This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 30 June 2014

Spot the frippet: something Jovian.

Jovian means to do with Jupiter, either the god:

Painting of a bearded, seated Jupiter, unclothed from the waist up and holding a staff
This painting is from Pompeii

or the planet:


In my experience the planet shows up a lot more often than the god.

Mind you, the planet is big: two and a half times more massive than all the other planets in the solar system put together, so that does make it difficult to overlook.

Still, if it so happens that you can't find the planet Jupiter then the planets Saturn and Neptune count as Jovian planets, too: a fact which would annoy the gods Saturn (Jupiter's dad) and Neptune (Jupiter's brother) very much indeed if, existed.

Down here on planet Earth, anything that reminds people of the god is Jovian, too. He was the god of thunder; so a cow with wind, for instance, might be said to emit a Jovian rumble.

His symbol was an eagle, so a glider might be launched into Jovian flight.

Lastly, Jupiter was famous for loving and leaving ladies, even though he was married to an increasingly angry and vengeful wife. He attacked his dad, too.

I hope you don't know anyone like that.

Which all makes me wonder: given that Jupiter was hardly famous for spreading goodness and light, I wonder why jovial means joyfully contented?

Spot the Frippet: something Jovian. Thus word comes from the Latin Jovis, Jupiter. Jovial comes from joviālis, and it means happy because astrologers thought that the position of the planet Jupiter in the sky affected people's happiness.


Sunday 29 June 2014

Sunday Rest: brandter. Word Not To Use Today.

I'm in a perfect position to write about this word: a position, that is, of perfect ignorance.

I have no idea at all what brandter means (though I'm going to look it up in a minute).

My guess is that it's something to do with banter, which used to mean jolly talk but is often nowadays used as an excuse for insult and (sometimes) threats.

Brandter also has brand in it, so I would say that brandter is jolly talk for some sort of business advantage.

I'm going to look it up, now, and see how close I am. Back in a second...


...oh dear. Oh dear oh dear oh dear...

Hideously, I was right. The only thing I didn't realise is that brandter is performed via social media. Apparently the most important thing business people can do is publicise their brand, and ideally you do it amusingly in the form of brandter.

Fancy. And there I was thinking the most important thing people in business could do was to try to produce something beautiful, useful, and of high quality.

Ah well. That explains where I've been going wrong, then.

Word Not To Use Today: brandter. This is a word invented by people who don't care all that much about the beauty, utility and quality of their product.

SONG HUNTER by SALLY PRUE: possibly the best book about the dawning of creativity in a Neanderthal community published in the last couple of years or so.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Saturday Rave: The Homeward Bounders by Diana Wynne Jones.

It was the over-the-hills-and-far-away thing that made me love books to begin with. In many ways it still is.

What's over the hill? What's below the horizon? Is there something there that's beautiful, something that's thrilling, someone who'll love me?

And with a book you can go even further than that: under the sea, over the trees...even the sky isn't the limit. In Diana Wynne Jones's The Homeward Bounders there are worlds beyond worlds, more than you can count or imagine.

Jamie Hamilton has been caught up by some vast and unfathomable force and it is sending him from one world to another to another to another. It's hard enough surviving alone in one strange world without having to do it over and over again.

But it turns out that Jamie isn't the only Homeward Bounder. He meets others; and some of them know more about what's going on.

He discovers that in order to be safe, in order to get home, the players of the vast game of chance in which he has been swept up have to be destroyed.

The Homeward Bounders is exciting, funny, and sad. It's full of extraordinary things, but at the same time it's very down to earth.

It's a brilliant book for anyone who's ever felt lonely, too.

Word To Use Today: bound. The word which means on the way to somewhere comes from the Old Norse buinn, from būa, to prepare.

Friday 27 June 2014

Word To Use Today: neuston

Houston hosts NASA's Johnson Space Center, Euston is the London terminus of the West Coast Mainline railway...

...but neuston?

Well, that's to do with travel, too, though on a rather smaller scale.

Neustons are creatures who live on, under, or near the surface of water.

That's a water strider.

There are two types of neustons: epineustons, which live on the surface of the water, and hyponeustons, which live immediately below it.

