This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 31 May 2014

Saturday Rave: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes.

Here are ten things you won't know about Don Quixote unless you've actually read the book.

1. It's a comedy. (Even if English readers have read the book, they probably need to have read a new translation to know this. The older English translations tend to be romantic and serious and even leave out some of the jokes.)

2. Don Quixote's real name is neither Don nor Quixote.

3. The tilting-at-windmills thing happens almost at the beginning of the book and takes up about half a page; so if that's what people mention when they talk about Don Quixote it's almost certainly because they haven't read the rest.

This drawing is by Picasso. Oh dear. Perhaps he hadn't read the book, either.
4. Don Quixote is actually two books, the original book and its sequel.

5. Just as Cervantes was finishing the sequel some anonymous idiot brought out a rubbish sequel of his own.

6. Cervantes reacted to this disaster by having loads of characters in the story say stuff like I liked the first book about your adventures, Don Quixote, but the second one was awful. This was both very clever and ridiculously post-modern.

7. Anyone who knows Don Quixote's real name has read right to the end.

8. Don Quixote is a kind, clever, good and honest man. Though he is, admittedly, nuts.

9. Don Quixote's lady-love, Dulcinea del Toboso, doesn't exist all that much.

10. Don Quixote's servant, Sancho Panza, gets to be the governor of an island that's so extra-special that doesn't even bother with the surrounded-by-water thing.

It now occurs to me that anyone who hasn't read Don Quixote and has got this far has just utterly disproved my opening sentence.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: quixotic. This word describes someone who spends a lot of time trying to help people without much (if any) realistic chance of success. The word comes from dear old Don Quixote.

Friday 30 May 2014

Word To Use Today: babalas.

English speakers steal words from all over the place, and babalas is one we've stolen from Zulu.

At the moment, babalas is used mostly in South African English. It means drunk or hungover.

Babalas is particularly valuable in being a word that's almost impossible to say when drunk, especially in the phrase I'm most definitely not babalas.

So there we are. English used not to have a word for drunk or hungover, and now we do.

Ngiyabonga* to the Zulus!

Word To Use Today: babalas. This word came to English in the 1900s from Afrikaans, and before that from the Zulu I-babalazi, which means drunk.

*Thank you!

Thursday 29 May 2014

A Public Convenience: a rant.

On a door in The Bridgewater Arms Public House in the village of Little Gaddesden, Hertfordshire, there is a sign which says:


Well, that's a relief.

But is there also an inaccessible toilet, that's what I want to know. 

I think I might take a rope and some crampons next time, just in case.

Word To Use Today: accessible. This word comes from the Old French accessus, an approach, and before that from the Latin cēdere, to go or yield.


Wednesday 28 May 2014

Nuts and Bolts: puffling.

Well, here it is: the fluffiest, most utterly adorable word in the English language.


A what, do you ask?


is a puffling.

It will probably look more familiar once it's grown up:

Adult in breeding plumage

Yes, that's right. A puffling is a young puffin.

There are quite a few words in English ending in -ling that mean little or young. A darling is a little dear, and we have duckling, nestling and gosling.

Just a bit different are the -ling words that are to do with weakness, such as weakling and underling.

Foundling and changeling contain the same sort of idea.

We also have a few -ling words that are based on words that end in le, such as trifling (from trifle) rambling (ramble) and rifling (rifle). 

Not fitting any trend that I can see are quisling, meaning traitor, named after the Norwegian World War II leader; and inkling, which is from the Old English inclen which means to hint at.

Last of all we have the mysterious dumpling, which people think  was probably some sort of small lump. Though where the d comes from is anyone's guess.

Actually, we could make a rather nice new -ling word out of that. One for someone who hasn't a clue what's going on (which, lets face it, is all of us most of the time).

Yes. I'm happy to be thought of as a guessling.

Are you?

Word To Use Today: one ending -ling. The -ling ending which means small or weak probably came to English from the Icelandic -lingr.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

Thing To Do Today But Probably Only In Wales: be a wus(s).

Wuss is a tricky one.

The word pronounced (usually) to rhyme with puss is widely used, but it's so new (1976 is the earliest example I've been able to find) that its spelling hasn't had time to get properly established.

