This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 31 December 2015

New Year Resolutions: a rant.

Yes, yes, New Year Resolutions hardly ever last the year.

And, yes, we all know that putting a wish for self-improvement formally into words is no guarantee of anything.

And, yes, all right, I know we're all surrounded by people telling us that the Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions: but, as a matter of fact, the Road to Hell is actually rather seldom paved with good intentions.

Yes, that's right, folks: it's generally paved with the bad ones.

So good luck with the New Year Resolutions - and remember that putting things into words actually is magic, just a little bit.

Word To Use Today: intention. This word comes from the Late Latin intentus, a stretching out.

Wednesday 30 December 2015

Nuts and Bolts: New Year's Eve.

Tomorrow, December 31st, might be New Year's Eve.

December 31st is certainly New Year's Eve here in England. Well, it is at the moment, anyway. Until the mid 1700s New Year's Day in Britain was March 25th, the day Mary became pregnant with Jesus. This is why in books written in the first half of the 1700s
 dates between January 1st and March 25th tend to be written something like 21st February 1714/15, so you could tell what year you were talking about whichever system you were using.

The system was changed officially in 1750 to bring Britain into line with Europe. Mind you, Europe hadn't had a January 1st New Year for very long: there had recently been parts of Europe that had celebrated their New Year variously on March 1st, Easter Day, 1st September and Christmas Day.

So, the question is, what makes a year new?

Well, it's not the time of year, because New Year doesn't necessarily have to have a fixed date: Chinese New Year can come anywhere between 21st January and 21st February, and the Muslim New Year depends entirely upon the lunar calendar so it can fall at any time of year: in fact, 2008 was a bonus year, because it had two.

Just as charmingly, the Tibetan New Year can happen at any time in January, February or March, and some parts of India have a New Year Season running from March to April.

Iranians, Zoroastrians and the Baha'i all celebrate New Year around the Spring Equinox. They do in Bali, too, except that there the New Year is marked there by silence and reflection. Even the airport is closed. 

Mind you, this is quite like Britain, where New Year's Day is traditionally a time for that quiet reflection that comes inevitably as a result of a truly colossal hangover.

In Kutch the New Year starts with the rains, which is in June.

Autumn New Years happen in Nepal, some parts of Pakistan and India, and formerly among the Murador Tribe of Australia and French Revolutionaries.

It seems that the world and its people are perpetually renewing themselves.

And if that isn't a reason to make us look forward with hope, then surely nothing is.

Word To Use Today: new. This word comes from the Latin novus.


Tuesday 29 December 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: grizzle.

Photo by BadgerHero

You get two slightly depressing words for the price of one with grizzle.

To grizzle means to become grey, and if anything's going to be grizzled it's probably beard. I think this may be because beards are often frizzy, and you get a sort of echo of the frizz when you hear the word grizzle.

A grizzle can also be a grey wig, but hardly anyone knows this. 

And how about the other slightly depressing grizzle? It's a British word used to describe sulking, whining, or perhaps sobbing, in the most annoying, quite possibly fake, and probably attention-seeking, way. It's almost exclusively used to children in the phrase stop grizzling!

Luckily grizzling is a ploy people almost always abandon as they get older.

Which means that the two grizzles can exist quite unhappily side by side.

Thing Not To Do Today: grizzle. The grey word comes from the Old French grisel, from gris, grey, and before that it was probably German. The whining word also came from a German language. There's a nice German word Griesgram, which means unpleasant person.

Monday 28 December 2015

Spot the Frippet: bell.

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky...*

Wild bells?

I'm not sure I've ever heard a wild bell, but then I live in England, home of the mathematician bell-ringers, where every clang is placed so precisely that if you sit down and analyse every note you find an intricate and beautiful pattern, like a woven ribbon of sound.

It's just a shame you can't tell it's there by listening to it.

All the same, perhaps I can see what Tennyson mean by wild bells: bells certainly aren't tame, and are even slightly sinister. We call bells she in English, a rare distinction they share with ships, perhaps because a large bell can be similarly wayward and dangerous. 

The menace of bells forms a thread running through our culture: if you beat someone up then you knock seven bells out of them. If you want to drive the devil out of them you do it with bell, book, and candle. Bells toll at our deaths and ring at our weddings - both occasions in some ways a defeat for the will. 

