This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 31 July 2015

Word To Use Today But Probably Not Out Loud: chalcenteric.


Saying this word out loud probably isn't a good idea.

It'll make you look stuck-up; disdainful; a show-off...and it might get you killed.

Still, never mind, it can be thought without any danger at all. 

Apparently chalcenteric has an older form, chalcenterous (you pronounce both words with a k sound at the beginning). 

And what do they both mean? 

Well, they describe someone who's really very tough indeed.

On reflection, it might be wisest to avoid describing one of those in any way at all. 

Especially if they're listening.

Word To Use Today But Probably Not Out Loud: chalcenteric. This word comes from the Greek khalkenteros, from khalkos copper or brass, and enteros, intestine. 

Thursday 30 July 2015

If You Can't Do: a rant.

I generally find Facebook a profoundly depressing place. Yes, yes, all right, I probably do have the wrong Facebook 'friends'. If they were people I actually knew, and who didn't spend their whole time pointing out how much more successful they are than I am, my Facebook experience would probably be much pleasanter.

Anyway, one Facebook friend who happens to be a real friend (as well as a very good writer indeed and a good egg into the bargain) is Jean Ure. She's written many different sorts of books over the course of a long career, but recently she's been writing lively character-driven comedies for mid-graders - and also for the rest of us (like my husband and me) who thoroughly enjoy them, too.

This is a story Jean Ure told on Facebook a little while ago:

Just a year or so ago I was in a primary school classroom and overheard one young teacher bitterly complaining to another, 'Why is it that children's authors write so badly? Why do they so often start their sentences with and or but or so? Why do they use said all the time? It's just sloppy writing. Is it because their intended readership is children and they think it doesn't matter?"

What, as Jean concludes her post, you gonna do?

So, what are we gonna do?

Well, the first thing is probably to pause to allow my blood-pressure to drop to within safe limits.

Then we could examine the rules the teachers teach (and are taught); then we could try to communicate the truth about, and purpose of, good writing; and then we could perhaps explain the real rules.

What we won't do, of course, is to change a single thing about the way we strive to present the truth of the world in written form.

Because that - the art, if you like - is absolutely sacrosanct.

Word To Use Today: sloppy. This nice word is probably something to do with the Old English slyppe, and may be related to the Norwegian slipa, which means, rather thrillingly, fish slime.

Wednesday 29 July 2015

Nuts and Bolts: nomophobia.

Well, this should be simple: nomos is the Greek for law, and phobia is another Greek word which denotes unreasonable fear or anxiety (note the unreasonable bit: you can't have a phobia about being in the water with a large crocodile. That's a fear. Unless it stops you going down to the local indoor swimming pool, natch.).

Anyway, nomophobia looks as if it should be an unreasonable fear of the law - but it's not. It's actually an unreasonable fear of being out of mobile phone contact.

Yes, the word was made up by people who care nothing for the classics.

Nomophobia tends to affect, especially, those under twenty and those over seventy. It tends to affect the depressed and the insecure, too.

Would these people, I wonder, have had a similar need for constant communication if phones hadn't been invented? I can't help but think that then their anxieties might have been harder to soothe; so perhaps we shouldn't be blaming the phones.

I don't know what the word is to describe someone who dislikes having a mobile phone signal (how on earth can anyone think with people jabbering away at you all the time?) but mostly I'm one of those.

Still, even I can work the off-switch, so I can't say it causes me any great problems.

Word To Consider Today: nomophobia. This word was coined by the UK Post Office in 2010. It's short for no-mobile-phone-contact-phobia. Ugh.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Thing Not To Make Today: a boob.

It's boobies who make boobs.

File:Abbotts Booby (Papasula abbotti) facing camera.jpg

No, no, not that sort of a booby!

The booby in question is an foolish or ignorant person, and a boob, in Britain, is an embarrassing blunder. It's something like asking a woman her due date when she's not pregnant, or expressing an opinion about the intellectual abilities of policemen and then discovering that your companion is in plain clothes.

Stuff like sending back the gazpacho because it's cold, or asking for a half-price ticket at an adult-rated film.

If you're in Australia, however, a boob is a prison, and anything that's boob is the sort of low quality stuff that is, I'm told, provided in jail.

Someone who's boob-happy is suffering mentally from the strains of prison life, and a boobhead is a someone who's been in prison repeatedly.

How to avoid making boobs?

Either stop talking entirely, or develop a habit of caution and kindness, I suppose.

But it's probably easier just to shrug and enjoy the boobs as they come.

Thing Not To Make Today: a boob. This word comes from booby, which is from the Spanish bobo, from the Latin balbus, stammering. Boob meaning prison comes from the unfortunate American expression booby-hatch which means mental hospital.

