This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 28 February 2015

Saturday Rave: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush by Eric Newby.

This is a good book.

No, you don't have to take my word for it, for here's a quotation from a waspish expert. The preface to A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush is written by Evelyn Waugh (ah, so Eric Newby was friends with Evelyn Waugh, was he? No, he wasn't. Waugh read the book by mistake, thinking it was by someone else).

'Mr Newby has delighted the heart of one whose travelling days are done.'

Right then, so do you want your heart delighted? Then read this book.

What's it about?  The acknowledgements will surely give us a clue, and they thank the Afghan Government, Vogue magazine, and Wilfred Thesiger.

Vogue magazine? Well, our intrepid explorer of remote and rugged mountains discovers at the very beginning of the book 'what everyone connected with it had been telling me all along, that the Fashion Industry was not for me,'

What Newby intends to do is go to a land where few Europeans have ever set foot and climb a few mountains of 20,000 feet or so.

As he's never done any mountaineering before he invests in a few days' trip to Wales. 

It proves to be not a complete preparation - but then it turns out that Newby isn't prepared for much at all. 

All the same, though, Newby is brave, determined, dogged, and very, very funny.

A complete delight to the heart.

Word To Use Today: Kush. This might be the Persian word for killing, perhaps because of the number of slaves who died being transported through its mountains. On the other hand Nigel Allan translates the word as both mountains and sparking snows; and some say that Kush is named after the god Rama's son Kusha. 

Friday 27 February 2015

Word To Use Today: ortanique.

I don't usually like portmanteau words very much. Portmanteau words are the ones where half of one word is jammed together with half of another, often to distressingly ugly effect.

I mean, I still haven't got over the shock of homillionare, yet. Let alone beefalo. Or biopic.

Even so, occasionally something elegant emerges from the portmanteau process, and we end up with a word that isn't still bleeding from having been cobbled together with baling twine and a blunt needle.

Such a one is ortanique.

As it happens, an ortanique is a hybrid of an orange and a tangerine. 

Ortaniques may well taste disgusting, and I admit that no one has a chance of guessing what an ortanique is from the name. But at least they sound delicately refined.

And that's something.

Photo ortanique.JPG

Word To Use Today: ortanique. Although this sounds French (generally a good ploy, with food) it's actually made up of or[ange], tan[gerine] and [un]ique. I think I'd have to call that process hideously clever.

Thursday 26 February 2015

Xylophones: a rant.

From the Telegraph online, 7/2/15.

'...everyone (even babies) knows that wooden xylophones make a rubbish noise.'

This sort of very fine xylophone comes from Mozambique. They are called Timbila.

Now, it would be unreasonable to complain of a journalist to whom Greek was, well, all Greek, but really the smallest amount of research would have revealed that if xylophone isn't made of wood then it isn't a xylophone. It's a glockenspiel.


Word To Use Today: xylophone. Or glockenspiel. The first comes from the Greek xulon, which means wood, and phōnē, voice or sound; the second comes from German words meaning bell and play.

Wednesday 25 February 2015

Nuts and Bolts: more cavorting hyp-hens.

I'm a long-standing collector of hyp-hens.

No, hyp-hens aren't poultry of any kind, but they're my word for the sort of hyphen that shows that the rest of a word continues on the next line.

You get them a lot in broadsheet newspapers, where the narrow columns of type make hyphenating long words very often una-

As far as I know no one has come up with any rules for the use of hyp-hens, but there are two things to bear in mind: firstly, don't confuse your reader by changing the pronunciation of the word between the front part of the word and its rear portion (as in on-
ion, for example); and, secondly, don't lead your reader ast-
ray by creating words that shouldn't be there. (Rays? What rays?).

Sometimes a really inspired use of a hyp-hen can create two new words, and then the meaning can end up momentarily scram-

Here are three recent examples of hyp-hens going, well, ape.


(presumably one of those annoying people who think it's acceptable to give a three-letter answer to an email.)


(which makes me wish I hadn't already written a book called CLASS SIX AND THE NITS OF DOOM.)


(so, have the apples in that recipe been peeled, or are they also cored and chopped?)

