This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 31 January 2016

Sunday Rest: telegony. Word Not To Use Today.

Telegony sounds like an ability to inflict pain from a distance. This is a real-life talent possessed by, for instance, Florence Foster Jenkins: 

but it isn't telegony.

Telegony is the idea that a woman's children are influenced genetically by all her previous lovers.

As far as I can make out the idea is completely nuts (though I suppose someone might be able to get an interesting bit of Sci Fi out of it).

In fact I think it's so nuts that, that, given an opportunity to spend time with a supporter of the idea or with Florence Foster Jenkins, I might even choose dear Florence, instead.

Word Not To Use Today: telegony. This word was made up in the 1800s from the Greek tele- which means far, and gonos, which means seed or procreation.

Saturday 30 January 2016

Saturday Rave: Utopia by Thomas More.

It's the five hundredth anniversary of the publication of Utopia.

I read Utopia (in English, not the original Latin) long ago. At the time the Holbein portraits of Thomas More and his family had made me rather fall in love with him, but I'm afraid reading Utopia put an end to that.

Utopia is...cold, emotionally, or so I thought at the time. I was dismayed by this society where the family is so little valued, and where everything is geared to the public good to such an extent that privacy is distrusted.

It was pretty much my idea of hell.

But then...More's island is Utopia, not Eutopia: it's Noplace, not Goodplace. And the book has jokes, too: More has fun with his banishment of unnecessary lawyers (More was a lawyer) and his opinion of rich people (More made some serious money in his time) as greedy, unscrupulous and ruthless.

More's Utopia, too, is constructed with care and great intelligence, right from the founding principle that 'wherever you have private property...then it is scarcely possible for a commonwealth to have justice and prosperity' to its religious tolerance (this from a man who later became passionate in his persecution of the unorthodox), to its obligatory work schedules, to its refusal to acknowledge symbols of wealth such as gold and jewellery, to its equality of the sexes (well, sort of), to its democracy.

What did More think he was about, writing such a book? 

Well, I now think it was an exercise in humility. The society in which he lived wasn't working (he was later responsible for introducing a system of state-sponsored care for the poor) and Utopia was an example of a completely different system that wasn't going to work either. I think his self-mockery - perhaps you might call it wisdom - is a terrifically important part of the book.

Sadly, oh so sadly, More discovered (though surely he already knew) that wisdom and philosophy are tools too slow and blunt for practical government. Whatever was the truth of the matter, he was soon embroiled too deep in politics to escape.

He was executed on 6th July 1535.

Isola di Utopia Moro.jpg
Illustration from the first edition.

Word To Use Today: Utopia. This word comes from the Greek ou- meaning not, and topos, which means place.

Friday 29 January 2016

Word To Use Today: mulligatawny.

Mulligatawny is a spicy soup of Anglo-Indian origin.

It's an extremely satisfying word to say, mirroring as it does the stress-pattern of the much-loved refrain have a banana.

Mulligatawny comes in many variations, but basically if you fancy some mulligatawny soup then first make some vegetable soup (perhaps lentil and potato with a bit of turmeric in it), and then make a curry (traditionally a meat one), and then mix the two together, and serve.

Just right for a perishingly cold day - and, given its origin, presumably just what you need on a blazingly hot one, too.

Bon appetit!

Word To Use Today: mulligatawny. This word came to English in the 1700s from the Tamil milakutanni, from milaku, pepper, plus tanni, water.

Thursday 28 January 2016

Fountain Pens: a rant.

Nevile Gwynne. the author of some well-selling books on grammar, has written a hilarious article in The Telegraph newspaper, in which he gives us some practical suggestions for improving our children's education.

As I agree with Mr Gwynne that knowing some grammar is a good thing, I expected to have considerable sympathy with his point of view.

I was rather startled, however, by Mr Gwynne's suggestion that the brighter primary school children should start learning Greek at eleven or twelve, particularly since in Britain children have left primary school before they've reached the age of twelve. Mr Gwynne's proposed ban on all computers, at home and at school, was also deeply surprising. 

Most bewildering of all, however, was his suggestion that science should not be taught until the age of fifteen, and even then only as a single subject, with Chemistry, Biology and Physics being allocated a term's study each.

Mr Gwynne follows, of course, in a long line of educationalists whose core belief is that there can be finer result of any educational system than themselves. We might smile fondly and move on, were it not for a truly egregious error in Mr Gwynne's article.

The first item on Mr Gwynne's list of subjects to be studied at primary school children is this:

'Handwriting with fountain pens, correctly held'

Fountain pens? 

As I'm sure you're wondering yourselves, how on earth are the poor children supposed to learn to write a fluent cuneiform using a fountain pen?

