This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 31 August 2016

Nuts and Bolts: etymon.

The etymology of a word is its history, and it tells us two things: first, it tells us how the form of the word had changed over time; second, it tells us how its meaning has changed.

An etymon is a word that's given rise to another. It's sometimes called a root, or a stem (which is interesting in itself).

For instance, the etymon of the word scullery is the Latin scutra, a flat tray.

Though what use a non-flat tray might be I cannot imagine.

File:Tray, Edo period, 17th century, men pulling a rock design in maki-e lacquer - Tokyo National Museum - DSC05964.JPG
Men pulling a rock, lacquer, 1600s. Photo by Daderot

Word To Consider Today: etymon. Pleasingly, the etymon of the word etymon is etymon, which means true sense in Greek.

Tuesday 30 August 2016

Thing To Do Today: reap.

We are told, on apparently excellent authority, that we shall reap what we shall sow. It's not always true, of course: many a cabbage is reaped by the slugs or pigeons long before its sower gets a tooth to it, and I've been eating the flowers of the fennel plant growing through the cracks in my front drive for weeks without any effort on my part whatsoever.

The hedges will be full of blackberries any minute, too.

Anyway, I'd like to dedicate this post in gratitude to all the gardeners and farmers all over the world whose skill and work and cunning ways with slugs allows me to put food regularly on my table without getting my hands dirty.

Strength to the reapers!

File:Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Corn Harvest (August).JPG
The Corn Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

(Except for the grim one, natch.)

Thing To Do Today: reap. I do hope you can find something delicious to harvest as you go about your day. The word reap comes from the Old English riopen, and is related to the Norwegian ripa, to scratch, and the Middle Low German repen, to card (as in flax).

Monday 29 August 2016

Spot the Frippet: gum.

Well, there's plenty of gum about, isn't there, and it's mostly dead easy to spot after you've ungummed our eyes in the mornings.

There's chewing gum (just look at any pavement) and the things that hold our teeth in. There's the Yorkshire gum, as in Eh bah gum! which is an exclamation of anything from mild surprise to extreme exasperation.

There's gum arabic, which comes from the tree Acacia nilotica:

(here it is excreting gum)

which is found in drink syrups, marshmallows, edible glitter, wine, printers' ink, medicines, cosmetics,, shoe polish, postage stamps, envelopes, lithographic prints, ceramic glazes and more or less everywhere, really.

In New Zealand gum might be Kauri gum, the fossilised resin of the Kauri tree, which can be carved into works of art: 

There's even a museum dedicated to the stuff.

When I was young we used to have plastic bottles of gum for sticking paper together. You squeezed the stuff out of a slit in a rubbery thing on the top, whereupon your fingers would go instantly filthy, it would make the paper very wet for several hours, and then eventually turn out not to have had the slightest adhesive effect on anything.

Then you were properly up a gum tree, I can tell you.

File:Flowering Gum Tree. (16439672775).jpg
Flowering Gum Tree, New Zealand. Photo by GPS 56

Spot the Frippet: gum. The Yorkshire gum is a polite form of god. The gums in your mouth come from the Old English gōma, which means jaw. The sticky stuff comes from the Old French gomme. from the Latin gummi, from the Egyptian kemai. The expression up a gum tree started off as like a possum up a gum tree (that is, safe from the dogs that have been chasing it) and seems to have started off meaning safe or contented rather than in trouble. A gum tree is so called because the various species exude lots of sticky sap.

Sunday 28 August 2016

Sunday Rest: gulosity. Word Not To Use Today.

Here's one of those old-fashioned words that surely not even a Regius Professor of Pomposity could bring himself to utter.


(Just to make it even worse you say it GYOOlossity.)

It means greed or gluttony.

Now, obviously gluttony in particular is a greatly satisfying word of enormous clattering charm and anyone in their right mind will much prefer it. 

Billy Bunter Chapman Portrait.jpg
Frank Richard's Billy Bunter, illustrated by C. H. Chapman

I suppose that there's something swollen and indigestible about the word gulosity that does echo its meaning.

It certainly echoes the state of the ego of any user, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: gulosity. This word comes from the Latin gulōsitās, from gula, which means gullet.

Saturday 27 August 2016

Saturday Rave: Payment Deferred by C S Forester.

Payment Deferred was one of the most thrilling reads of my life, and, most annoyingly, it was written when CS Forrester was still in his early twenties. 

Good grief: such twistedness of character and plot, such command of tone, at such a young age! 

(By the way, CS Forester's real name was Cecil Louis Troughton Smith. Would CL Troughton Smith have been less successful and famous than CS Forester?)

Anyway, the set-up for Payment Deferred is that a rather unpleasant and resentful bank clerk and family man, William Marble, is visited by a young relation who brings with him an irresistible temptation. 

