This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 31 July 2016

Sunday Rest: autocutie. Word Not To Use Today.

If ever there was a word dripping with sexist condescension it's this one.

As it happens, an autocutie isn't a female model draped over the bonnet of a car in order to sell it to inadequates, but an attractive young woman who presents TV programmes.

Mishal Husain.jpg
This is the extremely bright Mishal Husain

Autocutie is really rather a clever word (see below), but unfortunately it can only ever be used by misogynists and other morons.

Sunday Rest: autocutie. This word is based on Autocue (it's a trademark: the American equivalent is Teleprompter), a system where a television script can be read without the audience being able to see it. Cutie is a patronising term for an attractive young person, usually female. Auto- comes from the Greek autos, self. Cutie comes from cute, which occasionally still means clever (it's a shortened form of acute) but usually means unthreateningly attractive.

Saturday 30 July 2016

Saturday Rave: Love and Friendship by Emily Jane Bronte

The lives and novels of the Brontë family are very well known, of course, but here are a few facts about Emily's career as a poet.

The only poems published in her lifetime was in an 1846 volume of poems by herself and her sisters Charlotte and Ann, published under the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (you can tell who was who from the initials. It was also eldest first.). 

It sold two copies.

Charlotte published seventeen more of Emily's poems at the end of the last volume of Wuthering Heights, but Charlotte revised them very heavily indeed, even to the point of putting in new verses of her own.

Charlotte's widower sold all Emily's papers and they were quickly scattered and some of them may have been lost.

Even if you did manage to see one of Emily's poems, her handwriting was so tiny and terrible that the chances are you wouldn't be able to read it. 

Anyway, here, in large clear type, is Emily Brontë's Love and Friendship. She's not a poet you go to for great cheer, but this poem is about as close to upbeat a one as I could find.

Love is like a wild rose-briar,
Friendship like the holly-tree -
The holly is dark when the rose-briar blooms
But which will bloom most constantly?
The wild-rose briar is sweet in spring,
Its summer blossoms scent the air;
Yet wait till winter comes again
And who will call the wild-briar fair?
Then scorn the silly rose-wreath now
And deck thee with the holly's sheen,
That when December blights thy brow
He may still leave thy garland green.

Word To Use Today: briar, This seems to be a 1800s word from the French bruyère, heath, from the Latin brūcus, from a Gaulish word.

Friday 29 July 2016

Word To Use Today: izard/izzard.

I came across the word izard when reading The Mysteries of Uldolpho by Ann Radcliffe. The first time I read it I assumed it was a printing error for lizard - it seemed to refer to a creature of the mountains, after all - but as I read the book the izards kept on coming back, and eventually my recollection is that someone served one up at a feast - and even the Gothic and murderous bandits of the Pyrenees were going to be fussier than that.

So what is an izard? It's another name for a chamois, which is a small (less than a metre tall) goat-antelope: 

File:Chamois at schneeberg.jpg
photo by Doronenko

Do we need another word for a chamois? Well, the way my family pronounced chamois (we used its soft leather for washing windows) was shammy, and I spent several years trying to find that word in the dictionary, so for me the answer is yes. Izard would have made things much less baffling.

While we're here, izzard, though said the same way, is a completely different word: it's an old term for the letter z. 

Now, Z is also a causer of difficulties because of the split between those who say zed and those who say zee

On the whole I think we should all switch to izzard. And izard. It'd solve two problems. And it's ever such good fun to say.

Word To Use Today: izard and/or izzard. Izard comes from the Gascon isart, and before that probably from some Iberian word. Izzard appeared in the 1700s. Before that it was ezed, probably from the Old French et zède, which means, endearingly, and zed

Thursday 28 July 2016

Fudge: a rant.

Someone has bought me a tin of fudge as a present.

Does all the world eat fudge? Basically, you boil condensed milk, milk, butter and sugar until it'll set into a soft ball when a drop is put into ice-cold water, and then to stop it turning into toffee (or tablet, or taffee, or whatever you call it) you beat it briskly for five minutes. When it's set it should have a fine granular texture and be mouth-wateringly crumbly.

There's a recipe HERE. (Which, I must admit, I haven't tried.)

Anyway, this tin of fudge: based on a traditional Irish recipe, it says.

