This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 31 October 2015

Saturday Rave: The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy.

Why should a grown up read a children's book?

Oh, for about a hundred reasons, many of them obvious, but for all you lofty put-away-childish-things people, here's one that surely must hold some sway: for its literary quality.

It was the usual type of school song, full of pride, joy and striving...

How could that make us laugh more elegantly? 

It's not that Jill Murphy's style in The Worst Witch is particularly flashy:

The cats weren't for any practical purpose except to keep tradition going

[though Mildred's cat does have the sort of fur that looked as if it had been out all night in a gale]

but it's as sharp as the point of Mildred's hat. 

The Worst Witch herself, Mildred Hubble, isn't worst in the sense of most evil, it's just that she's not much good at witch school. It's not all fun at Miss Cackle's Academy, you know. Some of its inhabitants are kind, but not all of them: 

Miss Hardbroom smiled, too - but nastily.

The Worst Witch is a book full of thrills, spills, spells and many,


Just about perfect for Halloween.


Word To Use Today: worst. Things have been at their worst in England...well, more of less for ever, really. The Old English form was wierrest and the Old Saxon wirsisto.

Friday 30 October 2015

Word To Use Today: werris.

None of us needs the word werris, but it's a fine addition to the vocabulary. Enjoy the luxury of having an extra colour on the palette. As it were.

Werris is an Australian word, and it means...well, straining the greens - spending a penny - popping upstairs - aiming Archie at the Armitage - changing the water on the goldfish - having a Jimmy Riddle - having a number one - paying the water bill - powdering the nose - shaking hands with the vicar - sprinkling the tinkle - visiting Uncle Charlie - or, as it says so dully in the dictionary, an act of urination.

Werris: it has a certain dry charm, I think.

It's a relief after all that elaborate po-faced euphemising, too.

Word To Use Today: werris. This word is Australian rhyming slang and is short for Werris Creek to rhyme with leak.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Ranging Free: a rant.

Look, I've got my head round free range eggs - presumably they have somehow acquired the ability to roll themselves around - but I see they're selling free range sausages, now.

Free range sausages?

So, do they...hop?

Word To Use Today: range. This word is French, and comes from ranger to position, and before that from renc, line.

trippy sausage by kablam

...or here's an alternative possibility created by 

Wednesday 28 October 2015

Nuts and Bolts: expletives.

The thing everyone knows about expletives, of course, is that they're often deleted - and that's the clue to what they are.

Yes, an expletive is often a swear word, but more often than not it isn't. It can be any exclamation - oh! for instance, or ouch! or that hwoof sound that old people make just after they've sat down. It's a noise that's a sign of an emotional reaction rather than possessing any particular meaning of its own.

In fact, an expletive can be any bit of language used for some reason other than advancing meaning. 

So, why would anyone use words that don't help get across their message?

Well, you might use an extra word if you were trying to write a poem and what you wanted to say had the wrong number of syllables. I remember once, when I was about ten, struggling to write a line of verse and ending up with something I hated. In fact it still really bothers me now: And through my mind my dreams do creep. 

See? That do? Entirely there for rhythmic purposes. Doesn't mean anything.

The fussiest grammarians also count phrases such as it is as expletives. In the sentence it is bonkers to think much about this sort of stuff, for instance, the it is doesn't really mean anything, and those people who honestly believe that Latin is the best language ever invented (Latin doesn't bother with it is) have even suggested that sentence should be recast: to think much about this sort of stuff is bonkers.

Or even ******* bonkers, if you ask me.

Thing To Use Today: an expletive. This word comes from the Latin plēre to fill.

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Thing To Do Today: steeve.

We can always look words up, of course, but the fact of the matter is that life is short and some words look rather boring.

For me, stevedore has always been one of those. It was obvious that stevedores were strong and to be found in dockyards, but as to what they were doing there I'd never until recently bothered to enquire.

But what they were doing, of course, was steeving: that is, they were packing the cargo of a ship.

Wikimedia Commons

(Confusingly, there's another verb to steeve, also to do with ships, which means to arrange a spar so that juts out at a slope.)

Now, it may be that you have no plans to pack the hold of a ship today - or, indeed, on any day - but a word for the action of packing everything away carefully so that everything fits and doesn't fall about when it's in motion is one we surely need whenever we pack a car, or a suitcase, or even a drawer.

Is everything properly steeved?

It's a question I've been wanting to ask for decades. 

And now, at last, I know how.

Thing To Do Today: steeve. The origin of the word meaning to arrange a spar at an angle is mysterious, but the word for packing something neatly comes from the Spanish estibar, to pack in tightly, from the Latin stīpāre, to cram full.

Monday 26 October 2015

Spot the Frippet: kite.

Which came first, the kite:

 or the kite?

Or was it the kite?