This means that although we all know what wuss is (a coward and a weakling) we can't be certain about wus.

Is a wus the same as a wuss?

And what about if someone is saying the word out loud? You can't hear the spelling, then, can you.

In most of the world, addressing someone with the words open the door, wus, is likely to get you into a lot of trouble (though not if the person you're speaking to really is a wuss. In that case he won't dare do anything about it.).

But if you're in South Wales you'll be fine, because in South Wales the word wus means more or less the same as mate.

So what can we do?


...if anyone calls us a wuss, pretend to be Welsh?

That's the wuss's way out, in any case.

Thing To Do Today But Perhaps Only In Wales: be a wus(s). The originally American wuss might be short for pussy-wussy, possibly with a bit of wimp thrown in. The Welsh English wus comes from the Welsh was, which is a form of gwas, servant.

Monday 26 May 2014

Spot the frippet: mastic.

Where will you find mastic?
Well, apart from hardware stores, and around baths and windows, you'll mostly find mastic in the magically marvellous mastic tree.

It's only usually only a small bush, is Pistacia lentiscus, but it's a tough old thing all the same. It grows all round the Mediterranean and Middle East and in Mexico and the Canary Islands.

But of all the places where it grows the most special is the Greek island of Chios, because it is only there that the mastic tree weeps when its bark is cut.

And what does it weep? Well, mastic, of course.

Mastic is thought to be mentioned in the Bible as bakha, a word probably derived from the Hebrew word for weeping.

(Ah yes, you will think, that's because of the tears of mastic that fall from the tree when it is cut. But the truth is stranger still, because if you walk over a mastic tree and break its branches then the tree makes a pathetic weeping noise. How weird is that?)
The mastic itself:

 is used in cakes, alcoholic drinks, cakes, ice cream, bread, soups, meat and cheese. It's part of Holy Oil, toothpaste, skin cream and perfume.

Mastic has been used as chewing gum for at least 2,400 years.

And what do you do with chewing gum?

Yes, that's right. You masticate it, of course.

Spot the Frippet: mastic. The word mastic derives either from either the Greek verb mastichein, to gnash the teeth, or  the other Greek word massein to chew.

Sunday 25 May 2014

Sunday Rest: sinusoidal. Word Not To Use Today.

It's often quite easy to guess what words mean.

Take the horrible word sinusoidal, for instance. It clearly means to do with the sinuses.

The only trouble with that is that actually the horrible word sinusoidal has nothing at all to do with the sinuses.

If you're a mathematician or a physicist you'll already know that something sinusoidal follows a path that looks like this:

File:Simple sine wave.svg

That's a sine wave. They're important, but if you're not a mathematician or a physicist then you probably aren't aware of bumping into them much.

Fortunately that means that very nearly all of us have no reason whatsoever to use the word sinusoidal.

So let's all give thanks for that.

Word Not To Use Today: sinusoidal. This word comes from the Latin word sinus, a bend.

Saturday 24 May 2014

Saturday Rave: Tom He Was A Piper's Son.

Tom, he was a piper's son
He learned to play when he was young,
But all the tune that he could play
Was over the hills and far away.
Over the hills and a great way off
The wind shall blow my top-knot off.

Why is it that some verses burrow through your skin straight to your heart and never quite let you go?

I can come up with several reasons why this one got hold of me from an early age: first, because I wanted very much to know exactly what sort of a pipe Tom played; second, because I couldn't imagine how anyone could only ever learn to play one tune (and that really quite a hard one); third, the faint worry that my hair might be torn off my head on a really windy day; and, fourthly and most importantly, there's that refrain, over the hills and far away.

Oh, how I longed as a child to go over the hills and far away.

I wasn't the only one to fall under its spell in that way, either. Tom He Was A Piper's Son was used as an army recruiting song at the beginning of the 1700s, when many young men were lured over the hills and far away to fight for the Duke of Marlborough.

I expect they went with merry hearts.

No one was very interested in how they came back. So there aren't many songs about that.

Word To Use Today: pipe. This word comes from the Old English pīpe, and before that from the Latin pīpāre, to chirp.

