This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: squint.

I have been exiled from my desk in the loft because a man is coming to do something to the radiators.

Instead of the tops of the trees I can see...well, not much, actually, because the sun is shining in my eyes. Hang on, I'll draw the curtain.

Ah, that's better.

I don't want to have to squint.

Squint is a well-designed, if not a lovely, word. I mean, you can hear the effort and strain involved in it. I spent a lot of time squinting as a short-sighted child, and was always being told it was bad for the posture and the avoidance of wrinkles.

On the other hand, it was good for avoiding falling over things and being hit by trucks.

To squint can also be to take a sideways look, perhaps because the eyes aren't aligned conventionally, or perhaps when pretending to look the other way.

A squint in a church follows the sideways meaning by being a narrow opening so that people at the sides of the church can see the main altar, and a squint antenna is one where, by design or because of some technical anomaly, the signal does not reach it along a straight path.

Of course, if someone asks you to have a squint at something it would be rude to refuse, but as squint in this sense means a quick look, you don't actually have to squint.

Unless the sun has moved round and is in your eyes again.

File:Unamused squint sticker-red6d17c7131643a39339a7d1f649e482 v9wth 8byvr 324.jpg


Thing Not To Do Today: squint. This word is short for asquint, which perhaps comes from the Dutch schuite, slant.

Monday 29 September 2014

Spot the frippet: shed.

James Clerk Maxwell (13 June 1831 – 5 November 1879) was a Scottish physicist and mathematician. His most prominent achievement was formulating classical electromagnetic theory. This unites all previously unrelated observations, experiments, and equations of electricity, magnetism, and optics into a consistent theory. Maxwell's equations demonstrate that electricity, magnetism and light are all manifestations of the same phenomenon, namely the electromagnetic field. 
The physicist James Clerk Maxwell had a shed until he shed too much hair.

Now, exactly how much smaller is a shed than a barn?
No. Exactly how much smaller?
The answer, of course is 10 to the 24 times smaller.
Yes, that's right: exactly 10 to the 24 times smaller.
The reason of course is that both a barn and a shed are units of nuclear cross section. A shed is 10 to the minus 52 square metres, and a barn is 10 to the minus 28 square metres.
Yes, I know they're both much much too small to spot, I just thought it was interesting.

Anyway, so where does that leave us?
Well, in clover, really, because there are sheds are all over the place, whether they're small flimsy buildings for holding flower pots, chisels, or men seeking peace; or whether they're large working spaces designed for holding railway locomotives or sheep in need of shearing (by the way, anyone in the shed in New Zealand is at work, even if they're not actually in a shed).
Also in generous supply are shed tears, hair, blood, light, leaves, skin, and lorry-loads.
To make things even easier, in Scotland a shed is a parting in the hair.
So. No need to shed sweat over this one, then.
Spot the frippet: shed. The nuclear physics shed is so called because it's smaller than a barn (which is so called because it is relatively roomy in nuclear physics terms); the building sheds come from the Old English sced, which is probably connected to the word shade; and the dropping-off sort of  shed comes from the Old English sceadan, and is related to the Old High German skeidan, to separate.

Sunday 28 September 2014

Sunday Rest: flotel. Word Not To Use Today.

What do you think a flotel is?

Yep, that's right, it's some sort of a hotel-type thing.

And, yes, that's right, too, there's a floating idea going on as well (an alternative spelling of flotel is floatel, but that's so ugly I hardly liked to mention it).

So, you're thinking white-jacketed stewards, a setting sun turning a cocktail into a gleaming beacon of rapture, and stiff icy napery on the captain's table, right? Basically the same thing as a cruise ship.


Er, no.

A flotel doesn't cruise. And it's not a ship, either.

Neither is it a hotel.

As for the floating thing, well, flotels do their business in the middle of the sea, so they do float sometimes. But not always.

A flotel (ouch!) is an oil rig or boat used as accommodation on off-shore oil rigs. They were used as accommodation during the Mexico oil-spill clean-up, too.

It caused a strike.

'If I wanted to be in prison, I would break the law and go to jail,' said one 'guest' in a flotel, where the cabin walls consisted of curtains and the lack of space made guests nervous about the spread of disease.

I suppose you have to give the coiner of the word flotel marks for humour, though.

Even if it is of the most ironic kind.

Word Not To Use Today: flotel. This word is one of the horrors the 1950s inflicted upon us.

Saturday 27 September 2014

Pneumonia rhymes, OK? Saturday Rave.

