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 March 2016

Do Use Said! a rant.

I'm indebted to the excellent writer Linda Newbery (and Facebook) for drawing this excruciating load of...please enter your noun of choice my attention.

No one on the internet seems to be owning up to having written it (quite understandable) but it seems to be connected with something called the Bridgend Grid for Learning. 

Bridgend is in South Wales:

The Old Bridge - Yr Hen Bont, Bridgend - - 286432.jpg

but it's a nice place, and I'd hate to think it was responsible for this verse.

To be fair (and I hope you appreciate the effort involved because it really isn't easy) there's nothing much wrong with the verse as verse. It rattles along quite neatly and comfortably. But that doesn't stop it being all wrong.

Here it is. If you can't be bothered to read it, the title says everything.

Try whispered or stuttered,
Or stammered or yelled,
Uttered or laughed.
Giggled, exclaimed, whooped or howled!
But don't use SAID

Never say said,
Use screamed, shrieked
Cheered or sobbed.
Try whimpered, whined,
Moaned or groaned!
But don’t use SAID!
Don’t say said,
Try whooped or screeched,
Or snorted or wailed,
Chanted or hummed,
Bellowed, drawled, ranted or gossiped,
But don’t use SAID!
Never say said,
Use questioned or answered,
Or chattered or cried,
Nattered or raved
Grunted, growled, snivelled or snarled,
But don’t use SAID!

The immediate reaction must be, oh, for heaven's sake, go away and read some decent writing and see how many good writers agree. (The answer, obviously, is none of them).

A bit more thought, though, and we might allow, grudgingly, that very stylised writing, whether gothic horror or broad comedy, will use alternatives for said rather more often than the writers of saner stuff.

But still, the rule for a writer is always. always, always nearer ALWAYS USE SAID than DON'T USE SAID.

You know the very worst thing about this? This verse is taught in our schools.

It's enough to make me weep.

Word To Use Today: said. The good thing is that this word's history in the English language goes right back to the Old English secgan, so it'll probably survive this verse. 

Actually, now I come to look at it, even this silly verse uses say quite a lot, doesn't it.

I feel quite a lot better now I've realised that.

Wednesday 30 March 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the syntax of the syrinx

Out watch!


Oh no, are you all right? Didn't you hear me warn you about that low-flying goose? 

Oh yes I did. I said watch and out, and everyone knows that's a warning of danger.

What? You mean I have to say the words in the right order for it to make sense?


The ordering of words is called syntax*, and until recently only humans were thought to have a language system in which it was important. Now, however, studies of Japanese Tits: 

Parus minor (side).JPG
Japanese Tit

by Toshitaka N Suzuki, David Wheatcroft, and Michael Greisser have shown that they combine their chirrups and tweets in particular orders to make new meanings.

When the call for come here is combined with a predator warning sound, for instance, it acts as a sign for the whole flock to come together; but when the order of the calls was reversed in a recording the birds no longer knew what they were supposed to do.

According to Dr David Wheatcroft of Uppsala University, the study 'demonstrates that syntax is not unique to human language, but also evolved independently in birds'.

I suppose that's probably true...unless some common dinosaur ancestor of birds and humans had a language system that relied upon syntax.

Did a tyrannosaurus' grrrr-chomp! mean something entirely different from chomp-grrrr?

It'd be good to know, wouldn't it?

Word To Consider Today: syntax. This word comes from the Greek suntaxis, from suntassein, to put in order, from tassein, to arrange.

A syrinx, by the way, is the bird equivalent of the human larynx.

*No, sadly not the ultimate cure for austerity.

Tuesday 29 March 2016

Thing To Do Today: fish

In a world where we so often have other fish to fry; in a world where people drink like a fish because they feel like a fish out of water because people have been making fish of one and flesh of another; in a word of confusion where so many things are neither fish nor fowl...

...well, what can we do?

How about listening to a song?

By the way, good post, this, isn't it?

(See what I did, there?)

Thing To Do Today: fish. The Old English word was fisc and has relations all over the place, from the Russian piskar to the Latin piscis.

Monday 28 March 2016

Spot the Frippet: cramoisie.

Cramoisie: a word that conjures up feasts and oak beams and tapestries blowing in a sudden gust of wind from an open window. It could hardly look more mediaeval if it wore a chaperon on its head.

(This is probably a self-portrait of Jan van Eyck.)