Neustons can be fish, beetles, protozoans, bacteria and spiders:

File:Fishing spider autotomy.jpg
Photo of fishing spider by Fir0002/Flagstaffotos. Look at the dents its feet are making in the surface of the water.

worms, snails, insect larvae, and hydras:

Photo by Josh. That's either a hydra, or a Martian murder-scene.
Don't think that the life of a neuston is dull, either. A neuston ecosystem is a whole world full of hunters making their busy way around snaffling up smaller creatures such as bacteria as a light but sustaining lunch.

I have to admit, though, that breakfast and dinner are probably rather similar.

So there we are: a whole new world. It's a thrillingly controversial one, too, because there are people out there who say that neustons that are big enough to see, or which float by being full of air, should really be called pleustons.

Gosh. Perhaps we'd all better have a cup of tea, now, to calm our over-excited nerves.

Word To Use Today: neuston. This word comes from the Greek word nein, to swim.

Thursday 26 June 2014

Especially for children: a rant.

The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks has just won the Carnegie Medal, Britain's most celebrated children's book prize.

What's the book like?

Well, I haven't read it, so I can't tell you. What I can tell you, though, is what (according to the reviewers) the story is about.

Imagine a group of imprisoned people. Imagine a cruel jailer. Imagine the jailer forcing those people to do terrible things to each other.

Imagine the very darkest, most dreadful things you can - and the worst possible ending - and you'll have some idea of The Bunker Diary.

Now, whether the book is good or bad, one the thing is clear: it isn't suitable for children.

And surely an award for best children's novel should go to a book that children can read without harm.

Shouldn't it?

Word To Use Today: cruel. This word comes from the Latin crūdus, which means raw or bloody.

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Nuts and Bolts: widows and orphans.

Who cares about widows and orphans?

Not me. No, not even though this blog generates orphans quite often (though never widows). I really couldn't care less.

I'm talking, of course, not of poor parentless children or bereaved wives, but of the widows and orphans that annoy copy-editors so much.

What are they? Well, you know how the first line of a paragraph of a printed book is generally indented (that is, it starts a little way in from the left-hand margin)? Well, if that line comes at the bottom of a page, it's an orphan.

You also get orphans when you have just one word, part of a word, or a very short line at the end of a paragraph.

If you have the last line of a paragraph on the first line of a page, that's a widow.

Copy-editors go to great lengths to avoid widows and orphans, even to the extent of rewriting paragraphs (I myself have been asked once or twice to rewrite stuff for this reason). Other tricks of the trade involve page-breaks, font sizes, spaces between 
l e t t e r s , and, in magazines and newspapers, bunging in quotations from the article in large print.

So there we are. I try to be a good person - kind, thoughtful and loving to all - but still, as far as I'm concerned the widows and orphans can multiply all over the place and I really don't think I'm going to care in the slightest.

How about you?

Word To Use Today: orphan. This word comes from the Latin word orbus, which means bereaved.


Tuesday 24 June 2014

Thing To Do Today: be cute.

Being cute is easier for some of us:

Cute kitty cat - Public Domain Picture

then others:

Fester lurch 1966

All the same, it's worth a try.

What you need to do is arouse other people's protective instincts, so take the lowest chair you can and practise your most adoring gaze.

If you can manage to laugh at even very bad jokes, that will help, too.

It may be, however, that the last thing you want to do is let other people feel powerful. In this case you can always be cute in its sense of clever or shrewd.

If you're very clever, then you might even manage to be both at once, and then you can get a job as a diplomat or a salesman.

After all, it's the same difference.

Thing To Do Today: be cute. In the sense of clever, this word is a shortened form of acute, which comes from the Latin acus, needle. How it came to mean attractively vulnerable none of my dictionaries is saying.

Monday 23 June 2014

Spot the Frippet: hull.

You want to see a hull? Well, can you see a boat anywhere?

If not then perhaps you can see a tank, they have hulls, too (yes, I myself thought that a tank would be an unlikely thing to come across, but I'm told you can find tanks lying about all over the place, like pebbles, so that anyone who needs one can perfectly innocently pick one or three up, no questions asked).

If there's no boat or tank around anywhere (or a missile, they also have hulls and can, they say, be found lying about the place) then how about one of these?

Doperwt rijserwt peulen Pisum sativum.jpg

The outer covering of any fruit or seed will do. They're all called hulls.

