This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 30 June 2016

Doing something boring: a rant.

Can't sleep?

Dr Guy Meadows, clinical director of the Sleep School, relays a suggestion.

"The traditional advice is to get out of bed and do something boring, like read a book...' he says.

Do something boring like read a book????

Good grief, has the man never read CS Forester? Adèle Geras? Agatha Christie? Sally Prue?

Has he never read Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, my Lad? Or The Signal-Man? Because you won't get much sleep if you can't lie flat because your hair's standing on end, I can tell you.


Has he never read Jane Eyre, a book which famously kept its publisher awake all night, turning the pages, agog?

Has he never read the Inspector Mould story Strychnine in the Soup?

Poor Dr Meadows. Poor, poor Dr Meadows. 

Because the answer to all these questions must surely be no.

Word To Use Today: strychnine. This word, with pleasing relevance, comes from the Greek strukhnos, nightshade.

Uncredited stories in this rant are by MR James, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, and PG Wodehouse, respectively.

Wednesday 29 June 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Beat Generations. Mozart versus ABBA.

We all know that music affects us. It soothes many a savage breast, and it also sometimes persuades us to waggle ourselves about in the strange way we call dancing.

But how can you quantify this effect?

A study led by Hans-Joachim Trappe, of Ruhr University, The Cardio-Vascular Effect of Musical Genres. has measured the effect of the music of Johann Strauss the younger, WA Mozart, and the pop group ABBA on the blood pressure.

And the result?

Mozart and Strauss both lower the blood pressure, Mozart rather more than Strauss.

The music of ABBA doesn't alter the blood pressure at all.

Ah, you will say, but which pieces by Mozart, etc did the study use?

The study used about half an hour's music by each artist.

Mozart: Symphony No 40.

Strauss: Wiener Blut, Annen-Polka, Morgenblatter, Eljen a Magyar, An der schönen blauen Danube.

ABBA: Thank you for the Music, The Winner Takes It All, Fernando, One of Us, Angel Eyes, The Day Before You Came, So Long.

Interestingly, the musical tastes of the people studied didn't seem to have any effect at all on the results.

That's what happened. The study, surprisingly, also speculates as to why. They suggest that repetition, catchiness, pleasantness, skill of composition, few changes in volume or rhythm, unsurprising harmonies, familiarity of the genre, and the absence of spoken words (spoken words are processed in a different part of the brain from music, and this, it is suggested, may interfere with the effect of the music) all help with lowering the blood pressure.

So now I want to know what happens when you compare the Mozart 40th Symphony with the last act of Don Giovanni, for instance.

But mostly, I'm finding it very strange indeed to think that Mozart, who dies so long ago, can still literally change the action of my heart.

Word To Use Today: symphony. This word comes from the Latin symphōnia, concord or concert, from the Greek sun, together, and phōnē, sound.

Tuesday 28 June 2016

Thing To Have Today: a chinwag.

Life is stern and life is earnest, or so we are told, but of course it isn't, really. Most of the time life is spent keeping ourselves alive (cooking, earning money, cleaning) or amusing ourselves (Angry Birds, football, flower arranging). Sometimes we manage both simultaneously (eating, writing, constructing flat-pack furniture*).

But can't we be stern and earnest and enjoy ourselves? 

Yes, but, sadly, the chinwag seems to be going out of fashion. (For non-British readers, a chinwag is a nice relaxed chat or gossipy conversation.) 

A chinwag is stern and earnest? Really?

Well, not really. Admittedly you need to put aside sternness and earnestness until you've thoroughly explored what's been going on with the whole neighbourhood and their families even unto the third generation.

File:Eugene de Blaas The Friendly Gossips.jpg
The Friendly Gossip by Eugene de Blaas

But then, once that's done, you can get on with earnestly caring for and encouraging all the lovely people - and sternly avoiding the rest.

Thing To Have Today: a chinwag. The word chin goes right back to the Sanskrit hanu. Wag goes back to the Old English wagian, to shake, and is related to the Old Norse vagga, a cradle.

*Actually, possibly not constructing flat-pack furniture.

Monday 27 June 2016

Spot the Frippet: chintz.

Chintz is a printed cotton fabric with a glazed surface,* typically with a pattern of flowers, and often used for soft furnishings.

Well, in some years it's often used for soft furnishings. anyway, for chintz goes in and out of fashion quite regularly (Ikea's 1996 slogan was Chuck Out Your Chintz).

