This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 31 December 2014

6th Day of Chrismas: geese a laying. Nuts and Bolts.

Goose, geese...

So...mongoose, mongeese?

Er, no. 

English is usually rather conventional when it comes to plurals. Sometimes it doesn't bother with a different plural form at all (one sheep, a flock of sheep); sometimes it doesn't bother with singular forms (clothes, smithereens); but otherwise English almost always just bungs an s or an es at the end of the word.

There are so few properly English exceptions you can list them: mouse, foot, child, tooth, ox, louse, man, woman, die (that's the sort you play games with).

Some words borrowed from other languages have bought their odd plurals with them: trauma and traumata; octopus and octopodes; and the singular of imagines is imago. Some originally French expressions put the plural s in a slightly odd place, such as courts martial.

But some other languages find adding a simple s to a word to make it plural very dull: so, for instance the plural of Inuit is the very fine Inuk.

The Wiradjuri people of south eastern Australian form plurals by doubling words. Wagga, meaning crow, gives us the place name Wagga Wagga, meaning place of many crows.

Other languages see no reason why the plural marker should go at the end at all. The plural for the Zulu umuntu, which means person, for example, is abantu. (This would be even more extraordinary if the English plural of person wasn't so often people.)

The Sundanese (an Indonesian language) word for child is budak, and Sundanese speakers see no reason why plurals should involve attacking either end of a word. Their word for children is b-ar-udak.

But of all peculiar plurals my favourite comes from somewhere much closer to home.

The Welsh have the quite gorgeously perverse oen, lamb, which has the plural form wyn; and, even more cherishably, the Welsh llaw, hand, which has the plural dwylo.

Both utterly glorious, as far as I'm concerned.

Word To Use Today: one with an eccentric plural form. Like the weirder of the available plurals of sphinx, sphinges, perhaps.

Tuesday 30 December 2014

5th Day of Christmas: five gold rings. Thing To Do Today.

Tomorrow is the New Year's Eve, when we ring out the old Year and then, on the stroke of midnight, begin to ring in the new.

In England, the ringing for the death of the Old Year is done with leather pads (muffles) tied to one side of the clappers of the bells (the clappers are the waggly drumstick-like things that strike the sides of the bell to make the noise). This means that alternate dongs of the bell sound muffled and echoing. It's the way bells in England are rung as a sign of mourning.

Just before midnight, some brave souls will climb up to the dark and chilly bell chamber, climb over the bell frame, and take off the muffles. (And if you're wondering what's so brave about that, the bells, the largest of which may weigh more than a ton, are balanced most precariously with their mouths facing upwards: 

one incautious step and you're likely to get clobbered by a ton of falling metal.)

Once the muffles are taken off then the New Year can be rung in with celebratory style. If you can hear them for all the fireworks.

Anyway, ringing. This is easy to do, even without a bell, whether you ring a friend or a relative on the telephone or walk in a circle round a tree. 

If those sound dull then you can ring the changes (another bell-ringing expression, like ringing in the New Year) by doing something, anything, unusual.

Yes, why not ring down the curtain (a theatrical expression) on your usual way of doing things. Walk the other way home. Try that food you've never fancied. Read some Vietnamese fairy stories (highly recommended).

Above all, take a ringside seat and get ready to enjoy the spectacle and adventure of what is sure to be an astonishing New Year.

Thing To Do Today: ring. This word comes from the Old English hringan, which is probably an imitation of the sound it makes.

Monday 29 December 2014

The 4th Day of Christmas: colly birds: Spot the Frippet.

Four colly birds...

But what on earth does colly mean?

Now, I've been able to answer to that question for ages. The only problem is that, as so often, it's been the wrong answer.

Colly? I would have said, right up until, ooh, about yesterday, that's short for calling. A colly bird is a calling bird, hence anything that warbles, twitters or coos. Though not necessarily anything that tweets.

But I would have been wrong, wrong, wrong, though not quite utterly and completely. At least a colly bird is a bird, and not a fish, like a Bombay duck, or a frog, like a mountain chicken. And the colly birds you get in England do sing very beautifully. Like this:

Do you get it, yet? Colly bird. Well, look at the colour of its feathers.

