This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 30 April 2016

Saturday Rave: A Letter To Lady Margaret Cavendish Holles-Harley, when a child, by Matthew Prior

Should poetry be relevant, modern, philosophically rigorous and full of beauties of language?

Not necessarily.

My noble, lovely, little Peggy,
Let this my first epistle beg ye,
At dawn of morn, and close of even,
To lift your heart and hands to Heaven.
In double beauty say your prayer:
Our Father first, then Notre Père.
And, dearest child, along the day,
In every thing you do and say,
Obey and please my lord and lady,
So God shall love and angels aid ye.

If to these precepts you attend,
No second letter need I send,
And so I rest your constant friend.

Sometimes, a joyous love, and a modest and kind heart, are enough for a feast.

Word To Use Today: epistle. An epistle is a long formal teaching document, so calling this poem an epistle is part of the fun. The word comes from the Old English epistol, from the Greek epistolē, from stellein to prepare or send. 

 By the way, Matthew Prior, the son of a joiner, became a very clever, important, and much-loved man.


Friday 29 April 2016

Word To Use Today: April.

Well, using the word April isn't much of a challenge, is it?

Today is April 29th.

There. That's done.

Word To Use Today: April. This word is rather interesting. The Middle English form was apprile, which comes via French from the Latin Aprīlis, which is said to mean 'of the month of the goddess Venus'. 

The trouble is, there's not much obvious connection between the words Venus and Aprīlis. So how come? Well, the first explanation is that the word Aprīlis may have come via the Etruscan Apru from the Greek Aphrodite. Aphrodite was basically the same person as Venus. Well, she held the same position in the heavens as goddess of love, anyway.

The Romans who actually used the word Aprīlis, however, thought the word April came from aperio, which means to open. 

I don't know if it's true, but that's rather lovely, and from now on I shall think of April as the month of opening.

File:Violett tulips.jpg

Thursday 28 April 2016

A Small But Experienced Readership: a rant.

As William Goldman said in Adventures in the Film Trade:

"Nobody knows anything...Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what's going to work. Every time it's a guess and, if you're lucky, an educated one."

The same's true of any creative endeavour. Publishers and Potters and Gallery Owners are Tweeting like mad at the moment, but will it help sales?  Nobody knows.

So, what are the basics for selling a work of art? Firstly, people need to know about it (big publicity campaign, stack 'em high if it's the sort of thing you can stack high, such as a jug or a cushion or a book, word-of-mouth). Secondly, people need to believe they'll derive some advantage from experiencing it.

This second reason is why I fear my next book, due out next month, is doomed. The target readership, according to its publicity, is really vanishingly small:

'Don Quixote thinks he is the bravest knight-errant in all of Spain but he is the most deluded! Follow him on his hilarious misadventures! Treetops Greatest Stories is a series of timeless classics for children aged 711.'

Ah well...I try not to fill this blog with plugs for my books, but if you do happen to know any 711-year-old children then perhaps you'd mention my version of Don Quixote to them. 

It's out on the 9th May.

File:Āraiši Windmill.jpg
 Āraiši Windmill on Drabeši estate, photo by Modris Putns

Thing To Remember Today: nobody knows anything. The word body in Old English was bodig, and it's related to the Old Norse buthkr, which means box.

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Gifts from Amazon.

What do all these things have in common?

File:1950 Jaguar XK120 34.jpg
photo by Sfoskett

File:Agouti .jpg
photo by brian.gratwicke

Cashew apples.jpg

File:Petunia 2.jpg
photo by Elena Chochkova

File:Tapioca - മരച്ചീനി 05.JPG
Photo by കാക്കര

File:Chestnut-fronted Macaw RWD.jpg
photo by DickDaniels 

and last, but by no means least:

(They're a Jaguar car, an agouti, a cashew fruit, petunias, tapioca roots, a chestnut-fronted macaw, and a Brazilian tapir in case you didn't recognise them).

Does that help?

To which list I could add cayenne pepper, a cougar, and a toucan.


Well, all these words (and more) have come to us from the Tupi-Gurani group of South American languages.

And I, for one, am grateful.

Word To Use Today: one from a Tupi-Gurani language. Tupi-Gurani words tend to come to English through Portuguese, and/or French. Agouti comes from akuti, cashew from acaîu, cayenne from kyinha, macaw from macavuana (which may be the name of a type of palm tree, the fruit of which macaws eat) petunia from petun, which means smoke, jaguar from jaguara, tapioca from a word meaning 'juice squeezed out', toucan from tucano, and the beautiful tapir from tapiira.