You can say it either CR-moy-zee or CR-muh-zee, and cramoisie (or cramoisy, for like so many mediaeval words it isn't fussy about its spelling) means crimson in colour, or, especially, a crimson cloth such as is made for the most royal of shoulders.

Coronation mantle of Roger II of Sicily 1133-4

What pieces of cramoisie can I spot from here? This is a cream and green room, but I can see the odd cramoisie spine of a book, and some dried cramosie rose petals in a bowl with pine cones and spices.

I might love those rose petals even better now I know they're not just crimson, but cramoisie, too.

Image result for wikimedia commons cramoisie

Spot the Frippet: cramoisie. This word comes from the Old French cramoisi, from the Arabic qirmizī, obtained from the kermes scale insect Kermes vermiliofrom the Sanskrit krmija- red dye, literally produced by a worm, from krmi, worm.

That's Queen Elizabeth I of England, quite possibly in kermes-dyed cloth.

Sunday 27 March 2016

Sunday Rest: selectorate. Word Not To Use Today.

Look, if you must use the word selectorate - though I do wish you wouldn't - then at least use it properly.

Do you mean the nominal selectorate or the real selectorate? Or, let's face it, do you mean the winning coalition? 

(I realise most of you will have lost the will to live by this point, so do feel free to go off and do something more interesting, like cleaning the kitchen floor.)

Just in case there's anyone still here, the nominal selectorate are all the people who can vote; the real selectorate are all the people who do vote; and the winning coalition are the people who vote for candidates who get elected.

I suppose selectorate is quite a neat zippy word, but it would have been much more useful if it hadn't been given two very closely connected meanings.

We might even have known what we were talking about, then.

Word Not To Use Today: selectorate. This word is a mash-up of select and electorate. Selectorate theory was outlined in 2003 in The Logic of Political Science by Mesquita, Smith, Siverson and Morrow.

Saturday 26 March 2016

Saturday Rave: Loveliest of trees, the cherry now by AE Housman

AE Housman was born today in 1859 at Fockbury in Worcestershire.

Really, you will say, Worcestershire? But surely he's the man who wrote A Shropshire Lad

Yes, that's right, and he seems to have written most of it before he'd been to the part of Shropshire, his 'land of lost content', that's the setting for the collection.

But then AE Housman was a contradictory sort of a man. He failed his degree at Oxford yet became Kennedy Professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge. He enjoyed gastronomy and flying in aeroplanes and yet was described by a colleague as 'descended from a long line of maiden aunts'. He despised laziness or sloppiness 'A textual like a dog hunting for fleas' and yet he found that sometimes his poetry appeared fully formed with no effort at all and he believed that poetry should appeal to the emotions and not the intellect.

Still, who cares. He wrote A Shropshire Lad.

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Loveliest of tree, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom from bough to bough
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy years a score,
It only leaves me fifty more. 

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go 
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Word To Use Today: cherry. This word comes from the Old English ceris (a singular that was understandably mistaken for a plural, and therefore lost its s) and might go back all the way to the Greek kerasios.

Friday 25 March 2016

Word To Use Today: culprit.

The law has its own language. Whether it was designed to confuse the rest of us I do not know, but it often succeeds in doing so.

The word absolutely in a will, for instance means something far more precise and possibly inconvenient than its usual conversational meaning of definitely; to call a lawyer a daffadowndilly has from time to time been a criminal libel; and garnishments are seldom anything to do with parsley.

Which brings us to culprit.

For most of us a culprit is someone who is guilty of some offence: the dog who ate the homework, for example, or the man who stole the painting, or the woman who left the stable door open.

In law, though, a culprit is nearly always innocent. 

The fact is that to a lawyer a culprit is a person awaiting trial, especially a person who's pleaded not guilty; and, as we know, everyone is innocent until they're found guilty.

It's a distinction that might be useful.

Someone's eaten all the tarts! I bet you're the culprit!

is something that can be denied with a clear conscience because, unless you're actually awaiting trial, technically you aren't the culprit at all.

Do wipe the crumbs from your mouth before you deny it, though, won't you.

Word To Use Today: culprit. This word comes from the Anglo-French culpable, guilt, plus prit, ready, the implication being that the prosecution was ready to proved the guilt of the accused.

Thursday 24 March 2016

A small world: a rant.

The universe, eh? 


Filled with...well, I suppose the universe is actually mostly space, but there's a lot of stuff in there, too.

