This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 30 November 2014

Sunday Rest: bismuthous. Word Not To Use Today.

Let's face it, it's almost impossible to say bismuthous even if you want to, so this shouldn't cause too many problems.
See? Not easy, is it?
Now try big bismuthous thief.
Bismuthous, as you will have realised, means to do with bismuth. And what's bismuth? It's a very very slightly radioactive (its half-life comes out as about a billion times the age of the universe) metallic element.

This neat image is from Wikipedia showing artificially grown bismuth crystal in a stairstep crystal structure, with a 1 cm3 cube of bismuth metal beside it.
Bismuth is not all that widely used, but it's been found useful in diarrhoea cures, to cure eye infections, and as an "internal deodorant", a thing of which I really wish to know as little as possible.
You can make a bismuthous pearly-looking pigment which is used in cosmetics. It's also used as a less-toxic substitute for lead in casting, toy soldiers, ammunition, and water systems.

Bismuthous is technically restricted to describing bismuth in the trivalent state.

Unfortunately bismuth's trivalent state is the common one.

Word Not To Use Today: bismuthous. No one's quite sure whether this word comes from  the Arabic bi ismid, having the properties of antimony, or the German weisse masse, white mass, later Latinised to bisemutum.

Saturday 29 November 2014

Saturday Rave: The Name, by Steve Wadsworth.

Selby is a town in North Yorkshire, England.

It was founded by the Vikings (as you can tell from the by at the end of its name) on the banks of the River Ouse.

Selby has a magnificent abbey:


and, although Selby may not have made the biggest impact on world affairs, don't be deceived into thinking it's a sleepy backwater. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Selby District Council (Your 'Excellent' Council) is building a new Leisure Centre.

Now, the old one was called after the abbey (see above), but obviously some new and thrusting appellation was required for the new building, and so a competition was launched to find one.

The excitement has been intense, but now I can bring to you the result of the competition, as announced in Selby District Council's newsletter.

'The winner of the exciting competition to name the new leisure centre in Selby has received the prize of a year’s free membership from leisure provider WLCT.

Steve Wadsworth chose the name Selby Leisure Centre for the facility, which is set to open in Spring 2015.'

So there we are: concise, clear, and comprehensible.

I vote for Steve Wadsworth as a Language Hero of our time.

Word To Use Today: leisure. This word comes from the Old French leisir, and before that from the Latin licēre, to be allowed.

Friday 28 November 2014

Word To Use Today: phoenix

Ah, yes, the phoenix, that mythical bird reborn from its own ashes. The word is used figuratively to mean that which rises again after being destroyed, like the city of Phoenix, Arizona, which was founded in 1867 on the site of a settlement of the Hohokam Indian people who populated the land from 300 B.C - 1450 A.D.

Now, the probability is that the phoenix was named because of its looks, which is odd, because of course no one can actually know what a phoenix looked like.

Pliny described it as having a crest, and Ezekiel the Dramatist said it looked a bit like a cockerel: but according to Tacitus the thing that really made the bird stand out from all others were its colours, which according him and various other Romans were either a bit like those of a peacock, or bright red (which included what we'd today call purple) and yellow.

In size they say it was somewhere between an eagle and an ostrich's big brother - but then those Romans would say anything.

Anyway, as time went on and nobody managed to get hold of an actual live phoenix, gradually the phoenix began to be put together in people's minds with a similar word, one that described a whole people: that is, Phoenician.

To encourage the confusion between the purple phoenix and the Phoenicians, the Phoenicians were great traders and tended to be regarded as coming out of the red-purple sunrise; they also tended to have purple stripes on their sails, which were dyed with stuff from the murex shellfish.

To make things even more complicated, Dido (the one who threw herself on a funeral pyre because her boyfriend decided to go on a sailing trip) was herself a Phoenician - though as far as I know no one has ever suggested poor Dido rose again.

Word To Use Today: phoenix. This word comes from the Old French fenix, via Latin from Greek phoinix which means Phoenician, reddish purple, or phoenix. The original sense might be purple.

