This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 30 September 2015

Nuts and Bolts: incipits.

In Winchester Cathedral I saw a quarter of a Bible.

The Winchester Bible is bound in four volumes, you see. Well, I doubt if anyone would be able to pick up the whole thing: it's enormous.

It's also extraordinarily beautiful:

That illustration is of God addressing Jeremiah.

The Winchester Bible is in the process of being restored, and before long it'll be available to see online (hurray!). At the moment there's a display in the cathedral where you can see a reproduction of the first page.

Now, bibles in Latin (and the Winchester Bible is nearly nine hundred years old,* so it is in Latin) begin:

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram

In the beginning created God heaven and earth (Latin, as you can see, doesn't bother with the word the).

But the Winchester Bible begins with the word incipit, instead.


Well, incipit means here begins. It was used quite a lot at the beginning of mediaeval manuscripts.

Again, why?

I'm not sure. As a here goes! before starting to copy out an entire book? As a security device?

I suppose the fact that the custom of writing the word incipit at the beginning of books has died out shows that there wasn't a very good reason for doing it - though there's a very similar custom to which we still cling tenaciously.

What's that?

I'm afraid you'll have to wait for next week's thrilling installment for me to be explicit about that.

Word To Use Today: incipit. Well, why not. I think I shall write it at the top of my current manuscript. It's about an fortune-telling eel. 

Well, it'll add a bit of class.

*The Winchester Bible is believed to have been commissioned by William the Conqueror's grandson Henry of Blois.

PS If you look at the green writing in the illustration, above, you'll see the word incipit. It's a bit smudgy, but from what I can see the green writing says Here begins the book of the Prophet Jeremiah.

Tuesday 29 September 2015

Thing To Do Today But Only In A Good Way: ferment.

It's usually yeasts that ferment - that is, change sugar into ethyl alcohol: 

File:Composite fermentation tanks.jpg
(Photo by Cjp24That's red wine in those tanks.) 

but it is possible for people.

A person who's fermenting is stirring up trouble, or seething with excitement.

It can make a nice change in a dull and disillusioned world:

2013 Woodstock / Source: Wikimedia Commons and Ralf Lotys
(Photo: wikimedia commons and Ralf Lotys)

 or, on the other hand, it can be hugely destructive:


On reflection, I suppose it might be sensible to proceed with caution on this one.

Thing To Do Today But Only In A Good Way: ferment. This word comes from the Latin fermentum, yeast, from fervēre, to seethe.

NB Foment is a similar word and it can mean a similar thing - to stir up trouble - but if you use foment then you have to be fomenting something. You can be left fermenting; you can't be left fomenting*.

*When I say can't, what I actually mean is that a few fussy people will raise an eyebrow in happy contempt if you do. 

But, hey, they probably don't get that much pleasure out of life...

Monday 28 September 2015

Spot the Frippet: thimble.

Photo by Clément Bucco-Lechat

You don't see so many thimbles about nowadays. In fact they've got so rare that round here the party game Spot the Thimble has been superseded by Spot the Smartie (a Smartie is a small smoothed-edged disc of confectionery made of chocolate with a coloured sugar coating. Yes, that's right, very like an M&M).

Still, if we're unlikely to see a thimble on someone's finger, and not any more likely to see the sort of thimble that's part of the rigging of a sailing boat:

(the thimble is the bit of metal inside the loop)

then a thimble of whisky or some other drink is quite easy (it doesn't literally have to be the amount that'd fit in a thimble, the meaning here is simply a small amount).

We also have thimblerig, which is a game where an object is hidden under one of three thimbles, which are then all moved rapidly about, the point of the game for the observer being to keep an eye on the object-hiding thimble, and for the thimblerigger to cheat so that the watching person guesses which one it is wrongly. 

The game of thimblerig is so often crooked that thimblerigger has now extended its meaning to cover a cheat at anything.

Lastly there's thimblewit, a lovely word which I plan to adopt. In the USA this is a person whose wits would apparently fit, yes, in a thimble.

Which makes it a nice easy thing to spot, doesn't it.

Spot the Frippet: thimble. This word comes from the Old English thȳmel, thumbstall, from thūma, thumb.

Sunday 27 September 2015

Sunday Rest: niggard. Word Not To Use Today.

