This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 29 February 2016

Spot the Frippet: a leap.

File:Jumping frog.jpg
(Photo of a Green and Black Poison Frog by Keven Law)

This year, being longer than last, is obviously going to require a bit of extra effort: but take heart, this Spot The Frippet requires no effort at all. 

A leap? Today is a leap day, and we're living in a leap year.


If this seems a bit of a cheat, then here's another kind of a leap:

It comes right at the beginning of the song - a whole octave leap from some to where.

Or, of course, if you want to see a moving-from-place-to-place leap then you can always look out for a hare, a flea, or a cat.

Now, I don't recommend this at all (the idea, I mean: I'm sure the place is charming) but here's Lover's Leap Point in Jamaica:

File:Lovers' Leap.jpg

Or how about, rather less riskily, a game of leapfrog down the middle of the office? 

Put it down as team-building.

Spot the Frippet: leap. This word comes from the Old English hlēapan.

Sunday 28 February 2016

Sunday Rest: rube. Word Not To Use Today.

Rube isn't a word used in Britain. As far as I know it's not used in India, Australia, South Africa or New Zealand. either.

This, I believe, is something to be celebrated.

My Collins dictionary says that a rube is 'an unsophisticated countryman', and of course there's nothing wrong with being unsophisticated or a countryman. But look a little further and rube begins to look nastier: according to Wiktionary a rube is not just a yokel, but an unintelligent and uninformed yokel.

In spite of this, rube is apparently used by respectable people. Here, for instance, are the words of a famous sophisticate (director of the Baltimore Philharmonic Orchestra, no less).

'You look like a're not more than one generation from poor white trash, are you Agent Starling?'

So if you're filled with an urgent desire to emulate Hannibal Lecter...

...hmm...perhaps there are worse crimes than using the word rube, after all. 

But I'd strongly advise abandoning anyone who does.

Sunday Rest: rube. This 1900s word is short for Ruben. In Hebrew it means Behold, a Son!

Saturday 27 February 2016

Saturday Rave: poor Henry James.

Henry James died a hundred years ago tomorrow.

Perhaps I should commemorate the occasion by re-reading What Maisie Knew for what would be I think the fourth time. You never know, perhaps this time I'll be able to work out just what on earth the irritating child did know. 

But I doubt it.

I generally feel when I'm reading Henry James that I'm in a very dim room being shown an exquisitely carved box that, after three hours of careful inspection, will turn out to bear the legend THIS IS A BOX.

In James' book Washington Square the lights seemed to be rather brighter, so on the whole I'd recommend that one.

Having thus proved my utter unfitness to write about Henry James, I'll leave you with a sentence from The Portrait of a Lady, which for me sums up everything that's annoying about James's undoubtedly carefully constructed work.

'Under certain circumstances there are few hours more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.'

It's like watching someone making a cream jug out of matchsticks, isn't it.

Still, there's one cheering thing about the poor man: he did look just like Uncle Fester:

Image result for henry james quotes
Henry James by William M. Vander Weyde.jpg
File:Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester (The Addams Family, 1966).jpg
Jackie Coogan as Uncle Fester in The Addams Family

Word To Use Today: Maisie. Maisie is a short form of the Mairead, which is a short form of Margaret. Margaret comes, pleasingly, from the Latin Margarita from the Greek margarites which means pearl, and before that it was probably borrowed from the Sanskrit manyari.

Friday 26 February 2016

Word To Use Today: mashie

Sometimes the word itself is enough: I mean that just the sound of it, or its pattern on the page or screen, is hugely satisfying. 

There are times when even meaning isn't necessary:

Frairo Jacker, frairo Jacker...

Eenie Meenie Miney Mo...


And so I come to the mashie. I know it's an instrument for hitting golf balls - or used to be - and I have the impression it's a useful thing for getting a player out of tight spots.

A quick trip to Wikipedia reveals a whole group of mashies: Mid mashie, Mashie Iron, Mashie, Spade Mashie, Mashie niblick.

Wikipedia goes on to tell me, oh so mysteriously, that a Pitching Mashie is a number eight iron, and a Mashie niblick is not a wedge.

I have no idea at all what any of it means, but it fills me with a mild exhilaration all the same. I am oddly pleased, too, to learn that although mashies are generally described as obsolete, there has been a revival in their use.

Why has there been a revival in the mashie's fortunes?