Word To Use Today: arrogance. This word comes from the Latin arrogāre, to claim as one's own.

Wednesday 27 January 2016

Nuts and Bolts: long metre.

But, you may say, a long metre is an impossibility: if it's longer than a hundred centimetres then it's a metre and a bit.

Of course in most worlds you'd be quite right, but it depends what you're measuring, and with long metre what you're measuring is hymns.

Now, the length of a hymn is a jolly useful thing to know if the bishop, for instance, isn't wearing the heels for sprinting; but as it happens long metre isn't to do with the length of the hymn from beginning to end, but with the length and arrangement of the lines.

An important consideration with hymns, you see, is not only how long they take to sing, but the tunes to which you can sing them. For this reason hymn metre is considered rather differently from poetic metre.

Long metre (or LM to the hipper sort of organist) tells you that each verse has four lines, that each line has eight syllables with alternate weak and strong stresses starting with a weak one (like the word away), and that the second and fourth lines rhyme. 

The first and third lines might rhyme as well, but that's optional.

Armed with this information, you can sing, if you so wish, the words of O Come O Come Emmanuel to the tune of On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry. 

Or, alternatively, Hernando's Hideaway.

Thing To Sing Today: something in long metre. Or something not in long metre. The word metre comes from the Greek metron, which means measure.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Thing To Do Today: mull.

It's jolly cold and crispy in my garret as I write this. I'm wearing woollen mittens, a scarf, and I'm wrapped in a blanket.

How artistic is that?

From time to time, to prevent pneumonia setting in, I make myself a hot drink, and when I can't face any more tea then I might make myself some mulled...well, apple juice, probably, as alcohol, oh-so-sadly, makes me ill.

As long as you put enough cinnamon in it, it still has quite a kick.

You can simmer any sort of spice or fruit in your drink to mull it. Some people add sugar, too, but a sliced whole orange, some cloves, and a cinnamon stick simmered in your wine-or-whatever for five minutes or so should do the trick.

(This mulled wine also seems to have peppercorns, cardamom pods and star anise in it.)

Of course you may prefer to do the other sort of mulling, which is thinking over a problem without expecting to coming up with a quick solution. In fact, when you mull over something your aim might well be to decide between the lesser of two evils, or the greater of two goods. It's a gentle, careful sort of thinking, looking in detail at every side of the argument. If you do make a decision, it'll be an unhurried one.

And, yes, mulling things over has fallen utterly and completely out of fashion, hasn't it.


Thing To Do Today: mull something. The word meaning to mix spices with a hot drink arrived in the 1600s, though no one's sure from where. The word meaning to think something over probably comes, most unfairly, from muddle.

Monday 25 January 2016

Spot the Frippet: mull.

Here's a four-letter word for you to mull over (though, actually, let's save mulling things over for tomorrow).

So what is a mull, anyway?

The most famous mull, because of Paul McCartney and Denny Laine etc, is probably the Mull of Kintyre

File:Argyll and Bute UK location map.svg

The Mull of Kintyre is the promontory in the bottom middle of the picture. It's in Scotland, in case you don't recognise the map.

Now, there's no chance for people like me who live miles away from the sea for spotting the promontory sort of a mull, but luckily there are other mulls to spot.

One's a soft muslin cloth. It's the sort of thing used for cooking, perhaps, or (in this household) for covering a moth trap to ensure the tiniest moths don't escape from it before they can be identified. 

Or, if you're doing infrared spectroscopy (and aren't we all?) then you may well prepare a solid sample for analysis by crushing it up with oil to form a thick substance called a mull.

But the easiest mull to spot is the layer of top soil that forms wherever there's vegetation, but the soil isn't waterlogged enough to turn the ground sour.

It makes you feel quite differently about soil once you know you can call it mull, doesn't it.

Spot the frippet: mull. The fabric used to be called mulmull, from the Hindi malmal; the topsoil comes from the Danish muld; and the promontory is related to the Gaelic maol

I'm afraid none of the infrared spectroscopy people are saying from where their sort of mull came,

Sunday 24 January 2016

Sunday Rest: anything beginning holo. Words Not To Use Without Some Regret Today.

I realise that the prefix holo- is from the Greek holos meaning whole or wholly, and I have nothing against holographs, holograms, or holoplankton:

(That sort of holoplankton is a copepod.)

I also realise that holos, despite its looks, meaning and pronunciation, has very little indeed to do with the English word whole.

But'd have been fun if all those holo words had been spelled wholo, wouldn't it?

Word Not To Use Without Some Regret Today: one beginning holo. The English whole comes from words to do with well-being.

Saturday 23 January 2016

Saturday Rave: Five Children and It by E Nesbit.