A niggard is someone who's mean with money, or reluctant to share his possessions.

Sometimes people mistake the word niggard for a similar word that's a rude way of describing someone black (though, actually, niggard isn't anything to do with blackness. Nothing at all).

Having said that, using the word niggard has caused a lot of outrage, offence, resignations, passion, and sackings over the years, so there's no doubt that it's safer not to use it. 

Yes, I know that it's not a good thing to give in to the forces of fear and ignorance, but then there's another reason for leaving the horrible word shut up within the pages of the dictionary, which is that niggard is really ugly: two blunt little syllables knocking hard against each other like the buffers on a badly-driven train.

I mean, we have some of the glorious alternatives: skinflint, money-grubber, Scrooge...


...words you can say with real relish.

And you wouldn't want to turn your back on a dollop of relish, would you.

Sunday Rest: niggard. This word is probably related to the Swedish nygg and the Old English hnēaw, which means stingy.

Saturday 26 September 2015

Saturday Rave: Good Morning Midnight by Emily Dickinson.

What is this poem about? 

The internet is bristling with answers to that question.

If it's an academic answer then it will probably aim to make some sort of sense - or, at least, deliberate not-sense. It might even present some evidence, as well. 

As for the rest of us, who come to the poem with ignorant, open minds, this poem is of a breadth and scope that encompasses...

...well, pretty much the whole of everything.

Here it is in full.

Good Morning - Midnight -
I'm coming Home - 
Day - got tired of Me 
How could I - of Him?

Sunshine was a sweet place -
I liked to stay - 
But Morn - didn't want me - now - 
So - Goodnight - Day!

I can look - can't I -
When the East is Red?
The Hills - have a way - then - 
That puts the Heart - abroad - 

You - are not so fair - Midnight -
I chose - Day -
But - please take a little Girl -
He turned away!

Whatever it means, it's inspired plenty of other artists. Two more works called Good Morning Midnight coming up soon.

Word To Use Today: midnight. It's not hard to work out where this word came from. Both mid and night arrived via Old English. The Old English spelling of night tended to be niht.

Friday 25 September 2015

Word To Use Today: welly.

A welly is one of those nice moulded rubber boots. In some parts of the world they're called gumboots. 

Welly is short for Wellington boot.

I've long known they were called after Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington,* but could never quite imagine such a smart and imperious man wearing wellies

Sir Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.png
Wellington, by Thomas Lawrence.

Sadly, it turns out that what a soldier calls a wellington boot is a leather boot cut away at the back to make it easier to bend his or her knee.

You may be wondering, if you live in a sunny place, how on earth you are going to use the word welly; but in this case I have the pleasure of introducing to you the delightful British slang term give it some welly.

It means to exert some force, enthusiasm, or commitment. You might give some welly to the accelerator pedal of a car, or to the task of hammering in a nail or whisking an egg white.

If you were digging a trench, you might even be giving it some welly in your wellies.

Anyway, you get the idea. As the Good Book might have said, whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, give it some welly.

Word To Use Today: welly. This word, as I said, comes from the Duke of Wellington. That's the Wellington in Somerset, England, even though Arthur Wellesley was actually Irish.

*Best known for delaying losing the Battle of Waterloo until Blücher turned up.

Thursday 24 September 2015

Prevarication and procrastination: a rant.

There's a difference, you know.

Procrastination is putting off doing something, like trimming the hedge, or sewing on that button, or invading that country.

Prevaricate means to speak or act evasively with an intention to deceive. You'll get nowhere prevaricating with hedges or buttons, though prevarication can be part of a procrastination process where the invasion of a country is concerned.

You can see the reason for the confusion:

Would you like to borrow my wedding dress when you get married?

Oh goodness, thank you, but I haven't got as far as thinking about that, yet.

See? Both procrastination - putting off a decision - and prevarication - avoiding a straight answer in order to hide your real opinion. 

Sometimes I can't help but wish people would work out what they're doing. 

But still, I suppose it beats screaming: What? But that dress made you look like a fifty-year-old fat meringue! doesn't it.

Words To Use Carefully Today: procrastinate and prevaricate. Procrastinate comes from the Latin prōcrāstināre, to put off until tomorrow, from crās, tomorrow. Prevaricate comes from the Latin praevāricārī to walk crookedly.

