This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 31 August 2014

Sunday Rest: zamzawed. Word Not To Use Today.


It looks like an Arabic word, does zamzawed, or perhaps it might be Hindi. Or on the other hand all those zeds are irresistibly reminiscent of Zanzibar, so perhaps zamzawed is a Kiswahili word.

Wherever it comes from, zamzawed must surely mean something deeply mysterious. It must be an ancient wedding-custom, or a dish of golden spices, or a conclave of magicians.

Mustn't it?

(Oh, and by the way, how do you say it?)

Well, I've done the research, and I can announce that zamzawed is...

...deeply disappointing. In fact it's one of the most disappointing words in the English language.

For a start you say it ZAMzd; secondly it comes from England; and thirdly it describes tea that's been left stewing in the teapot until it's strong, bitter, and disgusting.

See? Not a houri, magic carpet, or smallest wisp of romance in sight.


Japanese Dragon Teapot Black White Line Art Coloring Book Colouring 555px.png

Sunday Rest: zamzawed. I can't find any details of where this word comes from, but it's used in the USA, too, where it describes food that's been cooked until it's dried up.

Saturday 30 August 2014

Saturday Rave: Peter Pan by JM Barrie

Some people hate JM Barrie's book Peter Pan (and I must admit it does rather horrify me) but no one, I imagine, thinks it dull.

Because, say what you like, Peter Pan is full of brilliant and original ideas. I mean, surely the ticking crocodile alone is enough to keep the story alive forever.

Peter Pan is also responsible for making the public aware of the name Wendy (some even say that Barrie made up the name himself, based on a young acquaintance's mispronunciation of "Friendy". Ouch!).

File:Peter Pan 1915 cover.jpg

Barrie's original 1904 stage play of Peter Pan was followed in 1911 by a version re-telling the story as a novel. In 1929, after what was probably a highly profitable delay, Barrie gave the copyright of the novel to Great Ormond Street Hospital.

There's no avoiding the fact that Peter Pan is a very strange book indeed. The hero is as psychopathic a character as I've come across in fiction, and although the book is far from loveless - three of the four main female characters are shown as intensely nurturing - the love that's portrayed does generally seem to be uncomfortably close to smothering tyranny and selfishness.

On the whole hatred comes across as a much more comprehensible and successful way of surviving than love.

So it's not an easy ride, is Peter Pan.

But it is an awfully big adventure.

Phrase To Use Today: Wendy House. The name Wendy was occasionally used before Peter Pan as a short form of Gwendolen. Gwen is Welsh and means white, fair, or blessed.

Friday 29 August 2014

Word To Use Today: pantaloon(s).

What's the singular of pantaloons

Well, it's not Pantaloon, certainly. Pantaloon was quite, quite different.

Everything started with him, though, all the same.

Pantaloon was a silly old man who used to try to separate the lovers in English pantomime. He was the one who got all the tricks played on him. In Italy, in commedia dell'arte, he's a dirty old man, too, a merchant, who wears, yes, pantaloons.

Picture by Maurice Sand

So what are pantaloons?

Well, that depends on how old they are, because they've grown over the years - and, as with so many of us, they've mostly grown outwards. They started off in the late 1700s as tight-fitting men's trousers, as in the picture above, especially the sort with built-in stirrups.

Then they had a life as children's wear:

Picture from 1838. They're still trousers, but they're quite a bit baggier.

Nowadays pantaloons are a jokey name for any sort of trousers, but especially very baggy ones gathered at the ankle. 

File:Brooklyn Museum - Two Woman Posing in Provincial Costumes including Pantaloons Chaqchur One of 274 Vintage Photographs.jpg

Lately, in fashion circles, they're sometimes called harem pants.

In non fashion circles, pleasingly, they've taken themselves back to the pantomime, when you can sometimes see them worn as underpants by the more ladylike sort of dame.

Word To Use Today: pantaloon. This garment is named, improbably, after a saint. San Pantaleone was a 4th century saint from Venice. Pantalone became an Italian nickname for a Venetians, who were famous merchants, and hence for the merchant in commedia dell'arte.

Thursday 28 August 2014

Ahead of the game: a rant.

Yes, yes, I know, I know! Language changes.

As if has now more often than become like, as in it looked like the flowers were weeping - and it doesn't really matter...except in that example, obviously...still. A few deep breaths and perhaps a short meditation course and I lurch on through life practically unscathed.

But even so...

