This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 31 May 2015

Sunday Rest: wenge. Word Not To Use Today.

I have to admit that this word could be worse. In fact it could be much worse: it could be pronounced to rhyme with henge.

Then it would be the acme of peevishness.

As it is, it's said wen-gay, which merely sounds snobbish.

What is it? It's actually something rather precious: an endangered African tree, Millettia laurentii, prized for its hard dark wood.

Here's a wenge tree in flower: 


Wenge is used to make musical instruments such a guitars and dulcimers. Here it is as part of an eigenharp:

File:Eigenharp Alpha Wenge 0610 1376.jpg
Photo by Ross Elliott

Wenge is also used for furniture and floors: that's why it's endangered, of course.

Anyway, if you must use it, why call it wenge? Why not call it by one of its other local names, like dikela, mibotu, bokonge or awong.

Ah, but of course! It's because then it would be obvious that the stuff had been ripped out of the middle of an African rainforest, wouldn't it.

Yes. You can see why they went with wenge, after all.

Sunday Rest: wenge. This is a native African word, but more than that I haven't been able to discover.

Saturday 30 May 2015

Saturday Rave: Western Wind. Anonymous.

Summertime...and the living is... 

...quite frankly, in England the living might involve more or less anything: hail, thunderstorms, rain, blistering heat, North winds, South, East or West winds, dead calm, wind that races round in circles and throws dust in your eyes...

Ah well. I suppose it keeps us humble.

Whether it's Summer or Winter where you are, here's a very short, very old* poem that describes very vividly Life As We Know It.

It's been set to music again and again. There's a good Wikipedia article about it HERE.

No one knows who wrote this poem, but whoever it was did a service to us all.

Western Wind

Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!

File:St James's Park Station sculptures – West Wind by Samuel Rabinovitch.jpg
West Wind (1928–9) by Samuel Rabinovitch, St James's Park Underground station, London. Photo by Tony Hisgett.

Word To Use Today: west. This word hasn't changed much in the last thousand years. It goes right back to the Sanskrit avástāt via the Latin vesper, which means evening. 

*This poem may be from the 1200s, though the first written-down version is dated about 1530.

Friday 29 May 2015

Word To Use Today: kinnikinnick or killikinnick.

Here's a useful word.

Well, when I say useful...

Kinnikinnick sounds Irish to me - some dish of smoked fish and potato, perhaps - but actually it comes from far across the Atlantic Ocean.

Kinnikinnick is any mixture of dried leaves and bark, not always including tobacco, smoked by Native Americans Indians.

Pipe with two faces, early 19C, Brooklyn.

Any of the plants used to make it, like sumach, are kinnikinnick, too.

And how on earth, you may ask, are we supposed to use a word today that means ancient Native American tobacco substitute?

Well, it turns out that kinnikinnick comes from an Algonquian word which means that which is mixed, and kinnikinnick would surely might make a jolly satisfying synonym for pot pourri, a compound noun that has never, I'm afraid, fitted easily into an English sentence

Or how about using kinnikinnick for those dried flower mixtures you're supposed to sprinkle over salad?

It would be a fine thing to make this homage to the wonderful Algonquian language.

And it'd certainly save us the embarrassment of trying to say pot pourri in the middle of a string of English words, wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: kinnikinnick. This Algonquian word is related to the Natick kinukkinuk, which means mixture.

Thursday 28 May 2015

the curate's egg: a rant.

Do you know the story of the curate's egg?

It was told in a Punch cartoon of the 1890s:

Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones"; Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

(The writer of that cartoon was George du Maurier, grandfather of Daphne.)

I've been thinking about curates. They're junior priests, and historically they haven't had anything like the social standing or income of their seniors.

They do have a splendid title, though: the word curate comes ultimately from the Latin cūra, to care. Curates care, about and for, people.

Curators have a similar job, though what they care for, and about, are usually precious museum or gallery exhibits. 

This, below, was sent me on 15/5/15. It's from a firm called One Regent's Place. 