Happy Birthday - or Raazdinyaam Ugutaa, as one says in Aleut - 


The Word Den is five (biyar in Hausa) today!

As I write, The Word Den has more Russian readers than any other country (the USA is next) but our visitors from Sint Maarten (that's half of a small Caribbean island) are quite as valuable and delightful.

It's a huge pleasure to welcome you.

Anyway, qoSllj Datlvjaj! (That's Klingon for Happy Birthday. I have no absolute proof of Klingon visitors, but I live in hope.)

Anyway, it's Saturday, which is rave day, and Five Children and It by E Nesbit seemed an appropriate choice. It was published in 1902, and it's about Five Children (well, one's a baby - except, that is, on one Alarming Occasion) and also, obviously, about, well, It. 

It is a psammead (you say it sammy-add, though as a child I must have skipped the passage that explained this because called him a PUSSaMEED for years).

The psammead is...well, think of him as a cross between a small lazy chimp with eyes on stalks and a cat, and you've more or less got it. 

File:Five Children and It.jpg
Illustration by H R Millar

He's old, irritable, and a sand fairy.

Being a fairy, he gives wishes...


'Go away and leave me in peace, do,' the Psammead went on. 'I can't think why you don't wish for something sensible - something to eat or drink, or good manners, or good tempers. Go along with you, do!'
It almost snarled as it shook its whiskers, and turned its silky back on them. The most hopeful felt that further parley was vain.

It's true that Five Children and It contains some obscure words, like parley, but why should we be denied the joy of obscure words? It's true, too, that the children's family employs servants - but it would surely be the greatest possible snobbery to dismiss the children as uninteresting because of an accident of birth.

Five Children and It is funny, it's full of good characters, and after 114 years it's still exciting. 

I'd recommend it strongly as a birthday treat.

Ki'imak k'iin k'aaba'!

(That's Happy Birthday in Yucatec Maya.)

Word To Use Today: five. This word has roots going all the way back to the Sanskrit pañca.

Friday 22 January 2016

Word To Use Today: kist.

Here's a lovely word, carrying with it the delicate echo of kissed.

Kist is actually three quite different words from three different sources - although all of them mean more or less the same thing.

Kist and kist and kist all mean a large chest or coffer. 

File:BLW Coffer (1).jpg
(This one's at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. Photo by Jenny ODonnell.)

One sort of a kist is probably used for storing linen or a bride's trousseau; one might be used for storing more or less anything (well, not live giraffes, obviously)

File:COLLECTIE TROPENMUSEUM Dragers met een kist verbandmiddelen die meegaan met de militaire expedities in Atjeh TMnr 60037212.jpg

 and the other sort of kist is made to contain a dead body.

The dead body kist is quite often spelled cist...

...well, actually, what I mean is that the dead body cist would be quite often spelled cist, if people spent much time writing about burying people in chests.

Which, fortunately, they don't.

File:Drizzlecombe kist 5.JPG
The Drzzlecombe kist, photo by Herby

Word To Use Today: kist. The Northern English and Scots word meaning a chest or coffer that can be used for more or less anything comes from the Old Norse kista; the word meaning a chest for linen or a trousseau comes from Afrikaans, from Dutch; the burying chest comes from Welsh, from the Latin cista, box

Thursday 21 January 2016

The labelling of labels: a rant

A lovely headline in the Telegraph caught my eye. It said: 

Half of world's museum specimens are wrongly labelled

Sadly, it's not quite true - but it's still an interesting story.

Imagine you've found a weed. You've no idea what it is, so you take it back to the museum. No one in the museum knows what it is, either, so it's filed under...well, dunno what this is won't be a lot of help, so it's filed under the name of the thing's genus, or its family; or perhaps, if there's a real expert present, then he or she might decide the specimen is new to science and give it a completely new name.

The next day, in another museum, another expert might also give the same species a new name - though of course the chances are that it won't be the same as the one given to the first specimen.

On top of all these problems with naming the weed correctly you may have trouble reading the finder's handwriting, be pushed for time (75% of all species have been discovered since 1969), and you'll inevitably have difficulties because research is moving so fast that no one can keep tabs on all of it. 

Is it any surprise that perhaps half the specimens of plants and insects in collections (forty collections in twenty countries were looked at for this study, though most of those specimens weren't actually on display) have labels that are wrong, incomplete, or out-of-date?

Looking at the Ipomoea family of plants, for instance, it seems that 16% of the labels were wrong, 11% were incomplete, and 40% were out of date.

This is, obviously, not an ideal state of affairs: so what can be done?

Well, Robert Scotland's team at the Department of Plant Sciences at Oxford University, together with the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh, have suggested filing all specimens digitally according to their DNA.

