This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 30 June 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: scoff.

You, write a blog? Huh! Does anyone ever read it?

That dress? It makes you look like a fairy elephant.

You're only up to level eighty-six?


You don't have to be clever to scoff. You don't have to be clever to be unkind and contemptuous. 

How horrible it must be to harbour such a desire for cruelty.

As it happens there's another sort of scoff, a mostly British and comparatively lovable thing. It means to eat greedily.

That sort of scoff  has a really interesting derivation, too.

Still life by Pieter Claesz 1627.

Thing Not To Do Today: scoff. The word meaning to jeer probably comes from Scandinavia (there's an Old Frisian word skof which means mockery). The word meaning to eat greedily is a variant of scaff, food, which is related to the Dutch schoft, quarter of the day, and hence one of the four daily meals. 


Can I be Dutch, please?

Monday 29 June 2015

Spot the Frippet: whiffletree.

Oh, come on, no day is complete without the word whiffletree.

Yes, yes, I know it's a term for part of a draft horse's harness, and that few of us go to work in a horse-drawn carriage, but it's still too good a word to ignore.

What is it? Well, it's basically a bar with a ring facing forwards on either end, and another ring in the middle facing backwards.

If you have three horses pulling a load, this is the way you'd link your whiffletrees together:

The idea is that the arrangement evens out the pull that comes first from first one side of the animal and then from the other.

Luckily, if you don't often see a horse pulling a load on your daily commute, then here is a similar arrangement on a more modern form of transport:

See how the windscreen wiper works in just the same way? Neat, huh?

Now, I don't want to leave anyone out, and so this example of a whiffletree-type arrangement is especially for the Martians among you. 

These are the wheels of the Mars Pathfinder vehicle:

It's jolly good for bumpy ground - though personally it makes me feel seasick.

Spot the Frippet: whiffletree. This word seems to come from the words whip and tree (in its meaning of a post or bar).

Sunday 28 June 2015

Sunday Rest: broga. Word Not To Use Today.


Any ideas, anyone?

Okay, then, steel yourselves, because I'm afraid this is grim. Really very grim indeed.

Advertised as more macho than mantra, Broga is yoga for men.

'Matt [Miller] will tell you that while Broga is a yoga practice engineered for the make athlete, it is a killer workout for women.'

I'm not entirely sure what that last bit means, but I think I'll assume it's safer to keep well away, especially as the slick drum-beat on the website alone was quite enough to raise my blood-pressure.

Keep calm. I must just keep very very calm...

File:Yoga Meditation Pos-410px.png
Image by Cornelius383

Word Not To Use Today: Broga. I assume this is a conflation of bro, short for brother, and yoga. The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word meaning a yoking or union, from yunakti, he yokes.

Saturday 27 June 2015

Saturday Rave: Over The Fire by Humbert Wolfe.

This poem was published in 1930 in The Uncelestial City.

You cannot hope
to bribe or twist,
thank God! the 
British journalist.
But, seeing what
the man will do
unbribed, there's
no occasion to.

There we are: everything sorted out in two sentences. Those were the days.

More recently, sorting out British journalism has taken rather more than two sentences.


Word To Use Today: bribe. This word arrived in English in the 1300s from France. Where it came from before that is a mystery.

Friday 26 June 2015

Word To Use Today: tribble.

You know about tribbles, don't you?

Yes, that's right: they're a family of proteins that regulates cell-division in embryonic fruit-flies (no, really, they are).

The point I'm skirting round, of course, is that there are some things it's cooler not to know. 

What do you do if a question about tribbles comes up in a pub quiz? Pretend ignorance and risk those smug twits from Accounts getting one over on you? Or admit to having a passing acquaintance with Star Trek?

Personally, I'd answer up.

Anyway, tribbles.

Tribbles are friendly, they're soft, they're soothing, and they make a pleasant noise.

The fact that they breed at an incredible rate is, quite frankly, to those of us who are Earth-dwellers, an S.E.P.*

How can we use the enchanting word tribble?

Well, using breeding like tribbles instead of breeding like rabbits will usually, I suggest, lighten the mood.

And that's generally a good thing.

ST TroubleWithTribbles.jpg

It's probably best not to admit to knowing they come from the planet Iota Geminorum IV, though. 

Or that their Scientific name is Polygeminus grex.

So you didn't hear it from me, okay?