PS Another reason to celebrate: it's World Tapir Day today!  

Tuesday 26 April 2016

Thing To Do Today. Or Possibly Not: be anserine.

To be anserine is to be like a goose.

Is that a good thing?

Well, I started today wrapped snugly in a feather duvet, and that was lovely. Geese are splendid burglar alarms, are good at navigation, and can exist quite happily on green vegetables.

Geese of the genus Anser are grey, which is dead fashionable (though there are Branta and Chen geese, too, which have areas of black and white on them, respectively).

Geese are rather rare (not really a good thing): even the commonest goose, the greylag:(Anser anser)

has a population of only about a million, and there are only 2,500 nene (you say that nay-nay).

Perhaps we should all take geese as our role models...

...though on the other hand they do honk, some have a habit of bullying other members of their flock, and if someone is said to be a goose then that means they're silly of foolish (anserine can mean the same).

Still, given the chance of being able to fly while wrapped in my own custom-fitted duvet then I could see myself being quite tempted.

And the built-in wellies would be jolly useful, too.

Photo of a Bean Goose, Anser fabalis, by Adrian Pingstone

Thing To Do Today. Or Possibly Not: be anserine. This word comes from anser, which is Latin for goose.

Monday 25 April 2016

Spot the Frippet: scallywag.

William, facing a man wearing a bowler hat
Richmal Crompton's William Brown (and Mr Moss).

A scallywag is someone who takes delight in non-malicious naughtiness: a scamp.

(There have been different, historical, sorts of scallywag: firstly, a white southerner in America after the civil war who made profit from the cause of Black emancipation; and, secondly, a union agitator. But those meanings are out-of-date.)

A scallywag nowadays will probably be a small boy, though just possibly a man, who relies upon charm to get himself out of trouble. 

It'll usually work, too.

Scallywags are to be found wherever there are men, young people or young dogs, and on the whole resistance is useless.

So we might as well enjoy them.

Spot the Frippet: scallywag. This word started off meaning an undersized animal, and the transition from badly-going farm animal to useless person seems natural enough. Where the word came from before that is uncertain. It may be from the Shetland island of Scalloway, famous for its small ponies; or from the Scots scurryvaig, which comes from the Latin scurra vagas and means wandering fool.

You can spell this word scalawag if you like (it's still pronounced the same way) but it may mislead people into thinking you're talking about someone who's amusingly sarcastic about opera.

Sunday 24 April 2016

Sunday Rest: saxifrage. Word Not To Say Today.

A friend has given me a tiny but exquisite saxifrage, a very kind and welcome gift.

But do I call it a SAXeeFRAYDGE or a SAXeeFRIDGE or a SAXeeFRARga?

SAXeeFRIDGE is the pronunciation on various Hear English Words websites, but my father says SAXeeFRAYDGE. Should I continue a family tradition at the risk of sounding, well, wrong?

TV gardening programmes avoid this problem by using the Latin genus name SAXeeFRARGA. Would it be safer to use that, or will SAXeeFRARGA make me sound pretentious?

Ah well. My comfort must be that, given my history of keeping alpine plants alive, it won't be a problem for long.

File:Saxifraga paniculata 070707.jpg
Photo of Saxifraga paniculata by Bernd Haynold

Sunday Rest: saxifrage. This word comes from the Latin saxifraga, from saxum, rock, and frangere, to break. This is probably not because the roots of the plant destroy the rocks they live on, but because they used to be used for treating kidney stones.

Mind you, I wouldn't be surprised if the two things are linked.

As a matter of fact my Collins dictionary agrees with my father: SAXeeFRAYDGE.

Saturday 23 April 2016

William Shakespeare: a rave.

Yes, today is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

If you want to celebrate his life and work with laughter, love, by swimming in the tides of the universe, or by getting drunk, then all you have to do is read his words.

(Yes, it's easily possibly to get drunk on words: though I suppose some people may frown upon it as a form of tax evasion.)

As any words of mine are ridiculous and futile when you can have Shakespeare's, here are some of his (but which words? How is it possible to choose?)

Well, here are some from The Winter's Tale, though they happen to be not about winter at all:

That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes
Or Cytherea's breath; pale prime-roses,
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus in his strength, - a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one. Oh, these I lack
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend
To strew him o'er and o'er

These, as it happens, aren't words full of philosophy, but they do what Shakespeare does better, far better than anyone else.

