This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 31 August 2015

Spot the Frippet: brightwork.

Yes, I know, I know, it's Monday morning and the last thing anyone feels is bright. Staying upright and semi-conscious is enough of a strain.

But have no fear. There is no need for you to do anything except raise your heavy eyelids and gawp around a bit. Brightwork is nothing to do with work. Or, indeed, with being bright.

So. Spotting some brightwork. Can you see a car anywhere? 

File:1955 Daimler DK 400 'Golden Zebra' Coupé p2.JPG
Daimler DK400 2-dr fixed-head coupé by Hooper & Co with gold-played brightwork. Photo by AlfvanBeem.

Or a ship? 

Brass cannon from HMS Bacchante

Or perhaps even a bike?

Kawasaki Ninja H2R Seattle motorcycle show.jpg
Kawasaki Ninja H2/H2R

Good. Well, you see that shiny metal marque badge on it? Or the chrome wheel-trim? Or the glittering wing mirrors?

That's all brightwork. Brightwork is anything metallic and shiny, whether merely decorative or functional.

So there we are. Missions accomplished. Well done. 

I'll let you sink back into your torpor, now.

Spot the Frippet: brightwork. The Old English from was beorht, and is related to the Gothic bairhts, clear, and the Swedish brokig, pied. too exhausting to think about at the moment, but the Old English form was weorc.

Sunday 30 August 2015

Sunday Rest: leprose. Word Not To Use Today.

Leprose sounds as if it should describe something to do with leprosy, but it doesn't.

The word meaning to do with leprosy is leprous: leprose means to do with lichen.

But not any old lichen.

This lichen is leprose:

And so is this one, (it's a sort called Chrysothrix candelaris).

Gold Dust Lichen (3816260916).jpg

Now, although various dictionary definitions tell me that leprose means having a whitish, scurfy surface, the only instances of the use of the word I can find via Google describe, not the scurfy-surfaced lichens, but the powdery ones. And the images of leprose lichens I have found have all been yellow.

So, who is right about the meaning of the word leprose? Does it mean powdery, as the biologists seem to think, or does it mean white and scurfy?

The biologists may have taken a wrong turning somewhere along the line; but the dictionaries can't be completely right, can they?

Ah well, the confusion must be another reason not to use this word.

So that's good.

Sunday Rest: leprose. This word comes from Latin lepra, which means leper.

Saturday 29 August 2015

Saturday Rave: Blackadder by Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and Rowan Atkinson

There are rumours of a new series of Blackadder: hurray hurray!

(The third hurray will come if they start filming.)

I love Blackadder. It may be said that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, but if that's so then Blackadder, played by Rowan Atkinson, manages to transform low wit into high art.

Blackadder Goes Forth

We've already had a hundred brilliant lines from the egregious Edmund Blackadder, but here's just one favourite to remind us how much fun he is. Here, Blackadder is addressing his dim, grubby and insanely faithful servant, Baldrick:

'Baldrick, does it have to be this way? Our valued friendship ending with me cutting you up into strips and telling the prince that you walked over a very sharp cattle grid in an extremely heavy hat?'

It would be greedy to want more: but I do, anyway. There can never be enough wit, and I, for one, are ready to embrace it - even when it's of the lowest possible kind.

Word To Use Today: adder. This word is a victim of false splitting: a nadder has become an adder. The Old English for snake was nǣdre.

Friday 28 August 2015

Word To Use Today: porcupine.

Vintage horror film couple: Plan 9 From Outer Space/US

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine.

...but, this being basically a lighthearted sort of a place, I won't. (It's good stuff, though, isn't it. Shakespeare. A particularly articulate ghost, from what I can remember - much more gripping than all the usual chain rattling and moaning. Though even Shakespeare wouldn't get much of a porpentine-act out of that guy in the picture, above.)

Anyway, that porpentine is, obviously, what we would nowadays call a porcupine:


 but the real question is, why was it fretful?

Is it that the porcupine is being hunted so enthusiastically in Vietnam that its numbers are falling precipitously?

Is it that the porcupine's record for being the longest-living rodent has recently been overtaken by the naked mole-rat?

Is it that there's reckoned no finer dining in Kenya than a juicy porcupine steak?

Is it because a Native American "porky roach" headdress:

 is reckoned undressed without a crest of porcupine spines?

Is it because porcupine spines have backward-facing barbs that leave the poor porcupine with the choice of living with an enemy stuck to its backside or going rather bald?

Is it because the Old World and New World porcupines share a name even though they are really quite distant relatives, and Old World porcupines stay really, like, boringly on the ground while the New World ones plainly think they're flipping squirrels and spend their time clambering about in trees?

Or it might be because of their bad judgement: 

A man was in a cinema, and half way through the very bad film he looked across and suddenly noticed his neighbour. 'Hey, you're a porcupine,' he said. 'What are you doing in the cinema?'