Friday 23 May 2014

Word To Use Today: mistigris.


There are some words that are worth cherishing entirely for their decorative purposes.

Mistigris, for example.

Jack of Clubs by casino - Jack of Clubs

Mistigris is a French word, and even though it's been around in English since the 1800s you still say it in the French way: MISTiGREE.

Why do I like it so much? I think it's because it sounds like a mixture of mist, mystery, and ambergris (which, although it comes from sperm whales, is said to smell lovely).

A mistigris is a blank card or joker - a wild card - a totally random piece of good luck that makes your hand more powerful. 

You'll find a mistigris in one form of poker, and mistigris can also be used as the name of the game in which a mistigris is used.

I started off by saying that the word mistigris is of decorative value, but it strikes me that saying mistigris is a lot quicker than saying a totally random piece of good luck that makes your hand more powerful.

So perhaps we should start using the word mistigris more often.

Word To Use Today: mistigris. This word is French, from the Old French mistigouri, and means pussycat or jack of clubs.

I'm afraid, though, that the connection between pussycats and jacks of clubs escapes me.

Thursday 22 May 2014

Hit or Miss: a rant.

The educational top dogs have been getting outraged again.


Jennifer Coates, emeritus professor of English language and linguistics at Roehampton University, believes that the words Sir and Miss should be abolished in schools.

'It’s a depressing example of how women are given low status and men, no matter how young or new in the job they are, are given high status,' she said. 'Sir is a knight. There weren’t women knights, but ‘Miss’ is ridiculous: it doesn’t match ‘Sir’ at all. It’s just one of the names you can call an unmarried woman.'

Oh dear. Where do we start? Perhaps with the fact that Sir isn't the way you speak to a knight. Sir Wayne, or Sir Boris, or Sir Kevin, yes, but Sir by itself is, and has been for hundreds of years, a formal way of addressing almost any man.

Sir isn't even necessarily a term of respect. A policeman will say Sir when he arrests a man for being drunk and disorderly; a sommelier will say Sir even when he's asked for a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau 2010; a teacher may even say Sir when addressing a student (that's probably a sign that the teacher is so full of contempt for the said student that he or she cannot bring himself to say the student's name).

“It’s old-fashioned and it embodies the massive status disparity and sexism of former years,” said Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, talking again about Miss and Sir. 

Really? And what's low-status about being an umarried woman, may I ask?

In any case, if you're going to call upon the history of the word Sir to justify your argument, then how about doing the same with the word Miss?

Because when you do that, I'm afraid that the whole fuss really does begin to look extremely stupid.

Word To Use Today: Miss. This word appeared in the 1600s, as a shortened form of Mistress. Before that the word comes from the Old English magister, which means...

...hands up if you know the answer...


Even some professors of linguistics don't know that, you know.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Rongorongo

The story of Rongorongo is a sad and mysterious one.

Rongorongo is...well, we aren't sure what it is. But this is what it  looks like:

Rongorongo Qr3-7 color.jpg

Rongorongo looks as if it's some sort of writing, but it might instead be proto-writing. That is, it might be a sort of memory-aid that you can't understand unless someone else has explained the secret.

The secret to Rongorongo has, sadly, been completely lost.

There are just over twenty rongorongo inscriptions left in the world, nearly all carved on wood with a shark's tooth or a flake of obsidian. The inscriptions all in museums, and none of them is still at home on Easter Island.

Easter Island stories say that only a few people could ever read rongorongo, and that the writing was holy. 

What else do we know about rongorongo? It's written in alternating directions, with every other line upside down, a system called reverse boustrophedon.

(As you can see, the shapes that look like people have very odd ears. I wonder why?)

No visitors to the island took any notice of rongorongo until the second half of the 1800s, when most of the inscriptions had been destroyed (wood was scarce, and probably most of the bits with rongorongo inscriptions were used for wrapping fishing line round) and no one at all could read them.

There's a theory that rongorongo was invented after the people of Easter Island were made to sign a treaty in 1770 giving their island to Spain. This event may have given the islanders the idea of writing, but we don't know for sure. The answers to all our questions are lost because all the people who could read rongorongo were taken away from the island and soon died of disease.