Bells are designed to be our servants: they dutifully tell the time, or call us to prayer; they tell us that the pie is cooked, or that the postman's come; they inform us of how far through a ship's watch it is, or that someone wants to speak to us on the telephone (in Britain, if you give someone a bell, you're phoning them).

But who is really the master (or mistress) there? It's true that there are completely harmless bells on the bottoms of oboes and trumpets, for instance - and if something's as sound as a bell then it's in perfect condition.

File:Liberty Bell 2008.jpg
The Liberty Bell, photo by Tony the Misfit

But still...listen carefully, do. Anything, but anything might be summoned by the clanging chimes of midnight...

...and we know those aren't going to be sleigh bells, now, don't we.

Spot the Frippet: bell. This word comes from the Old English belle.

*That's the first line of In Memoriam by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Sunday 27 December 2015

Sunday Rest: myrrh. Word Not To Use Today.

I mean, look at it; listen to it; consider the meaning of it.

All right: now tell me what idiot decided to spell myrrh, well, myrrh? Why not mer? Or merr, if he were feeling expansive?

And if he just had to put all those stupid letters in it, then why not pronounce it, sensibly, myra

Hey, and while I'm here, who decided that a word that sounds like a cow with gut-rot is ideal for describing a perfume?

Above all, can it really have been a wise man who decided that a substance used in the preparation of dead bodies for burial was a suitable gift for a newly-born baby?

(Balthazar was the one who turned up with the myrrh. Yes, the one who's wearing a scarlet dress with pink stockings.)

As the old song says:

Myrrh is mine its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in a stone-cold tomb.

I mean, myrrh may have been a prophetic choice; it may have been a philosophically valid choice; but wise? Old Balthazar would have been better off taking a packet of mince pies: it would have been just as prophetic, and not so flipping dampening!

Word Not To Use Today: myrrh. This word comes from the Old English myrre, from the Greek murrha, and before that from the Akkadian murrū.

Saturday 26 December 2015

Saturday Rave: Christmas at Sea by Robert Louis Stevenson.

The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide, where a seaman scare could stand;
The wind was a nor-wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.

A Boxing Day Walk is a bit of a tradition round here (Boxing Day is the day after Christmas, when tradesmen are given presents): everyone needs some exercise after the sweetness and stress of Christmas.

Alternatively, you can get much of the experience of some exercise without leaving your sofa.

Robert Louis Stevenson's poem Christmas at Sea is the story of a long day's struggle to save a ship from grounding as she is pushed towards the shore by the wind, tide and current. It gets sentimental towards the end - there is even, I'm sorry to say, a mention of some homely elves (NB: homely in Britain means domestic, not ugly as it does in some other places) - but, hey, it's a Victorian Christmas poem, so what do you expect?

Anyway, the cold and the storm and the struggle are just what we're needing, over-fed as we are to the point of exhaustion as we are:

They lit the high sea-light, and the dark began to fall.
'All hands to loose top gallants,' I heard the captain call.
'By the Lord, she'll never stand it,' our first mate, Jackson, cried.*
'It's the one way or the other, Mr Jackson,' he replied.

And what happens in the end? You can find out here.

Word To Use Today: top gallant. This word for a high sail comes from the Old French galer, to make merry, from gale, enjoyment or pleasure (but is probably nothing to do with the wind sort of gale). It's related to words like the wealth bit of commonwealth.

This picture from the wonderful Wikipedia shows the topgallant sails in pink, which is helpful if slightly bizarre.

I know almost nothing about sailing, but it seems a bit odd to me to be loosing your topgallants if you're trying to escape a lee shore in a squally wind. Still, I expect there's some good reason for it.

As far as I know there's no such thing as a bottomgallant.

*I wonder if Gene Roddenberry knew this poem?

Friday 25 December 2015

Phrase To Use Today, Through Gritted Teeth If Necessary: thank you.

'Oh! Thank you!'

'Is it all right? I was afraid you might already have one.'

'What? Oh, no, I haven't got any tea towels disfigured by - um, featuring - enormous malevolent owls wearing Santa hats. How thoughtful.'

'Gosh, what is in this parcel? Can it be..? A tube of stretch-mark cream?'

'Yes, I hope you like it. All the pregnant women I know swear by it.'