This thrilling opening ends with a body being buried in William Marble's garden where it gradually poisons the mind of the murderer and the lives of the resident family. Even longed-for wealth, which luckily comes along, can't draw the poison and increasing fear that rises from the hastily-dug grave.

There was capital punishment in England in those days.

There's something particularly horrifying about feeling the terror of an evil person, and this book brings that most vividly to life.

It also ends in the most terrible and haunting way.

Is justice done to the guilty? a way, yes. But it's a way you'll never forget.

Word To Use Today: guilty. This word comes from the Old English gylt, but where the word came from before that is a mystery.

Friday 26 August 2016

Word To Use Today. Possibly. Although It Might Spoil Things A Bit: petrichor.

I have mixed feelings about the word petrichor. It describes something for which few English-speakers have a name, but at the same time it's a horribly heavy, stomping sort of word.

It describes a rare, effervescent pleasure of the natural world, but manages to sound like a waste-product of the mining industry.

What is it?

Petrichor is the scent of rain on dry earth.

File:Rain Quail.JPG
photo by Pratiksha Kothule

This scent is partly made by the oils that plants excrete to stop their seeds germinating in a dry spell (clever, huh?) and partly from stuff called geosmin, which is excreted by actinobacteria (they're the ones that break down dead stuff so that plants can get at the minerals in it).

Hmmm... from now on am I going to be taking a deep life-enhancing breath on a showery day and saying to myself, oh, the scent of plant family-planning oil and bacteria poo!

Well, rather unfortunately, I think I am, now.


Word To Use Today. Possibly. Although It Might Spoil Things A Bit: petrichor. This word in 1964 by the Australian scientists Isabel Joy Bear and Richard G Thomas in the journal Nature. It comes from the Greek words petra, which means stone, and ichor, the golden fluid that is said to flow through the veins of the gods.

Thursday 25 August 2016

A fashionable bank: a rant.

What do you want from your bank? A safe place to stash your cash? A reasonable return on your money? A convenient way of dealing with invoices?

I recently got a letter from a large respectable bank (it was founded in 1765 and since the 2008 crash has been partly owned by the British people). The headings on this letter were as follows:

i'd like to save on what i owe and on what i buy

how can i save on what i owe?

and how can i save on what i buy?

what else do i need to know?

do i get anything else?

Do you see what they've done, there? They've noticed that a lower-case letter i is associated with glamorous modern devices as made by Apple, and so they've used it to try to sprinkle some fairy dust over their bank.

Ah, but did fairy dust appear on the list, above, of what people want from a bank?

No. And that's one reason why there's no way I'm going anywhere near them.

Mind you, another is the sheer illiteracy of it.


Word To Use Today: I. In Old English this word was ic. It must have sounded as if everyone had hiccups.

Wednesday 24 August 2016

Nuts and Bolts: where the wild words are.

Oh, heavens to Betsy, this is incredible.

Jack Gallant (could there be a better name for a hero?), a neuroscientist at the University of California, has been mapping words to particular parts of the brain.

His aim was to show how words are physically linked, if at all, by meaning. It turns out that different small areas of the brain (he looked at up to 80,000 of them) are associated with groups of related words.

Basically, this means that your brain doesn't contain a dictionary so much as a thesaurus.

One of the most extraordinary things is that all the people studied (they were all English speakers) seem to hold the same groups of words in the same place in the brain. This means that one day a scanner might be able to read minds (though admittedly there were only seven people scanned, and two of them were the authors of the study, so this wasn't really a representative sample).

How did Alexander Huth, the first author of the study, (another hero's name!) make his map? Well, he scanned the brains of people listening to radio short stories and then matched how neural responses matched the words.

Actually, as you'd expect, it's not quite as simple as words having their own places in the brain. Victim, convicted, murdered and confessed are close together, as are wife, husband, children and parents. But a word like table might appear in several places, depending on whether you were talking about an item of furniture, a statistical device, or a geological feature.

The most marvellous thing is that you can see this brain map for yourself and see the word-links HERE.

This is amazing, but I want to know much more. I want to know if a great writer tends to move within the groups of words like an average person, or moves more frequently between them. I want to know if a French speaker groups the same meanings as an English speaker. If there's a difference between the storage systems of men and women. How the words of a second language are grouped.

Oh, but there's just so much more I want to know!

Word To Use Today: link. This word came to us in the 1300s from Scandinavian, but where Scandinavians keep the word link in their brains, and whether it's the same place as I do, I don't yet know.

Tuesday 23 August 2016

Thing To Do Today: secrete something.

Here's another contranym - that is, one of those words which mean both themselves and their own opposites.