In the 1980s you could fashionably have a chintzy pattern on every surface, including the carpet and yourself; nowadays the thing is to have one or two madly flowery pieces in an otherwise plain room.

In the 1780s your chintz might have appeared like this:

File:Dress (robe à l'anglaise) and skirts in chintz, ca. 1770-1790, shawl (fichu) in embroidered batiste, 1770-1800.jpg

(I do wish dresses like that would return!)

In the 1680s the French banned chintz altogether because it was having a bad effect on French fabric mills (the British followed suit (sorry) in the 1720s).

If you can't find some chintz, how about some chintzware:

Like it or loathe it, chintz is often down but seldom quite out. There'll be some somewhere, always. 

The interesting thing might be how many dips in fashion the particular example you spot has survived.

Actually, I have a flowery dress in the back of my wardrobe too pretty to throw away...I wonder if I can get away with calling it vintage?

Spot the Frippet: chintz. This word comes from the Hindi chīnt, from the Sanskrit citra, gaily-coloured.

*If it's not glazed it's called cretonne.

Sunday 26 June 2016

Sunday Rest: cryptaesthesia. Word Not To Use Today.

Cryptaesthesia. Or, if you're American, cryptesthesia.

Cryptaesthesia is just the same as extrasensory perception, and so why people need to use a long, scientific-looking, and hard-to-spell word like cryptaesthesia to describe it I don't know.

Unless it's that the cryptaesthesiasts* feel the need of every trick in the box to make themselves come over as sane and honest, natch.

File:The Canterville Ghost illustration.jpg

Sunday Rest: cryptaesthesia. This word comes from the Greek word kruptos, hidden, from kruptein, to hide, plus the other Greek word anaisthēsia, an absence of sensation, from aisthēsis, feeling.

*This word doesn't show up anywhere on Google so I may have coined it. Cool.

Saturday 25 June 2016

Saturday Rave: Struggle For Life by Frigyes Karinthy

Rippl Frigyes Karinthy.jpg
Portrait by József Rippi-Rónai

Frigyes Karinthy (or Karinthy Frigyes, in his native Hungary) was a poet, author, playwright, translator and journalist. He wrote - well, obviously he wrote all sorts of things, amongst them two sequels to Gulliver's Travels.

Here's a poem that's actually rather the opposite of Gulliver's Travels, in that it seems to me not nearly as grim as it appears to begin with.

Struggle For Life

Brother, it seems, you have been beaten
As Law decrees and Precept goes - 
Your corpse is sniffed round by hyenas
And circled by the hungry crows.

It's not the pack who were the stronger,
Smaller beasts beat you to tatters -
And who fights now over your carcass
Jackdaw? Jackal? Hardly matters.

Your fist when it was time to use it
Always stopped halfway in the air - 
Was it charity? Weakness? May be
Fear? Pride? Modesty? I don't care.

Or mere disgust, perhaps. So be it
Good. Amen. I accept the terms
I prefer that worms should eat me
Rather than I should eat on worms.

Word To Use Today: hyena. This word comes from the Greek huaina, from hus, which means hog...

...a derivation that goes rather interestingly with this poem.

Friday 24 June 2016

Word To Use Today: vair.

What were Cinderella's glass slippers made of?

No, probably not glass, it was probably squirrel skin. I mean, glass slippers? How many reasons does anyone need that glass slippers would be a stupid idea?

No, Cinderella's slippers were probably squirrel skin, or, as the heraldry people still call it, vair.

How did the confusion arise?

Well, because the most famous version of the Cinderella story was originally told in French, and if anyone's telling you a story in French then vair, squirrel skin, and verre, glass, are going to sound pretty much the same.

I mentioned heraldry. Heraldry recognises five basic colours, two metals (which we would call white and yellow) and originally two furs, ermine and vair. Vair is supposed to give an idea of the winter fur of the Russian squirrel:

photo: By Marcello.sega - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

The Russian squirrel is grey above and white below. Here it is, rather horribly, in a coat:

In heraldry vair has become stylised (partly because heraldry doesn't really have a grey):

That's British vair. French vair is similar, but with the colours the other way round, and all the upward-pointy shapes in the top row whole.

Sometimes the shapes, or vair bells, are arranged differently. This is countervair:

and this vair in point:

And, have you noticed? It's not only vair, but variegated.