So there we are, some lovely hyp-hens. They always hold out the hope of a bit of fun in even the dullest article, so all power to them!

Nuts and Bolts: hyp-hens. This word is Latin and means the combining of two words, from the Greek huphon, together, and heis, one.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

Thing To Do Today: glow.

File:Lampyris noctiluca glow worm.jpg
Glow worm, Photo: Lampyridae2.jpg: Herky

There was a time when a young lady who declared herself to be sweating would be met with the gentle assurance that only horses sweat.* 

If you've been in England lately the opportunities for sweating have been few, but of course the Southern Hemisphere is basking in glorious summer.

Yes, quite - but do try not to be quite so smug about it, will you?

Luckily for us up here, it's possible to glow with cold as well as heat. It's the nose that's best at this, and I've often wondered if this is the reason a) for Rudolf, and, b) why headlights are so seldom seen fitted to husky sleds.

In any case, however hot or cold we are, we can still glow. Triumph helps (you're a loser? Perhaps, but not a complete loser: bask in your ability not to drop custard down your shirt or something).

Beauty imparts a glow, too - and if beauty is in short supply then you can always try that face powder that has shiny bits in it.

Then there are those lucky enough to be glowing with love.

But what if you're an ugly, lukewarm, custard-splattered misanthropist?

Well...I suppose you could always try buying some solar-powered fairy lights and wearing them as a collar.

Word To Use Today: glow. This word comes from the Old English glōwan, and is related to the Icelandc glōra, to sparkle.

*Horses sweat, men perspire, and ladies glow.

Monday 23 February 2015

Spot the Frippet: cilice.

The word cilice, pronounced silliss, comes from Cilicia, which was an ancient country in the bottom right-hand corner of Turkey:

Location of Cilicia

And what do we associate with Cilicia?

Well, not a lot, to be quite honest, but it was invaded again and again, by the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the perhaps it's not surprising that a cilice doesn't reflect a very comfortable view of life.

cilice is a hair shirt. 

Now, I never could understand why hermits wore hair shirts, which seemed to me to occupy the luxury end of the lingerie market, but the hair in question comes from a goat (though not a cashmere-type goat) and is apparently very prickly and uncomfortable. I think the principle might be that suffering now is better than suffering later...or something...


Spot a hair shirt? you may be saying. How can anyone do that?

Well, it's true that hair shirts are designed to be worn invisibly as underwear, and also that their use has largely (I believe) died out. Even the more radical fashion designers, who think nothing of forcing a model into six-inch heels, ten-inch leather belts, and a four-foot-wide ruff, don't seem to have got as far as reintroducing the hair shirt. 


But still, there are modern equivalents to the cilice everywhere. 

The glass of wheat-grass juice, for example.

The cold shower.

Rye crispbread.

It's all rather puzzling, but perhaps these modern cilices fulfill some deep psychological need.

Or, I don't know...

...perhaps people are just nuts.

File:Carter - Syrian Goat.jpg
Engraved by W. Holl after John Carter. (A Syrian goat was the closest I could get.)

Spot the frippet: cilice. This word comes from the Old English cilic, from the Latin cilicium, shirt made from Cilician goat's hair.

Sunday 22 February 2015

Sunday Rest: nacelle. Word Not To Use Today.

I've often seen nacelles - from my desk I have a distant view of a fairly busy flight-path - but until a moment ago I've never known what I've been looking at.

Of course I knew you get nacelles on space-ships in the movies: the nacelle is over-heating - it's going to blow, Captain!

(Though I must say in the nacelles' defence that in films the nacelles rarely do blow: in fact I've seldom known them cause any but the most minor character so much as a bout of indigestion.)

Anyway. Nacelle. It's one of those cigar-shaped things stuck on the wings of aeroplanes. They can have engines or fuel or people in them, and are obviously jolly useful things.

And, in simple justice, I must admit that it's not their fault they have the name of a 1950s backing-singer, is it?

These Boeing 707 nacelles have engines in them.

Sunday Rest: nacelle. This word is French for small boat. Before that it comes from the Latin nāvicella, which is a diminuative of nāvis, ship.

Saturday 21 February 2015

Saturday Rave: Heggs.