Yep. That's it. Colly means soot or grime. There's even a verb colly which means to besmirch.

And, yep again, colly is basically the same word as coal.

So today's Frippet is either a grubby bird, or one that is black, or one that looks grubby.

colly bird could be a crow, blackbird, urban pigeon, or quite a lot of female birds who rely on being less than obvious in order to escape attention when they're nesting.

I'm afraid this won't be all that easy for The Word Den's Antarctic visitors...

Image for Pix For > Cute Baby Penguins

...although some penguin chicks do look as if they've been rooting about in a coal scuttle, don't they.

Word To Use Today: colly. This word comes from the Old English col, which means coal.

Sunday 28 December 2014

The 3rd Day of Christmas: French Hens. Sunday Rest.

I was never sure why they were specifically French hens.

The cockerel is a symbol of France, of course (this started off as a Roman joke based on the fact that the Latin gallus means both Gaul (the Roman word for France) and cockerel).

But what is a French hen like?

I've always imagine something tremendously chic, head held high, combining true elegance, the production of exquisite eggs, and an excellent flavour.

There are certainly French breeds of hen like that:

Faverolles cock and hen close-up.jpg
Faverolles cockerel and hen.

 but in the song of the Twelve Days of Christmas the chances seem to be that French really just means foreign: something exotic, and therefore mysterious and exciting.

So, are French things mysterious and exciting?

Well, there are 59 entries for French things in my Collins dictionary. The thing you notice first about them is that, while some of them are genuinely from France (French bulldogs, for instance), some definitely aren't (what we call French Horns have the wrong type of valves to be French Horns: they're actually specifically  German horns). French chalk is a particularly pleasing example of bad labelling, being almost certainly neither from France nor made of chalk.

Sp. is it time we tidied English up so it starts making sense?

Well, apart from the fact that you'd have to get rid of half the language before you could begin to make it work, no, I don't think it is. 

It would mean you'd understand what you were talking about the whole time.

But what would happen to all the mystery and excitement, then?

Word Not To Use Today Without A Bit Of Thought: French. This word comes from the Old English Frencisc, Frankish, perhaps from frankon, a lance.

Saturday 27 December 2014

The 2nd Day of Christmas: The Song of Solomon: a rave.

The flowers appeare on the earth, the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

That gorgeous evocation of Spring* is from The Song of Solomon (2-12 if you're counting).

Now, the thing any sane person will be wondering is, what does a turtle's voice sound like?

Well, in moments of great excitement, as when apparently trying to play leapfrog, it sounds like this:

The next thing any sane person will be asking is, why would anyone want to write poetic stuff about that strained wheezing?
Well, I think it's probably because it wasn't actually the voice of turtles that Solomon heard in the land, but the voice of turtle doves (Shakespeare's poem The Phoenix and the Turtle is about a turtle dove, so calling the birds turtles was established practice at around the time of the translation of The Song of Solomon).
But why is it called a turtle dove?
Look at the pattern of feathers on their backs. It does look a bit like a turtle shell, doesn't it:
European Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur).jpg
Okay, So what does the voice of a turtle dove sound like?
It sounds like this (you have to wait a bit to hear the bubbling call):
So on the whole, and taking everything into consideration, I really think that Solomon was writing about the song of the doves.
Don't you?
Word To Use Today: turtle. This word comes from the French tortue, tortoise, but has been changed a bit because of the influence of the German Turteltaube, turtledove.
*I realise it's not Spring anywhere on Earth at the moment, but the migratory turtle dove doesn't do winter.

Friday 26 December 2014

The First Day of Christmas: partridge. Word To Use Today.

So, have you ever seen a partridge in a pear tree?

Almost certainly not, because partridges, being particularly plump and full of meaty goodness, are much safer crouching invisibly on the ground.

Well, nearly invisible:

File:Chukar Partridge.jpg
Chukar Partridge. Photo by Karunakar Rayker

So why else do you rarely partridges in pear trees?

Because partridges tend to live in open fields and moors.

Because they tend to eat seeds and not great big juicy pieces of fruit.

Because they're not passerines.

They're not what?