Obese teenagers boy, 136 kg 300 lbs, overweight fat belly.jpg

Well, it was the kite, of course, though they're all old words. The Scots and Geordie word meaning the belly (it's more commonly spelled kyte) appeared mysteriously in the 1500s. It might have been from the same root as the word kidney, and it's the newest of the words. It's the easiest to spot, too, but do please choose some private place to inspect your rippling torso, because whether it's rippling with muscles or rolls of fat (if you're a Geordie then a kite is a fat belly) I doubt very much anyone else wants to see it.

The kites that fly on strings are very old - perhaps, in China, they go back to the fifth century BC. They've been used for forecasting the weather, for frightening an enemy, for signalling, as aerials, and to pull vehicles. Some places hold kite duels, and in Vietnam, Bali and Malaysia they're used to make music by attaching wind-powered instruments to them. In many places they're associated with Easter and the risen Christ.

I'm sometimes lucky enough to see the bird sort of kite from my desk, either skimming fast between me and the wood, or else hanging easily on the air. I only ever see the Red Kite, here, but there are many species in the world. They're divided into the big soaring ones of the genus Milvus and the small hovering ones of the genus Elanus. They're birds of prey, and they tend to have forked tails.

It was after seeing eleven Red Kites flying together a few weeks ago that I discovered that there's no proper collective noun for them.

But surely, it's obvious what it must be: the collective word for kites must surely be a string.

Spot the Frippet: kite. The Old English form of this word was cȳta. It's related to the Middle High German küze, owl and the Old Norse kȳta, to quarrel.

Sunday 25 October 2015

Sunday Rest: bimbo. Word Not To Use Today

Betty Boop Opening Titles image from Wikimedia Commons

There are worse things than being called a bimbo, and being someone who finds a use for that horrible word is one of them.

A bimbo is, according to my Collins Dictionary, an attractive but empty-headed young woman. 

I'm not denying that there are attractive but empty-headed young women in the world, but do remember, gentlemen, that the young lady's manner may have less to do with her mental incapacity than her desire to give you as little encouragement as possible.

Sunday Rest: bimbo. This word is the Italian for little child (it's perfectly okay in Italian). It may have come to English through Polari.

WARNING: There is, I'm sorry to say, a similar but even more revolting word than bimbo. Only the strong should visit The Word Den next Sunday.

Saturday 24 October 2015

Saturday Rave: The Miraculous Escape of Robert Allan, The Fireman by William Topaz McGonagall.

I've been thinking about poetry about fire. The subject has been tackled by Frost, Homer, Chesterton, Blake, Milton...let's face it, a poet could hardly avoid the subject of fire, beautiful and necessary and dangerous as it is.

William Topaz McGonagall...actually, should I be calling him a poet? Well, there's no doubt he was an original, anyway. There's no doubt, too, that his...verse, I suppose...continues to be a source of joy more than a century after his death.

Here's the beginning of his account of one particular fire. Whatever you think of it, you can't deny McGonnagall's clarity and precision.

'Twas in the year of 1858, and on October the fourteenth day,
That a fire broke out in a warehouse, and for hours blazed away;
And the warehouse, now destroyed, was occupied by Messrs R. Wylie, Hill & Co.,
Situated in Buchanan Street, in the City of Glasgow.

There's no lack of story-telling, either. Here's a bit from further on:

Then the roof fell in, pushing out the front wall,
And the loud crash thereof frightened the spectators one and all
Because it shook the neighbouring buildings to their foundation,
And caused throughout the city a great sensation.

And then at last here comes the protagonist Robert Allan:

He travelled to the fire in Buchanan Street,
On the first machine that was ordered, very fleet.
Along with Charles Smith and Dan. Ritchie,
And proceeded to Brown & Smith's buildings that were burning furiously.

Who proceeds to stand as bravely against the foe as Horatius at the bridge:

And in the third floor of the building he took his stand
Most manfully, without fear, with the hose in his hand,
And played on the fire through the window in the gable
With all his might, the hero, as long as he was able.

Okay, okay, I know. It's...different. But I hope I've shown that there are fine and valuable things about McGonagall's doggerel: I mean, you can tell what's going on, and it tells a proper story. 

Oh, and it still makes us laugh.

Word To Use Today: doggerel. This word meant worthless in the 1300s, and perhaps came from the word dogge, which meant dog.

Friday 23 October 2015

Word To Use Today: zoophilous.

Are you zoophilous?

You probably are in at least one sense, if not the other.

Zoophilous describes someone who has a tendency to be emotionally attached to animals.

And, let's face it, who can resist?

File:Cutest Koala.jpg
(photo by Erik Veland)

Zoophilous also describes plants that are pollinated by vertebrates - and there are a lot of animals with backbones, including birds, bats, mammals and reptiles, are known to pollinate flowers.

If you're imagining that these zoophilous animals will all be tiny delicate creatures, then think again, because they include monkeys, marsupials, deer, and bears.