I got this the other day from the Kindle people:

Dear KDP* Author,

Just ahead of World War II, there was a radical invention that shook the foundations of book publishing. It was the paperback book.

Now I know that nowadays a lot of the time ahead of is used instead of before. Ahead of can mean in front of, too, and that's not a problem. But if something happens ahead of something else then the two things have to be connected in some way. You do x ahead of y because otherwise y won't happen.

We erected the marquee ahead of the wedding is ghastly, but it does at least make sense (though, please note, in a ghastly sort of a way)...

...actually, do you know something? I'm not even convincing myself. Before. Use before. I mean, it has fewer letters. Fewer words, too. It takes up less space.

And it will make people much much less likely to let out an anguished gargling scream and press DELETE when they come across it in an email.

Well, it'd work with me, anyway.

Artwork by Jon Bogdanove. If Superman's tights go on ahead of his underpants doesn't that mean they should arrive first?

Word To Use Today As Long As You Do It Properly: ahead. The head bit of this word comes from the Old English hēafod.

*Kindle Direct Publishing.

Wednesday 27 August 2014

Nuts and Bolts: pirate words.

William Dampier wasn't a pirate.


#5 William Dampier
First person to circumnavigate the world three times. He knows how to get around curves.
A pirate AND a scientist. Arrrr, I’d let him research me all day long…
Coined the words ‘barbecue’, ‘avocado’, and ‘chopsticks’ Mmmm.
Inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe.

I read the book, A Pirate of Exquisite Mind.  Very good read, this guy was amazing.  I’ll read just about any book about pirates.

 Not exactly.

He sailed the Spanish Main trying to capture (and sometimes succeeding in capturing) merchant ships, but quite a lot of the time he was licenced to do that by the British government. So that makes him technically a privateer.

The British government thought so much of Dampier that he was eventually given command of a Royal Navy ship. Mind you, it was such a wreck of a ship that it sank under him - and then when he finally got home he was court-martialled (for cruelty) - but that doesn't mean he was anything like a pirate. Does it.

Dampier had very many adventures on the seas. He was the first person to sail round the world three times; he made some of the first notes about the plants and animals of what later became known as Australia (and drew some of the first charts of Australia, too); he rescued Alexander Selkirk, who inspired the story of Robinson Crusoe; he was known to Johnathan Swift, who put Dampier into Gulliver's Travels.

In 1697 Dampier wrote a book himself. It was called A New Voyage Round the World, and he publicised it by showing (for profit) the tattooed Prince Jeoly and his mother, both of whom he had purchased on his voyage.

Now tell me: does that sound like a pirate to you?

As well as slaves and stories and science and sensation and spoils, William Dampier brought words back with him from his travels: sub-species, avocado, breadfruit, caress, cashew, chopsticks, petrel, posse, snug and barbecue are all words that he seems to have been the first to write down.

And the words, at least, must have been acquired honestly, too.

Word To Use Today: one of Dampier's. Cashew, for example, comes from the Portuguese cajú , from the Tupi acajú.


Tuesday 26 August 2014

Thing To Have Today: a globus hystericus.

I went to The Tower the other day.

Which Tower?

Well, if you're English then The Tower will always be the Tower of London. Going to The Tower still sounds dangerous and horrifying to us, kindling a fear of being imprisoned for a long time in horrid circumstances with small chance of ever getting out in one piece.

And when I say one piece I mean that quite literally.

The Tower (which isn't a tower at all, but a castle) contains the Crown Jewels, a thousand years of history, and, at the moment, a remarkable work of art.

In the grass surrounding the outside walls are planted china poppies, one for each British or Colonial person killed in the First World War. There are great swathes and hosts of them, flowing like blood.

The poppies keep coming!
Oh, but look at how many there are. How many! Could anyone see them and see the crowds around regarding them, and not get a lump in his throat?

Not me, for one. Not me.

Thing To Have Today: a globus hystericus. This is the medical term for a lump in the throat. It's odd, because while globus is the Latin for a round thing, hystericus comes from the Greek hustera, which means womb. Which is obviously in a different part of the anatomy entirely.

The Blood Swept Lands And Seas of Red exhibition, by artist Paul Cummins, involves 888,246 ceramic poppies.

Monday 25 August 2014

Spot the Frippet: nob.

No, not a knob, a nob.

Anyone who's ever played the card game cribbage will be familiar with the call one for his nob, which is made when a jack (knave) gains a point. In fact, being able to call one for his nob is probably the best thing about the whole game of cribbage.

