This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 30 November 2015

Spot the Frippet: unicorn.

Spot a unicorn?

Oh yes you can.

If you're in the high deserts of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, for instance, you might spot one of the tiny goblin spiders of the genus Unicorn. They have a sort of horn-like projection in the middle of their foreheads:

Unicorn spider outline.jpg
That's Unicorn sicus, drawn for some odd reason without its legs.

On a larger scale, have a look at these one-horned beasts:

They're narwhals, which are sometimes called unicorns because they have what looks like a single horn. They're 'tusking' in the picture: that is, rubbing their tusks together to sort out who's boss.

Sadly, the delightfully dunce-hatted (and nearly five metre long) Giant Unicorn, or Elasmotherium:

is extinct, though its bones can still be seen in museums, but biggest of all the unicorns is Monoceros, the constellation Unicorn:


It's very faint, but can be found to the west of Orion.

As if that's not enough, there are golden unicorns:

which are Scottish coins of the late 1400s and early 1500s. They have a unicorn on them. More unicorns are found on the Royal Scottish coat of arms:

Royal Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Scotland.svg

Very pleasingly, the little coin on the bottom left of the photograph is a half unicorn.

Much less excitingly, although worth even more money, a unicorn is also a new company that's valued at more than a billion dollars. The latest estimate (from CB Insights) suggests there are 143 of this sort of unicorn in the world.

If you could choose which sort of unicorn to see, which would it be? It would be the narwhals for me, I think. Or the spiders. 

But the easiest one for me would be on a pound coin:

Pound coin

Spot the Frippet: unicorn. This word comes from the Old French unicorne, from the Latin ūnicornus, from ūnus, one, plus cornu, a horn.

Sunday 29 November 2015

Sunday Rest: sextuplicate. Word Not To Use Today.

Long words can be lovely and luxurious and fun. They can be diamonds on the tongue, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark, shooting stars in the drear darkness.

On the other hand, however, sometimes long words are the lead shot in the breast of the pheasant, the poo on the pavement, or the traffic hump on the way home.

Such a one is sextuplicate.

The only reason anyone would use the word sextuplicate would be to show off. Or possibly to make a member of the opposite sex feel uncomfortable.

It's both pompous and obvious. And horrid. Using it will make people hate you.

But then, if you're the sort of person who even think of using the word sextuplicate, they probably do already.

Word Not To Use Today: sextuplicate. This word is a 1900s mixture of sextuple and duplicate. 

Worse things happened in the 1900s, I admit, but there was really no need at all to add to them.

Saturday 28 November 2015

Saturday Rave: Right Said Fred by Bernard Cribbins

I've been helping a daughter move house, and it reminded me of this brilliant song.

Bernard Cribbins is best known as a comic actor (you may have seen him in the film of The Railway Children) but he's a wonderful writer, too, and this is an utterly wonderful song about - well, in the way of masterpieces, it's about several things all bound up together: workmen, problem-solving, leadership, a central mystery (just what is it the men are trying to shift? I'm almost sure)...

...oh, and it's very funny, too.

Then there are the rhyming and scansion, which are themselves things of shining beauty:

Charlie had a think and he said look Fred, I've got a sort of feeling
If we remove the ceiling, with a rope or two we can drop the                                                                           blighter through

See? Genius.

And here is the genius himself performing his brilliant song.

(We did quite well with moving my daughter, thank you: the only real problem was not being able to find the headlight switch on the hired van in the dark...still, we managed to find somewhere to buy a torch without too much trouble... 

...luckily, my daughter left the piano at home.)

Word To Use Today: rubble. This word arrived in English in the 1300s. Then it was rubel or robil. It might be something to do with the Old French robe, which means spoils.

Friday 27 November 2015

Word To Use Today: dodo.

Pigeons don't have much of a reputation for brains, and as for a pigeon that's forgotten how to fly...

Painting of a dodo head from the chest up
(The last painting of a dodo from life, 1638. By Cornelis Saftleven)

...oh dear, the poor dodo. It was so stupid it couldn't even learn to be afraid of the people who ate some of them and then destroyed their forest home, which finished off a lot more. It couldn't even learn to hate people when the people's domestic animals yummed up the dodos' eggs. And then there was a big flood, which probably finished the job of destroying the dodo - of which there probably weren't ever very many. 