Also called a hull (and this sort of hull is easy for me because it is summer here, and it is England) is the funnel-shaped bit that's attached to the stem of a strawberry or raspberry...

Make Fresh Strawberry Pie Step 1.jpg

 ...though that's one sort of hull I won't be sitting round to admire.


Spot th frippet: hull. This word comes from the Old English hulu, and is related to the Old English helan, which means to hide.

Sunday 22 June 2014

Sunday Rest: pongee. Word Not To Use Today.

Okay, okay, this could be worse: at least you don't pronounce it pong-ee. (It's pondge-ee, as it happens.)

But what is it?

It's actually something rather lovely.

Pongee is a fine silk fabric, usually left in its natural pale cream colour (though with the current craze for genetic engineering we'll probably soon have silk worms producing thread in every shade from gamboge to puce). 

Pongee can also be a fabric that imitates the texture of silk.

It's beautiful, free-flying, light-catching stuff.

But pongee? They call it pongee?

Lovely stuff like that, and they make it sound like some sort of a long-festering mop.


Word Not To Use Today: pongee. This word comes from the Mandarin Chinese pen-chi, woven at home, from pen, own, and chi loom.

Saturday 21 June 2014

Saturday Rave: The Crocodile.

I learned this song when I was a Girl Guide. That means I've been fond of it for a long time.

It's good, too. It tells a complete story, with proper characters and motivations, in a very short space. Not only that, but it rhymes really properly, and it's clever other ways. Look, for instance at all those soothing s sounds in the first lines that are suddenly hacked to bits by the cracking sounds of back and crocodile.

This song exists in several versions. The one below may be essentially a London one (though I've never lived in London) because of the very good joke in the last line, which uses London slang (dial = face).

She sailed away
On a sunny summer day
On the back of a crocodile.
"You see," said she,
"He's as tame as tame can be,
I'll ride him down the Nile."

The croc winked his eye
As she bade them all goodbye
Wearing a happy smile.
At the end of the ride,
The lady was inside
And the smile was on the croc's ol' dial.

File:Cuban Crocodile.JPG

Word To Use Today: crocodile. This word comes from the Greek krokodeilos, which is from krokē pebble, plus drilos, worm, because of its fondness for basking on shingle.


Friday 20 June 2014

Word To Use Today: pompom.

Here's one small word: pompom.

What does it mean to you?


Or killing?

It's joy for me: tumbling clowns with pompom buttons; a pompom bounding along on top of a child's hat...

...mathematical dahlias (someone's pride and joy)...

File:Dahlia pom pom.jpg


But some of us hear killing.

Pompom (or pom-pom): a cannon, especially an anti-aircraft cannon.

Well, I've made my choice.

What's yours?

Word To Use Today: pompom. The cannon word is an imitation of its noise. The fluffy-ball word comes from the Old French pompe, a  knot of ribbons.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Mary's gold: a rant.

You're just taking the mickey, now.

I mean, where do African marigolds come from? 

Central America.

The French marigold?


The English or Scottish marigold?

Southern Europe.

Look, no one can say I don't rather enjoy the odd quirk of language, but this is going way, way too far, you know.

Got it?

File:Close marigold.jpg
Photo by Tracy Ducasse

Word To Use Today: marigold. This word appeared in English in the 1300s and is a form of Mary's (as in the Virgin Mary) gold.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Nuts and Bolts: quipu.

This is a quipu:

That's an Inca one, as it happens, but they've been used in many parts of the Andes.

Used for what?

Well, for recording things. (It's the knots in the strings that tell you what the quipu says.)

So, what do they say? Well, probably the usual sorts of things: taxes paid, dates, and the size of your army.

Most of the knots seem to represent numbers (they're read according to both their shape and position) but now, excitingly, research is being done which may unlock the meaning of some groups of knots which seem to form words.

The quipu system mostly died out with the decline of the Inca people, but there are remnants still alive. In some places quipu make up part of the formalities when officials take up their posts, and in the village of Tupicocha, in Peru, quipus are still used for official local government record-keeping.

 A person who records information by means of a quipu is called a quipucamayoc.

I can't honestly say I'd want to swap my keyboard for a quipu, but I'm jolly glad the people of Tupicocha keep the quipu system going, all the same.