What makes a good rhyme?

Yes, that's right, it has to rhyme.

And it's not that easy in English.

Everyone who's ever tried to write a rhyming poem (which is, of course, all of us) will have discovered that, although English is by far the biggest language in the world, whether you want to write about an olive, a wolf or a penguin, you're in trouble.

No, really,:there's no rhyme in the language for any of these words.

Poets, desperate, will torture words quite ruthlessly in order to force a rhyme, and if the poet is a genius he'll come up with something that'll give a sort of wincing pleasure to generations.

Such a one is the great lyricist Hal David. Here's an extract from I'll never fall in love again. It was written for the 1968 musical Promises, Promises. It could hardly be less my sort of music, but for me it's redeemed by that gorgeous rhyme. 

What do you get when you kiss a guy?
You get enough germs to catch pneumonia
After you do, he'll never phone ya
I'll never fall in love again

Pneumonia/phone ya.

A thing of joy forever, as far as I'm concerned.

Word To Use Today: pneumonia. This word is New Latin from the Greek pneumōn, lung.


Friday 26 September 2014

Word To Use Today: miscible.

Words, like the rest of us, arrive with baggage.

Pigling Bland pg 4 Enh.jpg
The Bland brothers by Beatrix Potter.

Sometimes a perfectly innocent word can be doomed simply because of its sound.

That's one of the terrible things about being called Pogner. It emits whiffs of pig, pong and Bognor (not that Bognor isn't a delightful place).

And that's if you've never heard of Wagner or a Meistersinger.

Luckily the baggage-thing works the other way, too, and what with the word Pogner is a vast metal trunk bearing the sign DANGER OF DEATH BY FLATULENCE is with the word miscible no more than a red-spotted handkerchief tied with meadowsweet.

Miscible: I don't know about you, but I'm getting sweet little mouse, scampering, mischief, a small hint of runcible and an after-taste of little old ladies in lace caps and mittens, knitting on their doorsteps in the weak spring sunshine.

And, after all, what more could anyone want?

To know what it means? All right, then. Miscible means mixable, as with whisky and soda, laughter and tears, or sunshine and showers.

And luckily we can all manage to carry a red-spotted handkerchief with us, can't we.

Word To Use Today: miscible. This word has been delighting English speakers since the 1500s. It comes from the Latin miscēre, to mix.

Thursday 25 September 2014

Ultimate rest: a rant.

How do you fancy a trip to China?

I'd love to go. My responsibilities here mean it's unlikely to happen, but I do like to look at the brochures.

Travelsphere, for instance, have a 15-day escorted holiday to China from £2149. It looks great: Beijing, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, the Divine Road. On Day 5 you go to Xian, where you...

...hang on, look at this!


Fly to Xian, once the capital of China. You will be transferred to Han Tombs before moving on to your hotel for some time at leisure.

A Han Tomb in the Luoyang Ancient Tombs Museum.

Good grief. I've heard of someone going to their long rest, but that's a heck of a long way to go to get it.

Word To Use Today: tomb. This word comes from the Old French tombe and before that from the Latin tumba, burial mound, and is related to the Latin tumēre, to swell and the Middle Irish tomm, hill.

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Nuts and Bolts: shaggy dog stories.

Shaggy Dog

A shaggy dog story is one that meanders on for ages being mostly boring and irrelevant, and then goes and has an ending that doesn't resolve anything.

There may be jokes along the way, but the main joke is on the audience.

The origins of the term shaggy dog story are disputed, but this is the one told by the great Eric Partridge.

A rich and aristocratic London family offers a huge reward for their lost shaggy dog, upon which an enterprising American brings a very shaggy dog all the way across the Atlantic, only for the butler to shut the door in his face with the words "but not so shaggy as that, sir!"

Of course a shaggy dog story that's been cut down to a single sentence isn't a shaggy dog story at all (although as that story is about a shaggy dog I suppose it must be) but there are plenty of shaggy dog stories about.

Think about it: long, dull, largely irrelevant, and without a proper ending...

Yep. Nowadays, often as not they go by the name of literary fiction.

Word To Use Today: shaggy. This word is from the Old English sceacga, a thicket, and is related to Old Norse words for beard, tip, and forest.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Thing To Do Today: vamp.

Vamp till ready is an instruction sometimes found on 1930s sheet music.

