This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 30 April 2015

How to look clever: a rant.

It's taken science a couple of hundred years, but it's finally caught up:

'I do not understand you.' says Catherine in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey.
'Then we are on very unequal terms,' says Henry 'for I understand you perfectly well.' 
'Me? yes - I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.'
'Bravo! An excellent satire on modern language!'

Henry is charmed, amused and rather thrilled by Catherine's answer, but it's only relatively recently that science has analysed 'speaking [well, strictly speaking writing] well' and proved the great truth behind Miss Austen's lovers' exchange. 

In 2005 Daniel M Oppenheim produced a paper at Princeton University, USA, which he has mischievously entitled 'Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.'

It seems that most undergraduates deliberately make the language of their essays complicated. They do this (they admit) to make themselves seem more intelligent.

Daniel M Oppenheimer's paper was designed to find out whether it worked.

The answer was a resounding NO. When texts were made more complicated readers tended to assume the writer was of lower intelligence, even though the text was saying exactly the same thing.

What fun that Miss Austen's wry joke now has an official scientific basis.

It doesn't only apply to undergraduates: it explains why people don't have too high an opinion of government officials and politicians, too, doesn't it? 

Word To Use Today: intelligible. This word comes from the Latin intellegibilis, from intellegere, to understand.

Wednesday 29 April 2015

Nuts and Boots: hoo hoo hoo the funky gibbon.



Hoo. It's a word used in West Yorkshire and Lancashire. It means she

Hoo is used in other languages too. In fact in Mo Singto in Khao Yai National Park, Thailand, it's the basis of a whole language.

No, really, it is: it's the language of Hylobates lar, or the Lar gibbon.

Hylobates lar pair of white and black 01.jpg

As far as humans could hear, the Lar gibbons were just making the sound...hoo. Any difference between one hoo and the other could only be detected by analysing the peak frequency, low frequency, delta frequency, duration and inter-call interval of the hoos.

After 117 heroic days and 600 hours of listening the researchers had heard 462 hoos - and even then there weren't enough hoos on the (probable) subjects of separation and snakes to analyse them with any confidence.

But a beginning has been made. Some Lar gibbon hoos definitely say Beware eagle! and some say Beware big cat! 

Now, plainly some hoos could quite easily say where did you get that fruit, you might have told me about it instead of sneaking off and stuffing your face, don't you know we've got a family to raise? But so far research hasn't managed to delve that deeply. (And if you think I'm just being silly, here, bonobos have calls which vary according to the quality of the food on offer.)

All in all, this shows that just  because you can't understand something, it doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

I hope very much that one day that someone somewhere will be able to sit down and have a really good chat in with a Lar gibbon.

And all in the language of hoo.

Word To Use Today: hoo. The word meaning she comes from the Old English heo. Who comes from the Old English hwā.

**Sorry about the type sizing, but if I try to make it bigger it goes and overlaps itself.**

Tuesday 28 April 2015

Thing To Do Today: verge.

Painters paint, sawyers saw and, this isn't working out as well as I'd hoped...but anyway, what I want to know is, why don't vergers verge?

The Verger
Maurice Yeatman as the Dad's Army verger.

You might not have come across a verger unless you're English or have watched Dad's Army (and if you haven't watched Dad's Army you've missed a great and harmless treat) but you find them in English churches. They do crowd control, of a respectful and hushed variety, and sometimes look after a church's day-to-day housekeeping. 

To verge means to move or incline in a certain direction, and vergers tend not to be very good at verging. Well, they're upholders of the dignity of the church, and although, for instance, if a clergyman pleaded very hard indeed he might be allowed to bring a donkey to church for Palm Sunday, a verger will obviously have grave doubts about braying during the General Confession or droppings getting down the gratings and onto the heating pipes.

Fortunately for the rest of us, we, with no official responsibilities, can verge all we like. It's a generally a good thing, unless you're driving a car and you verge towards the river. But even in then, verging doesn't mean you'll necessarily end up in the drink: it's only a change of direction, not a whole journey. Verging is a sign that the brain that's still alive and has an awareness that there are truths out there to be discovered and cherished.

If you're not prepared to verge from your customary path then I'm tempted to say that you might as well have a head full of concrete.

But that would be verging on the ridiculous.

Thing To Do Today: verge. The verb comes from the Latin vergere. Verger comes from the Old French verge, from the Latin virga, rod or twig. Vergers still sometimes carry a stick as a sign of office, particularly in processions.