So, what sort of secreting shall we do? Shall we ooze moisture, like a maturing cheese? Or shall we, instead of revealing our innards in this way, hide ourselves (or something else) from view?

I suppose the most ambitious of us could run up sweatily up a mountain with a spade and use it to bury something at the top (most sensibly the spade itself, to lighten the journey home) and thus do both at simultaneously.

Anyway, secreting things is good exercise, whether it's the oozing physical sort of secreting or the mental where-on-earth-did-I-put-that? sort.

Just don't blame me when you're trying to find your car keys, that's all.

Thing To Do Today: secrete something. The oozing sort of secrete comes from the word secretion, which comes from the Mediaeval Latin sēcrētiō, a separation.The hiding sort of secrete comes from the word secret, from the Latin sēcrētus, concealed, from sēcernere, to sift. So both are to do with the idea of separation and distinguishing between things.

Monday 22 August 2016

Spot the Frippet: a eutherian.

Is there a better joke than the fact that the scientific (scientific!) name for human is Homo sapiens or wise man?

If there is, it may be contained in the word eutherian.

Ah well, at least spotting eutherians is easy. See that dog?

File:Dog marking his spot.jpg
photo by Dean Beeler

That cat?

File:Sleeping cat on her back.jpg
photo by Umberto Salvagnin

That sheep, cow, buffalo, reindeer?

File:20070818-0001-strolling reindeer.jpg
photo by Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd)

All eutherians.

Oh, and see that mirror?

File:Girl at a mirror, by Paulus Moreelse.jpg
Girl at a Mirror by Jhr Pieter Hendrix Six van Vromade

You'll find a eutherian in there, too.

You have to laugh.

Spot the Frippet: eutherian. A eutherian is one of a sub-class of mammals which reach an advanced state of development before being born (advanced being relatively relative because it includes not only the young horse, which can wobble to its feet within hours of birth, but the human, which doesn't become truly independent until...well, in some cases, until inheriting the wealth of its parents). In fact all mammals which aren't marsupials or monotremes are eutherians. The word comes from the Greek eus-, which means good, and thēria, which means beasts.

Sunday 21 August 2016

Sunday Rest: Ded. Word Not To Use Today.

English is always stealing words and then, by misunderstanding or misapplying them, making them its own. At which point a word becomes truly English is sometimes difficult to pin-point.

Ded, which is pronounced in English, well, ded, is a Russian word, though in Russian it's pronounced d'YED. Perhaps it's the change in pronunciation that gives the word some claim to English nationality.

The trouble with the word ded is, of course that it sounds like dead, and so it's more or less impossible to use.

The other trouble with ded is that it describes a Russian army soldier with two or three years' experience. In English that makes the word a particularly bitter joke.

File:Russian soldier.jpg
photo by Offspring 18 87 

Word Not To Use Today: ded. This is a joke in Russian, too, though perhaps not such a bitter one. Дϵд means grandfather.

Saturday 20 August 2016

Saturday Rave: Thomas Corneille.

Yes, you're right, Corneille was called Pierre. Thomas was his very little brother, born when Pierre was nineteen years old.

portrait by Jacob van Loo

Thomas Corneille wrote poetry, and more plays than Shakespeare. Some of them were rather good - his brother admitted to having wished he'd written Camma himself. Thomas translated Ovid, and also wrote a couple of dictionaries (one three-volume work, astonishingly, after he'd gone blind).

As if this wasn't enough for someone of whom no one was ever going to have heard, he wrote libretti. The one for the opera Médée was set to music by Chapentier. Here are Médée's opening words:

Pour flatter mes ennuis, que ne puis-je te croire!
Tout le voudroit, mon repos & ma gloire;
Mais en vain á douter je trouve des appas,
Jason est un ingrat. Jason est un parjure;
L'amour que j'ai pour lui, me le dit, m'en assure,
Et l'amour ne se trompe pas.

To ease my troubles, if only I could believe you!
Everyone would wish me peace and glory -
But that's in vain, for there are charms in doubting.
Jason is ungrateful. Jason is a liar:
The love that I have for him, that has been told to me, reassures me:
And love is not wrong.

It shows, I think, an admirable appetite for getting on with stuff and not messing about chattering about the weather.

Word To Use Today: ennui. It means listlessness and general dissatisfaction in English, but in French it used to mean annoyance, and in fact is basically the same word.

Friday 19 August 2016

Word To Use Today: giraffe. With ossicone as a bonus.

The giraffe (or cameleopard, if you're feeling historical) is the tallest living animal, hurray, and the tallest part of the tallest living animal are its ossicones, which are the little horn-like things it wears between its ears.

photo by Sergio Cambelo

Giraffes are extraordinary in many ways. They have traditional calving grounds so they can leave their new-borns in a sort of nursery when the mothers want to go off and feed. They smell of home-made insect-repellent. They neck - though not, as with humans, when they're courting, but when they're fighting off rivals.