So there we are. A mystery.

And a great loss and sadness.

Word To Use Today: rongorongo. I can't honestly see this word being of much use in everyday life, but it's still a good word. In the Rapanui language of Easter Island rongorongo means to recite, to declaim, to chant out. The original name of the script is said to have been kohau motu mo rongorongo, lines incised for chanting out.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Thing To Do Today. Possibly. Greet.

Why, hello!

How nice to see you.

How was your journey?

Those are a few useful greetings for English speakers. If you're talking Alsatian then you might instead say buschur, if you're taking Eritrean you might say tadiyalä, and if you're talking Klingon you might say nuqneH.

For the grumpy ones among you, a grunt performs the same function as any of these greetings, as does a glare.

But even if you hate absolutely everybody absolutely all the time then sometimes it's necessary to be charming. If you're trying to sell your house, for instance, then they say that greeting prospective buyers with the scent of baking bread is likely to be more effective than a fierce greeting growl from a bull mastiff.

Still, whatever happens, it's no good greeting (if you're a Scot that means weeping or lamenting). So pick yourself up, dust yourself down, and go off and find a friend to cheer you up.


'Oh, hi. How are you?'

Beware of that last greeting, though. Because unless it's your best friend, your doctor or your mother asking how you are, then you know something?

Yep. No one really wants to know.

Thing To Do Today. Possibly. Greet. These two completely different words were both written grētan in Old English. The one meaning hello is related to the Old High German gruozzen, to address, and the one meaning to weep is related to the Middle High German grazen.



Monday 19 May 2014

Spot the frippet: scintilla.

Now this is really hard to spot.

A scintilla: the merest trace or hint or particle.

An absolutely minute amount.

It's the taste of the saffron in the paella

File:Saffron-spice adjusted.jpg

and the light of a single glow worm in a meadow.

It's the scent of a far-away lime tree; it's the shooting of a meteor.

The kindness in the eye of a frosty teacher (good luck with that one).

The sky-scribble of a butterfly in the corner of the eye.

Can you sense it?

Can you?

Well, you're a bright spark, then, aren't you?

Nelson Creek Glow-worms 25
Nelson Creek glow worms.

Spot the frippet: scintilla. This word came to England in the 1600s. It's Latin for spark.

Sunday 18 May 2014

Sunday Rest: pulverulent. Word Not To Use Today.


Is that some sort of a cross between pulverise and virulent?

Well, no, it's not. But it still sounds jolly nasty and dangerous, doesn't it.

And it is dangerous, too. Dangerous, and almost certainly lurking near you.

Under the bed, perhaps.

Oh, yes. All that sneezing, those red-rimmed eyes, that blocked-up nose, the absolute need to spend several hours cleaning before your mother-in-law comes round?

Yes, I said mother-in-law. That's because mothers-in-law are the the traditional scourge of the pulverulent.

So. Listen to me. You're going to have to get to work, aren't you. A pair of old underpants will do if you can't find anything better.

Good luck.

File:House Dust Mite.jpg
That's a dust mite.

Word Not To Use Today: pulverulent. This word, which means crumbling to, or covered in, dust, comes from the Latin pulverulentus, from pulvis, dust.

Saturday 17 May 2014

Saturday Rave: The Lion and Albert by Marriott Edgar.

The first poems were spoken or sung. Well, they had to be, because no one had invented writing.

Even after writing was invented, poems were still spoken or sung. This was mostly because, as far as most people were concerned, no one had yet invented reading.

Poets still say their poems aloud. Nowadays this is largely because no one can live on the income from poetry books. Every professional poet has to have an act.

Marriott Edgar managed to get out of having to stand up on stage by writing poems for Music Hall actors to perform. The most famous of all these poems was called The Lion and Albert.

As I said, some poems are made to be said out loud.

So here it is:

Word To Use Today: somnolent. This word comes from the Latin somnus, sleep. I love the phrase somnolent posture, as used in this poem.

Friday 16 May 2014

Word To Use Today: Komorebi

Komorebi is a Japanese word, and it's one we English speakers need to steal at once.