Fallen Fruits offers a range of unique gifts inspired by nature. We have carefully curated a small range of their best selling items which are destined to add interest to your garden this summer.

Curated? Curated??

They're not curating anything, they've just got the stuff in to flog off quick.

Curating...good grief.

And I'll tell you something else: the stuff isn't destined to add interest to my garden, either.


Word To Use Today: curate. But only if you really do care.

Wednesday 27 May 2015

Nuts and Bolts: albatross to zebra.

Crème caramel.

English is a magpie, avidly seizing on anything shiny or pretty and gleefully flying with it back to its home.

Doesn't this make English a bit of a mess?

Well, you could call it a mess...or a glorious muddle...or a clutter of curiosities. Chacun á son goût.

What's certain is that English is full of plundered treasures. Like these:

Albatross, albino, banana, baroque, breeze, buffalo, caramel, coconut, commando, embarrass, fetish, junk, molasses, pagoda, serval, tank, veranda, yam and zebra.

What do all those words have in common? Well, they've all arrived to delight speakers of the English language from, or via, Portuguese.

Oh, and has anyone ever stolen anything more elegantly covetable than the word caramel?

If they have, it's hard to know what it was.

Word To Use Today: caramel. No one's really sure where this word ultimately comes from, and some say it came via Spain rather than Portugal. Ah well, thanks a bunch anyway. Caramel probably has something to do with the Latin callamelus, little reed, which referred to sugar cane.  

Tuesday 26 May 2015

Thing To Make Today: an opuscule.

Are you going to start your novel today?

Thought not.

Are you going to start building your dream house, then? Painting that fresco? Designing the costumes for the ballet? Planting up the palace garden?


No, neither am I. The trouble is that these projects are so vast the mere thought of them is enough to grind any burgeoning shoots into the ground.

But how about making an opuscule?

Yes, I know that opuscule is a thoroughly nasty word, but it's still a very nice idea: an opuscule is a tiny work of art.

So: why not arrange the left-overs from your dinner absolutely beautifully? Why not arrange that pile of books into an architectural delight?

A loaded dishwasher or draining board can be a lovely thing, you know - and so can a coaster on a table, if it's in exactly the right place.

It's all good practice for that major work.

And it will make the world just a slightly better place, as well.

Thing To Make Today: a opuscule. This word comes the French from the Latin opusculum, from opus, which means work.

Monday 25 May 2015

Spot the frippet: mint.

Well, there's mint and then there's mint.

There's the herb, excellent with new potatoes and in a mint julep:

File:Skylon, South Bank, London (3315229761).jpg
Photo by Ewan Munro

and in mint jelly, mouthwash, and sweets; and then there's a place where you make money:

File:EH1079134 Bank of England 06.jpg
That's the Bank of England. Panoramic photo by Katie Chan

Something in mint condition is as good as new. A shiny new mint condition coin should be easy to spot - and surely will always give pleasure: humans do like shiny things!

5th-century gold coins via Saharadesertfox at Wikimedia Commons
(These coins are from the 1400s, but still look in mint condition to me.)

Perhaps this is why in Britain something that's mint is something that's excellent.

And even on a Monday morning, you should have no problem at all spotting one of those.

Spot the frippet: mint. The herb word comes from the Old English minte, from the Latin mentha, from the Greek Minthē, who was a nymph who was turned into a mint plant.The money-making place comes from the Old English mynet, coin, from the Latin monēta, money, mint, from the Temple of Juno Monēta (Juno meaning something like the one and only, and Moneta meaning either instruct (if it's Latin) or alone (if it's Greek)). The temple was used as a mint in Roman times.

Sunday 24 May 2015

Sunday Rest: flu-flu. Word Not To Use Today.

A flu-flu...well, it's going to be something ridiculous, isn't it, like a poodle's hair-cut, or the feeling of panic you get when you open your wallet and discover your credit card isn't in its usual slot.

But it's nothing like that. A flu-flu is an agent of death.