Neat, huh?

Word To Use Today: vair. This word comes from the Old French word meaning of more than one colour (so could Cinderella's slippers have just been really pretty?). The word comes from the Latin varius, variegated.

Thursday 23 June 2016

Referendum words: a rant.

Today is Referendum Day in Britain.

Do the British people wish to remain in the European Union?

Do the British people wish to leave the European Union?

By tomorrow we'll have found out.

The campaign has been fought with words and words and words - and what good have they done? Has some piece of skilful rhetoric, some blazing speech, the delivery of some killer fact, made Clear the Way?

Nope. There's been plenty of sound and fury (Nazi! Liar! Racist! Crony! Expert!) including, rather hilariously, predictions of there never being another London Olympics, World War III breaking out, and even the end of Western Civilisation. 

But what has been the effect?

There have been so many inflammatory and contradictory words about an essentially unpredictable future that we've got to the point where hardly anyone believes anything. 

All those words: squandered, thrown around, devalued.

And now inflation has caught up with them, and they're as good as worthless.

What a colossal waste it's all been, to be sure.

Word To Use Today. Any you like, but please, whatever they are, use them with respect and care.

Wednesday 22 June 2016

Nuts and Bolts: The cost of a name.

The Swiss company Erfolgswelle is a name consultancy. Its experts will make up a list of the best possible names for your child - at a cost, apparently, of £22,000.

File:Baby Boy Oliver.jpg
This lovely baby is called Oliver. Photo by Voiceboks

Here's how to do it for free.

1. Search on-line for a list of the most popular names for new-born children for the last year in your area.

2. Ignore all names of the wrong sex (please do not call your boy Sue).

3. Ignore the first twenty or so names, as well. They are likely to date your child.

4. From the remainder, make a list of names that have been used by famous historical or literary figures (but not if it's a baddie - no Caligula nor Messalina).

5. Cross out the ones you don't like.

6. Cross out the ones that sound silly with your surname (Rod Todd, Rose Bush etc).

7. If you are under pressure from relatives to name the child after them, and you don't want to, then I suggest you do what I did and tell the relations you're thinking of calling the child something extremely surprising. In my case I told both grandfathers the boy was going to be called Mungo.

You don't actually have to do it. I didn't. 

I called the baby Helena, instead.

Word To Consider Today: Hilda. I've chosen this name because it's one more thing to bear in mind when thinking about a name for your child. It means battle.

Tuesday 21 June 2016

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: ultra.

I understand there's some sort of a football competition being held in France at the moment, and that a group of people called ultras is causing violent unrest.


Ultra what?

Ultras seem to be ultra-keen and ultra-organised supporters of a particular football team. Ultras have been around since just before the Second World War, and started off in Brazil.

What's the difference between an ultra and a member of any other supporters' club? 

It seems to be some extremely efficient organisation, which allows the ultras to put on performances of support as they watch the game.

Ultras of SS Lazio doing their thing.

Unfortunately, in some cases, it also allows them to cause trouble in a particularly focused way. 

Is being an ultra a bad thing? No, because the trouble-makers can't be true ultras, can they, because they're doing nothing but harm to their team. 

Ultra-violent, maybe. But not ultras at all.

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: ultra. I can't see that an organised passion for crochet, or playing the piano, or even truly supporting a football team is going to do much harm. The word ultra is Latin for beyond, from ulter, which means distant.

Monday 20 June 2016

Spot the Frippet: sock.

File:Sock puppets.jpg
Photo of socks in Oregon by User:Bastique

One of the chief of the great mysteries that have perplexed mankind over the years is, of course, Does Santa Claus sleep with his whiskers under or over the Sheet?

Unfortunately, life being the vale of tears that it is, now another similarly serious conundrum has arrived to disturb us: should one wear one's socks as one's inside or outside foot-covering?  

File:BLW Pair of socks.jpg
Egyptian socks, 300 - 500 AD

I would imagine nowadays the answer is usually the inside, but that was originally not the case because socks started off as Greek actors' shoes. And if you think that was funny then so did they, because they only wore them in comedies.

Things may have changed since then, but socks have remained essentially comic: no one, as far as I know, has ever made an heroic or an alluring sock. In Britain our two bits of sock-related slang, put a sock in it (shut up!) and pull your socks up! (start making the necessary effort!) have certainly no hint of tragedy about them, though the American socked in, (that is, of an airport, closed by bad weather), does have at least an irritable sound to it.

