This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 31 July 2014

Insensitive dynamite: a rant.

How do you do?


People are so enthusiastic these days. Time was when the standard answer to how do you do would be how do you do, or, at most, not too bad, thanks. Admitting even to reasonably good health would have been regarded as boastful attention-seeking.

In fact I'd thought that understatement had gone completely out of fashion, even in Britain, but I came across a striking example of it in the i newspaper of 29 July 2014. It was discussing the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. The original plan had been to demolish several tower blocks as part of the fun, but as it happened saner counsels prevailed.

'I confess a morbid disappointment when Commonwealth Games organisers cancelled the demolition of Glasgow's Red Road tower blocks...Some people, understandably, thought this dynamiting insensitive to...those asylum seekers still occupying the remaining tower.'

Insensitive? Blowing up a tower that still had people living in it? Insensitive?

I'm glad, on the whole, that the demolition didn't go ahead. But if it had, I really think that one or two stronger words than insensitive would have been perfectly justified on the part of the inhabitants.

File:Oxgangs towerblock demolition.JPG

Word To Use Today: whoops! The use of whoop or whup as an exclamation of surprise or derision appeared in English in the 1500s.

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Nuts and Bolts: ignotum per ignotius II

Last week, under the heading ignotum per ignotius, I was having a minor stress about the way some dictionary definitions leave no one any the wiser.

Too late for that post I remembered dear Dr Johnson, who is, if not quite the ancestor of all writers of dictionary definitions, then surely an adored great uncle.

Statue of Johnson

Dr Johnson was the first person to write a comprehensive dictionary of the English language as it was used. Perhaps because he was writing something new, he remained keenly aware of his audience (which isn't the rule with the masterworks of very clever men). 

And always bubbling away was a fine relish for sending himself up:

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.

He also found himself much amused by the idea that he, as the writer of a dictionary, should be the fount of all knowledge: 
Pastern: The knee of a horse.

(The pastern is actually part of a horse's foot. When a lady asked Johnson why he'd defined it as the knee, he replied, with breathtaking candour:  'Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.')

Not only was Dr Johnson fully aware of his own ignorance, but he was keenly aware of ignotum per ignotius, too. Here's his mischievous definition of network:

Any thing reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.

And just in case a reader wasn't familiar with the word reticulated:

Reticulated: Made of network; formed with interstitial vacuities.

Interstitial vacuities...who could fail to love a man who step aside from his serious work to come up with something like that?

Word To Use Today: reticulated. It comes from the Late Latin rēticulātus, made like a net.
The definitions quoted are from the first edition (1755) of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Thing Almost Certainly Not To Do Today: be fearful.

Here's a strange word.

It not only means two opposite things (making it a contranym), but manages to mean something horrible in both of them.

Fearful means full of fear: fearful means frightening.

Fearful also has a meaning which falls in between its two opposite meanings. If you have a fearful cold then it's not a scary cold, nor an intimidating cold. It's just a severe and annoying cold.

To make things even more complicated we have the word fearfully, which, yes, can mean in a frightened way, but can also just mean extra. If you say I'm fearfully sorry it's nothing to do with being either afraid or annoyed.

(Mind you, this use of fearfully is fearfully out-of-date, so it's probably best avoided unless you are old enough to have used a wind-up gramophone and have fought in at least one World War.)

Anyway, fearful. Don't be it. Be brave. Be kind. Own up to your misdeeds. Stand up to the bullies.

It's not easy, but it's the price of a civilised world.

Thing Almost Certainly Not To Do Today: be fearful. This word is of course to do with fear, which comes from the Old English fǣr and is related to the Latin perīculum, danger.

Monday 28 July 2014

Spot the frippet: something murine.

No one could pretend that murine is a nice word. How you think about murine creatures - well, opinions vary.

They have a habit of sneaking onto property that does not belong to them and doing their best to establish a permanent presence.

They have a habit of bringing with them dangerous items liable to harm, or even cause the death of, the inhabitants of the place.

They never ever accept any responsibility whatsoever for any damage they've caused.

They've been seen on every continent except Antarctica, are serious pests, and have killed off several entire populations.

They have a habit of eating their own young if disturbed.

