This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 30 April 2014

Nuts and Bolts: AOK.



Illustration by Mikkelbg

In England, this sign is used only occasionally - if someone is asked a question when their mouth is too full to answer, perhaps. It means that everything's great.
It means the same in America, and it's the official diver's sign for AOK. In New Zealand it also means OK, but it's so cheesy that no one can bear to use it.
In Australia, and in several Middle and Southern European countries, the gesture isn't so kind: it means that someone is a nobody, a zero.

In Kuwait the gesture is a sign of the evil eye, and in Brazil or France it's even worse, telling the other person he or she is another round part of the anatomy.

In Germany the sign means job well done - unless, that is, you're in the wrong part of Germany, where making the sign is likely to make people get a bit hot under the collar. In Greece and Turkey it's likely to make people so cross that it's positively dangerous.
You're fine in Japan, though. Here the sign just means money - unless the circle is put over the nose, when it means drunk.

I've often thought that it we were to develop a World Language then a sign language might be the easiest way to do it.

But you know something? All of a sudden I'm really not so sure.

Thing Not To Use Today. Any sign language at all. Even pointing can be dodgy!

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Thing To Do Today: gallivant.

They say that life is stern and life is earnest, but there's nothing like a good gallivant all the same.

If you're gallivanting you're going somewhere entirely for the fun of it.

Three Men on the Bummel

It doesn't involve picking up a pint of milk at the supermarket; it doesn't involve taking notes, or establishing contacts, or earning money; it doesn't involve split-second timing or carrying heavy loads.

The journey may go anywhere. The crucial thing is that the end is fun.

Even if you're stuck in the middle of a city, or the middle of nowhere, head out there to find the three funniest things in the area.

If you get stuck, there's nearly always people...

Thing To Do Today: gallivant. This word is thought to be a version of the word gallant, but made longer to make it sound more fun. Gallant comes from the French galer, to make merry, from gale, enjoyment.

Monday 28 April 2014

Spot the frippet: almond.

Is there a nut in the house?

I'm afraid that if there is it might be you, because it certainly isn't an almond.

Yes, an almond looks like a nut and it tastes like a nut, and people all over the world call them nuts, but actually...

...hang on. I think I may be about to change my mind about this...

Anyway. A botanical nut, say the experts (who are I suppose themselves botanical nuts) is one where the hard shell does not open to allow the seed inside to grow. So that means an almond isn't a botanical nut at all, but a seed. Unless you think that billions of people agreeing that it is a nut has any weight.


Still, whether an almond is a nut or not, it is a distant cousin of the rose, and a much closer cousin of the peach. Almonds first grew in West Asia, but now they're found more or less all over the place, and the almonds themselves are chomped up wherever there are teeth to chomp them.  

The shells have a sharp side and a blunt side (look and see, they really do). To open an almond shell give the sharp side a tap with a hammer. No, really, it works brilliantly.

Almonds are to be found in handfuls and bagfuls and barrowfuls in cakes, puddings, curries, pies and cereals.

They're found in frangipane and marzipan:

in milks and liqueurs.

If you yourself happen to be a nut-free zone, then there are almond eyes to be spotted (these are eyes where the outside point is higher than the inside one).

These eyes tend to be dark, and not almond in colour, which would make them a yellowish-green.

Spot the frippet: almond. The Latin name for the tree is Prunus amygdalus, and the word almond comes from the Greek amugdalē. If you want to say that something is almond-like, and you have no ear for the beauty of language, you can say amygdaline or amygdaloid. But I'd rather you didn't.

Sunday 27 April 2014

Sunday Rest: ungulate. Word Not To Use Today.

Today, as perhaps you know, is World Tapir Day.

As you may also know, there is nothing more deeply delightful than a tapir (unless it's two tapirs).

Malaysian tapir.
Yes, tapirs are wise, beautiful, kind, loving and cute.

This one is a baby.

They also need lots of care and respect from those of us who claim to be human.

Unfortunately, not only do poor tapirs have to put up with being hunted, and with having their forest homes chopped down, but they are also saddled with the name ungulate, which is a horrible label to stick onto any poor harmless creature.