They make of the whole earth a treasure chest.

Words To Use Today: some of Shakespeare's. If you're stuck, then cream-faced loon from Macbeth is very satisfying to say.

Friday 22 April 2016

Word To Use Today: ignoramus.

Here's one for shouting at the television:

You're a complete and utter ignoramus!

(You say it IG-n'RAYms. It's a very satisfying word for shouting.)

An ignoramus is someone who doesn't know as much as he should, and probably much less than he pretends. You find them (the plural is, sadly, ignoramuses) very regularly on television, in bars, driving taxis, teaching, tending to the sick, and trying to run banks and countries, and *

The first ignoramus was a lawyer, as it happens: but that must surely be the wildest possible coincidence...

Word To Use Today: ignoramus. This word is legal Latin for we have no knowledge of, from the Latin ignōrāre, to be ignorant of, but its modern usage comes from the title character in a play who was a lawyer. The play was written in 1615, mostly in Latin, by George Ruggle. It lasts six hours, but it was said to be 'full of mirth and variety,' and King James I enjoyed it so much he went to see it twice.

The play is an attack by academics on the non-classical Latin of lawyers. It caused a lot of fuss, and even to some changes to legal language.

*Do fill in your own examples from personal experience here.

Thursday 21 April 2016

Famous: a rant.

Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma and who strangled Atahualpa, said Thomas Babington Macaulay, thereby filling me with a healthy, useful, and life-long sense of my own ignorance.

I've looked up the answer quite often, but I always forget who it was.*

I think of every schoolboy knows whenever I come across a list of contestants for some TV celebrity competition, or the latest features on a phone, or...

...well, the list of things that everybody knows (except me) is pretty-much endless.

Here's a recent example from The Telegraph of the 4th April:

'...a tariff war that bears some comparison with the famous Smoot-Hawley Act of the 1930s'

The Smoot-Hawley Act?



It occurs to me that sometimes ignorance might even be a sign of quite a well-lived life.

Word To Use Today: ignorance. This word can mean nastily ill-disposed in this part of Hertfordshire, England, but generally it's to do with not-knowing, from the Latin ignōrāre, not to know, from gnārus, knowing.

*I've just looked it up again, and it turns out that no one really knows who strangled Atahualpa (though Pizarro ordered his execution). Montezuma was imprisoned by the Cortes-led Spanish.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Revolutionary Months

I've written about the French Revolutionary/Republican Calendar a couple of times recently, once when raving about Zola's terrific novel Germinal, and once when describing the stations of the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway.

The days of the Revolutionary Calendar's ten-day week were named first, second, third, etc, but what about the months? The most logical thing would have been to call them first, second, etc, too, and this system was suggested, though it never caught on.

So what can you call your months? There was an enthusiasm for basing French society on Classical Roman lines, but unfortunately the months of the French year were already based on classical Roman lines, and the revolutionaries wanted a complete change.

Well, how about calling the new months


Hmm...well, yes, the South of France, it has a climate superb, and a system such as that would proclaim to the world...

...oh. On the Parisian weather.

Oh well. If one must.


Vendémiaire (grape harvest) Brumaire (mist) Frimaire (frost) Nivôse (snow) Pluviôse (rain) Ventôse (wind) Germinal (germination) Floréal (flower) Prairial (meadow) Messidor (harvest) Thermidor/Fervidor (heat) Fructidor (fruit).

(The year started, in case you're wondering, at the Parisian Autumn equinox.)

Unfortunately this system faced the population with five months of mist, frost, snow, rain and wind, and so you can see why the calendar didn't survive the arrival of Napoleon, who came from a much warmer place.

They went back to the Roman system of rather random gods. 

Nuts and Bolts: thing to consider today: what would you call the months of the year? 

Please don't forget Australia, Russia, and the Solomon Islands in your deliberations.

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Thing To Do Today: slosh.

Are you a slosher?

Do you wash yourself neatly and carefully in a cupful of water, or do you work up the bubbles and have a good slosh?

Do you rinse your plates and stack them carefully in the dish washer, or do you attack them with elbow grease and a trusty brush?

Do you walk round puddles or charge into them?

Photo by Davidhc

Do you cradle the bottle of champagne like a new-born babe and ease open the cork with sensitive, cautious fingers: or do you slosh it all about like an F1 Champion?

Do you address your golf ball with care, precision, four waggles of the hips and thirty five and a half practice swings - or do you just give it a hearty slosh?