They tend to be not quite hairy enough, often having naked tails.

Yes, that's right, you've got it. Something murine is a rat or a mouse.

Well, what else might it be?

Norway Rat
This is a Norway rat.

Spot the frippet: something murine. This word comes from the Latin mūrīnus, to do with mice, from mūs, mouse.

PS Adèle Geras has alerted me to the fact that Murine is a sort of eyedrop. Still, I don't suppose it could be made from rats, could it.

No. Of course not...

Sunday 27 July 2014

Sunday Rest: hysterical. Word Not To Use Today Except Wrongly.

Words, like guns, too often come loaded.

If someone is hysterical then they are liable to insane outbursts of emotion. This is, by definition,* impossible in a properly manly man.

Recently, though, hysterical has started to mean something quite different. 

It was hysterical, people say, meaning it made them helpless with laughter.

The dog came out of the clothes basket wearing Dad's pants on its head. It was hysterical.

Even more recently, it's started being used as a way of disguising the dullness of a story.

I was in the supermarket and my shoelace came undone. It was hysterical!

In these cases hysterical can mean more or less anything from mildly inconvenient to rather embarrassing.

The good news is that this new use of hysterical is at last taking the bullets out of it.

We hung round the bins and shared a drink. It was hysterical.

Because at last it means that men can be hysterical

Which, obviously, they often are.

Bless them.

*Word Not To Use Today Except Wrongly: hysterical. This word arrived in English in the 1600s from the Latin hystericus meaning of the womb, from the Greek husterikos, womb. The idea was that hysteria was caused by disorders of the womb.

Saturday 26 July 2014

Saturday Rave: The Specialist by Chick Sale.

The Specialist is a rather odd thing: it's a very good book written by someone who was never a writer.

How come? Well, Charles (Chick) Sale was what we'd nowadays call a stand-up comedian. In 1930, as now, copyright laws were under strain and there was nothing to stop anyone from copying Chick's most popular act, which he did in character and went by the title of The Specialist.

This state of affairs was obviously a huge threat to Chick's livelihood but there was nothing anyone could do about it until someone came up with a cunning wheeze. If the act was written down, it was reasoned, it would be protected by the copyright laws for printed matter, and this would mean that no one could steal Chick's act.

So Chick got his act printed (it was only 3,000 words), sent off a few copies to the relevant authorities, and offered the remainder for sale.

Ten languages and a million copies later, it's still going strong.

So what sort of a specialist is The Specialist?

He's the champion privvy builder of Sangamon County.


Here he is advising a customer on why not to site his facility at the end of a bendy path:

'Take your grandpappy - goin' out there is about the only recreation he gets. He'll go out some rainy night with his nighties flappin' round his legs, and like as not when you come out in the morning you'll find him prone in the mud, or maybe skidded off one of them curves and wound up in the corn crib.'

And excellent advice it is, too.

Word To Use Today: specialist. This word comes from the Old French especial, from the Latin speciālis, individual, special, from speciēs, appearance, from specere, to look.

Friday 25 July 2014

Word To Use Today: sonsy.

Here's a word to cheer up some rather troubled times. It's used in Scotland, Ireland, and some Northern parts of England and it means all sorts of good things: comely, curvy, cheerful, good-natured and lucky.

As if this isn't comforting enough sonsie can also mean large, as in a helping of food, or hefty, as in a knock on the head... That's possibly not quite so much fun. Not unless it happens to someone else, anyway.

And even that's not the end of sonsie. It can mean sensible (this can apply either to people, or to an easily-tamed breed of animal).

See what a wonderful word it is? Why, sonsie has over the years been used to mean pretty much anything admirable. Robert Burns even used it to describe a haggis, though what a haggis has to be cheerful about I cannot for the life of me imagine.

I'll leave you with a sonsie blessing: sonse fa ye. 

It means good luck.

Word To Use Today: sonsie or sonsy. This word comes from the Scots Gaelic sonas, which means good fortune.

Thursday 24 July 2014

keen as mustard: a rant

Around the lid of our mustard jar is this legend:


Now, call me soft-hearted if you like, but I think that's cruel.

Word To Use Today: reject. This word comes from the Latin rēicere, to throw back, from jacere, to hurl.