Still, this is an easy spot. Today mine are black with pink toes and heels and, like all socks, are small miracles of the knitters' craft.

File:Hand Knitted Socks.JPG
Hand-knitted socks. Photo: ChesPal (Debra Heaphy)

Do you know, something? I think today might be judge-a-man-by-his-socks day.

One of you might even be able to get a dissertation out of it.

Spot the Frippet: sock. This word comes from the Old English socc, a light shoe, and before that from the Greek sukkhos.

Sunday 19 June 2016

Sunday Rest: crus. Word Not To Use Today.

File:Monty python foot.png
Foot by Agnolo di Cosimo, as borrowed by Monty Python.

Crus is a perfectly innocent word plagued by bad echoes.

Pus, crust, crud,'s enough to make one feel one really doesn't want to know more.

This is a pity, because as it happens a crus isn't anything nasty or putrid at all. In fact it's something rather jolly.

Crus means the leg, especially from the knee downwards, including the foot.

If it's used in the plural, then it can be used to describe anything leg-like.

Ah, but what is the plural of crus?


Which is quite neat, too, huh?

Word Not To Use Today: crus. This word appeared in the English language in the 1600s. It's the Latin word for leg.

Saturday 18 June 2016

Saturday Rave: Mercian Hymns by Geoffrey Hill

Where is the past?

Under our feet. 

Humanity is perennially caught in the sediment of time, and the past is there to be dug up, or burrowed down to, if not comprehended.

Geoffrey Hill is a distinguished academic known as one of the finest poets writing in English. Here's a bit of his Mercian* Hymns.


I was invested in mother-earth, the crypt of roots and endings. Child's-play, I abode there, bided my time: where the mole

shouldered the clogged wheel, his gold solidus, where dry-dust badgers thronged the Roman flues, the long-unlooked-for mansions of our tribe.


So much for the elves' wergild, the true governance of England, the gaunt warrior-gospel armoured in engraved stone. I wormed my way heavenward for ages amid barbaric ivy, scrollwork of fern.

Exile or pilgrim set me once more upon that ground: my rich and desolate childhood. Dreamy, smug-faced, sick on outings - I who was taken to be a king of some kind, a prodigy, a maimed one.


Word To Use Today: crypt. This word comes from the Greek kruptos, which means hidden.

*Mercia was one of the ancient Saxon kingdoms of England between about 600 and 900 AD.

Friday 17 June 2016

Word To Use Today: mongrel.

Are you English?

I thought not.

The fact is that even the genuinely English don't often admit to being English, instead preferring to murmur something about an Irish grandmother or a Polish uncle or an unspecified African ancestor.

Yes, the English tend to be rather proud of being mongrel (which might be part of the difficulty with asking them to be European).

But when people talk of mongrels, even in England, they usually mean a dog with ancestors of different breeds. 

In Australia and New Zealand mongrel also means toughness and physical aggression: a sportsman might be said to have lots of mongrel.

So altogether mongrel doesn't seem to be such a very bad thing to be, does it. 

Wherever our great-aunts come from.

File:Polish Mongrel.jpg
Photo by Shalom

Word To Use Today: mongrel. This word comes from mong, mixture. The Old English word gemong means a mingling.

Thursday 16 June 2016

A Cedric by any other name: a rant.

I've just read Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, and I've got a horrid feeling I've read it before, long ago, and didn't like it much then, either.

File:John Langford Pritchard as Ivanhoe in "Ivanhoe".jpg

Don't get me wrong, Ivanhoe has its exciting chapters and its interesting characters. On the other hand, it has such hefty wodges of dull description that I kept on wondering why on earth Sir Walter Scott didn't give up on the novel and make a film instead.*

The most annoying thing about Ivanhoe, however, are the names. 

I'm not the first to complain about the names in Ivanhoe. The Victorian historian E A Freeman poured scorn on the idea that 'English women...of the twelfth century bore the names of Rowena and Ulrica'. He wasn't too struck on the name Cedric, either - but then, who would be?

But it isn't the historical accuracy or otherwise of the names of Ivanhoe's characters that annoys me. What annoys me is, firstly, that the two female juvenile leads are called Rowena and Rebecca, which are far too similar for the reader (this reader, anyway) to keep a confident track of which is which.

