This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 31 October 2014

Word To Use Today: zombie.

The strange thing about zombies - well, one of the strange things about zombies - is that they used to be good luck.

Admittedly that was a long time ago.

Nowadays the best you can hope for from a zombie is that he's a)alive and completely human, and b) totally lacking in independent thought and judgement. This might be because he's tired. On the other hand, it might be because he's stupid.

You see the thing is that zombies are only half-there. Some zombies have human bodies (usually dead ones), but their spirits have been replaced by some foreign thing. Alternatively, a zombie astral is a part of a human spirit without any body at all. You can buy them in bottles to help you with your business dealings, but they have a limited shelf-life because eventually God takes them back. Or so they say. 

A zombie company is one which can pay the interest on its debts, but not pay off the debt itself.

A zombie computer code spreads a virus to another computer.

So where have all these zombies come from? Well, West Africa, probably, where Zombie is a voodoo snake god.

Where do you find them today, at Halloween?

On your doorstep.

Give them some sweets. That's my advice. They say that feeding zombies salt cures them, but it's not worth the risk.

Just give them some flipping sweets!

Word To Use Today: zombie. Zombie was first used in English in 1819, though  it was the 1929 novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook that brought it into general use. The word is West African, and is probably related to the Kongo words nzambi, god and zumbi, good-luck fetish.

Thursday 30 October 2014

Give a dog a bad name: a rant.

I once read two books in a row which had as characters old ladies called Baby.

You'd have thought that their parents would have given them some more suitable a name. Like, well, Teenager or Oldie.

(And before you start telling me that's just as bad, may I point out that you're a teenager and an oldie for a lot longer than you're a baby, so it's not as bad. Though equally cruel.)

There was once a child called Depressed Cupboard Cheesecake.

Copii sub prosop

No, really, there was. I think it was one of those open-a-dictionary-at-random disasters.

More common, at least in days gone by, were the open-a-bible-at-random disasters.

The dictionary principle would give me a child called....hang on, I'll just give it a go...Footman San Juan Mountains Twaddle (rather nice, actually) and the bible method would name it Hilkiah David Husbandman.

Now, you may not think very much of parents who saddle their children with such ghastly collections of names, but what should a child be called?

The market research company Acorn has records of the names and incomes of 51 million people. It turns out that if you are called Crispian, Greville, Lysbeth or Penelope you are about 200 times more likely to be wealthy than if you are called Seaneen, Terriann, Sammy-Jo, Jamielee or Kayleigh.

So why aren't all children called either Crispian or Penelope?

You know, that's an extremely interesting question.

Isn't it.

Word To Use Today: baby. This word came into English in the 1300s and is probably an imitation of the first sounds of, yes, a baby.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Nuts and Bolts: acyrologia.

Acyrologia is the use of the wrong worm.

Even those among us aware of every perpendicular of grammar are guilty of acyrologia from time to time, but it isn't going to bring the four horsemen of the acropolis down upon us, so there's no need for gilt or dismay.

The existential point is that it is the pineapple of rudeness to point out an era to the speaker.

Word Probably Not To Use Today: acyrologia. This word is Greek and comes from kuros, authority, and logia, speech. The a at the beginning means not.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Thing To Do Today As Well As You Can: be a popsy.

Keep young and beautiful if you want to be loved, says the old (very old: 1933) song.

Actually, while I'm here, here's the song:

(here's a link if the recording won't play:
And if you can listen to that without smiling then I feel sorry for you. I mean, dancing is practically irresistible.
Anyway, being a popsy. You can't really do this successfully if you're male, but never mind, you can still try. Being old makes being a popsy difficult, too, but the same applies.
Be charming; be non-threatening; be sweet.
Look your best.
Flutter your eyelids.
Be wide-eyed at everyone else's marvellousness.
Joyfully embrace your own ignorance.
Oh, and wouldn't a world full of popsies make the world a happier place?
Thing To Do Today As Well As You Can: be a popsy. This word is a diminutive formed from pop, which is a shortened form of poppet, which is an early form of puppet, which comes from the Old French poupette, little doll.

Monday 27 October 2014

Spot the Frippet: velum.

No, not vellum: velum.