Here's its tail:

Can you guess what it is? 

It's the curled and cut (usually turkey) feathers on an arrow. They're treated in this way to reduce the arrow's range. 

This sort of arrow has a blunt tip, so it will kill small animals and birds, but is unlikely to plunge itself inconveniently into the ground or a tree.

Flu-flu arrows might be bad for birds, but they've saved quite a lot of human lives. You see, in England in the Middle Ages you were allowed to shoot birds anywhere, but if you were caught on someone else's land with a sharp arrow suitable for killing deer then you'd probably be executed.

Flu-flu arrows are used by children, and also in flu-flu golf, where you keep shooting from the place your last shot landed until you reach your target.

Honestly, flu-flu golf... still sounds like something you'd play accompanied by a lilac poodle, doesn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: flu-flu. I can't find any information at all about the derivation of this word. I suppose it must have been made up by an archer. The mind boggles.

Saturday 23 May 2015

Saturday Rave: The Pelican by Dixon Lanier Merritt

Pelikan Walvis Bay.jpg

The pelican is an ancient and famous symbol of suffering and generosity. It is said to wound its breast with its beak and feed its young on the blood thus produced. Like this:

To the Ancient Eyptians pelicans were goddesses who were dab hands at prophesy and guiding people safely to the underworld. 

So, when a poet sits down to encapsulate the essence of one of these remarkable, important birds, he has millennia of mystery and belief to distill.

Of all the pelican poetry in existence, surely Dixon Lanier Merritt's 1913 composition is the one we cherish most.

Oh, a wondrous bird is the pelican!
His beak holds more than his belican.
He takes in his beak
Food enough for a week.
But I'm damned if I know how the helican.

It's the one I remember, anyway...

...I don't know whether that's depressing, or not.

Word To Use Today: pelican. This word comes from the Greek pelekān, which seems to come from  from pelekus, axe. Why? Well, the Greek for woodpecker was pelekas, and perhaps the Greeks didn't think the difference between woodpeckers and pelicans was all that important.

Ah well!

Friday 22 May 2015

Word To Use Today: purfling.

Here's an enchanting word.


You're bound to have seen some purfling, but perhaps not known what it is.

Here's some, done by the man, Andrea Amati, who was possibly the inventor of it:

See the decorative dark line round the outside edge of the front of the violin? That's the purfling.

Here's some purfling in the process of being inserted onto a cello:

The purfling can be made of wood (sometimes dyed) or mother of pearl. It tends to make the edges of the violin more flexible, and this can change the sound of the instrument (not necessarily for the better).

Still, it looks jolly nice - so nice that in a cheap instrument the purfling may be made of plastic, or even just painted on.

And why not. It's enough to make the hours of practice worthwhile just to hold some purfling in your hands, isn't it.

Well, possibly.

Word To Use Today: purfling. This word comes from the Old French purfiler, to decorate with a border, from filer to spin, from the Latin fīlum, thread. English also has the lovely purfle, which is a decorative ruffled or curved band on a piece of fabric, or it can even mean to decorate something with such a band.

Thursday 21 May 2015

Apostrophes: another rant

Yes, yes, I know the rules for using apostrophes are simple - apart from the rule for it's/its, which you can understand from a pragmatic point of view - but why is won't not spelt wo'n't?


Just tell me that if you're so clever!

Word To Use Today: won't. This word is, obviously, short for will not

I suspect that ca'n't should really have two apostrophes, too - though I sha'n't be starting a campaign to get them introduced.

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Nuts and Bolts: paraph.

Paraphs are tremendous.

Okay, one of this word's meanings is rather dull - it's an alternative name for a pilcrow, which is one of these:

- but the other meaning is terrific. You might even have a paraph yourself, without knowing it.

Here's a famous signature from the American Declaration of Independence:

(It's so famous, in fact, that in the USA when someone talks of a John Hancock they mean a signature.)