Komorebi describes the peace and delight people feel when they see sunlight dancing through the leaves of trees.

File:Sunlight through the leaves - - 1011865.jpg
photo by Bob Jones

We must all have experienced komorebi; but how much more magical and valuable it will seem now we have a word for it.

Hey, you know something? I don't know that's faintly depressing, or not.

But as the sun is shining and my view from my garret entirely consists of trees and sky, I think I'll say not.

Word To Use Today: komorebi. This word is Japanese. Komorebi, 木漏れ日, means light that filters through the trees.  木 means tree or trees, 漏 means escape and 日 is light or sun.

Thursday 15 May 2014

A Question of Quality: a rant.

Ooh, there's a big fuss here in England at the moment.

An exam board, the OCR, is proposing to include Dizzee Rascal and Russell Brand in its syllabus for an A level English exam. (The A level exam is the 18+ getting-into-university test.)

Dizzee Rascal is a grime MC, and Russell Brand, he's done some presenting, and he's done some acting, but mostly as far as I can see he's a professional...well, let's call him a commentator.

Anyway, rather a lot of people round here are turning crimson and falling down in apoplectic fits. Their last conscious words tend to be either outrage, or, rather pathetically, Shakespeare.

I do have some sympathy with their point of view, but look, if it's language then it's worth studying, isn't it? I mean, there's nothing like a bit of dross to make the gold shine, is there?

As long, of course, as there's gold available for study, too.

Why shouldn't rap be studied along with other poetry designed for public proclamation such as Beowulf, and other rhyming couplets such as Pope's?

As for Brand, he employs his wide vocabulary rather enchantingly(though, from the little I've seen so far, he doesn't usually have anything tremendously interesting to say. But that's fascinating in itself.).

Why does Dizzee Rascal say things like “Hip hop is what encourage the yoof to get involved in making things better. If you believe, you can achieve, innit?”

Is it because he's never heard anyone speak conventional English?


So why?


Hey, you know something? I think I'd quite like to do that A level course myself.

As long, of course, as it was richly seamed with gold. 

Word To Use Today: rascal. This word comes from the Old French rascaille, rabble, perhaps from the Old Norman French rasque, mud or filth. 

Oh cripes....I didn't know that derivation when I started writing this post. Sorry.

I wonder if Dizzee knew it when he chose his stage name?

Wednesday 14 May 2014

Nuts and Bolts: niqqud.


Vowels (in English, a, e, i, o, u and, sometimes, y) are the sounds that let you join up the other letters without strangling yourself.

Poppy, for instance, is a lot easier to say than ppp. And it's easier to faff about then to fff bt.

Vowels are the butter on the crackers, the grease on the axle, the breath in the flute.

In short, they're different from the other letters.

Even though vowels are different, though, our English alphabet has similar signs for all letters whether they're vowels or not: y isn't so very different from g, for example, or i from j.

Some other languages do things differently. Some forms of Hebrew, for example, use a system called niqqud. Mostly, niqqud consists of small dots that stand in for the vowels. There have been several different systems of niqqud, but the one that's still used today was created before 1000 AD.

Text written with niqqud is called ktiv menuqad.

Niqqud sounds like a useful system to an English speaker, but nowadays people who speak Hebrew generally find they can get on very well without any vowels at all. So, nowadays, niqqud is only used in poetry (sometimes), in dictionaries, and in writing for children and other learners of the language.

To stop people getting confused (as an English person might get confused between bag and beg and big and bog and bug) a new system of spelling called ktiv maleh, full spelling, has been developed and was formally introduced in Rules for Spelling without Niqqud in 1996.

Here's what niqqud look like:
Example of biblical Hebrew trope.svg
That's Genesis 1:9: And God said, "Let the waters be collected".
The niqqud are in red.
Nd d y knw smthng? Prhps t wld mk thngs qckr t lv t Nglsh vwls, t.
Thing to consider today. A language without vowels. Niqqud comes from the Hebrew nikud, which comes from nekudot, dots.


Tuesday 13 May 2014

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: be wrathful.

Some things are absolutely infuriating.

Some things just have to be stopped.