And, you know what? That system might work very well indeed.

It wouldn't be as much fun as calling a horsefly Scaptia beyonce because it has a large golden bottom, though, would it?

Word To Use Today: museum. This word comes from the Greek Mouseion, which means home of the Muses.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Nuts and Bolts: a divergence of line.

It's cold, it's dark, and you're in a deserted railway carriage on a journey to somewhere new. The stations are frequent, but if they're lit at all the lights aren't anywhere near the sign that tells you where you are. 

To make matters worse, there's a repeated announcement: 

The train will split at Blogsworth. Passengers for all stations to Dickston must travel in the front four carriages.

and you've never even heard of either Blogsworth or Dickston. Is your destination on the Dickston branch of the line? You have no idea.

What can you do?

Well, not a lot, quite honestly.

The same sort of thing sometimes happens on the London Underground. At the next station the doors in the first carriage will not open says the announcement...and then, as half the time you haven't a clue which carriage you're in, all you can do is prepare to fight your way back through the crowded train if necessary.

But there are minds of genius in the world, and the other day I found that someone has solved this problem. What you need, it turns out, is a system that uses something other than words.

Passengers for Blogsworth must travel on the blue seats, 

it said.

See? Genius. I can't tell you what a relief it was, too.

Word To Use Today: travel. This word, charmingly, comes from the Old French travaillier to travail, from the Late Latin trepālium, instrument of torture.

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: graze.

I think the only piece of Classical Music I heard before the age of ten was Sheep May Safely Graze, which was very often played as we trooped in to School Assembly.

(Actually, I often heard The William Tell Overture, too, which was the theme tune to the TV programme The Lone Ranger. But at the time I wasn't aware it was classical music.)

I suppose Sheep May Safely Graze was thought by the school authorities to be soothing.

It's probably a good piece of music - it's by a composer of colossal, almost super-human, power - but even now it fills my head with cotton wool and uneasy despair.*

Anyway, grazing. Do-it-yourself grazing will involve eating snacks all day, and grazing animals means keeping them somewhere where they can constantly eat grass. 

In the USA grazing can mean eating food in a supermarket without paying for it, and in South Africa it can mean just plain eating (in South Africa a graze is a snack or informal meal). 

If you graze TV Channels you're watching lots, but none of them for very long.

The image of animals gently shortening grass has given us the other meaning of graze, meaning to scrape against something with just enough force to harm its surface. It often involves young knees and tarmac, but bullets (at least in fiction) have a habit of grazing things, too.

I suppose being a sheep safely grazing sounds idyllic: but it's not for me. 

The Lone Ranger did more good, after all - and he certainly had more fun.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: graze. This word comes from the Old English grasian, from græs, grass.

*I fear the process of education has always involved discouraging original thought. Or even thought at all.

Monday 18 January 2016

Spot the Frippet: something gibbous.

There'll be a gibbous moon tonight (that's one that's more than half visible but less than completely full), though it may be that in your part of the world the moon will rise at a silly time - like nine o'clock in the morning - and you won't get to see it.

So what else is gibbous?

Well, gibbous was originally to do with hunchbacks. Unfortunately we're about seventy million years too late to see this creature:

Life restoration

which was called Deinocheirus and was quite easy to see, being as much as three point four metres tall and twelve tonnes in weight (did I say unfortunately seventy years too late?).

But we still have the beautiful camel:

File:Camel carrying hay Pakistan.jpg
Photo by Bart de Goeij ( that really a camel, or actually a close-up of an undercover llama?)

We are also surrounded by beetles, including the lovely ladybird:


Photo by Zachi Evenor

A production of Rigoletto will also provide a hunchback:

File:Francisco D'Andrade as Rigoletto by Julius Cornelius Schaarwächter.jpg

though happily as medicine advances in real life human hunchbacks are becoming rarer.

Lastly, and easily easiest to spot, anything bulging can be called gibbous: and while hunchbacks are becoming rarer, bulges in other directions are burgeoning.

Here's rather an old one, shining, appropriately, like a setting moon:

File:Buffon 1707-1788.jpg
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, by François Hubert Drouais.

Spot the Frippet: something gibbous. This word comes from the Latin gibbōsus, humpbacked, from gibba, a hump.

Sunday 17 January 2016

Sunday Rest: rubiginous. Word Not To Use Today.

My dad's first car was, I now realise, rubiginous. It was a second hand (at least) 1965 Vauxhall Viva, and was in fact so rubiginous that when a wing dropped off and the replacement came coated in anti-rust paint, no one ever got round to giving it a top coat because it matched perfectly.

Why the anti-rust paint was exactly the colour of rust I have no idea at all.