Now, although the 1930s were very much the era of the vamp, this doesn't mean you are to clag your eyes with mascara, dip your lips in blood, dress to display all your assets, and go out to conquer every heart (and wallet) in town.


Vamp is an instruction to a piano player to make up some music - anything he fancies - that will sound good as an introduction or accompaniment to a tune that someone else is playing or singing.

Although there's not necessarily any need to dress up as an early Tallulah Bankhead, every performer has to take pains with his appearance, whether it's donning a folk singer's throat-hugging jumper, or slipping on a conductor's waggling tails. Shoes must never be neglected, and nearly all of them, even the platform soles of an Abba tribute band, have vamps, which are the front part of a shoe's upper.

If the only platform shoes you can find have been past their best since 1975 then you can make them as good as new by giving them a revamping. 

Lastly, you can vamp a theme or story by rewriting it and jiggling it about until it links up together as well as it can.

So I have, and here it is.

Thing To Do Today: vamp. The dressing-up word comes from vampire; the doing-up and making-do word comes from the French avantpié, the front part of a shoe (which was often something patched).

Monday 22 September 2014

Spot the Frippet: something arctic.

It's a long way to the Arctic Circle from here (I live at about 51 degrees North and the Arctic Circle runs along Latitude 66 degrees 32 minutes North. Which is a jolly peculiar number, now I come to think about it).

There are arctic things around here, all the same.

The Arctic Tern:

 for instance, is a remarkable and beautiful bird that doesn't do winter. It spends its whole time in the summer of either the Arctic or the Antarctic, and therefore every year has to fly from one end of the world to the other. And back again.

Something less transitory is the Arctic Fox:

 whose beautiful fur is used commercially to distract attention from less beautiful human skin. Food for the wild Arctic Fox is the Arctic Hare:

Arctic Hare 1.jpg

which, like the fox, changes its coat in the winter time so it can hide in the snow.

Realistically, though, the chances of stumbling over any arctic  creatures is, I admit, small. Who's going to spot an Arctic Char:


(though you might do, because they are farmed for food)

 or find an Arctic Willow growing in the garden? (A big one will probably only grow 15 cm high, so even if you've got one...)

Still, there are some sneaky options. An arctic is a high buckled waterproof overshoe, and any garment designed for extreme cold is called arctic clothing.

This lot:

Arctic Monkeys - Orange Stage - Roskilde Festival 2014.jpg

the Arctic Monkeys, are always keen to attract attention, and are soon to go on tour.

And then, of course, there's Arctic Roll:

File:Arctic roll.jpg
Photo: Sean Whitton (User:Xyrael)

Ice cream, jam and sponge.  Mmm...and today eating one of those is really almost a duty.


Spot the frippet: arctic. This word comes from the Latin arcticus, from the Greek arktos, bear. The bear in question was originally the constellation.

Sunday 21 September 2014

Sunday Rest: bridezilla. Word Not To Use Today.

It's not easy, getting married.

Well, I suppose it can be if you elope, or if you fly off to some tropical island where it's too expensive for anyone to follow you. Mostly, though, a bride will feel obliged to allow friends and family to celebrate her wedding with her.

Now. A bride is the queen of her company. She must have what she wants for the whole day, regardless of expense.

The terrible flaw?

She has to arrange it all herself.

But a well-arranged wedding means that everyone (however slow-moving, selfish, or drunk) must be in the right place to witness the first dance; it means that a crowd of singletons must be ready to catch the bouquet; it means that people, however illiterate, must write sentimental things to post through the ornate white letterbox; it means that the speeches must be prepared, given, and applauded; it means that the right people must be marshalled into the right photographs; it means that it must not under any circumstances rain.

It's not easy herding a hundred or so people backwards and forwards (especially when some of them are too old to be sure what's going on, some of them are too young, and quite a lot of the rest It's especially not easy herding people backwards and forwards when you're wearing a too-long dress, a wobbly mountain of hair, and a sweetly modest expression.

It takes firmness. It takes organisation. It takes determination.

And at the end of it all, what thanks do you get?

You get called Brideszilla.

Ah well.

Sunday Rest: Bridezilla. This is a mixing together of the words bride and Godzilla.

Godzilla '54 design.jpg

 Godzilla first appeared in Ishirō Honda's 1954 film Godzilla. The name is Japanese, a mixture of the words for whale and gorilla.

Saturday 20 September 2014

An address to the New Tay Bridge by William Topaz McGonagall.

Last week Burns, this week McGonagall. Talk about varied delights.