Oh, a passerine is a perching bird. If you're a passerine (as about half the species of birds in the world are), then if you go to sleep and someone sneaks up behind you and tries to knock you off your perch, you automatically cling on. Non-passerines fall off. (Non-passerines (like pigeons) do quite often sit in trees, though.)

Above all, you don't find partridges in pear trees because, according to Greek legend, the first partridge appeared when Daedalus threw his nephew Perdix off the sacred hill of Athena in a fit of rage. So now all partridges, remembering Perdix's catastrophic fall, keep near the ground, neither building their nests in the trees nor flying far off the ground.

And what's with the pear tree?

Well, no one knows, but pear tree does sound a lot like Perdix, doesn't it?

Word To Use On The First Day of Christmas: partridge. This word comes from the Old French perdriz, from the Greek perdrix.

Thursday 25 December 2014

santa claus: a rant

Yes, but look, why is Santa called Santa when Santa is only for girls?

Think about it. It's not Santa Francisco, is it? Or Santa Antonio?

It's Santa Barbara or Santa Monica, yes, but San Francisco, San Antonio.

So it should be San Claus, shouldn't it? 

Okay there might be a slight problem, in that San Claus sounds like a foot disinfectant for pets, but apart from that, don't people care about grammar?

I mean, where has Santa gone and got his stupid name from?




Ah. that case I suppose that's okay, then.

Merry Old Santa Claus

Happy Christmas!

Name To Use Today: Santa Claus. Santa may be the Spanish title for a strictly female saint, but Santa's name doesn't come from Spanish. Instead it comes from the Middle Dutch Sante Klaas (which later became Sinter Niklaas). That's the Saint Nicholas, of course, who was a bishop of Asia Minor and patron saint of children.

Wednesday 24 December 2014

Nuts and Bolts: Tundra Yukagir

It's Christmas Eve, and everyone greedy for presents is turning their thoughts to the far north.

My thoughts are in the far north, too, but just now I am more concerned about something that we're in danger of losing.

The language of Tundra Yukagir is spoken by about fifty people in the northeast of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia) in Arctic Russia.

Tundra Yukagir is extremely special and precious, because when you tell stories in Tundra Yukagir you do it in a different way from everyone else in the world.

When you tell a story in Tundra Yukagir, you start off speaking it, but gradually you begin to sing.

Here's a poem translated from Tundra Yukagir. The poetry of Tundra Yukagir is stunningly beautiful, and I recommend it strongly.

When Our Camps Separated

When our camps separated
I looked after him:
He is tall like a mountain ash
His hair covered his shoulders
Like black squirrels' tails.
When he disappeared
I lay down in the tent:
Oh, how long is a spring day?
But the evening came
And through a hole in the tent cover
I saw my love coming.
When he came in
And looked at me
My heart melted
Like snow in the sun.

It being Christmas time, I'm glad to bring tidings of great joy. The name the Tundra Yukagir people have for themselves is the Odul, which means mighty, and in the village of Andryushkino, where most Tundra Yukagir people live, Tundra Yukagir is refusing to die. The children are learning their mother tongue at school from local native teachers, and a huge effort is being made to preserve it, to record it, and to encourage outside people to learn it.

And I have hope that soon there will be more Tundra Yukagir stories and poems for us to cherish.

Yukagir Shaman, 1902.

Word To Use Today: tundra. This word comes from the Finnish tunturi, a treeless hill.

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Thing To Do Today: carol.

It's not just carols you carol, you know.

My Collins dictionary defines a carol as a joyful hymn or religious song, especially one celebrating the birth of Christ.

The trouble with that definition is that some carols are really rather gloomy:

and some are not religious at all (Deck The Halls); some commemorate the death of Christ (My Dancing Day); and some celebrate eating (We Wish You A Merry Christmas) and  drinking (various Wassail Songs).

Luckily this doesn't matter. To carol is to sing in a joyful and enthusiastic manner, and whatever we're singing about it'll lift our hearts.

As for the others within earshot, the best thing for them will probably be to join in lustily and try to drown us out.

Thing To Do Today: carol. If you don't enjoy singing then a carol is also an old English circular dance - by which I mean one danced by a circle of people, not by a lonely, waveringly rotating drunk. The word carol came from France in the 1200s, but where it came from before that is a mystery.