...and on the subject of crossword clues, my own personal favourite is the classic:

Heggs (11)

It's great, isn't it? Pithy, funny, and, best of all, a wide knowledge of the conventions of clue-setting and solving won't help a bit. 

This might make experienced cruciverbalists a bit exasperated, but then they say that the occasional humiliation is good for the soul.

And in this case might well help with the answer: because it, too, is exasperated.

Eggs, aspirated.


Elegantly and rompingly glorious, I'd say.

Word To Use Today: exasperate. This word is from the Latin exasperāre, which rather surprisingly means to make rough.

Friday 20 February 2015

Word To Use Today: orris.

I love the word orris. It has a nice querulous sound to it.

When I hear someone say orris - which, sadly, is very seldom indeed - I'm reminded of some irascible countrywoman summoning her down-trodden husband.

Orris is a coarse, cross, disreputable word, and this is rather curious because but orris, the thing itself, is nothing of the kind. Not at all. It's delicate and flowery and aristocratic...

...which is probably why I so seldom have an opportunity to use it.


So what is orris? Firstly it's any kind of iris (the flower) which has a fragrant root, especially Iris florentina.

Iris germanica florentina Orris,  Orris-root

If that's not lovely enough, orris is also the iris root dried out (which can take five years) and used as in perfume.

But, perhaps even more refined than orris the perfume, is the orris which is a kind of lace made from gold or silver.

Lucia Wijbrants (1638-1719), 1667, by Gabriël Metsu.

Gorgeous, isn't it.

Despite all that, though, whenever I hear the word orris I'm afraid I still hear an old woman screaming for her poor husband.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: orris. The perfume word is a variation of iris. The lace comes from the Old French orfreis, from the Latin auriphrygium, Phrygian gold.

Thursday 19 February 2015

homillionaire: a rant

Who makes up new words?

Well, now we have the internet, anyone can. They can spread them around like measles, too.

But just because a word has come into some fool's mind, and then made its sad stumbling way out through his twitchy fingers onto his keyboard, it doesn't mean it deserves to exist.

And so I come to homillionaire.

What's a homillionaire?

No, nothing to do with Santa. 

A homillionare (ouch!) is someone whose house is worth more than a million pounds. 

File:Tiny house in yard, Portland.jpg
Photo: Tammy

Now, I accept that the concept of a homillionaire is useful, but homillionaire is still a rubbish word. Some people will be misled, some will be baffled, and others, like me, will be driven into contortions of agony.

And, let's face it, there was nothing wrong with "property millionare", anyway.

Was there?

Word Not To Use Today: homillionare. This revolting object was brought into being by the estate agent Savills. Ho is actually in the dictionary as an abbreviation of house, but luckily until now it's never got out much.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Nuts and Bolts: catachresis

Catachresis is getting language wrong. 

The problem is, what's wrong?

'I'm going to put some vanquishing cream on before our date.'

Well, that's probably wrong - but also rather glorious.

Some people say using a word in a new way icatachresis (even though this would presumably condemn the original users of  the terms steering wheel and memory stick).

John van Sickle (according to Wikipedia) extends catachresis to anything going beyond the bounds of the literal:

'Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs;
Being purged, a fire sparkling in lovers' eyes;
Being vex'd a sea nourish'd with lovers' tears:
What is it else? a madness most discreet,
A choking gall and a preserving sweet.' 

 and, I mean, love isn't actually any of those things, is it?* 

Catachresis doesn't stop there: some say replacing any term with a less accurate one - rest-room for lavatory, for instance - is catachresis.

Derrida argues that, because language cannot be precise, it's all catachrestic; and Spivak says more or less the same thing but with special reference to words that describe groups: cats, for example, because all cats aren't the same.


Right. So, in that case is there ever any point in using language trying to communicate anything?

Of course there is. At least five points: it's useful, informative, beautiful, friendly - and FUN.

Idea To Ignore (Mostly) Today: catachresis. This word started off with the using-the-wrong-word meaning and has developed from there. It's Greek for abuse.

*That quotation is from that well-known mangler of the English language, William Shakespeare, from his pretty-much universally derided play Romeo and Juliet.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: have the vapours.