Monday 27 July 2015

Spot the Frippet: bonnet.

The very silly BBC Radio 4 programme I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue has just begun a new series. 

I know British humour can be a bit baffling in the saner parts of the world, but here's one of their jokes anyway.

Two nuns are driving along and suddenly Dracula falls down onto the bonnet of their car. Well, they're absolutely terrified. 'What shall we do, what shall we do?' says one of them, and the other one says 'show him your cross!' 

So the first one shouts 'Get off my flipping bonnet!' 


Well, I told you the programme is very silly.

Bonnet, as I expect you know, is British for the front flap of a car, the bit that in the USA is (I understand) called the hood. In the USA a bonnet could be a feathered Native American headdress - whereas in Britain a feather bonnet is worn by Scottish soldiers.

Feather bonnet at the Battle of Waterloo. Painting by William Lockhart Bogle

Even more confusingly, a Scotch bonnet is a sort of hot pepper:

File:A Scotch Bonnet.jpg
seldom worn by Scottish soldiers. Photo by Thegeeb

In all parts of the world a bonnet is a lady's hat of a sort that hasn't been worn since about 1900, and only by very old ladies even then. 

painting of Mrs Kathleen Newton by James Tissot

A Tudor bonnet, however, is modern: it's the current academic dress if you happen to have a British doctorate.

There are other bonnets all over the place, too.

A cowl on a chimney can be called a bonnet:

File:Common chimney cowl Oregon.JPG

so are a couple of plumbing tools, and it's also an extra bit of sail you tie to the bottom of a foresail in light winds.

If you're in Southern India (hello, there!) then you may just be lucky enough to see a Bonnet Macaque, Macaca radiata.

Bonnet macaque (Macaca radiata) Photograph By Shantanu Kuveskar.jpg

Unfortunately, though, I think I'm going to have to make do with the front of a car.

Spot the Frippet: bonnet. This word comes from the Latin abonnis, but before that its origin is a mystery.

Sunday 26 July 2015

Sunday Rest: puisne. Word Not To Use Today.

So, guess how you say this word.

No, not like that.

No, not like that, either. It's PYOOnee. Yes, exactly the same as puny.

And so what does puisne mean?

Well, as it happens it means something dangerously close to puny. It doesn't quite mean physically weak and scrawny, but it does mean of lower rank, and it does imply of less power.

Puisne is usually used (though I'm using the word usually here to mean more than in any other case, rather than often) to describe a subordinate judge.

Illustration by John Kay. The one on the right is Lord Monboddo, judge and founder of modern historical comparative linguistics.

I must here remind the reader, though, that describing any sort of judge as something that sounds like puny is an act of utter, utter madness. 

Word Not To Use Today: puisne. Even if you do say this word then everyone will think you mean puny, so it really is a complete waste of time. The word comes from Anglo-French, from Old French puisné, born later, which is from puis, at a later date, and , born.

Saturday 25 July 2015

Pincher Martin by William Golding

Cover artist Anthony Gross

Pincher Martin, a lieutenant on a naval ship, is thrown into the sea when a U boat sinks his ship. His struggle to survive on the small rocky island upon which he finds himself makes up most of the story.

Pincher Martin's strong sense of self-worth demands the reader's attention, although any interest in him as a person is increasingly strained as his memories reveal himself to have been a thoroughly dangerous and unpleasant character.

And then there's the famous nothing-was-as-you-thought last line...

No one but a Where's Wally fan would read William Golding for his humour. Or the loving and supportive relationships, for that matter. Or the three-dimensional women. Or the three-dimensional men, really. Golding's books tend to be rather dry and cold stuff (I think) about deeply flawed people meeting their destruction. 

Yes, it's all very modern and Nobel-Prize-For-Literature-Winning.

Still, some of his books are quite short.

So that's good, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: martin. A martin is a small migratory swallow-type bird, often with a slightly forked tail. It may be so called because it migrates about the time of Martinmas, November 11th...

...except that any sensible martin will be long gone from its breeding grounds by then.

Friday 24 July 2015

Word To Use Today: pentaquark.

Pentaquark...well, that'll be something made of five quarks, won't it.

In 2008 the Review of Physics referred to the 'overwhelming evidence' that pentaquarks - and they are indeed made of groups of five quarks -  don't exist (whatever exist means to a nuclear physicist)

Now, however, the scientists at CERN are saying that they have some figures that make it look very much as though pentaquarks are real and active and out there.

(The maths used to work this out is called chromodynamics, but although the chromo bit of this word is to do with colour, as you'd expect, what nuclear physicists call colour is nothing to do with, well, colour...obviously.)