The second thing is that the great hero Ivanhoe turns out half way through the book to have the Christian name Wilfred.

And, honestly, who can take him even slightly seriously after that?

On the plus side, the three mostly-doesn't-matter-which-is-which villains are clearly labelled with B names (for baddie, presumably): Bois-Guilbert, de Bracy, and Front-de-Boeuf. 

That does help, you know.

Person To Consider Today: how unalike can names get?

PS To be fair, AN Wilson says that Ivanhoe 'remains one of the most exciting stories in the language'. 

AN Wilson is an eminent scholar and biographer. I'm not convinced, though, that he's that much of an expert on excitement.

*That's a joke, okay? 

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Nuts and Bolts: witch wych?

What's the difference between a witch and a wych?

Sometimes nothing at all.

Wych at the beginning of a word, as in wych-elm and wych-hazel means having bendable branches.

(Sometimes, just to stop things being easy, this wych is spelled witch: so, witch-hazel is nothing to do with, well, witches.)

As for the rest: witchweed:

Striga bilabiata MS4167.jpg

 witches' butter:

Exidia sp.jpg

 witches' broom:

really are genuinely to do with witches and magic. Well, when I say genuinely, I'm really only talking about derivations - I know nothing of spells. Witchweed is one of various Striga weeds of grain crops in Africa and Asia; witches' butter is the fungus Exidia nigricans; and witches' broom is a ball of twigs on a tree usually caused by a Taphrina fungus.

The witch that's a fish, Glyptocephalus cyanoglossis:

Flatfish 2011.jpg

might be so called because it looks rather sinister and magical, like a witch. 

But witchetty grubs are something else entirely.

Nuts and Bolts: wych witch? The pliable-branches word comes from the Old English wice, probably from the Germanic wik-, which means bend. The magical-person word comes from the Old English wicca, related to the Middle Low German wicken, to conjure, and the Swedish vicka, to move to and fro. Witchetty comes from the Adynyamathanha wityu, hooked stick, and vartu, grub - so, all boring and irritating people take note, saying witchetty grub is strictly speaking an example of tautology.

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Thing To Be Today: lapidary.

Lapidary? That must be to do with stones, mustn't it?

Yes, that's right. 

You want me to turn myself to stone?

No, of course I don't want you to...

....oh blow it! Hang on:


This blog does not encourage exposure to sunlight, 
or any other activity which may lead to irreversible petrification. 

(Well, this blog doesn't encourage exposure to sunlight if you're a fantasy-type troll, anyway, 
though if you're an on-line sort of a troll then 
it'd probably do you 
a lot of good.)

Flipping Health & Safety! Now, where was I? 

Ah yes, lapidary.

A lapidary is someone who cuts, or works with, gemstones. It can also describe a gemstone itself.

So how can a person be lapidary?

A thing is lapidary when it's carved on stone...

...oh, blast it!

This blog does not encourage the carving of stones unless the appropriate safety equipment is worn

A thing is also lapidary when it is of such high quality that it deserves to be carved on stone.

And, you know something? Today I'm going to try to write something as good as that.

Thing To Make Today: lapidary. This word comes from the Latin lapis, which means stone.

Monday 13 June 2016

Spot the Frippet: something oozy.

You know how medium-sized grass-eating animals, like deer and kangaroos for instance, can be quite similar even though they're not closely related?

Well, oozy is a bit like that, because oozy is in fact two different words, and the important thing isn't so much where they've come from as what they do.

First of all there's the word that describes stuff that's oozing something (easily spotted: just try squeezing some soft soap or a banana between the fingers), or oozing away (like a splodge of jelly on a sponge).

And then there's the other oozy, which doesn't actually ooze anywhere, but just lays about being...oozy. This is the stuff you'll stir up if you go paddling in a muddy pond or bog.

Two different words, both describing very much the same thing.

And you can see why they've both ended up being called oozy, can't you?

File:Dirt and Mud 004 - Muddy Water.jpg
photo by 0x0077BE


Spot the Frippet: oozy. The oozing-out type of oozy comes from the Old English wōs, juice. The laying-around type of oozy comes from the Old English wāse, mud. 

Sunday 12 June 2016

Sunday Rest: indubitable. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, this is just an ugly, pompous, burping, hard-to-pronounce word, isn't it.

And it means exactly the same as unquestionable or undoubtable - so it's useless, as well.

Away with it!