William Topaz McGonagall wrote three Tay Bridge poems. One was about the magnificence of the first bridge; one was about the terrible disaster when it collapsed while a train was crossing it; and one was about the second Tay Bridge, which replaced the original bridge and has fortunately stood the test of time.

Taybridge from law 02SEP05.jpg

It's the middle poem, the one about the disaster, which is most famous, but all three of the poems are done in McGonagall's unique and astonishing style.

The text of the whole of the third poem can be found HERE, but an extract is enough to show off McGonagall's'm not absolutely sure what to call it.

It's verse, but not as we know it.

BEAUTIFUL new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day,
And can be seen for miles away
From North, South, East or West of the Tay

Now, is that bad verse? It defies most of the rules, but then originality is a good thing, isn't it? I accept that the humour is unconscious, but then in this vale of tears surely any joy is to be highly valued, whatever the original intention.

Most of all, the style hinges on McGonagall's highly unpoetic honesty: and that should surely be valued most highly of all.  

Sadly, with this third Tay Bridge poem, William Topaz McGonagall seems to have felt that his work was done. He never wrote another.

The world of literature - and, indeed, the world itself - is a duller place for it.

I leave you with his final partial, personal, and patriotic words on the subject.

The New Yorkers boast about their Brooklyn Bridge,
But in comparison to thee it seems like a midge,
Because thou spannest the Silvery Tay
A mile and more longer I venture to say;
Besides the railway carriages are pulled across by a rope,
Therefore Brooklyn Bridge cannot with thee cope;
And as you have been opened on the 20th day of June,
I hope Her Majesty Queen Victoria will visit thee very soon,
Because thou art worthy of a visit from Duke, Lord or Queen,
And strong and securely built, which is most worthy to be seen
Near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

Word To Use Today: bridge. This word has been around in English for a long time. The Old English version was brycg.

Friday 19 September 2014

Word To Use Today: charlatan.

Although many charlatans are proper charlies (which is British for silly fools) the words charlie and charlatan don't have anything to do with each other.

Charlie in this sense is British rhyming slang (there's an Australian rhyming slang charlie, too, which means female person) but charlatan is French.

That's why you say charlatan with a sh sound: SHARLaT'N.

A charlatan is a cheat who sets himself up as an expert and then sells his so-called knowledge.

A charlatan painted by Hieronymous Bosch

A charlatan often pretends to have medical knowledge - the original charlatans in France sold fake medicines with the help of outdoor stage shows - but he can pretend to know about anything.

The universe working the way it does, a charlatan usually pretends to know about the future.

charlatan will be gifted in his ability to sway the minds of many people, and to convince them of many things.

He'll be a great promiser; he will seem hugely confident; and most of all he will seem trustworthy.

Given a credulous audience, he can do an awful lot of damage, too.

Word To Use Today: charlatan. The word charlatan is French. Before that it comes either from ciarlare, an Italian word meaning to chatter, or perhaps from Cerretano, someone from Cerreto, which is a village in Umbria previously known for its quacks.

Thursday 18 September 2014

Never more: a rant.

Zidul lui Hadrian

It's the day of the Scottish referendum. Everyone aged sixteen or over who lives in Scotland has a chance to decide whether Scotland should become an independent country.

What exactly does being an independent country mean?

Well, I don't know. Years and years of talking, and no one even knows in which currency the Scots will be getting paid.

Words, words, words...a tumult of them. Some of them must surely be true, just as many of them are certainly lies. But when everyone's shouting how can you hear what's really going on?

Ah well. Today it all ends, one way or the other... least, I hope it does. Horrifyingly, some people have started using the word neverendum...

Word To Use Today: neverendum. This word was coined by Canadian writer Josh Freed to describe the repeated referendums on the secession of Quebec. 

Referendum is a Latin word and means something to be carried back. It comes from referre, to refer. Never comes from Old English nǣfre, from ne 'not' and ǣfre ever.

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Lallans.

When I was at junior school they told us that the best English in the world is spoken in Inverness.
The teacher who repeatedly told us this came from, yes, Inverness, and she did speak beautifully. She did pronounce wh backwards: hwat is going on here? but it still sounded wonderful.
Now, being from Inverness the language she spoke was Scots, of course, but not Lallans, which is the traditional speech of the Lowlands (they are in the southern part of Scotland).

Lallans was the language of Robert Burns - and justifiably proud he was of it, too.
They took nae pains their speech to balance,
Or rules to gie;
But spak their thoughts in plain, braid lallans,
Like you or me.