Monday 27 April 2015

Spot the Frippet: snout.

Today, as I'm sure you'll all be aware, is World Tapir Day, which I mention because tapirs are the owners of the most enchanting snouts in the world.

See? (That Brazilian tapir is showing the flehmen response, which is a way of detecting the scent of other tapirs.)

If, sadly, you can't find a tapir near you then commoner animals have snouts: the sixteen or so species of pigs, for instance:

File:Cute Piglet.jpg
Photo: Petr Kratochvil

And, if you can't find one of the billion pigs on the planet, there are over 40,000 species of Curculionidae, or snout beetles (also called true weevils). 

To make things even easier, snout is British slang for tobacco or cigarettes, and in quite a lot of the English-speaking world it's slang for an informer, too - not as in a sharer of useless information like The Word Den, but the sort who tells the authorities about criminal activity.

But still, the best snouts, as I've already said, belong to tapirs:

Paradise Wildlife Park, 25 April 2015. Tapirus terrestris and some very happy Homo sapiens-type person.

Spot the Frippet: snout. This word is Germanic in origin: the Old Norse is snyta and the Middle Dutch is snūte.

Sunday 26 April 2015

Sunday Rest: osculation.

The word osculation is annoying in two quite separate ways.

First of all, a point of osculation is...well, it's that bit inside the little red circle:

You get a point of osculation when two bits of a loopy curve have the same tangent (I'll explain tangent in a minute). The tangent in the picture above is the black vertical line. It's got a little black triangle on it, I don't know why.

All right so far? Well, okay, now the tangent stuff. Imagine you're walking along a curved path. Freeze the action at a point where both your feet are on the ground. Done that? Note the direction in which you are travelling. Then go on one more step and freeze the action again. Again note the direction in which you are travelling, which will be just a little bit different from last time because you'll have gone a bit round the curve. Well, each of those direction-lines is the tangent of the bit of the curve you're travelling along at each of those particular frozen moments. A tangent is basically a line that shows the direction the curve is heading in at any given moment. 

In the picture, you can see that there's an instant where the shallow outside curve and the tight inside one are going in the same direction. So they have the same tangent. That's a point of osculation.

I hope that makes sense, but, honestly point of osculation...could anything sound more pompous?

Anyway, the other way the word osculation is annoying is that it also means kiss. Good grief. If anyone proposed osculating me I'd give them a smack on the osculater, and no mistake.

Good grief.

Word Not To Use Today: osculation. This word comes from the Latin ōsculārī, to kiss, from ōs, which means mouth. 

For those of you doing geometry, you can also call a point of osculation a tacnode or double cusp.

Saturday 25 April 2015

Saturday Rave: Oliver! The Lionel Bart version.

You don't need that many words for a song. A couple of four line verses, hopefully featuring a rhyme or two, and a one-line-repeating chorus, and that's enough.

I've been thinking about pick-pockets lately (no, it's all right, thank you, I just heard one interviewed on the radio) and this led me inevitably to Lionel Bart's Oliver!

File:Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin by Cruikshank (detail).jpg
Illustration by George Cruikshank

This is the beginning of the pick-pocketing song, which is sung by Fagin with a chorus of boy pick-pockets.

FAGIN: In this life, one thing counts:
In the bank, large amounts!
I'm afraid these don't grow on trees,
You've got to pick a pocket or two.
You've got to pick a pocket or two, boys,
You've got to pick a pocket or two.
BOYS: Large amounts don't grow on trees.
You've got to pick a pocket or two.
FAGIN: Why should we break our backs
Stupidly paying tax?
Better get some untaxed income:
You've got to pick a pocket or two.

You can find all the lyrics to Oliver! HERE. The ingenuity and variety and sheer quantity of these lyrics is astounding.The pick-pocketing song alone has six verses, all very funny, sharp, and gleefully horrifying. Oliver! is immensely generous stuff. I mean, look at the third line of those verses, above - at the rhyme half way along - I'm afraid these don't grow on trees; and Better get some untaxed income; rhymes joyously thrown in as if that sort of thing were easy.

When Lionel Bart wrote Oliver! he was twenty eight years old, and Oliver! was his third successful musical. He made a fortune - and spent it.

Ah well. I hope he had a thoroughly lovely time. He deserved it.

Word To Use Today: tax. This word comes from the Old French taxer, from the Latin tangere, to touch.

Friday 24 April 2015

Word To Use Today: iktsuarpok.

Can you feel it?