Now, nectar may sound like an easy dinner but that's not necessarily so: the banana bat, for instance, needs a tongue just about as long as its body to reach the nectar of the wild banana flower. Fancy one of those?

The African Lily, Massonia depressa, on the other hand, bears its very sturdy flowers near the ground, and its nectar comes in the form of a fragrant jelly. 

Gerbils adore it. Actually, it sounded good to me, too, until I discovered that the jelly's fragrance is a bit like old socks.


...I think I'll stick with cooing over pictures of kittens, myself.

File:4 Abyssian kittens.jpg
(photo by Pia Ojanen)

Word To Use Today: zoophilous. This word comes from two Greek ones, zōion, meaning animal, and philos, loving.

Thursday 22 October 2015

Worse than simple: a rant.

Simple Simon and the pie man according to Denslow.

The first time you hear it, it's just a mistake. 

Well, everyone makes mistakes.

But then you come across it again - and again - and eventually it starts to get a bit annoying. I mean, can it be that one original ignoramus is managing to convince the other eight hundred and forty million English-speaking people on the planet that he's the one who's right????

So: some simple definitions.

Simple means not complicated. Simple, as in he's simple, can also mean that someone's a simpleton (a foolish, ignorant, non-too-clever person) too.

Simplistic is a different word. It doesn't mean simple in either of those senses. This is why it shouldn't be used to mean simple in either of those senses. Yes, I know it starts with lots of the same letters, but then so do macadam and macadamia, and one's a road surface and the other's a nut.

And, speaking of nuts...

If I said people who use the word simplistic wrongly are nuts, then that would be simplistic, because although some of them probably would be, most of them would be merely annoying. What I'd be doing is over-simplifying the situation. 

And that's what simplistic is: it's an over-simplification. Exercise is good for you is simplistic. So is if we set an example of being nice to each other then all wars will stop.

Now, I'm a realist. I don't expect people to stop using simplistic as a posh way of saying simple (as in it's quite a simplistic recipe, grr!) but I can't promise not to give a wince of pain when someone does.

Would it be simplistic to suggest this might be a remedy?



Ah well.

Word To Use Correctly Today: simplistic. The Latin simplex means plain.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Maori.

While I was writing about the parson bird the other day I discovered (via Wikipedia) that while the Māori word for parson bird is tūī, the Māori for parson birds is ngā tūī.

It seems odd to an English speaker that Māori plurals should be marked by the form of the word such as the (singular te, plural ngā) or my (singular taku, plural aku) that precedes them, and not, usually, by a change to the word itself.

Māori is spoken by somewhere between 10,000 and 160,000 people in New Zealand. Yes, you'd think they could get a closer estimate than that, wouldn't you, but there are problems with deciding just how much Māori someone has to know in order to count as a Māori speaker. Do you need to know just place names? Place names plus a few native animals? Know a few songs? Or be completely fluent?

Māori was originally brought to New Zealand, so they say, from the mysterious island of Hawaiki. In the 1800s, after the English speakers had mostly stopped spending most of their time fighting the Māori speakers, a system of state schools was set up, and, on the insistence of various Māori Members of Parliament, the use of Māori was forbidden throughout the education system. This led to a steep decline in knowledge of the language, which the movement of people into towns accelerated. 

To be honest, that wasn't quite the story I was expecting to discover.

There has been, more recently, a laudable attempt to create a Māori renaissance. Māori was made an official language of New Zealand in 1987, and various institutions have been set up to support and encourage its use. Unfortunately there's some evidence that the existence of these institutions is reassuring people about the status of Māori to the extent that few are actually feeling the need to bother to learn it.

But how can the world lose a language that has such a charming way with a borrowed word, changing the dull English football to whutuporo? (In Māori you can't end a syllable with a consonant, of which there are only ten, anyway.)

How can the world lose a language where the word for my changes depending on whether the relationship between the possessor and possessed is dominant or subordinate?

The lesson of history, I'm very much afraid, is all too easily.

Word To Use Today: Māori. This word means normal, natural or ordinary, and it distinguishes humans tānguta māori from gods and spirits, and fresh water wai māori from salt. It comes from a Proto-Polynesian word that was something like maagoli meaning real or genuine.

Tuesday 20 October 2015

Thing To Do Today: fankle.

Scotland has a fine fierce way with a word, many regions of the kingdom speaking with a well-directed force often lacking in my own soft southern speech. From bahookie (the buttocks) to yocker (a stone only just small enough to throw) a Scot's speech is not to be ignored.

And so to the endearing fankle. Mostly nowadays it's used as a noun: people get into a fankle - into a mess, or a muddle, or confused. Anything from a speech to a business or an attempt to put on a pair of tights can get into a fankle.

But fankle is a verb, too, meaning to tangle. A kitten might fankle a ball of wool, or an angler his line. A restless night might fankle the bedclothes.