That's Robert Burns' Epistle To William Simson.
And how is Lallans doing now? Rather well, fortunately. In fact in the twentieth century a new Lallans was invented for literary purposes by merging traditional Lallans, the more-English-than-English speech of Inverness, Doric, and various other Scots dialects to make a distinctively Scots language.
The journal of the Scots Leid Associe says: Scots wis aince the state language o Scotland an is aye a grace til oor national leiterature. It lies at the hert o Scotland's heirskep as ane o wir three indigenous leids alang wi Gaelic an Scottish Inglis.
In 1983 a Scots translation of the New Testament was published, and in 1985 a Concise Scots Dictionary. There's now some use of Lallans in schools, too.
The Scots vote in their referendum tomorrow. I'll be sad if they vote to sunder themselves from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Aw human sowels are tochered wi mense and conscience and shuld guide theirsels ane til ither in a speirit o britherheid.

I hope very much that the spirit of brotherhood prevails.

 Word To Use Today: Lallans. This is a variant of lawlands, Lowlands.

Tuesday 16 September 2014

Thing To Do This Week: be canny.

Is it better to be Scots canny or English canny?

Setting aside cannae, which is said in almost the same way as canny but is in Scotland short for cannot, the Scots canny means clever and careful. It can be clever and careful with money, or careful and careful with decisions: shrewd; astute; wary.

Canny in Scotland can also sometimes mean lucky, too.

In the North East of England (though these meanings are used by some Scots, too) canny means...well, various things. A canny lad will be charming and good fun. A canny lass will be good-natured, attractive and happy. A canny body is a kindly soul. A canny job is a good one.

Canny can also mean quite, and to make things even more confusing it can mean quite in both its senses of a lot and not much.

Canny shan means rather shocking, but it hurts a canny bit means it hurts a lot.

This meaning can be extended to mean very: canny big dog is a huge one.

So canny's a canny [very] canny [good] word that means careful, shrewd, kind, good, and good-natured. And other things, too.

And whether we're Scots, English, Irish, Welsh, American, Australian, European, Asian, African, or at home somewhere in the howling Antarctic, let's hope for a canny week for every one of us.

Happy Old Man-crop

Thing To Do This Week: be canny. This word comes from the English word can, in its meaning of to know how.

Monday 15 September 2014

Spot the frippet: kilt.

Kilts used to be great, and now they usually aren't.

Kobziarzy w Kilts
It's all the fault of an Englishman.
The great kilt, or breacan, which was first worn during the 1500s, had enough fabric in the back of it to cast over a shoulder or pull up over the head. It was warm, but could get in the way a bit if you were working.

The philibeg, or walking kilt (the sort usually worn today) was invented by Thomas Rawlinson from Lancashire in the 1720s. His acquaintance Iain MacDonnell, chief of the MacDonnells of Inverness, wore it to visit his workers, and from there its use spread very quickly.
As for the kilt's traditional tartan fabric design, that has a special language all of its own.
Fraser of BoblainyThis is Fraser of Boblainy tartan, a pattern from the 1700s. You describe it as: B/4 R56 G28 B28 R/4.

B, R, and G are Blue, Red, and Green; the numbers are the numbers of threads of each colour, counting across (or down) the pattern; the / signs show the lines of symmetry.

 See? Simple, but brilliant.

So where can you spot a kilt? In Scotland, of course, but there are also Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Manx, Breton and Galician kilts.

Pipe bands wear kilts, too, though these are often plain in colour. You might see a pipe band more or less anywhere from the USA to Pakistan.

If you should come across some Lacrosse players then they may well be wearing kilts, too.

Goths quite like kilts; sci-fi loves them; even David Hasselhoff has been known to wear one.

For the rest of us (the ladies at least) we can kilt our own clothes by pulling the back hem of a long full skirt up between the legs and tucking it into the front of the waistband. It makes using a skipping rope much easier.

So there we are. The walking kilt: an English idea made beautiful by the Scots.

What a partnership, eh?

Spot the Frippet: kilt. This word comes from Scandinavia. There's a Danish word kilte, which means to tuck up, and the Swedish kilta means lap.

Sunday 14 September 2014

Sunday Rest: blackmail. Word Not To Use Today.

'Blackmail?' said the villain, twitching a suave but deadly eyebrow. 'That's an ugly word.'

Despite those words having being spoken in almost every thriller made during the first thirty years of talkies, blackmail isn't a particularly ugly word.