Can you feel that slight uneasiness, that swift cold plunge of nausea, that wasn't-expecting-that-step qualm? 

It's not going away, either, is it? It's continuing. It's growing into a restlessness. You can't quite settle to anything because any moment now - 

 - you go and make a cup of tea, and find your hand is trembling a little as you pour the water.

You sit down at your screen and try to concentrate. But it's no good: every nerve in your body is stretching tight: you'll soon be at snapping-point.

Soon. It must be going to happen soon.

Suddenly you can't bear the silent screaming of your body any longer. It's intolerable.

You get up and go to the door, hesitate, but then open it and step outside. Look one way. Then the other.

You know it's coming.

Whatever it is.

Photo by Rear Admiral Harley D. Nygren

Word To Use Today: iktsuarpok. This is an Inuit word for the feeling of impatient anticipation that makes you go outside to see if anyone is coming.

It's a lot quicker than trying to describe it in English.

Thursday 23 April 2015

Unholy days: a rant.

All ready for a challenge? Then fill in the missing word:

We're all going on a Summer...

What? You said holiday? Oh, if only. Don't you mean a neighcation (that, I'm afraid, is a holiday with a horse). Or, if pushed for time, a daycation? Or, if you're keen to use your leisure time to starve yourself, a weighcation?

Or how about a spacation (that's not a trip to Mars, by the way, it's a visit to a Spa)?

All these ghastly cobbled-together it that the travel agents feel obliged to warn their clients that these holidays will be exceptionally badly designed?

And it doesn't end there. If a -cation doesn't appeal then you can go flightseeing (visiting places without touching the ground (a new meaning of the word visiting with which I was not familiar); brokepacking, which is of course cheap backpacking, as if anyone would go in for luxury backpacking...hang on, though, I think I've just spotted a gap in the market. You could do holidays where people walk about being really, like, authentic and meeting really poor people and stuff, but still get a proper bath, clean sheets and wifi in the evenings. You could call it greenbackpacking

Hey, I could make a fortune, here. How about a line in well-being pilgrimages (quackpacking); seaweed-fancying tours (wrackpacking); war zone tourism (flakpacking); and tours of Higher Tibet (yakpacking). 

I have a horrible feeling that crackpacking might be the most profitable of all, but as I'm on the side of the angels I'll stick to the even more thrilling hackpacking, which is a holiday where you get to be an investigative journalist staking out the crackpackers.

All of which leaves me with the depressing thought that people will do absolutely anything if only you charge them enough.

Word To Use, just none of this lot, okay?

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Kalderash Romani by Cal.

Today we have a terrific guest post about Kalderash Romani, hurray! 

It's been very kindly written for us by Cal. Cal lives in Hertfordshire, England, and is of Romani descent. 

Cal is a pseudonym, because Romani true names are secret. 


Kalderash Romani is spoken by travellers in North America and in Europe. Some of the words used by the North American Roma aren’t used by the European Roma but they will usually understand them, like British people usually know what Americans mean when they talk about their pants.

Romani has eight cases so there are up to eight versions of every noun – plus another eight plural forms. The cases are nominative, accusative, instrumental, ablative, prepositional/locative, genitive and vocative.

All nouns in Romani are masculine or feminine. Usually, male animals take the masculine gender and female animals the feminine. But a fly (makh) is always feminine and a scorpion (yalakráno) is always masculine. If a female scorpion gives birth you would say that ‘he’ gives birth – wo biyanel.

The accusative form of a noun is only different from the nominative with living beings. Living beings include demons (singular bengórra) and cannibal ogres (xarápo) – but not insects (gîndáko).

In Welsh the word ‘da’ means dad. In Romani, da is the accusative form of ‘dey’, which means mum.

The Romani word for a computer mouse is maimúnka, which also means female monkey.

Beng means devil. It used to mean frog.

And for anyone who believes there is no connection between love and money, love means money in Romani.

Word To Use Today: Romani. This word is Romani and comes from the Sanskrit domba which means man from a low caste of musicians. Before that the word came from the Dravidian.


Huge thanks to Cal for this fascinating post. Now I know the Romani for cannibal ogre I really feel my life is complete.

One end of our display of Romany Vardos
Vardos at the Gordon Boswell's Romani Museum, Spalding, Lincolnshire, England.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Thing To Do Today: be matched.

Manchester City v Arsenal will be a good match; so will Prince Charming and Cinderella; so will my green jumper and cardigan.

Are things that are matched the same or different? Are they in harmony or opposition? Do they make love or war?