I can see there are arguments for and against sloshing, but sometimes it feels good to cast caution to the winds.

File:Singing in the rain poster.jpg

Possibly not if you're in a place with a carpet, though.

Word To Use Today: slosh. This word is a form of slush, though it has a bit of slop in there, too.

Monday 18 April 2016

Spot the Frippet: Brummagem.

Mrs Elton is one of Jane Austen's most odious characters, but even she occasionally displays surprising sensitivities.

'Birmingham is not a place to promise much...'she says in Emma. 'One has no great hopes of Birmingham. I always say there is something direful in that sound.'*

Mrs Elton's opinion was published two hundred years ago, but she wasn't original in despising poor Birmingham. Birmingham, in its old form brummagem (still used nowadays in its shortened form of Brum), has since the 1600s been used to describe anything cheap, gaudy, flashy or tawdry, especially jewellery.

Nowadays Birmingham is, I'm sure, a haven of the skilled manufacture** and exquisite good taste, but the rumble of the word brummagem is good fun to say when you meet with something cheap and nasty.

And of course it's an easy spot, too.

Spot the Frippet: brummagem. This word comes from the even earlier Bromecham.

*A sentiment, by the way, much revisited by opponents of HS2, the planned new high-speed railway line from London to England's second city.

**Despite the fact that a brummagem screwdriver is in fact a hammer.

Sunday 17 April 2016

Sunday Rest: toxic. Word Not To Use Today Unless You Really Mean It.

Want to inflict a shrapnel wound on a sentence?

Then toxic is the word for you.

Ah, you may say, but isn't it a good thing that a word which describes something poisonous (or disastrous in the case of financial assets) packs such a punch?

Yes, it is, but the trouble is that toxic is beginning to pop up all over the place. An unpleasant person is now quite commonly called toxic, and so is a political message which reflects badly on a politician or party. 

At this rate toxic will soon be as weak and useless an idea as a de-tox.

And until then, frankly, it's giving unpleasant people and politicians an importance they seldom deserve.

Sunday Rest: toxic. Word Not To Use Today Unless You Really Mean It. This word comes from the Latin toxicus, from toxicum, poison, from toxon pharmakon, poison used on arrows.

Saturday 16 April 2016

A little of what you fancy: Charlotte Bronte.

Sometimes when I'm talking to schoolchildren one of them asks why do you write?

Well, there are several answers to that - money, for example - but the most important answer, for me, is that when you write fiction you can go anywhere, do anything, and be anyone.

Charlotte Bronte, whose 150th birthday is on the 21st April, is a good example of someone who used her writing to take her somewhere she very much wanted to be.

This was, basically, with a Belgian schoolmaster.

Charlotte Bronte fell in love with a Belgian schoolmaster, Constantin Héger, when she was teaching in Brussels.  Unfortunately he was married, so Charlotte came home again. 

Charlotte lived the rest of her life in Yorkshire, but in her fiction she continued to visit her love, firstly in The Professor (the hero of this book isn't quite a Belgian schoolmaster, he's an English schoolmaster teaching in Belgium. There is a real Belgian schoolmaster in the cast, too, though), then in Shirley (which involves two brothers, one a Yorkshire Mill owner and the other, yes, a Belgian schoolmaster) and finally in Villette - a book which has one of those colossally staggering endings (this one involving a Belgian schoolmaster) that I've been collecting over the last year or so.

Dear Charlotte. She didn't have an easy life. I'm glad she found a way to escape it and go somewhere she really wanted to be.

And I'm even more glad that her means of escape meant that we can go with her.

Word To Use Today: Belgian. The name Belgium comes from the Latin Gallia Belgica, a Roman Province inhabited by the people called Belgae.

Friday 15 April 2016

Word To Use Today: grumpling.

Here's a rare treasure.


I've not known about grumplings long, but it's already one of my favourite words.

What's a grumpling?

Well, you get them in just one small corner of the globe (not that a globe has any corners, but you know what I mean) in the few square miles around the town of Haddenham (you say that HADn'm, and it's quite near Oxford, England) where you find witchert (another excellent word) which is a natural blend of chalk and clay. It's the only place in the world you find witchert, and it's valuable stuff because you can, if you take enough trouble and are prepared to spend your life on maintenance, make buildings with the stuff.

Haddenham Baptist Church, the widest witchert building in the world.

But before you can start building your witchert house you need to make a grumpling, which is a foundation made of limestone rubble. The grumpling has to form the lower part of the wall, too, because witchert isn't very waterproof.