In fact tapirs, together with horses and rhinos, are odd-toed ungulates. (Yes, I know they have four toes on their front feet (they have three on their back feet) but that's what it says in the book.)

But, let's face it, even even-toed ungulate is a horrible name.

So please don't use it. Not now. Especially not on World Tapir Day.

Be kind.

Word Not To Use Today: ungulate. This word comes from the Latin ungula, which means hoof.

Saturday 26 April 2014

Saturday Rave: A Man Named Paul.

There once was a young man called Paul,
Who went to a fancy-dress ball.
He thought he would risk it
And go as a biscuit,
But a dog ate him up in the hall.
The name of the author of this great tragic poem is lost, though the work itself resonates down the years to our own time.
Paul (possibly a reference to the Apostle (the description of him as young, together with the mention of an important journey, suggests a pre-Damascene Paul)) is disguised as a biscuit (there is nothing half-baked about this young man). This wearing of someone else's clothes echoes the story of Paul's having held the coats during the stoning of Stephen, and again points us firmly in the direction of the apostle.
But Paul is consumed utterly. Whether this is a reference to martyrdom, or to the subjugation of self involved in religious conversion, the poet, tantalisingly, does not choose to tell us, but the dog is surely relevant, being literally a reverse form of God.
bahlsen, biscuit, butter, diet, keks, leibniz
The very ending of the poem, though, hints at happiness because the dog is left in the hall. It cannot penetrate the party itself, and so Paul, now he has been consumed, will be safe from all danger during the ultimate and eternal festivities of heaven.

Or something.

 Word To Use Today: biscuit. This word comes from the French (pain) bescuit, twice-cooked bread, from bis, twice, plus cuire, from the Latin coquere to cook.



Friday 25 April 2014

Word To Use Today: realgar.

This is realgar:


Well, that's the prettiest form of realgar, anyway. The stuff is formed round hot springs, and you can find it in Hungary, Germany, and the USA.

It's dangerous stuff. It's used to make "red explosive" for fireworks, especially torpedoes and crackling stars, and it's very poisonous (it's got a lot of arsenic in it). It's been used to kill rats, and in China it's been used as a snake repellent. It's still sometimes used as a weed and insect killer.

It's also used in Chinese medicine, and when mixed with rice liquor makes realgar wine, which is drunk during the Duanwu Festival to ward off evil. Well, that stuff would ward off anything. People are tending not to drink realgar wine so much, now, though, because of the whole made-of-arsenic thing.

Still, realgar has been jolly handy in its time. It's been used for removing the hairs from animal pelts, the Romans used it as a red pigment, and it's also been used in the manufacture of lead shot, in printing, and in dyeing calico.

But what's the best thing about it?

Well, its powerful and mysterious name is a big plus, but I'm afraid that as far as I'm concerned the very best thing about realgar is that, being made of arsenic and sulphur, its chemical formula is AsS.

Donkey Image

Word To Use Today: realgar. This word comes from the Arabic rahj al-ġār, which means powder of the mine.

Thursday 24 April 2014

Where Not To Go In 2014: a rant.

Someone in Ireland once remarked to me how funny English place names are.

As we were in the Dublin parish of Sallynoggin at the time, I was slightly bemused.

It's certainly true that there are certainly a lot of odd and sometimes unfortunate English place names about, though. My county of Hertfordshire has places called Ugly and Nasty, goodness knows what idiot named them. Even worse, there used to be a place just a mile or so from here called Piccotts Bottom.

Hey! No sniggering at the back, there! It's not funny!

Worst of all, in Kent the other week I came across a place called Bedlams Bottom which is situated right at the bottom of Raspberry Hill. Obviously my outrage at this example of silly naming knew no....

...oh, all right.

It's brilliant isn't it.

Brightened up my whole day.