Vellum, the prepared skin of calves, kids or lambs, you'll find in very old and precious books. If you're lucky enough to have any around.

A velum you carry around with you all the time.

Velum comes from the Latin word for veil, and you can find vela running round the rims of jellyfish, or in the mouths of some baby molluscs.

If you don't fancy looking into the mouth of a baby mollusc (and who could blame you) then your own soft palate is a velum, too.

It's Autumn here in England, and perhaps you have vela on toast for tea. A velum is the thin bit of skin-type stuff that in a young mushroom joins the cap to the stem.

The jiuces of fried vela running over the roof-of-the-mouth velum.

Mmmm....I think I might have to go shopping...

Spot the Frippet: velum. This word is the Latin for veil.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Sunday Rest: scutiform. Word Not To Use Today.

A scut is the white bobbing tail of a rabbit, but scutiform, (pronounced skyootiform) is nothing so joyful or innocent.

These things are all scutiform: the cartilage that stops your ears from being floppy; a nasturtium leaf; the body of a male black-legged tick; my old school badge.

What do they all have in common?

Well, they're all, more or less, shield-shaped. If you're being really picky (though I've never actually come across anyone this picky) then it should be something in the shape of the Roman scutum, which, to put a stop to any wild imaginings you may be having, is, well, a shield.

Scutum -

I suppose we must, if reluctantly, allow anatomists, entomologists, and botanists to use the word scutiform, but even then only for purely professional purposes.

Otherwise, if you wish to be loved, or even tolerated, then shield-shaped really is a much much more lovable option.

Word Not To Use Today: scutiform. This word comes from the Latin words scūtum, shield, and forma, which means shape. 

Saturday 25 October 2014

Saturday Rave: A Leave-Taking by Algernon Charles Swinburne

I've been on the Isle of Wight, speaking at the Literary Festival, so I thought I'd celebrate one of the Isle of Wight's literary inhabitants.
Actually, there wasn't a lot of choice. Some people visited and some people stayed, but the nearest I could find to someone who can be said to have belonged to the Isle of Wight is the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who, though being born and dying in London and thinking of himself as a Northumbrian, was bought up and is buried in Bonchurch on the Isle of Wight.
The Leave-Taking is a poem about moving on after a love affair that never seems actually to have, well, got as far as happening.
It's full of sorrow, bitterness, regret, anger, beauty, despair and courage.
And the sea.
...Let us give up, go down; she will not care.
Though all the stars made gold of all the air,
And the sea moving saw before it move
One moon-flower making all the foam-flowers fair;
Though all these waves went over us, and drove
Deep down the stifling lips and drowning hair,
She would not care...
 If you're young and spurned, or remember being young and spurned, it's gloriously, terrifically, satisfying stuff.

Word To Use Today: foam. This word, like unrequited love, goes all the way back to the Sanskrit phena, and probably further.

Friday 24 October 2014

Word To Use Today: knap.

Knapsacks are usually called backpacks, nowadays, but as a child I spent a long time wondering what a knap was.

knapsack backpack

I know, now. A knap can be the crest of a hill (though this dialect word is never used here in Hertfordshire) or knap can mean to hit, hammer or chip something.

The hammering knap is used a lot in Hertfordshire because the ground is full of flints. Indeed, in parts of our garden you don't even try to push your fork into the ground, you wiggle it in (if you can) between all the knobbly bits of stone.

Their abundance means that flints are used a lot for building, even though they naturally come in amoeba-like shapes that have to be knapped - that is, have the bulgy bits knocked off - if you don't want the wind whistling in and blowing out the candles.

The other local knap is knapweed, rather a lovely flower that copes very well with poor soil full of stones.

knapweed, flower, flora, plant, blue, bloom

So there we are: three sorts of knap. Unfortunately none of them have anything to do with the knap of knapsack, but, hey, I'm sure all the wondering is good for the synapses of the brain.

Or perhaps it just encourages them to run screaming round in circles before screeching to a halt in utter bewilderment.

That would explain a lot.

Word To Use Today: knap. The knap of knapweed comes from the Dutch cnoppe, bud; the knap meaning hill comes from the Old English chæpp, meaning top; the chipping-off-stone meaning might be something to do with the Dutch knappen, to crack; and the knap of knapsack probably comes from the Low German knappen to bite or snap.