Wednesday 23 September 2015

Nuts and Bolts: the language of music.

 Most of us would probably agree, if rather uneasily, that music is a language. Music certainly communicates something, though what that might be varies widely from one individual to another: the same piece might produce any reaction from agony to ecstasy, boredom to fascination.

But, in that case, can music be a language? 

David Ortega-Pachero and Hiram Calvo at the Centro de Investigación en Computación, México, have been using grammar software (ABL and EMILE) to analyse the works of Bach, Chopin, and various other composers, and then using each composer's  musical grammar to make new pieces.

I haven't been able to find an example of the results, but it's said to work reasonably well.

Whether it works or not, it goes some way to explaining why we can have such different reactions to the same piece of music. Music isn't a language, but a host of languages, and that to understand each composer - or each genre - you have to learn its own particular grammar. 

That does explain quite a lot, doesn't it.

Thing To Do Today: listen to the grammar of a favourite piece of music - the rules for the way the notes and phrases are fitted together - and then use that grammar to hum a new bit of tune.

Tuesday 22 September 2015

Thing To Do Today. Or Not: list.

File:Lavenham - The Crooked House - - 234909.jpg
The Crooked House, Lavenham. Photo by David Barnes

My daughter's house is listed. This doesn't mean that the walls aren't upright (though some of them aren't) but that it's been put on the official list of English buildings built before 1700. It's a bit of a nuisance, really, because it means you have to get permission if you want to alter anything - even something ordinary like the drainpipes.

Still, listing things: it's a way of getting some thinking done in advance.

The sort of list meaning to lean over is a different word. It's usually used of boats, which can lean sideways a long way without falling over.

A sideways list is not a cool look for a person, but then neither is carrying a list, either of items to be bought or trains to be spotted.'s better than being listless, isn't it?

Thing To Do Today. Or not. List. The word meaning an item-by-item-record comes from the sort of list that means a strip of cloth, a selvage, a strip of bark, or a furrow. The leaning-over word appeared in the 1600s from no one knows where. The list of listless comes from another word list that meant to be pleasing, or to desire, or to choose. That word comes from the Old English lystan.

Monday 21 September 2015

Spot the Frippet: lacuna

Some lacunae (or lacunas) are, admittedly, difficult to spot. Such awkward lacunae include the depressions or gaps in the matrix inside a bone, and the sunken areas on an ornamental dome or ceiling:

File:Cathédrale-Détail caisson plafond.jpg
Photo by Matalyn of Citta di Castello Cathedral

Luckily, there's another sort of lacuna which makes the very easiest spot ever.


Yes, a lacuna is a gap or space, especially in a book, manuscript, or, indeed, a blog post.

See? That was another one.

I told you it was easy.

Spot the Frippet: lacuna. This word comes from the Latin lacuūa, pool or cavity (which is interesting because nowadays we tend to think of pools as being full rather than empty), from lacus, which means lake.

Sunday 20 September 2015

Sunday Rest: dromedary. Word Not To Use Today.

07. Camel Profile, near Silverton, NSW, 07.07.2007.jpg

Dromedary is a stumbling grumble of a word, which is most unfair as dromedaries are themselves so helpful and marvellous. 

It's true that in the breeding season male dromedaries can get a bit awkward, snapping and wrestling and dribbling rather a lot; but then a dromedary in love also whistles and gurgles. How endearing is that?

Dromedaries are fascinating: they have two sets of eyelashes, very bushy eyebrows, extremely hairy ears, and they can close their nostrils. A female camel remembers the places where she and her children were born.

The absolutely least interesting thing about a dromedary is that it can run at up to 40 mph, and cover 93 miles in 20 hours. This being so, I can't imagine why they've ended up being named for their speed.

Especially when it gives the poor things such a lurching rumble of a name.

Word Not To Use Today: dromedary. This word comes from the Old French dromedaire (or perhaps from the Latin dromedarius), which means swift, and before that from the Greek dromados which means runner.

An early English form of the word was the rather lovelier drumbledairy. I think we'd all be happier if we went back to using that, don't you?

Saturday 19 September 2015

Saturday Rave: George Bernard Shaw And The Drippings, by Herbert Ward.

Last week I wrote about an ungrammatical but heartfelt and glorious epitaph in a Hertfordshire churchyard.