Rust is usually a rather horrible colour, I think, though I don't think it deserves the name rubiginous (you say it rooBIDGinnus).

But I suppose the word might be useful if it occurred in a poem - a rubiginous fox, perhaps - because then you'd know straight away it was a rubbish poem and could go off and read a better one.

Sunday Rest: rubiginous. This word comes from the really horrid Latin word rūbīginōsus, from rūbigō, rust, from ruber, red.

Saturday 16 January 2016

Granny's Wonderful Chair by Frances Browne.

Two hundred years ago today, in Stranorlar in Ireland, a seventh child was born. 

Now, seventh children are said to be magical, but some at least of the fairies on duty at the time must have been idling, for not only was the child, though attractive, not quite as beautiful as the stars at night:

Frances Browne 7.jpg

but, very sadly, when she was still an infant an attack of smallpox took away her sight.

But little Frances wasn't daunted. She listened to the lessons of her brothers and sisters and learned them by heart. She did their chores in return for them reading her stories. By the age of seven she was writing poetry, and from then on she gradually established herself as 'The Blind Poet of Ulster' (she was from Donegal, which is in Eire, nowadays, but is part of historical Ulster).

Frances was soon writing short stories and having them published in magazines. She moved with a sister to Edinburgh, and from there to London, where she continued her busy writing career.

In 1856 Frances Browne wrote a book for children called Granny's Wonderful Chair.You can read the whole thing (it isn't very long) online HERE. The book is a collection of fairy tales, and even today they make thoroughly satisfying and entertaining reading.

And the chair itself isn't nearly, not nearly, as predictable and dreary as you'd think.

This is from very nearly the end of the book. 

'Great wars, work, and learning have passed over the world since then, and changed all its fashions. Kings make no seven-day feasts for all-comers now. Queens and princesses, however greedy, do not mine for gold. Chairs tell no tales. Wells work no wonders; and there are no such doings on hills and forests, for the fairies dance no more. Some say it was the hum of schools—some think it was the din of factories that frightened them. But nobody has seen them for many a year, except, it is said, one Hans Christian Andersen, in Denmark, whose tales of the fairies are so good that they must have been heard from themselves.'

A wise, kind, and generous woman, she seems to me. 

I've never heard of a fairy feeling the slightest bit of guilt, but perhaps there was at least one in Donegal who wondered from time to time if she'd arrived at Frances Brownes' house with her gift really just unforgivably late.

Word To Use Today: chair. This word comes to us all the way from the Greek kathedra, which is from kata, down, and hedra, seat.

Friday 15 January 2016

Word To Use Today: gigaflop.

The nicest thing about the lovely word gigaflop is that it doesn't mean a theatrical failure of giant proportions, but a computer speed of a thousand million floating-point operations per second.

And that was probably quite fast, once, too.

Word To Use Today: gigaflop...hmm, I'm not sure how I can use this one...a brain that worked at a gigaflop, while never quite managing to work out the purpose of an iron? I've certainly come across people like that. Or I suppose it might be useful for anyone making up nonsense rhymes for small children: Gigaflop, gigaflop, gigaflop more/He jumped out of his server and fell on the floor.

The giga bit comes from the Greek gigas, giant (in computer jargon it means two to the power of thirty). The flop bit is short for floating point operation.

Thursday 14 January 2016

Gifting: a rant.

It's the new proven.

What is?

That people keep gifting things (I have a feeling I was offered a raft of unique gifting opportunities just before Christmas, but surely that must have been a nightmare).

Gifting? Are they sure? Not merely giving them? Because personally I'd be happier if people stopped pretending that box of chocolates they picked up at the supermarket is something so valuable and important it requires legal expertise to transfer its ownership to someone else (legally, gifting is something you do to land or buildings) and get back to giving things.

Go just sound pretentious and silly otherwise. I mean, gift me a break, okay?

Word Not To Use Today As A Verb Unless You Really Mean It: gift. This word comes from the Old English gift which was a payment for a wife.

Now, a wife: that's something of really tremendously great value.

Wednesday 13 January 2016

Nuts and Bolts: phonemes

You have to be careful with junk mail. I got something the other day entitled phoneme.

A phoneme is a single speech sound, especially one that distinguishes one word from another, like, for instance, the final sounds of hip, hit, hill and hid.

Academics quibble a bit about phonemes because sometimes sounds that people think are the same aren't actually identical (like, if you're a native English speaker, the k sounds in cool and keep). 

It follows that sound that's a phoneme in one person's language might split into two or more phonemes in another: small children, for example, often go through a stage of not distinguishing between r and w, or y and l.

Because of this, a phoneme is defined as the smallest unit of sound that can make a difference to meaning in a particular language.