Thursday 23 October 2014

The female of the species: a rant

I don't often rant about things I read in newspapers. Journalists are often writing under pressure and, well, we're all human, aren't we, and I'm far from being in a position to cast the first stone about grammatical and spelling errors.

On the other hand, sometimes something so truly horrible appears, something nestling so snugly - and probably smugly - within a determined wooliness of the brain, that howls of incredulous anguish burst from my soul.

This is from the online version of the Daily Telegraph of 7/10/14*:

The problem is that both phones seem to be designed without the female specie in mind.

Oh good grief.

Look, species isn't a plural...well, at least, it is a plural, but when it's a singular it looks exactly the same.

Specie is something entirely different from species (it means coin money as opposed to paper money or bullion. The almost-Latin phrase in specie means in coin, in kind, or, as a law term, in the actual form specified, which usually means not in coin).

Apart from that, a species is (pretty much) one of the taxonomic groups into which a genus is divided. Most species don't go in for male and female at all - and some members of some species change sex as they go along - but however a species produces new members, whether using male, female, transgender, bisexual, cloning, budding, or whichever resources, the species consists of all of them.

Female isn't a specie, or a species, but a sex. Got it?

And don't start me on the word gender, whatever you do.

Word To Use Correctly Today: specie/species. In specie and specie both come from the Latin phrase in speciē, which means in kind. Species is the Latin for appearance, and comes from specere, to look.

*English date: ie seventh of October.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Nuts and Bolts: register.

The young man in the cardigan had just told us that, hi, he was Chris, when his telephone rang. Chris picked up the receiver, listened briefly, and then told the person at the other end he was cool.

That was a surprise, because the hospital seemed decidedly stuffy to me.

The second surprise was that Chris turned out not to be one of the cleaners, but was actually a senior doctor, or registrar. Chris was polite, concerned, thorough, and knowledgeable as far as I could tell. A lovely man.

On the way out I mentioned the registrar's surprising linguistic register to my companion, who was Chris's patient.

'But he was speaking like that because he was talking to a young person,' she explained.

She might have been right, but having had plenty of chance that morning to inspect the other patients in his waiting room I'm now left wondering if he greets most of them Good morrow, gentle mistress...

Anyway, register. No one's quite agreed on what register is, but it's certainly noticeable when something unusual occurs in the register line.

Martin Joos splits language into five styles (style in this context is more of less the same thing as register) and according to him Chris was using a casual [amongst friends] style when a consultative [teacher/student, doctor/patient] style would (obviously) have been usual.

Does it matter?

Not to me.

Does it matter to him? Well, he's got the job, so perhaps not.

Will using a casual register put Chris at a disadvantage when he's trying to persuade a patient to have some inconvenient or unpleasant treatment?

Well, now, that is something it would be very interesting indeed to find out.

Word To Use Today: register. In its linguistic context this word was first used in 1956 by the linguist Thomas Bertram Reid. The word register comes from the Latin regerere, to transcribe, from gerere, to bear.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Thing To Do Today. Or Possibly Not: pop.

You have to be American to understand cricket.

All right, all right, that's an exaggeration. But there's a grain of truth in it, all the same.

Pop is one of those words which causes havoc amongst the English-speaking peoples. If an English person pops a man in his wheelchair they are putting him in lightly and without fuss. If someone from the US pops a man in his wheelchair, there's a good chance the poor man is getting punched. 

But where does the cricket come in?

Well, in cricket a batsman waiting to hit a ball must stand in an area of the pitch delineated by a mark called a popping crease. An English person will probably shrug and accept this as one more peculiar cricketing term to go with with googly, Baggy green, and donkey drop; but an American will understand at once that it marks the place where the batsman hits - pops - the ball.

With this exception, round here in England just about all pops are quick and light. If we pop round to see someone we are making a quick uninvited visit; if we have a pop at something we are having a go at it in a non-committed sort of a way; if we talk of popping the question then we are pretending that asking for someone's hand in marriage is a cause of no anxiety at all; someone who pops his clogs is dying without causing the least amount of sorrow; someone who pops his shirt is pawning it; someone who drinks pop is imbibing some fizzy non-alcoholic substance like ginger beer.

