This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 31 March 2015

Thing To Do Today: go on a spree.

Prudence is fine. Prudence is sensible, wise and dignified...

...but just sometimes you need to go on a spree.

File:Next - Oxford Street 1.jpg
Photo of Oxford Street by Edward 

You can have your spree in a Pound Shop if your finances are fragile. No, really, you can: if there's nothing you want yourself then buy some stuff anyway and give it away to people you...

...well, don't actually like.

If that doesn't appeal then indulge yourself. Buy a cake as well as a sandwich at lunch time. Two cakes!

Buy that pair of trousers. You know you'll regret it for the rest of your...week...if you don't.

Fill your house with flowers. 

I mean, have you really got enough lawnmowers? 





You have?


Oh well. Enjoy yourselves, anyway.

Thing To Do Today: go on a spree. This word might comes from the Scottish word spreath, which means plundered cattle, and before that from the Latin praeda, which means booty.

Monday 30 March 2015

Spot the Frippet: springer.

You've probably heard of a springer spaniel

File:Welsh Springer Spaniel 1.jpg
Photo by Udo Tjalsma (Isn't he beautiful?)

but how about the sort of springer also known as a springing cow?

Hey Diddle Diddle 2 - WW Denslow - Project Gutenberg etext 18546.jpg
Illustration by William Wallace Denslow

No, no, all right, the springing cow sort of a springer doesn't really jump over the moon: it's actually a cow that's about to give birth.

Even if you're living in a city - or indeed, in Autumn - then there are springers to be seen.

Here's a fancy once from Silvacane Abbey in Provence:

See? That sort of a springer is the first and lowest stone in the curvy bit of an arch.

Of course, if you greeted this Monday morning by leaping singing out of your bed then you yourself are springer.

But it's not likely, is it.

Spot the Frippet: springer. This word has been around since the 1200s. The Old English springan meant to spring, and there's a Sanskrit word sprhayati, he desires. 

Sunday 29 March 2015

Sunday Rest: proustite.

Yes, of course proustite is named after M Proust - just not that one.

Proustite is nothing to do with memory or madeleines. It's nothing to do with very long works of fiction, or people being remarkably French.

A proustite isn't someone who always says, well, of course they doesn't hold a candle to À la Recherche whenever you ask them if they enjoy whodunnits.

So that's a relief.

No, proustite is named after Joseph Louis Proust (1754 - 1826) a chemist, who identified proustite, aka silver arsenic sulphide in hexagonal cystalline form.

The stuff is sometimes called ruby silver, which is less confusing for everyone, as well as being a rather good title for a song.

Here it is:

It's remarkable stuff. But I can't help but feel sorry for M Proust the chemist, all the same.

Word Not To Use Today: proustite

Saturday 28 March 2015

Saturday Rave: Girls and Boys Come Out To Play. Anonymous.

One of the great things about being a writer for children is that you arrive first.

What I mean by that is that as far as your audience is concerned your story is the original. You might have written a rip-off of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (only disguised by the fact that in your version Dr J and Mr H are both hamsters) but for your readers it'll always be Robert Louis Stevenson who's the plagiarist - and the sad dearth of hamsters in his book will always be a slight disappointment.

The Nursery Rhyme Girls and Boys Come Out To Play has a nice little jig of a tune:

Girls And Boys Come Out To Play

(though I think it runs better in 12/8) and it gave me my first taste of adult-sanctioned (by virtue of being printed in a book) anarchy.

Girls and boys come out to play
The moon doth shine as bright as day
Leave your supper and leave your sleep
And join your playfellows in the street.
Come with a whoop, come with a call,
Come with a good will or not at all.
Up the ladder and down the wall,
A halfpenny roll will serve us all.
You find milk, and I'll find flour,
And we'll have a pudding in half an hour.

Now, obviously it's terrible that children should be lured out of their beds (quite possibly, one fears, on a school-day) and encouraged to climb down a ladder that has never so much as sniffed a Health and Safety check, to run about the streets for no better reason than eating lactose and gluten engorged food...