But anyway, what about the phoneme email in my junk folder?

Well, luckily, just before I opened it I realised it should really have read phone me...

Thing To Consider Today: phoneme. This word comes from the Greek phōnēma, sound or speech.

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Thing To Do Today: be rapt.

So what has the word rapt got to do with rapture? Or with raptor, as in hawk-like bird?

Can you see any connection?

Well, it's to do with being seized: if you're rapt your attention's been seized; a hawk makes its living by seizing its prey; rapture involves being caught and transported into another state of being.

Yes, you might say, but how can I find something that'll capture my whole attention in that way? 

Well, watch some suds travel oh-so-elegantly round and round and down a plug hole.

Look at the brilliant fit of a bird's feathers.

Some, perhaps more conventional, people listen to stuff like this:

It's scary, allowing yourself to be seized.

But if you have the courage to allow it to happen you'll discover great wonders.

Thing To Do Today: be rapt. This word comes from the Latin raptus, carried away, from rapere, to seize.

Monday 11 January 2016

Spot the Frippet: potassium hydrogen tartrate.

We were obliged to learn quite a lot of languages at my school: English, French, German and Latin, for a start - and it didn't stop there.

There was the rather modern (then) language of the Système International, which gave us, for instance, the Joule instead of the old foot-poundall (foot-poundalls sound like something from the Dark Ages, but they were certainly encountered by my husband, who's only seven years older than me); and then, in contrast, there was the rather archaic language of what was then called Domestic Science (which meant housework, more or less: my husband never encountered this at all because he was a boy) which gave us Cream of Tartar.

I resented having to study Domestic Science quite passionately, but having said that I must admit I'd much rather eat something containing Cream of Tartar than potassium hydrogen tartrate:

Potassium bitartrate

(And before anyone gets too high-horse about the precision of scientific names, I must point out that potassium hydrogen tartrate also goes about under the aliases of potassium acid tartrate and monopotassium tartrate.)

Potassium hydrogen tartrate is also called, most wonderfully, wine diamonds, because you sometimes find crystals of it on the underside of wine corks. Any left behind in an empty bottle is called by the very beautiful name of beeswing.

Anyway, where can you find the stuff? Possibly in soda bread, and possibly in toffee, Spanische Windtorte, scones, and Charlotte russe. Almost certainly in Turkish Delight. It's also found in Baking Powder, so it's in most English cakes.

It used to be used as a purgative (though it contains too much potassium to be entirely safe) and it's also used in solder, so it might even be helping hold your car together.

But, for me, eating cake is the way to spot this one: not that you'll be able to distinguish it among all the other ingredients, but I reckon it still counts.

File:Chiffon cake 02.jpg

Spot the Frippet: potassium hydrogen tartrate. Potassium comes from the New Latin potassa, potash, hydrogen comes from the Greek hudōr, water, and tartrate comes from the Mediaeval Greek tartaron.

Sunday 10 January 2016

Sunday Rest: mansplain. Word Not To Use Today.


It's when a man explains something, particularly to a woman or group of women, in a patronising or unnecessary way.

There was a hilarious example in the Christmas Edition of Sherlock when the great man himself gave a short lecture on women's rights while standing in front of...a women's rights group.

It's terrific at last to have a word for such an established custom because now many unarticulated frustrations can be easily expressed.

I wish they'd put the word together with a bit more care, though: after all, it's not as if explain is any sort of divorce negotiation, is it?

Sunday Rest: mansplain. The trigger for the word's coining seems to have been a 2008 post on LiveJournal by Rebecca Solnit, though she didn't come up with the word. A month later, though, it was being used all over the place, and has now even got into the Oxford Dictionary.

As far the word's derivation goes, the plain bit of explain comes from the Latin plānus, which means level.

Saturday 9 January 2016

Saturday Rave: Emma, by Jane Austen.

Emma, by Jane Austen, was published two hundred years ago last month. 

I should have written about Emma before, but as Emma is, as far as I know, the best novel ever written by a human being, I assumed I'd already featured it.

Anyway, where on earth do I start with the delights of Emma? Even John Mullan, the great Austen critic, admits to finding new subtleties and delights as he studies the book, and a proper appreciation of Emma might end up as long as the book itself. 

Well, here, in brief, are just a good things about Emma.

It's very funny indeed.

It's alive with interesting and believable characters, with some of whom you'll fall in love.

The plot is mind-boggling.

It presents (and quite possibly invents) a couple of literary devices (stream-of-consciousness and free indirect style) and has fun with them, while never forgetting that it's bad manners to baffle or alienate the reader.

It has a really proper ending.

Oh, and did I mention the best-novel-ever-written thing?