Monday 22 December 2014

Spot the Frippet: angel.

But where can one spot an angel, you may ask? William Blake spotted them quite often in trees, but then William Blake was…


Well, there are still angels to be found if we look.

In aquaria or rivers:
File:Freshwater angelfish biodome.jpg
 Photo of freshwater angelfish by mendel

In the sea:
Australian angel shark
Or, if you're lucky, you may find part of an angel cake (the whole cakes are extremely transitory):

If the cakes and fishes are hard to find then a grocer may stock the very fine long pasta called angel hair (or angel’s hair, as it says in my Collins dictionary, the hair apparently all coming from one single and astonishingly hirsute angel).

Even if all these things are difficult to spot then most of us will be familiar on a daily basis with angel gear, which, rather disappointingly, does not consist of a long white kaftan-like robe sprinkled with the light of a thousand stars, but is instead an Australian term for the neutral gear of a motor vehicle, especially when used to coast downhill.
If you want to see a real with-wings type angel, then angelology (yes, I'm afraid that really is a word) suggests that there are many types available for spotting, namely seraphim, cherabim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels.
If all else fails, I suggest in this season of goodwill (ha!) being an angel yourself and making someone a much-needed cup of tea.
File:Students from the Sunderland School for the Blind, rehearsing their Nativity play (December 1924).jpg
Sunderland School for the Blind, 1924.
Spot the Frippet: angel. This word comes from the Greek angelos, which means messenger.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Sunday Rest: bauble. Word Not To Use Today.

File:Christmas bauble black and white.jpg
Photo: David Singleton

Christmas, Christmas...a time of comfort, joy, and, particularly, madness.

A time when people who make gingerbread villages are taken seriously.

A time when people believe that a festival where semi-drunken people will be lolling about all over the house munching chocolates is a good time to unveil a new sofa.

A time when people who loathe each other are deliberately invited to spend time together. 

A time when even the sanest of us is surrounded by baubles, whether we mean sparkly items of little use or value, or (as in Britain) we mean the usually spherical things we hang on our Christmas trees.


The word sounds like the slack-mouthed ravings of someone driven to utter gabbling madness.


Quite appropriate, really.

Word Not To Use Today: bauble. This word comes from the Old French baubel, a plaything.

Saturday 20 December 2014

Saturday Rave: The Oxen, by Thomas Hardy.

One of the questions examiners like to ask about Thomas Hardy is whether he's a fatalist or a pessimist.

For myself, I rather think that Hardy-the-novelist was a rather different person from Hardy-the-poet; and Hardy-the-poet seems to have been quite a different person from Hardy-the-countryman.

Which Hardy is the one that matters?

Well, all of them, of course: all three wise men.

Here's one of Hardy's poems, where the poet and the countryman seem to be working together.

It's called The Oxen.

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

File:Andrea Previtali - Nativity - WGA18404.jpg
Andrea Previtali

But then perhaps Christmas makes optimists of us all.
Word To Use Today: ox. This word comes from the Old English oxa, so it's been with us for over a thousand years.

Friday 19 December 2014

Word To Use Today: wort.

Some words are just shimmering with charisma and glamour...

No, you're right, wort isn't one of them.

Wort (you say it to rhyme with dirt, curt and chert, which just goes to show how awkward the English language can be at times) is an earthy sort of a word, a bung-it-in-the-cauldron-with-the-eye-of-newt-and-see-what-happens sort of a word.

Having said that, the potions that have been made with worts have often been made with the best of intentions, as the names of many worts attest. We have liverwort, lungwort, spleenwort:

File:Spleene-wort, John Gerard, 1633 Wellcome L0007144.jpg

milkwort, woundwort, stitchwort, bladderwort, adderwort, birthwort, barrenwort, bloodwort, navelwort, throatwort, blushwort, bruisewort, cancerwort, feverwort, goutwort, kidneywort, lustwort (whether tending to encourage or discourage lust I do not know) nipplewort, pilewort, quinsywort, rupturewort, scurvywort, sneezewort, toothwort, and lastly the oh-so-delightfully named wartwort.

(As if that's not enough worts, there's also the sweet wort you get when you mix ground malt with warm water when you're making beer.)