I suppose fankle means pretty much the same thing as tangle, but it has just that extra edge, that sharpness, that vividness that...that...

...but I'm getting into a fankle, myself, here.

Ah well. 

Mission accomplished, eh.

Thing To Do Today: get in a fankle. This word comes from fank, a coil of rope, from the Dutch vangen, to catch.

Monday 19 October 2015

Spot the Frippet: suspenders.

A friend from California once wrote describing an exciting encounter with a very great opera singer. She told us that she couldn't remember what colour his pants had been, but that he'd been wearing red suspenders.

It made our English minds boggle a bit, because, in England, not only are pants what those in the USA call underpants, but suspenders are what are there called, I understand, a garter belt.

Red suspenders. Well, it made a lovely image.

(As a matter of interest, in Britain we call the over-the-shoulder straps that hold up the outer nether garments braces.)

Suspenders of both the British and American kinds are, sadly, rarer than they used to be, but of course anything that suspends anything is a suspender. You particularly get suspenders on suspension bridges. They're the vertical chains that hold up the bit you travel across:

(1878 illustration of the Clifton Suspension Bridge, England.)

You also get suspenders holding up hides in tanning tanks.

If you don't happen to come across any tanning tanks in your day-to-day life, then there will still be things suspended all around you: flowering baskets, for example, or (very fashionable at the moment) sharp metal lampshades arranged exactly at head-clonking height.

Mind you, you're not likely to spot those until just too late.

Spot the Frippet: suspenders. The modern holding-up-the-nether-garment suspender is said to have been invented by Albert Thurston in 1820. Samuel Clemens (yes, the Mark Twain one) patented a new sort of adjustable version in 1871. The word suspender comes from the Latin suspendere, from pendere, to hang.

Sunday 18 October 2015

Sunday Rest: briquette. Word Not To Use Today.

Good grief, this word is horrible. Not only is that -ette ending irretrievably naff, but it proclaims itself to be so vastly sophisticated that you have to pronounce it as if it's French: briKETT.

Now, if a briquette were some dish of lobster spiked with truffles and scattered with the sweat of mermaids then I might just possibly be able to forgive the silly word its pretensions, but a briquette is, usually, a pebble-shaped thing made of coal dust and sawdust for throwing on the fire.

File:Charcoal Briquette.JPG
(Photo by Vladsinger)

My Collins dictionary suggests that one can also talk of a briquette of ice cream - and, as far as I know, there are indeed no laws against it. 

Except those, obviously, of taste.

Worst still (do steel yourselves) this horrible little word can be used as a verb.

I could quite easily give you an example. 

But, don't worry, I won't.

Word Not To Use Today: briquette. This word is French. (It isn't anything like so horrible in French.) There's an Old English word brecan which means to break, which is probably related.

Saturday 17 October 2015

Saturday Rave: The brilliance of Oscar Wilde.

One could be rather brittle on the subject of Oscar Wilde:

brilliance is dazzling: it stops you seeing the truth.

How about that?

Oscar Wilde himself said 'I have put my genius into my life; all I've put into my works is my talent.' 

If that were the case then talent took him further than most people's genius, but all the same I know what he means. He's so good at being clever that mostly you don't notice the nonsense.

'A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.'

'All art is immoral.'

'It is through Art, and Art only, that we can realise our perfection; through Art, and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.'

All those lines come not from his plays or fiction - that would mean nothing - but from his 1891 essay The Critic as Artist

Of course he was just mucking about, but, all the same, it makes that genius/talent line ring really rather horribly true.

Poor dear Oscar.

File:Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony, 1882.jpg
(Photograph by Napoleon Sarony.)

Word To Use Today: brilliance. This word comes to us, delightfully, through French from the Italian word brillo, which means beryl.

Friday 16 October 2015

Word To Use Today: parson.

Nowadays you only really get parsons - whole, real-live parsons - in New Zealand, where a parson is a non-conformist minister.* 

Outside New Zealand parsons are pretty-much obsolete, though when I was little I can remember that old people (born in the late 19th century) would sometimes address the local vicar as parson. It never sounded quite respectful.

Unfortunately, even in New Zealand the parson is under threat. The parson bird:

Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae -Waikawa, Marlborough, New Zealand-8 (2).jpg

(it looks colourful in the photograph, but what you usually see is a black bird with a white collar) is now almost always called by its Maori name of the Tui (which is fine, of course). Tui are remarkable animals, not only being able to say human words, but being famous for getting drunk on fermented nectar.

Those of us not lucky enough to live in New Zealand have to make do with the parson's nose, which is the fatty nub of a cooked bird out of which the tail feathers grew. 

I suppose the implication is that human parsons used to have big pitted noses - and this suggests that human parsons must have been famous for being drunk too.

