually dry, but if it flows then it's said that war is sure to follow. As it happens, though, we're still at war from the last time it flowed in 2003, so I can't see that it can really do any more damage).

Anyway. The authorities have failed to dredge the River Parrett and now a large areas of the Somerset levels are under water. The authorities justify their lack of action by pointing out that an extra couple of feet of depth wouldn't hold that much water.

Hm. They don't really seem to understand the difference between a river and a reservoir, do they?

I hope very much the floods recede soon, but for those of us blessedly dry, what can we dredge?

Well, dredge is another lovely lovely contranym, hurray. It can mean to drag things out, as in a shopping trolley from the bed of a river, or as in an equally buried memory (Where did I leave the car? or What colour is the car? Did I bring the car?  Do I own a car? What exactly is a car? according to how far we are along life's journey).

Or dredge can mean to shake on a topping, as in sugar on fruit or flour on meat.

So, the choice is before you: delve about in a river scooping up mud, or put sugar on your dinner.

Do you know something? I think I may have just invented a quick and simple sanity test.

Thing To Do Today: dredge. The mud-shifting word probably comes from the Old Eglish dragan to draw; the sprinkling word comes from the Old French dragie, perhaps from the Latin tragēmata, spices.

Monday 10 February 2014

Spot the frippet: toadeater.

Loads of people eat frogs, so toadeaters must be fairly common, too, mustn't they?

I mean, what's difference between a frog and a toad?

Well, there isn't one, really, though the animals we call toads tend towards crawling rather than jumping, and they also tend to be warty.

Nature being the miracle of efficiency that she is, the two are connected. The warts tend to contain jolly nasty-tasting (and sometimes actually poisonous) stuff. This is why toads are generally not on anyone's menu, and so have no need it.


So, does anyone eat toads? Well, some snakes do, and raccoons  sometimes eat the non-warty bits. Other than that, most animals have learned to leave them alone.

That hasn't stopped the Cane Toad from causing many deaths amongst native Australian animals. You see, the Cane Toad is an introduced species, and so the native animals have yet to learn that it's lethal.

Northern Quolls:

 have been particularly badly hit.

Fortunately, the Black Kite, Milvus migrans, has learned to eat the non-poisonous bits of Cane Toads, and there are stories of Dahl's Aquatic Frog Litoria dahlii eating the tadpoles. There's also a possibility that the jaws of some snakes are getting smaller so they can't eat big toads, and in this way they can't take in lethal amounts of poison and so live to kill again.

Meat ants, saw-shelled turtles, and Torresian Crows love Cane Toads.


But, you will cry, if this is the case, how on earth am I supposed to spot a toadeater?

Well, luckily a toadeater started out as a word for a quack or mountebank's assistant. The toadeater would pretend to eat toads, and then he would be "cured" by the quack. From there toadeater has gone on to mean anyone who fawns or flatters. Nowadays they're usually called toadies.

And one of those isn't hard to spot at all. 

If you have difficulty, just look near the elbow of your nearest boss or teacher.

Spot the frippet: toadeater. Named, as you know, after a mountebank's assistant.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Sunday Rest: embargo. Word Not To Use Today.

I suppose the word embargo is meant to be aggressive and off-putting, so I'll have to give it full marks for fitness-for-purpose.

I can give it no marks at all, though, for elegance, for moonlit radiance, or for tripping fleetly off the tongue.


It's as if someone's put a heap if manure in the middle of a sentence. Quite, quite horrible.

An embargo started off being a ban on merchant ships visiting (or departing) a harbour, and then it became to be used for other sorts of legal prohibitions, like a ban on certain sorts of trade.

Nowadays it can even mean the seizure of goods for use by the state. (Hm. I'm having trouble working out the difference between that meaning and theft. But then I'm not a lawyer.)

As a writer, an embargo usually means not being able to tell anyone you've won a literary award before The Big Moment On Stage With The Exotically Coloured Envelope.

If you do win, you have to make a speech, and then carry the possibly huge trophy and a big bunch of flowers home on the train.

Just a slightly mixed blessing, that.

Word Not To Use Today: embargo. This word comes from the Spanish embargar, from the Latin barra, which is to do with barring things.

Saturday 8 February 2014

Saturday Rave: Beowulf.


I can't tell you who wrote Beowulf.

I can't even say whether it was written at all, because some say it was passed on through word of mouth, developing gradually as it went, and not written down for hundreds of years.

The oldest version we have of Beowulf dates back to...well, we don't know that, either, but between 600 and 1000 AD. The English it uses is so old and strange it's hardly recognisable as English at all.

This is the beginning:

Hwæt we garde-
 na ingear dagum, þeod cyninga
 þrym ge frunon huða æþelingas elle
 Lo! We, of the Spear Danes in days of yore, of those great kings, of their power heard, how those princes deeds of valour accomplished.