'Well,' said the porcupine, 'I liked the book.'


Word To Use Today: porcupine. This word comes from the Latin porcus, pig, plus spina quill.

Thursday 27 August 2015

Personal Goals: a rant.

File:FA Cup.jpg

There's a sign above the ready-meals section of my local supermarket. It says:

Healthy meals, drinks and snacks to help you achieve your personal goals

Yeah, right. A mushy rectangle of mince will really be a significant help in winning the Nobel Prize in Medicine, an Olympic hundred metres gold medal, or the Turner Prize, won't it.

I mean, what else could you need but a dollop of watery mashed potato to fulfill an ambition to become a nuclear physicist, a brain surgeon, or a professor of classics?

To help you climb a mountain, write a novel, play some Chopin?

Decorate the living room, knit a mitten, grow some tomatoes?

Healthy meals, drinks and snacks to help you achieve your personal goals

Your personal goals...they're assuming our personal goals centre round being a bit thinner or fatter, aren't they?

And, quite honestly, I wish the people who came up with that sign would go off somewhere a long way away and patronise someone else.

Word To Use Today: achieve. This word comes from the Old French achever, to bring to an end, from a chef, to a head or conclusion.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Nuts and Bolts: tell it to the birds.

Birds sing. Well, some birds sing. Some croak (crows), burble (turtle doves) belch (capercaillie) squeak (many birds, including starlings), and some sound as if they're being painfully murdered (water rail).

But when the singing birds sing, are they really singing, or just making a noise that sounds like singing?

Well, a bird that's producing a long-lasting series of sounds is most probably showing off to attract a mate - so that's very like human song. 

Bird song is also to do with maintaining territory - as are the chants men sing at sports events. 

What about other noises birds make?

A bird's contact note is used when in a flock, especially in places where vision isn't easy, such as in woodland or while flying in the dark. 

Humans tend not to go into woodland in large numbers (and neither do they fly around much in the dark). But if they do, you may have observed that they're generally unusually noisy.

A bird's call note is a simple sound to indicate what and where they are, and what they're doing. Nowadays humans have developed a tendency to outsource these functions to electronic devices, but they still sometimes use Hey! or Hi! or even the more musical Yoo-hoo! from time to time to announce themselves.  

Finally, birds will have an alarm note - a hasty squawk of some kind.

And an alarmed human, as you will have observed, makes pretty much exactly the same noise.

Word To Do Today: sing. This word is ancient. The Old English form was singan, and so was the Old High German.

Tuesday 25 August 2015

Thing To Do Today, Possibly, If It Helps: socialise.

The experts keep telling us that socialising is one of the two most important things we can do to ward off dementia.

So how come, if that's true, that when I'm in social situations I so often hear my brain cells sobbing with boredom as they commit suicide by throwing themselves off some towering mental cliff.

Just tell me that, okay?

Now I'm going to go for a nice long interesting walk.

It's supposed to ward off dementia, you know.

File:Windsor Castle-Long Walk.jpg
Photo by Gambitek at Polish Wikipedia

Thing To Do Today, Possibly, If It Helps: socialise. This word comes from the Latin sociābilis, from sociāre to unite, from socius, an associate. 

Monday 24 August 2015

Spot the frippet: strontium.

Strontium? But that's radioactive, isn't it? Surely there isn't any of that stuff laying around?

Well, I don't want to worry you but there's some strontium very close by: in your bones, in fact (though I hope very much you're not going to have a chance to spot your bones except perhaps in an x-ray). As it happens the strontium in bones is very interesting because an analysis of it can give you an indication of where someone's lived.

So where can you spot strontium?

There's a lot of (non-radioactive) strontium in toothpaste for sensitive teeth, and also in the glass screens of old-fashioned cathode-ray TVs and monitors.

Acantharia, tiny protozoa that are found throughout the oceans of the world, make their skeletons of strontium sulphate. Acantharia are astonishingly beautiful, like living snowflakes,* though sadly they're almost too small (0.1 - 0.2 mm) to spot:

Haeckel Acanthometra.jpg

Strontium oxide is used to make glazes for pottery; strontium ranelate is used to treat osteoporosis; and strontium barium niobate is sometimes used to make holograms.

And those bright red fireworks? They're strontium, too.

The radioactive stuff, strontium 90, forms a part of nuclear waste. It's sometimes used in radiotherapy, and research is being done into using it in space ships and even cars.

Though personally, I have to say, given the choice I think I'd rather walk.

Spot the frippet: strontium. This element was named after the village of Strontian in Scotland, where it was discovered in 1790 by Adair Crawford and William Cruikshank.

*For all the pedants out there, yes, they do have the wrong number of points for snowflakes. Sorry.

Sunday 23 August 2015

Sunday Rest: stucco. Word Not To Use Today.