 Robert Cruikshank: A dandy fainting, or, An exquisite in fits: scene a private box opera. 1835

I wouldn't recommend having the vapours, but I can't deny it's more a lot more fun than it used to be.

Nowadays having the vapours might involve a little light shrieking caused by (for instance) finding a frog in your lettuce. Or it might consist of a bit of gasping and having-to-sit-down after some less violent shock, such as winning the lottery or bumping into George Clooney.

Nowadays, having the vapours usually implies making a fuss over not-very-much. It's generally an excuse for the sufferer to take centre stage; observers (and there are always observers) will probably be cynical, even if they're outwardly sympathetic.

Long ago, though, (even before the Cruikshank cartoon above) having the vapours was no fun at all. It meant being depressed, and was believed to be caused by vaporous exhalations from the stomach. 


...well, I suppose having that much gas would get anyone down, wouldn't it.

Thing Not To Do Today: have the vapours. This Latin word came into English in the 1300s. The Latin form is vapor, which spelling is used in the USA today.

Monday 16 February 2015

Spot the frippet: jetsam. And flotsam.

Jetsam. Ah yes, as in flotsam and jetsam..., is flotsam the stuff which floats, and jetsam the stuff which...doesn't?

Well, not exactly.

I was afraid it couldn't be quite that simple...

Look, jetsam is jettisoned - that is, it's thrown off the boat during storms. It's done to lighten the load to give the boat more chance of surviving. Jetsam: jettisoned. See?

Flotsam, on the other hand, is the stuff you find if throwing all the jetsam overboard doesn't helped: it's the floating left-overs from a wreck.

I see. So how are we supposed to spot either of those?

Well, if you're not at sea at the moment, flotsam (or flotsam and jetsam) also means useless or discarded objects (which are everywhere) or sometimes displaced people such as vagrants or refugees.

Horribly, they're not rare, either.

Spot the Frippet: jetsam. And flotsam. Jetsam is short for jettison, and is from the Latin jactātiō, a tossing-about. Flotsam is from the Anglo-French floteson, from floter, to float.

Sunday 15 February 2015

Sunday Rest: crudités. Word Not To Use Today.

Crudités are healthy, and a boon to frazzled hostesses juggling three saucepans, a grill, and someone who's just said oh, but I thought you knew I was a gluten-free vegan. But, admit it, crudités are nearly always a bit of a disappointment

People only eat them on the understanding that chomping gamely through so much rabbit food must in simple justice make an extra helping of pudding entirely calorie-free. 

The word itself doesn't help. Crudités: it manages to combine a suggestion of crude with a French ending, which in a domestic setting is bound to come across as pretentious.

Still, there is one very good thing about crudités.  

They seem largely to have gone out of fashion.

File:Crudites Platter.JPG
Photo Phoenixcatering

Sunday Rest: crudités. This word comes from the French crudité which means rawness, and is related to the Latin crūdus which means bloody.


Saturday 14 February 2015

Saturday Rave: Love and Life by John Wilmot

John Wilmot.jpg

Here's something exquisite for Valentine's Day: John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester.

He wasn't with us long (he died aged thirty three, poor man), but he left us some gloriously honest poetry.

Now, you may be thinking that honesty and Valentine's Day don't mix all that well, and on the whole I'd agree with you.

But how about this poem, below. Here we have reflection, honesty - and a love that'll last just about as long as those forests of scentless and never-opening Valentines red roses that are given every year.

Love and Life

All my past life is mine no more,
The flying hours are gone,
Like transitory dreams giv’n o’er,
Whose images are kept in store
By memory alone.
The time that is to come is not;
How can it then be mine?
The present moment’s all my lot;
And that, as fast as it is got,
Phyllis, is only thine.
Then talk not of inconstancy,
False hearts, and broken vows;
If I, by miracle, can be
This live-long minute true to thee,
’Tis all that Heav’n allows.

Poor Rochester, who never got a chance to be poor old Rochester!

And poor, poor Phyllis.

Word To Use Today: false. This word comes from the Old English fals, from the Latin fallere, to deceive.