A few bones and feathers remain, but most of the dodos you see in museums are models.

Skeleton and model of a dodo
This one is in Oxford.

Breaking every rule of publicity - no dodo, as far as I know, had Facebook, or even kept a vlog - it died so quietly that no one noticed for ages that it had gone.

Still, at least the dodo has become famous in death. Any person who refuses to stay up-to-date is called a dodo (though I think that is a bit unfair because all you have to do is wait five years and the chances are that most up-to-date stuff will itself be as dead as a dodo).

They talk of resurrecting the mammoth and various types of dinosaur, but I think the world would be all the finer for a big (a metre tall) fat fluffy friendly waddly bird.

And I won't care if it is stupid.

Word To Use Today: dodo. No one is quite sure where this word comes from. The Dutch dodoor means lazy person, but then dodaars means fat-bottom or knot-bottom (the dodo had a rather pert and fancy tail). There's also a Portuguese word doido which means fool or crazy, but then the Portuguese don't seem to have noticed the dodo much, so it's most probably nothing to do with that. 

Dodo does sound quite like a pigeonish sort of a call, as well.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Rough butter: a rant.

Look, I'm not prepared to shame a fellow writer, but You Know Who You Are.

Yes, you. The one who had a book published as a World Book Day freebie.

Yes, I know we're supposed to avoid cliches like smooth as butter because we've processed them so often they've beaten shortcuts through our brains: smooth as butter now just means smooth because the brain doesn't bother to imagine the butter any more.

So, look, if you'd changed smooth as butter to smooth as warm butter, or smooth as cold butter, then that would have been fine. A hair gel as smooth as warm butter...I can imagine that. A table with the sheen of cold butter...that's actually quite vivid.

But the version you used in your book, smooth as churned butter: good grief. For one thing all butter has been churned: I mean, if butter hasn't been churned it's still, well, cream. 

And, in any case, churned butter is quite knobbly.

Ah well. At least you've made me think, and you've also made me think of two rather useful similes: as smooth as cream and as knobbly as churned butter.

I suppose that's something.

Word To Use Today: churn. The Old English form of this word was ciern, which is related to the German dialect word Kern, which means cream.

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Nuts and Bolts: narrowcasting.

Size doesn't matter.

If you were to start a blog to record...ooh, the number of times you scratch your head, for example, or the registration numbers of all the red cars you see driving past your house, or the size of your bananas, then you might find you're attracting a very limited number of readers. You'd be broadcasting your blog all the same, though, because you'd be trying to reach the whole world with it.

To make it narrowcasting you'd have either to get people to subscribe to your blog before they read it (good luck with that, folks) or you'd have to use some other method of avoiding the casual visitor having access to the information.

You might, for example, be aiming to communicate specifically at Catholics, under-fives, or the people who work in your office - or, for all I know, you might have a personal message for Robinson Crusoe. To reach these groups you might narrowcast by means of a pulpit, a television programme, or a noticeboard; as for getting through to Robinson Crusoe...a message in a bottle, perhaps? 

Narrowing down your audience in this way can save money and effort. If you're watching a football match, for instance, the advertisements will be carefully directed at football fans: there won't, I should imagine, be images of sewing machines strewn around the stadium.

Nowadays, with so many ways of communicating open to us, narrowcasting seems to be the future, and extremely ugly it looks, too. For instance, my local town centre has just sprouted a large TV screen. I don't know what it says or shows because I resent it so much that I've never either looked at it or listened to it. It engenders in me a similar fury as the small screens you get in taxis, planes and trains. I have made a vow never ever to buy anything advertised on one of those, but presumably occasionally they succeed in persuading some fools to buy something.

Still, even narrowcasting has its joys. I'm not very flattered to be thought the target audience for all those incontinence pad catalogues, but the thought of all the trouble someone's taken to offer me the chance to spend £1500 on a pair of jeans can't help but conjure up a wry smile.