Word To Use Today: tribble. This word - and the creature - was dreamt up by David Gerrold in 1967.

*S.E.P. = Someone Else's Problem.

Thursday 25 June 2015

Crackers! A rant.

People made fun of poor Ed Miliband's* election promises because he decided to set them in stone.

What was wrong with that? 

Well, he didn't do it by promising to pass a law obliging him to stand by his promises, or by giving his word of honour; he did it by, well, setting them in stone.

Ed Miliband with his stone of pledges

He really doesn't seem to have understood about the metaphor thing, does he.

Oh dear. 

Still, never mind, there'll be another election along in five years.

What Mr Miliband must remember is that it could have been so much worse. He could have had his promises tattooed on his body. This would not only have presented us with an image I really wouldn't have wanted to feature in The Word Den, but have caused the poor man embarrassment for the rest of his natural life.

As has the tattoo of this man here:

bad tattoos

The man was told that tattoo meant brave in Hebrew. Unfortunately it actually means matzo

Or cracker.

I fear that tattoo artists are not always scholars and classicists. In fact my impression is that they're not always even reliably literate. In any case, a tattoo is a challenge to Fate and Time, and they are both notorious for playing mean tricks.

I always remember the poor woman who as a young lady got a tattoo of a neat little posy of flowers...

...and ended up with a hanging basket.

Word To Use Today: tattoo. This word comes from the Tahitian tatau.

*Mr Miliband used to be the leader of the Labour Party and lost the recent General Election.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Nuts and Bolts: metonyms.

People keep talking passionately about not putting boots on the ground - but what's the harm in boots? 

I suppose they're a nuisance if you trip over them, but of course what people are getting so worked up about isn't so much the boots as the armed soldiers who will be wearing them. They can be a terrible nuisance.

This sort of figure of speech - either using a bit of something to represent the whole of it (which has its own grammatical term, synecdoche) or using something just vaguely connected with what you're actually talking about to stand in for it (metonymy) - happens all over the place and a lot of the time.

Do you want to acquire a learned tongue?

No thanks, that would be utterly disgusting; though it would be nice to be fluent in Sanskrit.

Is the Vatican moving towards a more liberal position?

I doubt it, because Italy is in the way.

What's the dish of the day?

Le Creuset.

Why do we indulge in metonyms? Is it that humans are intrinsically shifty and hate saying what we mean? That we love to play? That we like to make ourselves look a little bit original?

Is it habit?

Is it thinking in things other than words?

Well, don't ask me. I haven't got the head for working out that sort of thing.

Thing To Catch People Using Today: metonyms. This word comes from the Greek meta, which implies change, and onoma, name.

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Thing To Do Today: sibilate.

Bertie Wooster said* that it's possible to hiss a word that hasn't got an s in it - but then Bertie Wooster knew some remarkably worrying people.

For the rest of us, to sibilate we need esses. Or zeds (I understand you call them zees in the USA). Or possibly cees. Use them liberally and with relish: cause nervous mongooses to dive for cracks in the pavement, and mothers to check if they've left the gas on.

She sells seashells by the seashore, I understand, in Mrs Smith's Fish Sauce Shop, though Sheila seldom sells shelled shrimps, but crisp snacks of salty squid.

Or, to go for a classier option:

If th'assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success

Ah yes. Macbeth was a great one for sibilation -

To make society
The sweeter welcome, we will keep ourselves
Til suppertime alone.

The question that inevitably arises is, is sibilation a sign of a scoundrel?

Not necessarily. It might be a sign of badly-fitting false teeth. Or a semi-eaten gobstopper. Or a shyness or tenderness or sadness so acute the victim can only whisper.

And so, sadly, to this post's finish. 

Parting is such sweet sorrow, isn't it.

Thing To Do Today: sibilate. The Latin word sīlbilāre means to hiss.

*In Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit.

Monday 22 June 2015

Spot the Frippet: sialogogue.

Baking bread

File:Freshly baked bread loaves.jpg
Photo by FotoDawg.

Blue Flag

Blue Flag, Ottawa.jpg

Frying bacon


Centaurium erythraea 220603.jpg

Coffee roasting

File:Coffee Beans closeup.jpg

Northern Prickly-ash


Cheese so old it's almost turned back to cream again


Chewing gum.

What do all these things have in common? 

Well, they're all sialogogues, a rather horrid word that means - can you guess? - things that make the mouth water.