Yes, yes, all right, it's true, I have very little idea what I'm talking about, but I do love the words. I mean, it seems that the five quarks of a pentaquark might be bound together with gluons.

Gluons. Isn't that great?

Anyway, the theory is that a pentaquark consists of five quarks, but because one of them is an antiquark it sort of cancels out one of the ordinary quarks and so a pentaquark looks jolly like an ordinary triquark, which consists of three quarks.

Image by Smurrayinchester. the c with the line above it is the antiquark. The c stands for charm, and the u and d for up and down.

The colours of the five quarks probably cancel each other out, too. So, for instance, you might have one red quark, one blue, two green, and one antigreen.

I do love the idea of antigreen.

Anyway, pentaquarks are probably jolly important. You might, for instance, need to use pentaquarks when making a neutron star. 

As one...


Ah well, here's a final thought: pentaquarks can probably be made up of any type of quark, which come in six varieties: up, down, top, bottom, charm and strange.

Though it's very difficult to imagine a part of a pentaquark that isn't very very strange indeed.

Word To Use Today: pentaquark. This word was made up by Harry J Lipkin in 1987, though the idea of a pentaquark has been around since 1964 when Murray Gell-Mann first started wondering about quarks.

Thursday 23 July 2015

The battle against bewitchment: a rant.

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language."

Or so, in the snappily-titled Philosophische Untersuchungen, said Ludwig Josef Johann Wittgenstein: 

Photograph by Ben Richards

But then Wittengenstein always was an obvious nutter, wasn't he.

Word To Use Today: philosophy. This word appeared in the English language in the 1200s and comes from the Old French filosofie, from the Greek philosophos, lover of wisdom.

Actually, now I come to think about it, does that quote mean that it's language that's doing the bewitching, or language that is the means by which we battle the bewitchment?

Wittgenstein meant the first. I think. Anyway, let's be charitable and blame the ambivalence on the translation.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

Nuts and Bolts: exclamations.


The exclamation mark is supposed to be a sign of joy, but sadly it causes terrible bitterness.

We have a National Curriculum in English schools. Lots and lots of people hate it, and recently there's been a fuss about this part of the English curriculum for some of the youngest children:

"4.4.2 Sentences with different forms: exclamations. For the purposes of the English grammar, punctuation and spelling test, an exclamation is required to start with What or How e.g. • What a lovely day! • How exciting! A sentence that ends in an exclamation mark, but which does not have one of the grammatical patterns shown above, is not considered to be creditworthy as an exclamation (e.g. exclamatory statements, exclamatory imperatives, exclamatory interrogatives or interjections)." 

The basis of people's outrage seems to be that exclamations don't necessarily consist of sentences beginning what or how. This is, of course, true - though it's also true that the passage above doesn't say that they do.

Ah well. Personally, I can't see that it's such a terrible thing to explore the difference between How are the mighty fallen! And How are the mighty fallen? 

But, hey, what do I know?

Anyway, exclamation marks. As well as being useful for marking exclamations, they do sterling work in the Maths of probabilities, and also in computing. This sort of exclamation mark is sometimes known as a bang or a shriek or (particularly in passwords if you want to look cool) a pling.

I was wondering about ending this post with an ironic exclamation mark, but I've just come across Scott Fitzgerald's line where he says that using an exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.


So I won't.

Thing To Decide Not To Use Today: an exclamation mark. The most endearing theory about the origin of this piece of punctuation is that it started off as the Latin word io, joy, which used to be used as a sort of HURRAY sign. Mediaeval monks used it, and a simplified form of the word has come down to us.

Thank you, brothers.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Thing To Do Today Even If It Means Not Actually Doing Anything: refrain.

Photo by Alexander Kastler

Here's another contranym, a word which means the opposite of itself: hurray!

refrain can either be the act of stopping yourself doing something, or it can be a many-times-repeated idea or noisy action.

Throughout the meal the constant refrain of the toddler hammering on the table gave me a headache and a strong wish that he'd refrain from doing it.

A refrain can also be the chorus of a song (or more or less any bit of music that keeps popping up throughout a piece in an and-so-say-all-of-us sort of way).

So, why do refrain and refrain mean such different things, both something to join in and the act of forbearing?

Well, it's all to do with bridles and breaking things into pieces.

No, really, it is.


Thing To Do Today Even If It Means Not Actually Doing Anything: refrain. Refrain and refrain are two quite separate words that just happen to look and sound the same. The not-doing-something meaning comes from the Latin refrēnāre, to hold back by means of a bridle, from frēnum, bridle; and the joining-in-the-chorus word is also Latin, from refringere to break into pieces. 

Monday 20 July 2015

Spot the Frippet: truckle.

Truckle - well, it's just a superb word, isn't it.