Thing To Watch Out For Today: narrowcasting. This is the opposite of broadcasting, which originally meant chucking seeds about as widely as possible in order to sow a large area. The term was first used of radio programmes in the 1940s, but it became commonly used after JCR Licklider used it in a 1967 report, in which he claimed to have coined it.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: play Follow My Leader.

Words are necessary and amusing in a million ways.*

They're fallible in just about as many.

As you will have noticed, the world is full of people arguing, and mostly they're using words to do it. A lot of what they're arguing about is words, too. Yes, it's the bombs and bullets that cause the physical damage, but behind them are the words, words, words. 

Look: all language systems are ambiguous and inadequate. Just think, you can't get a gorilla down on paper, let alone a god. No one, however important, can say exactly what they mean - and even if they could then the chances are that some people are going to misunderstand them.

Which makes makes playing Follow My Leader a very very dangerous game indeed.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: play Follow My Leader. The Old English form of this word was lǣdan, and is related to līthan to travel. 

*No, not literally a million ways: it might only be one hundred thousand three hundred and forty nine ways. Or two million and six, for all I know. 

Do feel free to start a numbered list.

Monday 23 November 2015

Spot the Frippet: garth.

A garth is three lovely things: a courtyard surrounded by a cloister:

(that's Santo Domingo de Silos, in Spain)

 a yard or garden; 

File:West Dean House gardens.JPG
(West Dean garden, West Sussex, England. Photo: Charlesdrakew)

and a child's hoop, often made of the rim of a bicycle wheel:

After the horrors of Flight 9268 and the Paris attacks it's good to come across words made by good people to describe beautiful things.

It's a small gift of hope to us all.

Spot the Frippet: garth. The word meaning garden or yard comes from the Old Norse garthr and is related to our English word yard. The word meaning hoop is entirely different. It's used in the North of England and is a variant of girth.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Sunday Rest: otorrhoea. Word Not Even To Think About Today.

Well, at least you can see that the word otorrhoea is going to be something horrible.

And it is.

My advice would be to look away now...

...what, are you still here? Well, if you really must know, otorrhoea is a discharge from the ears.

Yes, I know. But I did warn you, didn't I?

File:Ear-cleaning-stick 32987-480x360 (4816852493).jpg
Photo of something pretty by Emilian Robert Vicol

Word Not Even To Think About Today: otorrhoea. The Greek for ear is ous, though when it gets joined up into longer words it changes into ōt. Rhein means to flow.

Saturday 21 November 2015

Saturday Rave: Beware of the Otter.

'I must not judge my own performance,' said Elizabeth Bennet, and of course she was quite right. 

Having said that, and putting all modesty aside, I do like to think my typing errors occasionally display a flash of something like genius.

I was writing about Shakespeare's play Othello the other day, and when I came to re-read my piece I found the following statement:

Iago's plot principally involves encouraging murderous jealousy in otters.

I'd meant others, obviously; but, I don't know...

...I wouldn't dream for one single moment of comparing my own talent with Shakespeare's, but I can't help wondering if a strong otter theme in Othello might possibly have been an improvement...

File:Sleeping Otter - - 575811.jpg
Photo by David White

Word To Use Today: otter. This word comes from the Old English otor and is related to the Sanskrit udra.

Friday 20 November 2015

Word To Use Today: calandria.

I'm sorry, but some words are a disappointment. should be the source of some rare perfume, or a particularly refined district of heaven.

The word is derived from something lovely, but nowadays...all I can assume is that there are engineers out there with poetry singing in their souls.

And, after all, why shouldn't there be poetry-inspired engineers?

So what is a calandria

Well, several things. A calandria can be the core of a nuclear reactor, a thermosyphon reboiler:

 (they're used for industrial distilling)

or some other kind of heat exchanger. You use them in brewing.

In a desperate attempt to save this lovely word, I must point out that the Spanish word calandria is the sort of bird we in English call the Calandra Lark. It's found in the Mediterranean, Iran and Russia and is famous for its song.


So, how on earth can we use this word?

Well, how about: why have I chosen to live among traffic and sirens when my soul could have been filled with the exultant song of the Calandria Lark?

The chances are that no one will pick you up on the fact that you're saying the name of the bird in Spanish.