So, does that mean a nob's a knave?

Well, not necessarily. In Britain a nob is someone whose importance is largely due to his family connections. A nob might be a lord, perhaps; someone who arrives with ready-made importance but not a ready-made suit. 

If those sorts of nobs are rare in your part of the woods then nob also means head, as in the old rhyme about Jack, who, together with Jill, went up the hill to get a pail of water (though why some idiot decided to dig a well on the top of a hill I cannot imagine) and, after tumbling down, had his nob patched by old Dame Dob with vinegar and brown paper.

As you will have noticed, these sorts of nobs are absolutely everywhere.

It's absolutely essential to bear in mind that you see one whenever you look in a mirror.

Jack and Jill. Millicent Sowerby
Millicent Sowerby

Spot the Frippet: nob. The words for the card and the important person arrived in English in the 1800s, no one knows from where. The word for head might be a variant of knob, which comes from the Middle Low German knobbe, knot in a piece of wood.

Sunday 24 August 2014

Sunday Rest: septillion. Word Not To Use Today.

Zillions? I can cope with zillions.

An English zillion, a North American zillion, a Australian zillion, they're all the same. A zillion is  - well, it's lots and lots, and we all, whether we're talking about the contents of someone else's bank account or the number of ants that have invaded the kitchen, understand it.

But numbers aren't always so straightforward. For a long time billion meant lots and lots in the USA, and lots and lots and lots in Britain.

Nowadays we all seem to have agreed to use the American definition of 1,000,000,000. It makes sense to have done so. We needed a word for a thousand million much more than one for a million million, which was what the old British billion meant.

But septillion...

How big is a septillion?

Again, it depends where you are. North America goes for 1 followed by 24 zeros; Britain, France and Germany go for one followed by 42 zeros.

Now, just to get things straight, a British quadrillion is the same as an American septillion just in the same way that a trillion is the same as an old British billion.


So is everyone else.

This means that no one can afford to use septillion. Its use might end up dispatching your plane to Betelgeuse instead of Belgium; or your attempt to start a small mushroom farm might end up covering the whole world in giant white parasols that take no notice of all the puzzled messages from the air traffic control systems on Betelgeuse.

Lots: that'll do for us.

Lots and lots and lots....

Sinday Rest: septillion comes from the French sept, seven. The ending imitates the ending of million.

Saturday 23 August 2014

Saturday Rave: Sing For The Moment by Jeff Bass, Steven Tyler and Marshall Mathers.

rapper, cool, dude, fashion, music, rap, style

Last week's rave was about Chattanooga Choo Choo, a song written rather a long time before I was born. 

Well, let's face it, Chattanooga Choo Choo was written before most people were born.

I'd planned to rave about some fantastic rap lyrics but despite reading my way through several Top Billion Rap Lyrics In The History Of The Universe lists, I couldn't find any lyrics that I thought were all that fantastic.

So this week I've tried again.

I realise I have to approach this art form in quite a new way. It seems not to matter that the lines don't usually rhyme properly (but so what? The use of half-rhyme is ancient). As for scanning, half the skill of the performance seems to be in being able to leap nimbly through uneven lines and odd stresses.

Rap is often distressingly violent, but then I can't see why a work of art shouldn't be violent. Its job is to show us something new about the world, after all.

So where does that leave me?

On the whole I think it leaves me still searching for a lyric that gives me a new insight into the world. For something that isn't...well, obvious.

I did find one or two interesting things. Here's something by Jeff Bass, Steven Tyler, and Marshall Mathers. It's part of the song Sing For The Moment that was performed by Eminem on track 3 of the album Curtain Call.

They say music can alter moves and talk to you.
Well can it load a gun up for you and cock it too?
Well if it can and the next time you assault a dude,
Just tell the judge it was my fault...and I'll get sued!
Hmm...well, as I say, it was one of the best I could find.

The irony that its message is that rap lyrics are ineffective is not lost upon me.

Word To Use Today: rap. This word is probably connected with the Swedish word rappa, which means to beat.

**I haven't given up on rap, so if anyone has any examples of brilliant original writing then I'd love to know.**



Friday 22 August 2014

Word To Use Today: kintsukuroi

In a much-too-often broken, unhappy, quarrelsome and violent world, I bring you a word of hope.


Kintsukuroi means to mend a piece of pottery with gold, silver or platinum lacquer so that in the end its visible history becomes a thing of hope and beauty.

Gold? you may say. I have no gold.