Raspberry Background
Photo by Petr Kratochvil

Word To Use Today: raspberry. This word comes from raspis, but no one seems to know where it came from before that. To give someone the raspberry means to refuse them whatever it is they want. To blow a raspberry is to make a rude spluttery noise by blowing through the closed lips. These expressions both come from the Cockney rhyming slang raspberry tart. I expect you can complete the rhyme yourself.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Nuts and Bolts: sarcmark

Obviously one can never have enough punctuation, so I'm delighted to bring to your attention THIS SITE where for a limited period you can download a new punctuation mark for free.
What is it? It's a sarcmark. You use it to show when something you've written is sarcastic.
Personally, I can't imagine how on earth we've managed without one of those for so long. I mean, how much better would Shakespeare and Jane Austen have been if only they'd had sarcmarks?

Never again be misunderstood! say the sarcmark people of Michigan USA. Never again waste a good sarcastic line on someone who doesn’t get it!
Well, thank heavens to have a solution to this problem at last. In the late 1800s the French poet Alcanter de Brahm did try to get people to use a backward-facing question mark to show sarcasm, and nowadays we do have the emoticon ;) but how much classier would Alexander Pope, for instance, have been if he'd had an official bit of punctuation to bung in between couplets?

Well, now we have the sarcmark (phew!) all our troubles are over.
Its Time Has Come - SarcMark sarc2
For the further efficiency of human communication I'd like to suggest we extend this idea to speech. So, whenever you say anything sarcastic in future, do remember that a simple touch of the tongue to the tip of the nose will make your intentions clear.
Sarcasm - Punctuate It - SarcMark sarc
 No, no. No need for thanks. Really.
Thing To Bear In Mind Today: sarcmark. This was invented in 2010. The sign consists of the Hebrew letter Pe with a dagesh. Its name comes, obviously, from sarcasm, which comes from the Greek sarkazein, to rend the flesh.


Tuesday 22 April 2014

Thing To Do Today: change your mind.

So there I was, just getting launched into a nice post about the word worry, when I was stricken with a sudden worry that I'd written about worry before. And it turns out that I have, so I'm going to have to change my mind.

Pity. I was looking forward to sharing the thought that it's possible to be worried about being worried by a dog.

Anyway: changing my mind.

Now. If you know and understand absolutely everything about a subject; if what you know has come from places that are absolutely to be trusted; if Time and Place and the evolving ways of the world will never have any effect on it; if Science can never throw any new light upon it; if sticking to your guns isn't going to make you more of a nuisance than a hero; and, if you aren't mistaking a principle for a fashion, then don't change your mind.

Otherwise, you really will have to move in order to keep up.



Thing To Do Today: change your mind. The word change comes from the Old French changier, from the Latin cambīre, to exchange or barter.

Monday 21 April 2014

Spot the frippet: something trochoid.

 Something trochoid moves like this:
File:Cycloid f.gif
animation by Zorgit

(it's the black dot that's trochoid).

If for some reason the animation isn't working on your computer, then a trochoid path is the boing boing boing line followed by a frantic frog.
If you're in Antarctica, where frogs are in short supply, then to see something trochoid all you have to do is stick a bit of chewing gum to the edge of a food can and then roll it along a table.
Neat, huh?
You can do the same thing by rolling a coin marked with eraser fluid, or by attaching a small piece of paper to the side a car tyre. Do be sure to ask the owner of the car, first.
And, whatever you do, don't stick it on with a pin.
Spot the frippet: something trochoid. This word comes from the Greek trokhos, which means wheel.  In this sense trochoid was coined by Gilles de Roberval, who died in 1675.

To make things even easier, anything that can roll or rotate can also be described as trochoid.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Sunday Rest: diurnal. Word Not To Use Today.

The poet William Wordsworth was a genius. He was so often sublime, so often breathtakingly graceful, simple and profound:

A slumber did my spirit seal;
          I had no human fears:
          She seemed a thing that could not feel
            The touch of earthly years.

One of Wordsworth's rules for his poetry was to use "language really used by men". But sometimes he just couldn't help himself getting a bit poetical.

          No motion has she now, no force;
            She neither hears nor sees;
          Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
            With rocks, and stones, and trees.


Diurnal usually means to do with the daytime (as opposed to nocturnal). Diurnal flowers open in the daytime, diurnal animals sleep at night, and a diurnal is a book containing all the church services except matins (which, although its name means morning, used to have an irritating habit of being held in the middle of the night).