Do any of these worts have the slightest effect on any of the organs, woes, or diseases with which they are linked?

Probably not. Some worts, indeed, are positively harmful and poisonous, such as the swallow-worts or dog-strangling vines:

File:Gigantic swallow wort (Calotropis gigantea) in Hyderabad, AP W IMG 7953.jpg
Gigantic Swallow-wort, Calotropis gigantea. Photo by J.M.Garg

Still, worts have been around for a long time, and none of us are dead yet.

Well, that has to be the main thing, doesn't it.

 Word To Use Today: wort. A word with the suffix wort is often very old. Wort comes from the Old English wyrt, root, and can be traced back to Proto-Indo-European origins.

Thursday 18 December 2014

cissies: a rant

What are you?

A man?

Ah, but have you always been a man? (Actually, come to think about it, no one has always been a man because the baby-boy thing always comes first. Unless, of course, you started off as a baby girl. In this case you are a transgendered man (though I wonder if it might be more logical to describe you as a transgendered woman).*)


Anyway, what if you aren't transgendered? What sort of a man are you then?

Well, in that case, apparently, you're a cis man. (It's all right: it sounds as if you're being called a sissie, but that's just an unfortunate coincidence.) If you've always been female then you're a cis woman.

The cis terms are presumably of some use to some people, though I think on the whole I'd rather not be called a cis woman. The thing is, I like to feel I can do a bit of carpentry or geometry from time to time without being untrue to myself... short, all this stuff is terribly complicated.

Apparently on Facebook there are about fifty different genders to choose from.

I think I'm down as female; but if mildly variable is an option, then perhaps I'll change it to that.

Word To Consider Today: cis. This comes from the Latin prefix cis, meaning on this side of, which is the opposite of trans. For instance the Roman word Cisalpine, meant on this side of the Alps.

*I refuse to get het-up about the muddle of the words gender and sex: they're past worrying about.


Wednesday 17 December 2014

Nuts and Bolts: rhoticity.

The great thing is that it's all right.

Really, it is.

That pronouncing-all-your-rs thing. You can pronounce them and be rhotic - or not pronounce them all, and be non-rhotic. It's just a matter of geography.

For instance, do you pronounce the r in car?

You probably do if the word is followed by alarm (try it) but otherwise, if you come from England, you probably don't.

English-speakers from other places tend on the whole to sound their rs even when they come at the ends of words.

My Christmas cards, for instance, have only one r in them, after the Ch; my butter, when I talk about it, has no r in it at all unless it's in something like butter icing.

It doesn't matter. Usually.

Although I must admit that the Wicket the Ewok used to get in a terrible state when trying to say the word warrior, didn't he.

Thing To Consider Today: rhoticity. This word comes from the Greek rho, which is their name for the letter r.

Tuesday 16 December 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: trouser something.

Britain and the USA, it has often been said, are two nations divided by a common language.*

You say pants (as the song might have gone) and I say trousers...
(though, to be pedantic, I say pants, too. It's just that when I do I'm referring either to rubbish, as in 'it was just pants', or to underpants.)

Anyway, trouser. This word, when used as an action, doesn't quite mean to steal, it's more in the region of grasping a dodgy  opportunity to increase one's wealth. As in 'we all put in a twenty pound note for lunch and he went and trousered the change!'

Or 'what happened to the collection for the orphanage?' 'I expect the council trousered it.'

I don't know why, but the use of this word is a source of deep personal satisfaction.

Sadly, though, I don't think the word is ever used of women.

Not even, in my experience, when wearing a trouser suit.

Velvet Trouser Suit

Thing Not To Do Today: trouser something. The word trouser comes from the Scots Gaelic triubhas, from the Old French trebus.

*Perhaps originally said by either GB Shaw or Oscar Wilde.

Monday 15 December 2014

Spot the Frippet: trunk.

Photo: Stuart Bassil

Words jump. Last week's Spot the Frippet, galley, had leapt, quite sensibly and comprehensibly, from meaning a sort of a ship to being a name for a tray of type.

It's the same with trunks. Trunks may seem like very different things - what does a person's torso have in common with a long-distance telephone call, or an elephant's prehensile nose with what I here in England call the boot of a car? - but they've all grown from the same place.

