This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 31 May 2016

Thing Not To Be Today: wabbit.

No, not rabbit, wabbit.

I know in some people's mouths they sound the same (poor Elmer Fudd) but this is nothing to do with Bugs Bunny -

- no, I said this is NOTHING to do with Bugs Bunny!

Wabbit is instead an endearingly plain Scots word meaning weary or exhausted. 

On the whole it's something to avoid, unless getting there has been a lot of fun.

File:Robert Dudley Elizabeth Dancing.jpg

Thing Not To Be Today: wabbit. This word comes from wobart, which means withered or feeble.

Monday 30 May 2016

Spot the Frippet: wally.

I realise that the Word Den isn't first to try to spot Wally*:

(Here's Wally being drawn by his illustrator and creator Martin Handford)

but for those of us with no time to search the faces of an enormous crowd:


for a man in a striped hat, there are other wallies around that are easier to spot.

In Britain, a wally is usually a stupid person - not one who's unintelligent, necessarily, but someone who has done a silly thing. A Nobel Prize physicist who went out without his door keys would be a wally, for instance, as would someone who used salt instead of sugar when making a cake (but probably only if it was a man: wallies are usually male) or who fell into a dustbin while trying to clean it.

Wally has had a much more distinguished history in Scotland. From the 1600s it meant fine, pleasing or splendid, but now it's much more likely to mean made of china:

 or perhaps lined with ceramic tiles:

(This isn't Scotland, this is the dome of the rock, Jerusalem)

So there we are. Well, it's made playing Where's Wally easier, hasn't it?

Word To Use Today: wally. The silly person word is probably short for the Christian name Walter. No one is sure where the fine and pleasing word comes from, but the china word comes from wallow, which is an old local word meaning faded, from the Old English wealwian.

*Apparently he's called Waldo in America.

Sunday 29 May 2016

Sunday Rest: pendule. Word Not To Use Today.

Yes, as you'd expect, a pendule is something that swings like a pendulum.

The truly horrifying thing is that what's swinging like a pendulum is you.

Imagine you're climbing a mountain. No, not a The-Hills-Are-Alive-With-The-Sound-Of-Music type tramping mountain, but a hand-hold to toe-hold affair where you're roped to...well, whatever you can find that might stop you falling hundreds of metres through the freezing air to a bone-crunching death.

Aiguille du Dru, France


Now imagine you're dangling in the air from this rope and that you haven't got a single toe or hand hold within reach. All you can do is swing yourself from side to side like a pendulum until you can reach something and get a grip on it. 


That manoeuvre is called a pendule - and I pray to every god who may happen to be listening that I'm never, ever in a position to have to do anything of the sort.

Sunday Rest: pendule. This word comes from the Latin pendulus, from pendēre, to hang down.

Saturday 28 May 2016

Saturday Rave: Oblivion soave by Giovanni Francesco Busenello

The opera The Coronation of Poppea is usually said to be written by Monteverdi. And some, and probably most, of the glorious music of the opera was.

But what of the story? Well, that was definitely written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello.

 Artist's representation of a man looking straight out of the picture, with dark receding hair and pointed beard. He is wearing dark clothing with a loose white collar.

The plot of Poppea has been described as one in which virtue is punished and greed rewarded, which does make a refreshing change for everybody. The opera is set in Rome, at the court of the emperor Nero. When it was first performed, in Venice in 1643, the Venetians were rather worried about Rome getting too big for its boots, so a tale about Nero's dodgy mistress was bound to be popular. The story also a twist, not in the tail exactly but after the tail, because the happy ending of the opera was followed in real life by tragedies of which Poppea's audience would have been all too aware.

Here's a lullaby from the opera, Oblivion soave:

Adagiati, Poppea,
acquietati, amina mia,
Sarai ben custodita.

Oblivion soave
i dolci sentimenti
in te, figlia, addormenti.

Posatevi, occhi ladri:
aperti, deh, che fate,
se chiusi ancor rubate?

Poppea, rimanti in pace;
luci care e gradite,
dormite homai dormite.

Lie down, Poppea,
rest, my heart.
You shall be well guarded.

Let gentle oblivion
lull your tender feelings
to sleep, my child.

Close, heart-stealing eyes:
what can you do when open,
if closed you can still steal hearts?

Poppea, sleep in peace;
eyes so dear and sweet,
go to sleep, now, sleep.

Word To Use Today: opera. This word is Italian and is the plural of the Latin opus, which means work. Opera can also be the plural of opus in English, too.

Friday 27 May 2016

Word To Use Today: dilly.

But what sort of dilly, Australian or American?