This beautiful Brighton house is covered in stucco:

Stucco. It's completely the wrong sort of word for something so poised and elegant, isn't it: stucco should be a type of chewing gum, or a cheap glue-stick, or one of the less successful of the Marx Brothers.

This is stucco, too:

House of Borujerdi-ha. Kashan, Iran, made about about 1850.

but how can something as complex and extraordinary as that be called stucco? Stucco sounds more as like the effect you'd get if you threw stones into wet cement. 

And, actually... you know the stuff called pebble-dash? It sounds quite exciting, but it's actually the most depressing finish for a building ever invented:

well, as stucco is basically any sort of plaster or cement-type stuff stuck on the outside of a building, pebble-dash (which is, yes, cement with pebbles stuck all over it) counts as a sort of stucco, too.

But even then stucco falls short. I mean, it doesn't capture anything like the full dreariness of pebble-dash.

But then I can't think of a word that would.

Sunday Rest: stucco. Although this word came to us from Italian, before that it was German. The Old High German stukki means fragment or crust, and there's an Old English word stycce which means bit or piece.

Saturday 22 August 2015

Saturday Rave: When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.

I read this marvellous autobiographical novel many years ago. Could it really, I'd begun to wonder, have been as good as I remembered?

Well, I've just re-read it, and it's even better.

Anna (like the writer of the book, Judith Kerr) lives in 1930s Berlin with her Jewish family. Not long before the election that will bring Hitler to power, Anna's father receives a phone call warning him that his passport was about to be taken away. 

He packs a knapsack and leaves at once, and his wife and two young children follow him very soon afterwards.

Anna's beloved Pink Rabbit is left behind. Anna expects Pink Rabbit to be posted to her at the family's new address in Switzerland, but the family's possessions are confiscated by the Nazis: Pink Rabbit is gone forever.

This is a story about refugees, and also about trying to scrape a living in foreign countries during the 1930s Depression.

Anna's life is full of difficulties and bafflement. The evil of the Nazi regime is shown brilliantly, vividly, though without Anna (or the reader) witnessing any violence at all. 

But for all this When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is a happy book. Anna seizes the opportunities being a refugee provides with interest and some glee, and although there are moments of self-pity and even despair, the family's difficulties are battled bravely.

Judith Kerr is ninety two, now, and still working as a writer and illustrator (the picture books about Mog the cat are hers).

And I think that here we have an rare example of a great life, as well as a great book.

Word To Use Today: pink. No one's exactly sure where this word comes from, but it might be to do with pinkeye, which nowadays is usually called conjunctivitis. Yes, it's true that conjunctivitis isn't actually pink; the term pinkeye comes from the Dutch pinck oogen, meaning small eyes, because of the inflamation.

Friday 21 August 2015

Word To Use Today: vinegarroon.

You can guess quite successfully a lot of the time, with words.

A vineyard, for instance, may not be much like the thing the English think of as a yard (ie a concreted-over area where large ugly things are dumped and left to moulder) but even so it's easy to guess that a vineyard is a place for growing vines.

So, to vinegarroon.

What do you think it is? A bowl for holding vinegar (I mean, it does sound quite like spittoon, doesn't it)?

A pirate who smuggles vinegar? (I have a feeling I'm making some connection here with Brigadoon, and then to brigantine, and then to brigand...which is several long hops in the wrong direction.)

Could a vinegarroon be a person who swamps all their meals with vinegar (the oon bit in this case as in buffoon)?

No, none of those are even close. I'll give you a clue. The vinegar bit of this word is nothing to do with the taste. It's to do with the smell.

Ah, so is it a bottle for smelling salts?

Nope. Look, I'll tell you. A vinegarroon is Mastigoproctus giganticus - and I don't suppose you even want to think about what one of those might be, so here's a picture:

Mastigoproctus giganteus 0004 L.D..jpg

Yes, it's big, isn't it. You find it in the southern USA and Mexico (this is a relief to me because I live in England). A vinegarroon is a whip scorpion, which is like a scorpion without a sting. Which is something.

It doesn't usually smell of vinegar: it only does that when it's afraid.

So let's just thank our lucky stars that humans aren't named for the smells we make when we're afraid, shall we?

Word To Use Today: vinegarroon. This word comes from the Mexican Spanish vinagrón, from the Spanish vinagre, vinegar.

Thursday 20 August 2015

A short history of Siberia: a rant

The books of the historians Antony Beevor and John Keegan 
are being removed from libraries in Siberia.

Apparently the authorities there object to Beevor and Keegan's accounts of how the Soviet Army conducted its campaign against Germany towards the end of the Second World War.

Antony Beevor reports that, under Russian law, repeating Nazi propaganda about the events of seventy years ago is a crime and can be punished with up to five years' imprisonment. The authorities presumably believe that this is what the books of Beevor and Keegan do.