...and, er, enjoying themselves.

Good heavens. I mean, that's the last thing childhood is for or about.

Still, hope is a precious thing, and the hope implied in this rhyme has been with me all my life.

I'm afraid I've never made a pudding over a fire on the pavement of my local street, but perhaps one moonlit night I should.

Milk and flour...I suppose it'd be some sort of a blancmange.

The irreversibly grown up part of me can't help wondering how on earth I'd eat it.

Word to Use Today: play. The Old English form of this word was plegan.

Friday 27 March 2015

Word To Use Today: distemper.

So what is the connection between a disease of dogs and a type of paint?

It's all to do with the mixing.

Distemper the paint comes from the Mediaeval Latin distemperāre, which means to soak, which is in turn from dis-, apart, plus temperāre, which means to mingle.

19th-century Mongolian thanka in distemper

Distemper the disease comes from the Late Latin distemperāre, to derange the health of, from dis-, apart, plus temperāre, which means to mix in correct proportions.

Neat, isn't it? The same Latin words, borrowed at slightly different times, have given us quite different words.

I especially like the disease derivation because it shows how people thought in the past. For them health is a balance, whereas for us in the West health is nowadays usually seen as a sort of perfection.

Distemper has also meant disease, disturbance or discontent.

And so, full of wonder and perhaps even a little wiser, we go on our temperate way.

Word To Use Today: distemper. Of which you already know two derivations.

Thursday 26 March 2015

Lost in Translation: a rant

Isn't it nice when people write offering to help? I've received this from someone called Nareen.

Dear Respected Team  Thank you for giving me the excellent opportunity to serve your revered organization.

Revered organization...well, it's just me, really, but hey, being revered is fine. Great, in fact.

We have set ourselves a goal to continuously challenge ourselves and contribute towards good language help - a linguistically better tomorrow.

Yes, the lady clearly means well. Pity about the split infinitive and the prepositions. Still, you can tell what she means, can't you.

With extensive research, creativity and experience, we present a whole new range of linguistic support in various foreign languages. Our services can meet all your interpreting needs including but not limited to the following situations:  " Conferences  " Depositions  " Hearings  " Client Meetings  " Arbitrations  " Medical Appointments  " Employee Interviews  " Recorded Statements  " Trainings  "

And, after all, what does punctuation matter? As she says, her organization is creative, right?

Um...what is a training, exactly?

Hey, but they're offering Creative Workshops in Dramatics Dance, as well as translation. How very kind. I think I might enjoy a bit of Dramatics Dance.

...We are ready to be test freely...

Ah, good.


...Regards, Ms. Nareen Alnahal Project manager.

There. Isn't that kind? Thanks, Nareen.

I certainly won't forget you.

Word To Use Today: translate. This word comes from the Latin translātus, which means transferred or carried over, from transferre to transfer. The ferre bit means to carry.

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Nuts and Bolts: metalepsis.

Metalepsis is just a bit of fun, really.

It's twisting a figure of speech, usually playfully, to turn a cliche into something less boring.

'I've got to catch the worm tomorrow,' is a rather nice example I've just pinched from Wikipedia; a lovely way to announce an intention of early rising.

There's much fun to be had.

My insurance company proved to despise the best policy. 

Relations are thicker than water.

Won't cleanliness do?

I hope that's enough examples. 

Well, what do you expect? You're not exactly a chooser, are you.

Thing To Use Today: metalepsis. This word is Greek. Meta- is to to do with change, and lambanein means to take.

Metalepsis is also used as a term in narratology and rhetoric, but those can wait for another time. It's also the name of a sub-genus of moth.

Tuesday 24 March 2015

Thing Not To Do Today If You're English: be brash.

'The English instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it,' said the critic James Agate.

(He was actually James Evershed Agate, but he didn't like to draw attention to his classy middle name.)

On the whole the English don't like loud or boastful people. It's thought more seemly to refrain from mentioning successes and acts of heroism. 

(I'd give you an example from my own experience, but that would be, well, brash.)