John Hancock's signature had a paraph, which is a squiggly bit round a signature. The idea was that although letters all look much the same, the squiggle was much more individual, especially to someone who couldn't read very well - which, for most of the period of human civilisation, has been practically all of us.

Nowadays the paraph has fallen into sad disuse, replaced as it has been by either the totally illegible scribble or the PIN number. 

But I rather think the paraph was better, both in practical and aesthetic terms.

Thing To Design Today: a paraph. Well, why not? I mean, why should dead people have all the fun?

This word comes from the French paraphe, from the Latin paragraphus, which means a short horizontal stroke.

Tuesday 19 May 2015

Thing To Do Today: kiss.

The one rule for all writing is to omit unneeded words, which I suppose can also be represented by the letters KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Well, I'll do my best.

So, kiss someone. 

If you're surrounded by people you don't actually want to kiss, then kiss the air beside their cheeks.  If even that will get you punched or arrested, then a light touch on any part of the body can be called a kiss (but do still bear in mind the punched/arrested thing). If you don't want to touch anybody at all in any way, then balls in a game (snooker, say, or croquet) can kiss, which also describes the slightest possible touch.

You can even make your own kisses. That recipe is for lemon kisses, but for those on diets then there are always kiss curls:

(they're known in America, much less endearingly, as spit curls).

The kiss of life is something everyone should be able to do if necessary, but do try to avoid killing an enterprise by giving it the kiss of death, or killing a relationship with the rude dismissal called in America a kiss off.

And where does one do all this kissing

At a kissing gate, of course. 

File:Kissing Gate near the Devil's Pulpit - - 752097.jpg
Photo by Roy Parkinson.

If you can find one.

Word To Use Today: kiss. English people have been kissing for a long time. The Old English form was cyssan.

Monday 18 May 2015

Spot the Frippet: something minuscule.

Did you know that this writing:

 is just as minuscule as this:


Obviously the second one is much smaller, but that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with it.

Minuscule is the opposite of majuscule, and majuscule describes the sort of large letter or letters often found at the beginning of a chapter or a page.

Beowulf_firstpage pd wikimedia commons
That's the beginning of Beowulf.

You know the sort of thing. Majuscule letters are rather useless, but they're pretty, give the printers and designers a bit of a break, and formerly gave people space to draw little monsters or saints and stuff.

File:Elkanah and wives illuminated letter.jpg
That's Elkanah and his wives.

Minuscule describes all the ordinary-sized letters - or it can just mean lower-case (that is, not CAPITALS).

Minuscule can also mean anything that's very small indeed, of course, and I suppose spotting something like that shouldn't be easy. But it is. Search for the pores under a leaf (or on your nose); examine a grain of flour; a butterfly's egg; your reflection in a kitten's eye; a foxglove seed; a speck of pollen...

File:Misc pollen.jpg

Then, with the world buzzing around you all its infinite wonder, tread the whole day very softly indeed. 

Spot the Frippet: something minuscule. This word is Latin and was borrowed from the phrase littera minuscula, which means very small letter. Before that it comes from the Greek meiōn, which means less.

Sunday 17 May 2015

Sunday Rest: handism. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, you know what a hand is, don't you.

And you know what an ism is..., handism: what's that all about?

My uncle's life was completely changed by handism. He wanted to be a hairdresser, but no one would take him on because he was left-handed. He ended up running a pub.

That's not the end of the story, though, because his daughter did become a hairdresser - and his grandson has become a very famous one.

Anyway, that's by-the-by. Handism is a rubbish word. I mean, it sounds as if it's a prejudice against hands - and bonkers would do nicely for that.

Mind you, bonkers would probably do for prejudice against left-or right-handed people, too. 

Wouldn't it.

Sunday Rest: handism. I've no idea where this word came from. I can only presume the coiner has buried his identity out of simple shame.

Saturday 16 May 2015

Saturday Rave: The Common Reader by Virginia Woolf.

I quoted Virginia Woolf last week, and it was while I was researching that post that I came across this line:

We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in an eternity of print.