Why not do a bit of research into the phenomenon? 

Bon appetit!

Word To Use Today: sialogogue. This word comes from the Greek sialon, which means saliva.

Peaches, fresh peaches. I forgot peaches...

Sunday 21 June 2015

Sunday Rest: noob. Word Not To Use Today.

Noob is an insulting term for a beginner, particularly one in an on-line forum or game.

The word is used principally by those whose sense of self-worth depends upon how many hours they have spent fighting non-existent gnomes with one hand while alternately scoffing tacos and scratching themselves with the other.

I'm not saying these people aren't without intelligence or wit - although their propensity to write the word n00b does rather suggest it.

Ah well. I seldom venture into on-line gnomes' labyrinths, so being called a noob isn't going to happen to me very often, probably. I can't help worrying, though. 

Come on: be warriors, you guys. Save the bullying and name-calling for the gnomes, hey?

File:Wiki - Garden gnome - 01050 - freestyle.png
Hand carved by Nathan Gardner of Nutmeg Designs, Maine USA.

Word Not To Use Today: noob. This is short for newbie, or newcomer.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Saturday Rave: Pigs Have Wings by PG Wodehouse.

If you adore seeing words arranged in patterns of precise perfection; if you have no very great opinion of people but love them dearly all the same; if you enjoy a plot that swoops through the text with all the grace of an greased swallow; if you relish being suddenly ambushed by cunningly-camouflaged jokes: read PG Wodehouse.

If you're not bothered about any of that stuff then you should keep well clear. Just don't come whingeing to me about the divine PGW, that's all, or I shall act like the manservant in PC Wodehouse's 1952 Pigs Have Wings.

Ice formed on the butler's upper slopes.

it says.

So be warned. 

I'll have you know I'm an aunt, you know.

Fester lurch 1966.JPG
Ted Cassidy (on right) as Lurch with Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester (left).

Word To Use Today: butler. This word for the man who has charge of a house's booze comes from the Old French bouteillier. from bouteille, bottle.

Friday 19 June 2015

Pana Po'o: phrase to use today.


You know you know it, but it seems as if squirrels have been rifling through your mental filing system and nothing is where it should be.

What is the name of the largest island of Hawaii?

You scowl into space, you pull at your lips, but the name of the largest island of Hawaii is hidden deep in your memory and it's like searching for a speck of nutmeg in a blancmange that's been left on a high shelf in a completely dark larder.

So what do you do?

Pana po'o.

And then you remember: of course! It's Hawaii!

I can only think it's magic, a bit like finding the speck of nutmeg in the blancmange without actually going into the larder.

Still, who doesn't enjoy a little magic from time to time?

Gorilla Scratching Head.jpg
"Gorilla Scratching Head" by Steven Straiton. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Phrase to use today: pana po'o. Pana po'o is the Hawaiian phrase for the action of scratching the head in order to help you remember something.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Total blank: a rant

As someone who's been trying to play the piano for nearly half a century (eek! How did I get so old?) I appreciate very well that of all a pianist's technical problems, turning the pages can be almost the trickiest.

The printers are supposed to sort out this problem by refraining from asking you to turn a page while playing a passage that goes at the speed of a jet-powered cheetah with one hand whilst leaping about like a lottery-winning mountain goat with the other.

File:BWV 773 sheet music.pdf
(We have to hope this, above, is the left-hand page of Bach's glorious and rather tricky two-part invention. Though actually it isn't as fast as it looks.)

The process of sorting out where the page-turns come in the music is called pagination, and it's usually quite easy - you just stretch or squeeze the spaces between the notes so that the page turn comes at a quiet moment. Sometimes people leave a page blank to assist with this.

Sometimes some total and complete idiot will print: THIS PAGE HAS BEEN INTENTIONALLY LEFT BLANK on it.

Which means, of course, that it hasn't.

Word To Use Today: blank. This word comes from the Old French blanc, white. Rather charmingly, there was an Old English word blanca, which meant white horse.

Wednesday 17 June 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Hmong.

English is called English because it developed in the land where the Angles settled.

Deutsch comes from the Old High German thiota, from an older word that was something like theudo, which meant people, or nation or folk.

Spanish might be from a Punic word meaning island of the hare or hidden land; or from a pre-Roman place name, Hispa; or from the Greek Heliopolis, city of the sun; or from the Phoenician spal, which means lowland; or from the Basque word Ezpanna, which means border or edge.