But the gold needed to mend most broken things is available to everyone.

Isn't it.

Word To Use Today: kintsukuroi. Kintsukuroi is Japanese and means golden repair.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover.

It will soon be the Golden Anniversary of the Golden Ticket.

Yes, yes, that one: the Golden Ticket. The one that allows you into Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.

The book's publisher, Penguin, is going for maximum sales (as is their duty) by producing two new editions, one for children and one for adults...

...hang on just a flaming minute! A separate edition for adults?

But why...?

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a children's book. Adults are allowed to read it and enjoy it, naturally, but it's a children's book.
There's nothing wrong with children's books. Nothing at all. Some of them

(even some with lots of pictures and big writing) 

are high art and great classic books.

So why a different edition for adults? Is it because the illustrations just aren't good enough? (NO!) Is it because adults will be ashamed to be seen to be reading a book that's obviously for children?

Well...people are jolly strange, sometimes, so I suppose that's a possibility...

...but then if people are trying to avoid shame, then I should say that this:

is the very very worst thing with which anyone could possibly be seen in public.

Oh, and by the way - it's nothing at all to do with the story!

Word To Use Today: Dahl, or dale. Dahl is the Norwegian form of what we call in English a dale. The Old English form was dæl. It means wide valley.



Wednesday 20 August 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Swampy Cree.

If there's a language in the world with a more lovable name than Swampy Cree then I don't know what it is.

Swampy Cree is spoken in a series of communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario. In 1982 there were only about 4,500 speakers of Swampy Cree, and some of those speakers showed the influence of Moose Cree in their speech (Moose Cree? There's a language called Moose Cree? How brilliant is that?).

Swampy Cree is fantastic. It has no adjectives at all, so if you want to say "he is strong" you have to say, more or less, "he strongs".

It doesn't have male, female and neuter, either: instead it divides the world into alive and not-alive. Mostly it's easy to tell which is which, though kettles, stones and, most remarkably, socks, come into the alive category.

(Actually, the sock thing is deeply sinister and horrifying, and I'm jolly glad that our laundry basket lives safely on the landing.)

Swampy Cree writing was introduced by James Evans in the 1860s. Swampy Cree speakers were thrilled with it, and nearly all of them became literate in a very short space of time.

Here's an example:

Sample text in Cree

(misiwe ininiw tipenimitisowinik eshi nitawikit nesta peywakan kici ishi kanawapamikiwisit kistenimitisowinik nesta minikowisiwima. e pakitimamacik kaketawenitamowininiw nesta mitonenicikaniniw nesta wicikwesitowinik kici ishi kamawapamitocik.)

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Article 1 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It suddenly strikes me that if that particular passage has been translated into Swampy Cree then it must have been translated into pretty much every language on earth.

You wouldn't think it, sometimes, would you.

Word To Use Today: swampy. This word probably comes from the Middle Dutch somp, and before that from the Greek somphos, which means sponge.

Tuesday 19 August 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: rabbit.

Are you in the habit of rabbiting?

Or only of rabbiting on?

Rabbiting is shooting rabbits. It doesn't require much skill because rabbits come in groups, which makes them easy targets, and also because a hunter has a lot more fire-power than any number of rabbits. In English law you are only allowed to rabbit on your own land, or with the land-owner's permission.

I suppose that if the rabbits are a real, huge, existential threat then...

...well, you should probably have built a fence rather a long time ago.

Anyway, what about rabbiting on?

Rabbiting on is talking and talking and talking about nothing very interesting. It's nattering on without much passion or even much logic, just for the sake of filling a silence that might otherwise give someone the opportunity to do some thinking.

In fact...

...actually, I think it might be best if I stopped there.

Mightn't it.

Thing Not To Do Today: rabbit. The word for the animal might come from the Walloon robett, which is a diminutive form of robbe, rabbit. Rabbit meaning to talk on and on is rhyming slang, from rabbit and pork, talk.

Monday 18 August 2014

Spot the frippet: murgeon.

Here's a Monday-morning sort of a word:


All its meanings are easily as grumpy as they sound. It can mean a cross face (stupid alarm clock!) a contortion of the body (ooch, I'm stiff!) or it can mean just plain grumbling. In fact it usually means lots of grumblings, because in this meaning it's generally used in the plural.

For these meanings of murgeon we have to thank, as for so much else, the Scots. But the Scots don't have a monopoly on the word, as in both the East and North West England murgeon means an area of dirt or mud or old cement, especially when used as a fertiliser.