'Oh!...well, what a surprise. Especially as my youngest child is a lawyer. But...well, thank you very much.'

'Would you like some sprouts?'

'Oh, are those sprouts? Ah, with mustard, peaches and root beer, I see. Oh. Er...thank you, yes, I'm sure they'll be lovely.'

'Would you like some ice cream, cream, sugar, meringue, marshmallows, custard, sprinkles, syrup and brandy butter with your huge helping of Christmas pudding?'

'Well, thank you very much but I am quite full, actually...'

'Because it's all dished up.'

'Oh. Well then, thank you.'

'So thank you for coming.'

'And thank you for having us. It's all been lovely.'

Phew, home at last. Another Christmas survived.

Whoever's up there, thank you!

Phrase To Use Today, Through Gritted Teeth If Necessary: thank you. This word has been around for ages. The Old English form is thancian.

Thursday 24 December 2015

Well-earned money: a rant.

'No one in the world, so far as I know - and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of plain people.'

Still, never mind, eh?

Having said that (as H L Mencken did) there are times when someone makes so much money from a combination of words so deeply utterly fatuous and wrong that I can't help getting a bit twitchy. 

Especially when I can't get away from them because they're being bellowed at me from a supermarket's public address system.

And now I've discovered the spelling mistake...

...deep breath...

I wish it could be Christmas Everyday (sic).

The song is by Roy Wood, whose stuff is quite often good fun. 

But just the thought of Christmas's enough to give me nightmares.

And, just possibly, a dystopian best-seller.

Word To Use Today: wizard. As well as meaning magician, this word means brilliant! It has two z s, Wizzard, only when it's the British glam rock band led by Roy Wood. The word wizard is to do with being wise.

Wednesday 23 December 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Christmas is coming.

Steaua Sun

Badnjak will soon be here.

Who? you may be asking - but it's not a who, but a what, because in Croatia Badnjak means Christmas Eve. The njak part of the word translates as yearbook, but what's bad about it I'm afraid I haven't been able to find out.

Lots of languages, like English, basically go for the Christmas-is-coming approach: Portuguese véspera de Natal, Danish: juleaften, French veille de Noel, Swedish julafton, Greek Παραμονή Χριστουγέννων, Roumanian Ajunul Crăciunului, Italian vigilia di Natale.

But in Spanish they have the lovely Nochebuena, which is Good Night; and in Germany and Ukraine it's holy evening: Heiligabend or святий вечір, respectively.

But I think the Czech phrase for Christmas Eve is best of all, so I wish everyone in The Word Den a happy Štědrý den.

It means, very beautifully, Generous Night.

Word To Use Today: eve. This word is a variation of even (the evening sort of even) from the Old English ǣfen, and is related to lots of similar Germanic words.

PS Family tradition here calls today Christmas Adam, Adam coming, of course, before Eve.

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: be nervous.

I mean, what can go wrong?

The sprouts may disintegrate, the roast potatoes may burn, the pudding may set fire to the curtains, Uncle Walter may fill the house with noxious fumes, and Auntie Doreen may sing, but, well, what do you expect at Christmas?

Look, the sniping resentment between your brother and Cousin Jack will probably evaporate when confronted with the ferocious attack on your sister-in-law by Auntie Fiona; and Grandad's decades-old feud with Great Uncle Bob won't last for long because they'll both fall asleep after dinner. 

And what will the incinerated currants on the cake matter when they're hidden under a tooth-rotting layer of glutinous icing? It's not as if anyone's going to want to eat it, anyway.

So banish your nerves and look on the bright side: if all else fails you can always take the fuse out of the dishwasher plug, shut yourself in the kitchen, and spend a blissful couple of hours washing up.

Happy Christmas!

Thing Not To Do Today: be nervous. This word comes from the Latin nervus, meaning nerve. Before that it was probably something to do with the Greek neuron, and before that probably something to do with the Sanskrit snāven, which means sinew.

Monday 21 December 2015

Spot the Frippet: nativity.

Art reflects the society which produces it, and I suppose this is why Nativity Scenes vary so widely. 

And, I might add, wildly.

Let's start with something intricate but basically humble: this is a paper Nativity from 1900s Germany:

It's intricately done, but it's no good if, as in Poland and Hungary, you want to take your Nativity from door to door:

This is a Polish one. They have competitions, apparently.