"Ah! Poor Miss Taylor! 'Tis a Sad business!" Chris Hammond. 1898. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I'll leave you with something I realised about Emma on about a tenth reading. So tell me, all you Janeites: what is the point of Mrs Bates? (Mrs Bates is a deaf old lady who sits quietly by the fire and is looked after by her garrulous daughter.) 

My answer is below - but I expect there are others.*

Word To Use Today: Austen. This name is a variant of Augustine or Augustus and means great or magnificent. 

Fair enough, I'd say.

*I think that Mrs Bates is Jane Austen's revenge on the ghastly Mrs Elton. They are both wives of vicars of Highbury - and Mrs Elton shows no sign of having either a child or loving friends to look after her in her old age. 

Clever, isn't it - and really rather chilling.


Friday 8 January 2016

Word To Use Today: rum.

Fifteen men on a dead man's chest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.

Why do I know those lines of that song so well and yet have no idea at all about its tune?

It's because the song never had one.

Robert Louis Stevenson made up those lines for his novel Treasure Island. Other people have finished the song off, or have used it in various ways, but I rather like it as it is: rough, virile, and snarling.

Having said that, those lines are slightly annoying because I've spent a lot of time in my life wondering how fifteen men could fit on a dead man's chest - though it was a relief when I realised it was probably the chest the dead man kept his underpants in, rather than his heart.

Anyway, rum is a strong alcoholic drink made of fermented sugar. It's also British slang for odd-and-suspicious. That's a bit rum, someone will say, meaning that there might be more to that than meets the eye. 

Alternatively, that's a bit rum might mean that's a bit unfair, or a bit unfortunate.

Anyway, rum: a rather lovable and useful word. I recommend it.

Word To Use Today: rum. The drink might have started off being called rumbullion, but no one knows why. Rum meaning odd might be one of our rare words stolen from Romany. Rom in Romany means man.

Thursday 7 January 2016

Daesh: a rant.

As stories have told us for thousands of years, names are magic. If you know someone's name then you have power over them.* 

If you know someone's name then you know he exists, anyway.

So: is it ISIS or ISIL, or the so-called Islamic State?

Or Daesh?

Or first one, then another, in rotation?

The British media seem, after a lot of soul-searching, to have gone for the last option. It means we're fighting something amorphous - huge, but at the same time vanishingly small, like an invasion of insects. 

All people, you see, have names.

Is this not-naming deliberate? 


It's magic, anyway.

And we must hope it's a weapon we can control.

Word To Consider Today: daesh. This is an acronym based on Al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Iraq wa al-Sham, which is the group's full name. Daesh sounds like the Arabic Dahes, which means one who sows discord, and the group sees the name Daesh as an insult. In July, the director-general of the BBC, Lord Hall, said that the use of such a term would break BBC rules on impartiality by giving the BBC's audience the impression that the BBC supported the group's opponents.

*No, don't start congratulating yourself that things are different nowadays: think about banks and your personal details!

Wednesday 6 January 2016

Nuts and Bolts: concrete nouns.

The name of something made of concrete is a concrete noun.

Well, that was easy, wasn't it. 

Unfortunately the name of anything made of anything you can touch is also a concrete noun (even if you're unlikely to be in a position to touch it: like the sun, for instance, or Nicole Kidman).

The names of some things you can't touch that are concrete nouns, too: a rainbow, for example. Or a shadow.

Then there are things you can't touch or see, like a crash (the sort of crash you hear, I mean). Crash is a concrete noun, too. 

So what sort of names aren't concrete nouns?

You're usually told you've got to think of something you can't detect with any of your senses, but unfortunately even that doesn't work, because although you can sense danger, for instance, danger doesn't count as a concrete noun - not even if it's approaching in the form of a large block of concrete that's about to drop on your head.

Danger is in fact an abstract noun (which is the other sort of noun).

I suppose you'd have to say that non-concrete nouns are those that have no physical existence, like kindness, or anger, or lacrosse...

,,,which just leaves us with the Problem of God, doesn't it?

Ah well!

Word To Think About Today: concrete. This word comes from the Latin concrētus, grown together or hardened, from crēscere, to grow. 

Tuesday 5 January 2016

Thing Not To Be Today: spindly.

To be spindly is to be so tall and thin as to be stilt-like.

File:Black-winged Stilt - Italy IMG 0043 (15538369036).jpg
(Photo of a Black-winged stilt by Francesco Veronesi)

Tall and thin aren't bad things to be: 

A very tall, thin cartoon drawing of President Lincoln
(That's President Lincoln)

though it can be a nuisance if the wind catches your folds of sagging skin and blows you over.

The main problem, however, is that if you're spindly at this time of the year then people will suspect you of being a spoil-sport.