Word To Use Today: calandria. This word was first used in the 1900s. It's the Spanish for lark. My Collins dictionary also says 'arbitrarily named' but I wonder if it was something to do with heat and larks both rising.

In Spanish calandria also means a single peseta, a calendar, underground slang, or it describes a malingerer.

Thursday 19 November 2015

As it happens: a rant.

London recently received a very important visitor. The online edition of the Telegraph quite excited about it. 

Its headline read:

The First Indian Prime Minister for a decade arrives in Britain - live


Well, that's a relief, then.

Word To Use Today: India. This word is basically the same as Hindu and Indus, and comes via Old Persian from the Sanskrit Sindhu, which is the old name for the Indus River.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Nuts and Bolts: West Atlantic

The term West Atlantic describes a whole group of languages that are spoken in...well, guess.

Here's a picture of the world to help you:


I'm sure you all know that West is leftwards, and also that the Atlantic Ocean is the pale blue stuff between the two main clumps of land. 

So, the West Atlantic languages must be spoken by people in...Brazil? Mexico? 

North America, perhaps?

Nope. Not even close.

The West Atlantic languages are spoken from Senegal to Liberia, and in Cameroon and Sudan.


No, I don't even begin to understand it, either.

Nuts and Bolts: Atlantic. The ocean isn't named after the Ancient Greek heroine Atalanta, as you'd expect, but after the Ancient Greek titan Atlas. The Greek pelagos Atalantikos, sea of Atlas, was so named because it lay beyond the Atlas Mountains.

Well, it doesn't, really, for most people (including Greeks) but, hey...

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Thing To Be Today: unijugate.

Every day the doormat is covered with a slithering pile of tat.

Yes (as if we could forget), Christmas is coming.

I am currently swamped with catalogues (does anyone really want a plastic-owl-in-a-Santa-hat air freshener? And, what's more, want it enough to pay for it?); leaflets (escape Christmas altogether with a cruise to Turkey! Make it easier to get up after Christmas dinner with an electric booster chair!); and fliers (have some Christmassy tomatoes on your pizza!).

It's not that I don't enjoy the odd catalogue, but so many are arriving with every post that I haven't got time to read them all, let alone get round to choosing and ordering anything.

Ideally, I've realised, I'd be unijugate. It means having only one pair of leaflets.

All right, all right, unijugate is really a botanical term describing a particular form of compound leaf, so I'm using the word quite wrongly...or perhaps creatively...but, hey...

I mean, if I were unijugate (an interesting word that begins uni but is to do with having two of something, that is, a pair of leaflets) you never know, I might even get round to getting some Christmas shopping done.

Thing To Be Today: unijugate. This word comes from the Latin jugum, which means a yoke.

Monday 16 November 2015

Spot the Frippet: something flexuous.

The Romans abandoned England sixteen hundred years ago, but they left their mark. There are walls, and mosaics, and the ruins of towns. 

Most of all, there are roads.

It's easy to tell a Roman road because they're straight, and a straight road is unusual round here. Roman road-builders were anxious to guard against ambush; the English ones seem to have been rather more concerned with property rights.

In any case, England is naturally a wiggly sort of a place. The roads wriggle round the corners of fields, meander along rivers, skirt woods, go tiredly slantways up hills and zigzag down again.

Hemel Hempstead Map
(This is where I live)

Towns in other parts of the world are sometimes planned as grids, or circles, but our towns there a word for what they are? A tangle? A mess? A spilled can of worms?

Ah yes, but there is a word: flexuous. Full of bends. Yes, that's better. 

Why, it makes the English lack of planning and efficiency sound positively charming.

Spot the Frippet: something flexuous. This word comes from he Latin flexuōsus meaning full of bends, from flexus a bending.

Sunday 15 November 2015

Sunday Rest: ungual. Word Not To Use Today.

If you pronounced ungual Un-gyoo-allll then it wouldn't be so bad.

 Un-gyoo-allll might be an evil angel, and as long as you purred the word lasciviously while stroking something white and fluffy (no tittering at the back, there) then it might even sound wickedly exciting.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid you say it UNG-wl.

Even more unfortunately, it means to do with toenails.

So really, as far as I can see, the poor word has absolutely nothing going for it at all.