Once you have your grumpling then you mix your witchert with straw and make the first layer, or berry, of your house. Then you wait for the witchert to dry out before you make the next berry. You finish off with a tiled roof and perhaps some lime render, and you hope like mad the walls don't get too damp and turn the witchert back to mud again.

Still, if it does, you'll still have your grumpling

That would have to be some comfort, wouldn't it?

Word To Use Today: grumpling. This word isn't even in the Oxford English Dictionary, so heaven knows where it came from. Perhaps they have particularly surly builders in Haddenham.

Thursday 14 April 2016

Cross incontinence: a rant.

If I have a television here in Britain I'm forced by law to pay £145.50 a year to fund the British Broadcasting Corporation's output.

And what does the BBC produce with this sizable chunk of my hard-earned cash?

Well, there's a programme they keep advertising on BBC Radio 4 called Cross Incontinence.

Call that Public Service Broadcasting? I should coco. Honestly, just what do they think...



Are you sure?


Well, okay, I suppose Crossing Continents might be all right - but just don't get me started on some of the rest!

Word To Use Today: continence. This word comes from the Latin continēre, from tenēre, to hold.

Wednesday 13 April 2016

Nuts and Bolts: putting things in their places.

Is your house called Rose Cottage? Or Seaview? Or Grantley Place?

It probably isn't. No, the chances are that your house has a number instead of a name. It's less picturesque, but it does help people to predict where No 53 might be situated (sadly, in my road, the answer is opposite No 24, but hey....)

You find this basic system doing all sorts of useful work all over the world. It helps, for instance, that the year 2016 comes immediately after the year 2015.

When the French were reorganising their calendar after their first revolution, they called the days of their ten-day week primidi, duodi, tridi...first day, second day, third day...all the way up to décadi, the tenth day. This is clearly much more sensible than calling the days of the week after random gods or astral bodies - though, it must be admitted, not as much fun.

But what if you're creating a whole new land, pretty-much from scratch? Well, that was more or less what was happening when the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was constructed in the north of Canada. The route went through mostly uninhabited and unnamed areas, and so the decision was taken to name the stations alphabetically as they built the line. 

There were ninety three stations in all, so they got through the alphabet several times.

Many of these stations, and the towns that grew up beside them, still bear these alphabetical names. Edmonton is the largest, but Watrous is a substantial town, too. Tate, however, was never much more than a sign. 

It's not quite such a logical system as calling the stations One, Two, Three, but I'd much rather live in Bloom, or Clavet, or Dunn than Sixty Three.

Wouldn't you?

Thing To Do Today: think of a really good name for your house. I've always rather wanted to call mine Gormenghast.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Thing To Do Today. Or Possibly Not: closet oneself.

These days we are forever leaping out of the closet with some news or other. 

I'm gay! I don't shave under my arms! I eat meat! I don't like kittens!

Oh, okay, not that last one. No one is that brave.

Anyway, closet. The first closet I knew about was a water closet, as in WC, and so when in eighteenth century books heroines went to their closets to weep or pray it did seem rather odd behaviour (we don't generally call our cupboards and wardrobes closets in England. Not that going and sitting in a wardrobe would have been much less peculiar).

But, as gradually became clear to me, these heroines' closets were in fact small private rooms. Presumably it's this sort of closet we leave nowadays to make our confessions - and also the sort of closet we closet ourselves in when we want to have a private chat.

But what about a closet strategist? Is that some sort of an interior designer?

Well, no, not usually, but what one is depends on where he is. In Britain a closet strategist is a secret strategist; in America his strategy isn't secret, but speculative. 

It's the sort of baffling quirk of language that keeps the relationship between Britain and America so very very special.

File:Closet 2009 Australia.JPG
Photo of an Australian closet by Matthew Paul Argall

Thing To Do Today, Or Possibly Not: closet oneself. This word comes from the Old French, from clos, enclosure. It's basically the same word as close.

Monday 11 April 2016

Spot the Frippet: brow.

Most of us have eyebrows, though some of us make do with just the one long wiggly one (the King James Bible is strongly pro-monobrow. Deuteronomy 14: 1 says ye shall not...make any baldness between your eyes).