What, in short, is the connection between all these meanings?

Can you guess?

The answer is in the derivation.

Thing To Do Today: be matched. This word comes from the Old English gemæcca, spouse, and is related to the Old High German gimmaha, wife and the Old Norse maki, mate.

The married ones among us are probably smiling, if slightly wryly.

*Those are Queen Victoria's wedding shoes.

Monday 20 April 2015

Spot the Frippet: sorrel.

In the forest yesterday I came across great carpets of wood sorrel:

File:Common wood sorrel (aka).jpg
Photo by André Karwath aka Aka.

They were edged with stars of celandine and embroidered with violets, like an Elizabethan counterpane.

Later, when I had stopped gasping, I found myself wondering what this delicate flower has to do with the orange-brown of a sorrel horse:

Well, the answer my Collins dictionary gives is nothing, but wikipedia suggests that sorrel is the colour of the lower bits of the plant sorrel (which is quite different from wood sorrel):

Rumex acetosa cultivar 01.jpg

Sorrel is a vegetable with a sharp flavour said to be reminiscent of kiwis - the fruit, presumably, rather than the bird - and is used in soup a lot. The flower looks like this:

which is itself rather sorrel-coloured, isn't it.

In North America there is a sorrel tree, which has sour-tasting leaves and small white flowers.

The easiest sorrel thing to spot is surely something of sorrel orange-brown.

So I think I'll have a look and see if I can find any rust on my baking trays.

Spot the Frippet: sorrel. The colour word comes from the French sorel, from sor, reddish-brown, related to the Dutch soor desiccated. The plant word comes from the Old French surele, from sur, sour.

Sunday 19 April 2015

Sunday Rest: theurgy. Word Not To Use Today.


It sounds like a dish made up of things you only eat because they're disintegrated past the point of recognition...or I suppose theurgy could be some Ancient Greek philosophical concept (which means, of course, that it's been invented by someone not even clever enough to have worn trousers, avoided being executed by the authorities, or taught somewhere with a roof). 

Theurgy is glutinous, dingy, inscrutable...

...except that it's not. 

Well, not always.

Theurgy is when a god joins in with human affairs. Or it can be a miracle performed by such a god. Or it can be the good magic taught in Egypt around the 4th century AD.

It's a wonderful, exciting, sparkling, dangerous, terrifying thing...

...that sounds like congealed gravy.


Word Not To Use Today: theurgy. This word comes from the Greek words for god and work, theos and ergon.

Saturday 18 April 2015

Saturday Rave: The Wild Swans at Coole by W B Yeats.

In half the world it's Autumn, and here's a scent of it.

The Wild Swans at Coole by W B Yeats is the title poem of a collection Yeats wrote during the First Word War. It was an unhappy time for him. Two relationships had failed, and he was feeling old and haunted by the waste of war.


'We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric,' Yeats said, 'but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.'

And that is what he did.

This is the end of his poem about the wild swans.

But now they drift on the water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake's edge or pool
Delight men's eyes when I awake some day
To find that they have flown away?

Word To Use Today: wild. This word has hardly changed in centuries. The Old English form was wilde.

Friday 17 April 2015

Word To Use Today: media.

After last Friday's almost impossible hieracosphinx, I thought that this week I'd choose something completely at random from the dictionary. 

Well, nothing could be harder than hieracosphinx, could it.

Well, no, luckily it couldn't, because we've ended up with media.

As a matter of fact my random finger landed on the Media which is the ancient land of the Medes (as in the Medes and the Persians). But as the Medes were conquered in 550 BC by Cyrus the Great* and their land then pretty much ceased having any right to be called Media, it's fortunate the word has other uses.

First off, mixed media is not a combination of radio and newspapers, but a description of a work of art made with more than one sort of stuff: bronze and plastic, for instance, or oil paint-and-lace, or dried ants and old lettuce leaves or something. 

The phrase 'the media' describes the communication of usually transient things such as the news. Sometimes the media is used as a plural (the media have been promulgating more lies) and sometimes as a singular (the media is having a nervous breakdown). Technically media is a plural, that of the word medium. I don't have strong feelings either way, but some people do get terribly upset if media is treated as a singular, so it's probably best to do it only on occasions when you feel like being annoying.

If you really want to annoy someone, then use media as a singular to mean either part of the wall of a blood vessel, or else one of the main veins on an insect's wing, and then, when people start emitting steam through their ears, point out sweetly that in this case media is a singular, of which the plural is mediae.