So there we are. Feel free to spot - or have - a good murgeon today.

Especially if you happen to tread in some.

File:Tractor in the mud - - 578481.jpg
Photo: Lis Burke, wikimedia commons.

Spot the frippet: murgeon. My only murgeon about this satisfying word is that no one knows where either meaning came from. The mud word goes back to the 1400s, though.


Sunday 17 August 2014

Sunday Rest: mythos. Word Not To Use Today.

Yoga in Ancient Greece

The only cool thing about the word mythos (it can be said either MITHoss or MEIthoss - though not, I hope, by you) is its plural, which is mythoi.

Mythoi are the beliefs, attitudes and values of a group of people.

What's wrong with using the word mythos? Well, firstly, hardly anyone understands it; secondly, its use always looks like showing off (this is, of course, because its use always is showing off); and, thirdly, because the word's obvious connection with the word myth gives dignity and authority to any set of values held by any group of people, however stupid, illogical, disgusting, dishonest, foul, inefficient, heartless  and cruel they may be.

The word mythos is also used (by people with so little to say that they are obliged to dress up their message to make it  incomprehensible) to mean the same as myth, or mythology.

The trouble is, having said all this about the word mythos, I'm forced to admit that it does have some use.

Because if we hear anyone use it then we know at once not to listen to a word they say.

Sunday Rest: mythos/mythoi. This word comes from the Greek muthos, fable or word.

Saturday 16 August 2014

Saturday Rave: Chattanooga Choo Choo by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon

Today I thought I'd drag myself into the twenty first century by featuring some sleek, witty and beautifully constructed lines from rap artists.

Unfortunately my attempt to find any sleek, witty and beautifully constructed lines from rap artists has drawn a bit of a blank. Still, I'm going to keep on trying, so watch this space.

But for now it's back to 1941 and Chattanooga Choo Choo. The middle eight of this song has just been set as a Grade One Piano exam piece and I've been playing it with a young friend.

The music was written by Harry Warren, and the words by Mack Gordon, and the song featured (played by Glenn Miller and his orchestra) in the film "Sun Valley Serenade". It became the world's first gold record, selling over a million copies.

The inspiration for the song was a small, wood-burning 2-6-0 steam locomotive belonging to the Cincinnati Southern Railway.

Perhaps all the lyrics don't all make perfect sense (they don't to me, in any case) but if there's a couplet more inclined to get stuck in the brain than:

Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer
(Then to have your ham and eggs in Carolina)

Then I don't know what it is.


Choo choo on display at Chattanooga Railway Station.
Word To Use Today: Chattanooga. I know this isn't the easiest word to slip into the conversation, but there's a theory that the word derives from the Muskogean word cvto, rock, together with a local suffix -nunga meaning dwelling. I don't think we've featured a Muskogean word on The Word Den before, so I'm afraid Chattanooga was irresistible.
Mind you, Chattanooga might be Cherokee, instead, which is also an extremely cool language.

Friday 15 August 2014

Word To Use Today: nit.

There aren't as many nits about as there used to be.

Yes, the eggs of hair lice continue to develop and thrive behind the ears of countless children and their poor parents, but the cry of you nit! has, by and large, ceased to sound through the corridors of...well, anywhere, really.

We still have nit the unit of radiance (equivalent to one candela per square metre, which must be quite dim), and nit the unit of information equal to 1.44 bits (which isn't a lot, either).

If you're in Australia then to nit is to keep watch while your mates do something that's probably illegal,

But the commonest sort of nit of my British childhood, what I might describe as the you nit! unit has fallen out of use. This unit describes someone about as dim as the nit unit of radiance, and about as lacking in useful information as the nit unit of information.

This nit is short for nitwit.

A nitwit is a bad thing to have around, but there's something even worse, and that's a witch nit.

What nits? you will say, which is fair enough because they are very rare. In fact you only find witch nits in one book, and that was only published yesterday. It's called CLASS SIX AND THE NITS OF DOOM, and it's by...oh, someone or other.

One small warning: it's impossible to read without scratching.

Media of Class Six and the Nits of Doom

Word To Use Today: nit. The louse sort of nit comes from the Old English hnitu; the unit of light comes from the Latin nitor, brightness; the unit of information comes from N(aperian dig)it; and the Australian look-out comes from nix, from the German nichts, nothing.

Thursday 14 August 2014

How do elephants smell? a rant.

Go ahead, pull on those stakes.
Photo by John Walker

My dog's got no nose.