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Nuts and Bolts: chimp chat.

There are rather a lot of dictionaries in the house.
There are several English dictionaries on every floor, and then there are the foreign dictionaries (which include Hungarian and Ancient Greek).
Not quite fitting into either the English or foreign categories is the Klingon dictionary: I'm not sure I'd class an extra-terrestrial humanoid as merely foreign.
Anyway, now someone has produced another uncategorisable dictionary, and I don't have it. It's very frustrating.
It's a dictionary of chimp.

Young chimpanzees
It only contains sixty six entries consisting mainly of signs.

It was written by Dr Catherine Hobaiter and Professor Richard Byrne of the University of St Andrews, and is published, not as a book, but as an article in the Current Biology journal.
It's the result of the study of eighty Ugandan chimps (so is this purely a Ugandan chimp dictionary? Would a Rwandan chimp speak the same language? I want a whole set!)

 Prof Byrne has said that although it's been known for thirty years that chimps communicate by gestures, this is the first time anyone's bothered to work out what they're saying.

According to Dr Hobaiter, the gestures have the same meaning whoever uses them, which means they work like a conventional human language.

There is still, however, work to do. The some of the gestures seem to have several different meanings, but this might be because there are subtle differences that haven't yet been spotted by humans.

Here, as a public service, are a few bits of chimpanzee.

Groom me - big loud scratch.

Move yourself - directed push; beckon.

Move away - arm swing; hand fling; jump; object shake; punch object or ground; punch other; slap object. know something? That all sounds very like human to me.

Perhaps I don't need a chimpanzee dictionary after all.

But I still want one.

Thing To Do Today: say something in chimpanzee. The word chimpanzee comes from a dialect of Congo.


Tuesday 22 July 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: sneap.

I'm reading the Clayhanger trilogy* by Arnold Bennett (first volume terrific, second surprisingly modern) and people keep sneaping.

I'd assumed sneap was a word of the Potteries, the famous group of towns in Staffordshire, England which is the setting for Clayhanger. But if I'd been paying more attention I'd have noticed that Shakespeare uses sneap, too. But then Shakespeare came from Stratford (that's Stratford upon Avon: it's nothing to do with either London or the Olympics), which isn't very far away from the Potteries.

It turns out that there are two sorts of sneap. One means to blast with cold (this isn't easy in England at the moment. Actually, though, come to think about it, putting a dahlia in the freezer would sneap it. Though such an action would admittedly be completely bonkers).

This use of  sneap is from Shakespeare's play Love's Labour's Lost**:

FERDINAND: Biron is like an envious sneaping frost,
That bites the first-born infants of the spring.

The second meaning of sneap is to rebuke, and that's the meaning that is still used today in the Potteries.

Shakespeare uses this meaning, too.

This is from Henry IV Part 1:

Lord Chief-Justice: Pray thee, peace. Pay her the debt you owe her, and unpay the villainy you have done her: the one you may do with sterling money, and the other with current repentance.

FALSTAFF: My lord, I will not undergo this sneap without reply.

File:Grützner Falstaff mit Kanne.jpg
Falstaff by Eduard von Grützner

So there we are. I've learned a new word. Am I going to sneap myself for not noticing it before, even though I studied Henry IV Part 1 for A Level?

Nope. These discoveries give one an illusion of increasing wisdom, after all.

Thing Not To Do Today: be sneaping. This word is probably from Scandinavia. It's quite like the Icelandic sneypa to scold.

*By the way, Clayhanger is another trilogy consisting of four books.

**The title in the First Folio doesn't have any apostrophes. Or, actually, a u in Labour.



Monday 21 July 2014

Spot the frippet: croft.

This is usually a Scots word, but the Scots will surely be happy to educate us in the use of their English tongue.

So, croft.

It's a sort of small farm. It will have a house attached to it, and the family of the house will be the ones who work the land.

Strictly speaking, the only true crofts are found in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (65% of the households on Shetland live on crofts). The system requires a group of crofters, each farming 2 - 5 hectares of crops, and the hills around being held in common for grazing for their animals.