The stuff turned out to taste like Blu tack dipped in saccherine, so I had a look at the ingredients.

Glucose syrup, sugar, non-hydrogenated vegetable fat, sweetened condensed milk (milk, sugar) fondant (sugar, glucose syrup, water) cream (3%) emulsifier, mon- and diglycerides of fatty acids, flavouring, salt.
This product contains milk and may contain traces of soya, nuts and gluten.

Well, all I can say is, I'd be jolly interested to see a traditional Irish kitchen.

Word To Use Today: fudge. This word appeared in the 1800s, but sadly no one knows where it came from.

File:Blowing Rock fudge shop.jpg
This is Blowing Rock Fudge Shop (photo by Claire Powers). It's plainly completely different stuff from British fudge, which looks like this:

File:Colourful Fudge (8225742806).jpg
photo by Smabs Sputzer

but I'm including the image because one of the flavours is labelled TURTLE.

The mind boggles.

Wednesday 27 July 2016

Nuts and Bolts: some queer pronouns

The Equality Act of 2010, which affects England, Scotland and Wales, contains this clause:

'A child has protected characteristics of gender reassignment as soon as they make their intention known to someone whether that is at school, at home or elsewhere.'

Note the use of the singular they meaning he-or-she. I'm pretty sure this isn't a mistake, but an attempt to avoid assigning to anyone what they call gender but is actually sex.

Is using they the best way to go about this? 

Well, the Boarding Schools Association has come up with various suggestions for genderqueer (neither completely male nor female) and pansexual (attracted to all sorts) people.

One suggestion is for single-sex schools to use, for example, students instead of girls; but another has been to introduce a new set of pronouns for genderqueer and pansexual people.

Here they are:

Zie is laughing
I called zir/zem
Zir/zes eyes gleam
That is zirs/zes.
Zie likes zirself/zemself

(I'm confused by the last one: if zemself is a plural, which I assume it is, then surely it should be zemselves?)

Official attempts to change language tend not to be very successful nor to last very long, but this seems a fair attempt at solving a problem.

The main trouble now, as far as I can see it, is going to be working out about whom it's kind to use the new words.

Word To Consider Using Today: a gender neutral pronoun. They, for instance. This word appeared in Middle English and came from the Old Norse their.

Tuesday 26 July 2016

Thing To Consider Being Today: be dainty

Now, here's a conundrum: who wants to be dainty?

For anyone who aspires to be a (female) ballet dancer it's fine, obviously, but what about the (more numerous) brick layers?

How about teachers, doctors, shop-assistants and fishermen?

How about models and actresses? (They're seldom large, but nowadays even they tend towards the gawky rather than the dainty.)

I fear that self-contained elegance wrapped up in a small parcel has gone completely out of fashion, and that the only examples of daintiness we're likely to see are little old ladies and tea cups.

Still, I suppose there's always canapés.

And kittens:

File:20131203 kitten B.jpg
photo by Wouter Hagens

Thing To Consider Being Today: dainty. This word comes from the Old French deintié, from the Latin dignitās, dignity. 

Monday 25 July 2016

Spot the Frippet: something limicolous.

Here's a word to make you feel glamorous: limicolous.

Even if you're a slug then it will make you feel more glamorous:

File:Brown slug.JPG
(photo of a slug by Colae. Do note the slug's smart mantle).

Are you limicolous, yourself? 

File:Winter is a time for waders (8446870687).jpg
(the epitome of elegance: photo of a sanderling by Ian Kirk)

I am, a lot of the time. 

Well, I'm English, aren't I?

File:Joules wellington boots.jpg
(photo by Anna Tesar)

Spot the Frippet: something limicolous. Something limicolous is something that lives in mud or muddy regions. It comes from the Latin words līmus, mud, and colere, to inhabit.

Sunday 24 July 2016

Sunday Rest: stuffocation. Word Not To Use Today Unless You Just Feel Like It.

Stuffocation is a new word to me. It describes the stifled feeling people get from having too much stuff.

Actually, it's brilliant, isn't it?

photo by Tomwsulcer

Word Not To Use Today Unless You Just Feel Like it: stuffocation. This is the title of a 2013 book by James Wallman, who, as far as I can discover, probably coined the word.