What reason can there be, except perhaps as an homage to PG Wodehouse - or for their name?

niblick - an iron with considerable loft

(Actually, I think this might be a niblick...)

Word To Use Today: mashie. This word might come from the Frenh massue, club, and before that from the Latin mateola, mallet.

Thursday 25 February 2016

A fashion statement: a rant.

I see that displaying a life-size fake pineapple, made in either metal or plastic (sorry, resin) in one's living accommodation is currently quite a fashion statement.* 

What I can't understand is, what on earth is it trying to state?

File:Eastern Cape-Big Pineapple-001.jpg
Photo: the big pineapple, Eastern Cape, South Africa, by NJR ZA

Word To Consider Today: pineapple. In the 1300s a pinappel was a pine cone. In the 1600s the fruit was named after it because it looked rather the same.

*Yes, all right, all right, so I read interiors magazines. 

Wednesday 24 February 2016

Nuts and Bolts: poets' cornered.

Rhymes are a bit like parmesan: not an essential nutrient, but nearly always an extra delight.

(HERE, by the way, is a recipe for parmesan ice cream. The recommendation, you'll see, is to serve it alongside a ramekin of pest - but exactly which sort of pest, sadly, isn't specified. Deep-fried rat?)

Anyway, the fact is that most of us love a rhyme.

Famously, there are a few words in English that have no rhymes. Orange is one example, and silver another.

Now, as there's nothing at all to stop us making up words as we go along, there's no reason why this should remain the case. Why shouldn't the glimmering trail of water that leads to the setting moon be called a stilver, or a chip in your nail varnish a morange

As it happens, though, we don't even have to bother with making words up, because despite all rumours to the contrary the simply gorgeous word sporange describes a sac in which spores are made, and a chilver is a ewe lamb.

This is a pity, in a way, because I really could do with a word for a chip in my nail varnish.

I dance along the sparkling stilver
In my silken gown
Though time will banish all the silver
When the moon goes down.

Word To Use Today: well, how about sporange or chilver? Sporange comes from the Latin sporangium, from spor plus the Greek angeion, which means vessel. Chilver comes from the Old English cilfor.

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Thing To Do Today. Or Possibly Not: pretermit.

Okay, this word might be a bit obscure, but, hey, we don't have nearly enough words to rhyme with Kermit, do we?


What does pretermit mean? Well, if something's been pretermitted then it's either been neglected or omitted, or it's been purposefully overlooked.

It's easily done: I mean, how long is it since you've been to a Neighbourhood Meeting?

Are you going to describe all your dog's habits to your auntie?

Will you ever change the kitchen bin liner?

Good grief, pretermitting has been part of our lives for years and never even realised it.

Makes me almost feel sort of intellectual.

Thing To Do Today. Or Possibly Not: pretermit. This word comes from the Latin praetermittere, to let pass.

Monday 22 February 2016

Spot the Frippet: something pinguid.

Languid we know:


 but what about pinguid?

Well, your hands have been pinguid today already, I should imagine and very much hope; and so, if you ate in the traditional English way, was your breakfast:

Photo by Freaky Fries 

The foundation you put on your face was probably pinguid:

File:Woman applying make-up.jpg
Photo by Mark J Sebastian

and so is the stuff that stops your bread from being so much bother to eat (and that's the case whether you come from the buttery North or the oily South):

File:Artisan bread with olive oil and salt.jpg
Photo by Neeta Lind

For pinguid means fatty, or oily, or greasy or soapy. I suppose it means slimy, but not necessarily in a bad way.

The puzzle is, however have we managed to get this far without a word for that?

Spot the Frippet: something pinguid. This word comes from the Latin pinguis which means fat or rich.

Sunday 21 February 2016

Sunday Rest: sobole. Word Not To Use Today.

Look, I'm a sucker for new words, but sobole...what does that mean? Is it a rather horrid word for mouth?

Or is it some African porridge made of the ground-up roots of...well, some plant of which the roots can be ground?

Do you say it SOBohl or s'BOHLay?

Well, it's actually SOHbohl (though, perversely, you say the plural, soboles, SOHbohleez). A sobole is a creeping underground stem that produces roots and shoots. 

In other words, just like me, it's a sucker.

File:Rosa Mundi.JPG
Photo by Libby norman (in my garden this rose sends up suckers all over the place. I'm not complaining).

Sunday Rest: sobole. This word comes from the Latin soboles, shoot, from subolescere to grow.