This week I'm still in Hertfordshire, but I'm at Shaw's Corner in Ayot St Lawrence, the home of the Irish writer George Bernard Shaw.

The house is open to the public, and you can even see GBS's Oscar, which he won for the screenplay of Pygmalion.

GBS was a great writer, but today it's not actually his writing I'm interested in, but the man himself. Another Oscar, Oscar Wilde, said He [Bernard Shaw] hasn't an enemy in the world, and none of his friends like him.

Of the justice of that I can't judge, but my father's father was the village policeman at the next village to Ayot St Lawrence, and would take over the Ayot St Lawrence beat when the regular policeman was on holiday.

And what did Grandad think of GBS?

He wouldn't give you he drippings, he'd say. (In those days a policeman would expect an occasional pheasant or something similar as a token of appreciation - but nothing was ever forthcoming from GBS.)

My grandad wasn't much of a talker, but that expression still delights me. 

What exactly did he mean?

The end of the expression, though never articulated, was off his nose.


Word To Use Today: drip. This word has hardly changed in a thousand years. The Old English form was dryppan.

PS When I visited Shaw's Corner myself I told the story of GBS's drippings to one of the stewards, who told me in turn that an old man who had once been GBS's telegraph boy had visited the house a few days before, still outraged at never ever having been given a tip. 

Friday 18 September 2015

Word To Use Today: metheglin.

I've always had a vague idea that metheglin was some sort of cough mixture.

It sounded jolly nasty, whatever it was.

It turns out that I was wrong about the nastiness (the meth bit is nothing to do with methylated - as in methylated spirits - which is derived from the Greek words methu, wine, and hulē, wood) but I was pretty-much spot on as regards the cough medicine.

Metheglin is a fermented honey drink: in other words it's a sort of mead. 

Your metheglin can be flavoured with all sorts of stuff: cloves, cinnamon, ginger, coriander or nutmeg, tea or vanilla, orange peel, meadowsweet, hops, lavender or chamomile.

It's obviously jolly tasty stuff, and as you'll see from the derivation below, the stuff has been used as a medicine for hundreds of years...

...unless, of course, the name was just an excuse for drinking the stuff.

Photo by Evan-Amos

Good health!

Word To Use Today: metheglin. This word comes from the Welsh meddyglyn, from meddyg, healing, from Latin medicus medical plus llyn, liquor. 

Thursday 17 September 2015

Must-haves: a rant.

Here is a short list of MUST-HAVES culled from a brief stroll along the virtual spokes of the great World Wide Web.

Remember, these are things you must have, okay? 

From Elle Magazine, a gallery of 30 Must Have ankle boots. (And that's actually not thirty boots, I must tell you, but thirty pairs.) 

Ah well, at least lists almost as many must-have shoe racks, so that's a comfort.

If you're in doubt as to how you'd wear your shoes, well, Italian Vogue offered a list of 27 Must Have coats for Fall/Winter in the 2014/2015 season.

For the gentlemen, Autotrader lists several pieces of new Must Have car technology, one of which is Adaptive Cruise Control

No, sorry, I hven't got the faintest.


I think they all really meant rather lovely.

Oh, and I do wish all those fools would write what they mean!

Word To Use Today: must. This word comes from the Old English mōtan, to be allowed or to be obliged to.

Wednesday 16 September 2015

Nuts and Bolts: mirror slang.

How many slang names for the police do you know?

Many of them are unkind (filth, pigs), some have existed ever since there's been an official police force (Bobby and Peeler are both named after the founder of the modern English police force, Robert Peel); but the one that I'm most interested in is ekky.

Ekky is a word used by criminals, and it's also the only example I know of what I'm calling mirror slang. 

Mirror slang?

Yes. When you're in your car, you see, and you notice you're being followed by the police, in your rear-view mirror you'll see the sign ECILOP. (It'll be in mirror writing, naturally, but those will be the letters reading left to right.) 

File:Police in riot gear at Ferguson protests.jpg
photo by Jamelle Bouie

Shortening this gives you ECI - though, to show its pronunciation, it's generally spelled EKKY.

This is such an elegant way of making new words that it should surely be used more widely. Why aren't firemen Erifs? Paramedics would be called Ecnals (short for AMBULANCE). And parents on journeys would surely benefit from mirror slang forms of chocolate (etalo and swings (, pronouncing that might be an insurmountable challenge. PLAYGROUND, though, gives us the very pleasingly grim dnuorg).