Thing To Consider Today: quipus. Quipu is the word for knot in Cusco Quechua.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Thing To Do Secretly Today: be clever.

'How's Dick?'

'Oh, he's not too clever at the moment.'

If you're from my part of England that won't mean Dick is suffering from a sudden attack of stupidity: it'll mean he's not very well.

Pleasingly, this means that Dick can be a cleverdick at the same time as being a not-too-clever Dick, a cleverdick being someone who has a much too high opinion of his own intelligence.

And how about something that's more than clever? Something, in fact, that's clever-clever? Well, that's even more idiotic than a cleverdick, because something that's clever-clever is something where the cleverness is more important than the actual content.

A step even further up (or down) the scale of idiocy from the clever-clever is the person who's always shows off his cleverness, a clever clogs. Obviously he (or she) is a complete idiot because no one, but no one, likes a smart aleck.

That being the case, I shall finish by declaring that I haven't the faintest idea who aleck was, and thus slip modestly away.*

Thing To Do Today: be clever. This word arrived in English in the 1200s as cliver, which meant quick to seize, or adroit. But where the word came from before that is something else I don't know.

*I've just looked it up. The phrase "smart aleck" is possibly derived from Aleck Hoag, a 19th century New York con man and thief.

But it's all right: I'm sure I'll soon forget it.

Monday 16 June 2014

Spot the Frippet: tile.

Here's an easy one. Tiles are everywhere.

Porzione del pattern orientali
Picture by Vera Kratochvil

Well, not actually everywhere, but quite probably on the roof above your head and the floor beneath your feet - and if you're in a bathroom or kitchen, quite probably on the walls, as well.

Then there are tiles on mirror balls and in mosaics and mah jong:

File:Mahjong solitaire-01.jpg
picture: Shurikane
And if all those options fail you because you are in the middle of the jungle or at the South Pole or in Outer Space or something then a tile in Britain is a hat, as in the lines from the old song Any Old Iron:

Dressed in style,
Brand new tile,
With your father's old green tie on. 
Design - Apparel - Hat - Children's Wool hats

Apparently a short bit of pipe that fits together with others to make a drain is called a tile, too. But we're not going to have to bother with anything so boring today.

Are we?

Spot the Frippet: tile. This word comes from the Old English tīgele, from the Latin tēgula. Tile meaning hat is a London term, but it isn't rhyming slang - they're just both things that get put on top.

Sunday 15 June 2014

Sunday Rest: protusile. Word Not To Use Today.

What would you do if you were faced with something protusile?


I think I would. has a mechanical sound to it. A science fiction sound. It conjures up visions of weird, metallic, poking things.

Well, there's a good reason for that.

Protusile means able to be thrust forward.

That's a three-horned chameleon.

Now, something protusile doesn't have to be scary and threatening:

Those are howler monkeys.

But it does sound it, doesn't it?

Word Not To Use Today: protusile. This word comes from the Latin trudere, which means to thrust.

Saturday 14 June 2014

Saturday Rave: Rural Life by George Crabbe.

This is a sideways step from last week's post on John Clare, but as it's got me to George Crabbe perhaps that's appropriate.

I studied George Crabbe for A level English, and yet I am still fond of  him. What better recommendation could I make?

He, like John Clare, wrote about rural life, though while Clare was enraptured by the beauty around him, Crabbe was most interested in the way people lived together in their country communities.

Crabbe's most famous work is probably The Borough, which includes the tragic story of Peter Grimes (which was later made into an opera by Benjamin Britten), but here's a passage from Book I of The Village.

In it Crabbe is explaining why his poetry has to be the way it is.

I grant indeed that fields and flocks have charms
For him that gazes or for him that farms;
But when amid such pleasing scenes I trace
The poor laborious natives of the place,
And see the mid-day sun, with fervid ray,
On their bare heads and dewy temples play;
While some, with feebler heads and fainter hearts,
Deplore their fortune, yet sustain their parts:
Then shall I dare these real ills to hide
In tinsel trappings of poetic pride?
Tinsel trappings. Well, that's a useful thought for every writer to keep in mind.
Word To Use Today: tinsel. This word comes from the Old French estincele, a spark.

Friday 13 June 2014

Word To Use Today: Procrustean.