Word To Use Today: parson. This word comes from the Latin persōna, which means parish priest. Unfortunately nowadays in most of the world parsons are persona non grata.

*That's nothing to do with being awkward about politics, it's about coming from a tradition that was once awkward about religion. Nowadays, though, some non-conformists ministers are quite easy-going.

Thursday 15 October 2015

Family Butchers: a rant

It can't be just me, surely, who gets freaked out by shops quite blatantly proclaiming themselves to be a FAMILY BUTCHERS.

File:'The Butcher's Shop', oil on canvas painting by Annibale Carracci.jpg
(Painting by Annibale Carracci)

Mind you, now I come to think about it, FAMILY BAKERS might be even worse...

File:Raxstraße 15 Nr. 7-27 Hänsel und Gretel.JPG

(Painting by Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung, reproduced via Wikimedia Commons by Buchhändler.)

Word To Use Today: butcher. This word comes from the French bouchier, from bouc, billy goat, which is probably from a Celtic language. The Welsh for billy goat is bwch.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Nuts and Bolts: interrobang


is an interrobangIt marks the end of a sentence that's both a question and an exclamation.

Interrobangs aren't used much, nowadays, firstly because almost no one has a computer with an interrobang key on it, and secondly because there's really nothing difficult, complicated or disreputable* about writing ?!

It's a pity, in a way, because that interrobang is really rather a lovely thing to look at.

Thing That'll Just Confuse Everyone If You Use It Today: an interrobang. The interrobang was invented by Martin K Speckter in 1962, and suggested names for the sign have included exclarative, which I find much more lovely and convincing than interrobang. The interrobang was most used during the 1960s, when some typewriters even featured an interrobang key.

There's also an inverted (upside down and back to front) interrobang for marking the beginning of questions in Spanish languages. 

This is sometimes rather pleasingly called a gnaborretni


*Having said that, there are those who thoroughly despise anyone who uses either ?! or !? (the second order of the punctuation marks is the less usual). Still, those people generally despise the interrobang, too. I suppose all we can do is either restrict ourselves to the single question mark, or be generous and let people have their fun.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Thing To Do Today But Not In A Bad Way: explode.

So, can you explode, but not in a bad way?

Of course you can: you can explode with laughter:

File:Laughing Fool.jpg
(painting of a fool, perhaps by Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen) 

with joy:

File:Hull City promotion celebration.jpg
(Hull City FC promotion celebration. Photo by Andy Beecroft)

with excitement:

And as if that's not wonderful enough, the word comes to us from a really amazing source, too.

Thing To Do Today But Not In A Bad Way: explode. This word comes from the Latin explōdere, to drive away by clapping or hissing (as an actor off the stage). Plaudere means to clap.

Monday 12 October 2015

Spot the Frippet: famulus.

A famulus is the attendant of a sorcerer or a scholar:

File:Tovenaarsleerling S Barth.png
(Illustration by Ferdinand Barth)

Assuming that you don't happen to have a sorcerer handy, then you'll probably have to concentrate on spotting a scholar first and then looking out for someone who's attending him. This shouldn't be too difficult because most teachers, for instance, have assistants, and most librarians employ someone to dust their books.

In fact, in this highly educated world, spotting a scholar is no trouble at all. Doctors, lawyers, dustbin men...technically anyone who has been to school, or is at school, is a scholar (the word comes of course from the Latin schola, school), so we can count in the ranks of the famuli all frazzled parents on the school run, as well as all those despairing parents staring terrified at some Maths homework, the like of which they'd gleefully assumed they'd never have to bother about again.

Still, famulus. It does sound sort of...dignified, doesn't it.

That may be some small comfort.

Spot the Frippet: famulus. This word may sound dignified, but I'm afraid it's Latin for servant. 

Still, it explains a lot.

PS: Mus famulus is the servant mouse, and Gerbillis famulus is the Black-tufted Gerbil. The mouse is rare, but the gerbil isn't, very, so you may spot it if you happen to be in Yemen.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Sunday Rest: fanboi or fanboy. Word Not To Use Today.

This word seems to have started off  about 1920. In those days it was spelled with a y and a fanboy was probably obsessed with a particular film actor or fictional character. Nowadays a fanboy or fanboi will be obsessed with a some form of popular culture or technology.

The i appeared in the 1960s, by which time most fanbois had a fixation with a comic-book character or artist. 

And then what happened? Why, Apple, dear Apple, came along with all its iStuff, and the word (complete with oh-so-trendy i) came to be associated with devotees of Apple technology.

This word is short, easy to pronounce, and even easier to understand: so why do I dislike it?

It's the boy, of course. These poor mutts may be dedicating insane amounts of thought, time and energy to something transient and unworthy, but, hey, that's no reason why we should treat them with open contempt.

I mean, I really think we could at least manage to make it a secret contempt, don't you?