Isidore of Seville in the 600s said that the word comes from the Arabic word for singular, but most people don't agree.


Thursday 27 November 2014

The Boring Poisoner: a rant.

I know the world is big, but it hadn't occurred to me until recently that it's big enough to contain millipede enthusiasts.

Where they meet, and what activities they indulge in when they do, I do not know; but what I do know is that they're seriously upset.

It's the fault of Buglife, the Invertebrate Conservation Trust charity based in Cambridge, England. Buglife does all sorts of things to raise awareness of the plight of animals without backbones, and one of the things they've done is to give English names to some animals previously known (to humans, at least) only by their scientific names.

But what has Buglife done? It's gone and named a flat backed millipede, Polyzonium germanicum, in fact, one of only three millipedes in England with its own biodiversity action plan, the Boring Millipede.

Boring? But nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to flat backed millipedes. I mean, some species of flat backed millipedes, when annoyed, give off raw cyanide: it is said that if you put a flat backed millipede in a jar with other bugs, within an hour all the others will be dead.

Boring? Good grief, Agatha Christie made a fortune from plots more likely than that.

All right, it may be true that the Boring Millipede does, well, bore its way into...well, whatever it is that millipedes like to bore into.

But to call it a Boring Millipede is a foul slander, and those millipede enthusiasts, in whichever phone box they happen to be holding their convention, really do have my sincerest sympathy.

Mind you, they want to call the poor thing the Pinhead Millipede.

And, quite frankly, with friends like those...

Word To Use Today But Not About Millipedes: boring. This word comes from the Old English borian and is probably something to do with the Greek pharos, ploughing, and phárynx, meaning throat.

Wednesday 26 November 2014

Nuts and Bolts: phonoaesthetics.

JRR Tolkien said that the most beautiful word in the English language was cellar-door.

This wasn't, as far as I know, anything to do with his ever being stuck in a cellar and all hope of rescue focusing on the said cellar-door. No, Tolkien was taking a purely phonoaesthetic approach. He often did, as you can tell if you read his works of fiction.

For him, cellar-door had the loveliest sound of any word in the English language.

I certainly share Tolkien's views on the importance of phonoaesthetics. As a child I remember crying bitterly because our holiday was to be in Exmouth, which sounded frowning and fierce; but later being completely reconciled to the idea of the holiday when I discovered that we'd actually be staying in a village a little way outside the town called Lympstone. Lympstone sounded charming. And, as far as I can recall, it was.

So, what are the most beautiful-sounding words in the English language? It's partly a question of taste, of course, but there's also the difficulty of separating a word's meaning from its sound.

If you ask an American what is the most beautiful word in the English language it seems there's quite a high chance that the answer will be mother. Personally, though, I'm yet to be convinced that mother really does have a very pleasing sound to it.

Does smother?

How about a lovely word like melodious?

How about a horrid one like malodorous?

It's not easy, is it.

Anyway, here are some words that have all been suggested as the most phonoaesthetically pleasing in the language: mellifluous, delicious, diaphanous, shimmering.

Here are some more: plethora, silhouette, salamander, percolator.

And how about these? Avarice, melanoma, clandestine, fallacy.

So there we are, wherever that is - which is quite possibly Exeter, which I visited later in life and found absolutely charming.

File:Archway, Fleming Way, Exeter - - 686551.jpg
Photo by Derek Harper

Thing To Consider Today: phonoaesthetics. This word comes from phōnē, sound and aisthētikos, perceptible to the senses.

Tuesday 25 November 2014

Thing Not To Do Today, Probably: ululate.

To howl, to wail, to yell, to cry, to scream,
To crack through heaven's gauzy shell with pain,
And pierce the angels' songs with grief and rage.

Unfortunately, being English, the nearest people here generally get to a good ululation is an uneasy clearing of the throat as they prepare to sidle from a scene.

Ah well.