Apart from the fact the I don't think I've ever heard anyone say diurnal in my whole life, diurnal is a horrible word. Well, it's made up of DIE and URN and ALL, which add not a jot to the gaiety of the nation.

Ah well, the word is with us, now.

But the least we can do is leave it to the long-dead poets.

Evening Dawn
Photo publicdomain

Word Not To Use Today: diurnal. This word from the Latin diēs, which means day.


Saturday 19 April 2014

Saturday Rave: Samuel Butler.

Samuel Butler (1835 - 1902) wrote Erewhon. He wrote The Way Of All Flesh. He wrote a lot about evolution, and a lot about the follies of mankind.

He didn't write, or try to write, the same sort of thing as anyone else; and no one tried to write the same sort of thing as him.

He could be very funny. Here's a letter to his long-standing friend, Miss Savage. It was written, not for money, but out of sheer fun. 

15 Clifford's Inn, E.C.
Friday, Nov. 21st 1884

Dear Miss Savage,

....Yes, it was good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another and so make only two people miserable instead of four.

Believe me, Yours very truly,

S. Butler.

Wicked, yes.

But thoroughly cherishable, all the same.
Word To Use Today: butler. A butler is the servant in charge of the wines and the table in a household. He (or nowadays sometimes she) is usually the head servant. The word butler comes from the Old French bouteillier, from bouteille, bottle.

Friday 18 April 2014

Word To Use Today: gramophone.

Yes, yes, I know. Gramophone is a word for old people. For wrinklies.

But think: those wrinklies. They don't have to work, their children have grown up, and they can dye their hair blue without anyone thinking they're disreputable. Why should they have all the fun?

I mean, record-player sounds so dull. (I know we say vinyl now instead of record, but I haven't come across vinyl-player yet. And if I did it would still be DULL.)

It's true that gramophones are usually powered by clockwork (but then how green and modern is that?) and that the sound of a gramophone is traditionally amplified by a large horn (yes, yes, that is exactly the same principle as all those no-battery phone amplification systems that are all over the place nowadays) but I don't see why the word gramophone shouldn't be used for an electric machine.

Record Player
Photo by public domain

Actually, come to think about it, I think the coolest thing would be if we all went back to hand-cranked gramophones.

File:Gramophone 1914.png

Think of the fun of dancing to music that can be accelerated and slowed down, from frenzy to zombie, in a couple of beats.

Now that's what I call music.

Word To Use Today: gramophone. In the US and Canada gramophones are called phonographs, but the word gramophone is freely available for borrowing purposes to anyone who likes it. The word gramophone was originally a trade name, perhaps a mixed-up version of phonogram, which means written-down sound.

Thursday 17 April 2014

What the Dickens? a rant.

I mean, you expect it of hairdressers.

The Cut Above; Shorn To Be Wild; Fringe Benefits. I could go on, but there's a limit to the amount of pain that I can bear.

At least, I thought there was a limit until my recent visit to Rochester (that's Rochester in Kent, England). Rochester has a castle, a cathedral, city walls, a long history and many fine houses.

Charles Dickens didn't live there. No, he lived a little way outside the town. But you wouldn't have guessed that from the shops in Rochester.

Walking innocently down the High Street, what did I find?

A shop called Sweet Expectations.


Later, there was a restaurant called A Taste of Two Cities.

Those were the worst, but there were also Pip's, Copperfield's (that was antique place; I thought they'd missed a trick until I discovered The Old Curiosity Shop further down the road). Then there were Tiny Tim's Tea Shop, Mr Tope's, Fezziwig's, Peggotty's Parlour, Micawber's Fish Bar, and Little Dorrit's Revival.

Good grief.

Only two things stopped me shrivelling up and dying of sheer agony. One was that (thank heavens!) the Bridal Shop was not called Miss Havisham's, and the other was that several shops had branched out in other literary directions: Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) Pastures New (Milton), Demelza's (Winston Graham) and the Rochester Grill (Charlotte Bronte. Possibly).

I won't say don't go to Rochester.

But if you do, steel yourself.