 Or, more comprehensibly:

Lo! Long ago we Danish warriors heard about the glorious kings, and how the princes did brave deeds.

In Seamus Heaney's translation it comes out as:

So. The Spear-Danes in days done by
And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of those princes' heroic campaigns.
So: what is Beowulf about? Basically, it's an account, in highly juicy language, of three huge and powerful monsters, and the hero Beowulf's fight to the death with each of them, one by one.

Beowulf was first read to me by my teacher Mr Casey. I was eight, and utterly bored by it. I still think that Beowulf was an odd choice to read to a group of eight-year-olds. The boys loved it, though.

And, do you know something? I bet they still would.

Word To Consider Today: hwæt. At the beginning of an Old English story this word means, oi, you lot! or Listen up! or Lend me your ears!

Friday 7 February 2014

Word To Use Today: periwig.

If only there could be a fashion for periwigs again:

Okay, admittedly the guy in the picture is a pharaoh, and the chances are I'm never going to be one of those. In fact I very much doubt if I'll ever even be married to a pharaoh. But you don't necessarily need to be a monarch to wear a periwig:

I mean, how cool is that. If I had one of those I could drop my hair off at the hairdressers and then go off and do something useful,  instead of sitting in front of a mirror for hours pretending to be interested in soap operas.

I hate to admit that periwigs do have some disadvantages. I mean, you can never be sure what you're importing when you put another person's hair on your head. Nits would be bad enough; and the diarist Samuel Pepys had even worse things to worry about:

"3rd September 1665: Up, and put on my coloured silk suit, very fine, and my new periwig, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it."

As it happened the fashion for periwigs survived the plague, though periwigs changed shape, colour (because they began to be covered in powder*) and material (from human to horse hair).

The Five Orders of Perriwigs as they were Worn at the Late Coronation Measured Architectonically, William Hogarth.

Okay, periwigs are ridiculous. But I still really want one. My very own periwig.

Given the weather we've been having here, preferably a waterproof one, please.

Word To Use Today: periwig. This word comes from the French perruque, from the Italian perrucca. No one knows where it came from before that.

*That led to another disadvantage: mice in your periwig eating the starch in the powder.

Thursday 6 February 2014

BBC moderation

The journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown recently wrote that “The BBC [that's the British Broadcasting Corporation. You know, the TV people. It's publicly-funded but supposed to be independent] has a duty to moderate our national conversation”.

Moderate our national conversation...right. So what does that mean, then?

Well, moderate means to monitor what's being said and then to cut out bad language and (as it says in my Collins dictionary) "inappropriate content".

Bad language I get. But what's inappropriate content?

Does it mean they shouldn't be letting any old lunatic go on the TV to have a rant?

And, if so, which of us are the lunatics?

How do you tell?

Who's to say?

No, really, this is important: who's to say?

I suppose the BBC has a duty a) to remain within the law, and b) to refrain from encouraging illegality.

I suppose as well that on the whole the BBC has a duty to avoid being one-sided. Well, mostly.

Look, do you know something? It's all very well for Ms Alibhai-Brown to tell people their duty, but this is difficult. Really difficult.

In fact it's almost enough to make me wish I was a good old immoderate bigot.


Word To Use Today: moderate. This word comes from the Latin moderārī, to restrain.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Nuts and Bolts: antanaclasis.

There's nothing like a Greek word to give a bad joke an aura of respectability.
Antanaclasis is using a word to mean two different things at once.

It used to be quite respectable. I mean, Shakespeare:
Viola: Save thee, friend, and thy music! Dost thou live by thy tabour?
Clown: No, sir,* I live by the church.
Viola: Art thou a churchman?
Clown: No such matter, sir: I do live by the church; for I do live at my house, and my house doth stand by the church.

Courtice Pounds as Feste in Tree’s 1901 Production of ‘Twelfth Night’.

It's true that truly terrible joke is perpetrated by a clown, who might be expected to be a bit silly, but in Shakespeare even high-class characters like Othello (a general) Hamlet (a prince) and Henry V (a king) fail to avoid a bit of antanaclasis.
Antanaclasis has carried on being used right down the years. Personally I like the Benjamin Franklin one-liner:

"Your argument is sound...all sound"

and antanaclasis is still trundling downhill, to its possibly final resting place (how low can it get?) as a favourite of advertising copy-writers, like the old Washington Post slogan:

"If you don't get it, you don't get it".

So there we are. We'll never be bored, then, will we. Not with antanaclasis all over the place causing pain to all and sundry.

Ah well. While we live, let us live, eh?
Thing To Use Today: antanaclasis. This word is Greek: antanáklasis means reflection, from anti, against, ana, up and klásis breaking. Though the chance of anyone actually breaking up nowadays is slight.

*Both Shakespeare's and Viola's habits inevitably involve her looking like a man.