Friday 13 February 2015

Word To Use Today: thalweg.

What's a thalweg?

Yes, it does sound as if it's something from a Norse saga involving a gold cup, a raven, a quest, and a lot of skulduggery, but it's not that.

It's something that will make you look at the world in a completely different way.

A thalweg (pronounced it TAHLvayg) is the quickest way down a slope - the line of steepest descent.

Naturally, taking the thalweg is not always to be recommended, because it's quite likely to be accompanied by a long arrrggghhhh followed by a fatal splat, but from now on whenever I see a slope I shall stop and trace out the thalweg.

Looking down into the gorge with a road with cars on it running from the top to the bottom of the picture. To the right are exposed rocky cliffs with trees on some ledges. To the left are less steep slopes covered in vegetation.
Cheddar Gorge

And then I'll walk round the safe way.

Word To Be Aware Of Today: thalweg. This word is German. Thal means valley, and Weg means way or path.

A thalweg is also the outline of a river bed from source to mouth.

Thursday 12 February 2015

Rainbow Nations: a rant.

Poor Benedict Cumberbatch.

A little while ago he ignorantly used a word that isn't polite at the moment (though in the UK it was polite not so very long ago). Anyway, now there's a huge fuss. He's had to apologise, and people are saying that he's lost his chance of a Oscar (hmm...does that even begin to make sense? I thought Oscars were given for being good at making films...).

What did Benedict Cumberbatch say? He said this: 'I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the USA] than in the UK, and that's something that needs to change.'

(That's from the Travis Smiley PBS show in the USA.)

Now, it's plain that Benedict Cumberbatch believes that actors of colour (an expression apparently not rude at the moment) should have more opportunities in Britain. He was expressing support for them. Trying to help.

But even people who agree with him have made it their business to attack him. I do think that a polite explanation would have been useful, and even in this case necessary; but outrage and hysteria is no help to anyone.

Heaven knows, I believe words are important. 

But, look, friendship and helping and understanding are more important still.

Word To Use Today: gosh, this is a minefield, isn't it. Something It comes from the Old English thancian.

Wednesday 11 February 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Basque

The Basque language is really odd. Really really odd. It's a bit like finding an elf in a zoo. All the other animals, even the stick insects and the tigers, are related to each other, however distantly, but the 

How did an elf happen?

No one knows how the Basque language happened, either. There are various guesses, but no sooner does someone come up with some supporting evidence then it gets shot down in flames.

The most popular theory is that the Basque language developed in the Basque region in France and Spain from...well, from no language that's left any trace anywhere else. This would probably mean that the Basques haven't mixed with other people much, but DNA shows...well, it shows all sorts of things, including a surprising kinship with the Welsh and Irish.

Other theories link the Basque language with the ancient Iberian language, the Caucasian languages, and the Berber and Phoenician languages, but none of the evidence for any of these theories is anything like good enough.

So where does that leave us? 

Well, I suppose all we can do is listen to the Basques themselves. The claim is that the Basque language is the most difficult in the world, and they explain this with the story that it was taught to the Basque people by the devil himself.


...but why would the devil bother to teach the Basques his own language? He's already a hundred per cent fluent in every language there is.

File:Girl traditional costume basque 001.jpg
photo: Joxemai

Word To Use Today: Basque. This word comes from the French, and before that from the Latin Vasco. Before that things get mysterious. The word might come from a possible Celtic word barscunes, meaning the mountain people, the tall ones or the proud ones. Or it might use the proto-Indo European root, bar- meaning border, frontier, or march.

Tuesday 10 February 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: be paranoid.

What was the most useful thing I learned at school?

I could either go away and spend a year writing a book to see if I could work out the correct answer to that, or I could give you a snap answer. And, as at the moment I have other books to worry about, that's going to have to do.

I was in a drama class. We were doing some improvisation, and our teacher said: it's the person in the wrong who gets aggressive.

Wow. How much knowing that illuminates the world.

So. Paranoia. Look, sometimes it's a sign of horrible mental disease, but otherwise it's just an excuse for aggression, okay? 

And it's a sure sign that you're IN THE WRONG.