Word To Use Today: dickens. This word is usually heard in the expression what the dickens? meaning what on earth? It comes from the 1500s and is a polite form of what the devil. It comes from the name of a Mr Dickens (not the writer) who can't have been very nice to know at all.

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Nuts and Bolts: hacek.

English doesn't go in much for putting squiggles above or below its letters. We don't often come across things like ā or ç or ú.

But just sometimes when a new word comes into English one of these squiggly things (which are usually called accents, but which are officially called diacritical marks) comes with it.

You see them in place names, most commonly: the Polish Częstochowa, for instance.

Czech has given us one of these new squiggles, the haček - or, if you prefer, the háček. Rather neatly, you can see a háček on its middle letter.

What a háček does it to change the sound of the letter it's above: a c with a háček becomes a ch sound (as in church) and an s with a háček turns into a sh, as in ship.

So, when you say the word háček, that middle c is a ch. The whole thing sounds like hah-check.

(Sometimes a háček is called a wedge, but as it's not really all that wedge-shaped I don't think this helps anybody.)

Czech also sometimes uses a háček over a r, which turns it into a fricative trill. A fricative trill has been described as a cross between an r and a z.

I've no idea what this sounds like, but it's quite fun trying to do.

Thing To Try To Do Today: a fricative trill. The word háček was invented in the early 1950s and is the Czech for little hook.




Tuesday 15 April 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: warble.

Are you a warbler?

No, I don't suppose you're any sort of small singing bird, though I note that in Europe warblers generally do their best to be invisible:

Eurasian Reed Warbler

 whereas in America they tend to flaunt themselves all over the place:

Prothonotary Warbler.

No, I'm asking if you warble when you sing.

Do you put back your head, assume a pleasing expression, and let rip in a light tenor/soprano?

Or do you shuffle along emitting a sound like a slightly paranoid  chicken?

Singer At Open Mic

(In the USA, apparently warble can be used to mean to yodel - but naturally yodelling is not to be recommended under any circumstances whatsoever.)

I would recommend the letting-rip, myself, but if you must warble, then the vital thing is that you don't do it anywhere near cows.

No, really. Because the very most annoying of all the warblers is the warble fly, which lays its eggs in the hide of cattle and causes them a lot of irritation. In fact the mere sound of a warble fly is enough to send a herd of peacefully grazing cows into a panic-stricken stampede.

Yes, that's right, very much in the same way as when a busker  warbles a song of his own composition in a crowded street.

So, if you must warble, warble safely: find somewhere where you'll be out of the crush, first.

Thing Not To Do Today: warble. No one is sure where the word warble comes from. Some say it's a frequentative form of the Middle High German werben, Old High German hwerban, to be busy, to set in movement. Some say it comes from the Old French werbler, to vibrate or tremble. There's also an Old High German word wirbil, meaning whirlwind, that might have something to do with it. Though it's hard to see what.

Monday 14 April 2014

Spot the frippet: pean.

This is an ridiculously easy spot if you're a lord or a monarch.

Paen ermine is a sort of fur found on Coats of Arms. Usually ermine is white with black "spots" on it, like this:

(Ermine is the fur you get when you sew the skins of winter-coat stoats together (the black bits are the tail-tips)).

Ermine Paen is much the same, but this time the background colour is black, the spots are gold, and the stoats must presumably have been painted.
The other sort of pean (that's the US spelling: I would usually write paean) is a song of praise.

Where do you find those?

Well, in a church (hallelujah!) or at a sports match, or, most easily of all, in television advertisements:

It's the real thing
Coke is
What the world needs today
O-o-oh yeah
It's the real thing.
Or perhaps:

Birds Eye Potato Waffles, they're waffly versatile. Grill ‘em, fry ‘em, bake ‘em, eat ‘em, they’re waffly versatile.

I can't honestly claim to be very fond of either product, but you can't argue with the fact that Coke IS real. As for Birds Eye Potato Waffles, they might well be waffly versatile. As I'm not sure what waffly means in this context it's hard to say.


One good thing about a paen is that it doesn't have to be sung - a few simple words of praise will do - so all you have to do is say how brilliant something is there's your paen falling off your teeth.