And Hmong? Hmong is a Chinese language which comes in various dialects, all more or less mutually intelligible. As well as in China it's spoken in Laos, Vietnam and the USA.

There's White Hmong; Green or Blue Hmong; Black Hmong;  Small Flowery Hmong and Large Flowery Hmong.

And why are they so called? 

It's because of the traditional colour of the ladies' dresses.

Isn't that wonderful?

There's apparently also something called Horned Hmong.

My mind was boggling, quite frankly: but it seems to be something to do with the ladies' head-dresses. 

Word To Say Today: Hmong. I find this really difficult.

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Thing To Do Today: riff.

A riff is a flight of fancy: it's the sort of thing a flamingo might do if he started wondering what would happen if he turned himself blue by swapping his diet of shrimps for lobster.

It's saying I think we're being invaded by woodpeckers when someone knocks on the door.

A riff starts with something real and then spins off somewhere surprising and delightful. In jazz and rock music, it's taking an opportunity between bits of a tune to play something for fun (or to show off).

This is the sort of thing:

If you don't play a musical instrument then you can whistle or sing - or, if you're not musical, just ask yourself a few interesting questions:

What happens if a police car siren gets a sore throat?

What does a dog get out of sniffing lamp posts?

Is it true that clubbing is technically banned under the United Nations Convention Against Torture?

Where you go from there is up to you.

Just, well, riff.

Thing To Do Today: riff. This word appeared in the 1900s and is probably a short form of refrain.

Monday 15 June 2015

Spot the frippet: riffraff.

Ah yes: Gourmet Night at Fawlty Towers:

'I should have never let you write that advert,' says poor Sybil to her husband Basil, in the classic sitcom. 'Fancy putting "No riffraff." '

But as Basil explains:

'When you're presenting haute cuisine, you don't want the working classes sticking its nose in it.'

My Collins dictionary defines riffraff as worthless people, especially collectively. The Concise Oxford Dictionary says disreputable or undesirable people (and spells it riff-raff).

I'd have great trouble spotting a worthless person, but being disreputable seems to be almost a necessity nowadays for anyone famous. 

And undesirable?

Well, they can be spotted very easily indeed: undesirable probably covers half our relations and most of our colleagues, for a start.

If I really wanted to see a lot of undesirables, though, I might try a Gourmet Night dinner at a small hotel on the English South Coast.

Mind you, I doubt they'd let me in.

Spot the frippet: riffraff. This word comes from the Old French rif et raf, which meant one and all, or every bit. It's related to rifler to plunder and rafle a sweeping up.

Sunday 14 June 2015

Sunday Rest: Runnymede. Word Not To Use Today. has a ring to it, doesn't it. You feel that something important and dignified happened at Gettysburg.

Versailles, too. And Paris. These names have dignity. Poise. Bottom.

But as for Runnymede...

The 15th June 1215 saw the sealing of Magna Carta (it just means Big Charter) by Bad King John (and he was bad: very, very bad. He was, indeed, morally and practically almost completely useless). It all happened at a place called Runnymede.

Runnymede is a meadow beside the River Thames not far outside London. Nearby is a small island called Magna Carta Island, and this may actually have been where the Magna Carta was sealed (as well as at the bottom). But generally people say it was Runnymede.

A mede is a meadow, and although Runnymead is a water meadow (see picture) the Runny bit doesn't come from the fact that you need your wellington boots to get across it. No, Runny is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon runieg, which means regular meeting.

So, what was this Magna Carta thing all about? 

Well, it went on a bit, but basically it said that everyone (especially Bad King John) had to obey the law. Magna Carta marked the beginning of things beginning to get fairer for everybody, and is therefore a Very Good Thing.

But Runnymede, I ask you. Couldn't they have chosen somewhere with a bit more of a ring to it? 

Still, I suppose I have to admit it's not as bad as the Diet of Worms,

Saturday 13 June 2015

Saturday Rave: Bohemian Rhapsody by Freddie Mercury.

Scyliorhinus torazame kanagawa.jpg

A Cloudy Catshark

I see a little silhouetto of a man
Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango
Thunderbolt and lightning very very frightening me
(Galileo) Galileo (Galileo) Galileo Figaro

Who knows what Bohemian Rhapsody, the song written by Freddie Mercury and performed by the group Queen, means?