It all started with the Latin word truncus, which means lopped. From there it's easy to see how it became the word for the main stem of a tree, and from there onwards to take in the main stem of a human body, a road, a railway, and a ventilation or telephone system.

But how about the box-like trunks, that take your holiday clothes? How about the trunks that men wear for swimming?

Well, the word seems to have jumped from meaning something strong that leads somewhere, to meaning something strong that encloses something (and also travels somewhere). That's how you get to trunk cabins on ships, and the trunkfish, which is enclosed in bony plates.

File:PSM V21 D612 Ostraciontidae horned trunk fish.jpg

Swimming trunks aren't usually strong, but their function is to protect something delicate and precious.

Or so I understand.

Spot the Frippet: trunk. Easiest spot ever. From the Old French tronc, from the Latin truncus, lopped.

Sunday 14 December 2014

Sunday Rest: ethmoid. Word Not To Use Today.

Brain like a sieve? I know mine is. Did you know, though, that your skull like a sieve?

Ethmoid is a horrid word, managing to sound like something between a sore-throat lozenge and the owner of a Yorkshire corner-shop, but I'm afraid we all have ethmoid bones, and ethoid sinuses, and even, Heaven help us, labyrinths of ethmoid.

This is the ethmoid bone:


Yours is at the sides of the top of your nose, and the most remarkable thing about it is that it's magnetic. No, really, it is: it has magnetite deposits in it. In some birds this deposit allows them to steer their way on migration by sensing the direction of the earth's magnetic field, but it doesn't work in humans. Well, it doesn't work with this human, at least. I can get lost in a telephone box.

You may not have been aware of your ethmoid bones, but you'd know if they got broken (they're very fragile because they're full of holes). Seriously nasty stuff can happen, including going pop-eyed when you sneeze, and losing your sense of smell.

And it wouldn't even be any good taking good taking ethmoid lozenges, then.

Word Not To Use Today: ethmoid. This word comes from the Greek ethmos, which means sieve.

Saturday 13 December 2014

Saturday Rave: headlines. Anonymous.

The headlines of a newspaper are usually anonymous. They're written by a sub-editor, who doesn't get a credit.

Well, credit isn't always the right word:


doesn't display the happiest turn of phrase. And neither does:


Now, I'm not saying that headline-writing isn't a sophisticated skill - it is, it is - but quite honestly sometimes all a sub-editor is doing is telling it how it is, as in:


or, another example:


Quite often, though, a headline is a work of tremendous skill, thought and cunning; and occasionally even genius:


is one to savour for ever. And while we're on the subject of genius, this following example is a sub-headline, really, but it's just too good to leave out. It's from the Ulster Gazette:

Is this the rail price?
Is this just fantasy?
Caught up in land buys
No escape from bureaucracy!

And why are headlines on my mind? Well, I caught sight of one out of the corner of my eye the other day. It said:


But then I looked again, and it actually said PARENTS.

Never mind. It's still making me laugh.

Word To Use Today: headline. This word...well, it's a line that goes at the head of an article, isn't it. Doh....

*Caley are the soccer team Caledonian Thistle. In February 2000 they defeated Celtic FC 3-1 in the third round of the Scottish Cup. The headline appeared in The Sun.

Friday 12 December 2014

Word To Use Today: ale.

Yes, of course you already know that ale is an alcoholic drink quaffed in large quantities. But what is it, exactly?

Well, it depends. Technically, ale is beer that's brewed in an open vessel using yeasts that rise to the top of the brew (lager is brewed in a closed vessel with yeasts that sink).

In former times, however, ale was completely different from beer because beer was flavoured with hops, and ale wasn't.

Nowadays the difference between beer and ale is mostly a matter of image. If you're trying to sell drink to edgy fashionable urban people then you won't think of calling it ale (unless the countryside, or a speciality brew like India Pale Ale, is having one of its fashionable phases). But if you're trying to sell to tourists, or to people who imagine themselves countryfolk (or historians) then it's ale that will get their tongues hanging out.