For instance, for those of you without an idea about whom or what to be nice: The Word Den - it's BRILLIANT! either said or sung, would make an excellent paen.

Given the extreme difficulty of painting stoats, I think I'm going to restrict myself to spotting the singing sort of a pean.

I like a nice cup of tea in the morning...

Spot the frippet: paen, or paean (if it's the song, and that's how it's spelled where you are). The praise song word comes from the Greek paiān, which is a hymn to the god Apollo, Paiān meaning doctor to the gods.
 No one knows where the fur word comes from.

Sunday 13 April 2014

Sunday Rest: tweeny. Word Not To Use Today.

Tweeny is a horrible whiny sort of a label to stick on someone. It has echoes of twee, for one thing, but worse still this dreadful word suggests that a tweeny is a between-person: not smart enough to be a parlour maid, and not quite clever enough to be a cook; not quite cute enough to be teeny, and not quite independent enough to be a teenager

But tweenies are hugely, vitally important. Who is to relay messages between the cook and the butler when they are not on speaking terms, if not the tweeny?

Who is to serve meals in the servants' hall?

A 'Tweeny' servant who worked seven days a week, from 5am until 10pm, and was paid £13 a year.

And, most importantly of all, who is to read the most magnificent children's books in the world?

Are people ever more interesting than when they're aged eight to twelve?

Not as far as I've noticed. What about you?

Word Not To Use Today: tweeny. This word is now mostly used by people trying to sell things to young people, but it was first made up by JRR Tolkien in the late 1930s to describe irresponsible hobbits between the ages of twenty and thirty three.

Saturday 12 April 2014

Saturday Rave: Sweeny Todd by Stephen Sondheim.

There are some strings of words so perfect, so delectable, so full of bounce and exquisitely-paced clatter, that they give delight forever.

The musical Sweeny Todd has words and music by Stephen Sondheim, and a book by Hugh Wheeler based on the 1973 play Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Christopher Bond.


Sweeny Todd is a story of horror, but nevertheless there's one  part of it so absolutely perfect that it lurks near the surface of my mind and emerges, grinning fiendishly, whenever I visit a supermarket.

Shepherd's pie, it whispers, with a small snigger of delight, as I stride past the neat plastic trays of ready meals (and I never dare stop). Shepherd's pie peppered/With actual shepherd...

Horrid, isn't it. Really horrid.

But perfect, all the same.

Word To Use Today: sweeny. Sweeny has been most commonly used as London rhyming slang: Sweeny Todd - Flying Squad. (The Flying Squad were a department of the London Police Force, and hence The Sweeny came to mean the police.) Sweeny is also a disease of the shoulder muscles of horses. In this sense the word is probably from the German Schweine, which means thinness.

Friday 11 April 2014

Word To Use Today: tarsier.

Here's one of your long-lost cousins:

You may not recognise the tarsier as a member of your family, but that's probably because, although they used to live in Asia, Europe and North America, now they only live on a few South East Asian islands such as the Philippines, Borneo, and Sumatra.

(By the way, if you're thinking this smaller range is a sign of failure then you need to remember that our kind of primate, the human, has been around for about a quarter of a million years, as opposed to the tarsiers forty five million. Still feel quite so smug, do you?)

Now, there are several types of tarsier, so how do you tell one from another?

Well, one way is by looking at where the tarsier lives; then there's its shape. But one of the best ways of deciding to which species a tarsier belongs is by listening to it.

Basically, each species of tarsier speaks a different language. Isn't that brilliant?

What else is terrific about a tarsier? Well, almost everything. Each of a tarsier's eyeballs is as big as its brain. Its third finger is as long as its upper arm. Most of its fingers have nails, but the second and third toes of the hind feet have claws.

File:Tarsius Syrichta-GG.jpg
photo by Jasper Greek Golangco

Tarsiers are the only primates (that means monkey-like animal) that eats only meat (though when I say meat, that does include lots of insects). They have the longest hind legs of any mammal. Once they're clinging onto a branch then it's probably easier to chop the tree down then persuade them to loosen their grip.