That's from The Common Reader, a collections of essays published in 1925.

I can't say I really warm to Virginia Woolf, either as a writer or a person (though I very much enjoyed Orlando). 

And I'm fairly sure she was far too much of a social and intellectual snob ever to have warmed to me.

Oh, but that line! We are nauseated by the sight of trivial personalities decomposing in an eternity of print.

It describes how I feel about a lot of her novels just absolutely perfectly.

Word To Use Today: common. This word comes from the Old French commun, from the Latin commūnis, which means general or universal.

Friday 15 May 2015

Word To Use Today: sobremesa.

What's the best part of the day?

Well, how about sobremesa?

Sobremesa is a Spanish word for a bit of the day the English language doesn't recognise - and if that seems odd, then think about just how many chunks of the day aren't recognised: teeth-cleaning time, reading-blogs time, doing-a-poo-time. We don't even have a word for TV-time, for heaven's sake (though screen time is a useful recent addition to our list of daily activitities).

What's sobremesa

It's the time after a meal when everyone sits around and chats. In this house the chat will almost always include soccer (sigh) but also anything else that's piqued our interest, from aardvarks to zymurgy. 

Some of us will also eat a liquorice allsort.


The longer our sobremesa goes on, the longer we get to put off the clearing of the table and the washing up. But it's the intellectual stimulation that's the main thing.

Apart from the liquorice allsort.

Word To Use Today: sobremesa. This word is Spanish, where  sobre means about, and mesa means table.

Thursday 14 May 2015

Not worth reading: a rant

Don't do it!

I mean it, you know. I'm really fed up to the back teeth. 

Electric blue on black or white on yellow...

...if you're asinine enough to write your stuff in those sort of colours then I'm very unlikely to bother to read it.

And if I have to read it (if, for example, it's the instructions on how to pay for my parking ticket) then I am going to hold you in the most awful, endless and withering contempt.

Got it?

Word To Use Today: font. This word comes from the Old French fonte, a founding (as in a foundry) from the Latin fundere to melt.

By the way, it's not just me who feels this way. Daniel M Oppenheimer's 2005 Princeton Paper found that texts in hard to read fonts are judged to come from less intelligent authors.

Wednesday 13 May 2015

Nuts and Bolts: emojis.

There are emoticons, there are kaomojis, and there are emojis.

I had no idea.

Emoticons are sideways expressions made out of punctuation ;)  .

Kaomojis are the same thing, but come the right way up *.*  .

Emojis are pictures, the smiley face sort of things:

HERE are twenty titles of great works of literature in emojis for you to decode if you feel like it. If that's too easy, then there's always Fred Berenson's Emoji Dick, which tells the whole story in the same form.

If you can't be bothered with that, then here an tweeted epithalamium by Andy Murray describing, obviously, his wedding day.

Should we sneer at this sort of thing? I don't see why we should. Emojis are limited, but then so is written English. I mean, you have to be able to read English for it to make any sense at all.

Emojis were dreamt up by Shigetaka Kurita in 1998 or 1999 to use on mobile phones. They've got around quite a bit since then.

Lazy? Vulgar? Illiterate? 


But probably no more often than is written English.

Nuts and Bolts: emoji. This Japanese word means pictograph, and is made up of e, picture, and moji, character.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

Thing To Do Today: be rosy.

I'm not sure I've ever seen any rose-tinted spectacles. This is rather surprising, now I come to think about it, because more or less everything else comes in pink.

Even boxing gloves:

pink boxing gloves

Luckily, we can be rosy without the aid of spectacles. Running up a hill will bring a flush of health - or, possibly, gasping agony - to the cheeks. So will being in love, teething, and realising that you've come out with your skirt tucked into your knickers.

If you can't manage any of those, then take a rosy view of life. Just because that president is clearly unhinged it doesn't necessarily mean he'll involve the entire world in horrible slaughter. 

You might win the lottery.