Astonishingly, there's some evidence giraffes can relay information across great distances, perhaps by making sounds at frequencies too low for humans to hear (they snore at low frequencies, too, but as far as we know that doesn't have any special meaning).

Giraffes are jolly useful even when, sadly, dead. If you want to cure a nose bleed, then the smoke from a burning giraffe skin is said by the Bugunda people to help (this is at least as sensible as putting a cold key down the back). If, like the Humr people of Sudan, you consume a drink made of a giraffe's liver and bone marrow you are very likely to see the ghosts of giraffes

No, you are, really. It's almost certainly something to do with the psychoactive substances found in a giraffe's acacia-leaf diet.

No wonder they always look so spaced-out.

Word To Use Today: giraffe. This word comes from the Arabic zarāfah. Cameleopard arose because the animal does look a bit like a mixture of a camel and a...but you're there before me. 

Thursday 18 August 2016

Random Words: a rant.

I love words. I cherish every single one of them, even the horrible ones like Anaglypta...well, all right, I don't exactly cherish it, but I can see that it has its uses.

Words form an exquisite web of meaning which illuminates the world... least, that was my impression.

This is a quote from Jennifer Grey, the star of Dirty Dancing, on why she doesn't want to appear in the new version of the film:

'I was flattered because I always want to be asked because it's nice to be included. But for me, it would be sacrosanct for me to do it because it didn't feel appropriate for me.'

My problem isn't that the word sacrosanct is used in a non-standard way: Ms Grey isn't a professional orator, and of course no one understands even half the words of a language anyway.

My problem - my real problem - is that I know exactly what she means, anyway.

And it's, like, totally aardvarking, I can tell you.

File:Aardvark (PSF).jpg
Ilustration from Pearson Scott Foresman

Word To Use Today: sacrosanct. This word usually means very sacred or holy. It comes from the Latin sacrōsanctus, made holy by sacred rite, from sacrō, rite, from sacer holy, plus sancīre, to hallow.

Wednesday 17 August 2016

Nuts and Bolts: stuck and struggling in a web of words.

Are you young, or are you old?

What? You want a definition of old? 

Well, have you degenerated physically to the extent that you can't walk as fast as you once could?

If you have, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the walking-slowly thing might not be down to physical degeneration. 

The bad news is that someone might have been messing about with your brain.

Professor John A Bargh at New York University has been playing games with his students. He gave them some jumbled-up words and the idea was that they had to arrange them to make a grammatical sentence. The sneaky thing was that the sentences involved words connected with age, such as old, grey and wrinkle. The other sneaky thing was that the students were timed as they walked to and away from the room in which the experiment was conducted. The result? The students who had been exposed to words about aging walked more slowly on the way out than on the way in.

(I assume that allowances were made for the fact that people do often walk faster when they're going towards something than away from it, depending upon whether it's lunch or a lion.) 

It's interesting, anyway. Perhaps the obesity crisis is being exacerbated by the current fashion for painting our walls grey.

And perhaps you're fitter than you think.

Professor Bargh did a second experiment where he gave each students one of two lists. One list had a words suggesting aggressive behaviour, the words on the other suggested politeness and patience. Then the students were individually called for an interview, and the interviewers deliberately kept the student waiting by chatting to each other. The result? The students exposed to the aggressive words interrupted the conversation, and the students exposed to the polite ones waited much more patiently.

Good grief: results like that mean that with a little public artwork about the place, and a state-controlled media, you could get the population of a country to act in more or less any way you wanted...

...hang on...


Words To Use Today: patience, tolerance, understanding, friendship, kindness, brotherhood...

Tuesday 16 August 2016

Thing To Do Today: be soppy.

Soppy can mean more or less the same as soggy, that is wet through to the point of dripping or oozing. This is fine if you like that sort of thing.

Perhaps you're an Olympic swimmer. Or a sponge.

Soppy can also mean containing sops, a sop in this case being a piece of dunked bread (though sops-in-wine is, confusingly, a sort of flower):

File:Goździk brodaty.jpg
photo by Jelonowitz

On the same principle, a milksop may be bread soaked in, yes, milk, but it's far more likely to be a feeble or ineffectual man. 

This brings us to the sort of soppy I particularly recommend.

My Collins dictionary tells me that this sort of soppy is a purely British word (though it isn't in my edition of the Oxford English Dictionary). It means emotionally saturated. It's the sort of feeling you get when you see an appealing young animal, the emotional response you feel when you think about the television of your youngest years, or the internal gooeyness that makes you hesitate about throwing out some ill-drawn portrait of the family done by your three-year-old child.