How does he smell?


There's nothing like a good old joke (and that was nothing like a good old joke).

Still, I thought of it the other day (actually it was 23 July 2014: time flies when you're having fun) when I saw this headline in the online edition of The Telegraph:

African elephants have the best smell in the animal kingdom

I can't say I've ever got that intimately involved with an elephant, but I've been close enough and I can't say I've ever noticed the wafting scent of violets.

But of course that headline was a variation on the my-dog's-got-no-nose joke. African elephants don't have the best smell, but the best sense of smell. Or, if you actually look at what the research says, elephants have the most genes devoted to the sense of smell.

Of course that might not be the same thing at all. I mean, we have the same number of fingers devoted to playing the piano, but I'm no Lubomyr Melnyk.

'African Elephants [says the Telegraph report] have twice the number of smell genes as dogs, and five times more than humans. They have around 2,000 genes alone that are dedicated to scent. Humans in comparison have just under 400 and other primates like chimpanzees, even less.'

FEWER! Not less, fewer! Grrrr...
'Previous studies have revealed that, African elephants can reportedly distinguish between two Kenyan ethnic groups—the Maasai, whose young men demonstrate virility by spearing elephants, and the Kamba, who are agricultural people that pose little threat to elephants through smell.'

I'm rather tickled by the idea of a person's smell proving a threat to an elephant. I suppose if you rubbed yourself all over in lion dung it might prove unnerving. And not only to an elephant.
Anyway, as you must be dying to know where you fall in the sniffer stakes, here are the numbers of genes in a few selected mammals:

Elephant 1948
Rat 1207
Cow 1186
Dog 811
Human 396

The Telegraph article talks rather a lot about the sense of smell being important for distinguishing clean healthy things to eat, but the position of the rat and the dog blows that theory right out of the water.

Doesn't it?

Word To Use Today: gene. This word comes from the German Gen, which is a shortened form of Pangen. The gen bit comes from the Greek genēs, born, and the pan bit is Greek for all.


Wednesday 13 August 2014

Nuts and Bolts: abugida.

Ge'ez script, an abugida of Eritrea and Ethiopia

An abugida is a method of writing.

Being English, I'm used to using an alphabet, where each different sound (more or less) is represented by a different letter. But there are plenty of other systems for putting down words on paper. Some rely on drawing simplified pictures of the word they represent, for instance.

Some have symbols, not for individual sounds, but for syllables. Japanese works like that.

An abugida is a syllable-based system, but instead of having a different sign for each syllable, it has a sign for each consonant (a consonant is pretty much any sound apart from those represented in English by a, e, i, o, or u) and then makes some sort of a change to it to show what vowel sound (that's the a, e, i, o and o) comes next.

It means that in an abugida all syllables starting with an n sound, for instance, will look very much the same. Sometimes the difference in vowel sound will be marked by an accent (something like ń, ň, ŋ, or ņ, for instance) as in the Brahmic languages of India and South West Asia; sometimes the difference in vowel sound will be marked by changing the shape of the consonant a bit, as in Ethiopic languages; and sometimes the difference in vowel sound will be marked by which way up the mark is written, as in Cree family languages.

There we are. Completely different from an alphabet, and completely brilliant.

And, do you know something? I want an abugida system for English. And I want it now!
Nuts and Bolts: abugida. This term first used in this sense in 1990 by Peter T. Daniels. Abugida is an Ethiopian name for the Ge‘ez script, being the name of four of its letters: ’ä bu gi da.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: crow.

It wasn't until last week that I finally realised that you don't need to have flounces on your clothes in order to flounce off.

No sooner had I sorted that out, though, than a new question formed itself in my head. I found myself wondering - the window was open - why don't crows crow?

Cockerels* crow cock-a-doodle-doo. Babies crow in a sort of rising-and-falling coo. If an adult crows he's boasting of his own superiority (which in England is not only irritating and insensitive but also inexcusably bad manners).

But crows? They don't crow at all. They croak, or caw. I spent quite a lot of the time in the dark reaches of last night listening to them, so I can be quite definite about it.

Sometimes I think that someone really ought to sort out this sort of language anomaly.

But that's only in the dark reaches of the night, when I'm trying to get some flipping sleep.

File:Happy Baby.jpg
Photo wikimedia commons by George Keith from Medford, MA, USA

Thing Not To Do Today: crow. The word for making a noise comes from the Old English crāwen; the word for the bird comes from the Old English crāwa. So I should imagine that the crow/crow  question is one that people have been asking for a long time.