The Shetland Crofthouse Museum

Yes, yes, you will say, but this is a spot-the-frippet, and strangely enough I don't have time to get to Shetland in my lunch-break, so how on earth do you expect me to spot a croft?

Well, because luckily there's another sort of croft - a Lancashire croft, in fact.

This was originally an area used for bleaching cloth in the sun, but now a Lancashire-type croft is a patch of wasteland.

And that's a much easier thing to spot.

Having spotted one, though, you might find that the croft isn't really wasted at all.

You could make a list of uses your croft has.

1. Feeding place for butterflies.
2. Playground.
3. Dumping ground for mattresses.

Spot the Frippet: croft. This word has been around for over a thousand years. The Old English word was in fact croft. It's related to the Middle Dutch krocht, hill or field, and to the Old English creopan, to creep.

Sunday 20 July 2014

Sunday Rest: suffragan. Word Not To Use Today.

This word has been annoying me for decades. 

A suffragan bishop (officially the g is pronounced as in get, but people quite often say it as in genius) is an assistant bishop.

But why call him a suffragan? I mean, it sounds far too much like a suffering bishop (and, although he does probably think he should be a proper bishop with his own cathedral and everything, that sort of whingeing does him no favours at all).

The other reason for not using this stupid word is that, as well as sounding like suffering (what with, I wonder? Ingrowing toenails?) it also sounds far too much like sufferance.

And, okay, people do take suffragan bishops on sufferance, because, let's face it, if you're going to see a bishop then obviously you want to see a proper one with a throne and everything, otherwise it's like turning up to see Batman and being fobbed off with Robin.

But there's no need to make that quite so clear in the poor man's name. Is there.

(I don't think the bishop in this picture is actually a suffragan because no one seems to bother to draw pictures of them, poor dears. But they look much the same.
They don't always have the halo, though.)

Word Not To Use Today: suffragan. This word comes from the Mediaeval Latin suffrāganeus, from suffrāgium, assistance.

Saturday 19 July 2014

A Special Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter translated by JF Nunn and RB Parkinson.


This little book is a treasure.

Yes, every copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit is a treasure, but this one is extra special because it's written in Classical Ancient Egyptian. That is, in hieroglyphs.

It's all been done with such scholarship, and so much thought and care.

Here's an extract from the translators' notes:

'The only related species [in Ancient Egypt to the rabbit] was the desert hare (Lepus capensis) for which, fortunately, the Egyptian word (skhat*) is well attested, and this appears...terminated by the unmistakable determination of the desert hare. However it must be stressed that the same hieroglyph is widely used as the bilateral phonetic 'wn' and is, in fact, the first hieroglyph to appear on page 7. The word so formed is nothing to do with Lepus capensis.'

The notes go on to discuss the tricky word wheelbarrow, which has been translated as sledge (wenesh), wheels at the time of the  Middle Kingdom only appearing on chariots.

I find the conjunction of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and so much  scholarship completely charming, and the translators' notes raise all sorts of interesting questions.

I'll leave you with this one: as the Eygptian week lasted ten days, was it right to translate fortnight as twenty days (herew 20)?

Do say if you know!

Word To Use Today: one in Classical Ancient Egyptian. The  phrase used for potato in this book is depehew-ta, which means apples of the earth, presumably following the French pommes de terre.

*Because they ran away so quickly?

Friday 18 July 2014

Word To Use Today: quarantine.


It's such a lovely word, is quarantine. It could be some juicy fruit, or a type of heavy shining silk, or wine heated with cloves and honey...

...but of course it isn't.

Quarantine is when an animal (sometimes a human animal) is kept by itself to stop it spreading a disease.

Quarantine is a rather special word because it's one of the very few to be commonly understood when written in flags.

Unfortunately the understanding-thing falls down a little bit because the yellow signal flag Q, for quarantine:

Quarantine Flag

when flown alone from a ship indicates that there's actually no disease on board, and so the ship isn't in quarantine.

I'm sure there's a good reason for this, but I haven't the faintest idea what it is.

Word To Use Today: quarantine. This word comes from the Italian quarantina, which means a period of forty days, from the Latin quadrāgintā.


Thursday 17 July 2014

The Ukraine Crash.