Harmless stuff, ginger beer - though not to be recommended if you're got to go out and bat after your lunch (yes, cricket is the game where everything stops for lunch. And afternoon tea).

All that gas might be enough to make you pop.

Thing To Do Today Or Possibly Not: pop. This word is an imitation of the sound something makes when it pops. My Collins dictionary dismisses pop in the hitting sense as obsolete or dialect.

But it's not, is it.

Monday 20 October 2014

Spot the Frippet: scuttlebutt.

Here's a word to add a dash of delight to a Monday morning.


What's a scuttlebutt?

A scuttlebutt is a drinking fountain, although of course nowadays, with our finicky modern distaste for contracting lethal diseases, we tend to have water-coolers instead. Still, I don't see why a water cooler shouldn't be termed a scuttlebutt - in fact, if you think about it, a water cooler is a butt (well, it is in England, where a butt is primarily a barrel for storing rainwater).

If further argument is needed, a scuttlebutt started out in life as a cask of drinking water.

Most elegantly, the water cooler analogy goes even further. Scuttlebutt is (mainly US) slang for rumour or gossip. So water cooler gossip can, and this is glorious, be termed scuttlebutt scuttlebutt.

And, I mean, what more could anyone possibly ask for than that?

Spot the Frippet: scuttlebutt. This word comes from the Old English scutel, trencher, from the Latin scutella, bowl, and is related to the lovely Old High German word scuzzila.

Sunday 19 October 2014

Sunday Rest: lobule. Word Not To Use Today.

Last week's Word Not To Use Today, lobe, was bad enough. But this is even worse.


The only good thing about a lobule is that it's generally smaller than a lobe.

The dreadful thing is that you have them inside you. In your brain:

Sobo 1909 624 - Paracentral lobule.png

(that one, the paracentral lobule, controls the movement and feelings in the lower limbs, and also peeing and pooing); in your liver, your kidneys...

...basically, eeerrrgghhh...

Word Not To Use Today: lobule. This comes from the Greek lobos, which means lobe. And, oh, I do wish it hadn't.

PS Apparently there's also something to do with machines called a lobular drive, but sheer horror prevents me from investigating it.

Saturday 18 October 2014

Saturday Rave: The Relic by John Donne.

Hertford College (which is, confusingly, part of the University of Oxford) has taken down the portraits of the dead white men in its hall and replaced them with portraits of...

...but it doesn't matter who has replaced them. John Donne - John Donne! - has gone.

"Taking down all the portraits was helped by the fact that nobody felt the slightest affection for any of them, with the exception of John Donne," said Emma Smith, an English lecturer and curator of the photographs that have replaced the potraits.*

At least Donne, who loved so very greatly, is not entirely despised; but I do wish that he were still here. He would have written such a glorious poem on the occasion.

Luckily, as it happens, he almost foresaw it, and so he already has.

When my grave is broken up again
Some second guest to entertain,
(For graves have learned that woman-head
To be to more than one a bed)
And he that digs it, spies
A bracelet of bright hair about the bone,
Will he not let us alone,
And think that there a loving couple lies
Who thought that this device might be some way
To make their souls, at the last busy day,
Meet at this grave, and make a little stay?

John Donne is gone. He has been put away out of sight (and therefore out of mind) with no concern for any gleam of gold he might shed into the minds and hearts of the people of Hertford College.

His college will be lonelier without him.

Word To Use Today: relic. This word comes from the Latin relictus, left behind, from relinquere, to relinquish.

*Poor William Tyndale, who has gone, too.

Friday 17 October 2014

Word To Use Today: tillicum.

Tillicum is a word of the Pacific Northwest of Canada and the USA. It's not a word for formal occasions, but, hey, that just makes it more useful.

What does it mean?

A tillicum is a person, but especially a friend. Mate, perhaps, might be the nearest equivalent used in England, but of course tillicum sounds much sillier.

Alphabet of Old Friends
Illustration by Walter Crane: Alphabet of Old Friends.

And what a lovely day to tell someone they're a proper tillicum.

Just make sure you have a head start before you do.