Well, if anyone ever knew I suppose it was Freddie Mercury himself. He called it 'random rhyming nonsense' and suggested that 'people should just listen to it, think about it, and then decide for themselves what it means to them.'

And, goodness, that is what people have been doing ever since it was first released: AIDS, divorce, name it, there's probably a theory involving it somewhere in the Bohemian Rhapsody literature.

What do I think? 

Well, personally I don't care in the slightest what it means. The sound of the words is marvellous enough for me.

As the man said, magnifico.

Word To Use Today: Figaro. Figaro is the wily servant who appears in Beaumarchais' plays (as well as in various operas with more or less the same plots); it's the oldest existing French newspaper; it's a sailing race, a genus of catshark, a type of chain used in jewellery - and a kitten in Walt Disney's film Pincocchio.

Friday 12 June 2015

Words To Use Today: eggler.

File:Chicken eggs.jpg

Eggler is too lovely a word not to use, and fortunately there are a lot more egglers around than there used to be. does sound fun, doesn't it.

An eggler is a dealer in eggs, especially one who travels around selling them. I've never seen anyone actually carrying around a tray of eggs for sale, but the current craze for keeping garden hens means there are sometimes egg stalls by the road side, and many boxes of eggs passed furtively under desks at work.

Keeping hens must be rather a lot of trouble.

But it might just be worth it, mightn't it, to be an eggler.


Word To Use Today: eggler. This word is marked archaic and dialect, but that's no bar to us using it with confidence and pride.

Thursday 11 June 2015

Reading my mind: a rant.

I've written about predictive text before (as well as about the phone I once had that would never let me sign myself Mum, but only Otto), but this story is too delicious to let go.

Predictive text involves a computer program deciding what you mean even if you've typed something different. It's a bit like having computer arms coming out from the shelves as you walk round Sainsbury's or Tesco's or Lidl, filling up your supermarket trolley with the food most people buy.

Hm....that would be efficient and interesting, wouldn't it.

This letter appeared in a British national newspaper, The Telegraph.

Under Pressure


I was assisting my 16-year-old daughter with her homework when she received a text from her Mum, which read: "What do you want from life?"

This was an unexpected and profound question for an exam-sitting teenager. We debated various answers - wealth, fulfillment, love, all three.

Five minutes later, she received another message, blaming predictive text for correcting the word Lidl.

David Lavelle, Coneythorpe, North Yorkshire


Still, what would life be without serendipity, eh? 

No, no, I really meant life, that time. Though come to think about it you can never be sure what you're going to find in Lidl, either.

Word To Use Today: predict. This word comes from the Latin word praedīcere to mention beforehand, from prae before plus dicere to say.

Many thanks to my daughter Roz for alerting me to the letter above.

Wednesday 10 June 2015

Nuts and Bolts: the purring of the forest.

The forests of the USA purr. Yes, they do: they vibrate softly to the purring of spiders.

And what does a spider have to purr about? A succulent fly steak, perhaps?

Well, probably not that, because most singing is about either courtship or territory: but even if the spiders' purring turns out to be  about the attractively glistening hair on a lady spider's legs then this song would be remarkable because spiders can't actually, well, hear.

This inconvenient fact has not daunted those intrepid scientists from the University of Cincinnati, Alexander L Sweger and George W Uetz. They've been having a good listen to the purring wolf spider, Gladicose gulosa, the males of which species purr by dragging a special comb-like organ across the surface they're sitting on.

How do the female spiders hear this purring? Well, they can't, as I've said, but they can detect vibration with the sensillae in their knees - and if you purr while sitting on a leaf it makes it vibrate in an apparently extremely alluring way.

Purring wolf spiders have been around for a long time, so this might be the oldest love song that's ever been discovered, even though it's a love song for a lady who can't hear. you know, as someone who was once wooed by a Spanish folk singer and guitarist, I can even sort of see how that might be an advantage.

Word To Use Today: purr. This word from the 1600s sounds like a purr. Obviously.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Thing To Do Today: brandish something.

File:Samurai with sword.jpg

The English don't really go in for brandishing things much. If we should happen to be walking anywhere, which isn't very often, our umbrellas are kept carefully pointed downwards. If we're not walking anywhere then brandishing something is even less likely: it's hard to brandish anything - except a fist - when you're in a car; and English people don't really brandish fists. 