The thing is, while an American dilly is someone remarkable (like you) an Australian dilly is, well, someone idiotic (unless dilly is short for dilly bag, which is a bag made of plaited grass that's generally used for carrying food).

In Britain, however, no one will understand either meaning of the word dilly, though dilly-dally, meaning to faff about with unimportant things instead of getting on with an important one, is well-known. Sometimes dilly-dally is split up into dilly and dally, both meaning dilly-dally, as in the famous song:

My Old Man said: 'Foller the van
And don't dilly-dally on the way.'
Off went the van wiv me 'ome packed in it
I walked be'ind wiv me old cock linnet
But I dillied and dallied,
Dallied and dillied
Lost me way and don't know where to roam.
And you can't trust a 'Special' 
Like an old-time copper
When you can't find your way home.

(Explanation: the singer and her husband are moving home. There isn't room for the lady on the removal van, so she has to walk behind carrying her pet bird. A 'Special' is a volunteer policeman; a copper is a paid policeman.)

It's a song I've always particularly disliked, but here's a version if it will give you pleasure:

I suppose it's cheerful, anyway.

Word To Use Today: dilly. The American version of this word might come from the girl's name, or perhaps as a shortening of delightful; the Australian one might be an echo of silly. The bag comes from the Native Australian Jagera language, and dilly-dally is the same word as dally, with the dilly added for fun. This word dates back to the 1600s.

Thursday 26 May 2016

Minty fresh: a rant.

Look, why is mint green:

File:1978 Mintgreen VW Kever, 4e Aad Kortekaas, 24 April 2016 pic3.JPG
(photo Alf van Beem)

 nothing like the colour of mint?

Mentha spicata

It's enough to drive people crazy, you know.

Word To Use Today: some sort of green that's actually the colour it claims to be. I suppose bottle green comes quite close. 

The word mint comes from the Old English minte, from the Greek minthē.

Wednesday 25 May 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the diple.

Oh yes you do: a diple is one of these:  <

Sadly, it's not pronounced DI-pl, but DIPPlee.

I've only really come across the diple in maths, when it means is smaller than (eg 3<4), and sheet music, when it means make this note extra loud, but the diple has a long history. Sometimes it has been used of being used to draw attention to important bits of text, sometimes to serve as a sort of paragraph mark, and sometimes as the ancestor of the speech mark. (Speech marks are still sometimes nearly the same shape as a diple, especially in French).

The diple periestigmene:

or dotted diple was especially useful because it was used to mark dubious passages.

Good grief, we could certainly do with the dotted diple nowadays, couldn't we.

Bring back the dotted diple!

 >. >. >.  >.  >.  >.

Thing To Regret Not Being Able To Use Today: a diple, especially a dotted one. The word diple is the Ancient Greek word for double, because the sign is made up of two lines. It's sometimes also called an antilambda because it looks like a Greek capital letter lambda Λ turned on its side.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Thing To Do Or Be Today: repent.

I wish I hadn't...

What? Adopted that tiger? Eaten those oysters? Replied honestly to the question how do I look?

If it's the how do I look? one then you'll get double value from repenting. Not only will repenting act as a useful reminder not to do it again, but it might prove to be a first step towards forgiveness and reconciliation.

Well, if you're lucky it might, anyway.

But what's to be done if you're consistently sweet, virtuous, wise, intelligent and reasonable? Or proudly evil, for that matter?

How can you repent then?

Well, by lying on, or creeping along, the ground. Repent is a botanical term which describes stems or shoots etc that travel along the ground rather than upwards. 

It means that today those among us who have nothing at all to repent (or feel no need to do so) can lie down and either contemplate our own perfections... 

...or plot our next evil deed, instead.

Don Giovanni, failing to acknowledge that repentance does have its advantages.

Thing To Do Or Be Today: repent. The feeling-sorry word comes from the Latin paenitēre, and the along-the-ground meaning comes from the Latin rēpere, to creep.

Monday 23 May 2016

Spot the Frippet: garnish.

I might even be able to remember the first time I saw a garnish. It would have been a sprig of parsley, and it would have been on a piece of deep-fried fish.

File:Garnish (13952207466).jpg
photo by James Petts

It was a thrilling moment. A herb! Food, with a decoration! What sophistication!

(By the way, from the very earliest age I ranked restaurants according to whether they served chips, chipped potatoes or French fried potatoes, thus neatly demonstrating both my life-long interest in the mechanics of language and the sort of restaurants our family could afford to patronise.)

Anyway, a garnish. It's stuff you put on top of a meal and don't mix in. It might be ground nutmeg, it might be chopped coriander, it might be a scattering of violets.