It's what you feel when you see something weak and you want to protect and admire it rather than eat it or stamp on it.

Sentimental? Probably. Exasperating to others? Sometimes. Harmless? Mostly.


Yes - but also pretty-much universal, I should think.

File:Cat Cute.JPG
photo: Gaurav Pandit

Thing To Do Today: be soppy. The word soppy comes from the Old English sopp and is related to the Old Norse soppa, soup.

Monday 15 August 2016

Spot the Frippet: horn.

It shouldn't be difficult to spot a horn, but of course the one place you won't find one is on a Viking's helmet.

Wings, yes, horns, never.

Mind you, the chance of your spotting a Viking wearing any sort of helmet isn't that great.

Still, those horns on Viking helenets. Where did the idea of them come from? Well, it seems we can blame the costume designer Carl Emil Doepler, who created the horned helmet 140 years ago for the first production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

So where can we find a horn?

On sheep, cows, goats, and rhinos, for a start. There are horned lizards: 

Horned lizard 032507 kdh.jpg

and a horned viper, and a horned owl, too:

File:Great Horned Owl.jpg
photo by Anton Bielousov

Or how about that strangest of all beasts, the orchestra?

Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. Horns at the back on your left.

Horns are everywhere. There's a horned poppy:

File:Glacium - Horned poppy 04.jpg
photo by Zeynel Cebeci

Even cars have horns (though sadly you can no longer usually see them). Shoe horns, though, are easily visible, as are (sometimes) those on the moon, an anvil, or a saddle.

If there are plenty of horns, there is also a horn of plenty - and in the word's typically generous spirit there are two sorts of horns of plenty, the classical horn-over-spilling-with-fruit type, and a rather delicious edible fungus.

You know something? I was beginning that everything has horns but me - but I've just discovered that inside me I have uterine horns. I feel rather pleased about it. 

That still leaves men out - though for some reason or other they don't seem that keen on acquiring horns...

detail from the Gundestrup cauldron

It makes you wonder rather about the home life of Herr Doepler, doesn't it.

Spot the Frippet: horn. This word is Old English and is related to the Latin cornu, which means horn, too.

Sunday 14 August 2016

Sunday Rest: cupule. Word Not To Use Today.

You say this word KYOOPYOOL - which is alone reason enough not to use it.

Rather spitefully, it's the name of something particularly magical and lovely:

File:Acorn shell.jpg
photo by Freestyle nl. The cupule is on the left (the other thing is a gall).

Yes, a cupule is the cup which holds an acorn:

File:Quercus rubra N red oak acorns.jpg
photo by Dcrjsr

(Those are acorns from the American Northern Red Oak, Quercus rubra. Don't they have lovely Tam o'Shanter hats (or cupules, if you must be scientifically accurate)?)

Oh dear. Precision is all very well, but not at the expense of stripping away any beauty from the world, so I'm going to forget this word as soon as I can. 

It's a rare example of ignorance being really rather blissful. 

Word Not To Use Today: cupule. This word only arrived in English in the 1800s, which proves we can very well do without it. It comes from the Latin cūpula, a small cask, from cūpa, tub. 

Saturday 13 August 2016

Saturday Rave: the extraordinary William Wotton.

William Wotton was born 350 years ago today.

Who? you may ask.

William Wotton was an extraordinary man. He could read English, Latin, Greek and Hebrew before he was six, and instead of dying early, as you'd expect, he graduated from Cambridge when he was thirteen, having acquired a knowledge of Arabic, Syriac and Chaldee on the way.

He became a clergyman, translated scholarly works, and threw himself into the controversy about whether modern or ancient learning was finest (he took the part of the moderns: hurrah!). Then, perhaps to prove he knew what he was talking about, he wrote a history of Rome and some career-advancing works in support of the Church of England.

During this time, and long before anyone else (though sadly his ideas weren't published until after his death) Wotton was also developing theories about a proto-language from which all other languages developed. He did this by comparing Icelandic, the Romance languages, and Greek.  His ideas were eventually published as A discourse concerning the confusion of languages at Babel.

Now, have you got some idea of what kind of man William Wotton was? 

Well, I'm afraid your impression of him is probably quite wrong, because Wotton, as well as being a great scholar and linguist, was stupidly extravagant, a brilliant preacher, a drunkard, and a man of what used to be called immoral character. 

After Wotton had caused a really ridiculous number of scandals his friend the bishop of Lincoln at last gave up on him, and as soon as people found out about that Wotton's creditors pounced, and Wotton was forced to go and live in Wales for seven years under an assumed name.

But Wotton was never predictable. While in Wales he became a reformed character. He made a translation of Mediaeval Welsh law, much of which was written in a lost form of Welsh. Wotton even managed to repay his creditors and move back to Bath, and then to London.