*I think in the USA you call a cockerel a rooster, even though the thing a cockerel is most famous for is not roosting anything like long enough.

Monday 11 August 2014

Spot the frippet: tentacle.


I try not to be prejudiced, but I'm afraid these give me the heebie jeebies.

What is it about tentacles that's so sinister? This can't be a merely personal terror: think of all those tentacles of terror we hear about, of all those chiefs of criminal organisations sending out their tentacles into the surrounding countryside.

Try using the word trunk, instead - the president sent his trunk over the border, searching for the enemy's weak points - it doesn't work, does it.

So, what is so sinister about tentacles? Well, apart from their habit of sliding out from narrow crevices to strangle people, tentacles can call on some pretty serious armoury. Some tentacles have suction discs, and some have hooks. Some tentacles have things like bottle caps on them that act as hole saws, some release sticky threads to capture their victims.

Right. So where are we to spot one (hopefully from a distance)? Octopodes are rare round here, but hydra are to be found in almost any pond (though they're usually only just big enough to see).

If you're near a beach then you might find a sea anemone.

However, the easiest tentacles to see are probably those on a slug or snail.

If you do spot a tentacle then don't forget that some of them can see, smell, and taste.

Yes. So do take care, now.

File:Giant squid tentacle club.jpg

Spot the frippet: tentacle. This word  comes from the Latin temptāre, to feel.

Sunday 10 August 2014

Sunday Rest: stork. Word Not To Use Today.

A stork is a marvellous thing, big and dignified and imposing.

(Well, actually, the last stork I saw wasn't that dignified or imposing - it was standing morosely in an English field with rain cascading off the end of its beak - but mostly

Photo image from
Photo of a Whooping Crane by John Noll Wikimedia Commons

Painted Stork.jpg


File:Painted Stork- Immatures at nest- Im IMG 8531.jpg
Immature Painted Storks at nests J.M.Garg


White Stork

Anyway, the thing is, why are they called storksStork sounds harsh and scouring and pointy.

(Yes, yes, it's true their beaks are pointy, but, hey, it's a bird. What do you expect?)

The trouble with not using the word stork, of course, is that there's no other word for, well, a stork. The scientific name for its family is the Ciconiidae, but that's not a lot of use in everyday life.

So what we can do if we see a stork?

Unfortunately I haven't the faintest idea.


Word Not To Us Today: stork. This word comes from Old English storc, which is related to the Old English stearc, stiff, from the appearance of its legs.

Saturday 9 August 2014

Saturday Rave: Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Can an inadequate person be a great writer?

Well, I've never heard anyone say that Percy Bysshe Shelley was honourable, kind, unselfish, honest or even vaguely reliable - in fact many of the words I've heard used to describe Shelley's character are too rude to be used in a family blog - but he wrote Ozymandias.

It's short enough to quote in full.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

However high you are, remember the wreck of Ozymandias.

Word To Use Today: wreck. This word is Scandinavian.

Friday 8 August 2014

Word To Use Today: grobulous.

I keep notes, you know.

One of these notes says grobulous.

Now, grobulous is, obviously, a perfectly gorgeous word, it's in my words-for-The-Word-Den book.

The only problem is that it doesn't seem to exist.

A Google search for grobulous draws blank (except, as far as I can tell, as the name of a gaming character).

The Oxford English Dictionary (yes, the big one) goes straight from grobling (an obscure from of grovelling) to groce (an equally obscure form of gross).

So where on earth did I find grobulous?

Well, wherever it might have been, of one thing I am sure, and that is that grobulous is much too good a word to waste.

So. That means it's up to us to give it a meaning so we can start using it.

So here goes.

Word To Use Today: grobulous (adj). Outspoken, overbearing, verbose, and possibly faintly disgusting, esp. a person given to speaking with a full mouth. Coined 8th August 2014, The Word Den. A fanciful conflation of gob (perhaps from the Gaelic gop or the Danish gab) and garrulous (from Latin garrīre to chatter).

But of course that's only my attempt at wresting a meaning from grobulous. Do say if you come up with a better one.

File:Smarties mouth.jpg

Thursday 7 August 2014

The suave villain: rant.

I do my best to embrace change. No, I really do. Milk in little plastic tubes? I quite admire the small fountain that erupts when I open one of the things, and have even got quite adept at getting the stains off my trousers.

The word selfie? However did I do without it?