But what if the politically correct thing is to celebrate, not the birth of God, but the common man? Well, since the French Revolution Provençal Nativities feature santons: these are pottery figurines that represent local workers such as scissor-grinders or chestnut sellers.

England, I'm proud (in an appalled sort of way) to say, gave us a Celebrity Nativity complete with a waxworks David Beckham as Joseph.

An Australian nativity will often display the odd koala or kangaroo, South America perhaps a llama, and in Catalonia there'll be a caganer, which is, well, one of these:

The caganer is said to fertilise the earth ready for the next year's Nativity, and in Catalonia it's very unlucky to have a Nativity without one.

The USA has drive-through Nativities, commonly with scenes involving live animals. In Southern Italy a Nativity might include a mock-up of a whole rural village, complete with displays of traditional crafts. They've even been televised.

So, where did the Nativity trend all start? As one of St Francis of Assisi's teaching aid. His Nativity was a live one, too, with humans and animals. Luckily he even had a cave handy to stage it in.

And what of my own Nativity? Mine looks like this:

though my own camel is a Victorian wooden toy one, and I have a donkey that's a bit like a bottle brush.

At the moment, of course, my three kings haven't yet arrived - they're still making their way down the stairs.

And the tiny baby Jesus is still hidden under Mary's skirt.

Spot the Frippet: Nativity. This word comes from the Late Latin nātivitas, birth.

Sunday 20 December 2015

Sunday Rest: varve. Word Not To Use Today.

Some words arrive like a fog-horn, startling everyone.

Such a one is varve.

Luckily you don't see a lot of varve about the place, unless your place happens to be at the bottom of a glacial lake. Apparently the sludge at the bottom of these places comes in tiger stripes, one light, one dark, depending upon whether it's deposited in the winter or the summer.

And this stuff is, sadly, called varve.

I suppose we must be grateful that geologists don't chatter much to the rest of us, or we might have to contend with varve crossings:

File:Beatles' Zebra Crossing in Abbey Road, NW8 - - 323003.jpg
(photo by John Darch)

 - or even liquorice varves.

A narrow escape, now I come to think about it.

Word Not To Use Today: varve. This word comes from the Swedish varv, which means layer, and before that from the Old Norse hverfa to turn.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Saturday Rave: Tam o'Shanter by Robert Burns.

Christmas is a time for wild weather and ghostly apparitions, for drinking and parties.

Tam o' Shanter has all those.

The poem was written in the English of the lowlands of Scotland, but most of it is easy enough to understand, and anyway the link above will take you to a site with a parallel translation into standard British English.

It's a terrific poem, full of humour and vigour (oh dear, my American spell-checker doesn't like either of those words), and full of horror, foreboding and adventure.

The poem tells of the eponymous Tam o' Shanter. He enjoys a drop of drink, and this means he isn't usually in the most reliable state on his way home, which takes him 

....thro' the whins, and by the cairn,
Whare hunters fand the murder'd bairn;
And near the thorn, aboon the well,
Whare Mungo's mither hang'd hersel'

To make things worse, the weather is terrible:

That night, a child might understand
The Devil had business on his hand.

And Tam does indeed see the devil himself playing the bagpipes when he stumbles upon a witches' and warlocks' dance.

Now, anyone with any sense would have ridden away as fast as he could, but I'm not sure Tam ever had much sense to start with, and in the state he was in...

...but I mustn't give away the plot. 

Do have a look at this poem if you don't know it. It's a tremendous story, very exciting - and funny, too, as I said.

Word To Use Today: tam o'shanter. This is a woollen hat with a bobble, usually worn pulled down on one side. It's called after our hero Tam.

File:Tam-O'-Shanter (PSF).svg

Friday 18 December 2015

Word To Use Today: albatross.

Albatross...well, that alba at the beginning must be something to do with the fact that albatrosses are mostly pale, mustn't it, from the Latin albus, which means white?

Umm...not really. Well, just a bit - but only because people didn't know what they were talking about.

It's an interesting word, is albatross. An albatross can be a large sea bird (though albatross originally meant pelican); it can mean inescapable burden (this meaning arose from Coleridge's poem about the Ancient Mariner); or it can mean holing out at golf in three under par.