Sunday Rest: indubitable. This word comes from the Latin indubitābilis, from dubitāre, to doubt (which is connected to our word double, and the idea of having to choose between two possibilities). 

Hey, while I'm here, another annoying thing: the b in doubt was put in by scribes in the 1300s to make the word more like its Latin ancestors, which is a bit like insisting Prince Charles wears a codpiece...

...oh gosh, what a thought. I do hope he never does

Saturday 11 June 2016

Saturday Rave: Love plays his lute behind the screen by Fakhruddin Iraqi.

Fakhruddin Iraqi was born on this day in 1213. Yes, I'm afraid we should have celebrated him in 2013, but, hey, what's a few years out of eight hundred?

Fakhrudden was a devout Muslim scholar and poet who believed that the world held a mirror to God, and that therefore everything in the world must consist of love.

(The Iraqi in his name doesn't refer to the place we call Iraq today, by the way, but I think Fakhruddin Iraqi, pursued by religious discord, would have appreciated the extra layer of meaning this word gives his poems.)

Love plays its lute behind a screen, translated by William Chittick and Peter Lamborn Wilson.

Love plays its lute behind a screen -
where is a lover to listen to its tune?

With every breath a new song,
each split second a new strong plucked.

The world has spilled Love's secret -
when could music ever hold its tongue?

Every atom babbles the mystery -
Listen yourself, for I'm no tattletale!

Word To Use Today: screen. This word comes from the Old French escren and is related to the German Schrank, which means cupboard.

Friday 10 June 2016

Word To Use Today: farrago.

If farrago were an animal then it would probably have gone extinct long ago, because the word farrago only seems able to exist in one very specialised environment.

As serried only ever appears next to the word rank, so farrago only comes coupled with lies.

It's a farrago of lies! people say - in Britain probably with reference to our EU referendum. 

What they mean by this is that it's a conglomeration of untruths! A travesty! Cobbled-together falsehoods!

But what does the word farrago mean at root? 

Well, to be honest with you, it's all a bit of a cow's dinner.

File:Kitchen Waste Into Cattle Feed- Salvage on the British Home Front, 1942 D7583.jpg
Turning kitchen waste into cattle feed, Britain 1942 Ministry of Information

Word To Use Today: farrago. This word is the Latin for mash for cattle, that is, a mixture of all sorts of dubious stuff. The word comes from the Latin fār, which means spelt (an early form of wheat).

PS On second thoughts, perhaps lies isn't such a rare environment after all. 

No wonder the word continues to thrive.

Thursday 9 June 2016

Channelling Moses?: a rant.

Britain's EU referendum continues to be full of interest - well, it does for the student of language, anyway.

On the 6th June, for instance, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, held a hastily-arranged press conference on the roof of a London building.

On the roof of a building? Good heavens, he's the Prime Minister, he must have had a spare office available somewhere. Even if he hadn't, I understand his house in Downing Street has a nice garden. 

No, the roof thing must have been some sort of a message.

Was he trying to channel Moses on the mountain? Suggest the precipice-like danger of Brexit? I have no idea.

Equally baffling was Professor Brigitte Granville of London University's comment about France, which has its own anti-European Union feelings.

"It is a protest against the elites,' she said. 'There are 5000 people in charge of everything in France. They are all linked by school and marriage, and they are tight.'


I'm not sure from the context whether Professor Granville means careful with money or drunk.

Either way, I'm not surprised people are concerned.

Word To Use Today: tight. This word is probably something to do with the Old English thēttr, close, and related to the Middle High German dīhte, thick.  

PS Tight can be used to mean emotionally co-dependent, but not usually in educated speech, as here. 

Wednesday 8 June 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the illuminating difficulties of Lucy and Lear.