It's Friday the thirteenth, and I therefore bring you a tale of horror.

Procrustean...I always thought it was something to do with geology.
I mean, there's that pro bit at the beginning (pro is Greek for before) and then there's the crust bit, which can't help but make you think of the earth's crust - unless you're hungry, when it'll probably make you think of toast.

Ah, but the truth, my friends...the truth is much darker and stranger and more sinister than the word might lead you to imagine.

Procrustes was a blacksmith, and he was also a bandit. He made himself a metal guest bed (yes, you're right, dubious taste in interior design is indeed a sure sign of evil).

But there is worse to come.

Much much worse.

You see, Procustes was...tidy.

The thing is, if a guest didn't fit the iron bed exactly then Procrustes had an unfortunate habit of stretching the guest to fit it. (In later versions of the story his need to make the guest fit the bed made him do even worse things.)

Now, you may think that that is as bad as anyone could get, but no, Procustes was even worse than that, because secretly he actually had made two beds, just in case a guest arrived who was bed-sized already.

Luckily in the end a hero called Theseus came along who gave Procrustes a fatal dose of his own medicine.

Procrustes getting it in the neck from Theseus: hurray!

Nowadays, when so few villains have iron-working skills, Procrustean usually describes sets of numbers where the facts are made to fit in with the pattern of the numbers, rather than the pattern made to show the facts; or sometimes Procrustean is to do with film-editing, when a film is cut to the right length without bothering about what it might do to the story.

There are some Procrustean book editors around, too. The worst example I've come across is a French translation of Especially Jennings by Anthony Buckeridge (in French it's called Bennett fonde un club) where some idiot has cut out the entire last chapter.

How to use Procrustean today?

Well, how about to describe the designers of very fashionable shoes?

Word To Use Today: Procrustean. This word comes from the Greek prokrouein, to extend by hammering out.


Thursday 12 June 2014

The improbable frog: a rant.

Much has been said about Professor Richard Dawkins' recent words on the subject of fairy stories.

“Is it a good thing to go along with the fantasies of childhood, magical as they are?" he said. "Or should we be fostering a spirit of scepticism?...

“Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards, or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a princess could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

(May I just point out here that if a thing is statistically improbable it actually means that it can happen, not that it can't?)

Still, Professor Dawkins words were produced in the heat of a moment so we can't expect them to have been very carefully considered.

His later tweet, though, in response to the uproar, really should have been:

“Might foster supernaturalism. On balance more likely to help critical thinking.”

And he's right, stories about wizards might help critical thinking.
The essential thing about fairy stories, though, is that they're about people (even if sometimes they're dressed up as frogs, giants or witches).

And people? They do all sorts of things for all sorts of reasons and non-reasons, and one of the most important things to bear in mind is that logic and critical thinking may not get you anywhere near understanding any of it.

But, you know something?
A fairy tale just might.

Word To Use Today: dawk. This is a Northern English dialect word for a hand.


Wednesday 11 June 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Byrhtferth

Byrhtferth was born in about 970.

He was an interesting guy. The coolest thing about him, from a writer's point of view, is that he probably didn't write quite a lot of books that are said to be his.

The same thing has happened to me, though unlike Byrhtferth I haven't had any major works of philosophy and science attributed to me, but only a short work called Shake The Maracas.

It's not the same, you know.

Anyway, Byrhtferth was a scientist (his Enchiridion was the best science text book of his time) as well as a historian (of saints, largely) and he believed that everything in the universe was linked together in a great pattern of numbers. That's everything, from the stars (an old idea) to the letters of the alphabet.

As far as language is concerned, Byrhtferth was the first person to write down anything in a manuscript in Ogham script. (Ogham itself is older much than Byrhtferth, but his manuscript is the earliest example we have that's not been carved.)

Byrhtferth had a great interest in alphabets (and pretty much everything else, bless him) and he almost certainly understood what he'd written down in Ogham.

Byrhtferth’s Diagram - a visual meditation on the cosmic and religious resonances of computus, its subject the harmony of the twelve months and four elements, of time and the material world.
The Ogham script is the telegraph-post stuff in the central circle.

Byrhtferth's work on numbers, which claims to delve into the secrets of the universe, is being used a lot by modern-day magicians, so Byrhtferth's Ogham script is of huge interest.