By that time, sadly, he was very ill, and died still at work on his book of Mediaeval Welsh Law.

But what a guy, eh?

Word To Use Today: babel. The story is that when people tried to build a tower to reach heaven, God frustrated the building process by giving to each of the builders a different language. Nowadays babel can also mean any confusion of voices. The word comes from the Hebrew Bābhél, from Akkadian Bāb-ilu, gate of God.

Friday 12 August 2016

Word To Use Today: digamy.

Well, digamy must be like bigamy, mustn't it, only with...dogs? Or with your two wives or husbands living further apart...or perhaps it's when you have a husband and a wife.

Well, we probably need a word for that, don't we. Or we will soon, anyway.

Actually, there's nothing wrong with our logic or our etymology, because digamy does indeed involve a second marriage. 

Rather sadly, in the case of digamy it's one contracted after the end of a first marriage through death or divorce.

Never mind. I still feel quite thrilled to know that several of my friends are digamists living digamously

It really makes them seem rather sophisticated.

File:Jang Bahadur and second wife, 1860s.jpg
Maharajah Sir Ranadip Singh Rana Bahadur and his second wife, 1860s.

Word To Use Today: digamy. This word comes from the Latin digamia, from the Greek dis, which means twice, and gamos, marriage.

Thursday 11 August 2016

The Screaming of Flowers: a rant.

File:Peterhof Upper Garden Arch HDR (4083085182).jpg
Photo of Peterhof Upper Garden Arch, HDR, by michael clarke stuff

I've just been offered Some Victorian-style Garden Arches by a company called One Regent Place.

I'm not in need of garden arches of any kind, but as I read more or less anything I read the description anyway. 

Add climbing plants such as sweet-smelling jasmine, fragrant roses and wisteria, sweet peas and clematis and soon you'll have an arch with a complete cacophony of colours and smells.


The annoying thing isn't so much that they've applied a word meaning horrible noise to a group of flowers, it's that I've spent the week since the catalogue arrived wondering what they meant.




The really awful thing is that if I think about it long enough then cacophony might even start making sense.

Word To Use Today, Though Not About Flowers Unless You Really Mean It: cacophony. This word comes from the two Greek words kakos, bad, and phōnē, voice.

PS Actually, I think I've worked it out. They wanted a synonym for riot, didn't they? 

Dangerous things, thesauruses!

Wednesday 10 August 2016

Nuts and Bolts: fascicule.

I'm afraid that fascicule is a completely useless word because a) very nearly no one will understand it, and b) there's another word that means the same thing that everyone will understand. 

Not only that, but using the word fascicule will make you look like a braggart and an idiot, and, given that it's such a horrid word, a person with no taste. as well.

Still, I present this word as a public service so you can spot a braggart and an idiot with no taste when you hear one...

,,,,and snigger to yourself.

Word To Snigger About Today: fascicule. A fascicule is one part of a printed work that's published in instalments. 

It's probably not quite so bad to use this word if you are actually a printer. 

The word comes from French, from the Latin fascis, which means bundle. 

You can call them fascicles or fasciculi, too. But that's even worse.

Tuesday 9 August 2016

Thing To Do Today: make a speech.

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking...

Well, it'll get a slightly weary chuckle, won't it?

The trouble is that unaccustomed as I am to public speaking misses the point completely because a speech isn't about the speaker, accustomed or not, but about the audience.

The audience isn't there to watch the speaker show off, they're there to benefit in some way from the speaker's message. A speech is for sharing something. It's not a lecture - although, actually, the best lectures consist of sharing something, too.

Oh, and being reasonably sober will probably help, too.

File:William Jennings Bryan 1896 presidential campaign.jpg
William Jennings Bryan: American Presidential Campaign 1896 (just look at how inspired the men on the stage with him are). Bryan was a very practised speaker, but never became president.

Thing To Do Today: make a speech. This word has hardly changed since the English language first emerged from the swamps. It comes from the Old English spēc, and is related to specan, to speak.

Monday 8 August 2016

Spot the Frippet: something sejant (or sejeant).

The headlines tell us that working in an office is as dangerous as smoking - though surely that depends on which bit of you is smoking.

Anyway, the idea is that working in an office means you are sitting still for long periods, and that to stave off death it might be a good idea to get up and have a wander round from time to time.

I would imagine that the best way to improve the health of the average office-worker would be to move all drinks to the far corner of the top floor, but for those happiest when safely ensconced behind a desk piled high with...well, if they knew what was there then they'd probably be quite happy to throw it away...then I present the word sejeant. Or sejant.

It usually applies to heraldic animals such as the lion or the dragon (most offices have a dragon) but there's no reason why it shouldn't be applied to anyone else. In any case, it's one of those words which add dignity to all occasions.