A truckle basically a small wheel of the sort usually called a castor: the type of thing you get on chairs and fridges.

Endearingly, truckle has a special cheese meaning, too: a truckle of cheese is a smallish, more or less barrel-shaped, cheese. In England they're produced in some frankly horrifying and quite bizarre flavours: Cranberry and Tia Maria Cheddar, anyone? Because we already have a Cheddar and Dark Chocolate truckle, and Cheddar with Whisky and Ginger one as well, so some idiot's bound to make it before long.

Luckily good plain cheese comes in truckles, too:

Ah, you will be saying, but how about the sort of truckle that means to yield weakly? Is that something to do with cheese?

Well, sadly, no. It's to do with beds. And wheels. A truckle bed is a low bed on wheels that can be stored under an ordinary bed (if the space isn't clogged up with shoe boxes, winter duvets and a very old train set. This remote possibility explains why the bed sort of truckle largely went out of fashion.) 

Anyway, truckle meaning to yield comes from the fact that it was the underlings (literally) who ended up on the truckle bed, while the master had the high one.

Neat, isn't it.

Spot the Frippet: truckle. This word comes from the Anglo-Norman word trocle, from the Latin trochlea, the sheaf of a pulley.

Sunday 19 July 2015

Sunday Rest: wannabe. Word Not To Use Today.

Once, on a train from Budapest to Venice, I fell into conversation with a charming young Italian man called Beniamino.

What, he wanted to know, was the meaning of the English gonner, about which so many songs were sung?

It took a little while, but we worked it out in the end. He meant gonner as in I'm gonner sit right down and write myself a letter

Gonner = going to. 

Futuro, we said, in triumph. Futuro!

Which leads us, unfortunately, to wannabe. (You say it WONaBEE, with the WON to rhyme with ON, not SON.) 

Wannabe is basically an easy-to-say form of want to be.

This is a nasty word because it's inherently contemptuous. 

A wannabe is someone who has a dream and is hoping that someone else will make it come true. 

A wannabe has a high sense of entitlement but not nearly enough courage or discipline.

So. How do you distinguish between the wannabe and the up-and-coming singer/painter/estate agent?

Well, you could try asking them to prove their worth.

You never know, they might surpise you - and perhaps themselves, as well.

Word Not To Use Today: wannabe. 

Mind you, having said all that, it's rather a good song.

Saturday 18 July 2015

Saturday Rave: The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy.

The Duke of Goucester's Band, 1811

Should a novel have a twist? Should there be a sudden turn of the plot that makes you realise that all your assumptions are false?

Is, basically, a twist a Good Thing in Itself?

'I read to the end, wanting to know what the twist was, and then there wasn't one,' said one on-line review I came across not long ago, in bafflement and outrage.

It made me consider the twist as a plot device, and I thought I'd write an occasional series about books that clobber you with something unexpected at or near the end.

I'm going to try to do it without spoilers, which may be slightly perverse, but, hey... 

The Trumpet Major by Thomas Hardy is a classic two-guys-and-a-girl (and another guy, and a couple of other girls) story. It takes place in a village near Weymouth (called Budmouth in the novel) around the time of Napoleon's projected invasion of England. There are lots of comic yokels (think Dad's Army but with tall hats) but the main story follows the two sons of a miller, one the upright and responsible trumpet major (a trumpet major is the chief trumpeter of a regiment) and one a charming but unreliable ex-merchant seaman. They both love the same girl. The trumpet major loves her seriously, deeply, and constantly; and his more relaxed brother loves her rather intermittently. Basically, the ex-sailor proves himself quite happy to love anyone who's thrown his way.

I described the two-guys-and-a-girl story as classic, and that means that everyone knows what the ending is supposed to be. So, basically, if there's a twist, we already know which way it'll turn.

Unless, of course, we don't.

Word To Use Today: trumpet. This word comes from the Old French trompette, a little trump. 

For the removal of doubt, that's the sort of trump made by a brass wind instrument.

Friday 17 July 2015

Word To Use Today: legist.

File:Karl Dane chorus girls 1927.jpg
The Karl Dane Chorus Girls


No, not necessarily a leg-fancier, a dancer: 

a champion walker or an acrobat - though a legist might be any or all of those things.

You say this word LEEgist, with the g very soft (as in the French mange, or more or less like the s in treasure) and it means someone who's an expert on the law.

15. Image of Tom Kettle, economist, lawyer and historical political figure. Shown as a barrister when called to the Irish law bar in 1905 via Wikimedia Commons
That's Tom Kettle looking like a lawyer (and a heart-throb) though he's actually best known as an economist.

How you tell a legist from a complete and utter charlatan, though, I have not the faintest idea.