Saturday 23 July 2016

Saturday Rave: Telstar

Fifty four years ago today the communications satellite Telstar 1 broadcast the first live USA-to-Europe public television programme. 

There was a tremendous fuss about it, even though Telstar 1 itself was quite little and non-scary: less than a metre long, and covered in solar panels:


The momentous event was supposed to beam the wise words of US President J F Kennedy across the Atlantic (there was a dollar crisis going on at the time and the financial people were, then as ever, doing their headless-chicken routines) but unfortunately the broadcast went live before the president was ready, so the very first thing broadcast was part of a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs.

I have no idea at all what they were playing, and probably neither did many of their viewers in Europe. The world was a larger place, then.

Anyway, President Kennedy spoke a bit later on, and his remarks immediately strengthened the dollar.

Telstar was at once seen to be a mighty force for bringing the peoples of the world together. Walter Crondike, one of the programme's anchors, said: 'we all glimpsed something of the true power of the instrument we had wrought'.

Still, none of them had an idea of the half of it, did they?

Word To Use Today: Telstar. I can't find the derivation of this word, but I assume it's a mixture of telecommunications, because that was what it did, and star, because in among the stars was where it appeared to be. Tel comes from the Greek tele, meaning far, and star comes from the Old English steorra.

Friday 22 July 2016

Word To Use Today: nonce.

The meaning of nonce in which I'm interested today is the one found in the phrases for the nonce, or nonce word.

This lovely bouncy word is an example of false splitting. That means it's one of those words like nickname or apron where an n has migrated from one word to another: for example, an apron used to be a napron, and a nickname used to be an ekename.

Nonce is basically the same word as once, and a nonce word is a word coined for a single occasion. These are often deliberately nonsensical words like wud or shulp, designed to be used to research the way people learn language (a question like what's the most likely word for more than one wud? might be asked, for example). 

For the nonce is a similar sort of thing and means for the present occasion.

Word To Use Today: nonce. This word appeared in the 1100s from the phrase for then anes, literally for the once. (The n at the end of then in this phrase, which, as already indicated, means the, is a dative singular. A dative singular is, basically, a bit added onto a word to make it plain exactly what part it plays in the phrase. English used to use them all the time, but it's now sensibly jettisoned very nearly all of them.)

Thursday 21 July 2016

A Level Playing Field: a rant.

On BBC Radio 4's PM news programme the other day they were discussing the reported industrial-scale swapping of Russian athletes' drug-testing samples.

And, you know something? I'm sure I heard Gary Anderson, the Performance Director of British Bobsleigh, assert on several occasions the importance of a level playing field. 

I don't usually watch sport, but I'd be quite interested to see a bobsleigh competition that took place on a level playing field.

File:Two-man bobsleigh, 2014 Winter Olympics, Germany(08).JPG
photo by Sander van Ginkel

Word To Use Today: bobsleigh. The bob bit comes, astonishingly, from a possibly originally Celtic word meaning a bunch of flowers. Sleigh comes from the Dutch slee, from Old Norse slethi. It's connected with our English word slide.

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Nuts and Bolts: this post may save your brain.

Robert S Wilson, of Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago, has published a report in Neurology, which is the journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

His study looked at nearly three hundred people, mostly in their eighties, who were tested annually on their memory and thinking abilities throughout the last years of their lives. Part of the study involved asking them how much they'd read books, visited libraries, or written letters throughout their lives.

It was found that people who had been keen life-long readers and writers experienced a slower decline in memory than those who hadn't, and post-mortem examination showed that even when the brain had deteriorated physically, showing the classic plaques and tangles of Altzeimer's disease, the keen readers and writers experienced about a 14%* smaller decline in memory and thinking skills than the occasional readers.

The theory behind this effect is known as the cognitive hypothesis of mental function. The idea is that mentally challenging tasks maintain and create both brain cells and the connections between them, and that this helps to compensate for any damage caused by disease or old age.

The rate of decline between those who hardly ever bothered with mentally stimulating activities and those who did average amounts of mentally stimulating activities was 32%*. The difference between the average people and the hardly-evers was 48%*

'Can we do anything to slow down late-life cognitive decline'? ask the authors of the study. They admit that more research is needed, but until then: 'The results suggest yes. Read more books, write more, and do activities to keep your mind busy.'

I'm feeling really quite chuffed about that.