Saturday 20 February 2016

Saturday Rave: the other Henry James.

Everyone must surely know that it will be the hundredth anniversary of Henry James' death on the 28th February, but who will remember the other Henry James, who was born on this day in 1745?

Well, we will.

This Henry James was Henry James Pye. He was made Poet Laureate (people said, unkindly, because of his support for William Pitt the Younger in the House of Commons) but this only led to his being even more widely scorned than before for his complete lack of talent as a poet.

Even the normally even-handed Wikipedia says: 'although he had no command of language and was destitute of poetic feeling....he published many volumes of verse'.

But, I don't's the opening of his poem The Triumph of Fashion, and apart from a slight limpness towards the end I think it's good fun.

In that bless'd season, when descending snows,
In robes of virgin white, the fields inclose;
When Beaux and Belles, their rural seats forego,
For the gay seats of Almack's and Soho:
When to his consort's wish the sportsman yields,
And quits, for Grosvenor-Sqaure, the frostbound fields;
What time stout Labour waking rears his head,
And jaded Luxury just thinks of bed;
Tir'd with the toilsome pleasures of the day,
Stretch'd on my couch with weary limbs I lay:
Then, as disorder'd slumbers close'd my eyes,
This strange fantastic vision seemed to rise.

The strange fantastic vision you can read about HERE, but it's a battle between Beauty and Fashion. It's both funny and hits a good few targets that are still standing (although admittedly some, like the habit of powdering our hair, no longer need a satirist).

In this month of remembering the famous Henry James let's also remember the other one, Henry James Pye, who all his life attracted scorn, and really didn't deserve all of it.

Bless him.

Word To Use Today: pye. A pye is a book for finding out the Church Service for any particular day. It comes from the Latin pica, which means almanac.  Pye as in pye-dog (a semi-wild Indian stray dog) comes from the Hindi pāhī, outsider.

Friday 19 February 2016

Word To Use Today: pelf.

I've been re-reading Nevill Coghill's excellent version of The Canterbury Tales.

For anyone who hasn't yet got round to The Canterbury Tales, they're stories told by pilgrims on the way to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in least that's what the author Geoffrey Chaucer tells us they are, anyway.

Pelf is a word that crops up repeatedly: well, there are a lot of greedy people going to Canterbury (pilgrims going to Canterbury are said to have travelled at a canter (geddit?) though surely they wouldn't be able to tell each other stories if they were cantering. In any case, a lot of the time the roads would surely have been too deep in mud for anything more than a very sticky walk - especially in April, for heaven's sake. I'd suspect a publicity campaign by some mediaeval version of the Canterbury Tourist Board if the word canter hadn't gone and spoiled everything by not being invented until the 1700s).

Anyway, pelf. A nice explosive sort of a word, ideal for being said with a tinge of contempt - and as pelf means money or wealth, especially if dishonestly acquired, this is as it should be.


It's enough to make a small amount of honest poverty almost nearly slightly quite attractive.

Centre: George III, drawn as a paunchy man with pockets bulging with gold coins, receives a wheel-barrow filled with money-bags from William Pitt, whose pockets also overflow with coin. To the left, a quadriplegic veteran begs on the street. To the right, George, Prince of Wales, is depicted dressed in rags.
James Gillray's picture of the National Debt.

But only almost.

Word To Use Today: pelf. This word comes from the Old French pelfre, booty, and is related to the Latin pilāre, to despoil.

Thursday 18 February 2016

Chirp: a rant

More than a billion year ago two black holes collided. The resultant disturbance gave out about fifty times more energy than all the stars in the universe combined.

On September 14th 2015 the most sensitive detector on Earth, the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory*), built at a cost of just under $500 million, registered gravitational waves that were a consequence of that disturbance.

The Right Honourable the Lord Rees of Ludlow OM FRS FREng FMedSci, the Astronomer Royal (yes, cute, isn't it: the English have kept one since 1675) said: 'This detection of the great discoveries of the decade.' 

Other have spoken of the beginning of a whole new way of investigating the universe.

Right. And so what have they called this momentous discovery, this proof of a huge cataclysm? The proof, as well, of a hundred-year-old theory of Einstein's that underpins so much recent knowledge?

A chirp.

A chirp???

Yep. A chirp.

Look, people, I love a bit of modest self-deprecation as much as anyone. But, hey, you know something, professors? 

It's not all about you.