Those doughnuts might not result in your getting fat.

If you're feeling too dull to be optimistic then you could always order yourself a couple of dozen roses, I suppose, and surround yourself in perfumed splendour.

File:Frederick Sandys - Grace Rose - Google Art Project.jpg
Painting: Grace Rose by Frederick Sandys.

Life might seem rosy in more ways than one, then: though it doesn't seem to have worked for poor Grace Rose in the painting above, does it.

Thing To Do Today: be rosy. This word comes from rose, of course, which probably comes from the Greek rhodon, rose.

Monday 11 May 2015

Spot the Frippet: tambour.

Well, this word's got around a bit.

Real tennis is seldom seen* but if you do happen to find a court then the tambour is a sloping buttress on the hazard end of the court:

(Look, the vocabulary of real tennis is a delight in itself.)

Easier to spot is the tambour which is a pair of hoops, one inside another, that hold a piece of fabric stretched tightly like a drum-skin so you can embroider on it without the whole thing going all puckered or wavy.

The sort of embroidery or lace done on such a frame is called tambour, too.

But tambour doesn't stop there. You have a desk with shutters at the top which part sideways like curtains? Also known as a tambour desk. You can see a circular dome? It's probably supported by a wall called a tambour.

That's the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

You can hear a drum? Well, I'm sorry about that, but a tambour is a drum, too. One like this:

File:Tambour arcole.jpg
Tambour d'Arcole, Sculpture by Jean Barnabé Amy

If in difficulty with this Spot the Frippet, a cake storage tin or hat box can easily be pressed into service as a tambour.

But please note that this blog takes no responsibility for any attack or injury thus evoked. 

Spot the Frippet: tambour.This word is French, from tabour, tabor, from the Persian tabīr.

*By real tennis I don't mean the stuff that was played before the days of the Big Serve, but the game played by, for instance, king of England Henry VIII. Real here, as in Real Madrid, means royal.

Sunday 10 May 2015

Sunday Rest: sandwich compound. Words Not To Use Together Today.

Of all the acts of petty viciousness human beings inflict upon each other, giving someone a present of a cupcake-which-turns-out-to-be-made-of-soap must be one of the worst.

It's a crushing, built-in disappointment - as well, of course, as being hideous.

And cheap.

Sandwich compound is rather similar. A sandwich compound should, obviously, consist of something unctuously delicious, like mayonnaise or maple syrup; tabasco or tzatziki; soured cream or creme fraiche.

And what is it?

It's an organometallic compound. 

That one is called ferrocene.

What are sandwich compounds for?

Well, apparently they make internal combustion engines work more smoothly. And they're useful when making plastics.

I expect we'd miss them if they weren't there, but, I mean, sandwich leaves you just salivating for a dollop of Rose Marie sauce, doesn't it.

Like I said: vicious.

Phrasal noun Not To Use Today: sandwich compound. The sandwich is named after John Montague, 4th Earl of Sandwich, who ate sandwiches rather than leave the gambling tables for proper meals. Compound is from the Old French compondre to collect or set in order, from the Latin compōnere.

Saturday 9 May 2015

Saturday Rave: Grasmere Journal. Dorothy Wordsworth.

Let's start, not with Dorothy, but with Virginia:

'Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of a man at twice his natural size.'

That's from Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own.

People argue about Dorothy Wordsworth. Was it really Dorothy who wrote her brother William's poems? It's said that she changed his I wandered lonely as a cow to I wandered lonely as a cloud.

Dorothy Mae Ann Wordsworth

Could a man who'd come up with cow in that line really have a clue what he was doing?

Well, I expect so. I don't know how much influence Dorothy had on William, and neither does anyone else. Perhaps the influence was nearly all the other way round. Perhaps cow was a joke. 

 'I should detest the idea of setting myself up as an author,' Dorothy once wrote, 'give Wm. the Pleasure of it.'

But did she mean it? 


What's certain is that in her Grasmere Journal Dorothy Wordsworth shows the same sort of reverence for Nature as her famous brother.