What's so great about literature? Doesn't it just say things in a roundabout way when saying it plainly would be much more effective?
No! And now, at last, thanks to Professor Philip Davis at Liverpool University (blessings upon him!) we have proof that's the case.
Professor Davis got together with some brain-scanning people at the university's magnetic resonance centre to see what happens when people read, amongst others, Shakespeare and Wordsworth. The results are completely fascinating, because it's turned out that it's the roundabout, difficult, or surprising bits of language that make the brain light up. 
Cleverly, Professor Davis and his team then compared the effect of reading classic literature with the effect of reading the same passage redrafted into plain prose - and what was the result? The reaction from the brain was much reduced. Professor Davis talks of the ability of literature to 'shift mental pathways, to create new thoughts, shapes and connections'.
Poetry, in particular, stimulates the part of the brain that's important for autobiographical memory, prompting reflection on its relevance to the reader's own life.
For instance, the passage from King Lear:* 'A father and a gracious man: him have you madded' sent fireworks through the brain at that last strange word. When madded was changed to enraged, the effect on the brain was much less. 
The same sort of thing happened with a passage from Wordsworth's Lucy Poems:
'She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be:
But she is in her grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!'
When it was replaced with 'She lived a lonely life in the country, and nobody seems to know or care, but now she is dead, and I feel her loss', as anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear will already know, the passage didn't have nearly the same power.
Having been brought up in a family which saw no point to literature at all I feel like dancing in the street. Science has finally vindicated me (see? I wasn't wasting my time, after all!).
In fact, I think I might go and do a quick twirl now. 
Word To Use Today: Lucy. This name Lucy comes from the Latin man's name Lucius meaning of light (perhaps born at dawn, or with a light or shiny complexion).
*The King Lear passage actually goes:
 A father, and a gracious man,
Whose reverence even the head-lugged bear would lick,
Most barbarous, most degenerate, have you madded.
Presumably Professor Davis used the whole thing, but that's not clear from my source.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: be fascinated.


I once had a conversation with a woman with a nose-piercing from which dangled a pearl on a small gold ring.

The impression was, unfortunately, of a dangling shiny sphere of, well, snot. I was fascinated by it to the extent that I was unable to attend to what she was saying.

A good story well-told can be quite as fascinating. I remember my husband coming home from work at a critical moment of Ann Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and I was so bound up in the story that I had trouble recognising him - and he'd only been gone a few hours.

If we're lucky we find interesting things to fascinate us, whether it's beetles, big diggers, words, clothes, politics or soaps (not that it's always possible to distinguish between the last two).

If we're unlucky the thing that fascinates us might be the stare of a snake. Or, heaven help us all, the hairstyle of a powerful man.

Being fascinated is wonderful but dangerous because it involves our being pulled away from reality.

Is there a clicking-fingers mobile phone app to bring us to our senses?

You know, the world might be a safer place if there was.

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: fascinated. This word comes from the Latin fascinum, a bewitching.

Monday 6 June 2016

Spot The Frippet: muntin.

Why is muntin such a nice word? 

Is it because it sounds like munchkin(Though perhaps that's begging the question, because presumably munchkin was chosen to describe something sweet and lovable because it was a sweet and lovable word.)

Illustration by W W Denslow.

Anyway, the thing is, wouldn't you like to see a muntin? Wouldn't your day be happier, safer, jollier? Wouldn't the grass be greener and the paving stones a slightly crazier shade of grey?

Well, now you can.

You can see muntins here:

File:King and Queen, 14–16 Marlborough Place, Brighton (Decorative Windows).jpg
photo of a Brighton pub by The Voice of Hassocks

and here:

 and here:

The muntins are the metal or wooden strips which hold the panes of glass together - eg the diamond metal pieces in the picture above.

There are no muntins in my modern house, sadly, but today I shall go out in search some out.

And it'll make me feel just slightly as if I'm on the Yellow Brick Road.

Spot the Frippet: muntin. This word comes from the Old French mountant, from monter to mount.

Sunday 5 June 2016

Sunday Rest: blimey. Word Not To Use Today.

Blimey! is used like a swear word. It's an exclamation of surprise. It's very mild, and I don't think anyone would object to it except as slang, or perhaps as vulgar.

But it conceals horrors, which on its longer form gorblimey are partly revealed.

(Gorblimey (or cor blimey), by the way, is only used, as far as I'm aware, by very old people from the traditionally poor districts of London. Those are the areas where nowadays a high-rise rabbit hutch with shower will set you back half a million pounds. If you're very lucky.)

Anyway, blimey. A nasty word which I've never used since I discovered its derivation.

I mean, no one would, would they?

Word Not To Use Today: blimey. This word is short for God blind me

The puzzle is why anyone would ever have started saying it in the first place.

Saturday 4 June 2016

Saturday Rave: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I put off reading Crime and Punishment for about half a century - and, quite honestly, I would have put off reading it for longer if my daughter had been able to find the Home Magazine section of our local WH Smith's.