Of course one can't talk of monobrows (or unibrows, as they are sometimes known) without mentioning Frida Kahlo, so here she is:

Having said all that, while half the world is blackening its brows to make them more obvious, the rest of us are plucking them for fear of attracting the attention of birds searching for nesting material. Still, even if you live in a society where eyebrows are completely plucked, or perhaps where faces are veiled and mirrors illegal, then unless you live in an endless plain then you're all right because of course hills have brows, too, and so do the tops of mine shafts and pitheads; and someone who's browbeaten, that is frightened by threats or daunted by unkindness, will probably have a troubled brow, which extends meaning of brow to the whole forehead.

The nice thing is that the brow-of-a-hill word is the same word as the eyebrow sort of a brow.

It makes me regard the trees that fringe my hilly horizon in an entirely new light.

Spot the Frippet: brow. This word comes from the Old English brū, is related to Old Norse and Lithuanian words, and goes right back to the Sanskrit bhrūs

Sunday 10 April 2016

Sunday Rest: pudibond. Word Not To Use Today.

There are several good reasons not to use the word pudibond, the first of which is that it seems to be a misspelling. I came across the foul thing in the introduction to The Stuffed Owl, an anthology of bad verse compiled by Wyndham Lewis and Charles Lee, but pudibond, though good French, seems to be bad English.

In English it's pudibund. Mind you, that might be even worse.

Reasons not to use it:

1. No one will have a clue what you're going on about.
2. It will make you look a snob...
3. ...and an idiot.
4. It's one of the very ugliest words in the English language.
5. Its spelling is a matter of some doubt.
6. It means two similar but opposed things, which will only lead to confusion and distress.

So what does it mean? Well, it can either mean a subject of shame, or it can mean modest, bashful or prudish. 

As this collection of synonyms shows, pudibond (or bund) can be safely ignored for all eternity without being the slightest bit missed.

Word Not To Use Today: pudibond/bund. This word comes from the Latin pudēre, to make or be ashamed.

There's a word pudibundity, but that's so silly it's almost endearing.

Saturday 9 April 2016

Saturday Rave: Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville's Au Clair de la Lune

Today is the 156th anniversary of something wonderful.

On April 9th 1860 Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville sang the beginning of the French traditional song Au Clair de la Lune.

Was he a brilliant singer who transformed a simple folk song into an imperishable emotional journey?

Well, not on the evidence we have, no. He seems to have been a pretty awful singer, and the probable proof of this is in his choice of song, which stays pretty much as close to a single pitch as it can get while still calling itself a tune, as generations of beginner musicians can with gratitude attest.

HERE Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville  is (at least, we assume it's he) singing. This isn't actually the April 9th version, as a matter of fact (that's HERE) but one sung a week later.

Yes, it is painful: so why is it so marvellous and important?

Because this recording is the very first ever of a human voice saying intelligible words.

Even more magically, de Martinville had no idea at the time that his recording would ever be played back. What he was trying to do was to make a picture of the human voice. He constructed his recording device, which he called a phonautograph:

(here it is)

based on the mechanics of the human ear. Here, below, is a bit of a phonautograph recording, which was traced by a vibrating pig bristle onto a piece of paper covered in soot from an oil lamp.

That was more or less that until 2007, when David Giovanni, Patrick Feaster, Meagan Hennessey and Richard Martin formed First Sounds, a project to bring to the world the first recordings of the human voice. And then, by a leap of combined logic, intelligence, engineering and faith, they managed to turn these sooty lines back into something we can hear.

What, short of a unicorn in the garden, could be much more magical than that?

Word To Use Today: phonautograph. I suppose the auto bit of this word does tend to suggest the recorded voice is de Martinville's own, doesn't it, because auto- comes from the Greek autos, which means self.

Friday 8 April 2016

Word To Use Today: teetotal.

What put the tee in teetotal?

I always thought that if you were abstaining from alcohol, as teetotallers do, then obviously you'd need plenty of cups of tea to keep you going. And the reason it wasn't teatotal was...well, perhaps the tee in teetotal was one of those fancy fashionable spellings designed for marketing purposes, in the way that something called Eezikleen is trying to persuade us that scrubbing our skirting boards is fashionable and fun. 

The Drunkard's Progress, a piece of teetotal propaganda by Nathaniel Currier

I was quite wrong about this - though to be fair no one is sure whence the tee in teetotal sprang. 

Was it because Richard Turner had a stammer, and in a speech at the Preston Temperance Society in 1833 declared 'I'll be reet down out-and-out t-t-total for ever and ever.' (The total standing for totally abstaining from alcohol.)

That story is set in England, but a slightly modified version of the story 'partial abstinence from intoxicating liquors would not do, they must insist on tee-tee-tee total abstinence' was current in Charleston, in America, by 1836.