So...what things are they, then?

The trouble is that wrath and a clear-head don't usually go together.

Wrathful people are jolly dangerous, we all know that, but how can we tell who is most likely to be overtaken by wrath (it's pronounced roth, by the way, although there are some very ancient people around who still say rawth)?

Well, it's the hair.

Yes, I know that red-haired people have a reputation for being hasty, but it's not the colour of a person's hair that's the signal for a dangerous temper. Well, it wasn't when the word wrath was first made up, anyway.

Think of the angriest people you know? Do they have something in common about their hair?


No. Nor do the ones I know.

Ah well.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: be wrathful. This word comes from the Old English wrǣththu (look at that, a double th!) and is related to the Old High German reid, which means curly haired.

File:Wenceslas Hollar - Man with thick curly hair (State 2).jpg
Artist: Wenceslas Hollar (I know it says Leonardo da Vinci, but Wenceslas Hollar produced the picture. Presumably that's Leonardo's portrait.).
Oil painting representing Puck as a baby with pointed ears and curly blonde hair sitting on an enormous mushroom in a forest. He holds a small posy and grins mischievously.
This curly-haired Puck by Joshua Reynolds looks harmless enough, though.

Monday 12 May 2014

Spot the frippet: treasure.

How far would you travel if you found a map marked with an X?


You'd go to the ends of the earth, of course.

And what would you find? Gold? Diamonds? The Crown Jewels which Bad King John lost in the Wash?

Vittoriano Ransom

(I spent ages - years - wondering how anyone can lose his crown in the wash. It turned out in the end that the Wash in question was the large area of marshland in Eastern England rather than the mediaeval equivalent of a tumble drier. I don't think I've ever quite got over the disappointment.)

The obvious thing to do now is to write something about the nature of treasure, and give you one or two entertaining and thought-provoking examples.

File:Old school knowledge.jpg
Photo: Joi Ito.

I don't know who this is, but he looks jolly sensible, doesn't he?

But, actually, as the sun is shining and the air is full of birdsong that needs listening to, I'm going to go out and leave it to you to discover your treasure for yourselves.

Good hunting!

Spot the frippet: treasure. This word comes from the Old French tresor, from the Latin thēsaurus, something hoarded.

Sunday 11 May 2014

Sunday Rest: prude. Word Not To Use Today.

Are you a prude?

People ask me this rather a lot. It's not that I go around pinning paper napkins over ladies' cleavages, or waddling around inside a sandwich board bearing the slogan NICE PEOPLE WEAR GLOVES.


It's because my surname is Prue - which, is, I admit, so unlikely that it's pretty much inevitable that people will wonder if they've heard correctly. And then, feeling slightly foolish, that they'll try a joke.

Ah well.

Still, prude. It's a horrible word, isn't it? What makes it especially nasty is that the oo part of it lasts more or less forever, especially if you come from certain districts of Scotland.

Luckily, we have alternatives to this horrid word, and I suggest that either prig or, simply, spoilsport will usually do just as well.

Advert for Mr Bowdler's famous piece of prudery.

Word Not To Use Today: prude. This word comes from the French prode femme, which means respectable woman, from the Latin prōdesse, to be of value.

The surname Prue is derived from the Middle English prou meaning valiant.

Saturday 10 May 2014

Saturday Rave: Shall I compare thee by William Shakespeare.

It was pretty blustery up on Ivinghoe Beacon yesterday. The hawthorn buds were being shaken about like anything.

I thought: I hope my hat doesn't blow off.

Shall I compare thee to a Summer's day? is the first line of Shakespeare's sonnet Number 18.

The word sonnet tells you that it's a poem with fourteen lines. It also gives you a clue as you which lines are going to rhyme (there are two traditional sonnet rhyming schemes to choose from), how many syllables will be in each line (ten), and whether the words have a galloping or walking rhythm (walking).

Here's the first printed version of this famous poem

The poem describes the fleeting glories of an English summer (Rough windes do fhake the darling buds of Maie), the less fleeting glory of human beauty, and last of all, triumphantly, the long, long years that art, in the form of this sonnet, will keep beauty in the mind of the world.