It's interesting, isn't it. I thought the whole point of history was presenting all the available evidence and then attempting to argue your way from there to the truth.

But this seems not to be so in Siberia.

Word To Use Today: Siberia. This word might come from the Siberian Tatar language and mean sleeping land; or it might be named after the Sipyr or Xibe people. On the other hand it might be something to do with sever, the proto-Slavic word for North; or from the words su, water, and bir, wild land (I'm not sure of which language these words form a part) or from a Chinese phrase meaning Western borderland.

Which all just goes to show that, as Oscar Wilde said, the truth is seldom pure and never simple.

File:Siberian Jay Kittila 20100312.jpg

A Siberian Jay, Pensoreus infaustus, photographed by Estormiz in Poland.

Wednesday 19 August 2015

Nuts and Bolts: fleas in the ear.

If you've been given a flea in your ear then you've been sent away with a telling-off or a sharp refusal - well, if you're English you have, anyway. If you're French, German, Italian or Greek it's quite different. 

In those cases the flea you have in your ear (for the French la puce á l'oreille) will have made you suspicious...unless you're a French Mediaeval person, because in Mediaeval times the fleas in French people's ears used to torment them not with suspicions but with desire.

File:Flea Scanning Electron Micrograph False Color.jpg
Photo by CDC/Janice Haney Carr

Mind you, if you're Dutch then to have a flea in your ear means you're feeling restless.

Rather thrillingly, a restless German speaker's ears are completely clear of all hopping insects. For a German speaker Ihm ist eine Laus über die Leber gekrochen: a louse has crawled over his liver.

Actually, given the choice I think I'd settle for the flea.

Word To Use Today: flea. The Old English form of this word was flēah.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: quibble.

"Away, away!" his Mentors cried,
'Thou uncongenial pest!
A quirk's a thing we can't abide,
A quibble we detest!"

So wrote WS Gilbert in his ballad The Two Ogres, and though Gilbert was himself the master of the quibble-based plot-device (see for instance The Pirates of Penzance) he was here speaking a great truth.

Writers may depend upon the quibble rather a lot for their plots, but as for using them in real life, forget it.

I hate to quibble, people say. And the next word they utter?

Yes, it's always but.

What follows could be the quibble intellectual: no, what you've made isn't a bolognese sauce. I think you'll find that a proper bolognese sauce contains celery, or the quibble egotistical: what have you bought me those flowers for? They clash with my eyes!

Then there's the quibble evasive: it depends upon what the meaning of the word is, is.

But whichever sort of quibble it is (even, probably, if it's being used with its archaic meaning of a pun) WS Gilbert calls it right: a quibbler is an uncongenial pest.

Do feel free to tell him or her so, too.

Thing Not To Do Today: quibble. No one's sure where this word came from, but it might be from the Latin word quibus, a word formerly often used in legal documents and thus a symbol of anything pettifogging and obscure.

Monday 17 August 2015

Spot the frippet: fleuron.

Fleuron? Isn't that some sort of an alien? Or is it that chemical capable of eating through glass? 

Um. Something that makes your teeth glow in the dark?


Well, then, what is it?

A fleuron can be a flower-shape used as a decoration (though sometimes (though not here) the word decoration is used in its very loose sense):

Salesman's sample book from 1929 America.

Fabric from Japan.

The other meaning of fleuron is a decorative bit of pastry. You know, a bit stuck on to make a pie look a bit more thought-about.

An extra pat on the back if you see someone wearing fleurons while eating them.

Examples seen in a mirror will probably be of a very happy person indeed. 

Spot the frippet: fleuron. This word comes from the Old French floron, from flor, flower.

Sunday 16 August 2015

Sunday Rest: bucolic. Word Not To Use Today.

Bucolic is a truly horrid word. It sounds like a cow with stomach ache (and just think, a cow has four stomachs to ache, poor thing).

As it happens bucolic is to do with cows - or used to be. Nowadays, however, it describes anything that's to do with the countryside or country life. 

The use of such a nasty word for this purpose is clearly madness. I mean, country life is, on the whole, a rather lovelier thing than town or city life. True enough you find more slaughtering of beasts, but, hey, it's often done to the sound of trickling streams and birdsong. 

Although the word bucolic started off with cows, nowadays it's more often used to describe shepherds than cowherds, and particularly to describe a poem written as a conversation between a shepherd and his love.* 

Having said that, bucolic can be used to describe any farmer or shepherd - although not safely if one of them is listening.

The Highland Shepherd by Rosa Bonheur

Word Not To Use Today: bucolic. This word comes from the Greek boukolikos, from boukolos, cowherd, from bous, ox.

PS There is another form of the word, bucolical, but it's obviously miles too silly to use.

*I suppose it's possible it's just that cowherds aren't as naturally poetic as shepherds, but as far as I know no one has done the research.