File:Béarnaise sauce with Tarragon garnish.jpeg
photo of a bit of tarragon about to drown in some sauce by Alexander Guy

Some people look down on those who eat the garnish, but they aren't the sort of people worth bothering with.

There are other sorts of garnish, though they're harder to spot. One sort of garnish means to warn that a legal trial is going to take place, or (in previous times) to summon someone to a trial already in progress; another sort of garnish is a payment extorted illegally, as by a jailer from a prisoner, or by any bully from someone less powerful than they are.

Luckily I don't expect anyone to be demanding money from me, so tonight I'll just put some chopped dill on my salmon. 

Well, I will if I've got any dill, anyway.

And any salmon.

Spot the Frippet: a garnish. This word comes from the Old French garnir, to adorn, and before that from some German language, where it might have some loose connection with the word warn.

Sunday 22 May 2016

Sunday Rest: gules. Word Not To Use Today.

Gules is an absolute gargoyle of a word, which is actually rather satisfying because the words gules and gargoyle have a rather surprising thing in common.

File:Gargoyles (Notre-Dame de Paris - South-West).JPG
(Here are some gargoyles on Notre Dame de Paris. Their purpose is to puke rainwater away from the walls of the building.)

What do they have in common? 

It's throats, basically. 

It's like this: gules means red, especially if you're describing the colours on a shield.

File:Gules a fess argent.svg
(Illustration by OdejeaIn the language of heraldry you'd describe this as gules, a fess argent, which means red, with a white (or silver) stripe across the middle.)

But what has the colour red got to do with throats? 

It's all a matter of high-end fashion. In the 1300s in France wearing a bit of red fur round your neck was just the coolest thing ever, and this bit of red fur was called a gueueles, from gole, which meant throat. Before that it came from the Latin gula, which is basically the same word as gullet. 

The word gargoyle comes from the Old French gargouille, which also means throat, and you'd expect these two rather similar words to join together in meaning at some point - but rather annoyingly they don't. People guess that gargouille might be an imitation of a gargling sound.

Ah well. It just goes to show what horribly annoying words they both are, doesn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: gules. Keats talked in The Eve of St Agnes of a stained glass window which threw warm gules on Madeleine's fair breast. But I'm not sure if even he completely got away with it.

Saturday 21 May 2016

Saturday Rave: The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope.

Alexander Pope, whose three hundred and twenty eighth birthday it is today, was a brave little man. I mean little quite literally. He contracted tuberculosis in childhood, and the damage it caused to his bones meant he had a severe hunchback and grew to be less than 140 cm tall.

As if this wasn't enough of a disadvantage, he was a Catholic at a time when Catholics were seen as a grave political threat. They were banned from universities or holding public office, and when Alexander Pope was about twelve years old they were banned from living in London, so he and his parents had to move to the countryside.

Illness, political disadvantages, and a lack of schooling might have suggested a life in quiet retirement, but instead Pope got himself an education by reading all the books he could find, made friends wherever he went - and set out to make as many of the powerful people in England look ridiculous as he possibly could.

This wasn't the safest way to live, and for a time he wouldn't take a walk without his Great Dane at his side and a couple of pistols in his pockets.

So, did he leave us a record of the great bitterness this sadly afflicted and persecuted genius must have felt?

No, not at all. His writings are an absolute blast.

The Rape of the Lock is a Great Epic Poem about a True Incident when a Man Cut off a Lock of his Girlfriend's Hair without Permission. Part of the fun comes from the fact that the Great Tragedy was nothing very important at all, and part from describing the lifestyle of the In-Crowd at the time.

('The Cave of Spleen' from The Rape of the Lock, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley)

Here's a passage about the young lady's preparations for the day ahead.

Unnumber'd treasures ope at once, and here
The various off'rings of the world appear;
From each she nicely culls with curious toil,
And decks the goddess with the glitt'ring spoil.
This casket India's glowing gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breaths from yonder box.
The tortoise here and the elephant unite,
Transform'd to combs, the speckled and the white.
Here files of pins extend their shining rows,
Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux.
Now awful beauty puts on all its arms;
The fair each moment rises in her charms,

A delicious feast of right-minded waspishness, I'd say, and hurrah for the magnificent Alexander Pope.

Word To Use Today: the word pope comes from the Old English papa, from the church Latin for bishop, from the Late Greek papas, father-in-God from the Greek pappas, father.

PS: The Rape of the Lock was a huge hit, and three of Neptune's moons are named after its characters.

Friday 20 May 2016

Word To Use Today: hunky-dory.

If everything is hunky-dory then everything is fine.