But that's only if you want to make a life-long enemy, natch.

Word To Use Today: media. The Latin medius means middle.

*I suppose if you've got to be conquered, it does help a bit that it's by Someone the Great, doesn't it. Think how galling it would be to be conquered by Cyrus the Pathetically Weedy, or Cyrus the Quite Frankly a Bit Useless, Really.

Thursday 16 April 2015

Strictly for the Ghosts: a rant

There's a sign at Dudley Zoo which says:


Well, it's a nice trick if you can do it.

external image Gdr.jpg
Photo by Fantasma, apparently: so perhaps this is a selfie.

Word To Use Today: closed. This word comes from the Latin word clausus, to shut up, from claudere to close.

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Nuts and Bolts: agglutinative languages.

It's the glu that's important in an agglutinative language.

The what?

The glu: it's used to stick words together to make new ones.

All languages tend to do this, of course, but the usual habit is to squish the words a bit as you do it. This both makes them easier to say, and can be much quicker. For instance, if you want to say I am in the past in English you say I was. It really does save time. That way of doing things is called fusional. In an agglutinative system the bits glued together aren't changed in any way at all.

It makes agglutinative languages easy to understand, because when words get recycled their meaning remains obvious. This trait has been seized upon by the developers of both Esperanto and Klingon.

It follows that, on the whole, agglutinative languages tend to be very regular. Japanese, for example, contains only a couple of irregular verbs, and Turkish and Quechua have none at all. (As a learner of languages, I regard this trait as a fine, kind, and reasonable thing.)

As far as I know, all languages have both agglutinative and fusional traits. German, for instance, has a habit of sticking its nouns together unsquished, but has quite complicated and arbitrary ways of telling you what each noun is doing in its sentence.

It's really almost enough to make you wonder if languages aren't designed as much to stop people understanding them than as a means of communication.

Word To Consider Today: agglutinative. This term was coined by Wilhelm von Humboldt* and comes from the Latin agglutinare, to glue together.

*This von Humboldt was the brother of Alexander, after whom (indirectly) the Humboldt penguin was named. 

I bet their parents were dead proud.

Tuesday 14 April 2015

Thing To Do Today: massage something.

Oh, hello! Gosh, you are so kind and intellectually curious to visit The Word Den like this (not that I'm trying to massage your ego or anything.)

There's a great deal massaging going on in Britain at the moment: we're enduring an election campaign and so, naturally, artistically lit and carefully sampled figures are being presented to the public, all bearing the slightly squashed look of something that's been expertly massaged.

File:Sweet Potato Gnocchi dough in a ball.jpg
Photo by Joy.

And of course what we're all asking ourselves is, are any of these facts and figures actually, well, facts?

It's enough to give you a headache just trying to sort out what's really going on.

What? Oh, yes, that would be lovely. Just at the base of the neck. Yes...ooh, smashing...yes, that's so much better...

Thank you.

Thing To Do Today: massage. This word comes from the French masser, to rub, and before that from the Latin massa, that which forms a lump, from the Greek maza, barley cake.

Monday 13 April 2015

Spot the frippet: hide.

Here's a challenge:


Oops, sorry, someone must have gone and hidden it.

What's a hide? Well, it depends on where you're hiding. In Britain a hide is what Americans call a blind, if you're talking about somewhere to, well, hide in order to fool animals into thinking you're not there any more. (With some animals you have to be a bit more cunning - two of you go in, and one leaves, and then the animals think the hide is empty. If you're trying to fool crows then you have to turn up in a group of at least eight, and then seven of you have to leave, because crows are rather good at counting.)

You can use almost anywhere as this sort of a hide - a car, your house, a train. The important thing is to watch animals from it. (From here at this moment I can see a singing blackbird and several very fat wood pigeons.)

As if that sort of a hide isn't an easy enough spot, then the tough skin of most large animals (anything bigger than a deer, say,) is its hide, whether it's still got the animal inside it or not.

Then there's...well, everywhere. A hide, you see, is an old measurement of land varying from sixty to one hundred and twenty acres. That's about half a square kilometre. So, more or less any view will show you at least one hide.

And if you saw a horse from a train you might even manage to see all three different sorts of hide - skin, area of land, and hiding-place for watching animals - at once.

That would be quite cool, wouldn't it?

Spot the frippet: hide. The hiding-away sort of hide comes from the Old English hȳdan, from the Greek keuthein; the skin sort of hide comes from the Old English hȳd, from the Latin cutis, skin; the area-of-land hide comes from the Old English hīgid, which is related to hīw, family or household, from the Latin cīvis, citizen.  