Blackmail is certainly an ugly thing, but that's a different thing.

Mind you, blackmail used to be a different thing, too.

Blackmail started out in life as protection money. It was paid by the people of the English/Scottish Borders to the reivers in return for immunity from raids.

(Those riders are reivers on their way to raid a mediaeval family that hadn't paid its blackmail. I don't know where they are, not even which country they're in, because reivers were equally happy to raid homesteads on either side of the border.)

Anyway, why is it blackmail black? Well, the reason it's black is because it's not white. The white equivalent, 'white rent', was paid in money (silver); blackmail was paid in goods or labour.

Why is it mail? Male was the Middle English for rent or tribute.

So there we are. A shared culture of English and Scots criminality extending over hundreds of years.

Surely that's worth holding onto.

Isn't it?

Word Not To Use Today: blackmail. If the word isn't derived as I've described above then it might be from the Scottish Gaelic words blathaich to protect and mal tribute, payment.

Saturday 13 September 2014

My Love is Like a Red Red Rose by Robert Burns

Some towering genuises have put words to paper, but I don't think that Robert Burns was one of them.

No, no, hold on! Come back!

The thing is, I don't really think that towering was what Robert Burns was about. Yes, he wrote about politics (and got into trouble for being too loud in his support of the French Revolution) but it's for Burns' poetry that he's honoured throughout the world.

If Jane Austen's genius was for painting life on a little bit of ivory, then Robert Burns' genius was for conjuring up life in his songs.

O my Luve's like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve's like the melodie
That’s sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair art thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I:
And I will luve thee still, my dear,
Till a’ the seas gang dry:

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luve thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

And fare thee well, my only Luve
And fare thee well, a while!
And I will come again, my Luve,
Tho’ it were ten thousand mile.

Is there a more tender or a more hopeful love song in the world? It certainly charmed Robert Schumann, who wrote a setting for it; and yet another Robert, Bob Dylan, said that it had been his greatest creative influence.

(Gosh, thank heavens for Roberts!)

Here's My Love is like a Red Red Rose, sung most beautifully by Karen Matheson.

May love and roses sweeten your day.

Word To Use Today: rose. This word has hardly changed for thousands of years. It probably comes from the Greek rhodon.

Friday 12 September 2014

Word To Use Today: Sassenach.

So who's a Sassenach?

If you're in Ireland then a Sassenach will probably be someone English.

File:1913, March 9, Man wearing bowler hat, Winnipeg, MB, Canada.jpg

If you're in the Scottish Lowlands then it will also probably be someone English.

If you're in the Scottish Highlands, however, then it will probably mean a Lowlander - though if the speaker is on the West Coast of the Highlands then it might mean someone from Inverness or the Black Isle, or even somewhere further north than that.

Map of Scottish Highlands

Sassenach is a lovely word. All right it's an insult, and most commonly as insulting name for an English person like me, but in the past (and I hope still) it's been described as a friendly insult.

Is there anything more characteristic of fellowship than a friendly insult?

Whether there is or not, here's to fellowship: may it endure forever!

Word To Use Today: Sassenach. This word comes from the Scottish Gaelic Sasunnach from the Latin Saxones, Saxon. It came into English in the 1770s. The Irish plural is, bafflingly, na Sassaniagh.

The Saxons may have derived their name from seax, a kind of knife.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Long to reign over us: a rant.

Who should run your country?

Old people? Young people? Women? Men? Right/Left/Centre/Out-in-the-car-park people? God? The high-born? The low-born? Clever people? Average people? Stupid people? Strong people? Weak people? Computers? Lizard people from the planet Onk? (Lots of people believe this is already happening.)

In Britain, the Electoral Reform Society has published a list of the most common Christian names for British Members of Parliament since 1945.

The commonest name is John. So far, so boring, but one statistic that did stand out was the information that there have been eleven Percys in Parliament since 1945.

I didn't know there had been eleven Percys in Britain since 1945.

Still, at least we know where they all ended up.

It isn't clear from the Electoral Reform Society's website whether it is campaigning for more or fewer Percys in Parliament (though they're certainly campaigning for more Margarets and Annes).

But it made me wonder who should be running my country. Kiwi and Pippin (both girls born in 2013) would be jolly fruity. But perhaps what we really need are some heroes.

Sherlock would do.

Or Boudicca.

Or Tin Tin.

Let's face it, Snowy might be an improvement on some of them.