Sunday Rest: ungual. This word comes from the Latin unguis, which means nail or claw. It can also mean to do with fingernails, claws, hooves, and the base of some petals.

But it's still really horrible.

Jersey Devil Philadelphia Post 1909.jpg

Saturday 14 November 2015

Saturday Rave: Pudd'nhead Wilson by Mark Twain.


I read Pudd'nhead Wilson a long time ago, but I can still feel the swipe the end of Mark Twain's 1894 novel gave me.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is set in a fictional Missouri town in the first half of the 1800s. The book is a bit of a jumble, quite honestly, but it concerns a society bigoted and smug enough to brand a newcomer pudd'nhead entirely on the basis of a misunderstood remark; it also concerns a society bigoted enough to make the life-chances of a man with a single black great-great-great grandparent entirely different from one whose ancestry is historically white.

Pudd'nhead Wilson is partly a crime story, though it's more of a how-will-it-all-turn-out than a whodunit. It's about racial and social equality, but you can't necessarily spot the good guys by the colour of their ancestry or the quality of their qualifications. 

Pudd'nhead Wilson is a book which encourages the reader to worry about some terrible people, and a comedy which fooled its own author by turning out to be a tragedy.

And just you wait for that cataclysmic last sentence: after that, your view of the world just might be changed forever.

Word To Use Today: pudding. This word was poding in the 1200s. Curiously, it might have something to do with the Low German puddek, a sausage - and, rather horribly, the Old English puduc, a wart.

Friday 13 November 2015

Word To Use Today: wham.

Ah, Wham...

where are the snows of those far-off days when, despite the evidence of this video, it didn't even occur to us to wonder if George Michael might be gay? 

Anyway, wham. It's quite a new word, and it's basically an imitation of the sound of something hitting something else with what I suppose before the word wham was invented you would have called a forceful thump.

Whammy is wham's unlucky offspring. A whammy doesn't necessarily have any physical existence, but it has a forceful and usually bad effect. Whammies often come in groups of two or three: so, a double whammy might be a combination of a bad cold and being snowed in; and a triple whammy might involve a bad cold, being snowed in, and a visit from your cousin Herbert.

Interestingly for such a new word, a whammy also has the magical meaning of an evil spell or curse. He put a whammy on her.

Hmm...and I'd been telling myself that the history of this word was showing that we've been getting quite enlightened.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: wham or whammy. Merriam-Webster gives the first use of this word as 1924.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Shooting blindfold: a rant.

I expect you've all had a giggle about the Homeland graffiti.

Just in case you haven't seen the story, the American TV programme Homeland, which has bits set in a Middle Eastern refugee camp, decided some graffiti was needed to adorn the walls. So they got in some Arabic artists to do it.

These artists - Heba Amin, Caram Kapp and Stone - being, well, artists, decided to be artistic. This meant that the graffiti crystalised reality to the artists' best ability. One slogan said Homeland is a joke and it didn't make us laugh, and another said #blacklivesmatter.

No one on the Homeland team bothered to check the graffiti, and the slogans were broadcast unchanged.

It's a bit of a surprise that there was no one around who could read the script to see what it said - I mean Homeland is a seriously wealthy concern, it's not like some drunk who's stumbled into a tattoo parlour - but, never mind, Homeland is fiction so the matter is essentially trivial.

But how about this. In 2007 there were only ten US foreign service officers whose grasp of Arabic was rated as high as 3/5. 

Just let that sink in for a moment.

Now, I'm far from being an expert, but you'd think that having to rely almost entirely on interpreters to know what people were saying just might have been a teensy weensy bit of a disadvantage when you're conducting a war.

And the war, heaven help us, was real.

Word To Use Today: translate. This word comes from the Latin translātus, transferred or carried over.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Nuts &Bolts: Poppies.

Today, November 11th, is Armistice Day, the day when the First World War officially ended and when those who were killed in wars are remembered.

The poppy is an international symbol of that remembrance. Poppies have been a symbol of death since ancient times, perhaps because they are commonly blood-red, or perhaps because their brightness promises life after death. The opium derived from poppies has made them a symbol of peace and sleep, too.