Hunky-dory is marked as informal in my Collins dictionary, and in Britain I'd expect to hear it from someone who might also use Cockney Rhyming Slang.

But, hey, why shouldn't the rest of us be allowed to have some fun?

Word To Use Today: hunky-dory. Hunky-dory is one of those words people enjoy squabbling about. It's definitely American - or, if it's not American, then it's definitely Scots. Or Japanese. Or Latin. Or it comes from a native Alaskan language. 

Or possibly somewhere else.

Anyway, if it's American it might come from hunk, from the Dutch honk, meaning a goal or a 'safe' area in a game. The dory bit in this case is there just to make the word jollier.

The American George Christie's song of 1862,  Hunkey Dorey, began:

One of the boys am I,
That always am in clover;
With spirits light and high,
'Tis well I'm known all over.
I am always to be found,
A-singing in my glory;
With your smiling faces round,
'Tis then I'm hunkey dorey.

On the other hand, if hunky-dory is Japanese then it's perhaps from Honcho dori the name of a street in Yokohama well-known as a place of entertainment for sailors.

The Scots theory is based on unco' dour: but as that means strangely sullen it's hard to see what it has to do with hunky-dory.

The Latin sporting hero Hunkous Dorius, which I found cited on-line, is, I'm pretty certain, nothing but a figment of the imagination of the anonymous poster.

The idea from Irving C Rosse, in his 1883 The First Landing on Wrangel Island with some Remarks on the Northern Inhabitants, that a Bering Straits native language of the people he calls Nakoorooks, gave rise to hunky-dory (un-gi-doo-ruk apparently means huge) is so charming that I really wish it were true.

But I'm afraid I doubt it.

Thursday 19 May 2016

The Democratic Godfather: a rant.

We've had elections in Britain for various local councils, national assemblies, city mayors, and Police & Crime Commissioners.

Not many people bothered to vote in the Police & Crime Commissioner elections. Various theories have been put forward as to why this might be, such as that P&CC is a newish post, or that people don't understand what a P&CC is supposed to do.

But, hang on, it's obvious why people didn't vote, isn't it?

I mean, who would anyone want to elect someone to commission crime?

Word To Use Today: commission. This word comes from the Latin committere, to commit. 

Which, actually, just makes things seem even worse,

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Nuts and Bolts: memes. Boaty McBoatface becomes a father.

A meme is an idea or a type of behaviour which spreads from one person to another.

A meme might consist of a trend for grapefruit starters, beards, taking snuff, naming scandals something-gate, or asserting that 42 is the answer to Life the Universe and Everything.

The idea of a meme was dreamed up by Professor Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene. He pointed out that someone's influence can continue down the generations even if his or her physical genes have died out.

Shakespeare and Mozart, for instance (as far as we know) have no descendants alive today, but their ideas live on in millions of us. 

Similarly, we don't know so much as the name of the person who invented cooking, but his or her influence has extended for thousands or possibly even a million years.

I've been thinking about memes lately because one was born - or, at least, given a very public impetus - on Sunday 8th May.

You remember Boaty McBoatface? Well, on 8th May a new TV programme hosted by Robert Peston began, and one of its features was a big screen designed to do all sorts of clever interactive...stuff (sorry, I didn't actually watch the programme). 

But what to call the screen?

Viewers soon came up with a popular answer: Screeny McScreenface.

And thus is culture born.

Thing To Consider Today: memes. This word is a deliberate echo of the word gene. It comes from the Greek mīmēma, imitated thing, from mīmos, which means mime.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

Thing To Do Today: render.


An odd word, render.

I suppose the commonest sort of render is to show or give in a formal, often official, way. Accounts are rendered for examination, for instance, and we are asked to render to Caesar those things which are Caesar's. 

On the other hand, sometimes the giving is anything but formal - as when someone renders someone unconscious with a great knock on the head - so perhaps the link is the intensity of the intention. You see this in passion had rendered him insane, for instance.

The idea of deliberate intention leads us to the artistic sort of rendering, where someone might, despite all attempts at dissuasion,  give a rousing rendering of We All Live In A Yellow Submarine, or, if a visual artist, the play of light on a rose bush. From here we are led to the sort of rendering which translates one language into another, or a novel into a film, or, lowering the tone, rather, which turns fat into oil by melting it.

There are other rarer meanings of render to do with ropes on boats and three-dimensional computer images, but the meaning which really puzzles me is the rendering you see on walls. 

Rendering involves covering a wall with a coat of plaster or cement, but what's that got to do with giving or presenting something? If anything, this sort of rendering involves covering something up.

Hmm...well, perhaps if we've covering something up then we're back to where we started: with the accounts.