Word Not To Use Today: fanboi. The plural of this word, fanbois, is particularly nasty. Fan is short for fanatic, which comes from the Latin fānāticus, belonging to a temple, and so inspired by God, frenzied, from fānum, temple.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Saturday Rave: Good Morning Midnight by Reginald Hill.

Good Morning Midnight is the title both of a poem by Emily Dickinson and a novel by Jean Rhys

It's also a novel by Reginald Hill.

I was lucky enough to read a lot of Reginald Hill's Dalziel* and Pascoe books backwards. That's not to say I started at the last page and turned the backwards to the first, that would have been bonkers; no, I started with The Death Of Dalziel and then, amazed and delighted, read every other Dalziel and Pascoe I could find in the library. I just happened to come across them in the reverse order of their publication. 

It meant I saw all sorts of links between the books that would be hidden to anyone reading them in the order in which they were published. Amazing, as I said.

I can't believe I've not written about the Dalziel and Pascoe books here before. They're marvellous. Good Morning Midnight involves an apparent copy-cat suicide where a book of Emily Dickinson's poems is left at the scene of the crime. 

If it is a crime.

Does that sound too grim? Reginald Hill doesn't turn his face away from loss and grief, but there's plenty of fun to be had as well. Here he introduces two characters who are having lunch in a very exclusive Gentleman's Club.

'He was a short man, very stout, even his head was stout, and almost completely bald, a deficiency he balanced by wearing a Harris tweed suit so hairy, you could have sheared it and got yourself a matching rug.

As if chosen deliberately for contrast, the other man remaining at the table was very thin, very tall, and so smooth of person and suit that a housefly would have found it hard to land on him...

[Kafka] glanced round the gloomy dining room. It was the size of a small cemetery.'

I mean, tell me: what's not to love?

Word To Use Today: Harris. Harris is the south part of the Scottish island it shares with Lewis. The name may come from the Old Norse Hérað, an administrative district, or the Norse Hærn, meaning higher - which it is, than Lewis.  

*You say it dee-ELL.

Friday 9 October 2015

Word To Use Today: NOx.

We all now know that NOx chemicals are a really, like, terrible thing you find in diesel fuel, and we all know this even though most of us have only the vaguest idea what NOx chemicals are.

First, what they're not. They're not N2O, which is laughing gas: but this is only to be expected, really, because the x in NOx comes at the end of the word and not in the middle. 

No, NOx is either NO (nitric oxide) or NO2 (nitrogen dioxide).

You actually produce NOx chemicals when you burn most sorts of stuff, and in a city where there are a lot of vehicle engines burning fuel then the NOx chemicals can be seriously, well, noxious. They damage people's lungs and hearts, they tend to encourage genetic mutations, and they form smog and acid rain.

The good news is that NOx gases break up methane, so they are at least a force for global cooling.

NOx chemicals can also be formed by lightning, which is rather neat as a Nox is a unit of illuminance...through on the other hand, Nox is also the Roman way of spelling Nyx, who is the Greek goddess of the night.

Nox is a tiny place in Shropshire, England:

And, nearly as big as the hamlet of Nox, is Atrophaneura nox, the Malayan batwing butterfly:

Nox P3060010.jpg

As far as I know, the hamlet and the butterfly are both entirely harmless.

Word To Use Today: nox or NOx. The butterfly is presumably named after the goddess, and the hamlet is named after a family called Nock, who owned the local pub. The gas word is interesting, being made up of the chemical symbols for Nitrogen and Oxygen, plus the letter x, which is used in its mathematical sense of whatever.

The similarity of NOx (as in chemicals) to the word noxious is an accident. Noxious comes from the Latin noxa, which means injury.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Fascinating Weymouth: a rant.

A few weeks ago I visited The Tudor House in Weymouth. The house is small, but that afternoon, while just along the coast the tail end of a hurricane was succeeding in toppling an Antony Gormley sculpture into the sea, I spent an hour and a half completely fascinated by the stories and information of our lovely guide.

Three things she told us stand out in particular:

1. That in Tudor times the word carpenter was never used: in those days carpenters were called bodgers, instead.

2. That the bread in Georgian times was made on a metal frame called a harnen placed over the fire, and that while the sooty bottom crust was given to the poor, the house-holder ate the upper crust, hence the term upper crust coming to mean upper classes.

3. That the best quill pens came from female swans, which is why a female swan is called a pen.

See? Utterly, utterly fascinating. We had a terrific time, which I'm sure I shall always remember.

And the small matter that none of those 'facts' is actually, well, true?

Well, look, I know this is supposed to be a rant, but quite honestly I find it doesn't really matter all that much.

The Tudor House, Weymouth: 

I'd thoroughly recommend it.