Word To Use Today: legist. This word arrived in English in the 1400s from the Mediaeval Latin lēgista, from lēx, which means law.

Thursday 16 July 2015

Typecasting: a rant

• “Business shoes” by Kris/Wikimedia Commons

So: who gets the job interview?

Is it the one with the best exam results?

The quirky one?

The experienced one?

The one who can spell?

The one who hasn't yet been convicted of fraud?

Well, according to Brian Hoff, of Brian Hoff Designs* the way not to get an interview is to write your application in a boring font like Times New Roman.

A font much like the one I'm using to type this, in fact.

'It's telegraphing that you didn't put any thought into the typeface that you selected,' said Mr Hoff.

Presumably one should aim to be original, fashionable, aRTISTIc, or Historically Aware.

 Perhaps even adorable.

But, you know something? I realise that this may be a bit left-field, but personally I'd suggest having some consideration for the person choosing the interviewees and going bull-headed for simple  legibility.

I really don't think it can hurt, even if you do use Times New Roman.

Word To Use Today: legible. This word comes from the Latin legere, to read.

*On the day I wrote this post, that link sent you to a page bearing a headline written in white on a pale grey background. I can't say I was impressed.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

Nuts and Bolts: the troll's distaff.

The other day someone offered me a book about trollsländor, which translates as troll's distaffs (a distaff is the stick you put your flax on before you start spinning it).

So, what is a troll's distaff, exactly?

Well, it's pretty much the same as what in England is called a devil's darning needle. Or in Norwegian øyenstikker, which means eye stick. Or in Welsh gwas y neidr, servant of the devil. Or in Russian, sometimes, flying adder.

Can you guess what it is, yet?

In many countries - Greece, Germany, France, Spain - it's called libelúla, or libellule, or libélula or Libelle, which words come from the Latin libella, which means, rather dully, level.

Does that help at all?

In Turkey it's called Yusufçuk. Yusuf is Joseph, and the rest I'll leave you to guess.

In Hungary it's szitakötő, which seems, particularly improbably, to mean sieve signing or sieve binding.

In Croatia it's vilin konjic, an Elfish horse.

In Ireland it's snáthaid mhór, or great needle - 

 - and in Iceland it's drekafluga...

...which means...

...have you got it yet?

Yes, dragonfly.

How soon did you guess?

I must say here, in simple justice to dragonflies, that in Japan dragonflies are symbols of strength and bravery, and to the Hopi of North America they are a symbol of life.

In England, however, they have been said to turn themselves into needles to sew up the mouths of lying children.


File:Variegated Meadowhawk (Sympetrum corruptum) dragonfly, female (5070363690).jpg
Photo of Variegated Meadowhawk by Steve Barardi

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Thing To Do Today: trump.

'Nellie the Elephant packed her trunk
And said goodbye to the circus
Off she went with a trumpety trump
Trump trump trump.'

So begins Ralph Butler and Peter Hart's delightful 1956 song. But what I want to know is, from which end was Nellie trumping? In Britain (and it's a British song) to trump means...but I'm sure you can work that out for yourselves.

One can't help but wonder if Nellie's escape was welcomed, or even possibly assisted, by her long-suffering companions.

That sort of trump, the rear-blasting one, is basically linked to trumpets (the last trump is the trumpet call that will, so it is said, awaken the dead so they can be judged by God). 

The other sort of trump, the card-game trump, is a completely different word. A trump card is one that scores higher than one from any other suit. If you play your trump card you're bringing to a situation something that's sure to make you win.

In the same way, if you trump someone you're outdoing them or surpassing them.

On reflection, I suppose it would be possible to trump someone at trumping

But on the whole I think I'd rather not be there to witness the competition.

Thing To Do Today: trump. I hope you win at something today, but even if you don't, the normal number of the other sort of trump per person a day is apparently between 8 - 20. The noisy sort of trump comes from Old French trompe, from the Old High German trompa, trumpet; the winning-at-something word is a variant of triumph.

Monday 13 July 2015

Spot the Frippet: superkingdom.

Do you live in a superkingdom?

If you're British then you'll probably be fairly sure you don't, because we don't do patriotism much. According to the very British Dr Johnson, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

There are countries which rather enjoy being patriotic, though. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as long as the happiness and pride invoked isn't a way of deflecting the people's attention away from their perfectly natural misery.

The truth of the matter, though, is that we all live in superkingdoms. The Earth contains three: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukarya, and we all inhabit one of them.

The Archaean superkingdom is hard to spot because the Archaea are very small and tend to live only in volcanic vents and hot springs.

The Bacterial superkingdom is pretty much everywhere, but is also hard to spot because bacteria are really tiny.