It's a good story, and well worth carrying across the ocean, but I wonder if it's just too good to be true. Richard Turner would have been among sober fellow-enthusiasts at that meeting, and they surely would have been unlikely to form the name for their way of life from an unfortunate mispronunciation.

But then, perhaps there were trouble-makers present.

There are other theories about the origin of the tee. It might have come from the 1820s practice of writing a T after one's name to signify a pledge of abstinence (it was an easy sign to write even for the illiterate). Similar claims as to the significance of the letter T have been made for the files of the American temperance preacher Lyman Beecher.

What's worth remembering is that T-total had a life outside abstinence: in the 1830s T-total meant absolutely total, and not just with reference to drink. A cellar might be in T-total darkness, for instance, or a horse a T-total thoroughbred. So Richard Turner's T-total might have been an early example of this usage.

Of all the possibilities, this one rings most true to me.

Word To Use Today: teetotal. Total comes from the Latin tus, which means all.

Thursday 7 April 2016

As if! a rant.

When did I go wrong? 

When was the moment when an acceptable grammatical form became an unacceptable one?

I'm talking, as I have before, about as if.

I used to be able to describe the world as if I were an elf. Now I have to describe the world like I was an elf.

Says who?

Say two large and respected English publishers. 

The latest instance involved, admittedly, a speech by a troll, so on the whole I think that's probably fair enough. Trolls are, as you'll know, notoriously lax about their personal hygiene, the source of their protein intake, and their grammar.

Singular dwarf by Frølich

The other example, though, was part of a blurb on the back cover of a book. It said like, I suggested a change to as if, but apparently as if was too formal.

So when did I go wrong? Will someone soon be going through Austen and Wodehouse, and updating their grammar..? Will we end up with: Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of my drawer like he was a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad? 

...actually, I'd better keep quiet about that idea - or some idiot will.

Word To Use that was right once. My grandmother used to speak of receipts when the rest of us said recipe. I rather liked it.

File:Whisky Sour Recipe.jpg
Photo by MorrisBarPeru

Wednesday 6 April 2016

Nuts and Bolts: signal flags

Admiral Nelson is famous for putting his telescope to his blind eye so he could claim not to have seen an order, relayed by flags, from his commanding officer.

Fortunately for him, that adventure turned out rather well.

You'd think that in this age of advanced telecommunications signal flags would have gone out of use, but they're still widespread, important, and even in some cases obligatory. This one, for instance:

ICS Victor.svg

means I require assistance.

ICS Alpha.svg

means I have a diver down; keep well clear at slow speed.

ICS Foxtrot.svg

means I am disabled; communicate with me.

These flags are also the V, A and F flags, respectively, and they can also either be used to spell out messages, or they can be used in combination as a code message.

There have been, and are, several languages of ship flags. There are special codes for NATO warships, and others for racing yachts and fishing vessels.

This message:

is one which Nelson himself sent before the battle of Trafalgar: England expects that every man will do his duty. This message is in Sir Home Riggs Popham's Telegraphic Signals of Marine Vocabulary. As you can see, all the words are available in code except for DUTY, which has to be spelled out one letter at a time.

Finally, here's an example of a message consisting of the three alphabet flags we started with. Here it's been made to be worn as a brooch.

The letters, as we saw above, are AVF, but the signal when combined?

Code Flag Brooch
Permission to lay alongside.

Thing To Consider Today: what message your own badge might say. The word signal comes from the French seignal, and before that from the French signum, sign.

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Thing To Do Or Be Today: brachiate

I love words that pop up with two or more completely different meanings.

Brachiate can mean to swing from branch to branch like an ape or monkey (I do heartily recommend this).

File:Brachiating Gibbon (Some rights reserved).jpg
Photo of a gibbon by Troy B Thompson

If you're feeling particularly fit you could try ricochetal brachiating, which involves a bit of flying between letting go of one branch and grabbing hold of the next.

 Brachiate can also mean having widely divergent paired branches, but I fear you can only really be this if you're a plant. 

Or a scarecrow, I suppose.

These are in Japan

That must be the least exhausting option.

Thing To Do Or Be Today: brachiate. This word comes from the Latin brachiatus, from brachium, arm or branch.

Monday 4 April 2016

Spot the Frippet: something brutalist.

I've always assumed that brutalist architecture was, well, brutal.