It's a heavy burden for a small wild flower to bear, and in fact it quickly proved too much: difficulties appeared soon after the poppies were first worn to commemorate the dead of the First World War.

The trouble is that no one is quite sure what the poppy stands for: does it glorify sacrifice, or merely commemorate it? Does it glorify war - or just the opposite? Does it commemorate all soldiers killed in war, or just the ones who fought on one side?

A suggestion that there should be white pro-peace poppies is first recorded in 1926 as part of the No More War campaign, but they weren't sold until 1933. The first white poppy wreaths were laid in 1937 as a pledge for peace.

In Northern Ireland the red/white poppy argument splits down community lines: Unionists tend to wear red, Republicans tend to wear white (the objection to the red poppy in Northern Ireland is most commonly because of the red poppy's military connections rather than any pro-war ones).

In New Zealand the white poppy has been used as a fund raiser for Nuclear Disarmament and Peace Scholarships, and in 1970s England there was brief fashion among schoolchildren for taking off the red petals of poppies and replacing them with ones cut out of white blotting paper.

The poppy has caused much heart-searching and some anger over the years, but the arguments about the small and fragile poppy show no signs that I can see of being resolved.

Symbol To Consider Today: poppies. This word comes from the Old English popaæg, and before that from the Latin papāver. The word may originate from the sound of someone chewing poppy seeds, or from the Celtic word papa, baby food, as poppy juice was given to crying infants to make them sleepy. 

PS The Methodist Minister Simon Topping launched a campaign in 2001 using the symbol of a black poppy to highlight the problems of world poverty.  

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Thing To Be Today: longitudinal.

Here's a very easy thing to be because everyone has a measurement of longitude - that is, a measurement of how far round the globe you are starting from Greenwich in London.

There's even a celestial longitude for those of us who aren't on Earth.

My (Earth) longitude at the moment is -0.496573 (the minus sign shows that I'm West of Greenwich). If you're interested you can find your own longitude HERE.

You'll probably have been longitudinal in other ways, today, as well. Assuming you don't lie sideways across the bed then you'll have slept longitudinally. Reclining on a sofa will involve being longitudinal, too, and if you listen to music while you're doing it then you'll be experiencing longitudinal waves.

Unfortunately the word longitudinal been adopted by psychologists to describe a study carried out over a period of time (rather than studying a lot of people at one particular moment). I rather wish it hadn't, because there are clearer ways of describing that sort of study: ten-year, for instance.

But still, in a largely vertical life, let's take time to appreciate the joys of being longitudinal.

Is nine o'clock in the morning too soon to start? 

Hmm, it is, isn't it. Bother.

Thing To Do Today: be longitudinal. This word comes from the Latin longitūdō, which means length.

Monday 9 November 2015

Spot the Frippet: lolly.

Yes, lolly is short for lollipop, but what else is it?

Well, it depends.

In Britain it might be an ice lolly - that is, something made of flavoured ice (not necessarily impaled on a stick) and eaten as a treat.

File:Lolly Cake Pop (8457186147).jpg
Illustration by Jay 

In Australia and New Zealand, however, a lolly might be a boiled sweet, and in this case lolly water isn't the stuff that dribbles stickily down your front from your ice lolly and attracts wasps, but a soft drink.

In Australia, if you do the lolly, or do your lolly then you're blowing your top - that is losing your temper.

In all these places lolly also means money. Have you got the lolly? someone might ask, whether it's to buy a round of drinks or a new house.

Lollywood isn't all that much to do with money, anger, or sweet things: it's a term that describes the Pakistani film industry.

And here is something specifically American: lollygag (or lallygag) which means to loiter aimlessly.

Lollygagging: isn't that brilliant? And I was looking for a new hobby, too.

Spot the Frippet: lolly. No one is sure about this word, but it may have come from the Northern English lolly which means tongue. Lollywood is a mixture of Lahore and Hollywood using as a model of the Indian Bollywood.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Sunday Rest: pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism. Word Not To Use Today.

Pseudopseudohypoparathyroidism is, probably, the longest word in the English language that hasn't been specially made up to be the longest word in the English language.

Pseudopseudo etc is a genetically-transmitted disease.