This makes life rather difficult in an age of social media. If nagged enough by a publisher I might possibly start a blog...well, I might as long as it didn't involve mentioning my, um, books too often, anyway.

Brash does have a couple of other meanings: it can mean loose rubbish (hedge-clippings or rocks), or it can mean heart-burn type indigestion.

So, come to think about it, all brash's meanings are pretty much the same thing, aren't they.

Thing Not To Do Today: be brash. The boasting word might come from rash, which comes from the Old High German rasc, hurried or clever, and is related to the Old Norse roskr, which means brave. 

No one knows where the other meanings come from, though my Collins dictionary suggest the heart-burn brash might be of imitative origin.

Of what it might be imitative, I really have not the faintest idea.

Monday 23 March 2015

Spot the Frippet: sneck.

I love watching things being done properly.

(Hey, wouldn't seeing-things-being-done-properly make interesting television? I still remember the video of the Jaffa Cake machine (I think it might have been shown on Playschool), which gave me one of the supreme moments of televisual ecstasy of my life.)

The trouble is, let's face it,  we are surrounded by clumsy idiots, so what can we do? Well, we can look at something that's been carefully made already. And this is where sneck comes in.

A sneck is a square stone put in to fill in a gap in a rubble wall. In skilled hands it's the difference between a rubble wall and...well, rubble.

If you're not in a place where there are many rubble walls around, a sneck is also the latch or catch of a door or gate. You sneck a gate if you close it, too.

To the Scots a sneck is a snick or a nick - that is, it can be a notch cut or knocked out of something, or a knot in a thread.

Basically, it's something that's been slightly spoiled or bungled.

Ah, well, that makes spotting a sneck it even easier, doesn't it.

Spot the Frippet: sneck. This word first appeared in the 1400s as snekk. No one is sure where it came from, but snick probably comes from Scandinavia. The Old Norse snikka means to whittle.

Sunday 22 March 2015

Sunday Rest: pratincole.

Pratincoles do tend to frown a bit:

Glareola maldivarum - Beung Borapet.jpg

but wouldn't you, if you'd been given the name pratincole?

Word Not To Use Today: pratincole. This word comes from pratincola, a word coined by the German naturalist Wilhelm Heinrich Kramer. It comes from the Latin words prātum, meadow, and incola, resident.

The name is particularly unfair because pratincoles are not only, technically, waders, but they catch their food on the wing. 

To be fair, they nest on the ground: so they do at least spend their childhoods in meadows.

Saturday 21 March 2015

Saturday Rave: Sir Terry Pratchett: April 28 1948 – 12 March 2015

Sometimes I wish Mozart had had another twenty years of life: sometimes, though, I wonder if that's not being a bit greedy.

I feel rather the same way about Sir Terry Pratchett.

He had a sharp mind:

It is well known that a vital ingredient of success is not knowing that what you're attempting can't be done
(that's from Equal Rights)

 an enquiring soul: 

The presence of those seeking the truth is infinitely to be preferred to the presence of those who think they’ve found it
(from Monstrous Regiment)

and a generous spirit. He was also a good and industrious writer who gave joy to many millions.

Life amused him greatly: 

The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.
(from Diggers)

and death, when he saw it coming (inevitably, but from rather a long distance) he looked at it long and hard, and then made it his business to give us the courage and the means to face it in our turn.

Soon I must rave about one of Sir Terry Pratchett's Johnny books, which I enjoyed greatly. His Discworld books I admired very much indeed, but they weren't quite right for me.

Perhaps my favourite quotation from Sir Terry is one I can't track down to a source. I can only think it must have come from some interview. It's the perfect answer to all those people who say (often, to me): I can't see the point in fiction.

Fantasy is an exercise bicycle for the mind. It might not take you anywhere, but it tones up the muscles that can.

I'm not sure about saying Rest in Peace to Sir Terry. But perhaps I may say may any further adventures be happy and interesting ones.

Word To Use Today: Pratchett. This surname comes from the Middle English prik or prich, and before that from the Old English pric. The ett bit means little. Pratchett would have started off as a name for someone who made sharp instruments.