Word To Use Today: tillicum. This word comes from Chinook Jargon* from Chinook tixam, relations, people, or tribe, as distinguished from chiefs.

*As far as I know the only language to have started life at a dinner party.

Thursday 16 October 2014

Cock-a-doodle-doo*: a rant.

The shoe manufacturer Hotter sent me an email the other day featuring Shipley, their popular go-anywhere shoe, at the presumably very reasonable price of £79.

One Shoe, Endless Possibilities, it said.


...if you have only one shoe then surely the only possibility is to...


File:ALPP - Hop-Scotch.png

Isn't it?

Word To Use Today: possibility. This word comes from the Latin possibilis, from posse, to be able.

My dame has lost her shoe
My master's lost his fiddling stick
And doesn't know what to do.

Wednesday 15 October 2014

Nuts and Bolts: outro.

free public domain image farewell have a nice trip woman waving handkerchief goodbye dont forget to write pen ink drawing
image from

You know what an intro is, don't you.

Yes, intro is short for introduction, something that prepares the reader or watcher or listener for what is to come. It might encourage the excited summoning up of mental alertness, the resigned settling down in the chair, the embarrassing but inevitable closing of the eyelids, or the weary reaching for the remote control.

But although I was familiar with intros I hadn't heard the word outro until recently, when it was sprung on me by an editor who shall remain nameless because I'm hoping to work with her again.

(NB: names are nearly always omitted to protect the guilty, not the innocent.)

So what is an outro? It's the opposite of an intro, of course.

It can be the closing credits of a film or video game; an epilogue to a piece of writing; a (usually instrumental) ending to a song; or a snazzy bit of a video game that rewards a successful piece of play.

What's wrong with outro? Nothing at all. The fact that it makes me shudder like a duchess given a cucumber sandwich with the crusts left on is entirely my problem and I'm going to have to get over it.

But still, I can't help but hanker after afterwords and end notes and epilogues and valedictory addresses.

But never fear: I promise that all the hankering will in future be done privately, and that on this subject these are my final words.

Word To Use Today If You Want To Be Trendy: outro. This word was coined in the 1970s as an opposite of intro. It's quite a useful word, really, if you're not fussy.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Thing To Do Today: be gleg.

Have a gleg at this, man.

Awreet, where's me glegs?

If you're a Geordie (that is, if you come from Newcastle upon Tyne in Northern England) then encouraging someone to have a gleg is asking them to have a look.

If it's young ladies you're glegging, then it may well involve marks out of ten.


For a really clear view you might need your glegs, which are your spectacles.

For the Scots, to be gleg is to be quick, either in movement or perception. It means to react fast: to be keen, though not in a rash way but in a clear-sighted one.

That bonny lass has to be ten out of ten, man. Awreet. I'll see you later.

Thing To Do Today: be gleg. This word comes from the Old Norse gløggr, clear-sightedness, and is related to the Old High German glau wise.

Monday 13 October 2014

Spot the Frippet: quidnunc.

Monday morning is the time of the quidnunc.

Pieter Brughel the Younger

How was the weekend? he or she will enquire, perhaps casually, but with a disturbing gleam of hunger in the eye.

One's defences are down on a Monday morning, you see. The jet-lag involved in being vertical at least an hour earlier than Weekend Time, as well as the effort of having trudged to your place of work when every fibre of your being is whimpering yearningly about downy pillows and pillowy down, puts careful calculation out of the question.

And this sets up the quidnunc for his or her campaign of evil.

Yes, that's right, a quidnunc is a gossip.

They are everywhere, quidnuncs, so seeing one is no problem at all. Spotting one is, admittedly, harder, but the simple rule is this: if a person tells you gossip, then he or she is also gossiping about you.

So they're easy to deal with, even on a Monday morning. Give in to the weight of exhaustion, and when the quidnunc asks, just grunt.

Then go and find yourself a nice cup of coffee and a quiet sit-down.

Spot the Frippet: quidnunc. This is the Latin for what now? So the clue, as so often, is in the name.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Sunday Rest: lobe. Word Not To Use Today.

I have lobes hanging on either side of my face. It's really rather horrid.

I understand I have several lobes in my innards, too, which is worse.