I haven't got easy access to a computer for a day or two, but send my sympathy to all those affected by the Malaysian Airlines crash.

The awful ingenuity of man is capable of using this terrible event as an excuse for even greater horrors.

Our only hope can be that it will instead serve as a stimulus towards finding some means of healing.

East is east: a rant

In Frideswide* Square in Oxford there is a Chinese eatery called Oriental Condor.

Oriental Condor?

So...that's condor as in bird living in the Andes and California.

This one's Andean.

...and oriental as in of the east.


My brain hurts.

But, hang on, Dinah Shore may have sung in Paleface that East is east and west is west**, but in that song east and west were both parts of the USA.

Yes. East may officially change to west on the line that runs through the London suburb of Greenwich, and change back again on the International Date Line that does its best to run through the emptiest bits of Pacific Ocean, but east and west are really relative terms.

So where would you have to be to talk of an oriental (that is, eastern) condor?

Well, about the furthest west you can get before you hit the International Date Line is Hawaii. And, hang on, there are a lot of Chinese people in Hawaii. Nearly 200,000 of them. According to Wikipedia their Hawaiian name is Pākē.

So. That Chinese restaurant in Oxford. The Oriental Condor. Perhaps it's run by Hawaiians. That'd make sense.

I'll tell you something, it'll be a heck of a relief to my system if it is.

Word To Use Today: oriental. This word comes from the Latin oriēns, rising (of the sun) from orīrī, to rise.

PS On the journey home from Oxford I saw a shop called CHILD'S FUNERAL SERVICES...

*Frideswide was a local saint. Well, with a name like that she was hardly going to be a rock star, was she?

**While we're on the subject of films, I can't ignore the unfortunate fact that although the 1969 feature is called Krakatoa, East of Java, Krakatoa is actually west of Java.


Wednesday 16 July 2014

Nuts and Bolts: ignotum per ignotius.

I love dictionaries. Almost the only thing wrong with them is that they're too interesting, so that a search for the word bobble, for instance, will inevitably snare me into explorations of the words demiurge, canister, braggadocio and bobol on the way.

But sometimes, just sometimes, dictionaries can be flipping annoying.

Take this genuine dictionary definition of tepal, for instance: any of the subdivisions of a perianth that is not clearly differentiated into calyx and corolla.

Anyone out there any further forward?

Here's another:

delta particle: a very short-lived hyperon.

(To make things even worse, a hyperon is defined as any baryon that is not a nucleon.)

Really, what do these dictionary people think they're about?

Well, there's a phrase to describe exactly what they're about, that is, giving an explanation that requires so much expert knowledge that anyone who could understand it wouldn't need to look it up in the first place.

It's ignotum per ignotius.

It's Latin for, more or less, come off it!

Phrase To Have Ready To Use If People (especially teachers) Start Using Too Many Unknown Words: ignotum per ignotius. This phrase is Latin for the unknown by means of the more unknown.

The teacher here is Humphry Davy.

Tuesday 15 July 2014

Thing To Do Today: Improve The Shining Hour

Improve the shining hour, people say. They're quoting Isaac Watts, though they usually don't know it.
But what's so shiny about an hour?
Well, if you look at Isaac Watt's verse you find out:
How doth the little busy bee

Improve each shining hour,

And gather honey all the day

From every opening flower.
Yes, it's the sun that makes the hour shiny (because even bees take a break when it's raining). 

Well, that's a relief. At least we can stop being busy after the sun's gone down. And if you live somewhere like Britain there are lots of cloudy hours in the daytime when we can be idle with a clear conscience, too.
I'm in good company when it comes to being confused by Watt's verse. Here's Alice (of Wonderland)'s version:
How Doth The Little Crocodile

by Lewis Carroll
How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!
How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spread his claws,
And welcome little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!
Photo: Steve Hillebrand, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
So there we have it. The bees and the crocodile; one busy, one idle, both ending up with a full tummy.
So which is best? Fish or honey? Helping fertilise the flowers, or snapping up little fishes?

Is it best to be a bee, or a crocodile?

Thing To Do Today: Improve The Shining Hour. The word improve comes from the Anglo-French prou, profit, from the Latin prōdesse, to be advantageous.