Thing Not To Do Today: be paranoid. This word comes from the Greek word for frenzy, from paranoos, distraught, from para, which can mean more or less anything, but especially alongside or beyond, plus noos, mind.

Monday 9 February 2015

Spot the Frippet: needle.

For those of you who enjoy a challenge, I direct you to the nearest haystack.

For the rest of us, spotting a needle is easy, and spotting a knitting needle is even easier. 

Needlecord is corduroy with a narrow ribs (the sort of stuff often used to make trousers) and needlepoint is a picture embroidered on a printed piece of canvas.

Then there's...but hang on a minute, I've used the word needle so often I've stopped believing in it: needle, needle, needle...

...can that really be a word? 

Well, it is according to the dictionary, where needle time is the amount of time a radio station spends playing music. (In the olden days music was played by drawing a needle round and round the grooves of a record).

This cheery-looking chap is a needlefish.

If all else fails, why not find one of those buttons that have been lying about on the windowsill for weeks and sew it on

You'll very easily be able to spot a needlewoman, then.*

Spot the frippet: needle. This word comes from the Old English nǣdl.

*As I've never heard of a needleman I assume needlewoman covers both sexes. And why not?

Sunday 8 February 2015

Sunday Rest: nacre.

This is a baleful word for such a lovely thing.

Nacre is mother-of-pearl, but something in the sound - is it something to do with the echo of naked? No, it must be more than that - snuffs out its gleaming-cloud glory.

File:Abalone nacre.JPG
Photo by Mauro Cateb

Nacre is a hard word; even a cruel word. The shining paleness it conjures up is of blind eyes, or the bellies of dead fish.

Yes: yes, I really hate this one.

Word Not To Use Today: nacre. This word comes from French, from the Old Italian naccara, from the Arabic naqqārah, which means shell or drum.


Saturday 7 February 2015

Saturday Rave: Farewell by H S Try.

You can't always trust one star reviews ('this book wasn't interesting because it didn't have any daleks in it') and five star ones must also be treated with extreme caution ('this is the best book ever written, and once it's published it'll be a must-read'); but sometimes you come across an expert opinion to which you are forced to defer.

Sir Jeremy Morse has for the last sixty years been the most consistently successful solver of crosswords in Britain. He makes up clues for crosswords, too, and as a matter of fact Colin Dexter named his famous cruciverbalist detective after him (though Dexter's Inspector Morse's first name was of course not Jeremy but Endeavor). 

All in all, I have to accept that Sir Jeremy knows a thing or two about crosswords.

Now, Sir Jeremy's favourite clue was written by HS Try. It goes like this:

In autumn, we’re piling up the last of the leaves. 

Now, I think it's a nice clue, too: highly evocative of smoky autumn days. Unfortunately what it is not evocative of, as far as I'm concerned, is the word farewell, which apparently is the answer to the clue.

Still, Sir Jeremy is the expert, so it must be absolutely brilliant.



image wikimedia commons  en:User:Michael J

Word To Use Today: cruciverbalist. This isn't a word you can use seriously, but it's good fun all the same. It means a crossword puzzle enthusiast. It's from the Latin words crux, cross, and verbum, word.

Hang on...farewell...well, fall means autumn, doesn't it, and farewell is to do with leaves. Ah, and we're is piled up (that is, written down with the two bits in the wrong order) in the middle of the word.

I think that all must be something to do with it...

Friday 6 February 2015

Word To Use Today: catamaran.

Catamarans can be lovely things:

Photo eric walker, Panoramio image ID 39493526

Though sometimes they're not so much lovely as, well, rather unlikely:

German navy research ship Planet

However, the reason I chose to write about this word was for its derivation, which has made me see catamarans in an entirely new light.

Word To Use Today: catamaran. This word comes from kattumaram, which is the Tamil for tied timber.

Thursday 5 February 2015

Nutella: a rant.

A French court has prevented the parents of an infant girl from naming her Nutella.

The child was born on 24 September last year, but, when her birth came to be registered, her case was referred to the French family court, who found that such a name was contraire à l’intérêt de l’enfant - against the interests of the child.

If a name is not judged to be against the interests of the child, then in France you can call your child anything you like.