Come to think about it, though...

Percy: that's the family name of those great rebels the Dukes of Northumberland. The warrior Harry Hotspur is probably the most famous of them:

Henry Hotspur Percy.jpg
The death of Harry Hotspur.

And then there's Percy Blakeney aka The Scarlet Pimpernel, who rescued all those French people from the guillotine in Emma Orczy's novels.

A hero's know something? Perhaps Percy is the right stuff after all.

Word To Use Today: percy. As far as I know this isn't used as a vocabulary word much, but pointing percy at the porcelain is a very old-fashioned euphemism for doing a wee.


Wednesday 10 September 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Taxus* and taxonomy.

O tempora o mores?

The International Botanical Congress noticed a little while ago that Latin isn't the most widely-understood language in the world, and so from 2012 it has been acceptable for the scientific names of plants to be written in English as an alternative to the previously obligatory Latin.

This might seem a shame - those Latin names were so...exotic...but the Latin requirement was never merely a matter of bunging a label on a new weed. A new scientific name for a plant before 2012 had to have the proper Latin grammatical components linking the words. And that wasn't all: when, for example, the botanist Jim Miller discovered a new tree Cordia koemarae in Suriname, the description of it entered in the official International List had to be in Latin (of a kind) too:

Arbor ad 8 alta, raminculis sparse pilosis, trichomatis 2-2.5 mm longis. Folia persistentia; laminae anisophyllae, foliis majoribus ellipticus, 12-23.5 cm longis, 6-13 cm latis, minoribus orbicularis, ca 8.5 cm longis, 7.5 cm latis, apice acuminato et caudato, acuminibus 1.5-2 cm longis, basi rotundata ad obtusam, margine integra, supra sericea, trichomatis 2.5-4 mm longis, appressis, pagina inferiore sericea ad pilosam, trichomatis 2-3 mm longis; petioli 4-7 mm longi. Inflorescentia terminalis vel axillaris, cymosa, 8-10 cm latis. Flores bisexuales; calyx tubularis, ca. 6 mm longus, 10-costatus; corolla alba, tubularis, 5-lobata; stamina 5, filis 8-10 mm longis, pubescentia ad insertionem.
There are still thousands of species of plants waiting to be named so they can be studied, used, admired and protected, and  botanists plead that they have more urgent things to do than compose passages in Latin.

Sandra Knapp, a botanist with the Natural History Museum in London, says: “In places like Ethiopia, for example, people are finding it very difficult to write in Latin. But in reality everybody’s bad at it.”

Latin is a glorious language, and it would be a tragedy if it were entirely lost; but for the poor botanists, it's hard to think they've made the wrong decision.

Word To Use Today: taxonomy. This word comes from the French taxonomie, from the Greek taxis, which means order.

*Taxus is the scientific name for the genus of plants containing yew trees.

Tuesday 9 September 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: be territorial.

Look to the natural world.

A brown anole, boasting. That's a pouch, not a slice of orange.

Most animals don't bother to defend a territory. They don't need to. Of those that do, most do so by marking their boundaries (a rhino's heap of scented poo can reach a metre high and five metres across).

A few animals engage in some sort of boasting to maintain their territories. They might try to make themselves look bigger by puffing themselves up, or they may sing (as cats do). Ring-tailed lemurs have "stink fights" which involve getting their tails as smelly as possible and waving them at animals in the next territory.

Some animals (red squirrels, badgers, beavers) bother less about their neighbours than complete strangers; a few animals (striped mice, weaver ants) are more bothered by their neighbours than strangers.

Sometimes, rarely, some types of animal will fight over territory. This is plainly very foolish indeed as it makes everybody concerned less likely to survive.

Luckily most creatures have long-ago worked this out.

Not quite all of them, though.

Thing Not To Do Today: be territorial. This word comes from the Latin territōrium, which means land surrounding a town.

Monday 8 September 2014

Spot the Frippet: mullet.

Oh, the joy of mullets.

You can find them in the sea or on land; they come in several colours and forms; they (so refreshingly) epitomise the anti-celebrity.

Yes, that's right, the anti-celebrity. I suppose this must mean that if you put a celebrity near a mullet of any kind they will both immediately vapourise in a flash of an extremely unfashionable green.'d probably need to test that out in the Cern Particle Accelerator. But I doubt very much if you'd find any celebrity willing to wear the shower-cap over-shoes.

Anyway, mullets.