I love the language of ale. Before hops were used, the bitterness in ale was provided by gruit, a mixture of herbs and perhaps spices, and the gruit was boiled with the wort (a mixture of warm water and malt). And then when the stuff's made, and tasting all fruity and estery the chances are you'll put it in a hogshead.

In mediaeval times, weak ale would have been drunk by everyone, including children, every day. It may have been safer to drink than the water because of the boiling that was part of its manufacturing process.

At Christmas, ale is traditionally spiced, having cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and orange peel added to it before it's fermented.

The result is either an extra warming mid-winter drink, or something that tastes of mouthwash.

Word To Use Today: ale. This word comes from the Old English alu or ealu, and might go right back to the Proto-Indo-European root alu-.

Thursday 11 December 2014

The language of shirts: a rant

Dr Matt Taylor, the space scientist, has landed a spacecraft on a comet. The project will greatly increase Man's store of knowledge, and may even give us some pointers towards answering the problem of How We All Got Here In The First Place.

Dr Matt Taylor: a great mind devoted to the heroic pursuit of truth.

Unfortunately, for some of his audience the really notable thing about Dr Taylor's project was his taste in shirts.

Dr Taylor's shirt was printed with images of attractive young long-haired women. I cannot deny that they looked much more luscious in their outfits than Dr Taylor did in his.

Dr Taylor's shirt was loud. It was unconventional. It was, frankly, hideous (you can find an image of it HERE). It celebrated the female form. And what Dr Taylor was saying about the universe by wearing it was...



Look, I'm not saying that we don't have a language of shirts. Of course we do. Every stitch of clothes we choose to wear speaks, as they say, volumes.

But I'm reminded of the Elizabethan courtier who never changed his style of clothes on the principle that he'd be in fashion once in seven years, which was enough for him.

To despise Dr Taylor for his choice of shirt is like despising a fashion designer for his ignorance of physics. It's not that a fashion designer necessarily thinks that physics is unnecessary, evil, or dull, it's just that he or she is probably too busy thinking about fashion to worry about it, much.

No one speaks all the languages of the world. I don't speak Swahili; Dr Matt Taylor doesn't speak shirt.

But, good heavens above, I really think that anyone who claims the right to criticise him should first of all prove to us their fluency in the language of astrophysics.

Word To Use Today: comet. This word comes from the Greek komētēs, which means long-haired. So perhaps Dr Taylor's shirt was exactly suited to the occasion, after all.


Wednesday 10 December 2014

Nuts and Bolts: passing sentence.

Last week I was just beginning to wonder about sentences when I got distracted by chunking.

The thing is, people get terribly worked up about sentences. Does a sentence have to have someone doing something in it?

Or not?

It's not easy, this sentence thing, is it?

Some people take a different approach altogether and talk about a sentence conveying a complete thought.

Errrmmm...I'm not really sure about that...Anyway, what if a sentence is about both my need for clarity and my fear of making an idiot of myself?

Some other people call grandly on the grammatical rules of the ancient tongues.

But, hey, eu!

Some speak of Capital Letters and Full Stops.

But what if a Capt. walks into a sentence?

(In any case, quite apart from that, I don't often bother with punctuation when I'm talking - though some people do use a limited system of "hand signals".)

In the end I have to admit to confusion and ignorance - except for the fact that I've been using sentences very nearly all my life without any trouble at all, so I must have been doing something right.

I can only conclude that, like tying a tie, it's probably easiest if you don't think too much about it.

Thing To Use Today: a sentence that someone will say isn't a sentence. So there! will probably do.

The word sentence comes from the Latin sententia, a way of thinking, from sentīre, to feel.

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Thing Not To Do Today: be stony.

'Coming out tonight, Al?'

'Nah, I'm stony.'

So what did Al mean? That he had no interest in, or warmth for, his friend?

No, what he meant was that he was stony-broke: that is, without money to spend.

(In America I understand the expression is stone-broke.)

Nowadays, with money to be borrowed more or less everywhere, stony is becoming uncommon as a concept - though when I say more or less everywhere, going up to a stranger in the streets and asking for a couple of quid is likely to get you a pretty stony reception.

But don't be stony. A heart of stone may keep you safe from hurt, but only in the same way that living in a box makes you safe from measles.