Thing To Do Today: render something. This word comes from the Old French rendre from the Latin reddere to give back.

Monday 16 May 2016

Spot the Frippet: razoo.

What have the Antipodes ever done for us? 

Well, loads. For a start, they've given us the excellent word razoo.

My Collins Dictionary defines a razoo as an imaginary coin (which would of course be impossible to spot) but a razoo isn't really imaginary.

A razoo is a piece of money of the smallest possible worth: that's not worth a brass razoo. I lost every last razoo.

How big is a razoo?

Well, in Britain the smallest coin that's legal tender is the penny, but in Uzbekistan they have a Tiyin. You get about three thousand of them to the British penny (or about two thousand of them to a US cent).

I hope the razoo you spot today is not your last razoo - and also that you don't find yourself in a queue behind a person paying for his train fare entirely in Tiyins.

Spot the Frippet: razoo. This word appeared during the First World War. It might be something to do with the French coin called the sou, it might be something to do with the Maori word rahu, or it might be something to do with the American razoo, which is a shortened term for raspberry (the rude kind).

Sunday 15 May 2016

Sunday Rest: indigoid. Word Not To Use Today.


Horrible, isn't it?

It can mean the colour of indigo (that is, blue, as in jeans) or it can mean a dye with a similar chemical structure.

This means that indigoid can, as well as blue, mean deep red, purple, or it can be something also called indigo carmine, which is obviously (indigo meaning blue and carmine bright red), yes, a sort of... 

Unless you put it in acid, where it turns bright yellow.

The very worst thing about the word indigoid, though, is that it sounds like a description of a disease.

And just which part of the anatomy turns blue doesn't bear thinking about.

Smurf blue - Smurfs cosplay in New Orleans (Photo: Brian Lin/Wikimedia Commons)
photo by Brian Lin 

Word Not To Use Today: indigoid. This word comes from the Greek word Indikos, which means of India.

Saturday 14 May 2016

Saturday Rave: Youth and Love by John Gay

I could probably think of some weighty reason for featuring John Gay's song today, but really it's just in the hope of spreading a little light-heartedness.

Youth and Love

Youth's the season made for joys,
Love is then our duty,
She alone who that employs,
Well deserves her beauty.
Let's be gay
While we may,
Beauty's a flower despised in decay.

Let us drink and sport today.
Ours is not to-morrow.
Love with Youth flies swift away,
Age is naught but sorrow.
Dance and sing,
Time's on the wing,
Life never knows the return of spring.

On reflection, though, if I'm trying to spread light-heartedness then I ought to add that Age is not naught but sorrow - and if the Spring of life involves studying The Good Soldier, which in my case it did, then those hours, at least, gave precious few opportunities for love, gaiety, dancing or singing.

Word To Use Today: gay. This word comes from the Old French gai. It might originally have been something to do with the Old High German wahi, which means pretty.

Friday 13 May 2016

Word To Use Today: chenille.

Chenille is a thick fabric like bruised soft corduroy. The stuff lurked spongily under every table cloth when I was young.

It came in the colours of decay - blood red, corpse yellow, dead-leaf brown, sludge green - and, as for its purpose, that was a complete mystery to me at the time.

Still, if people wanted to feel gloomy then it was just the stuff to encourage feelings of doom. 

I expect it'll be back in fashion any minute.

Word To Use Today: chenille. The great thing about the word chenille is that it's named after both an insect and a mammal. It comes from France, where it means hairy caterpillar (the hairy thread chenille is made from is also called chenille) which comes in turn from the Latin canicula, which means little dog.

I think the purpose of the stuff was to prevent dents to the table top - not that anyone ever saw the table top, naturally, because it was always covered in chenille.

Thursday 12 May 2016

Chalk and Cheese: a rant.

They're chalk and cheese, people say, meaning that they're as different as they can possibly be.

It's worried me all my life.

I mean, if you want two different things then cha-chas and cheese, or chaff and cheese, or church and cheese would make so much more sense.

Chalk and cheese...well, if you take Wensleydale cheese, for instance:

Wensleydale cheese 2.jpg

 then it's much the same colour as chalk, it's crumbly like chalk, and can be cut into the same sort of shapes...

...and I bet that if someone made it into paint and charged enough for it then plenty of idiots would decorate their houses with it, too.

Word To Use Today: cheese. This word comes from the Old English cēse, from the Latin cǣseus. Amusingly, it's related to the Old Saxon kāsi. 

Apparently chalk and cheese has been worrying people at least since John Gower's Confessio Amantis in 1390. The only explanation people can come up with is that it does sound quite snappy.