Thing Not To Be Today: spindly. This word comes from spindle, a stick used for spinning wool into thread. It comes from the Old High German spinnala.

Monday 4 January 2016

Spot the Frippet: cardinal.

I've never seen a human cardinal (the sort that advises and elects the pope) though I understand that they're the ones in the red robes.

There's plenty of that bright cardinal red about, though. It can be found on cardinal beetles

File:Pyrochroa coccinea (Cardinal beetle), Elst (Gld), the Netherlands - 2.jpg
photo by Bj.schoenmakers

 cardinal flowers:

Lobelia cardinalis - Cardinal Flower.jpg

 but not the cardinal spider

Tegenaria parietina MHNT.jpg

which is so named because Cardinal Wolsey: 

File:Cardinal Woolsey by unknown artist.jpg

either loved them or hated them, no one's quite sure which. 

This sort of cardinal is red, too:


Then there are the cardinal points, north south east and west - though how you spot those I have not the faintest idea.

Still, the cardinal virtues - justice, prudence, temperance and fortitude are I'm sure displayed all around you, and especially if you can find a mirror. If you can't find a mirror then how about a cardinal sin? That's any of the seven deadly sins, which are all easy to find.

The cardinal vowels...well, the idea is that they're defined by the shape your mouth makes when it says them. Oooooh! will do. 

The mathematicians among us will know all about cardinal numbers, and the non-mathematicians will know that in astrology cardinal refers to anything relating to the star signs Aries, Cancer, Libra and Capricorn.

And the best bit of all?

It's this:

Spot the Frippet. The word cardinal comes from the Latin cardinālis, which means to do with hinges.

Hinges. You have to laugh, you know.

Sunday 3 January 2016

Sunday Rest: evacuate. Word Not To Use Reflexively Today Without Extreme Care.

While bush fires have been burning in Australia and America, in Britain it's been raining and raining. Some unfortunate people's houses have been flooded four times during December, and yet more rain is forecast. 

On Boxing Day, December 26th, the River Irwell burst its banks in Radcliffe, Greater Manchester, causing all sorts of damage.

A report from The Telegraph online:

Saeed Atcha, a radio presenter, said: 'All of a sudden we heard a bang, we looked over to where the sound came from and couldn't see anything. Then a second later there was another explosion and then a big orange beam lit up the sky, like a flash. It was very very scary. Everyone was looking round in a state of shock.
A police officer shouted 'Get back into your house, there has been a gas explosion'.
'Two or three minutes later the police officer jumped into his [car and] drove away. After he gave the warning he evacuated himself '.

And, well, really, who can blame him?

Word Not To Use Reflexively Today Without Extreme Care: evacuate. This is rather a horrid word, partly because it's much too much like vacuous. It comes from the Latin ēvacuāre, from vacuus, empty.

Saturday 2 January 2016

Saturday Rave: Little Gidding by TS Eliot.

It's a long time since I read Little Gidding, but I came across these lines recently:

...last year's words belong to last year's language
And next year's words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.

Perhaps the most wonderful thing about that passage is that it's only half true. Last year's words are still with us (Little Gidding was published, after all, in 1942): we depend upon them to help break down the barrier between the past and the future.

But still, I'm looking forward to next year's words. 

And I'm hoping for many beginnings.

Word To Use Today: Gidding. The village of Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire is named after a Saxon called Gydda, who is now known only for the new use people have made of his name..

Friday 1 January 2016

Word To Use Today: calennig.

A calennig is a Welsh New Year present, often given to or made by children.

You can make a calennig yourself quite easily: all you do is get an apple or an orange, poke in three sticks to make legs, stick in some cloves (and dried fruit, oats, nuts or wheat, apparently, though surely a raisin or a date is too squidgy to stick into an apple) and then you put a spray of greenery (probably thyme or rosemary, or holly or box) in the top. And that's it. A calennig.

You then can either put it on the windowsill to bring luck to the house, or you can give it to friends or family to give the luck to them. Or you can go really old-fashioned and carry one from house to house in the hope of being given sweets or cakes or even a cup of beer,

Dydd calan yw hi heddiw, 

you might say as you go:

Rwy'n dyfod ar eich traws
I'mofyn am y geiniog
Neu grwst a bara a chaws.

Today is the start of the New Year, and I have come to ask for coins, or a crust and bread and cheese.

And you know something? 

I might even try it, to see if it works.

Word To Use Today: calennig. This Welsh word means first day of the month. It comes from the Latin kalends and is related to the English word calendar,

NB: Charmingly, the Welsh village of Cwm Gwaun is still working on the Julian Calendar as far as its calennig celebrations go, and so they're held on January 13th.

Happy New Year to you, whenever it may fall.