All that in fourteen lines. All that from a blustery May day.

The man must have been a genius or something.

Hawthorn Flowers Crataegus laevigata oxyacantha  IMG 9116 580x386 jpg

Word To Use Today: darling. This word comes from the Old English dēorling, which means a little dear.

Friday 9 May 2014

Word To Use Today: yo-yo.

How long is it since you played with a yo-yo?

It's too long, isn't it: aren't your fingers itching? Don't you long to experience again the deep quivering calm of the string unwinding, and the masterful, crisp, and yet only-just-sufficient twitch that sends the disc spinning obediently back up to your fingers?

Of course you do.

Over here in England the yo-yo's joyous diving and soaring had led to the verb to yo-yo, which means to change one's opinions or behaviour far too often to be sensible.

In the USA and Canada (rather sadly, I think) the yo-yo's actions have led to a yo-yo becoming a name for a stupid, easily manipulated person.

But yo-yos are so simple and innocent, right?

Ah, but even yo-yos have their dark side...

Word To Use Today: yo-yo. This word comes from the Filipino yo yo, which means come come. A yo yo was a weapon consisting of a spindle attached to a thong. As far as I can make out, the yo yo was used for tripping up animals, but the stone spindle part also seemed to have been used to kill humans, in this case by dropping the things on people's heads.

Simple, but probably effective, I'd have thought.

Thursday 8 May 2014

A Test of Quality: a rant.

So there I was, alone with the strange man in the dark...

...though when I say strange, I don't mean to cast any aspersions on Mr...I'll call him Mr Scott. He seemed a normal enough character. I just didn't know him very well. He didn't say much.

We'd talked of the past and the present, and then came the test. From out of a drawer Mr Scott took out a lighted box printed with different sizes of type on the top, and gave it to me to read.

Even the smallest print.

(I've sometimes thought about writing a story about an optician, for, as you may have guessed, such was Mr Scott. Perhaps something to do with the eyes being the window into the soul. But I digress.)

The last time I'd taken the test the box had been printed with a passage from Jeremy by Hugh Walpole, which is a good book. There had been a bit of Evelyn Waugh, there, too, I think, though I can't remember which novel.

These passages had provided an oasis of delight in the middle of trying to decide between the very similar merits of number one lens and number two.

Anyway. What do I find inscribed on the box this time? Walpole, Waugh, Wycherley, Wordsworth, Wilde?


I find that the box displaying some fatuous nonsense about a paper round and the repeated mantra Hard Work Makes Character.

Literature, my friends, had been abandoned.

Now. Apart from the horror of the jettisoning of good writing (why? Why??) what idiot decided that Hard Work Makes Character?

If it were true, then slaves would be the most fulfilled people in the world.

You'll be glad to know I made my feelings strongly known.

Poor Mr Scott.

I think he flinched a bit.

But he still didn't really say much.

Word To Use Today: character. This word comes from the Latin for distinguishing mark, from the Greek kharaktēr, engraver's tool.

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Nuts and Bolts: phonogram.

No, not a device for playing records, but something which gave the record-playing device its name.

It's something that protects the recording once it's made, too.

So what is it? Well, a phonogram is a written-down version of a sound. It's not the sound itself, it's just the written-down sign or signs that represent it.

This can be a syllable, a sound, or a word, though quite often when people say phonogram they mean string of letters with the same sound (as in [c]at, [m]at, [s]at, [gn]at).

The legal meaning of phonogram is a bit different, because here phonogram means audio recording.

The international copyright sign for audio recordings is a circled capital letter P, like this: , where the P stands for phonogram.

This means that any pongy perisher who pinches or publishes a piece with a  on it is a poxy pirate.

So there.

Word To Use Today: phonogram. This word comes from the Greek phōnē, sound or voice, and gramma, line.


Tuesday 6 May 2014

Thing To Do Today: (un)ravel something.

This is hardly a challenge for even the idlest amongst us.

To ravel something, that is to untangle it, all you have to do (according to Macbeth, at least) is take a nap.* 

Sleep, he tell us...knits up the ravelled sleave of care.