Saturday 15 August 2015

Saturday Rave: The Truth about Politics by Woodrow Wilson.

Woodrow Wilson 1856 - 1924, used to be President of the United States of America.

Here he is:

Thomas Woodrow Wilson, Harris & Ewing bw photo portrait, 1919.jpg

As such, you'd have thought he'd have been quite keen on politics. He certainly did give it a great deal of thought.

And what conclusion did he draw? 

A magnificently detached one.

This is from a speech he gave to the New York Press Club in 1912.

The history of liberty is the history of resistance. The history of liberty is a history of the limitation of governmental power, not the increase of it.

It's interesting, I think, that someone who believed that should have ended up a president.

Ah well...perhaps he changed his mind.

Word To Use Today: liberty. This word comes from the Old French liberté, from the Latin līber, free.  

Friday 14 August 2015

Word To Use Today: knickerbocker.

In Britain, a knickerblocker means only one thing: a Knickerblocker Glory is a layered cream, ice cream, meringue and fruit pudding served in a tall glass with, luckily, a tall spoon:

Knickerbocker sounds a rather comical, foreign word to a British person, and it can prove confusing. I once visited a restaurant whose pudding menu advertised the delights of a Knickerblocker Glory.

I was intrigued, but in the end prudence prevailed and I chose something else.

But what's with this knickerbocker, anyway? What is this thing?

Knickerbockers started off as baggy breeches, either ending below the knee or just above the ankle. 

In the 1800s they were regarded as the traditional costume of Dutch settlers, and from there knickerbocker came to describe a descendant of the original Dutch settlers of New York, and later to mean any inhabitant of New York.

Knickerbocker has also lent its name to a beer, several clubs, many sports teams, a cocktail, and a storm.

Really not bad for something that started off meaning a pair of baggy trousers, is it.

Word To Use Today: knickerbocker. The inhabitant-of-New-York meaning comes from Washington Irving's 1809 History of New York. 

The British ice cream sundae name is a bit of a mystery. In the 1920s Lyon's Corner House cafes produced a range of puddings named, strangely, after items of clothing - the Plus Four and the Charlie Chaplin Waistcoat were amongst them, and the Knickerbocker Glory may have been one of those.

Or perhaps (even though the Knickerbocker Glory does seem to be strictly British) it may be something to do with the New York firm the Knickerbocker Ice Co.

Thursday 13 August 2015

Socially aware: a rant

Poor Tina Pugh.

Ms Pugh is a social worker who's been working on a very sad case which involves two little girls taken from their parents by Social Services.

A friend of the family has offered to look after the children, but Ms Pugh's belief is that the children would be best off adopted.

The case has come before the courts for a judge to pass, well, judgement, and in the end the children have been allowed to stay with the family friend.

And upon what grounds did His Honour Judge Jeremy Lea base his decision?

It was on the grounds that her report was written in such impenetrable language that even Mr Lea wasn't sure what she meant. Furthermore, he was sure that the family friend, who was trying to argue in favour of herself being given custody of the children, wouldn't have had a chance of understanding Miss Pugh at all.

And if the family friend couldn't understand Ms Pugh's statement, how could the family friend argue her own case?

Judge Lea said:

'I have to question whether Tina Pugh was able to communicate orally with [the family friend]. Did [the family friend] fully understand what was being asked of her or said to her?

'This was not a matter of linguistic pedantry, but a serious failing in those involved in making crucial decisions.

'How could any unqualified person be expected to know what imbued with ambivalence meant? Or having many commonalities emanating from their histories? Or even I asked her to convey a narrative?

'There were passages in Tina Pugh's report,' said the judge, 'which were written in language which made their meaning quite opaque. I suspect as far as [the family friend] was concerned, these passages might just as well have been written in a foreign language.

'Reports by experts are not written solely for the benefit of other professionals.

'I conclude that there is at least a possibility here that the negative assessment of [the family friend] stemmed in part from the fact that Tina Pugh and [the family friend] were simply not on the same wavelength when discussing matters.'

And that was the judgement of the judge.

I hereby acclaim His Honour Judge Jeremy Lea a Hero of The Word Den.

All rise for the judge!

Word To Use Today: hero. This word comes from the Latin word hērōs. Before that it was Greek and meant (as well as hero) a demi-god. Before that it might come from a Proto-Indo-European word to do with protecting and watching over.

Wednesday 12 August 2015

N&B scrabble

The last Scrabble World Championship was won by Craig Beevers in a hard-fought match against Chris Lipe.

And how do you get to be very very good at Scrabble?

Well, I should imagine it would need a lot of hard work, a good brain, a fighting spirit, and a bit of luck with the letters.

Where does the hard work come in?

Well, you need to learn a lot of words.