They're hard to see, they die very quickly if you try to keep them in zoos, they're all very rare, and they're not really much use to people.

So is it worth the trouble of setting up special reserves where they can live happily?

Well, what do you think?

Word To Use Today: tarsier. This word comes from the French tarse, the flat of the foot, from the Greek word tarsos, which means flat surface or instep.

Thursday 10 April 2014

Back To The Future: a rant.

Yesterday I plan to write a book about a magical river.

Last week I plan to visit our local cathedral to have a really good look at the stained glass.

When I was at school I'm going to plan to leave as soon as possible.

What? What's that you're saying? You're saying that none of that makes sense?

Oh. Are you sure?

You mean I can't plan to do things in the past???

File:1848 Crutchley Pocket Map or Plan of London, England - Geographicus - London-crutchley-1848.jpg
London 1848

File:1744 Wren Map of London, England - Geographicus - London-wren-1744.jpg
London in 1744

So....when people ask me, as they often do, to pre-book events, the pre is exactly as unnecessary and silly as when they burble on about their flipping future plans, then?


Thought so.

Word To Use Today: plan. This word didn't arrive in English until the 1700s, when it came via France from the Latin plānus, which means flat.

Wednesday 9 April 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Wu.

What's the thirteenth most commonly spoken language in the world ?

You don't know?

It's Wu.

Wu is spoken in Shanghai and Jiangsu in China. It's spoken by eighty million people, and is the language of Yueju opera:

What is it like? Well, Wu is famous for its softness and lightness. nóng ruǎn yǔ, people say, which means the tender speech of Wu.

On the other hand some dialects of Wu, like Wenzhounese, are famous for being impossible to understand, even to other Wu speakers. In fact Wenzhounese is so hard to understand that it was used during the Second World War as a code language.

Wu, like every language, is full of peculiarities and delights. It has two words for we, for example: one that can mean either you and me, or you and them and me; and one that means them and me (but not you).

Wu also has a crafty way of letting you show whether an object is close by or far away.

Add to this Wu's seven or eight tones (Chinese uses only four) and you have a great and remarkable treasure of the world.

One spoken by eighty million people that I discovered only the other day.

Word To Use Today: Wu. Can anyone resist trying to guess the answer to the question what's the thirteenth most commonly spoken language in the world? I rather doubt it, myself.

PS The twelfth most commonly spoken language in the world is Javanese.

Tuesday 8 April 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: be pusillanimous.

Pusillanimous might not be the most elegant word in the English language, but it's useful because it takes a long time to say and so you can get a lot of feeling into it.


It means cowardly or lacking in determination. So those who by some miracle of genetic engineering are both chicken-hearted and lily-livered are prime examples of pusillanimity, especially if they also happen to have a yellow streak down their backs.

Do you know someone pusillanimous? Or, at least, do you know anyone who is acting in a pusillanimous way?

All right, then. I dare you to tell them. But do make sure they really are pusillanimous before you do, or else you might get yourself into really serious trouble.

File:Chicken March 2010-1.jpg
Photo by Alvesgaspar

Word To Use Today: pusillanimous, This word comes from the Latin pusillanimis from pusillus, weak, plus animus, spirit.

Monday 7 April 2014

Spot the frippet: something liminal.

This is in some ways a difficult spot, and at the same time as easy as pie.

Something liminal exists at the point where it can only just be sensed.

In a life where a hundred different things are constantly shouting for our attention it's easy to ignore the liminal. But what are we missing?

The song of the furthest bird. The pearliest edge of a opaline sky. The hint of aniseed in a piece of chocolate or a glass of wine (you don't suppose the people who write the words for food labels make all that stuff up, do you?).

Explore the liminal. Run your fingers along your computer screen and feel the faint prickle of the electrically-charged dust (if you're using a touch screen then run your fingers down the back of your device or you may suddenly find yourself reading instructions on how to clean carpets, cook cassava, or make friends).

Smell the rain, or the sea, or the hay.

Feel the warmth left in a new loaf. Feel the waxy sheen of a lipstick. Notice the buzz of a shy bee.

Most of all, marvel at how much you missed yesterday, and resolve never to miss it again.