By this point you're probably thinking, yes, but isn't mirror slang basically the same thing as back slang? And, in effect, it is. But back slang has hardly ever been used because it's entirely artificial, whereas mirror slang - well, you can see a logic and a purpose in that.

What do you think? I'm going to keep an eye out for more examples of mirror slang. 

And if there aren't any, well, that just makes ekky even more special, doesn't it.

Word To Use On A Car Journey Today: ekky. Or a bit of your own mirror slang, perhaps.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Thing To Do Today: listen.

Listen to the rain - or the crackling of dry leaves under your feet - or the rumble of tyres on the road - or the cry of sea gulls - or the howling of the storm.


John Cage produced a piece called 4'33" which involves someone going to sit at a piano, opening the lid, and then not-playing it for four minutes and thirty three seconds.

It's a work of art not about silence, nor about perfection, nor about not-playing, but about noise: the noise, that is, that accompanies us constantly. 

It's about paying attention to wonders. 

At this moment I can hear the patter of keys (I hadn't realised before how much harder I hit the space bar than the other keys on my laptop); the very faint hum of the computer; a jackdaw chacking; and, below me, the rumble of the water filling a bath.

It's very quiet up here.

But still full of wonders.

Thing To Do Today: listen. This word comes from the Old English hlysnan. I wonder what those Old English people would have heard if there'd been a performance of 4'33" in their town.

Monday 14 September 2015

Spot the Frippet: grig.

As merry as a grig, as the saying goes: but what's a grig?

The dictionary says it can be a short-legged hen, a lively person, or a young eel.

Well, a merry chicken is unlikely, unless someone had soaked its corn in sherry. And a merry eel? Well, have you ever seen an eel smile?

The wonderful Wikipedia defines a grig as a cricket (I suppose they sing, which is quite merry), or any insect in the family prophalangopsidae:

Pycnophlebia speciosa.JPG

That one's from the Jurassic era.

I've not spent much time with the prophalangopsidae sort of a grig, but the females are said to eat the wings of the males when mating. I can see it's a good way of stopping them flying off with some flashy ladybird, but it doesn't strike me as particularly merry.

A grig can also be a heath, apparently. I find heaths rather gloomy places, but perhaps that's just that I've read too much Thomas Hardy.

Luckily, all these not-very-merry grigs still leave us the grig that means a lively person. No, they're not that easy to spot on a Monday morning, I admit: but then we all enjoy a challenge, don't we.

Spot the Frippet: grig. This word might be a form of Greek (Shakespeare uses merry as a Greek in Troilus and Cressida - but then, as we know, his spelling was rather unreliable) or grig might be a form of cricket. Samuel Johnson suggested that the word grig might originally have meant anything smaller than usual, and there's certainly a Swedish word krik, which means a little creature.

Sunday 13 September 2015

Sunday Rest: blancmange. Word Not To Use Today.

Blancmange: it's the sound of sludge dripping from a blocked drain.


This is rather a pity, as it's really not bad stuff at all.

File:SLNSW 14045 Blancmange cups taken for Smiths Weekly cookery page.jpg

Word Not To Use Today: blancmange. This comes from the Old French blanc manger, which means white food.

Saturday 12 September 2015

Saturday Rave: The Finest Epitaph. Anon.

File:Lichen on Tombstone, St. John's, Croxton - - 1618153.jpg
Photo by David Wright

In the churchyard of St Mary's Church, Apsley, in Hertfordshire England, there is, or used to be (last time I looked I couldn't find it, but I hope it's still there) a modest tombstone. I can't remember the name of the person commemorated, but I'm almost certain it's a woman. 

On this tombstone is engraved the finest possible epitaph to any life.

It reads, quite simply:

She done her best

Thing To Do Today: our best. The word best comes from the Old English betst.

Friday 11 September 2015

Word To Use Today: nonage.

You say this word NONNidge. It sounds delightfully grumpy, but it isn't.

Although nonage sounds as if it describes someone shrivelled by age to the appearance of an April apple, it's actually to do with youth.

Nonage is a legal term which means under-age for some purpose, such as signing a contract or getting married.