The words Chris Beevers used in his winning match included ventrous, diorite, talaq, gapo, umu and Kaw. The only one of those I knew myself was diorite, which is a sort of rock. Ventrous is short for adventurous (probably guessable in context) talaq is a type of Muslim divorce, gapo is a South American forest near a river, umu is a Polynesian earth oven, and Kaw is an alternative form of Kansa, a tribe of Native Americans who mostly - and confusingly -  now live in Oklahoma.

Words unknown to me that Chris Lipe used in the match included taj and xenic. A taj is a conical hat worn by a dervish, and xenic is to do with a culture medium which contains unidentified organisms.

Here's the complete board:

Apart from the glory of winning, how brilliant is it to know a word meaning hat worn by a dervish?

I must look out my Scrabble board at once.

Game to Play Today: Scrabble. The game was invented by Alfred Mosher Butts in 1938, but he called it Criss-Crosswords, and it only got the name Scrabble in 1948 when James Brunot began producing the game in a slightly different format. The word scrabble comes from the Middle Dutch shrabbelen, which is a frequentative of shrabben to scrape.

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Thing To Be Today: ebullient.

No, it's all right, luckily this is nothing to do with being a bully, it's to do with boiling.

A good cup of tea needs to be made with ebullient water; an ebulliometer works out the boiling-point of liquids. 

An ebullioscopy is, thankfully, nothing to do with exploratory surgery with a boiling-hot implement, but a way of finding out what a liquid is made of by the way its boiling point changes.

The water in which you cook your potatoes must undergo a process of ebullition - and that's a phrase you don't come across very often in cookery books. 

Hmm...perhaps there's an opening there....Cookery for Chemists or something...

By this point you are probably saying to yourself, with your usual acuity, but the last thing I want to do is reach boiling point, so what on earth is the silly woman going on about?

Well, boiling is to do with being bubbly, and in a human being ebullience is to do with overflowing with excitement, enthusiasm or exuberance.

It's harder for we English than for most of the rest of you, but, come on, I'm sure even we English can make the effort to raise both eyebrows if we receive the letter telling us we've won the competition.

Otherwise, there's always sport, I suppose. That seems to bring out a natural ebullience.

It would be insensitive for me to mention Test Matches but, hey, Millwall FC actually won the other day: they got more goals than the other side, and everything.

And I, for one, intend to be jolly ebullient about it while I can.

File:Campfire 1897 kettle.gif

Thing To Be Today: ebullient. This word comes from the Latin ēbullīre to bubble forth, be boisterous, from bullīre, to boil. 

Monday 10 August 2015

Spot the frippet: filoselle.

It's amazing what a difference a few letters can make.

Yesterday's monstrous word, filose, for instance, can be transformed with the simple addition of a three more letters into the dancing and joyous filoselle.

Filoselle is a soft silk thread used especially for embroidery.

Now, some of you may not see the point in looking out for embroidery, but if you are one of those then answer me this: why should a work of art made by applying lines of thread to a background have less artistic merit than one made by applying lines of paint?

(Before you start, I agree that most embroidery is very poor art indeed. But then so is most painting.)

Anyway, why not see if you nudge a prejudice one way or the other.

A sample of traditional embroidery by the Alfaro-Nùñez family of Cochas, Peru.
It'd be good to reach the end of the day a little more educated, wouldn't it.

This is from Japan.

Spot the frippet: filoselle. You pronounce this FEELohSELL. The word comes from France, where it means silk or silkworm, from the Italian filosello,  perhaps from the Latin folliculus, little bag.

Sunday 9 August 2015

Sunday Rest: filose. Word Not To Use Today.

You say this word FI-lohss, to rhyme with...well, nothing I can think of at the moment.

Hi, dose?

Or you can pronounce it FI-lohzz, but obviously that's even worse.

This word's saving grace is that practically everyone has gone about their lives quite happily without missing it; which I suppose means that by drawing attention to the loathsome thing I'm only making things worse.


Filose is a term used in biology describing something that looks like, or possesses, a thread or thread-like object.

Now, I'm not going to pretend you're not going to come across filose antennae, for instance, from time to time, but filose, ugh. 

Can't they be delicate, thin, fine, attenuated, frail, or, indeed, thread-like?

Actually, forget attenuated, that's nearly as bad as filose.

But fine is, well, fine. So is thread-like. People would understand those.

And they wouldn't make you look nearly so much of a dork, either.

Those amoeboid pseudopodia look pretty filose to me.

Good grief, that's a sentence I'd hoped never to type. Ah well.

Word Not To Use Today: filose. This word comes from the Latin fīlum, which means thread.

Saturday 8 August 2015

Saturday Rave: The Introduction by Anne Finch.

When I was young, radical feminism was done by old women.

Well, they were older than me, anyway, and who wanted to join in with the old folk? 

It sometimes made thinking rather difficult.