And, if you've got this far, so should you.

Brilliant Thing you've Already Done Today: read! This word comes from the Old English dan, to advise or explain.

*Though how you express this sort of thing in terms of a percentage I have no idea at all.

Tuesday 19 July 2016

Thing To Do Today: label something.

My secondary school uniform required me to possess (among many other things) a pale blue airtex hockey shirt, a pair of navy blue short hockey culottes, a pair of white tennis shorts, a navy blue swimming costume and red swimming hat.

(I must add here that it was an exceedingly ordinary state school.)

All items of clothing had to be labelled. In those days labelling was done with purchased name tags, and this meant that every one of those labels had to be sewn on by hand (an exception was made for the swimming hat. I think that was marked in indelible pen). 

File:Label for dangerous goods - class 4.3.svg
Label for school swimming hat*. Art by Mysid

In addition to the name tags, the items listed above had to be marked with a circle of precise diameter (one inch for the shirts, two inches for the culottes and shorts) with one's initials inside, all hand-embroidered in red silk.

The absolutely massive resentment engendered by having to do all that embroidery was one of the reasons I disliked school sports teachers so much.

Nowadays, however, I rather enjoy labelling things. Herbs, manuscripts, folders: a well-labelled shelf brings peace and order. 

Especially if the labels are beautifully printed in lower case courier bold, and I haven't got to form the letters with a blessed needle and thread.

Thing To Do Today: label something. This word comes from Old French from a Germanic language. Pleasingly, there's an Old High German word lappa, which means rag.

*No, not really.

Monday 18 July 2016

Spot the Frippet: kennel.

A kennel is an outdoor hut for a dog:

File:Dog sled kennels.JPG
photo of sled dog kennels in Quebec by chensiyuan

and a kennels is a place where dogs are boarded or bred.

If you can't find one of these, then a kennel can also be the lair of a fox, a pack of hounds, or, possibly easier than either of those to find, a ramshackle house.

This unfortunate house is in Detroit.

There's a quite separate word kennel which means an open sewer or street gutter.

(This kennel is in Stockholm)

Well, there shouldn't be too much trouble spotting one of those, should there.

Spot the Frippet: kennel. The doggy word comes from the Old French chenil, from the Latin canis, dog. The sewer word is a form of channel.

Sunday 17 July 2016

Sunday Rest: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychgwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. Word Not To Use Today.

Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychgwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is a Word Not To Use Today?

Well, that's a relief.

Word Not To Use Today: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychgwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. 
This is the name of a village on the island of Angelsey in North Wales. The railway station famously displays the full name, but generally shortened ones are used for practical purposes, for example Llanfair PG. Llanfair etc means, in Welsh, St Mary's church in the hollow of the white hazel near the rapid whirlpool of Llandisilio of the red cave.

If you did want to use it, it's pronounced like THIS:

The terrific thing is that in 2001 over 70% of the population of Llanfair PG spoke Welsh, and of them 97.1% of the 10 - 14 year-olds were Welsh speakers. 

The name was invented in the 1860s for promotional purposes.

By the way, the name has 58 characters, but only 51 letters, ch and ll both counting as a single letter in Welsh.

Saturday 16 July 2016

Saturday Rave: The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger.

The Catcher in the Rye was published 65 years ago today.

Rye catcher.jpg

I read it ages ago because I thought I should. I didn't expect to understand much of what was going on because I didn't know what a catcher was - or what rye was, either, except in its slimming-biscuit-that-tasted-of-cardboard manifestation.

As far as I can remember, though, the most puzzling thing in the book was one particular word. It sounded Russian, which I found surprising for an American book of its time. To be honest, this strange word is the thing I remember most vividly about the book.

It was s'NOOvabitch.

Well, that's how I pronounced it as I read it anyway, In the book it was spelled, I think, sonuvabitch.

It only took me a couple of decades to work it out.

I now know what both a catcher and rye are. And, indeed, what a s'NOOvabitch is, too.

Though, as far as working out what the book means, I can't honestly say it helps all that much.

Word To Use Today: umm...I might get into trouble for encouraging the use of s'NOOvabitch, but how about rye? It's stuff a bit like wheat that grows in fields and is also used for food. The word comes from the Old English ryge.