So that's (in reverse order) one good thing, one bad thing, and one case of mistaken identity: yes, albatross is an anarchically splendid word.

It's a splendid bird, too:

File:Black-browed Albatross, Beagle Channel.jpg
Black-browed Albatross. Photo by David

Albatrosses dance when they're courting and pair for life, and an albatross's wingspan can be up to 3.7 metres. A Laysan Albatross called Wisdom may, at the age of about sixty five, be the oldest wild bird in the world. 

Their splendour has given rise to the golfing term: a birdie (one stroke under par) is jolly good, an eagle is great, and an albatross is absolutely tremendous.

And quite right, too.

Word To Use Today: albatross. This word comes from the Arabic al câdous, the diver, which meant pelican. By the time it had got to English via Portuguese it had turned into alcatraz and meant gannet or frigate bird. Frigate birds being basically dark and albatrosses light, the word probably got nudged towards the form albatross because of the Latin albus, which means white. Pleasingly, the modern Portuguese for albatross, albatroz, comes from the English.

Thursday 17 December 2015

Stop the War: a rant.

Britain has recently begun bombing raids on Syria, attacking in particular the assets of a group of people that has just adopted a policy of exterminating disabled babies and children.

Many of those opposed to this military action are part of the Stop the War Coalition.

Whatever one thinks of the Stop the War Coalition's point of view, one must admit they have an absolutely brilliant name. I mean, just about everyone wants to Stop the War.

In fact, it's a name that disguises with great skill the fact that the argument isn't at all about whether we want to Stop the War or not, but about the best way to go about doing it.

Word To Use Today: war. The word war didn't enter the English language until the 1100s. It came from the Old Northern French werre, and is related to the Old High German werra.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Nuts and Bolts: the language of tea chests.

I went with the wonderful novelist, poet and critic Adèle Geras to see the tea clipper (ie big fast sailing ship) Cutty Sark recently. The Cutty Sark is in dry dock at Greenwich on the Thames on the edge of London. The beauty of the ship:

 and the associated exhibition was breath-taking.

The Cutty Sark was built (in Scotland) to carry tea as quickly as possible from China to Britain:

(here's a photo of the Cutty Sark pretty much in full sail)

 and during her voyages very nearly her whole hull was stacked solid with tea chests. 

The trouble is, how do you know which particular sort of tea each tea chest contains? The chests were labelled in Chinese, but the some of the crew couldn't read English letters (the Cutty Sark was launched in 1869) let alone Chinese characters.

Well, they discovered that there was another way to read the tea chests. Each chest was beautified with a floral design:

Embedded image permalink
(photo by Adèle Geras)

and the crew soon learned which configuration of red chrysanthemums or dreamy sky blue background represented which tea plantation.

But it turns out that these beautiful tea chest were used to communicate much more than their contents. 

Once the chests were opened they were broken up and used for firewood about the docks, but the valuable lead strips that sealed the joins (you can see them in the photograph) would be scavenged by the crew and taken to Fleet Street, the home of the London newspaper industry, to be cast into lead to make type to print newspapers.

With pleasing symmetry, some of these newspapers would be reporting the record-breaking speeds of the tea clipper Cutty Sark during a life that saw her sail even further than to the moon and back.

Word To Use Today: tea. This word comes from the Amoy Chinese t'e, from the Ancient Chinese d'a.

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Thing To Do Today: prestidigitate.

Hey presto, and your digits have done it!

That's what prestidigitating is, as long as what your digits do is magic. Playing The Minute Waltz in fifty four seconds doesn't count, and neither, strictly speaking, would playing it even in twenty four seconds if you did it with your toes.

So tap-dancing doesn't count, either. Or shop-lifting.

But how do we do magic?

Well, like this:

Have fun, and good luck!

Thing To Do Today: prestidigitate. This word comes from the Latin preastigiae, feats of juggling or tricks. The word was probably nudged into its present form by association with the French preste, which means nimble. and the Latin digitus, finger.

Monday 14 December 2015

Spot the Frippet: dinges

You know, a's the South African word for a whatchamacallit, a widget, a thingamajig, a whatsit, a thingumabob, a whatshisname, an oojamaflip a thingy, a veeblefetzer.

Do you know what I mean? 