Word To Use Today, But Only If You Hear A Bird: chirp. This word has been around, firstly as chirpinge, since the 1400s. It's an imitation of the sound of a bird.

*No, I don't know what happened to the W for Wave, either. The place has been called LIGWO in the past.)

Wednesday 17 February 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Salish

I came across a language called Salish the other day, and wondered idly if that was what a Sally spoke.

So I looked it up.

Salish, or Salishan, languages are Native American languages spoken near the West Coast of North America where it crosses the US and Canadian border. There are twenty three Salish languages, all critically endangered. Most fluent speakers of these languages are over sixty, and there are some languages where all the speakers are over eighty.

Terrifying, isn't it.

But what's so special about the Salish languages? Are they worth saving?

Oh they are, they are. They're things of wonder. One of the Salish languages, Nuxalk, has a word with thirteen consonants in a row. (You can't write the word down in our alphabet (though some of the Salish languages have systems for doing so) but it means he had had a bunchberry plant.)

And how about this? Some of the Salish languages don't really have nouns. Mind-boggling, isn't it? Instead of an axe, for instance they have an is an axe, which makes everything almost a verb.

In one Salish language, Lillooet, you can't assume you know what someone else knows, so there's no distinction between a and the. A beaver can never become the beaver.

If someone dies among the speakers of some of the coastal languages, his or her name can't be spoken until a relative is given that name. If the name is something useful, like a River, well, you just have to get by with using a description of what it is. 

If no such relative ever comes along then that word dies and the language is changed for ever.

Salish speakers, 1903

Precious wonder upon wonder, and all critically endangered. 

But here, to cheer us up and make us cry at the same time, is a great Salish hero - and certainly a new hero of mine.

Have a look. The world needs heroes.

Word To Use Today: precious. This word comes from the Old French precios, from the Latin pretium, price or value. 

Tuesday 16 February 2016

Thing To Do Today: be uplifted.

I have it on good authority that a train company in the north of England regularly reminds its customers to uplift your personal belongings when leaving the train.

This is rather annoying English, though it's good Scots, and it's fine in New Zealand, too. In England people shudder because to the English uplift tends (unless provided by a particularly firm brassière or the geological forces of mountain-building) to be moral or spiritual.

But how can we be uplifted?

Well, as Noel Coward said in Private Lives, it's extraordinary how potent cheap music is. National Anthems are specifically designed for uplift, and in fact any familiar music, especially remembered from the teenage years, tends to flood the mind with excitement and joy.*

Uplift may be found in a place of worship, at a football match, in a choir, an art gallery, a wood, a mountain, a valley, a book, a website, or even a restaurant.

I'm told that going to the gym is good, too: but I don't believe it.

So, let's be uplifted, and let joy be unconfined!*

Thing To Do Today: be uplifted. Lift came to English in the 1200s from Scandinavia. The Old English lyft meant sky.

*Unless it's The Birdie Song: that just makes me want to kill people.

**Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Actually, poetry can be pretty uplifting, too.

Monday 15 February 2016

Spot the Frippet: john.

In Britain a john is almost certainly someone called, well, John. There aren't nearly as many of them about as there used to be, but there are still some:

This one is an ex-prime minister:

John Major 1996.jpg
(That's John Major)

This one is a songwriter and singer.

File:Elton John in Norway 1.jpg
(Photo by Ernst VikneYes, it's Elton John (who chose his own name: his surname was originally Dwight).

There are even lady Johns:

Olivia Newton John 2012.jpg
That's Olivia Newton John

and halfjohns:

File:Demijohn (PSF).png
illustration of a demijohn by Pearson Scott Foresman

John Bull is supposed to be a personification of a typical Englishman (though we're really much much wimpier and more laid-back than that image suggests):

Then we have John Barleycorn, who's the personification of whisky, John Doe (a plantiff is an imaginary US legal case which tests a point of law) and John Dory (a fish).

In North America most johns, however, are lavatories. In Australia they're politicians...

...hey, you know something? I think I might be able to see why John as a given name has fallen out of fashion.

Spot the Frippet: john. An early famous John was the cousin of Jesus, and his given name means favoured by God. John Bull comes from the 1712 The History of John Bull by John Arbuthnot. John Dory is named on the same pattern as John Bull. The politician john is short for John Hop, which is rhyming slang for cop (as in being arrested). Demijohn may be something to do with dame-jeanne, which is French for Lady Jane, though what the connection might be I cannot imagine. No one's sure why a lavatory is called a john, but it may be something to do with the very old word jakes, which meant the same thing.