I suppose if we're desperate to have a good ululate we could always have a game of Cowboys and what are now known as Native Americans...except that I suppose even that can't be done, these days. I mean, it'd have to be a game where neither side was allowed to win.

So what chance do we have of ululating? Not much.

And I suppose that explains why at the moment everyone seems to feel the need to join a choir.

Thing Not To Do Today Probably: ululate. This word comes from the Latin ululāre to howl, from ulula, which means screech owl.

Eastern Screech Owl.jpg
This is an Eastern Screech Owl, which you find in America and so isn't the sort of screech owl the Romans would have been talking about. But, hey...


Monday 24 November 2014

Spot the Frippet: vacua.

American cockroach. Photo by Gary Alpert

Nature may abhor vacua, but on the whole they're an inoffensive sort of thing.

Yes, vacua is the plural - one of the plurals - of vacuum. The most widely-used and sensible plural of vacuum is vacuums, of course, but vacua is a pleasing conceit for private moments.

But how on earth can we spot vacua? Aren't they invisible?

Well, spotting a vacuum flask is easy enough, and there are vacuum cleaners all over the place. It's admittedly unusual to find either of these devices nowadays with any sort of a vacuum anywhere about its innards, but you might have some food about the place that's been vacuum-packed.

On the whole the best way to see a vacuum is to do a simple but satisfying experiment. First, find a thin empty plastic bottle such as a water bottle. Fill it up with hot water (but not boiling water, or you might melt the thing); after a few moments empty the water out and quickly screw the cap on tight. Wait.

Soon the sides of the bottle will begin to make nice cracking sounds, and soon after that they'll collapse inwards quite spectacularly. 


Well, the air inside your container was quite warm when you put the top on, because it had been heated up by the container's water-heated surfaces. Soon, though, the air cools down, and cool air takes up less space than hot air. This means you have a lower-than-normal volume of stuff in your bottle, which is what a vacuum is, and so the bottle collapses until it's the right size for the amount of stuff in it.

(Some people will insist that a vacuum is somewhere with absolutely nothing at all in it, but without the use of a brain-scanner and a career politician that's much harder to demonstrate.)

If you are a cockroach, all such experiments are unnecessary because you have a vacuum-detector in your bottom. This detects any sort of pressure wave (such as is generated by a descending foot) and allows you to take instant evasive action. 

Unfortunately the same principle encourages you to run straight into the nozzle of any vacuum cleaner. 

Spot the Frippet: vacua. This word comes to us from vacuum, which is Latin for empty space, from vacuus, empty.

Sunday 23 November 2014

Sunday Rest: twee. Word Not To Use Today.

The trouble with dictionaries is that they're too interesting. I mean, it's impossible to look up a word without being caught by at least three others on the way.

At least, it is for me.

Here's a case in point. The other day I was writing about Twitter, and in the dictionary I came across the word twee.

Now, I can't decide if twee is truly a horrible word. It means a horrible thing, i.e. something sick-makingly prettified or sentimental; but is the word, in itself, a shocker?

If I didn't know what it meant, would I dislike it so much?

If I didn't know where the word came from (see below, but only if you're feeling strong) would I dislike it so much?

I suspect are the answers to those questions are no, and no, but it's too late, now. I can practically feel my teeth rotting if the word twee passes my lips.

Still, I suppose that lonely dentists might have an affection for it.

Word Not To Use Today: twee. This word comes...are you ready, because this is truly horrible...this word came into being in the 1800s and is a baby-talk version of sweet


Saturday 22 November 2014

A Song for St Cecilia's Day, 1687 by John Dryden

This is St Cecilia's Day, and here is her song.

John Dryden's poem (sometimes it's called an ode) is rather declamatory for modern tastes, and sometimes it does lurch about a bit.

Still, I don't think anyone can beat it for sheer enthusiasm.