Sunday 12 April 2015

Sunday Rest: offendrons.

Offendron is, clearly, a ghastly word only suitable to describe a race of shadowy power-freaks intent on manipulating (if they have hands,* though I imagine them as sort of ghostish) every facet of people's lives, and exterminating those who step out of line.

And, actually, that's more or less what offendrons are.

Offendrons are people who get offended. You often (oh, how often!) find them on social media and comments boards.

They're the professional victims, the ones determined that every story should be about them - and the way they bid for attention is to broadcast their sensitivities far and wide.

The offending remark may only exist because of deliberately provocative editing; it may be the result of a local use of language; quite often it's caused by something someone didn't say; but the offendrons, in their desperate clamour for notice, will happily sacrifice someone else's career, relationships, reputation, or even life, for the sake of their own egoistical needs.

The concept of the offendron is something we've been needing for a long time, and I salute the genius who invented it.

And I'm even glad it's such a horrible word, too.

Word Not To Use Today Unless You Come Across One: offendron. Even Google doesn't seem to know much about this word, but it's clearly based on offend, and that word comes from the Old French offendre, to strike against, from Latin offendere, from fendere, to strike.

The ron bit is presumably an analogy with various non-human baddies such as myrmidons and Mysterons.

*Manipulate: from the Latin manipulus, handful.

Saturday 11 April 2015

Saturday Rave: American Pie by Don McLean.

Now for ten years we've been on our own
And moss grows fat on a rolling stone
But that's not how it used to be
When the jester sang for the king and queen
In a coat he borrowed from James Dean
And a voice that came from you and me.

That's from verse 2 of Don McLean's song American Pie.

Nonsense verse is usually assumed to be written for children (Jabberwocky) or the childish (The Ying Tong Song) but for whom this glorious song was written I can't begin to say.

For decades I thought Miss American Pie must be a mondegreen - but no. That's what the words really do say. 


I have no idea. Don McLean says of the lyrics of the song: 'They're beyond analysis. They're poetry.'

At the moment the nearest to an explanation Don McLean has given us is that the song commemorates Buddy Holly's death. 

But then, as far as I can see, most of it actually doesn't.

This month the original manuscript is going to be auctioned*, and Dob McLean has promised to reveal the meanings of the lyrics when it does.

I have mixed feelings about this. I'm curious, of course, but at the same time there's something gloriously liberating about nonsense, especially when you live weighed down by the cold logic of gravity and all that physics stuff.

Isn't there?

Word To Use Today: America. You can take your pick on this one. The name America is usually said to be derived from Amerigo Vespucci (Americus Vespecius in its Latinised form). The trouble with this is that it's unusual to call a country after the Christian name of someone not royal, and so some people think that America is named after Dafydd ap Meric, who might have been either John Cabot's mapmaker or his financial backer. 

*The auction happened between my writing this post and its being published. As far as I can make out, Don McLean says the song's about everything getting worse all the time.

Which really is nonsense.

Friday 10 April 2015

Word To Use Today: hieracosphinx.

I don't have a special useless-though-enchanting area in The Word Den, so hieracosphinx is going to have to appear as a Word To Use Today.

Well, think of it as a challenge.

A hieracosphinx is a sphinx with the head of a hawk. 

So, err...

...well, perhaps you might see a cloud that looks a bit like one.

Or perhaps this picture reminds you of someone:

That image is of the god Horus in the form of a hieracosphinx from the Temple of  Edfu, Egypt. (He reminds me of the organist at church when I was young - which is odd, as I can't really remember what he looked like.)

Still, do you know someone who wears winged glasses, as Horus appears to do in that image? 

Perhaps you have a head teacher or boss who's fierce, and talks in riddles?

Um...well, good luck with this one. It's a cool word, anyway, isn't it? And the plural can be either hieracosphinxes or hieracosphinges.

Word To Use Today: hieracosphinx. this word was made up by Herodotus to describe the images of hawk-headed sphinges he saw when in Egypt. It comes from the Greek words sphinx, which means, well, sphinx, and hierax, hawk.

By the way, Herodotus called sphinges with the heads of rams criosphinges. 

Thursday 9 April 2015

sex discrimination: a rant

Oh, do keep up.

Honestly, LGBT is so last year.

According to the Community Information Centre of Ottawa, Canada, we're up to LGBTTQ+


I love that +...I don't know if it's a sign of open-mindedness, irritation, or despair.