'We saw a raven very high above us. It called out, and the dome of the sky seemed to echo the sound. It called again and again as it flew onwards, and the mountains gave back the sound, seeming as if from their centre; a musical bell-like answering to the bird's hoarse cries.'

Grasmere Journal, 27 July 1800.

And what's also certain is that Dorothy could really write.

Word To Use Today: raven. This word comes from the Old English hrǣfn.

Friday 8 May 2015

Words To Use Today: foot-candles and foot-lamberts.

We live in a hurtling world: new technologies stride centre-stage for a moment, only to be jostled away into the wings of oblivion. 

Oh for the days of old technologies! Oh for a music-playing systems that allows you to hear more than a fog-horn accompanied by nervous timepieces!

And oh (while I'm here) for a phone that isn't so egotistical that it requires constant stroking!

So, to the foot-candle. It measures brightness. It's something to do with the brightness cast by, yes, a candle over a square foot of surface (a foot is just over 30 centimetres. A foot is said to be based, mysteriously, on the length of Henry I's arm. Or Charles II's foot. Or something.).

Most excitingly, an area illuminated by a foot-candle will reflect light...or have a luminance if that's different...equal to a foot-lambert...

...oh dear. I never really got this technology stuff, did I. Not even when it was described in terms of candles.

And lamberts.

Whatever they are.

Things to feel nostalgic about today: foot-candles and foot-lamberts. Candle comes from the Old English candel, from the Latin candēre, to be white or glitter. A lambert is named after Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728 - 1777). My Collins dictionary says he was German, and Wikipedia says he was Swiss, but he was born in Mulhouse, which last time I looked was in France. Anyway, he was a mathematician and physicist. 

Lambert, oh-so-fittingly, means bright land.

Thursday 7 May 2015

Donkeys led by donkeys: a rant.

File:Preferential ballot.svg

Fred Rubble? Well, I might have voted for Barney Rubble...

Britain is having a General Election today. It's an election to choose who represents each area of the country in Parliament. It also decides who forms the government.

The system depends on people making intelligent choices, and not casting donkey votes. 

Yep, that's right: donkey votes.

A donkey voter is one who, out of simple carelessness or laziness, puts his mark next to the top candidate or candidates on the voting slip. Luckily (for Britain) donkey voters are commonest in countries, like Australia, where voting is compulsory. 

I suppose it's marginally less far to push the pencil.

Now, is it really possible for anyone, anyone, to be as lazy and irresponsible as that? 

Yep. In fact in some places the order of candidates on the ballot sheet has had to be changed from Alphabetically by Party to Alphabetically by Surname of Candidate, because the Aardvarks' Party was getting a really ridiculous number of votes.

Now, I suppose the donkeys all vote for Mr Adam Aaron.

I'm beginning to wonder if I should have started a campaign to have the candidates written in a spokes-of-a-wheel shape, as in a Round Robin petition.

But surely surely people can't really be as lazy and irresponsible as all that, can they?

Can they?

God help us all.

Word To Use Today: election. This word comes from the Latin legere, to choose.

Wednesday 6 May 2015

Nuts and Bolts: the scent of love.

    So why are you wearing that perfume?
Is it just to cover up the smell of your sweat?
Well, assuming you aren't a complete stranger to soap, it surely can't be that. It must be because you believe that smelling of flowers or weasel secretions (or, in the case of adolescent males, industrial-power toilet cleaner) will make you...