Sejant means sitting down, and, in the way of heraldic adjectives, it goes after the thing it's describing.

File:Lion Sejant.svg
Drawing of a lion sejant by Sodacan

So, you might see a manager sejant, or a ticket-seller sejant, or perhaps an old lady in the park sejant.

File:Victoria Park bench.JPG
Photo of Victoria Park, Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, by Themightyquill. (Sorry, the old lady hasn't arrived, yet.)

Whoever it is, it gives them a dollop of welcome dignity. 

Why, it even comes close to turning them into works of art.

Enjoy the gallery.

Spot the Frippet: something sejant. This heraldic term is a variant of the 1500s seant, from the Old French seoir, to sit, from the Latin sedēre.

Sunday 7 August 2016

Sunday Rest: chrysanthemum. Word Not To Use Today Except That Unfortunately I Don't Know Of Any Alternative, Rats.

The smell of church is for me the smell of chrysanthemums: of reliable, long-lasting blooms available all year for a reasonable price.

Some of them are absolutely magnificent, fit for an empress (or even a god): 

File:Sketch of Chrysanthemums by Bakusen Tsuchida, detail, c. 1933, pencil and color on paper - National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo - DSC06719.JPG
Sketch of chrysanthemums by  Bakusen Tsuchida

 and some are full of a simpler lightness and joy:

File:Chrysanthemum frutescens 0.7 R.jpg
photo by Rob Hille

But their name. Chrysanthemum...

Could anything sound stuffier, or more staid?

Cruelty to flowers, I call it.

Word Not To Use Today (except that unfortunately I don't know of any alternative, rats) chrysanthemum. This word is the Latin for marigold, from the Greek khrusanthemon, from khrusos, gold, plus anthemon, flower.

Saturday 6 August 2016

Saturday Rave: Wikipedia.

It's Jimmy Wales' fiftieth birthday today.

Jimmy Wales September 2015.jpg

Jimmy Wales is the founder (with Larry Singer and others) of Wikipedia.

This means that today it's not what someone has said or written that I'm raving about, but the fact that someone has found a way of getting expert opinion and reliable knowledge to...well, more or less everyone. For free. (The first words ever written on Wikipedia, by Wales himself, were Hello world!).

There are, at the moment, over forty million articles in two hundred and ninety two languages on Wikipedia.

Wikipedia's influence runs through most of the world: and this blog, for one thing, couldn't exist without it.

Happy birthday!

Word To Use Today: Wikipedia. This word wiki is Hawaiian for quick. The pedia bit comes from the Greek paideia, education, from pais, child.

Friday 5 August 2016

Word To Say Huskily Today: silhouette.

This is a whisper of a word that slips from the lips in a husky pout...well, it can do. It's fun trying to do it, anyway...


Now, the thing I want to know is, were there silhouettes before M Silhouette, after whom they are named, came along? Plainly there must have been, because M Silhouette died in 1767 and people would have been walking along hill-tops against the sky for hundreds of thousands of years before that. 

But did people recognise the sight of them as a something special? Was Neanderthal man, as he tied on his wolf skins, aware that draping the shaggiest bit round his shoulders would make him look extra manly and strong, but that if he tied it round his waist he was going to look as if he'd eaten a whole mammoth himself?

Well, I don't know about Neanderthals, but the art of ancient Homo sapiens uses silhouettes

Megaloceros at Lascaux

and Shakespeare talks about a walking shadow, which must be pretty much the same thing, as must have been the shadowy people who walked across Plato's cave's walls.

That being the case, what's really surprising is that we didn't have a word for a silhouette before.

File:Zentralbibliothek Zürich - Johann Caspar Lavater - 000006301 3.jpg
Johann Caspar Lavater  Zentralbibliothek Zürich project

Word To Say Huskily Today: silhouette. This word is named after the French politician Étienne de Silhouette, 1709 - 1767. He was controller general, the official in charge of government finance, for eight months during 1759 - 1760. In order to raise money for the Seven Years' War and reduce the French deficit he devised a system of taxation that was based on lifestyle (windows and servants, for instance) and profits. His penny-pinching was very unpopular and anything seen to be cheap or austere was called á la Silhouette. Cut-paper shadow-pictures were becoming fashionable at the time, and of course they were being sneered at for being designed for those too poor or cheap to have a proper portrait taken, so they, too, were called after M Silhouette.

Étienne de Silhouette had a lot to recommend him, all the same. For one thing, he translated Alexander Pope's works into French. Good for him.

Talking of austerity, perhaps it's a surprise we never had an osborne. I wonder what it might have been?

Thursday 4 August 2016

Not that friendly: a rant.

File:Cattle (1).jpg

On a country walk not long ago I came across a sign on a gate.


it said. 