Anyway, LGBTTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirited, 

intersex, queer and questioning.

It makes me realise that I have rather a lot of questioning to do, myself.

Oh, but I am grateful for that +. I'm hoping it'll keep me up to date for a few months, at least.

Word To Use Today: plus. This word comes from the Latin word meaning more, or in greater 

number. The theory is that it comes from the Proto-European pele, which might have meant to 


Wednesday 8 April 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Chickasaw.

I've got a horrid, gluey, rotten, disgusting, putrid and mind-numbing cold... 

...but I'm trying to be positive about it.


I suppose this would be an excellent time to learn to speak the Native American language Chickasaw. Chickasaw has both nasal vowels and nasal consonants. To say a nasal vowel or consonant (the consonants are m and n and ng) you arrange your mouth and tongue as if you're going to say the ordinary sound, but then you release the air through your nose as well as your mouth. In Chickasaw, nasal vowels are usually written down underlined, or sometimes in italics.

Okay. So, if I did learn it, where would I find people to talk to? 

Around Ada.

(That's not a person, but a town in South-East Oklahoma, USA.)

What else is special about Chickasaw?

Well, it's agglutinative - and that's exactly how my head feels at the moment, so I think I'll leave explaining what agglutinative means for now and go and have a quiet lie down

Word To Use Today: nasal. This word comes from the Latin nāsus, which means nose.

Tuesday 7 April 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: have the pip.

File:Finish of 60 m running event during 1904 Summer Olympics.jpg
1904 Olympics: 60 metres race. Someone being pipped to the post.

Pip is such a little word, but like other small things such as grains of sand and spiders it gets everywhere, and it's spring that's pipping's busiest time. Pipping can mean making any short high-pitched sound, of course, but it's particularly the noise made by a very young bird. 

It's also, rather thrillingly I think, the action of a bird piercing the shell of its egg while hatching. A crack it makes in its egg is a pip.

This first sign of a new life is obviously a matter of great joy - though, perversely, In Britain, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, to give someone the pip is to get him or her into a bad mood. In New Zealand it can also mean to sulk.

I'm sorry to report that as far as pip is concerned things can get even more unpleasant. To pip someone can be to ostracise them, perhaps by rejecting them as members of a society; to pip someone at the post is to beat someone at the last minute and against all expectation; and in Britain pipping someone can mean shooting them with a gun. 

Oh dear...and it was such a harmless-looking word. I find that I'm rather glad to be done with it, now.

Definitely time to say pip-pip to this one.

Thing Not To Do Today: have the pip. These verbal uses of pip share their derivations with yesterday's nouns.

Monday 6 April 2015

Spot the Frippet: pip.

When I suggest you spot a pip, I'm hoping it's going to be under reasonably pleasant circumstances. 

I hope no one's squeezing you until the pips squeak; I hope your chickens are well (do you remember the little man in the theatre at the end of Hitchcock's* The Thirty Nine Steps asking, repeatedly, What causes pip in poultry? And no one ever told him.); I hope that no one's handed you the lemon. 

Luckily there are happy pips to be found. Oranges and apples have pips, and one of the indented surfaces on a pineapple is called a pip.

Lily of the valley plants come from pips...well, not in my garden they don't, they always fail to come from pips...but that's the theory, anyway.

Playing cards, dice and dominoes have pips, and so do the epaulettes of officers and commissionaires:

Billy Butlin, MBE, chats to Sergeant J Caffrey, VC, (VC!!!) a Commissionaires at Filey Holiday Camp. Sgt Caffrey won his Victoria Cross at Ypres during the First World War.

A radio time-signal consists of pips (though, if you're listening via that modern miracle digital radio, the chances are that they won't actually be, well, on time).

See? Pips everywhere. 

And I haven't even started on the verbs, yet.

Spot the Frippet: pip. The fruit word is short for pippin, which comes from Old French; the sound is imitative; the bad mood is from the Latin pituita, which means phlegm.


*When I say Hitchcock, of course the terrific John Buchan wrote the novel upon which the film was based.

Sunday 5 April 2015

Sunday Rest: Grexident. Word Not To Use Today.

As if Grexit isn't bad enough, (though it is), I regret to report the birth of something even worse.

This chimera (hmm...the Greeks have a track record here, don't they) is the hideous conglomeration Grexident.

Now, Grexit means Greek exit from the Euro: but Grexident?