Small stuff like dust:

North American house dust mite. Photo credit: FDA / Wikimedia Commons

(mostly human skin, apparently, if it's house dust, but also fragments from outer space and tiny creatures like this dust mite)

and enormous stuff like Mount Everest:


Yes, there are absolutely huge amounts of stuff to see, smell, hear and touch. 

Okay. Now, a couple on their mobile phones in a restaurant is (I think) a bit sad, but hey, it's up to them. A couple where one person is on a phone and the other is looking bored or hurt or resentful is sadder, but, again, who can say what's really going on?

But sometimes...not long ago I saw a press photograph of a society wedding where one of the bridesmaids was walking along with her phone in her hand. I thought that was a bit of a shame. 

Then, just a few days later, I saw a press photograph of a bride and groom on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral in London. The groom was having a conversation on his mobile.

And, you know, they did seem to have gone to lot of trouble for him to be ignoring everything around him while he had a chat to someone somewhere else.

Word To Use Today: mobile. This word comes from the Old French from the Latin mōbilis, from movēre, to move.

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Nuts and Bolts: time to think. Typing with one hand.

A study at the University of Waterloo in Canada has found that student essays typed with one hand are richer in vocabulary than those typed with two.

The conclusion of the authors is that typing with two hands makes recording thoughts too easy.

'Typing can be too fluent or fast, and can actually impair the writing process,' said Srdan Medimorec, a PhD candidate and the lead author of the study. 

The authors of the study observe that the speed of one-handed typing is about the same as writing by hand (though I don't know whether that's the speed of writing very small or very large, or with a pencil, a fountain pen, or a dip-pen. My own experience from primary school is that a dip-pen is not conducive to focused thought - though I have to admit that Shakespeare seems to have managed reasonable well).

'This is the first study to show that when you interfere with people's typing, their writing can get better,' said Professor Evan Risko, senior author of the study. He goes on: 'We're not saying that students should write their term papers with one hand, but our results show that going fast can have its drawbacks. This is important to consider as writing tools emerge that let us get our thoughts onto the proverbial page faster and faster.'

So, did I type this post with one hand? No. Perhaps I'll try it one day. Two thoughts: first, the evidence of history is that every age and technology throws up the occasional genius of a writer; second, this study doesn't seem to allow for the influence of the second or subsequent drafts. Or the long walk to clear the brain.

Or. let's face it, even how good people are at typing.

I'll tell you what, though: I'd be really interested in the results of a study into what happens when an essay is typed with either the dominant or the non-dominant hand.

Thing To Try Today: Type One-Handed. The word type comes from the Latin typus, figure, from the Greek tupos, image, from tuptein, to strike.

Tuesday 22 March 2016

Thing To Do Today If Only In The Imagination: be verecund.

What's the point of a word that's only usable by nineteenth century clergymen?

'How did you find Mr Quakeful, archdeacon?'

'Painfully verecund, your grace.'

I can think of two points. 

One: for the sheer pleasure of a new word to charm our ears and form new links among our synapses. 

Two: for the fun of being able to think like nineteenth century clergymen.

'I feared as much when I found him hiding in the cope chest amongst the Lenten chasubles, archdeacon.'

'I understand Mr Quakeful was in some distress at the prospect of an encounter with your lady wife, your grace.'

'1 Thessalonians 5:8*, archdeacon.' 

'Psalm 46:1**, your grace.'

Thing To Do Today If Only In The Imagination: be verecund. This word means shy or modest. It comes from the Latin verēcundus, diffident, from verērī, to fear.  

*But let us who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love and for a helmet the hope of salvation.

**God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Monday 21 March 2016

Spot the Frippet: coomb.

Coom or coomb or combe or coombe or comb?

Well, these are two or three different words, so you can have coom or coomb if you mean waste material from some vaguely industrial process, or you can have coomb, combe, coombe or comb if you mean one of the two different geological features those words cover.

Then there's the sloping ceiling you often find under a staircase or roof, which is spelled coomb.

The industrial waste sort of coomb will be, according to my Collins dictionary, something like coal dust or axle grease, and the geological feature depends upon whether you're in the south or north of Britain. In the south a combe will be a short valley or hollow, especially in chalky areas (places in Devon are quite often called Somethingcombe). 

This is Ilfracombe: (you say it ILL-fr-COOM).