Monday 14 July 2014

Spot the frippet: saddle.

Where will the next saddle you see be?

On a bicycle, a horse, a camel, a donkey, a pig?


Oh yes, a pig can have saddle. Here's one:

File:Saddleback pig, Norfolk.jpg
Photo by jon smith 'una nos lucror' wikimedia commons.

See the pale band round its belly? That's a saddle, and that's a saddleback pig.

Where else might you find a saddle? On a motorbike, a mule, a caterpillar:

Saddleback caterpillar moth on leaf

(That's a saddleback caterpillar Acharia stimulea, which lives in North America. Although they have saddles they aren't ideal for riding on: apart from the size problem, these beasts are covered with stinging hairs. Ouch!)

Here's a New Zealand saddleback:

Saddleback tiritiri.jpg

Its saddle is special because it was given to the bird by a god. The god Maui was thirsty after a battle with the sun, and he asked the Tieke or Saddleback to bring him some water. But the lazy bird pretended not to hear, so Maui seized it with his hand, which was still hot from battle, and left a scorch mark across the Tieke's back.

Stinging hairs, scorch marks - here's something more soothing:

That's a saddleback anemonefish. Photo by Diane Bray

And if all those saddles are all too annoyingly small to ride on, how about this fellow:

Giant Galapagos tortoise saddleback.

Lastly, here's a saddle that's not on a back at all:

File:Saddlebill Stork 756.jpg
That's a saddlebill stork from Africa. It's also called a jabiru. Photo by Ltshears

There we are, practically a whole zoo. Saddles all over the place - and that's without mentioning the cuts of meat called saddles (it seemed a bit cruel, in the circumstances), two-peaked hills called saddlebacks, and roofs with two gables.

As I said, it's all as easy as pie.

Well, I wouldn't want you to feel I'd saddled you with anything too difficult, would I?

Spot the Frippet: saddle. This word has hardly changed since Old English, when it was sadol.


Sunday 13 July 2014

Sunday Rest: masstige. Word not to use today.

If masstige were the German word it appears to be it would be pronounced MASS-tigger, and would be rather sweet.

If only it were. Instead it's pronounced mass-TEEJ, to rhyme with prestige.

Yes. Ghastly, isn't it.

But there is yet worse to come. As it says on Wikipedia (brace yourselves, do, this is truly revolting) masstige is a marketing term meaning downward brand extension.

Downward brand extension...that, it seems, is a product advertised as high-quality or luxurious, but cheap enough even for fully sane people to buy.

So there we are. A truly horrible word to describe the cynical manipulation of mankind's less admirable aspirations.

Masstige: making out that stuff can deliver respect, envy, and style.

And I'm going to go and sniff some flowers to get rid of the stink of this one.

Morocco's Rose Festival - Credit H.Zell / Wikimedia Commons
Photo H.Zell Wikimedia Commons

Word Not To Use Today: masstige. This word is a mixture of mass (as in the masses, meaning the majority of people) and prestige. The term was popularised by Michael Silverstein and Neil Fiske in their book Trading Up and their Harvard Business Review article Luxury for the Masses.

Prestige - and I love this - comes from the Latin praestigiae, feats of juggling or tricks, and is probably something to do with praestringere, to bind tightly or blindfold.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Saturday Rave: Not "To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train" by Frances Cornford.

There are, heaven knows, plenty of bad poets in the world,  and Frances Cornford isn't one of them. I could quite easily rave about her guitar-tuning poem.

And I might do, before long.

Having said that, there's a poem of hers I've disliked very much for...ooh, longer than you've been alive, probably.

It's called "To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train" and it goes like this.

O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?
O fat white woman whom nobody loves,
Why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
When the grass is soft as the breast of doves
And shivering-sweet to the touch?
O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,
Missing so much and so much?

It's a wonderful, vivid poem, and it's a curiously memorable one, too, especially the O fat white woman whom nobody loves, line; but still my sympathies have always been entirely on the side of the fat white woman. Why is the poet so sure no one loves her? And what's wrong with wearing gloves? Perhaps the poor woman had cold hands, or new gloves, or had been gardening and couldn't be bothered to scrub her nails.