And the Eukaryotic superkingdom

I come with good news: Eukarya is the name of your very own - your very own - superkingdom

It's true you have to share it with fungi, plants and all animals, but, hey, it's still really quite something.

File:Flickr - moses namkung - The Crowd For DMB 1.jpg
Photo by Moses. 

Isn't it?

Spot the Frippet: superkingdom. Super is Latin and means above, over or beyond. Kingdoms have been around in England pretty much ever since there's been an English language to describe them. The Old English was cyning.

Sunday 12 July 2015

Sunday Rest: still keeping very calm...

A couple of weeks ago The Word Den featured the word Broga.

Could anything be more deeply horrible than that?

Yep. 'Fraid so. 

Are you ready?


This isn't just weight loss, the website tells us, this is social gain

It's also, apparently, yoga with sass.

Also according to the website, Voga is a stretching and posing routine set to an iconic 80s beat, and the word voga is an amalgamation of yoga and vogueing.

Vogueing? A highly stylised dance form...[which]...gave its participants a sense of empowerment through striking dramatic and expressive poses resembling egyptian hieroglyphs.

I don't know about you, but my mind is boggling.

I also see someone somewhere is offering something called Yoogaia: but at the moment I'm afraid I haven't got the strength to research it.

Keep calm...

File:Carrie Yoga shoot 002 (8328572519).jpg

This looks more like proper yoga. Photo by Joel Nilsson.

Saturday 11 July 2015

Saturday Rave: The Worst Poet in England.

"Wither was a man of real genius, but seems to have been partially insane."

Or so the Victorian critic and commentator George Gilfillan said, anyway.

Oh dear.

The Wither in question was the poet George Wither. He certainly managed to upset a lot of people, but then this was fatally easy at the time he lived, 1588 - 1667. However, getting on the wrong side of both Royalists and Parlimentarians does imply a certain lack of discretion.

I must admit, too, that getting imprisoned for libel for a book that mentioned no one by name was...original.

George Wither is most famous, of course, for having his life saved by Sir John Denham. After Wither was captured by Royalists during the English Civil War, Denham successfully pleaded that Wither's life should be spared on the grounds that while Wither lived Denham could not be accounted the worst poet in England.

George Wither.jpg

But whatever misadventures befell him, Wither produced a lot of work. He wrote a masque, lyrics, several pamphlets, royal, pastoral, religious and love poetry, as well as satire.

He has two poems in the Oxford Book of English Verse. The most famous one, A Lover's Resolution, begins:

Shall I, wasting in despair,
Die because a woman's fair?
Or make pale my cheeks with care
'Cause another's rosy are?
Be she fairer than the day,
Or the flowery meads in May,
If she be not so to me,
What care I how fair she be?

And ends:

Great, or good, or kind, or fair,
I will ne'er the more despair;
If she love me, this believe,
I will die ere she shall grieve.
If she slight me when I woo,
I can scorn and let her go.
For if she be not for me,
What care I for whom she be?

Which must be just about the sanest (if not the most wholly convincing) bit of love poetry in existence.

Word To Use Today: wither. This word might be something to do with the word weather, and also might be related to the German verwittern, to decay.

Friday 10 July 2015

Word To Think About Today: goya

We know about Goya the painter:

Vicente López Portaña - el pintor Francisco de Goya.jpg
That's Francisco Goya by Vicente Lopez y Portaña. Doesn't Goya look amazingly tidy and respectable?

But today's goya is different. 

Goya is an Urdu word (Urdu is the national language of Pakistan. It's also used in parts of India). It describes a daydream that seems real at the time, but it can also describe what the poet Coleridge called suspension of disbelief. That's what happens, with any luck, when you're consuming something fictional and you happily forget for the moment that it's not really happening.

Suspension of disbelief is a good phrase, but a rather negative one. It makes a reader of novels or a watcher of films seem a bit gullible - or a bit of a madman, perhaps.

But goya...that's more like it: a willing step into another world.

Yep. It's a useful idea, is goya.

Word To Use Today: goya. As I said, it's from Urdu. It means, literally, as if, or as though, or as it were.

Thursday 9 July 2015

Dirty gardening: a rant.

The BBC (that's the British Broadcasting Corporation, Britain's publicly-funded but independent provider of TV and Radio) has been getting it in the neck for swearing.

Someone - it was Alan Titchmarsh, who's probably best-known in Britain as a rather cuddly TV gardener - was a guest on daytime television. He was talking about double-digging (that's digging down to two spade-depths. This little video is supposed to explain how to do it, but I'm afraid it just confuses me):

Double digging with spade and fork loosens the soil, to increase drainage and aeration.

Anyway, Mr Titchmarsh happened to mention that this procedure is also called bastard trenching.