It'd be nice if they'd been pens, wouldn't it.

Friday 20 March 2015

Word To Use Today: eclipse.

There's an eclipse in Britain today. The sun will be almost covered by the moon at about 9.30 am, and I'll be out with a piece of card with a pin-hole in it, or a colander, or a bucket of water, safely watching the crescent of the sun. 

Well, I will if the whole thing isn't obscured by the clouds, anyway.

It's not just the sun that gets eclipsed, of course. Whenever something gets in the way of Earth's view of any celestial body the body is deemed, in our ridiculously human-centred idea of the universe, to be eclipsed. Sun, moon, planet, star - and the stars don't even have to be celestial. A human star whose position at the top of his profession has been usurped by another has also been eclipsed.

Sun, moon, planet, star...

...and, of course, ducks.

Yes, ducks. Some birds, and round here it's ducks where you notice it most, lose their feathers after the breeding season. If you see a raft of mallards and they all look like females, then some of them are probably really eclipsed males. 

Sadly they don't go actually completely bald, they just look a bit dull. Some species lose their ability to fly for a while, too.

Here's a mallard drake going into eclipse.

File:Mallard getting eclipse plumage.jpg
Photos by Mardos07

It'd be dead interesting if humans went through the same sort of process. 

Although of course in that case one of the first inventions of human science would have been a really efficient green hair dye.

Good might well have changed the whole course of history, too, mightn't it.

Word To Use Today: eclipse. This word comes from the Old English eclypsis. The Greek ekleipsis means a forsaking.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Martin's Pond: a rant.

They're digging up the road outside Martin's Pond

They've closed the whole road. Luckily you can easily drive the other way round the village green if you want to get to the place, which is a pub and its attached restaurant, but the authorities have put up a bright yellow sign anyway:


it says



That seems a bit harsh, to me. 

I mean, I thought it was quite nice last time I was there.

Word To Use Today: warning. This word comes from the Old English wearnian, related to the Old Norse varna, to refuse.

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Frankenstein cakes.

First of all, what's the connection between a lady and a doughnut?

Yes, yes, there are approximately three hundred and six rude answers, but the original answer is in the dough.

An Old English lady is a hlǣfdīge, from hlāf, bread, and dīge kneader, which is related to dāh, dough.   

(A lord was a loaf keeper. This probably tells us something about relationships between men and women, but if it does I shudder to think what it might be.) 

Still, this post is really about Frankenstein cakes. No. Really, about advertising.

You have a new product and you need to tell people about it. What do you do?

Well, you probably give it a name that you think both sounds attractive and gives people some idea of what it is. The easiest way to do this is to shove in some words people understand to start with.

The current (sorry) cake saga started with Dominique Ansel's 2011 cronut (a croissant-doughnut-type thing). It caused a sensation. I mean, there really were queues in the streets.

Now, naturally, everybody's trying to get in on the act. We have the duffin (doughnut/muffin), the cruffin (croissant/muffin), crookies (croissant/cookie), townies (brownie/tart).

Because the name cronut is protected by law, we also have the crodough and the Greggsnut.

I doubt it'll stop there. Before we know it there'll be cussings (custard puddings), creepies (cream pies) and quickies (quiche bikkies).

And we'll be using doughnut and muffin simply as descriptions of the people in the queues.

Nuts and Bolts: Frankenstein cakes. The cronut was made up by Dominique Ansel. Cruffin was made up by Mr Holmes' Bakery. The Greggsnut is sold by the British bakery chain Greggs.

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Thing To Do Today: be stout.

You'll remember Keat's lines:

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific

So, that Cortés chap: was he dependable, or was he just fat?

Well here he is, wearing that old reliable breastplate-and-miniskirt outfit: 

and it's obvious that the man, far from being fat, was practically a wasp.

So stout Cortés wasn't fat, then, or even substantial. No, he must have been (in Keats' eyes, at least) a resolute, robust sort of a man, never daunted, never failing to turn up for meetings, and always to be relied upon to put out the bins and have stern words with anyone allowing their dog to foul the pavement.