*By the way, my children's version of Don Quixote is out today. I suppose I could do a link about Don Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves being chalk and cheese; but that's a bit obvious, so I'll just point out that the delicious cheese Manchego comes from La Mancha in Spain, just like DQ and Sancho.

Wednesday 11 May 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the cutest kind of shark.

Scyliorhinus meadi noaa.jpg
Blotched catshark Scyliorhynus meadi

Everyone knows that sharks are terrifyingly good at smelling blood but, well, blood isn't everything. Not even if you're a shark.

A study of catsharks has discovered that some deep-water species glow. 


Well, some lizardfish and gobies may glow so they can recognise another of their own species. The medusa's tentacles glow so it can lure young rockfish to their doom - and the mantis shrimp uses its biofluorescence to make its signals easier to see.

But what of the catsharks? Well, it seems that while catsharks can see their own biofluorescence, their prey can't, so they're not using it to lure anything (if any creature is quite dumb enough to be lured towards a shark). Most other sharks can't see the biofuorescence, either, so it looks as if the catsharks are using their biofluorescence to talk to each other.

A female shark's glowing pattern, for instance, is different from the males', and that must avoid a lot of embarrassment. There are different patterns for each species, too, which must help stop things getting really weird.

The fact that some types of fish glow in the dark was discovered by accident when an eel photo-bombed Dr David Gruber when he was studying corals. Since then he has been working with fish expert John Sparks to try to work out what the glowing is saying.

Now Dr Gruber wants to investigate more marine animals. 'What I am really hoping is that it will draw us closer to these relatives. We emerged from the sea 200 million years has not been that long.'

I've never thought much about my relationship with sharks, but now Dr Gruber comes to mention it, we humans rely on a healthy glow to signal health and youth and beauty, too, don't we?

You know something? I feel even more nervous about going into the sea, now...

Word To Use Today: shark. This word comes arrived in English in the 1565 with Captain Hawkins' second expedition, but sadly no one knows where it came from. There's a chance, though, that it might be from the Mayan word for shark, xoc.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Thing To Be Today Though Probably Only On The Outside: wet.

File:Wet tiger.jpg
photo of a Bengal tiger by Hein waschefort

I expect you've already been wet today, though hopefully with some soapy-type wetness, not through having been caught in the rain (in Northern and Central Australia, as it happens, the rainy season is called The Wet). 

Or, if washing was too much trouble, I hope at least you've wet your whistle, which is old-fashioned British for having a drink. (If you're in America then to be wet is to be in favour of the unrestricted sale of alcohol.)

In Britain, someone who's wet may in fact be entirely dry, because to be wet in Britain means to be a feeble person, someone who would rather be a wet blanket and spoil everyone's day than take a mild risk such as eating in an unknown restaurant or taking a trip in a rowing boat.

Someone who's only wet behind the ears, however, will be naive or inexperienced, still wet like a new-born baby. 

Lastly, how are you reading this? Using your wetware.

Wetware is, rather horribly, I think, a computer term for the human brain.


Thing To Be Today Though Probably Only On The Outside: wet. This word comes from the Old English wǣt, and is related to the Old Slavonic vedro, which means bucket.

Monday 9 May 2016

Spot the Frippet: volute.

Enjoy the whirls of spiral things.

On the handles of a jug: 

File:Apulian red-figure volute krater by the White Sakkos painter Antikensammlung Kiel B 585 (2).jpg
(photo by Marcus Cyron)

In a shell:

File:Amoria undulata Wavy volute P2023239.JPG
(photo of Amoria undulata, the Wavy volute, by Peter Southwood)

File:Grapevinesnail 01.jpg
(photo of a Grapevine snail by Jürgen Schoner)

Or on a column:

(column from Persepolis, apparently wearing curlers)

Or perhaps you'll see the ravishing descending volute of some spiral stairs:

File:Spiral staircase in Haldon Belvedere.jpg
Photo of Haldon Belvedere, Devon, by Nilfanion

Or how about this, the modern equivalent of a water wheel:

(Francis turbine inlet scroll (or volute), Grand Coulee Dam)

Glorious and enchanting, every one.

Spot the Frippet: volute. This word comes to us from the Latin volūta, a spiral decoration, from volvere, to roll up.

Sunday 8 May 2016

Sunday Rest: solastalgia. Word Not To Use Today.

Solastalgia is an ugly, strangely derived, and misleading word.

Unfortunately, it's also important and useful: you may not know what solastalgia is, but you're almost certain to have experienced it.

Solastalgia...well, the algia bit looks as it it's to do with pain or longing, as in neuralgia or nostalgia (what is a nost?*) and the solast bit...hmm...something to do with solace? So, is solastalgia some sort of a pain-killer, then?