Ilfracombe seen from Hillsborough, Devon

In the north a combe is one of these:

(this is White Coomb in the Highlands of Scotland)

that is, a semi-circular basin made by the erosion of a glacier - which actually I don't think you can really see in this picture. Rats.

Anyway, there we are. An easy spot, and a chance to choose your spelling.

Just what we need at the beginning of a working week.

Spot the Frippet: combe etc. The waste word started off meaning soot, and probably comes from culm, which is related to the word coal. The geographical word comes from the Old English cumb, and before that probably from a Celtic word (the Welsh cwm means valley).

Sunday 20 March 2016

Sunday Rest: eleemosynary. Word Not To Use Today.

I've been aware of this word for most of my life, but it's so utterly horrible that until now I've always pretended it doesn't exist.

I suppose it's the double e that's the very worst bit - horrendously out-of-place in a Latinate word like you-know-what - and even after you've got rid of the nasty double e the word whinges its life away in a whine: mosynary. Hideous! 

The word means begun with, or depending upon, or given as, charity. Of course this only makes things even worse, because charity should be given with a humble heart, and the last thing we should be doing is drawing attention to it with long words. 

Especially hideous ones.

File:Van Dyck - Charity.jpg
Charity, by Anthony van Dyck.

Sunday Rest: eleemosynary (I actually find it physically painful to type that word). It comes from the church Latin eleēmosyna, which means alms, from the Greek eleēmosynē, compassion, from elios, pity.

Saturday 19 March 2016

Saturday Rave: Tommy Cooper.

The comedian and magician Tommy Cooper would have been ninety five today. It's sad, but not very surprising, he didn't have a very long life: he was a bulky man who smoked and drank a great deal. He died on stage at Her Majesty's Theatre, on live television, at the age of sixty two.

Everyone laughed and laughed: they thought it was part of his act.

Because the fact is that Tommy Cooper was the opposite of your smooth comedian who holds his audience in his capable hand. Tommy Cooper would come on blinking with nervousness and gaze round at his audience with sheer naked terror. 

And then nearly all his magic tricks (he did a magician act) would go wrong.

But this is a language blog, so what we want to know is, not what he did, but what he said. Well, he told old fashioned gags of the open-the-gate-straight into-a-bear-trap sort:

This guy walked up to me the other night and said: 'Quick, did you see a policeman around here?' I said no. He said: 'Good. Stick'em up.'

He based his act on being the biggest innocent in the room:

I sleep like a baby. Every morning I wake up screaming at 2 o'clock.

and explored the comedy of bafflement to the full:

They say start at the bottom if you want to learn something. But suppose you want to learn to swim?

I met my wife at a dance. I thought she was at home with the kids.

or he would take a turn of phrase and stand it on its head:

I said: 'How long will the spaghetti be?' The waiter said: 'I don't know. We never measure it.'

Most of all, this big man gave his audiences the impression that he was failing to live either successfully or comfortably in a huge, terrifyingly complex world over which he had almost no control. And yet he still found life of startling interest and (sadly doomed) possibility:

You can lead a horse to water but teach him to lie on his back and float and you've got something.

Perhaps that was why, despite being well-known for giving taxi drivers tips consisting of a single tea bag (get yourself a drink) he was so much loved.

Word To Use Today: cooper. A cooper is a maker of barrels. The word comes from the Middle Dutch cūper, or Midde German kūper, and is related to the Latin cūpa, which means cask or vat.

Friday 18 March 2016

Word To Use Today: wagga.

You'll have heard of the fine city of Wagga Wagga in South Eastern Australia. It was named by the Wiradjuri people in their own language, and Wagga Wagga probably means crows.*

Now, the Wiradjuri language makes its plurals by repeating the singular word: so if wagga wagga means crows, then wagga means...

....yes, that's right, well done: blanket.

Well, wagga means blanket in English, anyway. In Wiradjuri wagga means crow, obviously, but in English a wagga is a blanket or bedcovering made out of sacks stitched together. They were often made by itinerant workers out of wheat bags or wool sacks sewed together with twine. Later, the sacks were used by women as quilting material for patchwork.

File:Wheat sacks in a Portland, Oregon warehouse (3718620966).jpg

If only someone would start making don't know what the English plural of wagga is: waggas? wagga wagga?...with a high enough price tag, I could see them becoming a real fashion statement, too.

Word To Use Today: wagga. This is such a nice word that I wish there were more opportunities to use it. A wagga is named after the city of Wagga Wagga, perhaps from finely woven Wagga Lily Flour sacks.