Sunday 14 February 2016

Sunday Rest: edulcorate. Word Not To Use Today.

Edulcorate sounds like a method for making things boring, and, well, we've all known people with a talent for that.

Actually, though, edulcorate means to sweeten, to get rid of an acidity, to soften, or (in chemistry) to filter.

Evelyn said: Dung of said to edulcorate fruit so sensibly as to turn the bitterest almonds into sweet.

Now that may have been acceptable English in Evelyn's time, but as for nowadays...

...I suppose if you were wanting to get rid of a sweetheart then a Valentine card bearing the message You Edulcorate My Heart would probably do the trick.

File:Card; valentine card - Google Art Project.jpg

Otherwise, I'd leave it in the dictionary.

Word Not To Use Today: edulcorate. This word comes from the Latin dulcor, which means sweetness.

Saturday 13 February 2016

Coromandel Fishers by Sarojini Naidu.

Sarojini Naidu: 

Sarojini Naidu in Bombay 1946.jpg

was born one hundred and thirty seven years ago today.

As a poet she was known as the Nightingale of India, but in her day job she was the first woman governor of an Indian State (Agra and Oudh). 

Yes, an extraordinary woman.

Here's one of her poems, written (so fortunately for us) in English. It's very much of its time, but there's nothing wrong with that: the lure and mystery and companionship of the sea will, I think, be part of human life for ever.

Coromandel Fishers

Rise, brothers, rise; the wakening skies pray to the morning light,
The wind lies asleep in the arms of the dawn like a child that has cried all night.
Come, let us gather out nets from the shore and set our catamarans free,
To capture the leaping wealth of the tide, for we are the kings of the sea!

No longer delay, let us hasten away in the track of the sea gull's call,
The sea is our mother, the cloud is our brother, the waves are our comrades all.
What though we toss at the fall of the sun where the hand of the sea-god drives?
He who holds the storm by the hair, will hide in his breast our lives.

Sweet is the shade of the cocoanut glade, and the scent of the mango grove,
And sweet are the sands at the full o' the moon with the sound of the voices we love;
But sweeter, O brothers, the kiss of the spray and the dance of the wild foam's glee;
Row, brothers, row to the edge of the verge, where the low sky mates with the sea.

Word To Use Today: catamaran. This word comes from the Tamil word kattumaram, which means tied timber.

Friday 12 February 2016

Word To Use Today: cakewalk.

What's a cakewalk? It's almost easier to say what it isn't.

It's probably not a walk, and it probably doesn't involve cake, for a start.

A cakewalk may have developed from the dances of the Seminole Native Americans, it may have developed as American slaves copied and made fun of the airs and graces of their owners, or it may even have started with women competing at being the most elegant and efficient at carrying buckets of water on their heads.

The cakewalk, however it started, gradually became more exuberant (cakewalks were often performed in competition, and yes, sometimes the prize was a cake) and eventually quite athletic. It moved away from the slave quarters and went, taking its habanera rhythm with it, onto the stage.

And as it did the old accompaniment of banjo and fiddle changed to piano and then even to orchestra.

In the end everyone was cakewalking:

So: was this an example of black people mocking white people and then leading on the white people to mock themselves?

Perhaps: but while the cakewalk led to so much happiness all round, to so much joy and ingenuity (improvisation was vital to the cakewalk), such a sharing of cultures, then it's hard to see that it mattered all that much.

Word To Use Today: cakewalk. This dance started off as a dignified walk and sometimes the prize for the best walk was, indeed, a cake. Cakewalk meaning an easy task came from when the cakewalk was indeed a walk, and not the high-stepping dance it became.

Thursday 11 February 2016

An epic rant.

'And here he is, coming round the last bend and this has been an epic run!'

'Last night's party? Yeah, it was epic!'

'Oh no, I forgot the oregano. Talk about an epic fail!'

Well, all right, then, if you insist, I will talk about an epic fail. How about Captain Scott's Antarctic expedition dying of hunger and cold just a few miles from safety? Or The Charge of the Light Brigade? 

The Battle of the Somme?

Or how about a straight-forward epic? Originally that was a long poem relating in elevated language the deeds of a hero or two. 

Homer was quite good at them.