A Song for St. Cecilia's Day, 1687

FROM harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay,
And could not heave her head,        
The tuneful voice was heard from high,
'Arise, ye more than dead!'
Then cold, and hot, and moist, and dry,
In order to their stations leap,
And Music's power obey. 
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man. 
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
When Jubal struck the chorded shell,
His listening brethren stood around,
And, wondering, on their faces fell
To worship that celestial sound: 
Less than a God they thought there could not dwell
Within the hollow of that shell,
That spoke so sweetly, and so well.
What passion cannot Music raise and quell?
The trumpet's loud clangour 
Excites us to arms,
With shrill notes of anger,
And mortal alarms.
The double double double beat
Of the thundering drum 
Cries Hark! the foes come;
Charge, charge, 'tis too late to retreat!
The soft complaining flute,
In dying notes, discovers
The woes of hopeless lovers, 
Whose dirge is whisper'd by the warbling lute.
Sharp violins proclaim
Their jealous pangs and desperation,
Fury, frantic indignation,
Depth of pains, and height of passion, 
For the fair, disdainful dame.
But O, what art can teach,
What human voice can reach,
The sacred organ's praise?
Notes inspiring holy love, 
Notes that wing their heavenly ways
To mend the choirs above.
Orpheus could lead the savage race;
And trees unrooted left their place,
Sequacious of the lyre; 
But bright Cecilia rais'd the wonder higher:
When to her organ vocal breath was given,
An angel heard, and straight appear'd
Mistaking Earth for Heaven.
As from the power of sacred lays
The spheres began to move,
And sung the great Creator's praise
To all the Blest above;
So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour, 
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky!

If this isn't enough magnificence, Handel set the words to music. And here it is, for St Cecilia, the patron saint of music.

I'm hoping not to hear any trumpets on high just yet, however magnificent, though.

Word To Use Today: Cecilia. This name comes from the Roman family name Caecilius, which comes from the Latin caecus, blind.

 *How splendid to have something with a Grand Chorus!

Friday 21 November 2014

Word To Use Today: liver.

Think of a word that's full of the joy of sunshine.

I bet you didn't come up with liver, did you.

No, because to most of us liver is either something squishy inside us, never thought of unless it happens to go wrong, or something that looks like a slab of mud that sometimes ends up on our plate.

File:Beef liver sashimi.JPG
Photo by Schellack

To make things even lovelier, the word liver comes from the Greek word for fat. Yum.

But in Iceland...

You may think you have it dark and gloomy in winter where you live, but the chances are that in Iceland it's worse. Miles worse. The sun hardly gets above the horizon for weeks on end, and that means that (apart from bumping into things a lot when you go out) you get hardly any of the vitamin D you need from sunlight.

So where do you get it from?

If you're Icelandic, the chances are it's from lysi.

Lysi is a traditional supplement for Icelandic children: it's quite common for nurseries to dish the stuff out daily.

What is it?

Liver. Well, cod liver oil, in any case.

The word lysi, by the way, has nothing to do with fat. No, instead lysi is related to the word lysa, which means illuminate. That's because it gives you vitamin D, just as the sun does in the summer.

Lysi: golden liquid sunlight.

It's almost enough to make me want to rush down to the pharmacist for some cod liver oil.

But not quite.

Word To Use Today: liver. The English word comes from the Greek liparos meaning fat.

Thursday 20 November 2014

Beyond words: a rant.

Free Spooky Body Parts Clipart

Look, I love and honour language. I'm awed by its power, flexibility and precision.

But there are limits, you know, and when someone gave these lime green false nails decorated with eyeballs the brand name Elegant Touch, I'm very much afraid they burst through them.

Word To Use Today: elegant. This word comes from the Latin ēlegāns, tasteful, and is related to the other Latin word ēligere, to select.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Nuts and Bolts: chocolate delight.

Have you ever eaten a Marathon chocolate bar?

Don't be too hasty in your denial, because in England until 1990 a Snickers Bar was called a Marathon Bar. And, personally, I've never eaten one since.