And, often, it is:

File:Jugotours Beograd Dec 2003.jpg
Western Gate of Belgrade in Novi Beograd, previously called Jugotours, now Genex Tower. Photo by Blago Tebi

But the connection between brutalism and feeling crushed and intimidated by a building is coincidental, because the word brutalism comes from the architect Le Corbusier's term beton brut, which means raw concrete.

So something brutalist can be quite small (if still not necessarily all that welcoming):

Bus shelter on Lewis. Photo by Tom Richardson [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a bus shelter on the Isle of Lewis. Photo by Tom Richardson

It can even verge towards the ornate:

File:Brutalism in Orminge at Boo vårdcentral.jpg
Boo várdcentral in Orminge, Nacka, Sweden

My eyes newly opened, I'm going to spend some time today admiring concrete.

Well, I'm going to try, anyway.

Spot the Frippet: some concrete. The word brutal comes from the Latin brūtus, heavy or irrational.

Sunday 3 April 2016

Sunday Rest: gerontic. Word Not To Use Today.

Gerontic means to do with lives that are coming to an end.

(My dictionary says relating to the senescence of an organism, but it comes to the same thing.)

But, look, I know there are plenty of crotchety old organisms out there, but gerontic is a horrible word to describe them, a awkward arthritic limp of a word without the slightest respect or compassion in it.

File:Vincent van Gogh - Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity).jpg
Old Man in Sorrow (on the Threshold of Eternity) by Vincent Van Gogh.

Let's be more tender to old age. After all, we'll get there ourselves before too long.

If we're lucky.

Sunday Rest: gerontics. This word comes from the Greek gerōn, old man.

Saturday 2 April 2016

Saturday Rave: Germinal by Emile Zola.

The great and prolific novelist Emile Zola's fame rests far too much on just one and a half words: J'accuse.

And that doesn't come from one of his novels.

ZOLA 1902B.jpg

So, Zola. 

You know those people who are effortlessly successful at everything they do? Well, Zola wasn't one of them. He failed the exams he needed to get into Law School, and then worked as a clerk (he ended up running the publicity department of the publisher Hachette) while writing reviews and being less than enthusiastic about the man who was first president, then emperor, of France, Napoleon III (those were interesting times).

Zola was interested in writing realistically (perhaps his passion for photography was linked with this) and half his novels (that's about twenty) form the Rougon-Macquart series about the lives of two families in the mid 1800s. Most of the books are set in Paris, but Germinal is set in the poverty-stricken mining villages of Northern France.

Germinal is an amazing read. It reminded me of DH Lawrence to begin with, but the society of Village 240 makes Lawrence's people look positively soft, straight-laced and pallid. Above all, if there's a book that demonstrates that the human spirit will survive (though not unscathed) in conditions close to those of Hell, then this is it.

Do you like dystopian books? Well, Germinal presents a truly horrifying dystopia which claims, at least, to be as close as a novel can get to reality. It addresses issues of politics, class, progress, mechanisation, heredity and sexual equality. 

And it's a simply tremendous read.

Word To Consider Today: Germinal. Germinal was the name of the seventh month of the French Revolutionary Calendar, which was in Spring. The word is connected with germination, which comes from the Latin germen, bud. 

Friday 1 April 2016

Name To Use Today: Boaty McBoatface.

First of all, it not being my intention to mislead anyone, please look at the date of this post.


All right, now we'll begin. 

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has asked the public for suggestions for naming its new state-of-the-art £200 million, 15,000 tonne, 128m research vessel, to be launched in 2019. 

The new ship will replace RSS Ernest Shackleton and RSS James Clark, and NERC, who are looking for another inspirational name, had expected only marine-research fans to become involved in the naming process. 

Instead the competition has caught the imagination of the British public.

Naturally some undignified and mischievous names have been put forward: It's bloody cold here, Ice Ice Baby and Notthetitanic, for instance, but easily overtaking these in front place with over 27 000 votes is Boaty McBoatface.

Here's the ship:

"Boaty McBoatface"

Now, I hope you've been keeping the date of this post in mind, because this post is of course an April Fool.

No, really, it was: because every word of the story of NERC and Boaty McBoatface is absolutely and completely...


Name To Use Today: Boaty McBoatface. This name was made up by James Hand, a former BBC presenter, who is mortified at his light-hearted suggestion taking off and says he has apologised profusely to NERC. 'It's got legs of its own,' he said.

NERC claim to be delighted at all the publicity.
In second place in the poll is RSS Henry Worsley. Henry Worsley died in January attempting the first solo unsupported and unassisted crossing of the Antarctic.

Which would you choose?