Lobes are bits of an organ that you can distinguish with the naked eye. They can be found in the brain (including the endearingly named flocculonodular lobe), the kidneys, the lungs, and the liver.

As if that wasn't bad enough, there are lobes all round us, too. Yes, it's really freaky. A glacial lobe is, predictably enough, a lobe-shaped glacier, and there are various sorts of lobes making up all those antennae you see poking up all over the place. You get lobes on leaves:

Quercus robur.jpg

and on camshafts, too. Not that I'd recognise a camshaft. Good grief, lobes can be anywhere!

Lobes can be enormous, too. Huge. Like a radio galaxy's lobes, for instance, or a Roche lobe, which is the area around a star in a binary system in which orbiting material is in the gravitational field of that star.

All right. I'm completely freaked out, now. In fact I think I may be about to coin a new word: lobophobia.

Keep safe, you lot.

Watch out if you go anywhere near an antenna...

or a tree.

Sinday Rest: lobe. This word comes from the Greek lobos, which means lobe of the ears or liver.

Saturday 11 October 2014

Saturday Rave: a proper Herbert.

George Herbert, the poet who wrote:

Lovely enchanting language, sugar-cane, Honey of roses!

Had a big brother who was a lord. Lord Herbert of Cherbury, in fact.

Hardly anyone has heard of him, but as it happens Lord Herbert of Cherbury wrote poetry, too.

He wrote, presumably to a young lady:

Now that the April of your youth adorns
The garden of your face.

The garden of your face...

...ah well. It shows that being a lord isn't everything, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: herbert. Herbert is British slang. It can describe an annoyingly officious official (some herbert at Reception wouldn't let me through) a mischievous youngster (you grubby little herbert!) or an awkward adolescent (some spotty herbert on the till).

All herberts are male.

PS I must in justice to Lord Herbert point out that although, according to the Oxford Book of English Verse, he died in 1648, the lines above are dated 1665. So, in the circumstances, a brave effort, I think.

Friday 10 October 2014

Word To Use Today: basinet, bascinet and bassinet.

These words have always rather worried me.

Is the baby wearing armour?

Or is the knight in a pram?

In some ways I've rather enjoyed all the mind-boggling, but eventually a writer of historical fiction really has to get this kind of thing sorted out.

If a baby is wearing armour (specifically, a helmet, probably with a visor) then it's a basinet or bascinet.

No baby was harmed during the making of this picture. He likes it in there. His name is Tommy.

If a knight has got a pram on his head, then it's a bassinet.


The basinet/bascinet is made of steel, and the bassinet is made of wickerwork or perhaps wood.

Though the other way round would probably be fine, too.

I think I've got it all sorted out, now.


Word To Use Today: bas/ss/scinet. All these words come from the French word bassin, which means basin. Barcelonnette means little cradle, and this word has got muddled up with the pram meaning, too.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Betwixt and Between: a rant.

The council will no longer be emptying garden recycling bins between November and March.

This is fair enough, because nothing much grows round here in winter.

But tell me: when exactly are they going to stop collecting? Just before the beginning of November? Or just after the end?

In short, what does between mean in this case? Does the same thing apply to March? Or does the opposite thing apply to March?

If you think about it, it's almost certainly the opposite; but, if so, which way round will it be?

Good grief, surely it shouldn't be beyond the wit of those the district employs to say which.

Should it.

Word To Use Today: between. This word has been around for plenty long enough for people to have worked out how to use it. It comes from the Old English betwēonum.

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Nuts and Bolts: portmanteau words.

It's Humpty Dumpty who's to blame, you know.

Yes, that's right, the Humpty Dumpty of Through The Looking Glass. The one who said (probably with a little help from Lewis Carroll):

"When I use a means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less"

which is in itself almost enough to make us give up and go home.

"Slithy means 'lithe and slimy' "

Humpty goes on

"You see it's like a portmanteau — there are two meanings packed up into one word."

Now a portmanteau, for anyone who knows a little French, is obviously some sort of a coat carrier. (In fact in France, though it was once a piece of luggage, nowadays a portemanteau is a coat rack.)