It went on:


This was, I have to admit, rather concerning. And it promptly got worse:


I decided that friendly probably wasn't exactly the word they were looking for, and went back another way.

Word To Use Today: friendly. This word comes, of course, from friend, which comes in turn from the Old English frëond.

Wednesday 3 August 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the price of a name.

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet, but a rose called Beauty's Passion might be expected to sell for more, at least in a bouquet, than one called Blogg's Bud.

Mind you, as a bare-rooted plant the opposite might well be the case. Gardeners are obliged to be terribly practical.

But what of houses? How do names affect their prices? Well, the on-line house-selling site Zoopla has done some research for England. The most expensive houses are to be found, on average in a road called Something Warren


On the other hand a place in Something Street will cost, on average, much less than the countrywide average price for a house (£184,722 as opposed to £282,978 when the study was done).

Ah yes, you will say, but Something Warren will be a new development, and the name has been deliberately chosen to highlight the swankiness of the neighbourhood.

All right, then, but how about this: a house in a road called Kings Something will sell for 20% more than a house in a Queen's Something.

Rude names lower the price of a house even more. No one, it seems is keen to live in Lancashire's Slag Lane, and as for the hamlet of Piccotts Bottom, which used to be just a few miles away from my house, sadly the place proved to be so unpopular that it's been erased altogether from all but the oldest maps.

And here's a literally odd thing: odd-numbered houses sell for £538 more than even numbered ones - unless the odd number is thirteen, when you'll get £6,500 less for it.

Mind you, that's jolly lucky for the buyers, isn't it.

And they can always re-name their house King's Warren, after all.

Word To Consider Today: warren. Why a word meaning either a collection of rabbit burrows or an area of over-crowded housing should be so desirable as a name for a street I have no idea at all. The word comes form the Anglo-French warenne, and is probably something to do with the Old High German werien, to preserve.

Tuesday 2 August 2016

Thing To Do Today: pulsate.

Pulsating is more of less the same as throbbing, only glamorous.

Your heart can throb with fear, but if it's pulsating with fear then it means you're going to take action. You'll burst out of that cupboard, scream Geronimo! and attack the intruder with a balletic grace reminiscent of Burt Kwouk. Or a hungry ferret.

If it's music that's pulsating then you're somewhere so exciting it doesn't matter that the last train has long gone and that the whole place smells of industrial-strength deodorant. 

If it's throbbing then all the pulsating stuff is happening next door.

If your head is pulsating then you're about to have a vision of the Universe: if it's throbbing then last night you spent too much time in a place that smelled of industrial-strength deodorant.

Ah, you will say, but what about old people? Isn't all this pulsating lark a bit dangerous for them? You shouldn't be encouraging them to pulsate all over the place. They might do themselves a mischief.

Luckily, however, Nature has taken care of this. For an old person - one, say, over about twenty five - then simply landing on a Triple Word Score at Scrabble: 

File:Blank Scrabble board with coordinates.svg
image of a Scrabble Board by Denelson83

or turning the heel on a sock will provide quite as much cardio-vascular exercise as is needed for them pulsate very nicely indeed.

Thing To Do Today: pulsate. This word comes from the Latin pulsāre, to push.

Monday 1 August 2016

Spot the Frippet: mail.

This is an easy spot, and made even easier by the fact that mail is not one word, but four.

There's the sort of mail which consists of the letters and parcels delivered to the house by what (in Britain and Australia at least) we call the postman (parcels delivered by anyone else aren't mail, though they are mailed. Letters delivered by anyone else aren't mail, either, unless they're pizza leaflets, etc, in which case they're junk mail. No, I don't understand it, either.)

File:Royal mail post box in Edinburgh.JPG
photo of an Edinburgh post box by Dickelbers

Then there's the sort of mail worn as armour, which is made of rings or links joined together to make a flexible and very tough fabric.

File:Chainmail hauberk detail G PO 2749 Invalides 1.jpg
photo by Eric Gaba (Wikimedia Commmons user: Sting). German chain mail c 1350.

The old Scots sort of mail, however, is a payment of money, especially for rent or taxes; and then there's the Australian slang mail, which is a rumour, especially in the form of a racing tip.

Anyone who comes across a knight in shining armour employed by the Post Office who's bearing a letter containing a rent payment and a racing tip is allowed, just for today, to feel really very smug indeed.

Spot the Frippet: mail. The posted-letters word comes from the Old French male, which means bag. The armour is another Old French word: maille means mesh, and comes from the Latin macula, spot. The word meaning rent comes from the Old Norse māl, agreement. 

Sadly, the Australian word for rumour or racing tip is a mystery. It's mentioned in the dictionary, but oddly I can't find any mention of it at all on line.