Well, then, a cumsicom: a dingbat, a doodad, a doohickey, the gubbins.

Anyway, the thing is, when you spot it, enjoy it, okay?

Spot the Frippet: dinges comes from the Afrikaans ding, thing. Cumsiecom comes from the Italian come si chiama, which means what do you call it? and doohickey and veeblefetzer are both Yiddish words for contraption.

Sunday 13 December 2015

Sunday Rest: diaper. Word Not To Use Carelessly Today.

Now, of course I know what a diaper is (though we call them nappies in Britain) but how does one diap?

Well, one can't, of course: the word diaper, meaning a wrapper for a baby's bottom:

 File:Stack of Cloth Diapers with Garland.JPG
(Photo: ParentingPatch Yes, diapers are for Christmas as well as the rest of the year.)

comes from its other meaning, which is fabric with a small woven repeating pattern on it, usually diamonds.

Diaper can mean that sort of pattern used as a decoration, too.

Coat of Arms of Cröchern, Part of Burgstall, showing a diaper pattern. By Günther Gembalski (Wappen vom LHA Magdeburg erhalten) (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

So you can even have diapers on your coat of arms. 

Anyway, what's wrong with the word diaper

Well, you really wouldn't want to get those meanings mixed up, would you?

Word Not To Use Carelessly Today: diaper. This word, delightfully, comes from the Old French diaspre, from the Mediaeval Latin diasprus, made of diaper, from the Mediaeval Greek diaspros, pure white, from aspros, which means shining.

Saturday 12 December 2015

Saturday Rave: The rain it raineth on the just by Charles Bowen.

The Met Office (that's the organisation whose job it is to predict Britain's weather) has just started naming our noisier storms. We've already breezed through Abigail, Barney and Clodagh, and now Desmond has rushed in bringing record amounts of rain and half-drowned The Lake District.

Most British storms come from the West, so does this mean that the Welsh and the men of Cornwall and Cumbria deserve a regular soaking? Are the Irish a bad lot? Are the people of Iona, despite all appearances, grasping and wicked?

Well, no, of course not, because, as it says in the Bible (Matthew 5 45, if you're interested) He maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

As if that isn't difficult enough to accept, of course then humans come along and make things even worse:

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella;
But chiefly on the just, because
The unjust hath the just's umbrella.

That verse has been attributed to various people, but it was actually the happy thought of an English judge, Charles Bowen. Here he is:

Charles Bowen by Leslie Ward 1892.

Charles Bowen was a respected and successful judge, and a much-loved man, but his great gift to us nowadays is that little and oddly satisfying verse.

And it's not at all a bad thing to be remembered for, either.

Word To Use Today: umbrella. This word comes from the Italian ombrella, which is the diminutive of ombra, shade.

Friday 11 December 2015

Word To Use Today: supernumerary.

The thing that's always confused me about supernumeraries is that they never seem to be either super or numerous.

Still, never mind.

Word To Use Today: supernumerary. The super bit comes from the Latin word for above, and the num bit comes from the Latin numerus, which means number. 

Supernumerary means more than usual or more than necessary, and it will often refer to a temporary assistant, or anyone one who isn't really required. 

It can also be used to describe an actor with no lines to say, especially if he or she is unpaid. 

File:House of Lords Microcosm edited.jpg

The House of Lords by Thomas Rowlandson, Augustus Charles Pugin, John Bluck, Joseph Constantine Stadler, Thomas Sutherland, J Hill and Harraden...

...and what they all did is anyone's guess.

Thursday 10 December 2015

Being appreciated: a rant.

It's not the lying...

...we really appreciate your call..., I can cope with all the lies...

...someone will be with you shortly.

I mean, everyone knows to equip themselves with a cup of tea and a good book when they try to phone a helpline, don't they.

No, what annoys me is the fact that someone has recorded exactly this message:

we really appreciate your call and we won't be keep you waiting for long

and is playing it again and again and again... 

...we won't be keep you waiting for long...

Now, if one of the third violins had made a small mistake in the fourth movement of a symphony you could understand their not wanting to record the whole thing again. But this is only one sentence, and I've had to listen to it again and again and again and again...

we won't be keep you waiting for long.

I'd like to be able to say that they'll be waiting a long time before I try to contact them again, but I've just had a look at my bank statement and I see they've charged me twice for the item I bought.