It can also mean a period of immaturity.

Although the word is used by lawyers, there's no reason why it should be used only by lawyers: I'm at the stage where I rather cherish the idea of being too young for something. 

I'm too young to get an old age pension, for instance - and The Grim Reaper has so far spurned me as a mere stripling.

All of a sudden I feel it my duty to do something really rather youthful and silly...

File:Einstein - Ulm.JPG
Photo by Nono vlf

Word To Use Today: nonage. From non and age. Obviously.

Thursday 10 September 2015

Google fonts: a rant.

Like the magnificent Philip Ardagh (and who doesn't)

Philip ardagh web

 I took an instant dislike to the new Google UK logo. He, with his Sherlock-like investigative powers, tracked his antipathy down to the two o s resembling fruit polos, the boiled sweet with a hole:

My own reasons for disliking the new Google logo, however, aren't even slightly confectionery related. 

Those o s stare, for a start: it's like coming face to face with some malevolent clown.

Secondly, Google's logo, which before was cheerful but dignified, has become puerile. Those Google guys may be having a wild time, but the rest of us have businesses to run and research to do. 

I mean, if we want to be, like, crazy, we can do it off our own bat, thank you very much.


Word To Use Today: google. This word is short for googleplex, which is the number consisting of a one followed by a hundred noughts; however, this probably isn't anything to do with the word Google. Google the search engine might instead be a conflation of go and ogle. It might possibly also have something to do with the cricketing term googly: metaphorically, this means to ask a very tricky question.

Wednesday 9 September 2015

Nuts and Bolts: The Queen's English.

Today, at about 5pm British Summer Time, Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest-ever reigning monarch of the Commonwealth.


Queen Elizabeth has, by virtue of her office, the ownership of all sorts of things: every whale, porpoise and unmarked mute swan in British waters, for instance, and amongst these possessions is the Queen's English.

The Queen's English means...well, no one's really quite decided upon what it means. People get passionate about its being to do with correct pronunciation, but listen to how the Queen's pronunciation has changed over the years. The first recording was made during World War II, and the second last year. 

This must make it clear that we can't make up any hard-and-fast rules about pronunciation (and anyway there are a few words the Queen pronounces in a way nowadays very rare indeed: often, for instance, the Queen tends to pronounce rather as the rest of us say orphan).

So what is the Queen's English?

What people generally mean by the Queen's English is what used to be thought of as Standard Southern English. It used to have a certain cachet - and it still does, rather sadly, in some small and self-regarding circles.

But let's look at the problem of definition another way. For what is Queen Elizabeth II famous?

Yes, that - and that - and that, God bless her - but, above all, she's well known for keeping quiet: for not saying what is perfectly obvious to everyone, which is that quite a lot of the time most people are utter, utter fools.

Another point: if we had to come up with the Queen's single most famous quotation it would probably be annus horribilis...which, obviously, isn't English at all.

So: how can we define the Queen's English?

Perhaps by reflecting that sometimes silence speaks much louder, more plainly, and certainly more wisely than any number of words. 

May the Queen Live Forever.

Thing To Do Today For A Little While: be silent. This word comes from the Latin silēre, to be quiet.

Tuesday 8 September 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: be grimy.

Grime may not be a lovely word, but I do think it's a good one. 

Grime. You can hear the blackness of the curd under your fingernails (where on earth did that come from?) or the sour grey stuff that's making those towels hang so limply from their hooks.

Grime is a word with a touch of evil magic about it. How else can something that appeared to be quite acceptably clean an hour ago suddenly become become dulled and weighty with weeks of accumulated dirt?

I really can't think of any explanation other than magic. Bad, bad magic. Just don't expect the magic to work the other way, that's all.

File:Grime and Gleam - - 1164852.jpg
Photo 'Grime and Gleam' by Martin Addison. (But don't expect The Gherkin to stay clean for long.) The church is St Botolph in Aldgate, London.

Grime is also, apparently, a sort of music invented in the East End of London. My dictionary tells me it's a mixture of garage, hip-hop, rap and jungle.

I'm sure that definition will be helpful to many people around the world. 

If not, at all, to me.

Thing Not To Do Today: be grimy. This word comes from the Middle Dutch grime, and might be something to do with the Old English grīma, which means mask.