Yes, there are people out there ready to bruise you heart, but then there are these:

File:Hamster in hand.jpg
That's Egbert the hamster. Photo by Keith Pomakis

and these:

File:Baby Boy Oliver.jpg
That's Oliver. Photo by Voiceboks

and these:

File:Cocker Spaniel Puppy.jpg
Photo by  Deskana

Is your heart melted, yet?

Okay, then here I call up the irresistible force:

File:Golden tabby and white kitten n03.jpg
Photo Marie-Lan Nguyen

That's better, isn't it.

Thing Not To Do Today: be stony. This word has been around almost unchanged for thousands of years. It's related to the Greek stion, which means pebble.

Monday 8 December 2014

Spot the frippet: galley.

Have you been slaving over a hot stove?

You probably have, for it's the season for feasts and festivities, and thus of the galley slave - that is, someone working very hard for no money and little thanks.

An easy spot, that.

The oldest sort of a galley was a ship, either of trade or war. These earliest galleys could be propelled by sails or oars, but later the word became particularly associated with ships rowed by slaves.

File:Abraham Willaerts, Galley and men of war.jpeg
Abraham Willaerts. See the red wing-like oars?

Those galleys travelled far and wide, but never, if they could help it, galley-west, which is a lovely American term meaning knocked silly, dizzy, or out.

Later, cooking for a ship's crew being about as much fun as rowing a ship, a ship's kitchen became known as a galley, and now any long kitchen with cupboards along the sides is called a galley kitchen.

The association of the word galley with heat and hard work didn't stop there. It transferred itself to print foundries, and there a galley is a tray open at one end for holding type.

Spot the frippet: galley. This word comes from the Old French galie, from the Latin galea, from the Greek galaia. The expression galley-west comes from the English dialect colly-west, perhaps from a village in Northamptonshire called Collyweston. No one knows quite why Collyweston is anything to do with silliness, but in Tudor times to wear a coat Collywestonward meant to wear it sideways as a fashion statement.

Sunday 7 December 2014

Sunday Rest: Word Not To Use Today: threequel.

I've only recently come across this word. I do so wish I hadn't.

Threequel means the third in a series, and I saw it used in the Radio Times (a respectable publication) with reference to films.

Good grief.

I mean, I've only just got hardened to the horrors of flipping  prequel.

Word Not To Use Today: threequel. This's like viewing the bleeding corpse of some new Frankenstein's monster. The word is formed, presumably, under the illusion that the se in sequel means following and quel means next (or item, or something)...or possibly the other way round...But it doesn't. Sequel comes from the Latin sequī, to follow: which makes the whole thing a nonsense.
Mind you, Quells are a type of anti-nausea tablet, so perhaps there's some justification for using it after all.

The word's been around since the eighties, apparently, so I must count myself fortunate to have escaped it until now.

Saturday 6 December 2014

Saturday Rave: the sharply aimed tweet.

As all the good creative writing advice in the world can be boiled down to MISS OUT UNNECESSARY WORDS then Twitter, with its hundred-and-forty-character limit on posts, should be the ideal place to find cogent and elegantly-turned writing.

On the whole, though, it isn't. Most tweets revolve round BUY, LOOK, and VISIT, and that really doesn't make for very interesting reading.

This doesn't mean, though, that the elegant tweet is impossible.

Matt Ingebretson @mattingebretson's:

Sometimes I like to go down to the pond dressed as a giant duck and throw entire loaves of bread at people.

adds joy to the world. I wouldn't vote it the very best of Twitter, though, because basically it's just a very good joke, and for me the very finest examples of this essentially ephemeral medium display some element of contemporary satire.

So how about Bridger Winegar's @bridger-w I can almost always tell if a movie doesn't use real dinosaurs

which manages to make fun of both CGI movies and their audiences in a tiny space? I think it's brilliant.

But my current favourite (though this is probably because I've spent a lot of the last week trying to get through to various banks) is from John Silver @BlueLanugo:

Your call is very important to us. Please enjoy this 40 minute flute solo.

Though I have to say that in my experience

Your call is very important to us. For the foreseeable future please enjoy this 16 bar flute solo again and again and...

would be even better.

Word To Use Today: tweet. This word originated in the 1800s. It's an imitation of birdsong.