By the way, quite a lot of The Catcher in the Rye depends on the fact that the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, doesn't understand the Robert Burns song Coming Through the Rye. 

But then I suppose we all build our world largely out of misunderstandings, don't we?

Friday 15 July 2016

Word To Use Today: ochlocracy.

Would you like to live in a ochlocracy?

What is one?

Well, the -cracy bit means rules the place, so, for example, a autocracy is ruled, obviously, by cars, a bureaucracy by writing desks and a plutocracy by the god of the no, I'm just joking: a plutocracy is, obviously, ruled by a dog. You get lots of sausages, but it's very difficult to find people to service the lamp posts.

Anyway, given that no one actually knows what ochlo- means, what sort of a ruler would we like to have?

Not easy, is it? 

You want someone extremely efficient who only does entirely wise things...


...that's someone who makes very quick, very well-considered decisions...

...suddenly it seems terribly clear why we're all in such a mess...

Word To Use Today: ochlocracy. The word ochlocracy (I've looked it up) comes from the Greek okhlokratia, from okhlos, mob, plus kratos, power.

I suppose some people would say it's quite similar to democracy, then.

Thursday 14 July 2016

The Politics of Budgies: a rant.

I'm looking after a budgie for a friend who's on holiday.

He's blue and a boy (the budgie, not the friend): an exquisite, courteous and charming bird.

File:Blue male budgie.jpg
photo by Amos T Fairchild

What's the bird's name?

Ah, well, that's rather a problem.

He has always, I understand, been called BillyBilly the Blue Budgie. What could be wrong with that?

I mean, he even has a bill.

Is the problem that in Canada billy means a truncheon? Or that in Australia and New Zealand it can mean a campfire kettle (boil the billy means to make a cup of tea)? Or that a billycock in Britain used to be a bowler hat? Or that Billy the Kid was an outlaw?

Nope. The trouble is that my friend has gone to see relatives in Dublin, and admitting to having a budgie called Billy in Dublin is apparently tantamount to celebrating the 1690 victory over the Irish Catholics at the Battle of the Boyne of the British King William III. 

Yes, it was a long time ago, but unfortunately the battle has acquired a lot of baggage over the years.

So: what can be done about Billy the Budgie?

My friend is an honest man who doesn't want to tell lies, so the poor budgie has been hastily renamed Bertie. 

I must say that Bertie/Billy seems perfectly happy. 

Though I'm not sure just how much of the politics he really understands.

Word Not To Use Today: billy. The truncheon word comes from a pet form of William, the cooking-vessel is short for the Scottish billypot, a billycock hat is named after William Coke, who wore the first one, and William itself means desire-helmet

Which is rather neat as far as the hat goes, isn't it.

Wednesday 13 July 2016

Nuts and Bolts: prose.

This is M Jourdain, who is Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme:

'Par ma foi!' M Jourdain says, in surprise and delight, 'Il y a plus be quarante ans que je dis la prose sans que j'en susse rien.' 'By my faith! I've been speaking prose for more than forty years without knowing it!'

But what exactly is this prose thing he's been speaking?

Well, it's the stuff where the writing goes right to the end of the line, of course. Otherwise it's poetry...

...unless it's a list. Or, quite often, a play....

Oh rats! It's not easy, is it?

All right, then, how about this: prose is the stuff that's not poetry, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that prose is words in the best order, wheras poetry is the best words in the best order. But he was joking, of course.

I mean, if you chopped some examples of prose into short lines then there are occasions when it'd be jolly hard to tell it wasn't poetry.

The city was dark, now, 
Looming in long 
Indigo shadows
That nearly touched 
The stars.*

And then, just to complicate things still further, there's the prose poem. This one, A Red Stamp, is by Gertrude Stein:

If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust, if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace, if they do this and it is not necessary if they do this they need a catalogue.

I think I'm going to throw up my hands and go back to the word prose's derivation, because the word defines itself quite as well as I can.

Thing To Use Today: prose. This word comes from the Latin phrase prosa oratio, which means straightforward or direct speech.

*That's a sentence of mine, actually, from a  book called Cold Tom.

Tuesday 12 July 2016

Thing Not To Be Today: minacious.

I've had an affection for -acious words ever since I used to watch The Herbs, a children's TV programme featuring the marvellously magical word herbidacious!