(That's Horatius, of bridge fame, engraved by Hendrick Goltzius (yes, I know he's nothing to do with Homer, but I thought you'd enjoy seeing how gloriously ill-dressed and camp he is).)

But, hey, you know something? This need to narrate one's life in terms of imperishable heroism... some ways it's actually quite sweet, isn't it.

Word To Use Today But Only Either Accurately or Ironically: epic  This word comes from the Greek epikos, from epos, speech, word, or song.

Wednesday 10 February 2016

Nuts and Bolts: The Language of Barbie

Barbie's getting a new body. Well, actually she's getting three new bodies: one extra tall, one short ("petite") and one curvy.


The fact is that mums don't like Barbie very much. People have worried for a long time because Barbie doesn't have the proportions of a healthy human being (Yale academics have estimated Barbie's vital statistics as 36, 18, 33 inches, and eighteen inches is under forty-six centimetres). People have also criticised Barbie for lacking aspiration and having far too many clothes.

The shape – and size – of Barbies to come: dolls petite, curvy 
and tall flank regular Barbie

But hang on, Barbie is...plastic. She's a doll. How can a lump of plastic have any aspirations at all? All Barbie can hope for, surely, is to be recycled into something elegant by Philippe Starck.

Well, Barbie may be voiceless but she's still giving her young owners messages: or so, at least, her owners' mothers believe.

The trouble is that mothers at the moment are apparently all for social justice (not that I disapprove) and Barbie, with her wardrobe the size of a medium-sized dictatorship, is seen to be encouraging selfish consumerism.

Will making Barbie taller, shorter or chunkier help? Will her new seven skin tones come over as more aspirational? More responsible? Will we see Barbie in thrift-shop chic? Will she be allowed back into Saudi Arabia, where she's been banned as a bad influence since 2003?

I can't answer any of those questions, but this is a fascinating example of mass communication. The mums and dads disapprove of the message they're receiving, they stop sponsoring the product, and so the manufacturers, Mattel, have to work out why and then fix it.

And pretty much all without a word being said.

Word To Use Today: Barbie. Barbie's full name is Barbara Millicent Roberts. Barbara comes from the Greek barbaros, which means foreign: the word is an imitation of stammering speech. The Sanskrit barbara means stammering or non-Aryan.

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Thing To Do Today: flip.

If you're French then today is Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), if Dutch, conversely, then it's fast night (vaste avond) and if Croatian then today is carnival Tuesday (pokladni utorak).

For English speakers today is either Pancake Day or Shrove Tuesday (the day to have our sins forgiven). The two names are linked: tomorrow Lent begins, and during Lent the custom is to stop eating some sorts of the nicer foods. To avoid waste, all the nice left-overs are traditionally mixed up in pancakes for a final gorgeous feast.

In some places in England and America, though, instead of eating their pancakes people run about with them:

English pancake race

I know the story of how this is supposed to have begun - with a lady late for church - but, even so this is deeply odd behaviour. Still, as long as everyone's happy.

Making pancakes is a long, hot and rather fraught business, but, to be clear, the sort of flipping The Word Den is recommending involves making pancakes turn somersaults in the air rather than flipping your lid, that is, indulging in a burst of out-of-control rage.

To do one without risk of the other, I would recommend flipping your pancakes over a clean table.

Thing To Do Today: flip. This word is probably an imitation of the flipping process.

Monday 8 February 2016

Spot the Frippet: perch.

A perch can be more or less anything a person or animal sits on, as long as its feet are off the ground. 

Bar stools are bafflingly popular at the moment, so you may even have a perch somewhere in your own home.

A perch is also a measurement, either of distance (sixteen and a half feet (or 5.03 metres in your money)) or, if you're measuring stone, of volume. This sort of a perch is sixteen and a half feet by one and a half feet by one foot, which is the same as 0.700842 cubic metres or, if you want to keep things simple by carrying on working in imperial measurements, 0.916667 cubic yards.


A perch is also a pole joining the two axles of a carriage together, a frame for inspecting cloth, or, of course, quite a lot of different sorts of freshwater fish.

File:White Perch.jpg
This very beautiful fish is a white perch, Morone americana.

The fish word is completely separate from the others. It is also very seldom to be seen inhabiting bar stools.

Spot the Frippet: perch. The fish word comes from the Old French perche, and is probably something to do with the Greek perkos, which means spotted. The other sorts of perches come from the Latin pertica, which means long staff.