I mean, Marathon is obviously the sort of bar that gives you the strength to go a long way, isn't it. But Snickers? The company (Mars) haven't bothered even to pretend that's going to do you any good/ And what can be more important for a chocolate bar than giving an impression of delicious goodness?

I mean, let's look at the figures. The third top-selling chocolate brand in the world is Cadbury's; number two comes in as Toblerone; and the best-selling chocolate bar in the world is...

...wait for it...

...the Snickers Bar!



Another fine theory bites the dust.

The reason I've been thinking about the names of chocolate bars is that the other day I came across Mr Prempy. It's a new company set up in London by Shadi Geris and Suminder Sandhu to sell organic cakes and chocolate bars.

Their best-selling product is called...


Yes, that's right, Gerald.

It's named after the trends forecaster Gerald Celente, a hero of one of the founders. There's also a Mr Prempy's product named after another hero, the philosopher Ludwig von Mises.

In the light of this information, the only theory I can come up with  is that the prospect of chocolate short-circuits the part of the brain that processes language.

And if anyone out there would like me to do some practical research to prove it, I'd be pleased to oblige.

Word To Use Today: one that's the name of a chocolate bar. Toblerone's name is a combination of the Italian word torrone, a type of nougat, and its creator Theodor Tobler; Cadbury was the inventor of the chocolate bar itself; and Snickers was the name of the Mars factory-owner's horse.


Tuesday 18 November 2014

Thing To Do Today But Only Of A Thing Of Which You're Actually President: preside.

"Ladies and Gentlemen of the Society of Cake Bakers!

"I address you as President of the Potato Society, and as President I instruct you to stop at once this decadent baking of cakes.

"If cakes are produced then this will reduce the number of potatoes consumed, and this will harm the Potato Society.

"Therefore the baking of cakes is an aggressive act, and I give you warning that if this continues the Potato Society will be obliged to defend itself.

"I speak as President!"


Thing To Do Today But Only Of A Thing Of Which You're Actually President: preside. This word comes from the Latin praesidēre, to superintend, from prae before, and sedēre, to sit.

Monday 17 November 2014

Spotm the frippet: something esculent.

Something esculent?

It's dead easy.

No, it's not anything to do with escalators or succulents, or even escaping succulents on escalators (Stop that cactus!).

In fact, I'm pretty sure you'll have already come across several esculent things today, and that you, with your usual elegance and skill, have made them entirely invisible - have made them vanish from all mortal ken, in fact.

I'm pretty sure you thoroughly enjoyed doing it, too.

So what does esculent mean?

Well, these are esculent:


And so is this:

File:Boletus luridus 3.jpg
Boletus luridus. Photo by Tokecas.

So, what do they have in common?

Yes, they're both edible.*

But esculent sounds much juicier, doesn't it.

Spot the frippet: something esculent. This word comes from the Latin ēsculentus, good to eat, from ēsca, food.
*In both cases, I hasten to add, only when cooked.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Sunday Rest: antidisestablishmentarianism. Word Not To Use Today.

Compared with some sesquipedalian  German words, antidisestablishmentarianism isn't that long.

In English, however, the use of the word antidisestablishmentarianism (unless you're discussing the history of the Church of England, which is, let's face it, vanishingly unlikely) is a sign that the speaker is both a show-off and a pompous bore.

If anyone's interested (though I can't imagine anyone much is), antidisestablishmentarianism means...well, the establishment bit is to do with the Church of England having a special legal basis in the constitution of England (establishmentarians hold the view that this is a good and necessary thing); disestablishmentarians think the C of E should have no such special political place; and antidisestablishmentarians think they are nuts.

See? It's all quite simple, though very pompous and silly - and surely - surely! - the word must originally been made up as a joke.

Sunday Rest: antidisestablishmentarianism. Establish comes from the Latin word stabilīre, to make firm.


Saturday 15 November 2014

Saturday Rave: In Memorium (Easter 1915) by Edward Thomas.

The loveliest and most terrible thing about remembering is that it goes on and on and on.