So, should we model ourselves on Cortés?

Well, I'm all us for being nice to one another - so that would be a no, then. 

But a bit of stoutness might not go amiss, all the same.

Thing To Do Today: be stout. This word comes from the Old French estout, bold, and is related to the Middle High German stolz, proud, and Middle Dutch stolt, brave.

PS for St Patrick's day: Guinness is a sort of stout, which is a dark beer made using roasted malt or barley, hops, water and yeast. 

It's strong stuff, hence its name.

Monday 16 March 2015

Spot the Frippet: talus.

A rather austere and elegant word, is talus - and the plural form is simply marvellous.

So, what is a talus, and more importantly, where can you spot one?

A talus is an ankle bone, that wonderful thing that means we can can all run for the train and don't have to waddle about like frantic penguins.

Mind you, the penguin-thing might be funnier.

If the talus in question is not an anklebone then it'll be something to do with slopes. It can either be the sloping wall of a castle or fortification:

Krak des chevaliers04(js).jpg
That talus is at Krak des Chevaliers.

or it can be a scree slope, that is, a side of a mountain covered in small stones that do everything they can to make you fall over.

What's so great about the plural of talus?

Well, there are two, depending upon which talus you're talking about. If it's the ankle bone the plural is tali; but if it's the slope then it's taluses.


on reflection, I think I should possibly get out more...

Spot the Frippet: talus. The ankle bone word is Latin for ankle, and the slope word comes from the Latin talūtium, slope, but is probably of Iberian origin.

Sunday 15 March 2015

Sunday Rest: cynosure. Word Not To Use Today.

File:Astronomy; a chart of the constellations Great Bear and Litt Wellcome V0024713.jpg
Picture: Wellcome Images.

Now I come to think about it, this post probably isn't needed: I mean, you never do use the word cynosure, do you?

It'd just be making an exhibition of yourself.

Even if you yourself knew what it meant* then, firstly, hardly anyone one who hears it will recognise it (the correct pronunciation starts off sinn and ends with a sneeze); and, secondly, if they do recognise it then they'll probably misunderstand it. Cyno looks much too much like cynic, and sure is too reminiscent of cocksure. The general impression is of something vaguely objectionable - which is a pity because that's pretty much exactly the opposite of it's meaning.

Really the silly thing is much safest avoided. 

It's the only way you can be sure both halves of the room will know you're trying to be nice.

Sunday Rest: cynosure. This word comes from the Latin Cynosūra, the constellation of the Little Bear, from the Greek cyno- which means to do with dogs, and oura, which means tail.

*Something that attracts notice, or is to be imitated, because of its brilliance.

Saturday 14 March 2015

Saturday Rave: The Bridal Morn. Anonymous.

Here's something very precious, and very old.

The identity of the writer isn't known, but he (or she - I feel inclined to believe it was a she) would have been writing around the turn of the 1500s.

If this poem had been written nowadays it probably wouldn't be set on the morning of a wedding. But the essential truth of it is surely immortal.

The Bridal Morn

The maidens came
When I was in my mother's bower;
I had all I would.
The bailey beareth the  bell away;
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.
The silver is white, red is the gold;
The robes they lay in fold.
The bailey beareth the bell away;
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.
And through the glass window shines the sun,
How should I love, and I so young?
The bailey beareth the bell away;
The lily, the rose, the rose I lay.

I'm not certain of the meaning of all of it; but its sumptuous mystery sends sparks straight to my heart.

File:Tapestry by unknown weaver - The Offering of the Heart - WGA24173.jpg
The Offering of the Heart, Anonymous. The Louvre.

Word To Use Today: lily. This word has existed in English since before the Norman Conquest of 1066. It came from Latin, and before that from the Greek word leirion.

Friday 13 March 2015

Word To Use Today: picnic.

Here in England, spring is sprung.

It's time to take off some of our woollies and head out into the countryside to enjoy...well, picnics are probably a couple of months away, but they've been in my mind since I saw this sentence, below, in a national newspaper:

 [This recipe is for] a traditional picnic pie - perfect served with thick, creamy custard.