Sunday 7 February 2016

Sunday Rest: nyctinasty. Word Not To Use Today.

At dusk the flowers close
And keep their sweets 
For butterflies.

Okay, okay, I don't pretend to be much of a poet, but even that's better than: here's an example of nyctinasty, isn't it?

Honestly, some scientists...

File:Oxeye Daisy during the Spring.jpg
Photo of daisy (day's eye, geddit?) by Clément Bardot

Sunday Rest: nyctinasty. Nyctinasty is a term used by botanists with no souls to describe a movement, such as the closing of petals, that occurs in response to the change from day to night and vice versa. It comes from the Greek nux, night, and nastos, which means pressed down.

Saturday 6 February 2016

Saturday Rave: To Winter by William Blake.

There are many wonderful things about William Blake's poetry, but one of the best is that most of the time no one's sure what they're about.

This one, To Winter, seems pretty straightforward to me: it's about the weather. That hasn't stopped a lot of words being written about To Winter, though, especially as Blake later constructed a whole mythology, of which this poem was perhaps part of the beginning.

To Winter is one of a set of four poems (I'll leave you to guess the subject of the others). It's magnificently mighty, mesmerising stuff.

O winter! bar thine adamantine doors:
The north is thine; there hast thou built thy dark
Deep-founded habitation. Shake not thy roofs
Nor bend thy pillars with thine iron car*.

He hears me not, but o'er the yawning deep
Rides heavy: his storms are unchained, sheathed
In ribbed steel; I dare not lift mine eyes;
For he hath rear'd his sceptre o'er the world.

Lo! now the direful monster, whose skin clings
To his strong bones, strides o'er the groaning rocks:
He withers all in silence, and in his hand
Unclothes the earth, and freezes up frail life.

He takes his seat upon the cliffs, the mariner
Cries in vain. Poor little wretch! that deal'st
With storms, till heaven smiles, and the monster
Is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla**.

January 2015 nor'easter 27 Jan 2015 Suomi NPP.png
Satellite image of a winter storm.

Word To Use Today: adamantine. Adamant is an Old English word and comes from the Greek daman, to tame or conquer. In this case the a- bit at the beginning means not.

*Car is a word for chariot quite often used in poetry of this sort of age, ie, long before cars. 

**Mount Hecla, a volcano in Iceland, was thought to be the gate to Hell. An odd location for Winter to dwell: I would have thought: uncomfortably hot. wonder he was so cross.

Friday 5 February 2016

Word To Use Today: wharf.

Quebec Wharf, late 1800s.

I'm trying to think of an intellectually coherent reason to recommend this word, but I'm afraid I mostly love it because it sounds like the laugh of an extremely old colonel.


The word wharf has been extended into some interesting forms: there's wharfage, which can mean either a fee for mooring a ship, or the place where you moor them; wharfinger, the owner or manager of a wharf; and wharf rat, which can be either a brown rat, or a person who hangs about wharves, probably for no honest purpose. 

The word wharf is, though, at its most irresistible entirely on its own.

Wharf! Wharf!

Word To Use Today: wharf. This word comes from the Old English hwearf, heap.

Thursday 4 February 2016

Unconscious influence: a rant.

David Engleman's documentary on the brain quoted research showing that if you're holding a hot drink your memories of your relationship with your mother will be, on average, warmer than if you are holding a cold one.

Another study showed that if you are sitting next to a bottle of hand sanitiser then your political opinions will move to the right.

Will we be seeing bottles of hand sanitiser in every poling booth in every election? Or will we be seeing a campaign for a law to ban them?

moth names switching: a rant

It's not very long since I wrote about the difficulty of naming biological specimens - and it is difficult - but sometimes I run out of patience.

In Britain, in about 1939 the scientific species name of the moth Green Silver-lines, prasinana, was given to the Scarce Silver-lines, previously named bicolorana.

File:Green Silver-lines (Pseudoips prasinana).jpg
Photo of Green Silver-lines by Ben Sale


I've no idea why, quite frankly, but then why doesn't matter: it was still an idiotic thing to do.

File:(2421) Scarce Silver-lines (Bena bicolorana) (7630241904).jpg
Photo of Scarce Silver-lines also by Ben Sale (he's terrific, is Ben).

It means that to know which record belongs to which moth you have to know the date of the record, as well as allow for some delay in getting news of the decision to the mothing community.

Perhaps they sent telegrams...