It is also a Sunday, which is supposed to be a day of rest.

So let's, well, rest, shall we?

(Honestly two pseudos in a row...what were they thinking?)

Sunday Rest: pseudopseudohypoparathyroisism. The only interesting thing about this word is the thyroid bit, which comes from the Greek word thureos, which is a door-shaped shield.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Saturday Rave: St Crispin's Day by William Shakespeare.

October 25th was the six hundredth anniversary of the battle of Agincourt.

Ah yes, that great romantic battle. 

Now, I realise that romantic battle is the oxymoron to end all oxymorons. Agincourt will have been far more gore than gloire (and it turned out anyway to be a rather inconsequential battle). 

So where on earth does the romance come from?

From this:

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour...

This day is called the feast of Crispian
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian
From this day to the ending of the world
But we in it shall be remembered...

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon St Crispin's day.

There you have it. The terrible, inescapable, fatal magic of words.

Those passages are from Henry V's speech to his troops before the battle of Agincourt, as told by William Shakespeare in his play Henry V. The fact that Henry made a speech is in the historical record, but we're not sure what he said, except that it's claimed he mentioned the French threat to cut off the fingers of every English archer (which may have led to the two-fingered gesture of defiance that was still in common use in Britain within living memory).

That Shakespeare is a great writer is obvious, but think of this: with so much power at his command - the power to move hosts to tears, to joy, to killing - he never (as far as we know) used it to harm a single soul.

Now that's a really remarkable sort of greatness.

Word To Use Today: blood. The Old English form of this word was blōd.

Friday 6 November 2015

Word To Use Today: fribble.

Oh, come on, it doesn't matter what it means: every day will be happier for using the word fribble!

As it happens, a fribble is a wasteful or frivolous person or action - and, let's face it, it's not unusual to have a need to describe one of those.

What does he do?

Oh, I don't know...sleep, drink, watch YouTube. He's a bit of a fribble, to be honest.

Fribble can also mean to fritter away or waste:

What are you doing?

Oh just fribbling away some time online.

Fribble can mean frivolous or trifling, too (though, now I come to think about it, trifle might be one of the very few words in the English language even lovelier than fribble):

Did you have fun?

Yeah, she turned out to be well fribble.

If those aren't riches enough, there's even a word fribbler.

But then they are riches enough, aren't they?

File:German garden gnome.jpg
(Photo by Colibri1968)

Word To Use Today: fribble. Where this word came from is a mystery. Imported by gnomes, quite possibly.

Thursday 5 November 2015

All publicity: a rant.

The town of Lewes (you say it LOO-iss) in South East England is famous for its Bonfire Night* celebrations. They're held today, 5th November.

File:Lewes Bonfire, Commercial Square Bonfire Society.jpg
These are members of the Commercial Square Bonfire Society. Lewes has several bonfire societies.

I'd love to go and see the Lewes celebrations, and so I had a look at the Advice for Potential Visitors on the Lewes Bonfire Council website. 

I quote:

'This will be a long evening and may be cold or even wet...wear old clothes and protection goggles...very loud bangs occur throughout and ear plugs/mufflers are strongly advised...Do not expect pubs to be open; some close entirely and some admit regulars only and have bouncers on the doors. The existing Lewes Street Drinking Prohibition will be enforced...the proceedings are often delayed...there are no parking facilities...public very crowded...queue for long periods before entering Lewes. The journey home could be even more horrendous. This can be an unpleasant experience, particularly when it is cold or raining - which is likely in November...Bonfire particularly unsuitable for younger children who are unlikely to get a view of the celebrations and who may find the event confusing and frightening...the noise and density of the crowds make the evening entirely unsuitable for pets...All persons should carefully note that attendance...will constitute volenti non fit injuria, that is to say you will be deemed to have accepted any risk of injury or damage whatsoever, and no claim in respect thereof will lie against the organisers.' know how people say that no publicity is bad publicity?

Well I think the Lewes Bonfire Council might just have proved them wrong.

Thing To Consider Today: publicity. This word arrived in England in the 1700s from France, and before that it came from the Latin pūblicitās, from populus, people.