The loveliest and most terrible thing about remembering is that it needs to go on and on and on.

Of all the First World War poems, this is the one that comes to my mind most frequently (and not just at Easter) and makes me most forlorn.

Here it is in full.

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

File:Welsh Primrose.jpg
Photo: User:Velela

Word to think about today: never. This word comes from the Old English næfre, and is a compound of ne, not, and æfre, ever.

Friday 14 November 2014

Word To Use Today: tiffin.

Here's something sustaining to help us through to the end of the week.

So what is tiffin, exactly? Well, that depends on where it is.

Tiffin in northern India is traditionally a light meal, especially one taken at midday.

(Yes, most of us would call that lunch, but lunch is a hasty gulp of a word whereas tiffin is a light popping-in-of-morsels, a nibbling of delicious tidbits.)

If you're in Southern India, however, then tiffin is probably a between-meals snack, especially something offered to visitors by Tamils.

On the other hand if you're in Mumbai then tiffin is a packed lunch, which might be delivered by a tiffin wallah in a container called a tiffin:

In Britain nowadays, though, tiffin is usually a cake. It's basically a mixture of biscuit crumbs (that's the crumbs from a British biscuit....something like a US graham cracker, I think) stuck together with syrup, and with a layer of chocolate on top.

I'm afraid that despite the name this sort of tiffin is so lacking in lightness that its other name is chocolate concrete.

Still, sustaining, though.

Word To Use Today: tiffin. This word first appeared in English in the 1700s, and probably comes from the sadly now disused tigging, which comes from tiff, which means to sip.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Dead-head: a rant.

Sadly, according to Britain's i newspaper of 22/10/14, 'the head of Iran's top clerical body has died'.

Well, I'm really very sorry for his loss, and I hope he doesn't miss it too much.

Of course what I really thought was that the above passage displays a slightly unfortunate collision of metaphors written by a hard-pressed journalist. But then something three short paragraphs further on began to make me wonder.

'In the case of his death,' it says, 'the body has to take steps "within the shortest possible time" to appoint a new leader.'

Really? Good heavens.

Well, I'm really looking forward to the film version.

File:Headless life-sized statue of a female figure, she is accompanied by a small dog near her leg left, 2nd century AD, Philippi Museum (7416393560).jpg

Word To Use Today: body. This word comes from the Old English bodig and is related to the Old Norse buthkr, which means box.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Nuts and Bolts: ignotum per aeque ignotum

No, no, not ignotum per ignotius, we've hopped around that subject in The Word Den before. This is ignotum per æque ignotum.

They're different. Ignotum per ignotius is where you explain something really easy by referring to something much more obscure.

'Why is that lady walking like that, Daddy?'

'She has a festinating gait, darling.'

Ignotum per ignotius makes perfect sense, but it probably only conveys any meaning if you already knew what you were talking about in the first place.

Ignotum per æque ignotum displays one small but vital difference from ignotum per ignotius: ignotum per æque ignotium is nuts.

You see, ignotum per æque ignotium explains something by referring to something that's not known to be true.

'What is fire hot, Daddy?'

'Because coal is made of dragons' poo, darling.'



But on the whole the world would be a duller place without it.

Chinese draak.jpg

Nuts and Bolts: this phrase is Latin for the unknown by the equally unknown.


Tuesday 11 November 2014

Thing To Do Today: remember.

The media here in England have been full of headlines asking people not to remember.

The trouble is that the crowds at the Tower of London to see the poppies have been so large that when I visited recently it took me twenty minutes just to shuffle the fifty or so yards from the Tube Station to the road that runs round the Tower.

Last weekend I'm told there was a one-way system in place even for pedestrians.

What poppies, you ask?

Well, today, which is Armistice Day, there are 888,246 ceramic poppies planted in the Tower of London's moat. Each poppy represents a British or Commonwealth person killed in military service during World War One. They form an artwork called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by ceramic artist Paul Cummins with setting by stage designer Tom Piper.