The main presenter of the programme, Louise Minchin, apologised for "some of the language that was used in the last couple of minutes" when the item was over.

And did that satisfy people? No, it did not. People were enraged. They were absolutely furious. How dare the BBC apologise for the use by a respectable man of a technical, and therefore absolutely neutral, gardening term?

This kerfuffle has been described as possibly the most English thing ever to happen. As far as I have been able to discover no one at all complained about the use of the term bastard trenching.

And, you know something? Such sturdy good sense makes me feel almost proud to be British.

Word To Use Today: Um...this may be hypocritical, It is a very nice word, after all. It comes from the Old French trenche, which is something cut, from the Latin truncāre to cut off. This is rather neat because if the programme hadn't been live then Alan Titchmarsh's words would presumably have been truncated.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Nuts and Bolts. Shaping sounds: the featural alphabet..

Why is the letter A the shape it is?

Well, it started off as a picture of an ox's head (nowadays you have to be upside down to appreciate this). The link is that in those days the word for ox, Aleph, started with an A sound.

It was a good idea at the time, but unfortunately nowadays we call an ox an ox, so it's longer any help.

But how about if you could invent an alphabet where you could tell the sound of each letter from its shape?

In England, the most familiar alphabet with this feature (they're called featural alphabets) is Pitman Shorthand; but other, older alphabets used this system long before that. 

There's the clever Korean script Hangul:

[Korean alphabet: Overview]

Hangul was in fact the script for which the term featural was invented. Look, for instance, at the connection between a and ya, and o and yo in the illustration. 

Quite a few languages have featural elements to help readers along. Turkish and Japanese, for instance, sometimes use extra marks to describe the sort of noise a letter is supposed to make. 

A featural alphabet might make similar sounds like t and d, which use the same sort of tongue movement (try it) similar in shape. In fact our own dear alphabet almost does this with the similar-looking letters b and p, which use similar movements of the lips.


Well, probably. But never mind.

Word To Use Today: feature. This word comes from the Anglo-French feture, from the Latin facere, to make. The term featural alphabet was made up by Geoffrey Sampson.

Tuesday 7 July 2015

Thing To Do (Or Not) Today: jib.

A small but hard-working word, is jib.

A jib is the triangular sail that sticks out towards the front of a boat, and this seems to have led to its use to describe the human nose, or sometimes the lower lip when it's pushed out in a pout. 

If you're lucky enough to be in South Wales, then making jibs is making faces.

Painting: Adriaen Brouwer

The jib of a crane is its sticky-out arm bit, which you'd think would be the same basic word as the sail word but might not be.

The cut of your jib is the general impression you give people. It's usually used negatively, and always (as far as I know) about a man: I don't like the cut of his jib.

A boat jibs when a sail shifts dangerously from one side of the vessel to the other; and if you're in Britain then jibbing at something is holding back from doing it. A horse that jibs at a fence refuses to jump it, and if someone asks you to do a tightrope walk, for instance, or a bank robbery, you might jib at that. 

The thing you jib at is usually something scary but, even so, it's not always easy to be sure whether jibbing is a bad thing.

Except, naturally, in the case of the bank robbery.

bank robber bandit robbery lol clip art clipart

Thing To Do (or not) Today: jib. The arm of the crane word may come from the word gibbet. As for the rest, everyone seems to be jibbing away from committing themselves.

Monday 6 July 2015

Spot the Frippet: eidolon.

An eidolon can be a ghost, or some sort of insubstantial apparition.

If you don't happen to have a ghost handy then a reflection in a shop window might be the easiest way to spot one of these.

Photo by Eugène Atget

Much easier, though, is the sort of eidolon which is an ideal or idealised figure. These are everywhere.

In Art:

File:Pankratiasten in fight copy of greek statue 3 century bC.jpg
Photo: MatthiasKabel

In fashion plates:

And, of course, if all else fails there's always Barbie:

Does the use of these idealised images make the rest of us feel inadequate?


...well, no more than usual, I'd say. 

Actually, you know something? If anything, they might even give us hope.

Spot the Frippet: eidolon. This word is the Greek for phantom or idol.

Sunday 5 July 2015

Sunday Rest: Greferendum. Word Not To Use Today.

The horrid words Grexit and Grexident have been around for some time, and now today, oh joy, we have a Greferendum.

It's a hideous word for a hideous situation. Will oxi* prove to be Scylla or Charybdis for the Greek people?

Painting by Henry Fuseli

I have no idea what is going to happen either way, and I don't believe anyone else does, either.

All I can say is, Heaven save Hellas.

Word Not To Use Today: Greferendum. This is a nasty mixture of Greek and referendum, and I suppose its coinage was inevitable. 

As far as I can see, though, it wasn't widely used before this last week.