It was my birthday, you see, and my daughter was looking for an extra present for me. I'd asked her for a Home Magazine (always enjoying, as I do, a chance to marvel at other people's willingness to live with plastic palm trees etc).

But, as I said, she couldn't find any Home Magazines so she bought me Crime and Punishment instead - and then, of course, I had to read it.

I was expecting wall to wall gloom (rather, now I come to think about it, like several recent Home Magazines), but that wasn't how Crime and Punishment turned out to be. There's a feverish energy about the book. It's black, certainly, but not really gloomy.

There's murder, hatred, madness, misery, and one of the very best death scenes I've ever read; but there's genuine virtue, too, and a huge empathy with even the most despised and depraved of mankind.

It also has a very surprising ending indeed.

So Crime and Punishment turned out not only to be a great masterpiece (which I already knew) but one that turned out to be not nearly as repulsive as I'd thought. 

Strongly recommended.

Word To Use Today: crime. This word comes from the Old French from the Latin crīmen which means verdict, accusation or crime.

Friday 3 June 2016

Word To Use Today: widgie.

According to my Collins dictionary (which is the one I use as a mouse mat) in Australia a widgie is a female larrikin or bodgie.

Unfortunately I haven't the faintest idea what either a larrikin or a bodgie is, so I suppose I'd better look them up. Hang on...

...ah, here we are: larrikin. A mischievous person or a hooligan.

And bodgie? A bodgie is an unruly or uncouth young man, especially in the 1950s. A teddy boy.

File:Teddy Boys.jpg

It's really rather pleasing to have a word for a female trouble-maker.

After all, why should the boys have all the fun?

Word To Use Today: widgie. This word is an altered form of bodgie, which is from bodge, to make a mess of something, from botch, to repair something badly or to spoil through clumsiness.

Thursday 2 June 2016

Vibrantly subtle: a rant.

I do enjoy a good catalogue, but the best catalogues are the bad ones.

How much? I yodel, outraged, at an offer of a simple cotton T-shirt for £150. 

But that dress even makes the model look fat! I yelp.

A solar-powered garden gnome...? 

Ooh, the joys of despising someone else's taste.

Anyway, the other day I was lucky enough to receive a brilliant catalogue from It featured headlines which included:

At last, a functional shirt made of cotton

(as if all other cotton shirts have fallen to pieces at the first wearing)

Why is the whole world looking for the T-shirt from Austria?

(simply deranged)


For the chic barefoot look 

(that one was advertising a pair of socks)

The catalogue kept me amused for ages, but the bit that really charmed the socks off me (for that chic barefoot look) was entitled This fashionable knitted waistcoat is truly unique (no, sorry, a knitted waistcoat is NOT fashionable - and if it's unique then it can't be fashionable). 

It was the opening sentence that gave me the most pleasure, though.

This knitted waistcoat is a lot more interesting than the usual plain ones due to the vibrant mottled look in subtle shades of grey.

Vibrant. Subtle. Grey. Mottled.

You know, I think they must have been taking words at random from a jar.


...can this be where I've been going wrong all along?

Word To Use Today: vibrant. As far as colour goes, this means strong and vivid. It comes, not altogether surprisingly, from the Latin word vibrāre, to agitate.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Nuts and Bolts: chrestomathy.

Now, Chrestomanci I know: he was the tall, dark, handsome and languidly masterful enchanter in Diana Wynne Jones' series of books (I very strongly recommend Charmed Life as a starting point).

But chrestomathy? Is a chrestomathy magical, too?

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

A chrestomathy is a collection of short pieces of writing. They might be particularly well-written and used to teach a particular subject, or they might be a series of passages that show the development of a language or literary style.

The important thing for it to be a chrestomathy is that it's designed as a teaching aid, so a spell book might indeed be a chrestomathy if it was full of very elegantly-worded spells. 

Still, even if a chrestomathy included no spells at all then surely just having the word chrestomathy on the cover would tease the fingers and the mind. Surely no one could help but devour the contents of a chrestomathy.

In fact, you know something? I think I'd happily read a chrestomathy about drains.

File:Light painting in a storm drain, Brisbane (darkday).jpg
Light painting in a storm drain, Brisbane. Photo by darkday.

Word To Use Today: chrestomathy. This word comes from the Greek chrestomatheia, which means desire of learning, and before that from chrestos, useful, and manthano, learn.