Each poppy represents a young life cut short.

Oh, and there are so many of them. So many.

'I had to come,' an old lady told me, 'because my uncle was killed. He was blown to pieces and they never found so much as a scrap of him.'

The poppies have all been bought by members of the public, at £25 each, raising millions of pounds for military charities.

File:Tower of London Poppy.jpg
Photo by JeyHan This picture was taken some time ago. Now the moat is completely filled with hundreds of thousands of red poppies.

People are determined to remember: and, you know something?  

It warms my heart.

Thing To Do Today: remember. This word comes from the Old French remembrer, from the Late Latin remormorārī , to recall to mind.

Monday 10 November 2014

Spot the Frippet: autochthon.

What I love about words is...ooh, that would be a long list...but apart from the crispness and the bite and the sweetness, it's largely the looking-at-the-world-in-a-new-way thing.

Just about every word in a language tells you something about the way people think. In fact it's probably the best way to find out about other people's intimate lives short of taking up a career in burglary.

So, autochthon.

An autochthon is one of the earliest known inhabitants of any country - or, sometimes, someone descended from one of them. It can also be an animal or plant that's native to a particular region.

But that's not quite as easy as it sounds - I mean, I live in England and for quite a lot of time nothing lived here because it was largely covered in ice. In warm periods, like the one we're having at the moment, some plants and animals came along of their own accord.
So, are those sort-of-native oak trees and roe deer autochthonous?

I suppose the chalk this house sits on is autochthonous because it's made of crushed sea creatures, and presumably they didn't move about much once they were crushed: except that, as the house is now 400 ft above sea-level, perhaps not.

Suddenly even the earth under my feet is shifting uneasily. One word, and a whole life-time of assumptions are crumbling.

Is there an autochthon near you? Are you sure?

Good luck with finding one, anyway.

Spot the Frippet: an autochthon. This word comes from the Greek autos, self, and khthṓn, earth or soil.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Sunday Rest: plaudit. Word Not To Use Today.

All languages are interesting, and some are bizarre (Russian, for instance, always sounds to me as if it's being spoken backwards). I even like non-human and alien languages.

And the word plaudit must surely have been borrowed from an alien language. I mean, it's so plainly the sound a robot makes as it engages its translation program.

"Plaudit! Is this the planet Sol?"

"Plaudit! Why do you have only one nose?"

"Plaudit! Why do you keep that bipedal hairless creature on a lead?"

The great shame is that plaudit means great approval or applause. A plaudit is a thing a joy and pride: 

So why on earth does it have to sound like a love-sick frog, that's what I want to know.

Well, it was the clever-clever Latin speakers of the 1600s who first started using it.


And I bet a lot of them were robots or frogs, too.

Word Not To Use Today: plaudit. This word comes from the Latin plaudere, to applaud.

Saturday 8 November 2014

Saturday Rave: Ulysses by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The other week on the Isle of Wight I walked from The Needles (they're pointy spikes of chalk sticking out of the sea):

File:Edward William Cooke - Off the Needles, Isle of Wight - Google Art Project.jpg
Off the Needles, Isle of Wight, by Edward William Cooke, 1845.

 along the cliff tops to the Tennyson Memorial:

The wind at the Needles was so strong that in some places I couldn't keep my footing.

 There was no other person at the Tennyson Memorial, which was put up by public subscription as a signal to shipping, but the earth round the base of the cross was churned to black mud by cows.

Tennyson lived for many years near the place where his memorial stands, but when I re-read his poem Ulysses, which was published in 1842, I wonder if he was happy to be bounded as he was by the waves of his island.

...Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die...
But of course the fact that Tennyson was a poet means that he could go on vast adventures without so much as stirring from his chair.

Still, I can't help but wonder.
Word To Use Today: furrow. This comes from the Old English furh, from the Latin porca, which means exactly the opposite of a furrow, that is, a ridge between them.


Friday 7 November 2014

Word To Use Today: geoduck.