The occasional rude gesture is far from unknown, but it'll be a small quick one - there's unlikely to be anything magnificent about it.

So what can we brandish without embarrassing ourselves?

A paint brush; a pair of secateurs; a feather duster; a hammer; a rolling pin (not to be recommended when welcoming home errant husbands, obviously, but a firmly-wielded rolling pin is useful, for example, for crushing biscuits to make a base for a cheesecake); a fishing net.

A golf club; a broom; a violin bow.

You know something? 

I think we'd all feel better for it.

Thing To Do Today: brandish something. This word comes from the Old French brandir, from brand, sword.

Monday 8 June 2015

Spot the Frippet: scrim.

Scrim is a lovely crisp word I've always associated with the cloths used for window-cleaning, but it's been used all over the place.

Scrim can be a tough fabric that's stretched over the boarded interior walls of houses, both to make the walls more rigid and make wallpaper stick better. It can reinforce glass or carbon fibre, or it can be stuck onto sails to make them stronger. As a thread-strengthener, it's used for fishing line.

Then there's the other scrim (sometimes called gauze) which is also a fabric, but a fine translucent one. You can see it used for curtains, bookbinding, or upholstery.

Because this sort of scrim is translucent, it's used a lot in the theatre for special effects: depending on the way it's lit it can seem anything from almost invisible to as solid as a wall. You can project images onto it, too. 

Here it's being used as a screen in a Nang puppet show.

You'll also see scrim covering loudspeakers, too, and used as what I can only describe as veils for soldiers - though they probably have a much more manly term to describe their face-coverings.

I'm now going to go and have a look at a nice fat hardback book to see if I can find some scrim. I expect to find it inside the spine.

Good hunting!

Spot the frippet: scrim. This is a lovely word, but though we know it popped up in the 1700s, no one knows from whence it came.

Sunday 7 June 2015

Sunday Rest: minding your p s and q s. Thing Not To Say Today.

A nasty expression, this: mind your p s and q s*, people say, meaning be careful your manners and opinions don't shock anyone.

Be careful your manners and opinions don't shock anyone...

I'm seldom out to make trouble, and I can usually manage to keep quiet in the face of idiots, but misrepresenting my beliefs...nah, sorry, that's more than I can undertake to do.

I'll say how interesting with the best of them. But if some idiot goes and asks me what I think...

...yes, it can get quite lonely at times. 

Still, it's good to know you're having fun with the whole alphabet, you know.

Sunday Rest p s and q s. This horrible expression gets even worse when you know its derivation. It's short for p[lea]s[e] and [than]k-yous. Yuk.

*Sometimes people write mind your p's and q's, but as far as I'm concerned that's just cruelty to apostrophes.

Saturday 6 June 2015

Saturday Rave: A Good Housewife by A Gates.

File:Hyundai Robex 55-3 excavator, Iceland.jpg
Photo Marek Ślusarczyk

Some years ago Mr Gates came to do some building work for us. He and his team were terrific - independent, sturdy, slightly cynical, laconic (though communicative enough), humorous, serious, and experienced.

They got quite a few more jobs in the road on the strength of their work for us.

I saw Mr Gates a few weeks after he'd left us. He had a slightly harried look about him.

'Coo,' he said, 'you've got some funny neighbours, haven't you?'

I could only agree that some of his recent clients were indeed very odd.

'Ah well,' I told him, comfortingly. 'At least you're with Maureen, now,' (names have been changed). 'I'm sure she's looking after you.'

He sighed, hugely.

'Huh,' he said. 'She catches the dust as it falls, that one does.'

It was an expression that still gives me intense pleasure many years on.

Word To Use Today: dust. This word comes from the Old English dūst, and is related to the Old High German tunst, which means storm.

Friday 5 June 2015

Word To Use Today: lunarian.

A lunarian, as you may know or guess, is someone who lives on the moon. 

Now, I accept that you may not know anyone who lives on the moon; indeed, you may not know of anyone who lives on the moon; you may, in fact, hold the sincere belief that the moon is entirely uninhabited; but if it were inhabited, then the lunarians who lived there would surely set us an example of a civilised and refined society: peaceful, cool, concerned and clever.

Lunarian: an elegant name that suggests tallness, slenderness, beauty, and robes of the palest silks...though how the poor silk worms would get on in such low gravity I do not know.