In any case, unless she has the arms of a chimpanzee she's unlikely to touch the grass as she walks along, however soft and feathery it is.

Missing so much and so much...

What else did the fat woman miss apart from the feel of the grass?

I'm not sure. But I bet it wasn't half so much as some smug poet screaming past in a train.

Word To Use Today: fat. This word comes from the Old English fǣtan, which means to cram.

PS Another poet, and a famously fat one, G. K. Chesterton, wrote a poem called "The Fat Lady Answers”. It's not half as good a poem as the original, but I do think its heart is in the right place.
Why do you rush through the field in trains,
Guessing so much and so much?
Why do you flash through the flowery meads,
Fat-head poet that nobody reads;

And why do you know such a frightful lot
About people in gloves as such?
And how the devil can you be sure,
Guessing so much and so much,
How do you know but what someone who loves
Always to see me in nice white gloves
At the end of the field you are rushing by,
Is waiting for his Old Dutch?

I know she's not fat, but that's because she's squeezed herself into a corset especially for the wedding. Bless her.


Friday 11 July 2014

Word To Use Today: gliff.


Gliff. Gliff. Gliff...try saying it.

It's great, isn't it? Much too good not to use.

Even better, a gliff isn't anything rare, like a small nocturnal jungle cat known only from one sixteenth century cushion cover, or a headteacher in dungarees. No. A gliff is a swift glance that shows you something startling. 

A gliff can be a sudden fear, too.

It can also describe the amount of time a gliff takes: just for a gliff I thought it was a real lion...

In Scotland - and the Scots are surely too generous to begrudge us this use of their word - a gliff has come to mean a faint trace of something. He may be wearing dungarees, but there's still a gliff of menace about him.

If a day isn't complete without a laugh, then it isn't complete without a gliff, either.

What's going to give yours? A spiders? A cyclist? Or...

...the man in dungarees????


Word To Use Today: gliff. This word comes from the English northern word gliff, from the Middle English gliffen, to look quickly.


Thursday 10 July 2014

Terms and conditions: a rant.

I'm a very truthful person. In fact, sometimes I wonder if my interest in language began with my attempts to find kind but truthful answers to the question does my bum look big in this?*

But sometimes even a truthful person...

Look, those I-have-read-the-terms-and-conditions boxes on websites.

I know I've ticked them, but I was, well, lying, basically. I haven't really read them. I'm sorry. I did read them the first few times, but I've got fed up with them now and don't bother any more, not even since I heard the story about the firm that included the I-hereby-give-my-immortal-soul-freely-and-without-condition-to-the-sellers clause into the middle of their T&Cs small print.

I have a great affection for, and trust in, my fellow man, but you know something? I wouldn't be surprised if none of us have read the flipping terms and conditions.

Mind you, even if we did, the chances are we wouldn't understand the important ones.

So, please, stop asking us if we have read them, all right? Make them available - perhaps even make it impossible to buy something without clicking through the T&C page - but do please stop asking us if we've read them.

I hate it. It's because I'm a really really honest person.

And if we're going to do business then you don't want to stop me being that, do you?

Word To Use Today: condition. This word comes from the Latin conditiō, from condīcere to discuss or agree together.
*Ooh, you've got a new dress. What an interesting pattern. Puce is everywhere this year, isn't it; and of course halter-necks are your signature look. Yes, you'll really stand out from the crowd. Was that Gwyneth Paltrow I saw wearing an outfit like that? So where did you get it? I do like those shoes...

Wednesday 9 July 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Double Dutch.

Double Dutch is nonsense. At least, it sounds like nonsense: but of course that's a different thing.

Some forms of Double Dutch, like Tutnese, Ubbi dubbi and Izzle, for instance, are really ordinary English that's deliberately been made hard to understand. Sometimes this has been done for fun, and sometimes it's been done to fool your enemies (there's a history of African Americans using Double Dutch in this way).

Sometimes, however, the reason Double Dutch is hard to understand is because people are being unreasonable enough to speak a foreign language.

In the 1600s England and the Netherlands fought each other in a series of wars, and so to the English more or less everything Dutch  became really annoying. That's when the term Double Dutch - a language even more baffling than Dutch itself - seems to have been made up.
Mind you, even undoubled Dutch can be baffling, because Dutch is not always, well, Dutch at all.