Custard? At a picnic? And there was I in my ignorance I thinking that a picnic involved people travelling from home to sit on waterproof blankets and fight flies for food.


Painting by Thomas Cole. (Yes, even in those days someone often brought along a guitar.)

I can just about accept that a picnic might involve a knife and fork, but it really can't involve serving-jugs (see flies, above). A picnic might involve a vacuum flask of hot tea as a preservative against hypothermia (this is England, after all) but custard? 

Quite apart from the getting-the-stuff-to-the-picnic-while-still-hot problem, custard is famed worldwide for its affinity for shirt-fronts and laps - and that's when people are sitting comfortably at tables. When balanced on the side of a hill among sheep-droppings then disaster is quite simply inevitable.

Not only that, but the residual stickiness will be an unfortunate invitation to wasps.

Now, there must be some explanation for this insane custard-on-a-picnic idea. Perhaps there's some other meaning of the word picnic with which I am not familiar.

And, as it happens, there is. Not only that, but opposite ends of the earth have come up with opposite meanings (wouldn't it be fun if all words worked like this?) In England, if something is no picnic then it's difficult or disagreeable.

In Australia, however, a picnic is a troublesome situation or experience.

And, you know what? Now I know that, the whole custard-on-a-picnic thing suddenly makes absolutely perfect sense.

Word To Use Today: picnic. This word comes from the French piquenique. It might be something to do with piquer to peck and nique a thing of little importance. 

But probably not.

Thursday 12 March 2015

a new relationship: a rant.

I have a new Relationship Manager.

No, that's nothing to do with my husband's habit of leaving potted moths* on the dining table. I can cope with that.

No, this Relationship Manager is employed by my bank.

Do I want a relationship with my bank?

No, not really. I just want my money kept safe, and for the bank to give me as much interest as possible. 

Still, if my bank is offering a hand of friendship then surely it would be churlish to spurn it. Anyway, this guy must be red hot: I mean, he has eighteen letters after his name. (CeFA, CeMAP, Dip CII, MBA.)

Anyway, perhaps I ought to go and see him. 

Here's a passage from my Relationship Manager's introductory letter.

" Having recently taken over the management of your portfolio, I am keen to commence our relationship by providing you with a brief synopsis of myself...My years' of experience has afforded me the ability to support my clients to successfully manage their financial affairs adding value to a variety of circumstances and helping them to meet their financial objectives."

...or, on the other hand, perhaps keeping a few gold bars under the floorboards might be less painful.

Alexander Hamilton, founder of the Bank of New York 
(not my bank). 
I bet he could do grammar, too.

Word To Use Today: relationship. This word comes from the Latin relātiō, which describes a narration or relation between philosophical concepts.

*No moth is harmed during this process. Really.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

Nuts and Bolts: anaphora.

Anaphora is a way to sound clever; anaphora is a way to impress your enemies.

Anaphora is a rhetorical term; anaphora is a way to make people remember what you say.

Anaphora is a way to develop a reputation for pomposity; anaphora is a way to get yourself smacked in the mush.

Have you got it, yet? Yes, anaphora means repeating a phrase or word at the beginning of a series of items.

Anaphora can be highly impressive in speeches (Roddenberry's 'to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go...'); poetry (Campion's 'Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore, Never tired pilgrims' limbs affected slumber more'); and literature (Dickens' 'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times).

But still, I wouldn't try it in the pub if I were you.

Thing To Avoid Today: anaphora. This word is from Latin from Greek and means repetition, carrying back.

Tuesday 10 March 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: assassinate someone.

Yes, I know it's tempting, but I really wouldn't advise going along the assassination route.

True, you'll get rid of an awkward bod or two, but just think of all those other famous assassins...

...hang on, assassins aren't even very famous, are they? Not nearly as famous as the people who were assassinated. No,
assassinating someone might result in a short-term rise in status, but that'll only be among people who approve of assassination; and, for obvious reasons, they're not the sort of people you want to encourage.

Still, I suppose you could always pretend someone else did the assassination.