If only I'd known, feminism had been going for a long time before Betty Friedan. I mean, Mary Wolstonecraft? A comparative late-comer.

Apart from the long tradition of don't-mess-with-me political figures, from Boudicca to Matilda to Elizabeth the First, there was the excellent Anne Finch.


Well, as it happened she became (unexpectedly) Lady Winchilsea, but her life was dominated by the fact that her husband Heneage Finch was a supporter of the British king James II, and the king's exile tainted the Finches by association. Anne also suffered greatly from depression.

So to what did Anne turn to help her through difficult times? Well, she wrote some excellent poetry.

This is from her 1713 poem The Introduction.

They tell us we mistake our sex and way;
Good breeding, fashion, dancing, dressing, play,
Are the accomplishments we should desire;
To write, or read, or think, or to enquire
Would cloud our beauty and exhaust our time,
And interrupt the conquests of our prime;
While the dull manage of a servile house
Is held by some our utmost art and use.

So there you are. She may have been depressed and have backed the wrong monarch, but she still sang true, didn't she?

Word To Use Today: finch. The Old English form of this word was finc, and it can be traced all the way back to the Greek spingos. The rather sumptuous adjective from finch is fringilline.

Friday 7 August 2015

Word To Use Today: millwallisation

Yes, yes, all right, Millwallisation is a rather horrid word. Yes, it does sound like some process for making brick into concrete, or books into coal.

But it contains the word Millwall and so it's earned a place in my heart.

Millwall was originally part of the London docks north of the Thames, but now its fame rests principally upon its being a football team based in South East London. 

I can't say that Millwall is the glossiest or most successful football team. This season it will play in the third tier of English football, and it has a (for a long time undeserved) reputation for thuggishness and violence.

But it has a reputation for singing, too. When Millwall got to the FA Cup Final in 2004 (where they lost to Manchester United, boo!) their supporters went away full of pride, partly at being there in the first place (FA Cup Final? Us? Blimey!) and partly at having made so much more noise than the other supporters.

And what does Millwall sing?

Ah, this is where Millwallisation comes in. They sing, most famously and to the tune of Gavin Sutherland's Sailing:

No one likes us, no one likes us
No one likes us, we don't care.

We are Millwall, s
uper Millwall
We are Millwall from the Den.

And so from the glorious singing in the stands at The New Den to the British Labour Party, which is busy choosing a new leader. Their members' choice appears to be falling on a candidate whose political principles are rather...old-fashioned. This has caused some consternation and incredulity - and the word Millwallisation.

I came across the word in the Telegraph online edition of 21/7/15, where John McTernan wrote:

It is the Labour Party which wants to revert to the old Adam. The purity of powerlessness. The celebration of defeat. The Millwallisation of politics - "No one likes us, we don't care!"

So there we are. An ugly word, but actually rather a useful one, I think. Best of all it celebrates Millwall, lovely Millwall, the team my husband's family has certainly supported for nearly a hundred years and probably for longer than that.

So go the lions! 


Thursday 6 August 2015

Leaving the European Union: a rant.

This headline appeared in the Telegraph online edition of 24/6/15:

Leave the EU to save the NHS

it said.

So, can I relax, safe in the knowledge that the European Union will take excellent care of the British National Health Service? 

Or must I worry that in order to keep the NHS running, Britain must leave the European Union?

I read the article to find out, but I should have known, really. 

Well, good news is no news, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: telegraph. This word comes from a French windmill-type thing for signalling over long distances, and before that from two Greek words, tele, far, and graphos, one who draws or writes.

Prussian telegraph apparatus 1835


Wednesday 5 August 2015

Nuts and Bolts: new words from the New World.

The English language is getting bigger all the time. Some words have been around ever since the English landed in England, but most have been borrowed (or made up) in the centuries since then. 

When English-speaking people arrived in North America, the first native people they met spoke Algonquian languages. 

So, did the English-speakers form a committee to think up good English names for all the new and wonderful things they saw around them? Or did they just pinch the Algonquian words that were already in use?

Or, did they take the Algonquian words, mangle them a bit in their stiff English mouths, misunderstand half of them, and use those?

Well, what do you think?

It's a bit of a shame about the mangling and misunderstanding, but English ended up with some brilliant words, all the same: caribou (it means snow shoveller); chipmunk; moose (which means stripper - with reference, I hasten to say, to tree bark); hickory (the English got this a bit wrong - they thought hickory was a tree, but it was actually a drink made with hickory tree nuts); moccasin; muskrat (here the English mangled things so much they ended up with a word that means quite the wrong thing: a muskrat isn't a rat at all. The musk bit was originally mo.šk, which means bob at the surface of the water, and the rat bit came, by devious paths, from exkwe, which means head. Unless the whole word comes from muscascus, which means it is red); then we have pecan; powwow (they got this wrong, too: it actually meant shaman); raccoon (the name probably means something to do with a weeing fox); squash; squaw; terrapin; toboggan (instrument for dragging); tomahawk (instrument for cutting) and woodchuck (a vaguely plausible attempt at ockqutchaun).