So there we are. If life is like a knitted sleeve (hmm...) and it comes all unpicked so you find yourself tangled up in loose ends, then all you have to do is sleep and all the ends will be tucked them back neatly together again by the time you wake up.

Well, it has to be worth a try, anyway.

Unfortunately, when you look at that Macbeth quote again, you'll see that although we know that ravel means to knit together, Macbeth is using it to mean to tangle things up. Yes, yes, that's exactly the opposite of ravel (though there is a word unravel, too, which means the same as the first ravel).

Confused? Well, don't worry if you are, because there is yet another meaning of ravel, though it's not used much any more. It means to make or become confused or complicated.

You can see why ravel has that meaning, can't you. In fact you can even see why, if a road surface is ravelled, it's beginning to break up.

It's really all a bit bewildering. But never mind. Probably the thing to do is to sleep on it.

1600×900 Sleeping Kitten Puppy Wallpaper Wallpaper

Thing To Do Today: ravel something. This word comes to us from the Middle Dutch ravelen.

*Though, come to think about it, Macbeth is the last person anyone should trust.

Monday 5 May 2014

Spot the frippet: something trivial.

This is easy, you may think... begin with.

For what is trivial? What doesn't matter? How can we be sure that the horseshoe nail isn't the horseshoe nail which will change the course of history?

How can we be sure that the butterfly isn't the butterfly which will cause the hurricane which will wipe out a nation?

butterfly picture, butterfly pictures

How can you be sure that the greeting you exchange with your neighbour won't change his view of his whole life?

File:India - Delhi smiling girls - 4698.jpg
Photo Jorgeroyan

How can you be sure that those jeans that have just been thrown in the washing machine don't still have the passport in the pock....

Unknown Category

Er...excuse me. I just have to check something...

Do take care, won't you.

Spot the frippet: something trivial. The word trivial comes from the Latin triviālius, which means belonging to the public streets, common. It comes from trivium, which means a junction of three roads, or a crossroads, from tri, which is to do with three, and via, road.


Sunday 4 May 2014

Sunday Rest: mensal. Word Not To Use Today.

There are worse things than ghastly, knobbly, horrific, awkward, tongue-twisting and harsh.

Yes: worse than any of those is dull.


Mensal means monthly, and, as you know, things that happen monthly are nearly always dull. Monthly is too frequent to be special, and too seldom for anyone to have had any enthusiasm for the matter.

As if that's not boring enough, mensal also means to do with tables.

So, if one for some strange reason should have the impulse, one could describe one's cutlery as mensal implements...

...except that the person you're talking to will probably have dozed off before you get to the end of the sentence.

Table Setting

Word Not To Use Today: mensal. The monthly word comes from the Latin mensis, month, and the table word comes from mensa, table.

See? Even the derivations are dull.

Saturday 3 May 2014

Saturday Rave: Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland by Marjorie Blamey and Richard and Alastair Fitter.

Here (at random) is a description of the Spear-leaved Willow herb from Wild Flowers of Britain and Ireland:

"Spear-leaved Willowherb Epilobium lanceolatum. The least frequent of the group, but instantly recognisable by its long-stalked, narrowly-eliptical, blunt-tipped leaves. Stems only faintly ridged. Flowers pale pink to pink, 12 - 13 mm; late flowering, July-Sept. Waste places, walls; has a curious liking for Midlands churchyards."

How about that? Not only do you get a useful description, but you get the beautiful narrowly-eliptical as well as a neat little dig at Midlands churchyards as well (not that anyone in their right minds would want to have a dig at a churchyard).

The most remarkable thing about the book, though? Yes, the watercolours are astonishing and beautiful. Yes, there are thousands of entries.

But for me the most wonderful thing about this book is that the writer of the texts, Richard Fitter, was in his ninety-first year when this book was finished. His son Prof Alastair Fitter, who drew the maps, was only fifty-five; but Marjorie Blamey, who painted the illustrations (thousands of them), was in her eighty-sixth year.

Together they've produced a masterpiece.

And they've made me realise that whatever life is for, it's not for retiring.

Word To Use Today: willow. This word comes from the Old English welig, related to welige, wicker basket, from the Greek helix, which means twisted.