*The sad thing is that no one's quite sure: some people wonder if wagga might have meant reeling like a sick or dizzy person, or to dance or slide.

Thursday 17 March 2016

So-so: a rant.

Look, I'm not a pedant.*

As long as you're being reasonably respectful to words (that is, not using them to mean Something Entirely Different), and as long as you don't expect the world to love you when you're bad-mannered enough to break taboos people hold sacred, then it's pretty much Liberty Hall as far as I'm concerned.

Go ahead and start sentences with and or but if it gives you pleasure.

Use an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence beginning gibbons for all I care. 

[What was that howling sound?

Gibbons, I think!]

Use so as a conjunction and the chances are I won't even notice.

But even so...let's have a bit of variety can we?

Because if I hear one more person starting the answer to every question in an interview with the word so then I think I just might throw my radio through the window.

So there!

Word Not To Use Too Often Today: so. This word was swa in Old English. It meant in this way, or to that extent, or therefore.

*Except sometimes, for fun.

Wednesday 16 March 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the lure of the obscure.

It's long been the case that one of the best ways to get attention is to be wilfully obscure.

In the olden days people played tricks with postal addresses on envelopes:


is a well-known example,* and I treasure Jill Selwood's letter to The Telegraph newspaper in 2012 in which she tells of a envelope addressed to what she insists was a very pleasant Birmingham Member of Parliament which arrived bearing only the legend 'The Rat of Birmingham'.

It's often been said, and sometimes proved by example, that a letter that's been ignored when written in the local language will be answered with respect and dispatch when sent in some vanishingly obscure dialect of the Inner Himalayas.

And nowadays we have Twitter.

I'm not entirely sure what this Twitter exchange is about, but Argos is a shop that sells technology, and this, as far as I can tell, is the modern equivalent of sending a complaint in Serbo-Croat:

@Argos_Online YO wen u gettin da ps4 tings in moss side? Ain't waitin no more. Plus da asian guy whu works dere got bare attitude 
@BadManBugti Safe badman, we gettin sum more PS4 tings in wivin da next week y'get me. Soz bout da attitude, probz avin a bad day yo.

I'm glad to see it's a ploy that works just as well as it ever did.

Now all I need is a dictionary to work out what on earth it's all about.

Word To Use Today: Um...I don't think I could say safe with a straight face, even if I knew what it meant, but I might manage probz. Probz is, I believe, a form of probably, which comes from the Latin probābilis, that may be proved, from probāre, to prove. 

*That is to say, John Underwood, Andover, Hants (Hants is the abbreviation for the English county of Hampshire. What the t and, indeed, the n are doing in there I have no idea at all). This is a very clever puzzle, though of course it doesn't give the poor postman nearly enough information to deliver the letter. Luckily, as far as I can see from the phone book, there isn't a John Underwood who lives in Andover.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Thing To Do Today: a paradiddle.

Paradiddle may look like a piece of Age-of-Enlightenment whimsy (well, taradiddle has been around for over two hundred years) but it's relatively new.

Fancy a paradiddle

Well, here's how.

You need two drumsticks - or pencils, spoons, or even fingers, one to be employed by each hand.

Now, all you have to do is hit something (not anything alive, please, and preferably not something fragile or belonging to someone else) first with the left stick, then the right, then twice with the left.

Or, and this might be easier for right-handers, right-left-right-right is just as paradiddly.

Or you can do the two patterns alternately. Like this:

How could anyone, but anyone, resist?

Thing To Do Today a paradiddle. This word was made up in the 1900s. It's an imitation of the sound a paradiddle makes. Paradiddle paradiddle paradiddle paradiddle...

Monday 14 March 2016

Spot the Frippet: paraphernalia.

File:Édouard Manet - Mme Guillemet.jpg

Madame Guillemet by Édouard Manet

Paraphernalia is the small stuff: the paraphernalia of gardening, for instance, includes trowels and spades and dibbers, but not the garden; the paraphernalia of riding consists of bits and bridles and jodphurs, but not the horse.

Though that doesn't mean that paraphernalia isn't sometimes all there is: writing a novel only seems to require paraphernalia (I think a laptop counts as paraphernalia); and so does applying make up.

Paraphernalia is an easy spot, anyway, whether you're drawing a picture or making a pizza.