Nope. Solastalgia is distress caused by environmental change. I suppose, at root, it's finding one's home has been destroyed, perhaps by the climate, or the weather, or a road, or a quarry, or a tsunami.

So solastalgia is a word the English language really needed.

Oh, but I do wish it were one I could bear to use.

Sunday Rest: solastalgia was coined by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003. It seems to be derived from the Latin word solacium, comfort (yes, as in solace) and the Greek ending -algia, which means pain. 

Though where the comfort comes in I have no idea at all.

*The Greek nostos is a return home.

Look, surely someone somewhere can come up with a better word than solastalgia

Home-loss? Is that better? 

You know, I think it might be.

Saturday 7 May 2016

Amidst the Rush and Roar of Life by Rabindranath Tagore

How many people have Wikipedia entries listing their achievements in music, painting, theatre, novels, stories and poetry?

Only one that I know of: the Bengali Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore, who was born on May 7th 1861.

How did he get to be able to do so many different things? 

Good question. Rabindranath's mother died when he was very young and his father was away most of the time. This meant that Rabindranath was brought up by servants and siblings. 

He went to the local Presidency College - but only for a day. He loathed formal schooling, and spells at a school near Brighton, England, and then at London University, were short and largely unappreciated.

Tagore lived to the age of eighty, and kept up a relentless and sometimes inconvenient search for truth as long as he possibly could. 

Late-middle-aged bearded man in Grey robes sitting on a chair looks to the right with serene composure.

That's not easy, you know.

Amidst the Rush and Roar of Life

Amidst the rush and roar of life, O beauty, carved in stone, you stand mute and still, alone and aloof.
Great Time sits enamoured at your feet and repeats to you:
'Speak, speak to me, my love, my mute bride!'
But your speech is shut up in stone, O you immovably fair!

Word To Use Today: rush. This word comes from the Old French ruser, to put to flight, from the Latin recūsāre, to refuse or reject.


Friday 6 May 2016

Update: Boaty McBoatface rules!

Do you remember Boaty McBoatface?

The British public has been suggesting names for a new Antarctic research ship, and, more or less by accident, Boaty McBoatface has emerged as by far the most popular choice.

It's been a long wait, but at last the name of the ship has been officially announced. 

She's to be called Sir David Attenborough, after, well, Sir David Attenborough OM CH CVO CBE FRS FLS FSA, the television naturalist. 

It'll be a nice present for his ninetieth birthday, which is on Sunday.

BUT the small yellow submarine that will be used for deep-water surveying will be called, yes, Boaty McBoatface.

I think we can claim that as a victory for both common and uncommon sense.


Word To Use Today: clerisy.

Clerisy must be one of the loveliest words in the English language, and if I had the naming of a little girl I'd be strongly tempted to use it.

I wouldn't give in to the temptation, though, because clerisy means what we now more commonly call the intelligentsia.

Real waste of a beautiful word, I think.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: clerisy. This word was made up by the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who believed that a group of intellectuals should be formed in order to teach everyone else what and how to think. He called this group the clerisy, from the German Klerisei, which means clergy (in Coleridge's time the word clergy still held a trace of its old meaning of learning or knowledge, as in the proverb 'an ounce of mother wit is worth a pound of clergy'). 

The English having a healthy distrust of anyone who claims to be wise, though, Coleridge's idea never got off the ground.

Thursday 5 May 2016

Creative Genius: a rant (quite possibly from a minor psychopath).

Oh yes, the creative-person-must-be-nuts thing.


A study from De La Salle University in Manila led by Adrianne John Galang has found that 'generally...a creative field might not just shape a person into a more arrogant or dishonest personality, it might be actively selecting them, not for the sake of having disagreeable traits, but because such traits meaningfully co-vary with creativity itself.' 

The psychologists conclude that 'emotional dishibition, in the form of psychopathic boldness, is actually integral to some creative personalities and functionally related to the creative process.'

Ah yes, of course that's right! you may say. That Van Gogh was a creative genius and he was nuts!

True: but then Jane Austen was also a creative genius, and she doesn't seem to have been nuts at all.

Look, here's another couple of theories: 

1) Works of Art need to be sold, and part of the marketing process involves making the creator of a WoA interesting. This means that the art that's marketed is often the stuff by the artist with the interesting back story - or a willingness to perform one. 

(By the way, some artists are definitely psychopathic, but then so are some postmen - but it's much easier to judge who are the best postmen than who are the best artists.)

(Not that I'm saying for a moment that psychopaths can't be great artists or postmen.)