Words To Use Today: pen. Or carpenter. Or harnen. Sadly, no one, not even the Oxford English Dictionary, knows why a female swan is called a pen, but it does seem to be a different word from the pen that sometimes means feather. The OED does know, though, that carpenter was used in English from at least 1325. Harnen the OED doesn't list at all, but the sort of bread you cook on a harnen stand is a flat bread, which won't really have crusts. To harn means to prop up the pieces of bread against each other so that the edges cook.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Nuts and Bolts: explicits.

Oh, the joy, the absolute untrammelled joy, of an explicit!

I'm not talking here about explicit meaning clearly expressed or leaving nothing to the imagination: I'm talking about the absolute end.

Last week I wrote about incipits, which are the formal words a Mediaeval scribe quite often used to start a new manuscript. We don't bother with marking the beginning of a book with a particular phrase these days, but we do still like to do the sort-of-opposite.

The sort-of-opposite is called an explicit, a word that's come about mostly because it looks as if it should be the sort-of-opposite of incipit.

Mediaeval scribes would write the word explicit at the end of their manuscripts, but nowadays we'll write THE END, probably in capital letters, or perhaps ENDS if it's a manuscript going off to a publisher. The capital letters are a simple expression of joy, triumph and relief: the sort of flourish as one makes as one places the last piece into a jigsaw, or the last stitch into a quilt.

And, do you know what, here's another one:

File:Dean & Son Cinderella surprise picture book 2.jpg

And they all lived happily ever after.

Word To Consider Today: explicit. This word is probably short for explicitus est liber, which means the book is unfolded or complete. The shortened form probably arrived because it looks a bit like incipit.

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Thing To Do Today If It Doesn't Make you Feel Like A Complete Dork: sabrage.

Sabrage is a newish word in English, and a newish thing to do. 

What is it?

Basically, sabraging involves knocking the top off a champagne bottle with the blunt side of a sabre. Napoleonic cavalrymen used to do it quite often, apparently.

Well, when I say one uses a sabre, apparently it's rather tricky with an actual sabre, so nowadays people tend to use a knife. But the knife does look quite like a sabre, all the same.

So, who does all this sabraging

The Confrerie du Sabre d'Or, Brotherhood of the Golden Sabre. They wear green gold-trimmed cloaks and hats, and they've been a society in England since 1999, and in France, original home of sabraging, since 1986.

So there you are. If you like the idea of dressing up and using an illegal weapon to open a bottle of champagne, and you warm to the exciting chance of encountering some shards of glass in your drink, then sabraging is for you.

If you go to the right restaurant (in London, Smith and Wollensky) you can have a go. Once you've broken open your champagne bottle you get a certificate, get tapped on the shoulders with the sabre (yes, just like someone being knighted), and are proclaimed a member of the confrerie.

More senior members get to wear the cloak and hat, and, later on, after several years of practice, are allowed to open ever bigger bottles of champagne.

Now, I don't want to spoil anyone's fun, but...isn't champagne sold in bottle you can open with your bare hands?

No. No.

Surely not.

Thing To Do Today If It Doesn't Make You Feel Like A Complete Dork: sabrage. This French word comes from sabre, which itself might be from the Magyar száblya.

Monday 5 October 2015

Spot the Frippet: sib.

I didn't have any siblings when I was young. Neither did any of my friends. In fact even at my Secondary School, which attempted (largely unsuccessfully) to civilise about a thousand people at a time, not one of us had a sibling until just before I left, when suddenly the a load of sociologists came along with their jargon and there were suddenly siblings everywhere.

Now, once you stop to think about it, a sibling is, obviously, a small sib. This means that, as one's ordinary siblings have a habit of taking up far too much space as it is, a sib must be enormous, and therefore very easy to spot indeed.

And as it happens sibs are easy to spot because a sib is any blood relative (though, come to think about it, I didn't have any visible blood relatives either until I was well into adulthood). A sib can indeed be a brother or sister (not, sadly, only a really hugely fat one) or a sib can be, and I quote the Collins English Dictionary here, a kinship group that is bonded by kinship through one line of descent only. Which, actually, I'm not sure I understand: something involving step-brothers? 

Other dictionaries suggest that a sib can be a) any relative of any kind, b) anyone you think is a relative, or, c) anyone who is reckoned to descend from the same mythical ancestor.

Well, if that includes old Adam then that makes this Spot the Frippet a very easy thing indeed.

File:Large family group, Chwilog NLW3363021.jpg
The Chwilog family. Photo by John Thomas, Wales, c 1885.

Spot the Frippet: sib. The Old English form of this word was sibb, and it's related to the Old Norse sifjar, relatives, the Old High German sippa, kinship, and the Latin suus, one's own. The word survives in the English word gossip, which started off meaning godparent, 

Sunday 4 October 2015

Sunday Rest: cytoplastic. Word Not To Use Today.

It wouldn't be so bad if cytoplastic were some substance for filling in wounds, or sticking broken bones together.