And in this increasingly digital world (by which I mean, in the common way, one where the fingers don't have to be used with much skill) surely paraphernalia is something that should be especially admired, held, and cherished.

Spot the Frippet: paraphernalia. This word comes from Mediaeval Latin from the Latin parapherna, which means personal property of a widow apart from her dowry. That in turn comes from phērne, dowry, from pherein, to carry. In British law a woman's paraphernalia consisted of presents made to her by her husband before or during marriage, over which she should have some measure of control.

Should have some measure of control. Wow, generous, huh?

Sunday 13 March 2016

Sunday Rest: mactard.

What's a mactard

Some sort of mediaeval jerkin? A particularly complicated design of roof?

A spike for fending off marauding barons?

Well, no: the fact is that although mactard does have a mediaeval ring to it, it's actually a rather new word. It's also rather a nasty one. A mactard is someone who spends a lot of time telling the world that Apple computers are better than any other sort of computers, and that those people who use Apple systems are cleverer than any other sort of person.

The word mactard is used by someone who feels deeply humiliated by this opinion.

I expect there are arguments for and against Apple technology (I myself have never managed to get any Apply device to obey me) but there's surely no need to be unkind.

Well, not unless you're facing a marauding baron there's not, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: mactard. The mac bit of this word is from the Apple brand name Macintosh, and the tard bit comes from retard, from the Old French retarder, from the Latin tardus, slow.

Saturday 12 March 2016

Saturday Rave: Richard Steele.

Portrait of Sir Richard Steele

That's Sir Richard Steele. It's his birthday today: he was born on March 12th 1672. 

Steele is most famous for founding and writing The Spectator magazine with Joseph Addison, but he suffers from being the second-named in that partnership. Whether this happened because of euphony, the alphabet, character, age (Addison was a few months younger) or investment I do not know.

Apart from writing for The Spectator, and writing most of The Tatler magazine, Steele was a soldier, a politician, and wrote several plays. A couple of them were even hits. Best of all, his wit and wisdom illuminate our own times quite as much as his:

'Fire and swords are slow engines of destruction compared to the tongue of the Gossip'

could have been minted for the Age of Twitter; and:

'Whenever you commend, add a compelling reason for doing so; it is this which distinguishes the approbation of the man of sense from the flattery of sycophants and the admiration of fools'

could usefully be printed at the head of every REVIEW box on Amazon or Goodreads.

Steele is admired for his wit:

'It is to be noted that when any part of this paper appears dull there is design in it'

and satirical eye:

'good breeding is an expedient to make fools and wise men equal.'

Richard Steele got into trouble for his opinions (he was expelled from the House of Commons, and he quarrelled finally with his old school-friend Addison over politics) and in the end, having lived a busy and rather noisy life, he retired to Wales to a quiet old age.

Luckily he left his words behind, because we need him still.

Word To Use Today: satire. This word comes from the Latin satira, a mixture, from satis, enough.

PS: 'A woman seldom writes her mind but in her postscripts.' 

Um...well, some of his words, anyway.

Friday 11 March 2016

Word To Use Today: parapet..

A nice crisp word, is parapet, though the thing itself tends to be rather worrying.

File:Paolo Veronese - Figures behind the Parapet - WGA24895.jpg
Fresco by Paulo Veronese. Figures behind a parapet, about 1560.

A parapet is a wall that edges a drop, though it's usually not high enough to stop you falling over it.

Parapet's military sense is rather different, because there it is a mound of sandbags, a bank, or a rampart in front of a trench. This sort of parapet is also sometimes called a breastwork. 

This is quite interesting if you know the word parapet's derivation.

Word To Use Today: parapet. This word comes from the Italian parapetto, literally chest-high wall, from the Latin pectus, breast.

Thursday 10 March 2016

All in all: a rant.

I'm not claiming that all actually does mean all. When someone says I was coughing all night then no one is expect to believe that he or she was indeed coughing all night: in this case the use of the word all is merely intensifying a tacit request to acknowledge the cougher's bravery in being able to function at all.

When a decent and honest publisher says it wants all rights in a book, the actual contract will then go on to say though not copyright or moral rights.

When a much-respected pianist, conductor and composer says you're playing all the wrong notes! It's unexpected for someone to reply:*

But even so, those catalogues which insist on labelling saucepans: 

suitable for ALL hobs (except induction) 

are being really extremely perverse and annoying in their use of capital letters.

Word to Use in Lower Case Letters Today: all. This word has been around for ages. The Old English form was eall.