And if the evidence against you is really compelling...well, you could always blame...aliens?

Little green ones, perhaps.

Thing Not To Do Today: assassinate someone. This word comes, delightfully, from the Latin assassīnus, from the Arabic hashshāshīn, those who eat hashish. The first assassins were members of a secret Muslim sect operating in Syria and Persia from about 1090 to 1256. They mostly assassinated Crusaders.

Monday 9 March 2015

Spot the frippet: donkey.

There aren't as many donkeys about as there used to be. Karl Benz is probably largely to blame.

I rather miss them, though not enough to consider trading in our car for something that needs feeding even more often, if with enchanting ears.

The scarcity of donkeys means that the informal races called donkey derbies have almost disappeared, but if you want to see a load of donkeys racing about you can always go to an English soccer match, where any over-priced and under-skilled player (and one of the chief attraction of the sport, as far as I've observed, seems to be railing at them) is a donkey.

What donkeys are really notable for is working uncomplainingly. Presumably this is why a workman's jacket is a donkey jacket:

and drudgery is donkey-work.

In Australia, if you donkey-lick someone you've defeated him decisively, and if you cast a donkey vote you've listed your preferences 1-2-3 in the order in which they appear on the ballot-sheet.

I suppose this last meaning has its origin in the fact that, most unjustly, a donkey is a term for a stupid person. Still, never mind, it does mean it's not going to take you donkey's years to spot one, doesn't it.

Lastly, even if by some chance you can't spot a whole donkey, then there are very often odd limbs to be found littering the place. 

Because everyone knows someone who can talk the hind leg off a donkey.


Word To Use Today: donkey. This is quite a new word. It appeared in the 1700s and is perhaps from dun, dark, plus -key in imitation of the word monkey.

Sunday 8 March 2015

Sunday Rest: donnybrook. Word Not To Use Today.

Donnybrook? What on earth's a donnybrook?

Is it an eighties heartthrob?

The setting for a children's story?

A stream used to flush away effluent? Now there's a gorgeous word for you: effluent.

Donnybrook, on the other hand, is a horrible word. It has a weak, revolting sweetness about it.

And what is it?

A donnybrook is a brawl, a ruckus, a scrap. Something sharp and keen and perhaps even joyful.

So, donnybrook? Nah, forget it.

Sunday Rest: donnybrook. It's actually no one's fault that this word has ended up meaning what it does. Until 1855 Donnybrook was the site, just outside Dublin, of an annual fair. 

It must have been quite an outing, too.

Donnybrook Fair in the 1830s.

Saturday 7 March 2015

Saturday Rave: Lycidas, by John Milton.

In England, amaryllises are bursting forth in bloom on almost every window sill:

File:Amaryllis (5555347489).jpg
photo: Dwight Sipler, from Stow, MA, USA

and amaryllises lead me inevitably to Lycidas

To sport with Amaryllis in the shade, goes the line, which for a long time I thought was about flower-arranging. I love that line.

There are other famous bits of Lycidas, too:

Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of Noble mind)
To scorn delights and live laborious days;

and then there's:

To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.

Two of my very best friends in the world have Lycidas as one of their very favourite poems,'s no good. I've tried and tried, but I just can't get on with Milton. Well, I did enjoy Paradise Lost because it's so splendidly and heroically over-the-top, but...

...look, I know I must be wrong, and this is why Lycidas is featuring here.

HERE is the full text. I genuinely hope you enjoy it tremendously, but for me, personally, anything by Milton makes me feel as if I'm watching ballet with the dancers wearing hobnail boots.

Still, I really enjoyed this line:

He must not flote upon his watry bear

Now there's a bit of genuinely useful life-advice - and possibly the inspiration for a picture-book, too.

Word To Use Today: amaryllis. Apart from being a big flower, this is the name formerly used in pastoral poetry for a shepherdess or country girl.

Friday 6 March 2015

Word To Use Today: dandiprat.

How cheering can a word be?

As cheering as dandiprat, that's how cheering.