It wouldn't be so bad even if cytoplastic were stuff for moulding nose-extensions. Or something.

But cytoplastic isn't anything like that because, annoyingly, cytoplastic is an adjective. It means to do with a cytoplast (which is, basically, the innards of a cell excluding the nucleus).

The really appalling thing is that you yourself contain a hundred thousand billion cytoplasts (and that's not counting the cytoplasts of all the bacteria who call you home - there are a thousand thousand billion of them).

The really really appalling thing, of course, is that I contain just as many cytoplastic bits, myself.

This is a Common Ringtail Possum. Why this image showed up on Wikimedia Commons when I Googled cytoplast I have no idea. But it's a cute picture, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: cytoplastic. The cyto bit comes from the Greek kutos, vessel or container, and the plastic bit comes from the Greek plassein, to form.

Saturday 3 October 2015

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys.

The original Good Morning Midnight (at least, as far as I know it's the original) is a poem by Emily Dickinson, but it's inspired several other works which have been named after it.

Today's Good Morning Midnight is a novel by Jean Rhys. 

Jean Rhys is best known for her last novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, which is famous as a prequel (horrid word, but you know what I mean) to Jane Eyre - and it might well be a prequel to Jane Eyre, though it doesn't work in the way one would expect a sequel to Jane Eyre to work. By this I mean that it's not really about the same characters as Jane Eyre, and it doesn't really set up the plot of Jane Eyre, either.

All Jean Rhys's novels are set in places she knows well. Wide Sargasso Sea is mostly set in the West Indies, but she wrote several in some ways similar books set wholly or partly in Paris: Good Morning Midnight is the last, and often reckoned to be the most successful.

Rhys's Good Morning Midnight is about a loneliness that's only made bearable by drink and destructive relationships...actually, relationship is probably too positive a word for the often cynical dealings that occur between this beginning-to-age woman and the men she encounters. It's a rather murky, desperately sad story, but it's beautifully done, too: sharp and funny and very moving. 

To give you some idea how very good it is, it's even made me wonder if I should go back and try Wide Sargasso Sea again.

Word To Use Today: cynic. This word comes from the Greek kunikos, from kuōn, dog. Cynic also describes anything to do with the Dog Star.

Friday 2 October 2015

Word To Use Today: griffon or griffin or gryphon.

For someone like me this word is a relief: I mean, you can spell it pretty much how you like.

Griffon, griffin, gryphon...even if you get muddled up and plump for a gryphin, who's going to be certain enough that it's wrong to complain?

The great thing is that any of the official spellings can be used to describe a magnificent winged creature with the head of an eagle and the body of a lion.

(That's Alice's gryphon, drawn by Sir John Tenniel)

 Please note that a griffon doesn't have fingers, which might account for it not being bothered about spelling. This is lucky, because you really wouldn't want to bother a griffin. Or a gryphon, either.

Some griffins, sadly, are fussier. The griffins who are newcomers to the Orient insist on just the one spelling.

Some griffons are fussy, too: both the Belgian dogs:

File:Brussels Griffon Rembrant.png
(The Hess Family's photo of Brussels Griffon Rembrant, owned by Nancy Brooks)

 and the Old World vultures:

File:Ruppell's griffon vulture - Rueppell's Griffon (Gyps rueppellii) - Flickr - Lip Kee.jpg
(photo by Lip Kee of a Rueppel's Griffon Vulture)

insist on an i and the o.

I suppose you can't blame them. 

But it is a pity, all the same.

Word to spell today: gryphon, griffin, griffon. The word meaning half-eagle-half-lion creature comes from the French grifon, from the Latin grȳphus, from the Greek grupos, which means hooked. No one knows where the newcomer to the Orient word comes from, but the dog and the vulture are named after the eagle-lion beast.

Thursday 1 October 2015

Iactantia: a rant.

The English, said James Agate, instinctively admire any man who has no talent and is modest about it.

It's certainly true that on the whole the English traditionally don't like swankThis is perhaps why our finest private houses tend to be hidden at the end of mile-long drives, disguised as warehouses, or carefully designed so they appear to be made out of a baby giant's toy bricks.

But there are, nevertheless, people in England who swank: they might flaunt their gold, brandish some form of new technology, or display a personalised car number plate. 

The effect on the rest of us is generally a glow of warm, as well as very happy, contempt.

Just sometimes, though, an example of swank appears that's so blatant, so ridiculous, that it comes surrounded by a sort of halo of joyful astonishment. 

I saw a car parked outside the ancient, famous, and expensive school Winchester College a couple of weeks ago. 

Its personalised number plate was in Latin.

URB1S: of the city.

Outrageous? Yes. Full of arrogance? Yes. Still making me smile?

Yes - and, you know something? 

I think it always will.

Word To Use Today: swank. This word might be from the Middle German swanken, to sway.

Now, a Middle German number plate. That would really be something...