After all that, all I can really say to the Algonquian people is thank you.

Yes. Thank you all really very much indeed.

Word To Use Today: one from an Algonquian language. Pecan, perhaps. It means nut with a hard shell.

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Thing Not To Be Today If You Can Possibly Avoid It: cynical.

'Hello? Is that Miss Sally?'

At this point the heart sinks. This person with the shaky knowledge of English forms of address will be phoning to sell me something I don't want - and, let's face it, even if I did want it I most definitely wouldn't buy it from him.

(I've written before about being called ma'am, which to a British female has much the same effect. And the males hate it.)

Hey, though, but what if I'm wrong? What if this is person is phoning to tell me I've won the lottery, and I actually have? (I know it's not likely for someone who's never bought a ticket, but still...)

What if it's someone phoning to offer me a multi-million pound film contract?

What if some unknown cousin has left me a mansion in Islington?

At this point, of course, the voice on the phone will ask me to take part in a survey, or offer to make my computer work faster, or ask me about my accident, my bank details, or my insurance. 

But, even so, it was worth hanging round long enough to find out what he wanted: because when hope stops springing eternal in the human breast then the world becomes a very bleak, dog-eat-dog place indeed.

Thing Not To Be Today If You Can Possibly Help It: cynical. This word comes from the Latin from the Greek kunikos, from kuōn, which means dog.

I think this is unwarrantedly cynical about dogs, myself.

Monday 3 August 2015

Spot the frippet: housewife.

Housewives are famously hard to spot, but if you have a wife or mother on the premises then you may have noticed how her mere presence attracts brownies (yes, the cakes as well, but what I'm really talking about are the small fairy-type creatures)

Does your sock drawer always contain clean socks, even though you never seem to get round to washing them? Is there cooked food on the table at regular intervals even though you're not even really sure which of the white boxes in the kitchen is the oven? Do you ever find yourself wondering why people bother to dust when it never causes any problems in your house? 

Well, what can the explanation be apart from the presence of brownies, those small elf-like creatures who come out at night to do housework?

I mean, your wife or mother is too busy being a teacher, child-minder or nuclear physicist to think about that sort of trivial thing, isn't she?

But still, don't be disheartened at the difficulty of this spot the frippet, because a housewife (in this case often pronounced HUSSiff) is also a small portable sewing kit. They're often issued to soldiers.

If you spot one of those then, just as a matter of interest, it's the pointy end of the needle that goes through the fabric first.

Spot the frippet: housewife. Here are two Old English words which together give us something extra. A rare and cherishable thing it is, too.

Sunday 2 August 2015

Sunday Rest: bruxism. Word Not To Use Today.

Are you guilty of bruxism? Are you a bruxist?


I think you are, you know. Sometimes.

Illustration by Henry Gray

Perhaps you're a bruxist at night, or perhaps when overwhelmed by some savage passion, or while suffering from stress or anxiety.

Does your partner complain of an unsettling ticking noise at night? Or of a grinding, as of some slightly rusty robot heaving itself into action?

It may be your bruxing that's causing it.

Right, then. Have I chilled your blood? 

If I have, the word bruxism will probably have helped. It sounds far too much like some penchant for systematic brutality.

And what is it?

Grinding the teeth. That's all. Just grinding the teeth.

Bruxism can cause tooth problems and aches in the jaw, head and muscles, but it's nothing to do with violence.

Unless you're trying to sleep beside the person who keeps on doing it, natch.

Sunday Rest: bruxism. It's not nearly as bad as it sounds. The word comes from the Greek brykein to bite or gnash.

Saturday 1 August 2015

Saturday Rave: not entirely serious. Catherine Winkworth

Catherine Winkworth: 

Catherine Winkworth.PNG

was a respectable, learned, Victorian lady, a keen promoter of women's rights and a translator of German texts.

What she's best known for translating are hymns:

Ponder anew
What the Almighty can do
If with his love he befriend thee

is one of hers.

That's all well and good, you may be thinking, but she doesn't sound much of a barrel of laughs, does she?

Well, I don't know about that. She certainly made one of the very best puns ever. Luckily for us it was printed in Punch and thus preserved.

What message did Sir Charles Napier send to Lord Ellenborough after he had conquered the Indian (now Pakistani) province of Sind?


(Peccavi is Latin for I have sinned.)

Yep: so bad it approaches genius, as far as I'm concerned.

Word To Use Today: sin. People have been sinning in English for ages. The Old English form was synn. The Latin sons means guilty.

Actually, if anyone was guilty, it was Sir Charles Napier. The Sind campaign was both ruthless and unauthorised.