So all I can do is keep terribly calm, find my book - and make myself a cup of really good strong tea.

Still, perhaps this time they won't be keep me waiting for long.

Word To Use Today: appreciate. This word comes from the Latin pretium, which means price.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Nuts and Bolts: Orth & Orth.

I like the sound of Orth & Orth; they sound like a firm of troll plumbers.*

You find orth quite a lot at the beginning of words. It tends to mean either straight and upright or, as an extension of this, correct.

Orthography, for instance is correct spelling, and orthodontics is about correcting the alignment of the teeth. 

Orthoepy is a study of correct pronunciation (good luck with that one).

As I say, there are quite a lot of these words, and, delightfully, there's at least one rogue: an orthopter is nothing to do with having straight or correct wings (the pter bit is to do with wings, as in pterodactyl) but is a heavier-than-air craft that flies with the help of flapping ones.

(Orthopter is short for ornithopter, the ornith bit being to do with the Greek ornis, a bird.)

I'd say that orthopter was the exception that proves the rule, except that exceptions of that sort do not prove rules at all.

Still, it's a nice anomaly, all the same.

Word To Use Today: one that starts with orth. The Greek orthos means straight, right, or upright.

*By troll plumbers I mean trolls who are plumbers, not people who plumb in trolls: as far as I know trolls don't generally require any such service.

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Thing Not To Do Today: wait.

What are we waiting for?

Well, in my case it's a sofa, but as for it the second coming? The Iceman? The train? Godot? The plumber? Wisdom? A parcel? The lift? The toaster? The post (well, the mail if you're in America)?

The headache tablet to work? Christmas?

To be old enough to go to town by yourself? To graduate? To retire?

For the Great Northern Diver to surface? For him to say I love you?

To win the lottery? know something? You could waste your whole lifetime waiting: couldn't you?

File:Busy Waiter.jpg
Picture by Visitor7

Thing Not To Do Today: wait. This word comes from the Old French waitier, and is related to the Old High German wahtēn to wake.

Monday 7 December 2015

Spot the Frippet: chocolate.

Yes, yes, anyone can spot chocolate: the stuff is everywhere. In fact, it's probably harder to go a whole day without spotting some chocolate: in a thousand years archaeologists will be digging up a billion plastic chocolate wrappers and pondering their significance. Given that far more words are spent hymning the delights of chocolate than the delights of...well, more or less anything else, really...then our civilisation will probably end up being written off as a chocolate cult.

File:Laura Bush purchases chocolates at Seroogy's in De Pere, Wisconsin.jpg

And, actually, that won't be so very far from the truth, will it.

Spot the Frippet (Or If You Really Want A Challenge Avoid Spotting The Frippet): chocolate. This word comes from Spanish, and before that from the Aztec xococ, sour or bitter, and atl, water.

Which is interesting, as now it tends to be a cloyingly sweet sort of sludge.

PS In Australia a choco is short for chocolate soldier, which is slang either for a member of the World War II citizen army, or a conscript.

Sunday 6 December 2015

Sunday Rest: urochord.

Is a urochord the sound of two or more people urinating?

Sadly, it seems not. My Collins dictionary tells me it's the notochord of a larval tunicate...

...well, at least I know what larval means...

...and, the dictionary continues, slightly more helpfully, typically confined to the tail region.

Right, let's look on the bright side: most of us aren't going to have the slightest need to use the word urochord, are we? 

But what is it?

Well, it's the notochord of a larval tunicate.

Hang on, where's that dictionary...

Okay. A larva is an animal at a sort of caterpillar stage of its life, the one when it's hatched out of its egg but turns out not to be in its adult form.

A notochord seems to be a thing a bit like a primitive backbone. Humans have them very briefly while they're developing in the womb, but some creatures hang onto their notochords for life.

A tunicate is a marine invertebrate that's often stuck to the floor of the sea. Here's one sort:

Those are bluebell tunicates. Beautiful, aren't they?

The interesting thing is that, although tunicates look quite different from you, the fact that they have notochords when in their larval state shows that they're actually quite close relatives.

Hmm...perhaps I ought to invite some over for Christmas.