Is it some sort of preparation for the cleaning of false teeth?


Well, then, let's see: grex, that's Latin for flock, and dent is usually to do with teeth...something with woolly teeth? That is, something which looks quite scary, but is actually practically harmless?


An adjectival description of something that aims to make people act in a flock-like way, like a SALE sign, or a fashion show, or the queueing system at an airport?

Not that, either?

So...what is it then?

Grexident is what will happen if Greece leaves the Euro by accident.

By accident? Good grief. I mean, I've occasionally dropped a cup, or let the occasional cat out of the bag, but...

Still, I suppose anyone who can countenance a horrid word like Grexident might do anything.

Word Not To Use Today: Grexident. The Grex bit is formed on the model of Grexit (short for Greek exit) and the ident is the tail end of accident. The dent bit in accident is nothing to do with teeth. It comes from the Latin accidere, to befall, from cadere to fall.

Saturday 4 April 2015

Saturday Rave: The Love of Fame by Edward Young

'Some for renown on scraps of learning dote
And think they grow immortal as they quote.
To patch-work learned quotations are allied
Both strive to make our poverty our pride.'


Edward Young (1683 - 1765) was such a good satirist that he still makes me wince today.

Unfortunately, although his pen was sharp, real life easily outwitted him. He sought fortune by flattering men on the brink of ruin, and fame through association with men about to become notorious.

Young sorted himself out in the end (he became a clergyman at the age of fifty). He even wrote an influential work on genius that proved an inspiration to the Romantics.

But it's still his satire that I love best.

'With skill she vibrates her eternal tongue
For ever most divinely in the wrong.'

Ouch! Ouch ouch ouch!

Word To Use Today: young. This word is actually very old. It comes from the Old English geong, and can be traced right back to the Sanskrit yuvan.

Friday 3 April 2015

Word To Use Today: frigorific.

How on earth did people get through the 1960s without the word frigorific?

It's just

'Hey, cats, there's going to be a demonstration outside the public toilets.'

'Frigorific, man!'

File:Tallinn hippie.jpg
photo Feddim

When I say frigorific is cool I'm speaking quite literally, because it means causing cold, or freezing.

'Would you like some ice cubes?'


Still, as people never stop pointing out (usually disapprovingly) language changes, and this gives me hope for frigorific.

So I very much hope that next time someone says I've got a new app on my phone you know just what to say.

Word To Use Today: frigorific. This word comes from the French frigorifique, from the Latin frīgorificus, from frīgus, coldness, and facere, to make   

Thursday 2 April 2015

All downhill from here: a rant.

Having walked in the Chiltern Hills 
And up and down Ivinghoe Beacon, 
It strikes me as a very silly thing indeed 
That going downhill is reckoned 
At all undesirable.

File:A Historic View across the Gap in the Chiltern Hills - - 1353511.jpg
Photo Chris Reynolds.

Word To Use Today: Chilterns. This name was first mentioned in 1233 with reference to the three Chiltern hundreds (hundreds were government districts). Or, as they said at the time iij. hundredarum de Cyltr.

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Nuts and Bolts Anadalam.

I've been looking for the perfect opportunity to write about the extraordinary Sumatran language Anadalam, and here it is.

The Anadalam language is a fantastic piece of human ingenuity (as are of course all languages), a fabulously efficient language where a few sounds do service in a myriad ways.

When the researcher Marcel Appenzzell visited the Anadalam people (also known as the Orang-Kubus, or just the Kubus) he discovered a language consisting of so remarkably few sounds that he suspected that words were deliberately deleted from its vocabulary as each member of the community died.

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Fruitverkoper te Medan Sumatra TMnr 10002440.jpg

For instance, the word pekee can mean hunt, walk, carry, spear, gazelle, antelope, peccary, my'am (a hot spice) forest, tomorrow, or dawn.

Sinuya means to eat, a meal, soup, gourd, spatula, plait, evening, house, pot, fire, fibula, comb, hair, and hoja (a cocnut-oil based hair-dye).

Appenzzell said it seemed to work in practice rather in the same way as when a carpenter, surrounded by specialist tools, says to his assistant 'give me the thingummy.'

As I said before, Anadalam is a fabulous pearl of the human mind... 

...and one that's to be found in many corners of the internet, too.

Word To Use Today: hoax. This word probably comes from hocus, as in hocus pocus. 

The Anadalam language appears in Georges Perec's book Life A User's Manual (La Vie mode d'emploi) and is in practice, of course, entirely non-existent.