And what does it say?

No one's got a clue. Byrhtferth never bothered to write down an explanation.


Thing Not To Do Today: write down something in code and then not explain it to anyone.

The name Byrhtferth comes from the Old English byrht, bright, and ferhþ, mind. This was either a huge coincidence, or a pen name.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

Thing To Do Today Perhaps: duck!

Watch out!

File:Duck in Flight (5646466131).jpg
photo by Barry Skeates

Branches, startled pigeons, ancient door frames, they're all out to get you, but it's the signs for LOW-FLYING AIRCRAFT that worry me most. I understand the need to keep an eye out for rogue planes (though having an eye out would probably be the least of my worries) but I don't think there'd really be that much I could do if I got buzzed by a jumbo jet.

Never mind, there are other sorts of duck to consider.

You can make a duck by being out at cricket without scoring (your score, 0, is the shape of a duck's egg. Mind you, it's also the shape of an eagle's egg, but then another sport has nabbed eagle).

You can also make duck with orange, cranberry, or black bean sauce.

If you're playing ducks and drakes then you're skimming a stone across water to make it bounce, and if you're making ducks and drakes you're wasting time or resources.

If anyone in England tells you to be a duck then they're asking you to be kind and helpful, as in be a duck and put the kettle on.

If anyone asks you to drive a duck they're either asking you to chivvy a bird towards a hunter or steer a World War II vehicle.

If you have a ducking then you're completely under water. A duck won't mind, but in olden times a scold (a nagging woman) would have found  things a lot more serious:

If you're in Australia or New Zealand then a bit of duck-shoving will be no problem because that means avoiding some duty. If you're in America then duck soup is even less trouble because it means something that's easy to do.

Like ducking.

What out!

J2F-4 Grumman Duck biplane.

Thing To Do Today: duck. This word for the bird comes from the Old English dūce, which means duck or diver.

Monday 9 June 2014

Spot the Frippet: something lucifugous.

I like words beginning with luci. I think it's probably because I used to want to be Lucy from The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe.

Yes, that is slightly mad - but it's harmless, so why not?

Anyway. Where can we spot something lucifugous?

Lucifugous means avoiding light, so vampires are an excellent example of something lucifugous, if not that likely to be encountered on one's daily commute (especially mine: I only walk upstairs).

Luckily there are more ordinary lucifugous creatures: some owls;

some of the creatures that owls prey on (voles, mice); then there are moles; the wonderful aye aye;

File:Aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis).jpg
photo: Tom Junek

and anything that has enormous eyes like some deep-sea fishes; 

that's a big-eye tuna

or almost none at all, like some cave creatures;

Proteus anguinus Postojnska Jama Slovenija.jpg
those are olms, which are cave newts, more or less.

The trouble is that all these creatures are so keen to avoid the light that it's hard to spot them because they're always lurking in the shadows.

Still, how about peanuts? They bury themselves far away from light. And in that case, all you probably have to do is open a packet.

Spot the frippet: something lucifugous. This word comes from the Latin lucifigus, from lux, light, and fugere, to flee.

Sunday 8 June 2014

Sunday Rest: pruinose. Word Not To Use Today.

Sometimes, in a perfect season, the sloes in the hedgerows acquire a bloom that turns them the colour of the deepest, most vivid summer sky.

File:Sloes - - 244004.jpg
photo by Hugh Chevallier

You can get the same sort of powdery coating on grapes and mushrooms, and you can even find a similar thing on the bodies of insects:

File:Common whitetail.jpg
photo: Bruce Martin

That's a Common Whitetail dragonfly, Libellula lydia. The white tail is the bit I'm talking about. The colour seems to be dual-purpose: it's used to frighten off other male dragonflies, and also to reflect away sunlight to keep cool.

Anyway, how do we describe this marvellous and beautiful phenomenon?


Pruinose. I ask you!

And if pruinose isn't more than enough for English speakers to cope with (which it is) then we also have the truly ghastly pruinescence and pruinosity.

Are there any other languages out there that would like to borrow them?


No reasonable offer refused.

Word Not To Use Today: pruinose. This word comes from the Latin pruīnōsus, frost-covered, from pruīna, hoar frost.

Saturday 7 June 2014

Saturday Rave: Love lives beyond, by John Clare.