Monday 7 September 2015

Spot the frippet: grith.

File:Palestinian refugees.jpg
Photo by Fred Csasznik

Grith means safety.

It's a legal term, and was once used to describe a place of security, peace, or protection. In England, for instance, churches were sometimes places where people could find refuge from the Law.

A place of grith might be an actual place, as in a church or town or castle or highway, or it might describe a period of time during which a person was free of persecution.

We think of former times as brutal and anarchic - and heaven knows they often were - but I wish that grith as an idea hadn't vanished from our lands.

And I hope that you, wherever in the world you may be, have your own place of grith in which to lay your head.

Spot the frippet: grith. This word comes from the old English grith, and is related to the Old Norse grith, which means asylum or home.

Sunday 6 September 2015

Sunday Rest: Maxwellisation. Word Not To Use Today.

If you're British then the name Maxwell will probably bring to mind a) coffee, and b) the very large newspaper owner who fell off his yacht shortly before people found out he'd stolen - and then lost - a large amount from his workers' pension fund.

Recently I've started hearing people using the term Maxwellisation, and it's puzzled me. It's being used in connection with an enquiry into the beginnings of the Iraq War: but what can that have to do with Robert Maxwell?

Are the findings of the enquiry going to be so appalling that a whole crowd of people are expected to fall off their yachts?

Are those implicated expected to assume the ownership of newspapers in order to suppress the findings? 

Will they have to go on comfort-eating sprees that'll cause their weight to balloon to twenty two stone?

What I expected was that the Maxwell involved would turn out to be some other Maxwell (like James Clerk Maxwell the physicist) but no, the Maxwell of Maxwellisation is indeed our old acquaintance Robert. Robert Maxwell was named in a 1969 inquiry which branded him 'unfit to hold the stewardship of a public company'. 

Maxwell sued, and as a result official policy was altered so that anyone criticised in a report is now given the chance to respond to the criticisms before publication. This is termed Maxwellisation.

It means that enquiries take much longer, and cost a great deal more, than they would if they didn't bother with a Maxwellisation process, but many people think that it makes the system fairer.

I mean, we wouldn't want nonsense being published like the assertion that Robert Maxwell was unfit to hold the stewardship of a public company.

Would we?

Sunday Rest: Maxwellisation. This word is tainted by association. Even though it describes a process designed to be fair (as well as to avoid the trouble and expense of a law suit) it just makes the whole enterprise of an enquiry sound jolly dodgy. 

Maxwell comes from a short form of the Scandinavian name Magnus plus the Old English wella, which means stream.

    Saturday 5 September 2015

    Saturday Rave: Thornton Wilder's literature.

    A couple of weeks ago The Word Den featured the American President Woodrow Wilson talking about government.

    Surprisingly, he seemed on the whole to be against it.

    Here's another American, though not a politician. This is Thornton Wilder:

    Thornton Wilder - 1948.jpg

    Wilder was a playwright and novelist.

    And what was Wilder against?


    Yes, really, literature. I know he was a playwright and a novelist and all that, but he didn't seem to think much of what he was doing.

    Literature, he said, is the orchestration of platitudes.

    I must admit never to have read or seen anything else of Thornton Wilder's stuff - and I can't honestly say I feel encouraged to do so, now, either, even though he won three Pulitzer Prizes.

    Still, literature is the orchestration of platitudes is an excellent, if rather worrying, line.

    Word To Use Today: literature. This word comes from the Latin litterātūra, writing. The Latin littera means letter of the alphabet.

    Friday 4 September 2015

    Word To Use Today: cakeage.

    File:Chiffon cake 02.jpg
    Photo of a chiffon cake by Snp at Japanese wiki

    The word cakeage has just been allowed into the Oxford English Dictionary.

    I love this word. Oh, the juicy squidge of that second syllable, cascading syrupy sweetness into the mouth.

    What does cakeage mean?

    Well, probably pretty much what you'd think. It's to do with cake.

    And the age part? Well, the word works along the same lines as corkage, which is the amount you pay to a restaurant for it to open and serve a bottle of your own wine. 

    Cakeage is slightly different, because restaurants tend to frown upon people taking their own food along to eat (although...actually, I could see that working quite well as a business model). Cakeage is the money a cafe or restaurant charges to customers to eat cake that's been bought from somewhere else, i.e. not made on the premises.