*Oxi is the Greek for no. Yes is nai.

Saturday 4 July 2015

Saturday Rave. Song of Myself 35. Walt Whitman

It's the 4th of July* and HERE is a poem from the USA's National Poet.

Well, one of the USA's National Poets...

Walt Whitman finished his formal schooling at the age of eleven, and then became successively (more or less) a printer, teacher, printer, teacher, journalist, editor, poet, military nurse, poet, civil servant, journalist and poet.

He described himself as: "Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no slander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest."

Walt Whitman - George Collins Cox.jpg

He hasn't described himself as a poet, there, has he. 

I really think he should have.

Word To Use Today: walt. This word can either mean beaten clay, or it can describe an unsteady ship or something else to do with falling over, throwing, or tottering. It comes from the Middle High German walzen, to roll or revolve.

*The reason we in England don't celebrate the USA's Independence Day is that, if you consider its history, it would be really rather rude. Wouldn't it?

Friday 3 July 2015

Word To Use Today: children's word of the year.

Children's word of the year?

What's that all about, then?

Well, according to the Oxford University Press's analysis of the 500 Words Short Story Competition, the children's word of the year is hashtag (that's the # sign. It's used to group Tweets). 

Lots of the children writing short stories for the competition used the hashtag sign as an ironic comment on the action.

This is the example that's been published to illustrate its use:

the cave exploded and she didn't look back at it exploding, she just kept on walking forward#super cool.

Commentators have remarked on how inventive and creative children are, and it's true: children are both inventive and creative - though probably not in this case. This use of the hashtag symbol has been around for ages #solastyear, and has been used by all sorts of attention-seeking idiots #justsohip.

Does the hashtag sign have a place in serious literature? I expect so, briefly, though I should imagine it'll have been abandoned by...ooh, at a guess, 2017.

So perhaps we should seize our chance use it while you can.

Word To Use Today: hashtag. The # sign was called a pound sign in the USA, but in Britain, which already had a computer key with a pound sign on it (£) it became known as a hash. When it began to be used to tag Internet Relay Chat channels it became a hashtag. Chris Messina suggested its use for Twitter in 2007.

Thursday 2 July 2015

Roger and out: a rant.

England's premier Children's literature award, The Carnegie Medal, has been won by Tanya Landman's book Buffalo Soldier.

I haven't read the book, so I can't tell you what it's like. Tanya herself seems to be lovely, and many congratulations to her. 

Luckily, we do have some information from someone who has read it - or who should have done, anyway. This piece by Emily Drabble appeared in the Guardian newspaper on 22 June 2015:

The book exploring the brutality of this dark period of American history, including rape, racist atrocities, hanging and genocide - think Mulan meets Cormac McCarthy.

I've written before of my ridiculous nostalgia for a Carnegie Meal winner that might be suitable to be read by, well, children, but how about this: just three days after this piece was published it's been reported that in the BBC's new version of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons the character Titty is going to be renamed Tatty.

They are leaving Roger as he is.

Oh dear. I just hope that everyone else isn't quite as confused as I am, that's all.

Especially the children...

...but then what do they matter?

Word To Use Today: genocide. This is a word from the 1900s. It comes from the Greek word genos, which means race.

Wednesday 1 July 2015

Nuts and Bolts: how many letters?

How many letters are there in the alphabet?


All right, all right. Sorry. 

In English there are twenty six letters in the alphabet (although a few hundred years ago & was counted as a letter - and J wasn't).

The first alphabet system in the world was probably what's now called Proto-Sinaitic, but there aren't enough examples to be sure how big its alphabet was. The slightly later cuneiform and Phoenician alphabets had thirty and twenty four letters, respectively.

It all seems quite reasonable and straightforward so far, doesn't it. 

File:Georgian Alphabet Letters.jpg
This is the Georgian alphabet. Image by GeorgianJorjadze

How about some modern languages?

Welsh, say the Welsh (who should know) has twenty nine letters, though those include LL and PH, which in English don't count as single letters at all. Hungarian has forty four letters, including SZ, ZS and Ő.

Arabic gets by with twenty eight letters, and Hawaiian uses only thirteen.

Chinese doesn't really use letters at all, though it has a system of thirty seven signs that come in useful for telling you how to say stuff.

Russian uses thirty three letters, though two of them (strangely to an English writer) don't represent a sound; Hindi has forty six letters, of which officially eleven are vowels. Traditionally, though, Hindi's vowels number thirteen (and there are two fewer consonants).

Italian has twenty one letters, except that it's quite happy to use j, k, x, y and w if it feels it needs them.

So, has the alphabet system of writing led the world into a glorious hodgepodge or a bit of a mess?

I'm going for the glorious hodgepodge, myself.