If those lunarians seem sadly out of reach, then I bear good news, because there are lunarians on Earth, too. Their job is to map and study the surface of the moon. Lunarian can also be used to describe any scientist who's interested in the moon.

I have a suspicion, though, that the only silken clothes that sort of lunarian usually wears is a tie.

File:NASA Spacecraft Reveals Recent Geological Activity on the Moon.ogv
Smithsonian Institution Senior Scientist Tom Watters

Word To Use Today: lunarian. This word comes from the Latin lūna, the moon.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Definitely too difficult: a rant

I was writing about flu-flu arrows the other day when I hit a snag.

This was the paragraph I'd written:

This sort of arrow will have a blunt tip. It will kill small animals and birds, but is unlikely to plunge itself into the ground or a tree, making it difficult to retrieve.

But the thing is, in that last sentence should I really have written difficult to retrieve or should I have written easy to retrieve, instead?

Oh good grief...why is this writing thing so flipping DIFFICULT???

Ah well. As Charlie Brown (I think it was Charlie Brown) said, there's no problem so big you can't run away from it.

So I crossed that bit out.

Word To Use Today: easy. This word comes from the Old French ainsie, and is related to the Latin adjacens, to lie close by.

Wednesday 3 June 2015

Nuts and Bolts: pictures worth a thousand words.

No one can love words much more than I do, but there's no denying they can be a bit of a nuisance.

I mean, if a word's in a foreign language then most of the time there's no telling what on earth it means.

Söz, anyone?

As it happens, söz is the Kazakh word for, well, word: but the truth of the matter is that only a tiny proportion of the people of the world can understand it.

So, should we turn to another system? Of pictures, for instance?

Well, there is enough to think about there to write several dissertations, but for now I'll leave you with just one thought.

In some parts of the world, if you published a photo of a bare-chested man riding on horseback; or posing with a rifle; or perhaps engaging in some sort of wrestling; well, I understand that in those places that would make him appear extremely tough and formidable.

Which is rather odd, because around here it just makes him look very very gay.

Word To Use Today: Vladimir. This word is made up of the Slavic elements vladeti, rule, plus meru, famous - unless the meru bit is really miru, which means peace or world. The most famous Vladimir was a Ukrainian prince who did his best to make Russia Christian.


Tuesday 2 June 2015

Thing Not To Feel Today: poor.

The Death of the Pauper - Alexandre Antigna
The Death of the Pauper by Alexandre Antigna.

'We weren't poor,' my mother used to say when speaking of her childhood, though the only loo her home possessed was a bucket in a shed in the garden.

'We were a bit better-off than most people,' my father explained, though his house had no electricity or water supply.

My parents both felt quite well-off because they had food to eat: starvation had been a real threat to their own parents.

So what is poor, exactly? Well, I can tell you. In Britain and the European Union poverty has a nice precise definition. Poverty is having an income equal to or less than sixty per cent of median* income, with an adjustment for family size.

It means that if you have a smaller private jet than everyone else in your country then you'll probably be classed as poor. 

On the other hand, if no one has any income at all, then poverty will have been conquered.

And what about me? Good heavens no, I'm not poor. Why, I have an internet connection!

And after all, who needs a smart phone and a driving licence, anyway?

Thing Not To Feel Today: poor. This word comes from the Latin pauper, which means poor.

*You work out a median by lining up every example in your sample (in this case, everyone's income) individually in order of size. The median figure is the middle one in the list.

Monday 1 June 2015

Spot the Frippet: an abecedarian.

Abecedarians are just so cute.

They're usually small. And young. And beautiful. 

They increasingly come packed into cars, but a playground

Children at playground, Brisbane, Australia, 1939/Wikimedia Commons

 or a first school:

File:Schoolchildren reading 1911.jpg

 should contain several.

Yes, that's right, an abecedarian is someone who's learning their alphabet.

If your devout wish is to avoid children under all circumstances, then an abecedarian can also mean someone who's just beginning to learn any subject. 

Which could so easily be you, couldn't it.

However, if you are determined never to learn anything new ever again, then as an adjective abecedarian can describe anything arranged in alphabetical order.

The Word Den is most proudly not the slightest bit acebedarian, but Eddie's terrific blog Lexicolatry, which can be found HERE is. 

It's funny, too: well worth a look.

Spot the Frippet: abecedarian. There was a late Latin word abecedarius, derived from, obviously, the letters a,b,c,d.