The parents of the child didn't turn up for the hearing, so the judge in their absence decided to rename the little girl Ella. As he said, Nutella is a commercial name for a spreadable paste and such a name is likely to result in the child being mocked and suffering des réflexions désobligeantes.

Mind you, it might be better to be mocked because your name is nuts rather than because you're ugly.

Is the French court's decision a sensible one? Definitely. Will it 

make little Ella happier? I have no idea.

You see, one of my daughters was born, quite a long time ago, on 

24 September. I called her Helena.

She hated her name quite passionately, and as soon as she could 

speak she insisted on changing it... Oxtail.

Thing To Consider Today: is Nutella a worse name than 

Cinderella? Because it didn't do her any harm, did it.

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Nuts and Bolts: commoratio.

'Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.'
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.

Commoratio (which isn't, despite its name, a naval rank distinguishable by lampshade-sized epaulettes) is all around us. Really, it's all over the place. It surrounds us. You'll find it all the time in newspapers, and constantly in speech - and, particularly, in speeches.

Commoratio is so all-pervading that it's the easiest thing to come up with an example that shows you how it works and how it may appear in our language.

In fact there's so much commoratio about that thinking up examples is straightforward, simple, and the work of a moment.

As you may have guessed by now, commoratio is the repetition of an idea, saying it again and again, and of course this is a jolly effective way of getting things to penetrate people's thick heads.

In fact it's so effective, and such a good tool of communication, that we use commoratio frequently and often. 

That makes us rather clever, don't you think?

Thing To Use Today: commoratio. This word comes from the Latin word for dwelling.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Thing To Do Today: be lax.

Hyacinthoides non-scripta (Common Bluebell).jpg

We're only human.

We could be thinner, fitter, more knowledgeable and perhaps even nicer people...

...but here we are.

Ah well.

After all, how can we seize the day if the day is fully booked?

Thing Probably To Do Today: be lax. This word comes from the Latin laxus, loose, and at first, charmingly, was used with reference to the bowels.

Nowadays, flower clusters are lax if they are loosely arranged, and speech sounds tend to be lax if they're unstressed and over quickly.


Monday 2 February 2015

Spot the Frippet: something crumbly.

All sorts of things are crumbly: rock, cheese, one's New Years resolutions.

The perfect crumbly-topped pudding can be made by stirring a spoonful of cornflour and perhaps some sugar into some fruit, and then topping it with 3oz butter rubbed into 6oz flour, 2 teaspoons of ginger, 4oz ground almonds and 4oz demerara sugar, and then cooking it at 180C for about half an hour or so.

File:Apple and Blackcurrant crumble.JPG
photo Goddards Pies Ltd  ...though actually the crumble here doesn't look all that, well, crumbly, does it. Ah well.

If you're no cook, then in Britain a crumbly is an affectionate insult. It describes an old person.

They're generally not too fast-moving, so they're easy enough to spot.

Spot the Frippet: something crumbly. This word used to be crimble, and is probably from some German language. Before that it was perhaps something to do with the Latin grūmus, a heap of earth.

Sunday 1 February 2015

Sunday Rest: psychonaut. Word Not To Use Today.

Words, as I've said before, come with echoes. If you have warm happy associations connected with the word psycho then you'll probably have warm happy associations connected with the word psychonaut.

For me, the naut bit isn't much better. Nauts are a bit of a let-down, and perhaps a bit of a con. I mean, astronauts don't really explore the stars, do they, nor an aeronaut the air...

...and to me it all reeks rather of marketing.

So what is a psychonaut, anyway? It's someone who willingly puts his or her mind in an unusual environment and then sees how it reacts.

The unusual environment may involve hypnosis, trances, drugs, mental or physical deprivation, repetition, or dreaming.

Of course this sort of thing has a very long and even, in parts, respectable history.

But psychonaut still sounds too much like a desperate attempt to sell a children's cartoon, to me.

Sunday Rest: psychonaut. This word comes from the Greek psychē, soul, spirit or mind, and naútēs, sailor or navigator. Psychonaut seems to have been coined by Ernst Jünger, who used the term in a 1970 essay.