A little learning, as Pope said, is a dangerous thing. Which is a bit of a pain because, lets face it, a little learning is all any of us are ever going to acquire.

I mean, you may well know absolutely everything about Plato and Pittsburgh, but who won the FA Cup in 1923*?

Anyway, geoduck. Those of us with a little learning will know that there's a strong chance that a word that begins geo is something to do with the Greek word for the earth; as for duck, well everyone knows what a duck is.

Except, of course, those of us with a little learning (which is, yes, all of us, see above). We will be thinking about Bombay Duck, which is a sort of fish. Here the duck bit of the name seems to be something to do with the fact that once the stuff is preserved it stinks to high heaven. Daak is an Indian term for mail (as in letters and parcels) and my guess is that, like mail, Bombay Duck communicated over a great distance. 

So, geoduck? Could it be a sort of mud-wriggling lungfish?

No, it can't, though as it happens you're not a million miles away (which is a good thing or you'd be well on the other side of the moon). A geoduck is a large (sometimes up to two metres long) edible clam found in Canada, the USA and New Zealand:

They're not only big, but long-lived: the oldest geoduck is said to have been 168 years old.

(Yes, you're seeing correctly: they do have things that look like trunks, and are sometimes called elephant clams.)

So there we have it. Geoduck. A word to confuse everyone, and to be treasured all the more for that.

Word To Use Today: geoduck. My Collins dictionary suggests that the first part of this word is pronounced as in geography, but Wikipedia suggests it's pronounced as in gooey. The word comes from the Lushootseed gʷídəq, which might mean dig deep. Or possibly something ruder.

I'm not sure how to suggest using this word, but it's too good to lie neglected in a dark dictionary. As slippery as a geoduck? As plump as a geoduck? As juicy as a geoduck? Guzzling like a geoduck?

Yes. I quite like that one.

*Bolton. The FA Cup is a soccer competition.

Thursday 6 November 2014

Pss! A rant.

At Osbourne, Queen Victoria's estate on the Isle of Wight (nice exterior designed by Prince Albert; ghastly, narcissistic, and possibly even necrophiliac interior mostly ordered, I should imagine, by Queen Victoria) there's a Swiss Cottage that was built for the young princesses and princes to play in.

There's a pretend fort nearby, and garden plots where the poor children were required to raise vegetables. Not far from these vegetable plots are a collection of small green wheelbarrows, one for each of Queen Victoria's children, and each inscribed with a name.

Well, actually each not inscribed with a name.

Pss R, it says on one.

Here's the person I think must have been Pss R. (She's grown up in this picture, but I've chosen it because it's so lovely. Her name was Vickie.)

1858 Princess Royal Victoria's wedding dress

But, really, Pss R? I'm assuming that stands for Princess Royal, but it's a far-from-lovely abbreviation.

Poor Vickie.

Word Not To Abbreviate Today: princess. This word comes to us as a feminine form of prince, of course, which is from the Latin prīnceps which means first man, ruler or chief.


Wednesday 5 November 2014

Nuts and Bolts: plot.

Remember, remember
The fifth of November...

we all used to chant in the school playground

...With gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever - be - forGOT.

This is England's bonfire-and-firework night. On the fifth of November 1605 terrorist plotters:

File:Gunpowder Plot conspirators.jpg

 tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The dastardly dark deed was discovered just in time, saving many lives.

We're still celebrating, hundreds of years later.


I think the clue's in the rhyme.

No, not the gunpowder, and not the treason: it's the plot that gets us. It's the plot that catches our attention and makes a home so satisfyingly in our minds. 

Of course books without plots are reckoned rather clever at the moment, but as far as I'm concerned they're like a car without wheels: beautiful, interesting and intricate, perhaps - but not going anywhere at all.

Now, don't you want to know more about the Gunpowder Plot

Of course you do.

You can find all about it HERE

Word To Use Today: plot. This Old English word means piece of land. It's probably come to mean story partly because of the Old French complot, which means conspiracy.