In English, however, portmanteau has kept the piece-of-luggage meaning and refers to a heavy case with a hinged lid, the sort of thing a pirate might keep his treasure in if he didn't happen to have an island handy to bury it. In Lewis Carroll's time portmanteaus (or portmanteaux) were divided into two compartments.

The only trouble is, of course, that a portmanteau word isn't divided into anything. It isn't even packed. It's more...squished.

We have smog (smoky fog) Spanglish (Spanish English) Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge universities) and spork (a spoon-shaped fork).

See? Definitely squished.

So as a name portmanteau is quite quite wrong.

And I don't think that anyone but Humpty Dumpty would have got away with it.

Alice meets Humpty Dumpty

Sort Of Word To Use Today Even Though It's A Bit Silly: a portmanteau word. Portmanteau comes from the French porter, to carry, and manteau, cloak, from the Latin mantellum.

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: dirl.

You have got to be kidding - it took this long? Image from Darwin's Expressions of Emotions of Man and Animals, 1872 (Public domain image expired copyright /
Image from Darwin’s Expressions of Emotions of Man and Animals,1872

The word dirl has taken on a sudden new life, and I rather wish it hadn't.

The old dirl is such a fantastic word. It means to shake or vibrate, and it can also mean a blow strong enough to make your head ring, or the ringing sound itself.

The Scots use it most. This is from Masterpieces of Mystery, Vol. 1 (of 4) Ghost Stories:

Weel, it wad appear that when he askit that, she gave a girn that fairly frichtit them that saw her, an they could hear her teeth play dirl thegether in her chafts; but there was naething for it but the ae way or the ither; an' Janet lifted up her hand and renounced the deil before them a '.
And good for her, I say.
In America dirl has also sometimes been used to mean to thrill or penetrate.
But what about dirl's new life?
Sadly it's grown up badly. It's become an acronym, and it stands for Die In Real Life.
Which makes giving someone a great ringing clout on the head seem almost lovable, doesn't it.
Thing Probably Not To Do Today: dirl. This word appeared in the early 1500s and may be something to do with the word drill.

Monday 6 October 2014

Spot the frippet: treble.

If treble means three, and it does, then why does it also mean high-pitched, either in voice or bells or frequency or the notes of a musical instrument?

(On the other hand if you're talking about the musical instrument the recorder, then why is a treble a middle-pitched instrument a size lower than the common-taught school descant, and with the sopranino and klein gar klein higher in pitch even than that?

By the way, I'm wishing at this point that the voice lower than the treble, the alto, didn't come from the Latin altus, meaning high.)

As I don't actually know the answer to any of these questions, let's deal with the times-three thing first. A team can do the treble by winning three trophies in a season; a darts player can hit a treble by sticking a dart into the smallest numbered ring on a dart board, thereby winning three times the points.

The dartboard is the easiest thing to spot.

To spot a treble voice is easy, too: you just need to get within about, ooh, say half a mile of a first school at play time.

Or if that's too painful you could listen to this: 

Or this:

Spot the Frippet: treble. This word comes from Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin triplum, from Latin triplus.

Sunday 5 October 2014

Sunday Rest: mangulate. Word Mostly Not To Use Today.

Mangulate is down in the dictionary as Australian slang for  mangle.

If this were the whole story then the added syllable is really rather nasty, both wasting the breath and making the speaker sound bitter and twisted.

On the other hand, mangulate also means to bend out of shape (there's probably a tinge of manipulate in there, I should imagine) and so, whether bitter or not, no one can argue that twisted isn't appropriate.

File:Damaged road sign in Stockholm.jpg
Photo: Anders Sandberg

So, mangulate. It's certainly not pretty, but I think this one just might come in handy for special occasions when I'm too appalled and angry to care.

Well, it beats swearing.

Word Mostly Not To Use Today: mangulate. I can't find any definitive derivation, but my guess is that the extra syllable has been added to mangle partly as an intensive, and partly on the models of manipulate and strangle/strangulate.

Saturday 4 October 2014

Saturday Rave: Last Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb.

Books think for me, wrote Charles Lamb in Detached Thoughts on Books and Reading.

And so, in four single-syllable words, he gives us food for thought for a week.

Charles Lamb by William Hazlitt. (No, I didn't know Hazlitt was a painter, and a good one, either.)