*Bonfire Night is a celebration of the failure of a terrorist plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. The most famous of the terrorists was Guy Fawkes.

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Nuts and Bolts:asterism.

Always keen to share the joy of useless knowledge, how about this:


That's an asterism, an almost entirely obsolete punctuation mark. It consists of three asterisks arranged in a triangle (the point can be at the top or the bottom) and it shows a break in the text. 


Sadly, after only a few hundred years of use, people realised that an even better indication of a break in the text is, well, a break in the text: and so asterisms almost entirely died out.


Hang on, I really didn't need that asterism, did I? Bother!

The asterism is also sometimes used in place of a title (of a piece of music, for instance) or of an author.

While we're here, an asterism can also be either a star-like effect seen when you shine light into a gemstone, or group of stars that are easily recognisable from Earth but which don't make up an official constellation. Orion's belt is a well-known example - and, rather neatly, it also consists of three stars.

Piece of Almost Entirely Useless Information To Treasure Today: asterism. This word comes from the Greek asterismos arrangement of constellations, from astēr, star.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: waffle.

File:Circle of Georg Flegel Still life with waffles.jpg
(Artist: circle of Georg Flegel (1566 - 1638). I see that the German for still life, Stillleben has a triple L in it. Which is neat.)

Waffles are fine things, crisp and light and oozing with juiciness: with cream, syrup, fruit, cheese...

...hang on, I must go and get myself something to eat...

...that's better. No, I have not a word to say against making waffles or eating waffles or assembling waffles, against waffle irons or waffle houses or waffle makers, and naturally wafflemeisters have my deep and undying respect.

No, it's waffling I'm against. I know it's an important social lubricant but it's still a pain, especially in writing. In fact it might be what distinguishes the professional from the amateur writer. 

Waffling: spraying loads of words about because it puts off having to work out where you're going. 

And there we get to the essence of waffling, which is avoiding the subject. This may be because you need to avoid it (politicians are experienced wafflers) or because you're trying to avoid admitting you don't know what you're talking about. Sometimes people waffle because they imagine that their voice talking about nothing is more interesting than anyone else's can possibly be.

But they're wrong.

Stick to the point, please. Then shut up.

And if anyone says does my bum look big in this? Then simply murmur you look lovely, dear.

Thing Not To Do Today: waffle. The pancake word comes from the Dutch wafel, and is related to the High German wabo, honeycomb. The avoiding-the-subject word arrived in English in the 1800s, but no one is sure from where.

Monday 2 November 2015

Spot the Frippet: wagon. Or waggon.

Wagon or waggon? I like wagon, myself - it's leaner, more elegant, and less bother to type - but it's not something for which I'm prepared to lose friends.

Anyway, where can we spot one? Most of us won't often see a four-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle for carrying crops or goods:

(that wagon is Australian, by the way. If it were English it wouldn't be a wagon at all, but a cart, because an English wagon doesn't have a hard top.)

Luckily there are other sorts of wagon about. In Britain any railway truck carrying freight is a wagon.

North America has a long history of wagons carrying people, but nowadays a wagon might be a cart in which children play:

a station wagon (which I'd call a estate):

or it could be a police vehicle for transporting people who have been arrested.

In Europe you might travel in a sleeping carriage or wagon-lit, and almost anywhere in the world you may come across the lengthened tunnel-like arch that's a wagon vault:

(This wagon vault is in Lisbon Cathedral.)

There will also be plenty of people about who are either on the wagon (that is, have given up drinking alcohol) or have fallen off it (have taken up drinking alcohol again) though sadly in both these cases the wagon is invisible.

Spot the Frippet: wagon. This word came from The Netherlands in the 1500s. The Dutch form was wagen.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Sunday Rest: himbo. Word Not To Use Today.

I told you there was an even worse word than bimbo, didn't I?

It means the same thing as bimbo - someone good-looking but empty-headed - but himbo is used, of course, of a man. 

Well, it's used by those who enjoy belittling people, anyway.

So: that's just the insecure and vicious amongst us, then.

Sunday Rest: himbo. This word is a blend of him and bimbo, and it was made up in the 1980s. Luckily it's rather rare - though not nearly rare enough.