Indian leaf butterfly.

Spot the frippet: something liminal. This word comes from the Latin līmen, which means threshold.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Sunday Rest: lent lily. Words Not To Use Today.

Can you imagine anything more morbidly depressing than a lent lily? Lent is a time for fasting and gloom, and lilies are associated with sickness,* death, and migraine.

So what's a lent lily?
It's a daffodil. Yes, one of those bobbing, bright yellow (usually) things. Yes, a daff: common as muck, but definitely cheerful. A sign of hope and health.
All right daffodils contain the poison lycorine, and all right Persephone was lured into the Underworld when picking one, and, yes, to call a lawyer a daffadowndilly has sometimes been a criminal libel.

And, okay, daffodils are a symbol of vanity on some places, too.

But then daffs are the national flower of Wales (as it happens the Welsh for daffodil, cenin Pedr, means Peter's Leek; but even that's better than lent lily) and a daffodil is also a symbol of the Kurdish people.

As if that's not honour enough, in the East daffodils are a sign of good fortune, and in Japan daffodil bulb carving is high art.
So away with the gloomy lent lily, I say.

And bring on the daffs.

Words Not To Use Today: lent lily. Lent comes from the Old English lengten, which means spring (that is, when the days lengthen). Lily comes, changed a little in form though not in meaning, from the Greek leirion.

*Or is it just that I have Keats' La Belle Dame Sans Merci stuck in my mind? "I see a lily on thy brow,/With anguish moist and fever-dew" .

Saturday 5 April 2014

Saturday Rave: Frairo Jacker.

Last week's rave was a beautiful song full of joy and love.

This week's rave is complete nonsense.

That didn't mean that as a child I didn't sing it with gusto and great delight.

It went like this:

Frairo Jacker, frairo Jacker,
Dormay voo, dormay voo
Sunny lemon Tina, sunny lemon Tina,
Ding dong bell, ding dong bell.

I was under the impression at the time that this was French, and I used to wonder very much about sunny lemon Tina. I was glad she was happy, but I did wish I knew what silly things she kept doing to make herself such a lemon.

Eventually, with the attention of our French teacher, Mr Fisher, the real French words emerged.

Frère Jacques, frère Jacques,
Dormez-vous ? Dormez-vous ?

Sonnez les matines ! Sonnez les matines !
Ding, daing, dong. Ding, daing, dong.

And then I realised with some sorrow that the song wasn't about sunny lemon Tina at all, but about an alarm clock.

What I didn't realise, even then, was that Frère Jacques was a monk who was too lazy to get up for the first church services of the day. Mind you, this service might have taken place at midnight, so I do have some sympathy for the poor man.

Anyway, do you know something? Despite everything I still like the sunny lemon Tina version of Frère Jacques best of all.

Photo by André Karwath

Even if it's nonsense.

Word To Use Today: lemon. This word comes from the Arabic laymūn.

Friday 4 April 2014

Word To Use Today: tonic.

Do you need a tonic?

Are you in need of a pick-me-up? A medicine, a new dress, or a day at the seaside?

Perhaps the tonic you long for most is tonic water, which is fizzy water flavoured with quinine. Tonic water is most often used for making gin last longer, though it also makes a good tempura batter for elderflower fritters.

A tonic can also be the stressed bit of a word. It's the TON bit of tonic, for example.

Then there's what musicians call the tonic, which is nothing to do with feeling livelier but instead, oddly, to do with not wanting to move at all.

For instance, if you start to sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (no, no, it's all right, it's not as if you're ever going to see any of those people on the train again, is it?) but you stop singing just before giving voice to the last note, you'll find you're left with a strong on-the-edge-of-a-cliff feeling, and you'll have a powerful desire to sing the last note to get back your sense of being on firm land. That last "back-on-firm-ground" note is the tonic note of your (I'm sure splendid) rendition.

Tonic sol-fa is a way of learning to sing. It's explained here:

And could we find a better tonic to cheer us up?

I'm not sure we could.

Word To Use Today: tonic. This word comes from the Greek word tonos, tension, from teinein, to stretch.