The famous Pennsylvania Dutch, for instance, speak (or used to speak) Deitsch, which is actually a sort of German.

Why is it called Dutch, then? Perhaps because of a confusion between Deitsch and Dutch, and perhaps because right up to the 1800s Dutch could mean anything from anywhere from Belgium to Austria. 

If you wanted to distinguish between the Dutch and German  languages then you called them Low German (which meant Dutch) or High German (which meant German). To make things even more confusing, it's only quite recently that Germany  has existed as a country. And there's never been a Dutchland at all.


I'm not surprised.

In fact, do you know something? I think it might make more sense to talk, not about Double Dutch, but about Double German.

Word To Use Today: Dutch. This word comes from the Middle Dutch duutsch, from Old High German duit-isc, belonging to the people, from þeod nation. It first meant anyone who spoke a Germanic language, then it gradually narrowed down until it meant specifically to do with the Netherlands.

Tuesday 8 July 2014

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: dust.

You can never get rid of the dust. Never. Someone famously house-proud is said to catch the dust as it falls - but fall it will, for all eternity.

So where does it all comes from?

Dead skin, people say, but how can that be true? My skin isn't grey and fluffy, and anyway to produce the drifts of stuff in my bedroom I'd have to have the hide of a rhinoceros.

Outer space, others say, which is both more believable and more exciting.

Ah well. Quentin Crisp said that after the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse, and surely we ought anyway to have better things to do than move the dust from the indoors to the outdoors, just for it to make its inevitable way back in again.

Perhaps we should sit back and enjoy the silver velvet upholstery on a long-neglected surface.

Make pets of those dust bunnies.

And care for the poor hungry dust mites.

File:House Dust Mite.jpg
(Isn't it sweet? 


For dust is important. It's dust that helps make the sunsets glow, and life in the oceans depends on the iron in dust to survive.

We should celebrate it. Perhaps we should dust a cake with icing sugar, or a creamy drink with cocoa powder (look, dust is another contranym. Dusting can mean putting dust onto something or taking it off).

I suppose dusting for fingerprints is cool, too.

But otherwise...hmm.

Tomorrow. Yes.

That's probably the best day to do the dusting.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: dust. This word is from the Old English dūst, and is related to the Old High German tunst, storm.

Monday 7 July 2014

Spot the frippet: dunny.

Where would you find a dunny?

Well, it depends.

If you're a Scot then a dunny is a cellar or basement, so all you have to do is find a building with an underground room.

If you're English then you might not be aware of the word dunny, but it's a shortened form of dunnakin. This may sound as if it should be some sort of gnome-like being, but it's actually a lavatory.

If you're in New Zealand or Australia, then a dunny will also be a lavatory, though specifically an outside non-flushing one.

Norman Park, Queensland, 1960s, showing lines of dunnies behind the houses.

So visitors Downunder take note. 

Old WC
Unless, that is, you want to commune with nature in more ways then one.

Spot the frippet: dunny. This word is a bit of a mystery, but may be connected with dung, which comes from the Old High German word tunc, cellar roofed with dung. Though why anyone would want to roof a cellar with dung I cannot for the life of me imagine.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Sunday Rest: foredoom. Word Not To Use Today.

'We're doomed!'

At least, that's what Private "Taffy" Frazer used to say in the very old sit-com Dad's Army. He was played magnificently by John Laurie, and the word doomed could take up several feet of film.

Unfortunately, the fact that someone can say we're doomed means that he or she isn't, actually, doomed. If they have actually met their doom then probably all they can say is aarrgghh!
And that will be cut off half way through.
Except, except...the word doom is curious because it already has a future built into it. 'We're doomed!' usually means the process by which we will meet our doom has begun.
What does it matter? Well, it means the word foredoom is a waste of space. Doom by itself is enough.
More than enough.
Just ask Private Frazer.
Word Not To Use Today: foredoom. The fore- bit hasn't really changed since it was used in Old English, and neither has the doom bit, much. The Old English dōm is related to the Old Norse dōmr, judgement, the Old High German tuom, condition, and the Sanskrit dhāman, custom.