Here's one:

Mullus surmuletus.jpg

That's a striped red mullet, Mullus surmuletus. Actually, I  suspect it of writing its own wikipedia entry because it's so keen to make absolutely clear that it isn't related to any of the other mullets.

Here are some grey mullets:

Chelon labrosus 01 by dpc.jpg

Those are thick-lipped grey mullets, Chelon labrosus. They're well-known both for being tasty and for living near sewage-outlets. Yum!

And this one's mostly blond:

File:Rod Stewart (1971).png

There we are. Feeling sharp, up-to-date and sophisticated now, are you?

Thought so.

Good, isn't it?

Spot the frippet: mullet. The word for the fish comes from the Old French, from the Latin mullus, from the Greek mullos. No one knows for sure where the word for the hairstyle came from, unless it was from someone seeing a fish with some seaweed on its head.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary the hairstyle mullet was popularised by U.S. hip-hop group the Beastie Boys who used mullet and mullet head in their 1994 song Mullet Head.

The Beastie Boys' magazine Grand Royal was the first to use the term in print, in 1995. The article credits Mike D as the first Beastie Boy to use it.

Sunday 7 September 2014

Sunday Rest: sojourn. Word Not To Use Today.

People used to say this word in church (For they still recalled the events of their sojourn,  how instead of producing animals the earth brought forth gnats, and instead of fish the river spewed out vast numbers of frogs*) and it always worried me. It just used to sound so rude.

SODGE'n, they said it. Actually, it sounds so rude you could use it if you stubbed your toe. Oh sojourn!

In the end I worked out that a sojourn was a stay somewhere, but that just made it even worse.

I mean, only someone scary and horrible would make a sojourn instead of a stay: someone with grime worn into his scowl-lines; someone who would drop ash on the carpet and crumbs on the sofa; someone who would belch loudly at mealtimes and have unspeakable ways with other people's towels.

It was the stuff, literally, of nightmares.

Luckily no one has ever sojourned at my house, though some have stayed.

But the fear is still there, you know.

Vintage Luggage Images

Sunday Rest: sojourn. This word comes from the Old French sojorner, from the Latin sub, during, and diurnum, day. Though I'm afraid that sojourners have a habit of staying much longer.

*That's a bit from The Wisdom of Solomon.

Saturday 6 September 2014

Saturday Rave: chimney sweepers by William Shakespeare.

Verse can be immensely satisfying, savourable, and delicious. Even better, it can (unlike chocolate, which has similar properties) be  cherished forever.

Shakespeare's plays are traditionally defined as either comedies, tragedies or histories - but Cymbeline, ever generous, manages to be a bit of all of these. 

It has a ridiculous plot, but, as it's always clear where the Happy Ending must lie, the fact that things get a bit unlikely doesn't matter all that much.
Cymbeline is most famous for a funeral song that's sung over the corpse of a young man (who, as it happens, is neither a corpse nor a young man: she's called Imogen).

Herbert Gustave Schmalz: this is Imogen dressed as a man.

But, hey, what does it matter how odd the circumstances are? It's shatteringly lovely, anyway.

Here's the first verse.

Fear no more the heat o' the sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

Golden lads and girls all must/As chimney sweepers, come to dust.

And if anyone else can come up with a couplet as sad and at the same time as clever and funny as that then I'd love to hear it.

Word To Use Today: chimney. This word comes from the Greek kaminos, which means fireplace or oven.

Friday 5 September 2014

Word To Use Today: sooth.

Sooth means truth, but no one's used the word seriously for hundreds of years.

Except in historical fiction.

'In sooth, my lords,' said Sir Bargain, as he knelt before the king, 'the Lady Mortgage caught me in her perilous web.'

(Ah, those were the days, when even evil witches were given the title Lady.)

As if the word sooth isn't magnificent enough, we have the even more heroic soothfast, too, meaning loyal and true.

'There is no sign of Bacward. Happen he will not come.'

'Nay, boy. There is no hand so mighty it could stay the soothfast Bacward.' 

We must hope, of course, that the man speaking above is a soothsayer; that is, someone who not only says sooth but says things that are going to be sooth.

What's jolly clear is that, with all those wizards and dragons and odd-coloured knights about, it's a jolly nice trick if you can do it.

Sir Lancelot with Arthur
From The Aventures of Sir Lancelot, starring William Russell.

Word To Use Today: sooth. This word comes from the Old English sōth, and is related, rather oddly, to the Latin sōns, which means guilty.