*If that video has been blocked by the BBC, the reply to André Previn's critique is: I'm playing all the right notes - but not necessarily in the right order.

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Nuts and Bolts: how many Danish?

How many Danish?

File:Danish pastries, Chapters Village, Logo Square, Hong Kong Polytechnic University - 20130809.JPG
Photo by Smuconlaw

Well, unfortunately, in this picture there are more than forty nine Danish pastries, and after that...well, after more than forty nine Danish pastries you probably wouldn't care much how Danish numbers work, but the fact is that Danish counting cunningly combines two systems, one based on the number twenty (French does something rather similar) and one on some old expressions for two and a half, three and a half, etc.

The number sixty is straightforward. That's tres(indstyve), or third*-times-of-twenty. (You don't usually bother to say the bit in brackets.) It's a bit long, perhaps. but sixty is three times twenty, so fair enough.

But what about the number fifty? That's halvtres(indstyve) or half-third*-times of twenty. 

The trouble is, as far as I can do the arithmetic, there is no way fifty is half third* times twenty. 

Pleasingly, the numbers seventy and ninety behave in the same way as fifty, and make no more sense.

Now, I've said that Danes don't usually use the bits of the numbers I've put in brackets, but if you're saying fiftieth or sixtieth, for instance, then shortening numbers is most definitely not done. Fiftieth is halvtredsindstyvende, which is so awkward that a lot of the time Danish people are beginning to say nummer halvtreds instead.

Norway and Sweden have number systems based on tens, but trying to introduce a similar system into Danish has met with no success except in inter-Scandinavian communication and on money documents, when one may use femti, seksti, syvti, otti and niti.

Is the Danish system unwieldy and illogical? Yes. Should the Danish people abandon it?

No, of course not, They should cherish it and glory in it. 

And I'm delighted they are.

Word To Use Today: Danish.The first mention of the Danes was in the 700s, when they were a tribe inhabiting Jutland.

*That's third as in first, second, third, not as in one divided by three

Gosh, English is pretty weird, too, isn't it.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

Thing To Do Today: coax.

Image titled Get a Cat out of a Tree Step 1

An odd word, coax

In fact, the more I look at it the less it looks like a genuine English word, even though it's been around since the 1500s, and in this spelling since the early 1700s.

We spend a lot of time coaxing things: ketchup out of bottles, rabbits out of the chimney (well, okay, that was possibly just me), hair into or out of curls, vegetables into children's mouths, vegetables into adults' mouths.

The ketchup example is, I think, particularly interesting. Obviously I know little of your spiritual beliefs, but as far as I know no one among all the billions of humans on the planet has ever imagined ketchup to have the gift of sentience; and yet still we coax it, even talk to it come on, then, just a small dollop on the chips. Thank you! just as we coax ovens to light (my own oven needs a very gentle hand), and cars and lawn mower engines to purr into life.

Good luck with today's coaxing, whether it's getting a toddler to put on his coat, the dog to leave the lamp post, the husband to put out the bin, or the jeans to fit over the hips. 

Coaxing things is a sign of hope, after all; just as kicking them is really a sign of despair.

Thing To Do Today: coax. This word comes from the noun cokes, which meant a fool.

Monday 7 March 2016

Spot the Frippet: cobbler.

In the olden days cobblers lived in ancient cottages and relied on elves to save them from bankruptcy.

Now most cobblers are hidden away in factories, and the elves have been mostly replaced by angels.

People - real people - are still around to mend shoes, though, if not to make them, and the higher your heels the more often you will need their rubber tips renewing.

File:High Heels (3334929609).jpg
Photo by THOR

But if you're addicted to flats then there are other cobblers around. A cobbler can be a sweetened iced drink, usually made from wine and fruit, or it can be a pudding, in which case it consists of hot fruit covered by a scone dough (that's a biscuit dough if you're in America).

Cobbler's wax is a sort of resin used for waxing thread, and cobbler's pegs is an Australian weed, Bidens pilosa:

Commonest of all, though, are a load of cobblers, which is a slightly rude expression for a load of rubbish.

You'll find that sort of cobblers absolutely everywhere.

Spot the Frippet: cobbler. No one knows where the word for shoe maker comes from, but it's been a surname since the 1200s. The drink may be a shortened form of cobbler's punch. Cobblers meaning rubbish is rhyming slang, and the original expression was cobbler's awls.