 (That clip doesn't actually feature the word herbidacious but never mind, it's made me realise that Parsley the Lion's mane is green like, er, parsley. I must only have ever watched The Herbs in black and white!).

Anyway, -acious words: gracious, audacious, vexacious, efficacious - and it's always a pleasure to come across a new one like minacious.

It means threatening: but, of course, it's generally much better not to threaten, but to promise.

Thing Not To Be Today: minacious. This word comes from the Latin minax, from minārī, to threaten.

Monday 11 July 2016

Spot the Frippet: something glabrescent.

Filled with an urge to provide comfort and, yes, a little joy, I present to you the word glabrescent. It's a botanical term, but it is, I believe, ripe for wider application.

Glabrescent (you say it glayBRESSn't) means either nearly hairless, or - and this is the meaning that will, I trust, lighten the burden of many a poor man - becoming hairless at maturity.

Examples of the glabrescent include Extriplex californica:

Photo Anthony Valois and the National Park Service

Or, of course, something like this:

Glabrescence. A sign of maturity...

...well, it's a better way of looking at it than baldy or slap-head, isn't it.

Sopt the Frippet: something glabrescent. This word comes from the Latin glabrescere, to become smooth.

Sunday 10 July 2016

Sunday Rest: prorogue. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, prorogue is, obviously, something that helps criminals, isn't it?

Well, the word looks as if it should be, of course, but...

...hang on...actually, now I come to think about it, perhaps it is. 

Prorogue means to discontinue the meetings of a law-making institution (ie some sort of parliament-type assembly), but without actually dissolving the thing for good.

Whether that prevents lawyers and politicians from continuing to commit their evil deeds, or whether it provides an unfortunate barrier to their all-consuming desire to do good, I leave it to yourself to determine.

Sunday Rest: prorogue. You say this proh-ROHG. It comes from the Latin prorogāre, to ask publicly.

Saturday 9 July 2016

Saturday Rave: The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe was paid £500 for her book The Mysteries of Udolpho, which was published in 1794. Jane Austen's mischievous tribute to it, Northanger Abbey, was bought in 1803 for £10 by a publisher who never bothered to publish it at all.

This is an entirely topsy-turvy state of affairs, because The Mysteries of Udolpho is, as it happens, precisely fifty times worse as a novel than Northanger Abbey. 

Even so, it's probably still worth a look. The Mysteries of Udolpho is set in Italy and the south of France in the 1500s, and its straightforward style, coupled with its careful if endless attention to exotic landscape and hardened villains, shows plainly why it sold by the barrow load.

Here's a bit of local colour from near the beginning of the book:

The peasants of this gay climate were often seen on an evening, when the day's labour was done, dancing in groups on the margin of the river. Their sprightly melodies, debonnaire steps, the fanciful figure of their dances, with the tasteful and capricious manner in which the girls adjusted their simple dress, gave a character to the scene entirely French.

Which, even before you've come across the evilly-disposed aunt, the black veil, the bounding hero, the regularly-fainting heroine, and the castle of Udolpho itself, is enough to show why Jane Austen got so much fun out of it, too.

Word To Use Today: capricious. This is nice word meaning to leap unexpectedly from one thing to another is to do with hedgehogs and goats. It comes from the Italian capo, head, and riccio, hedgehog, a capriccio being a shudder that makes the hair stand on end. But the meaning has been affected by the Italian capra, which means goat.

Friday 8 July 2016

Word To Use Today: odyssey.

This is The Word Den's two thousand and first post.

That's quite a lot of posts. 

How have the subjects for these posts been chosen?

Well, sometimes they've been prompted by something in the media - a few days ago, after the sudden withdrawal of Boris Johnson as a candidate for leadership of the British Conservative Party, everyone is quoting Et tu, Brute? so perhaps a piece about vocatives (ie why it's Brute, when everyone knows the man's name was actually Brutus) might prove of interest.

Sometimes finding a subject is just a matter of opening the dictionary at random and looking for something interesting. There are treasures, after all, on every page.

Sometimes the calendar is a prompt; sometimes I find myself wondering exactly what the words I'm using mean; sometimes I comes across a brand new word and have to look it up.

Sometimes I might wonder why a piece of music is so cheering, or why a particular book sends me to sleep; why the jackdaws are making such a racket, or whether the baddies in the movies talk more or less than the goodies.