    The only trouble with this gorgeous word is that I can't see nearly enough opportunities to use it.

    Still, there will be some:

    'Ooh, is it homemade?'

    'No, but it's all right, I don't charge cakeage.'

    The English language has just got considerably more glorious.

    Word To Use Today: cakeage. The word cake comes from the Old Norse kaka.

    Thursday 3 September 2015

    Brite ideas: a rant.


    'No good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn. But particularly Gwladys', said that great sage PG Wodehouse. 

    And, as far as I can tell, he was right.

    The same principle applies, I suspect, to anything deliberately misspelled. Anything named Brite-skrub, Sooper-slurrp, Eezy-kleen, Wizzo-kloth, Kalorie-skrimp, Bubbel-lite or Meety-choo. 

    Avoid them. They are designed, not for illiterates - if only - but for those idiots who find illiteracy amusing.

    And is illiteracy amusing?

    Well, let's make a list of all the life-chances people miss through being literate, shall we?


    Short, isn't it?

    Thing Not To Buy Today: one spelled deliberately wrongly. There's a product for sale called Kiwi Kleen, for instance - though as I don't personally own a kiwi I've so far not had any use for it.

    Wednesday 2 September 2015

    Nuts and Bolts: hyponyms and hypernyms.

    What do grammarians do for fun? Spot a new category of words, and then give them a name in Ancient Greek which no one else will understand.

    So. Hyponym.

    What is it?

    It's a word that describes a variety or type of something. An crow, for instance:

    File:American Crow SanDiego RWD.jpg
    American crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos, photo by  DickDaniels

     is a variety of bird. So crow is a hyponym. A chair:

    File:Sixties club chair.JPG
    This looks comfy, doesn't it? Photo by didouner

    is a type of furniture. So chair is a hyponym, too.

    Simple, yes?

    But the grammarians got double value out of this idea, because of course there's the group-word to name, too. A word that describes a group-of-things is called a hypernym. (Do please note the difficulty in distinguishing between those two words when spoken, but try not to let it annoy you too much.)

    The article I've just read points out rather neatly that although at times the word screwdriver has the hypernym tool, at other times it has the hypernym cocktail.

    What use are the terms hyponym and hypernym?

    I'm not sure, to be honest. I mean, we've got on all right without them so far. 

    Haven't we.

    Thing To Consider Today: hyponyms and hypernyms. These words are both Greek. Hypo means under and hyper over. Onomas means name.

    Tuesday 1 September 2015

    Thing To Do Today: griddle.

    A nice humble sort of a word, is griddle

    A griddle is a large bit of metal, either flat or ridged, that you place over a heat source so you can cook things on it.

    The use of the ridged sort of griddle isn't very different from grilling, really (except that it's easier to see what you're doing) but a flat griddle cooks all sorts of unexpected things, even pastry (it works remarkably well as long as you're cooking something flat, like a turnover:

    File:Turnover 001.jpg
    photo by user:pschemp

    so you can get the pastry into contact with the griddle).

    A griddle cooks bread, too. This recipe is for Irish Soda Bread, and as a bonus contains the beautiful word farl.

    File:Ben W Bell Soda Bread Farl 05 June 2007.jpg
    Photo of a farl by Ben W Bell

    250g plain flour (wholemeal is good), 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda, 250ml or so of buttermilk (but ordinary milk works, too).

    Heat your griddle. Mix all the ingredients in a bowl. Knead lightly on a floured surface until it all sticks together, and then make into a flattened circle about 1cm thick. Cut it into quarters. Flour the griddle and put each quarter on it. Cook for 6 - 8 minutes on each side. Take the griddle off the heat and allow the farls to cool for 10 minutes or so. Split, butter, and serve with jam.

    Too tame for you? Then how about (pause here to listen out for an evil Mwa-ha-ha-ha!)... anti-griddle?

    Sadly, an anti-griddle doesn't turn cooked food back to raw again: it's more or less the same as a griddle, but is used very cold to freeze or semi-freeze food.

    A pity, really, isn't it.

    Thing To Do Today: griddle. This word comes from the Old French gridil, and before that probably from the Latin crātīculum, fine wickerwork.  The anti-griddle seems to have been invented by Grant Achatz and Philip Preston.