Word To Use Today: think. This word comes from the Old English thencan.

Friday 3 October 2014

Word To Use Today: harvest.

The tomatoes are still going great guns but by now most of the crops are safely gathered in. Last weekend in the Welsh borders the churches were bedecked with flowers, and vegetables, and flowers-made-out-of-vegetables, all for the celebration of Harvest Festival.
I'm greatly indebted to Elizabeth Roy for telling me about the origin of Harvest Festival in English churches. It was started in 1843 in the parish of Morwenstow in Cornwall by Rev Robert Stephen Hawker. The thanksgiving service took place on 1st October, and bread made from the first cut of the corn was taken at communion
Parson Hawker seems to have been altogether a delightful man, and as well as starting the tradition of Harvest Festival he is said to have draped his otherwise naked body in seaweed to impersonate a mermaid, and to have excommunicated his cat for mousing on Sunday.
I can't think about harvest without mentioning the Eurasian harvest mouse, which has the gorgeous scientific name Micromys minutus:

File:Harvest Mouse (face).jpg

Photo by Michael Gäbler

I must also note that the harvest moon is the full moon occurring nearest to the Autumn Equinox, and a harvestman, when it's not a man getting in a harvest, duh, is a sort of bouncy-legged spider.

Word To Use Today: harvest. This word has come to us from the Old English hærfest, and is related to the Old Norse word for harrow, the Old High German word for autumn, the Latin word meaning to pluck, the Greek word for fruit, and the Sanskrit word for shears.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Looking for meaning: a rant.


An English Autumn, and the leaflets are falling long before the leaves.

The trees here are still mostly green and lush, but the makers of puddings and perfumes, tool kits and tidies, stuffed squirrels and scarves, have begun their pre-Christmas frenzy.

Leaflets, leaflets, everywhere. They lurch through the letterbox, they swerve elegantly through the air from the pages of magazines. Newspapers are pregnant with them.

All selling a million things I really, really don't want.

(And, unfortunately, one or two things that I do.)

Most definitely in the former category comes the ALWAYS IN MY HEART crystal pendant. It features, according to the illustration, a decayed bench overlooking a beach.

On the back is a piece of verse.

The leaflet says this piece of verse is actually a 'meaningful poem.'

Ah, well, that's all right, then. I mean, those meaningless poems get everywhere, don't they, cluttering up the place.

You might feel curious about this poem, but I'd suggest you read it only if you're feeling strong (we take Health and Safety seriously here in TWD).

Braced? You're sure? Then here it is:

Those we love
don't go away, they walk
beside us every day.
Unseen, unheard,
but always near,
still loved,
still missed
very dear.
Walk beside us every day...
Definitely the stuff of nightmares if you stop to think about it.
But then, even though the poem supposed to be so meaningful, we're really not supposed to do that, are we.
Word To Use Today: mean. This word comes from the Old English gemǣne, common, from the Latin communis, which means common, too (though not in a bad way).


Wednesday 1 October 2014

Nuts and Bolts: cacozelia.

Words are dangerous, you know. They can get out of control.

You need to know what you're doing:

Grease the tray, said the recipe. Okay, said my little daughter: where's the grease?

Yes, you really have to know what the words mean. Don't try to wing it. You don't want to end up with a reputation for cacozelia, do you.

Now, although I sincerely believe* that cacozelia is a bad thing, it's impossible to say so without being guilty of it because cacozelia is a habit of using long, foreign, probably Latin or Greek words**, quite possibly incorrectly, just order to give an impression of wisdom and knowledge.

I'd say that in using the term cacozelia I'd been blown up with my own verbal diarrhoea, except that the other meaning of cacozelia is using a metaphor that's in bad taste.

Really, the only thing for me to do is to refrain from disquisitioning on my own spurious erudition.

And shut up.

Word Probably Not To Use Today: cacozelia. Cacozēlia means bad imitation in Greek.

*Not that you can believe something insincerely.

**Though when Quintilian called cacozelia "the worst of all offences against style, since other faults are due to carelessness, but this is deliberate" then he was presumably talking about using words that weren't Latin.

Cacozelia is also genus of Venezuelan snout moths. Just so you know.