Dandiprat's oldest meaning is a small English silver coin of the early 1500s (accounts of its worth vary, but some put it, endearingly, at a penny ha'penny). 

I admit this meaning of dandiprat is unlikely to be of great use. I doubt that another meaning, the handle of a curry comb, gets out much, either. 

Luckily for us dandiprat also means a small boy or an insignificant person - and, obviously, we're always needing vivid and satisfying words for those:

'Take no notice of him, love, he's just a dandiprat.'

There were dandiprats swarming all over the climbing frame, happily shrieking and trying to kick each other.

'£1, for that? Come off it, it's not worth a dandiprat.'

See? Constantly useful.

And much, much too much fun not to use.

Word To Use Today: dandiprat. No one knows where this word came from, but some of the meanings are probably connected to the word dandy. And, indeed, prat. Samuel Johnson suggests the word might have something to do with dandin, with means a ninny. 

Thursday 5 March 2015

The lives of Brians: a rant.

What's the point of a police force?

Well, nabbing wrong-doers and keeping the rest of us safe, probably.

Now, when you think about it, this is asking the police to be both very tough and very kind, depending upon whether they're dealing with the guilty or the innocent

And they can't even be sure which is which with half the time.

In Britain, the traditional way to solve the kind-but-tough thing is to give policemen bizarre hats:

but Thames Valley Police has been using another method to strike fear into criminals: yes, they've been giving their police horses extremely macho names.

As far as I know there isn't yet a police horse called Skull-Cruncher, but there's been a Pluto and a Trojan.

But Thames Valley Police have recently gone too far. They found a promising six-foot one-tonne Shire horse who looked just the right sort of material for the police, but unfortunately his name was...


Now, Thames Valley Police's plan was to change it to something tougher, like...I don't know, Woden? Dastardly?...but they reckoned without the colossal indignation this plan engendered in Brians everywhere.

'I think it's a marvellous name for a horse, it's a friendly name, you would want to be kept safe by a Brian,' said Brian Belo.

Another Brian Poulson, simply declared: 'every horse should be called Brian!'

But is Brian tough enough? 

Well, it seems it is, because Thames Valley Police, amazed at the outrage, has backed down.

'Following a lot of protests, it looks like Brian may keep his name,' said a spokesman.

Well, good for Brians everywhere, I say.

I'm just hoping no one starts a campaign to make all police horses wear bizarre hats.

Word To Consider Today: Brian. This word might be Celtic, where it means noble, perhaps from bre- which means hill and therefore exalted. Or it might be Old Occitan, where brian means maggot. 

PS. Sadly, in the end Brian failed to make it as a police horse. 

It turned out that people frightened him, rather.

Wednesday 4 March 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Chopi.

First of all, the Chopi language of the South Eastern coast of Mozambique is not to be confused with the Chopi language of Uganda.

That would be ridiculous.

No, this Chopi is the language also called Copi, Tschopi, Txopi, Txopi, Shicopi and Txitxopi...

...and Chicopi.

Chopi is a tonal language, part of the Bantu family, and I came across it the other day when I was ranting about xylophones. The traditional Chopi xylophone, the mbila, has as its plural form timbila, and as I'm a sucker for an exotic plural I had to find out more.

It turns out that timbila are very often found in the plural, because a typical ensemble consists of about ten timbila, which comes in four sizes. A timbila ensemble play dances, and they also play what we'd call a suite (an ngomi) of ten movements. 

The ensemble leader creates lyrics, and will create a melody that's partly based on the tones of the Chopi language.

Isn't that a fantastic way of composing?

As well as the main melody there'll be another in counterpoint, as well as a lot of improvisation.

As for the Chopi language...'s written in Latin script. Only ten per cent of its speakers can read it.

And that's all I can find out about Chopi. Absolutely everything.

Still, I did find some mbila music, and half way through there's some singing, and at the end there's some laughter and chat.

Is this in Chopi?

I wish I knew.

Because surely in this language another great treasure of the world is lying too much neglected.

Nuts and Bolts: Chopi. As far as I can discover no one has the faintest idea where the name of this language came from.