Sunday Rest: urochord. The ur bit comes from the Greek oura, which means tail. The chord bit is also Greek, from khordē, which means gut or string.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Saturday Rave: To Meadows by Robert Herrick

Every poem has its moment, and for me this is the one for now.

If you are busy getting and spending, yet find yourself attacked by gloom, it might be one for you, too.

Ye have been fresh and green,
Ye have been filled with flowers
And ye the walks have been
Where maids have spent their hours.

You have beheld how they
With wicker arks did come
To kiss and bear away
The richer cowslips home.

You've heard them sweetly sing,
And seen them in the round:
Each virgin like a spring
With honeysuckles crowned.

But now we see none here
Whose silvery feet did tread
And with dishevelled hair
Adorned this smoother mead.

Like unthrifts, having spent
Your stock and needy grown,
You're left here to lament
Your poor estates, alone.

File:Fishlake Meadows in Winter from Romsey Canal - - 1098740.jpg
Fishlake meadows from Romsey Canal. Photo by Peter Kerr

Word To Use Today: unthrift is a useful word for this time of year. Thrift is an Old Norse word that means success.

Friday 4 December 2015

Word To Use Today: spelunker.

So, what's a spelunker

A young man with a passion for spelling?

Another name for a magician?

Well, no. A spelunker is someone with a passion, and it is quite likely to be someone young (almost certainly in heart, anyway). And as for magic...well, look at this:

File:WonderCaves Stalagmites.JPG
 Wonder Cave of Kromdraai, South Africa. Photo by Rudolph  Bothar 

and this:  

File:Cavern full of stalactites and stalagmites in Metro Cave Te Ananui Cave.jpg
Metro Cave/Te Ananui Cave. Photo by Pseudopanax

Yes, a spelunker is someone whose hobby is the exploration and study of caves.

And who wouldn't be a spelunker if they got the chance?

Word To Use Today: spelunker. This word comes from the Greek spēlunx, cave.

Thursday 3 December 2015

Excommunication: a rant

The Catholic Church has a system for containing and excluding unwanted opinions, behaviour and beliefs. It's called excommunication.

Excommunication. Now there's an interesting word.

I'm not a Catholic, myself, but it seems reasonable to me that Catholics should have a system for discouraging mission-creep in their vast organisation.

But can it really be true that the public announcement of someone's wrong-doing or wrong-thinking is made in Latin? (I've been researching this for some time, but haven't managed to find an official source to confirm this. The titles, at least, of the announcements seem to be in Latin.)

Can it also be true that this announcement doesn't contain a reason for the censure?

Because in that case the fact that it's in a language almost nobody understands probably doesn't matter all that much.

Does it?

Word To Consider Today: excommunicate. This word comes from the Latin excommūnicāre, to exclude from the community, from commūnis, universal.

Wednesday 2 December 2015

Nuts and Bolts: dinkus.

What if a story jumps from, say, mediaeval Venice to a colony living on the moon?

Meanwhile, back on the moon won't work because (presumably) the moon scene is happening further forward in time.

You could leave a space and start again (this space might be called a lacuna, though in publishing it's usually rather dully called a two-line break) or you could fill the space with something pretty, like a fleuron, an asterism, a horizontal line, or even something especially appropriate for the story - for our mediaeval Venice/colony in space story you might have a little moon symbol or a carnival mask, for instance. 

Or you could fill the space with more or less anything else:


This more-or-less-anything symbol you can call by various dull but easily understood names, like space break symbol or paragraph divider, but the special term for this type of thing is the adorable dinkus.


I think I may be going to start using them whenever possible.


Thing To Use Today: a dinkus. I can't find a mention of this word in any dictionary so I don't know anything about its origins. There is a Scots and Northern English word dink, though, which means to deck out finely, which sounds as if it might have something to do with it. 

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Thing To Do Today: browse.

Browsing is all to do with leaves.

It was all about the leaves of trees and bushes to start with, and those who did the browsing were animals such as deer or goats. 

File:Key deer male.jpg
Photo by Averette

But then books came along, and people started foraging among the leaves of those in just the same sort of leisurely, epicurean way as a deer nibbles at a shrub.

Perhaps we'd be better off if we made a point of being leisurely and epicurean more often.

Thing To Use Today: browse. This word comes from the French broust, and before that from some Germanic word. The Old Saxon brustian means to bud.