But the latest and most up-to-date brand of con-artists I find it hard to love.

The problem is partly that these geezers are all over the place and can gain access to any sucker with the mere click of a mouse, a tap of a screen, or (if they're very up-to-date) the blink of an eye.

Yes, yes, that's progress, and I realise there's just nothing to be done about it. But confidence-tricksters used to be so...suave. They wore top hats and Reform Club ties (which, I hasten to add, they were very seldom entitled to wear).

This confidence trickster is played by Charles Coburn. He's charming Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.

They said things like dear madam, and old boy, and fancy a snifter?

They sold oil stock, and shares in railways through far-away jungles. I mean, being conned out of your life-savings in those days was a positively enjoyable process.

And now?

Now, we are invited to click dodgy links on emails.

And as if that weren't come-down enough, the con-artists (artists! That's the last thing they are) don't even bother to take the minimal effort required to be literate.

From: Anonymous
Sent:16 July 2014 05:04:56

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Saturday Rave: Beauty and the Beast":

I think the admin of this web site is genuinely working hard for his web site, as here every stuff is quality based data.

Also visit my blog post; hair growth.

[I have disabled the link above for fear it might infect your computer with some virus that automatically invests your life savings in dodgy oil stock.]

But, what's worst of all, do you know something? I bet that when that scoundrel was writing that email he wasn't even wearing a silk handkerchief in his top pocket.

Word To Use Today: confidence. This word comes from the Latin confīdere, from fīdere to trust. It's related to the Latin foedus, which means treaty.


Wednesday 6 August 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Siamese siblings.

Hanuman,This mural in watprakeaw bangkok,Thailand,Public Domain  Stock Photo - 14359973
Hanuman.Watprakeaw, Bangkok,Thailand

I first got interested in the Siamese language of Thailand when I discovered that the Siamese words for far and near are the same, except that one of them is spoken in a lower and more emphatic voice.

To an English speaker like me that seems cherishably bonkers, as does the fact that, in written-down Siamese, vowel sounds after a consonant (like the oo in too, for instance) can be written before, after, above or below the consonant, or in a combination of these positions.

Then there's register. Siamese has five registers for different occasions. You use Street Thai to speak to close relatives or friends; Elegant Thai in official documents (and, in a simplified form, in newspapers); Rhetorical Thai for public speaking (how on earth would some of our Western politicians get on if they couldn't pretend to be our close friends?); Religious Thai, for addressing monks (I suppose we do have a sort of Religious English that we use for addressing God, don't we?); and Royal Thai, for talking to or about the royal family.

Street and Elegant Thai are used by everyone in their everyday lives; Rhetorical, Religious and Royal Thai are part of the school national curriculum.

I know there's a fashion amongst teachers in English-speaking countries to say that all registers are equally valid, and so we shouldn't ask children to learn to speak one not their own, but I still think the Thai curriculum has got it right.

Apart from being a huge mess as a logical argument, stopping children from being at home in new registers prevents them from being at home in new places.

And what's the point of teachers. if not to help them be that?

Word To Use Today: register. This word comes from the Latin regerere, to transcribe, from gerere, to bear.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: flounce.

I always thought the words flounce and flounce were connected.

Well, you would, wouldn't you. I mean, one of the things a woman can do more easily than a man is flounce, that is, leave in a swirl of proud indignation, because the fabric of her skirt will bounce as she flounces, making the whole thing much more dramatic and impressive.

And that's another thing a woman can do more easily than a man: wear a skirt.

Now, the bounciest of skirts is held up by a crinoline, which is a series of springy hoops held together with tape.

A crinoline can't be rigid or it would be impossible to sit down. No, it sways. It bounces. And to accommodate this movement the skirt it supports must have plenty of spare fabric in it so that it sways and bounces, too, and doesn't just...wobble.

And what do you call an extra bit of fabric that's gathered and sewn-on?

A flounce.

So there we are. If a lady flounces off in a temper, the flounces on her skirt will draw themselves to the attention by bouncing about.

Now. Having explained the entirely logical connection between flounce and flounce I must tell you that it is entirely imaginary, and that flounce and flounce aren't connected at all.

Still, they should be, though, shouldn't they.

Thing Not To Do Today: flounce. Flounce meaning to leave in a temper comes from Scandinavia. Flunsa is a word in Norwegian, where it means to hurry, and also in Swedish, where it means to splash. Flounce meaning extra bit of fabric comes from the old French froncir, to wrinkle.