(Telegram messenger bike)

As if that wasn't confusing and nuts enough, then in about 1990 the name prasinana was swapped back to the Green Silver-lines again.

Of course, if you know nothing of this moth-naming saga, you're bound to assume that all records of all moths called prasinana are for the same species.

In fact, it's really enough to make one question the use of the word scientific.

Word To Use Today: nuts. The word meaning bonkers is the same word as the one that means edible nut (it also means head). It comes from the Old English hnutu.

PS Just in case you're wondering (you never know) the Green Silver-lines was called fagana between 1939 and 1990.

Wednesday 3 February 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the articulate grunt..

Dr Marc Pell, of McGill University's School of Communication Sciences and Disorders, has done an elegant study into grunting.

Actually, it wasn't only grunting he investigated, but various other non-verbal sounds people use to communicate, too.

The study is called Growls Laughs and Sobs are better than words at Conveying Emotion, and the result of the study is pretty much as promised in the title.

Apparently people take notice of non-verbal vocalisations more quickly than they do words: of the three emotions studied, which were anger, happiness and sorrow, people noticed happiness most quickly, though anger stayed in the mind for longest.

How did Dr Pell and his colleagues do the study? Well, they employed everything from brain scanners to the delicious and deliberately nonsensical phrase He placktered the tozz

According to Dr Pell, emotional vocalisations are recognised by a particularly long-evolved part of the brain. This turns out to makes recognition quicker (we've got it down to just one tenth of a second).

This is certainly fascinating, but it's also proof of something I think we really knew. I mean, when the car in front suddenly starts reversing towards us our immediate impulse isn't to say to the driver oh look, darling, I think that car's about to smash into us, is it?

It's really more of an arrrrgggghhh!

Thing To Notice Yourself Using Today: a non-verbal vocalisation. I wonder how many we make for every word spoken?

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Thing Not To Do Today: any blithering.

How long can you go on using a word without knowing what it means?

Well, the oldest person in recent times, Jeanne Calment, lived to be one hundred and twenty two years old, so that's probably about the limit - unless you go Biblical, when it goes up into the high nine hundreds.

I must be entering my sixth decade of ignorance about blithering. All I've ever known about blithering is that idiots do it. You blithering idiot! a teacher would say to some unfortunate forgetter of homework, or thrower of paper aeroplanes, or dropper of ink-bottles.

What meaning does blithering add to idiot

Well, it turns out that my teachers didn't know what blithering means, either, because blithering is jabbering or talking foolishly, and the blithering idiots in their classes were seldom talking. 

(Blithering can also simply mean foolish, but obviously an idiot who isn't foolish isn't an idiot.)

Do I blame my teachers for using the word wrongly? Not at all. They had a jolly difficult job, and without the opportunity to say you blithering idiot in tones of utter contempt I'm not sure they'd have had an entirely adequate reason for coming in to school.

File:Just William.jpg

Thing Not To Do Today: any blithering. This word is a variant of blather, which comes from the Old Norse blathr, nonsense.

Monday 1 February 2016

Spot the Frippet: tram.

A Streetcar named Desire is a brilliant name for a play, and A Tram called Desire isn't - but still, for me here in England an electrically-driven vehicle that travels along tracks let into the road is, and probably always will be, a tram.*

Photo by zed.fitzhume

A small trolley on rails used in a mine is a tram, too.

But how can we spot a tram if we neither live in a tram-crossed city nor have any intention of going down a mine? 

Well, we're still all right as long as we plan to take a shower, because a tram is a fine adjustment on a piece of machinery - and you know how long it takes to get the shower just right. 

(What you're doing when you're fiddling about with the controls is tramming it.)

You may find yourself doing the same sort of thing with an office chair, a rear-view mirror, or the gas-jets under a pressure cooker.

Lastly, if you can find a piece of silk fabric, the threads that run across the fabric - the weft threads, that is the ones that do the actual weaving in-and-out - are called tram.

Personally, I find that last piece of information vastly satisfying.

Spot the Frippet: tram. The fabric word comes from the French trame, which is related to the Latin trāns, across and trāmes, footpath. The vehicle word is, interestingly, nothing to do with footpaths at all: that word probably comes from the Low German traam, beam. The fine-adjustment word probably comes from trammel, from the Old French tramail, three-mesh net.

*A Tram Called Sam is a good title, but that would be a rather different sort of a play.