2) Here's another theory: people who are...unusual...might have more difficulty holding down a job which requires lots of routine and personal contacts than people who are less unusual, so creative work might be their only option.

NB These are just theories: I don't believe them, I just accept they're possibilities.

So, anyway, how nuts am I?

Oh, I should say somewhere between not at all and totally

Just like the rest of us.

Illustration of a not-artist by John Tenniel

Word To Use Today: psychopath. This word comes from the German psychopatisch, from the Greek psyche, soul, and pathos, suffering. 

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Nuts and Bolts: how to talk peacock.

No, not that sort of peacock: all the screeching would hurt the throat. The peacock I'm interested in is the Peacock Tree Frog, and the great thing about its language is...

...well, do you remember those twenty words you had to learn every week for your vocabulary test? And the way that, even after all that work, you couldn't understand a word anyone was saying unless it related to the habits of M Bertillon's cat? 

Well, here is another vocabulary list. It consists of only two words, but that, apparently, is the whole spoken language of the Peacock Tree Frog, Leptopelis vermiculatus.

Leptopelis vermiculatus2.jpg
(Sweet, aren't they? You find them in the rain forests of Tanzania.)

So here we are: an opportunity to become fluent in a foreign language in under a minute.


Ga ga ga

That's what you say if you want to attract a female (and why oh why does English not contain such a formula?).

Rrrrrrrrr ga

is what you say if you want males to go away (we have plenty of words to mean this. Unfortunately they a) mostly aren't printable, and b) don't work very effectively).

So there you are. One minute's work, one complete language: all the tools you need to make love, not war.

It's enough to make you wonder if all this wide-vocabulary stuff is really such a good thing as it's cracked up to be, isn't it.

Phrase To Use Today: one in Peacock Tree Frogish. Do let us know if it works.

Tuesday 3 May 2016

Thing Not To Do Today: be a churl.

'Look at my picture, Uncle Andrew!'

'Hmm. Well, we'll have to hope you turn out to be good at something else, won't we.'


'What have you done for starter? Good heavens, I didn't believe that people still serve avocado.'


'Wildflowers, do you call them? A can of weedkiller's what this place needs.'


It's very easy to be churlish, but remember this: firstly, it makes people hate you, and, secondly, it reveals you to be a churl.

Still, if you believe that spreading unhappiness is a worthwhile return for a moment's imaginary triumph then I suppose that's the way to go.

Thing Not To Do Today: be a churl. A churl is a surly ill-bred person (ill-bred = no manners). Churl used to mean a farm labourer. It comes from the Old English ceorl, and is related to the Greek gerōn, old man

Monday 2 May 2016

Spot the Frippet: rundle.

Some words conjure up the warm scent of orchids wafting through the mysterious canyons of the rain forest... 

...and the word rundle doesn't.

It's a plain, workaday sort of a word, is rundle, and, very pleasingly, it means two common and familiar things.

Here's one sort of a rundle:

File:Wheelbarrow in the field.jpg
photo by Hyena

and here's another:

File:Ladder and telegraph pole.jpg
photo by USDA

Yes, a rundle can either be a wheel, especially the wheel of a wheelbarrow (isn't it great to have a special word for that?) or it can be a rung of a ladder.

The magical thing about knowing the word rundle is that it allows us to regard ourselves as marginally more practical and competent than before...

...well, it does until we have to do something useful, anyway.

Spot the Frippet: rundle. People seem to have ladders all over their houses at the moment, on which they hang towels or balance books. Yes, it's slightly odd behaviour, but at least it makes spotting this frippet easy. The word rundle arrived in the 1300s as a variant of roundel, from the Old French rondel, a little circle.

Sunday 1 May 2016

Sunday Rest: ordure. Word Not To Use Today.

I have a deep affection for jokes about ancient countrymen. Unfortunately they went out of fashion in about 1930, but, hey, fashion isn't everything.

Here's one:

MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE: How are the cucumbers doing?
COUNTRYMAN: They'll do. I just put some muck round'em.
MISTRESS OF THE HOUSE: You shouldn't say muck, you should say manure!
COUNTRYMAN: What? But it's taken me twenty years to learn to call it muck!


If the word manure might be thought prissy, then ordure is ten times worse. In fact I don't think anyone could use this word unless holding a lorgnette and wearing tweed - and tweed takes ten years to make comfortable, and as far as I can see lorgnettes aren't for sale even on Amazon.

For myself, I think I'll stick with muck.

File:Pile of manure on a field.jpg
Photo by Paul Clarke

Sunday Rest: ordure. This word comes form the Old French ord, which means dirty, from the Latin horridus, which means shaggy.