Sometimes The Word Den responds to a piece of history, even if it's very minor history like today's post.

So: what can I write about today? 

To me, 2001 immediately brings to mind a famous film I've never managed to sit through because of its sad dearth of words.

Still, odyssey: that's a good word, isn't it?

Word To Use Today: odyssey. The original odyssey was called after, and made by, Odysseus. He was trying to get home to Ithaca (or Ithaka) after fighting in the Trojan wars, a distance of about 565 nautical miles. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for world literature, various adventures on the way meant that the trip took ten years, and now any long eventful journey can be called an odyssey.

Thursday 7 July 2016

When buildings talk: a rant.

What does your house say about you? is a question we are all encouraged to ask, but today I'm more interested in the question what does your house say to you?

I'm not talking about the odd creaks and cracks the place makes, nor the sinister gurgling chuckle that sometimes comes from the upstairs sink, nor the way the cooing of the pigeons is weirdly amplified by to a ghost-like moan by the chimney.

What I'm wondering is: does the house crowd you in, or does it make you feel as free as a bird? Does it make you feel cosy or exposed? Safe, or under threat? Relaxed, or stimulated?

The designer Kelly Hoppen has similar concerns. Well, I think she does. She has at any rate hired a healer to assess energy levels in her big and grand and very designed new West London home.

'I had my energy consultant come round when I first moved in,' she is quoted as saying. 'He said he'd never been in a building that was so clear. The only thing I needed to do was put an amethyst in one of the downstairs spaces.'

Now, it's easy to scoff, and I certainly won't be buying anything as hard to dust as an amethyst.

But I realise I have only the very dimmest idea of how the atmosphere of a place is communicated to its inhabitants - so I'd be extremely interested to know if the thing actually works.

Word To Use Today: amethyst. This word comes from the Old French amatiste, from the Greek amethustus, not drunken, from methuein to make drunk. The belief was that the stone could stop people getting drunk.

Well, I suppose that would affect your energy levels, wouldn't it.


Wednesday 6 July 2016

Nuts and Bolts: kente cloth.

These people are wearing kente cloth:

Parure et mode africaine famille akan.jpg
Photo by Kassoum kone 1 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Kente was originally the sacred cloth of the Ashanti kings of what is now South Ghana. It's worn more widely, now, but it's still held in great esteem.

It speaks a language according to its colours and patterns.

Black stands for maturity, Africa, and intense spiritual energy; green for the forest, growth and spiritual renewal; gold for glory and spiritual purity. Blue is for peace and love, grey and maroon signify healing, pink and purple are feminine, red is for sacrifice and blood, silver for serenity, yellow for wealth and beauty, and white for purity.

Fascinatingly universal, many of those associations, aren't they.

As for the patterns of kente cloth, they include Sika Fre Mogya, which represents the responsibility to share wealth with one's relations. Puduomma stands for 'you must practise patience in everything you do'.

I find myself wondering what patterns we'd choose to wear if we in the West had a similar system. 

I doubt it would be either Puduomma or Sika Fre Mogya.

Word to Use Today: kente. This word comes from the Ashanti word kenten, which means basket, though the Ashanti themselves call it nwentoma, which means woven cloth.

Tuesday 5 July 2016

Thing To Do Today: have fun.

Go on, have some fun!

Listen to the radio, do a dance, admire a steam train, read some Jane Austen, watch a film, clean your oven, groom your dog, get out the Monopoly board, have a run, paint a picture, paint a door, go for a walk, put your feet up, do some shopping, cook a cake, eat a cake, phone a friend, have a bit of peace and quiet, pull up some weeds, admire some wild flowers, think about football, sew a fine seam, write a poem, visit your family...

Well, it's better than doing the exact same things and being miserable, isn't it?

Thing To Do Today: have fun. This word appeared in the 1600s and might come from fon, to make a fool of, in which case it comes from fonne, a fool.

Monday 4 July 2016

Spot the Frippet: something theroid.

It's not easy to find a beast, not in the Home Counties*, and something theroid is something relating to, or resembling, a beast.

But what exactly counts as a beast? 

After some thought, the nearest I can get is that a beast is an animal that's beastly.