...what? More powerful? More lovable? Safer?
It's possible that some perfumes have an insect-repellent quality, but what we're mostly trying to do with the various pongs we apply to ourselves is surely to make ourselves even lovelier.
But does it work?
Well, until very recently no one could prove it one way or the other, but now some research done by Wallrabenstein, Gerber, Rasche, Croy, Kurtenbach, Hummel and Hatt from the Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany and published in the journal NeuroImage has looked into the brains of women treated to a whiff of hedione (a substance found in many perfumes, including Eau Sauvage, First, Chamade, Chanel no. 19, L'Eau d'Issey, Angel, Blush, Paco, and CKOne) and found it does indeed excite their nasal membranes, and from there it goes on to excite the bits of the brain linked to them.
Basically, a whiff of Eau Sauvage triggers a pulse of delight in the hypothalamus.
Why does it do so? Well, it seems a bit odd, and the researchers are currently searching for something with an effect like hedione that occurs naturally in human bodily secretions. As Professor Hatt says, with the help of that sort of substance humans could communicate lovingly with each other. 
So there we are. We humans are cleverer than we thought: we can converse in smells.
Before we get above ourselves, though, we must remember that we're nowhere near as clever as a male luna moth, which can detect the scent of a desirable female over six miles away.
Gosh, that'd lead to some traffic jams, wouldn't it.
Thing To Do Today: smell someone. But do try to be scientific about it. The name hedione (methyl dihydro-jasmonate) is derived from the Greek hēdonē which means pleasure. 

Tuesday 5 May 2015

Thing To Do Today: be an ensemble.

You can keep your maestros.

You can keep your auteurs, your directors, even your starry soloists: give me an ensemble every time.

Who wants to watch a Gulliver striding through the streets of Lilliput with the little people hardly visible? Aren't the little people are quite as interesting as the Great Man Himself?

And those vast orchestras labouring in terror under some autocratic baton. Is that how you create beauty?

Well, all right, okay, sometimes it is: but then orchestras are very odd things indeed. It doesn't alter the fact that one man's vision, if it prevails, must override and extinguish the vision of everyone else.

So give me an ensemble, something where the whole is even greater than sum of its great parts. Where generosity shines and everyone's talent is given a chance to be heard.

Then, just sometimes, you get something as beautiful, and as full of life and joy as this:*

You can keep your maestros, then.

Thing To Do Today: be an ensemble. This word is from the French from the Latin insimul, which means at the same time.

*If this isn't surpassingly beautiful then it's almost certainly the fault of your speakers.

Monday 4 May 2015

Spot the Frippet: Venus.

Venus, the goddess of love, and the evening (and morning) star

Not only that, but in alchemy Venus is what ordinary people call copper. 

The star and copper are easy to spot. Perhaps the goddess may be rather harder, though she does leave a very obvious trail.

Venus has also given her name to a mountain (Venusberg in Germany, in whose caves the goddess is said to have lived) a sponge (Venus's flower-basket) 

an insectivorous plant (Venus flytrap)

Venus Flytrap showing trigger hairs.jpg

 a comb jelly (Venus's girdle)

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 a fern (Venus's hair)

 a shell (Venus' 

Venus affinis.jpg

and a flower (Venus's looking glass)...

Specularia perfoliata 3.jpg

...though personally, if I were a goddess, then I'd have lived somewhere a bit more up-market than a cave, and I'd have had a whole rainbow of silken girdles rather than something quite likely to snap hungrily at passing slugs.

Still, there's no accounting for taste.

Spot the frippet: Venus. The goddess's name is Latin for sexual love.

Sunday 3 May 2015

Sunday Rest: nidify. Word Not To Use Today.

Here's a miracle of craftsmanship beyond the wit of man, a secret loveliness designed to protect, to cherish, to nurture...

...and what to they call it?

Flipping nidification, that's what.


Nidification is nest building. It's the marvellous instincts and careful labour that produces one of these:

or these:

Nesting colony of Montezuma Oropendolas

or these:

The Purple-crowned Fairy makes its nest with spider silk.

Mind you, just occasionally, as in the case of the common kingfisher where the only lining of the nest consists of droppings and smelly fish remains, perhaps nidification is fair enough.

Mostly, though, to nidify...urgh. I mean, there's no reason why scientists shouldn't have souls.

Is there?

Word To Use Today: nidify. This word comes from the Latin nīdus, nest, plus facere, to make. 

But that's no excuse. you know.