How successful will you be?

One of the things that's supposed to predict your success in life is the length of time you've spent being educated (though surely only idiots ever tell themselves they've finished their education).

John Clare, who died one hundred and fifty years ago, didn't have much schooling. He started work at the age of twelve. His family was very poor, and his long-term health problems were probably made worse by not having enough to eat as a child.

He had mental health problems, too, and although many kind people helped him over the years, he ended his life in an asylum.

I love Clare's poetry. I love the fact that a man who had been nowhere and been told so little could still find the world such a rich and extraordinary place.

John Clare.jpg

And it wasn't just the world he could see that caught his attention, either. This is the last stanza of his poem Love Lies Beyond:

Love lies beyond
The tomb, the earth, the flowers, the dew.
I love the fond
The faithful, young, and true.

What greater lesson could John Clare have learned, however long he'd stayed at school?
Word To Use Today: beyond. This word comes from the Old English begeondan.

Friday 6 June 2014

Word To Use Today: piranha.

Piranha - or, if you like, piraña - well, they're dead vicious. They can strip a cow to the bone in a couple of minutes, can't they?

The stories about the incredible ferocity of piranha were launched by a Brazilian stunt to impress the US President Theodore Roosevelt. It involved starving a lot of piranha for several days and then pushing a cow into the water.

True, the cow didn't last long; but then you only have to imagine a similar scene involving Homo sapiens and a pile of doughnuts for the piranha's behaviour to seem entirely reasonable.

Piranha live in rivers in the warm bits of South America, though (there being few limits to the stupidity of humans) they've been introduced to rivers in the United States of America, Bangladesh, and China, as well.

Now. Those teeth:

Piranha's teeth aren't used only for tearing large animals (including humans) to pieces. No. They're used by South Americans for making tools, and also by the piranha themselves for tearing small animals to pieces. This is why so many piranha have an eye missing (ew!). 

Piranha usually have no trouble finding things to eat because they're very good at sensing blood.

File:Souvenir piranha front.JPG
Photo by BrokenSphere

Now, in fairness to the fish I must point out that humans also eat piranha. Don't try to fish for them with a hook and line though. For a start the fish you've caught is likely to be eaten by the rest of the shoal before you can reel it in; and, secondly, it will be able to bite straight through the hook (if it's made of silver) and free itself anyway.

Having said all that, piranha do sometimes eat vegetables, seeds and fruits, especially when young. Which is more than many young humans do.

So there we are. Piranha are perfectly reasonable creatures whose name has been blackened by a publicity stunt, and swimming with piranha is...

...idiotic. Complete and total lunacy.

I'd stick with the creatures with the water wings and the budgie smugglers, if I were you.

Word To Use Today: piranha. This word comes to us from Portuguese, and before that from the Tupi pirá, fish, and sainha, tooth.
 Hint for use: something involving crowds and free cake?



Thursday 5 June 2014

Eternal truths: a rant.

This is from Tom Chivers in The Telegraph online, 1/6/14*.

 'Language is a set of conventions, not an agglomeration of eternal truths.'

Is it, really?

Oh rats.

Well, I suppose that language is a set of conventions. That's fair enough (though it doesn't account for the way language can be playful and creative. Or for its the habit of evolving).

Language isn't an agglomeration of eternal truths, though.

Oh, but I've always thought it was - or as near as it's possible to get to one, anyway. After all, language is a project we humans and our ancestors have been working on for...oooh, ages. A million years, perhaps.

It's even longer than a million years if you go back to the waggling of the first bees' bottoms, or the croak of the first frog.

Of course we can use language to lie, cheat and deceive, but the language itself, the words and the grammar which holds the words together, isn't that one long project in refining a method of communicating exactly what you want to get across?

Isn't that why language is so precious?

Isn't it why we care so much about it?

Doesn't language present to us the whole universe, as far as we can know it? Doesn't it hold the whole of ourselves (individual, family, tribe, nation, species) as far as we can show it?

Oh yes. I'll say that language is a agglomeration of eternal truths every time.

File:Yarn ball.jpg
photo by Lori from New York.

Word To Use Today: agglomeration. This word has been used in English since the 1600s. It comes from the Latin agglomerāre, to wind into a ball.

*That's an English date: 1st June, not 6th January.