We can narrow it down further. I don't think a bird can be a beast, or a frog, though a large reptile like a Komodo dragon can.

In fact I rather think that a beast can only really be a beast if it's potentially beastly to us.

But even that won't do, because horse flies and wasps can make themselves very unpleasant without being beasts. A beast needs strength and heft.

Coming back to the Home Counties of England, I realise with some sadness that the only beasts left to us are horses, cows, and stags.

I find myself full of envy for those of you who have a chance of spotting a bear:

File:Black bear large.jpg
photo by Mike Bender/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

a cougar:

photo by Malcolm

 or a kangaroo:

File:Red Kangaroo.jpg
photo by dnatheist

But I am going to have to make do with someone's pet horse.

Spot the Frippet: something theroid. This word comes from the Greek thēroeidēs, from thēr, which means wild animal.  

*The Home Counties are the more comfortable areas surrounding London.

Sunday 3 July 2016

Word Not To Use Today: bipolar.

Bipolar is the current adjective of choice to describe someone whose moods swing from such wild enthusiasm to such extreme despair that rational decisions are often impossible.

The condition used to be called manic-depression, but bipolar is now entrenched as the more sensitive, polite and understanding term.

It can be a truly horrible condition, both for the sufferer and those around him. But bipolar...

...don't poles, whether magnetic or geographic or electrical, and however distant they are from each other, always appear to be exactly the same?

I understand that for this reason some sufferers prefer the term manic-depressive.

Word To Use Today: pole. This word comes from the Latin polus, the end of an axis, from the Greek polos, pivot, axis. It's related to the Greek kuklos, which means circle.

Saturday 2 July 2016

Saturday Rave: Thomas Cranmer's Magnificat.

Thomas Cranmer was born 527 years ago, on 2nd July, 1489.

He was responsible, as writer and editor, for The Book of Common Prayer, which gave access for the first time to English versions of all the services of the church.

The Book of Common Prayer was published in 1552, and it forms the basis of the services of the Anglican Church still in use today.

Thomas Cranmer by Gerlach Flicke.jpg
portrait by Gerlach Flicke

Four years later Thomas Cranmer was dead, burned alive for his religious beliefs.

Whether or not you share Cranmer's faith, the language of his prayer book is surpassingly beautiful. Here's his version of the song Mary sings upon hearing that she is to give birth to His son. It's usually still called by its Latin title of The Magnificat.

My soule doth magnifie the lorde,
And my spirite hath rejoyced in God my savioure.
For he hathe regarded the lowlinesse of hys handemaiden.
For beholde, from henceforth all generacions shal cal me blessed.
For he that is mightye hath magnified me, and holy is his name.
And his mercie is on them that feare him throughoute all generacions.
He hath showed strength with his arme, he hath scatered the proude in the imaginacion of their hartes.
He hath put down the mightie from their seate: and hath exalted the humble and meeke.
He hath filled the hungrye with good thynges: and the riche he hath sente awaye emptye.
He remembring his mercie, hath holpen his servaunt Israel: as he promised to oure fathers, Abraham and his seede for ever.
Glory be to the father and to the sonne and to the holy gost.
As it was in the beginning, & is now, and ever shall be worlde without ende. 

Word To Use Today: magnificat. The opening line of this song in Latin is magnificat anima mea Dominum, my soul does praise the Lord.

Friday 1 July 2016

Word To Use Today: strudel.

Britain may have voted to leave the European Union, but that doesn't mean the British don't love and admire Europe, and Europeans, and European things.

All sorts of European things.

A strudel is a whirl of filled pastry, and is a word nearly as much fun to say as the cake is to eat. The pastry is rolled very thinly - so thinly that it's said that you should be able to read a love letter through it, though the circumstances under which one might attempt to do so are hard to imagine.

File:Pecan Strudel profile, November 2009.jpg
Pecan strudel by Janet Hudson

The first recipes we have for strudel have date from 1696 and include the now mystifyingly unpopular turnip strudel. Before that, strudels probably descended from the pastries of Turkey and the Near East.

As if all this deliciousness wasn't enough, the word strudel's derivation is jolly satisfying, too.

Thank you, Europe, for this - and, of course, for many other blessings, too.

Word To Use Today: strudel. This word is German. It comes from the Middle High German strodel, eddy or whirlpool.