This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 30 September 2016

Word To Use Today: grandiloquent.

My Collins dictionary defines grandiloquent as 'inflated, pompous, or bombastic in style or expression'.

Oh, but surely that can't be all that grandiloquent means. It's such a lovely word, rippling from the tongue in a stream of buoyant well-being.

Surely there's a hint of glorious extravagance somewhere in the meaning of the word? Surely there's some idea of revelling in words and language (perhaps to show off, but also for the pleasure of wheeling drunkenly through the dictionary snatching jewels as they present themselves to scatter for the delight of multitudes)?


Personally, I think it's a joyous luxury to be showered in such brilliants - and brilliance - at any time.

photo by Swamibu

Word To Use Today: grandiloquent. This word comes from the Latin grandiloquus, from grandis, great, and loquī to speak.

Thursday 29 September 2016

Different to: a rant.

Does it really matter whether someone uses different to instead of the more respectable different from?

Isn't this just a bit of of nonsense dreamed up by grammarians? Yes, it's true we don't say differ to, but why should this mean we shouldn't say different toLet's face it, people have been using different to for centuries without the sky falling in.

Well, as far as I can see there's only one good reason, and that was the one displayed recently in The Spectator magazine.

'Naturally, Theresa May has a different interpretation of what a feminist politician should do to some Labour MPs, though perhaps not as different as they might think.'

I doubt the point at issue was there what should be done to some Labour MPs by feminist politicians.

Though, you know something? I'd have loved to read the article if it was.

Word To Use Today: different. This word comes from the Latin differre, to bear off in different directions, to scatter, to put off, and hence to be different.

Wednesday 28 September 2016

Nuts and Bolts: not in a flap.

Dr Jeanne Shinskey, from Royal Holloway College at the University of London, has been reading picture books.

Now, as a doctor, you'd have thought she'd have moved on from that sort of thing, but apparently she's been doing some research into what in the Book Trade are called novelties - in this case, books with flaps.

You know the sort of thing. 

Where is the dog? 

Is he under the blanket? 

[Lift the paper flap]

No, that's a tortoise eating a doughnut.

Anyway, Dr Shinskey has proved something that all parents probably knew, though probably without realising it.

If a book has flaps then the fun of finding out what's hidden underneath them distracts children from taking much notice of the words.

Dr Shinskey's experiment consisted of showing a flap-book about fruit to two groups of two-year-olds. In half of the books the flaps had been sealed, and it turned out that 68% of the group who read the books with sealed flaps could remember the name of an unfamiliar fruit that appeared in the text (it was a star fruit) when they'd finished the book, but only 30% of the children whose books had opening flaps remembered the star fruit's name.

Dr Shinskey says that flaps seem to enhance children's tendency 'to treat books as just another type of physical toy, rather than a tool for learning'.

I'm not sure how many people of any age see a book as a tool for learning, but I'll tell you something: the market for adult books with flaps is vanishingly small. 

Well,wouldn't want a with-flaps version of Middlemarch or the Oxford English Dictionary.

Would you?

Word To Use Today: flap. The word was first known in English in the 1300s and is probably a rather good imitation of the sound something makes when it's flapping.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Thing Not To Do Today: pharming.

The word pharming has been invented twice, each time as a bleak joke.

Pharming is based on farming, of course, though the reasons for the switch from an f to a ph at the beginning of the two sorts of pharming are entirely different from each other.

The first sort of pharming describes the raising of animals for use in the development of cosmetics or medicines.

The second sort of pharming involves directing someone from a legitimate computer site to a fraudulent one.

Both meanings are rather grim, aren't they, but I suppose they do give us some faint and sadly necessary sense of the infinitely varied cunning and wickedness of mankind.

Thing Not To Do Today: pharming. The word to do with raising animals comes from a mixture of farming and pharmaceuticals. It first appeared in the 1900s. The word to do with computer fraud was coined in the 2000s (computer slang quite often replaces and f with ph, as in phishing and phreaking). 

Monday 26 September 2016

Spot the Frippet: pythoness.

Painting by Bronzino from An Allegory With Venus and Cupid

Pythons, the snakes that squeeze the life out of their dinners, we know. 

Pythonesque, which describes something zany, absurd, and hilarious, we also know.

But pythoness?

The first pythonesses lived in Ancient Greece, where they gave out baffling advice and predictions ('the smell has come to my nose of a hard shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with a lamb's flesh in a bronze pot' for instance) but nowadays a pythoness is any female soothsayer or prophet. 

They're often mothers.

Don't you go out without a coat, you'll catch your death of cold.

Eat your greens up or you won't grow up to be a big strong boy.

You'll miss the bus!

But of course pythonesses can be found wherever there are ladies who speak.

That'll put hair on your chest.

She'll leave him and break his heart.

Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it.

My own prediction is that you'll spot one before you've finished reading this post.

Spot the Frippet: pythoness. This word arrived in English in the 1300s as phitinesse, from the Greek Python, which was a dragon killed by Apollo at Delphi. The snakes are called after the dragon, and Pythonesque is called after Monty Python's Flying Circus, a strange and hilarious BBC television programme first broadcast in 1969.

Sunday 25 September 2016

Sunday Rest: keypal. Word Not To Use Today.

At first sight this word looks as if it might be something interesting. Keypal...could that be some exotic Indian fabric? An Iranian porridge? An Indonesian flying squirrel?

Nope. Sorry.

I'm afraid this word describes an electronic relationship. It's a computer-age form of pen pal

Yes, ouch.

Why is the word keypal so depressing? Is it because of the failure of our old-fashioned pen pals, who are generally doomed to fade away because so little that's interesting is important enough to dignify with the use of an envelope, a trip to a postbox, the shoe leather of a postman, and the cost of a stamp?

Of course email leaps gloriously over all those objections. An email can say Thanks! or Ant invasion! or I've just put the washing out and now it's tipping down! (and of course one can do the serious stuff, too). Online relationships with friends and relatives can be quite as important and engrossing as those we have with the people we meet.

Virtual or not, they're genuine relationships. 

So why should anyone dream of diminishing precious email friends by terming them keypals?

Word Not To Use Today: keypal. This word was made up in the 1990s. Luckily, it's never really caught on.

Saturday 24 September 2016

Saturday Rave: Misleading Cases/Uncommon Law by A P Herbert.

Why write fiction?

Well, for money, of course, but perhaps in your own case it might be that fame is the spur. Or you might want to work something out in your head, or you might hope it'll be fun, or you might want to tell the world what a genius you are - or perhaps you want to change the world.

The lawyer, writer, and Member of Parliament Sir Alan Herbert was I'm sure very glad to receive some money for his writing, but he was also out to change the world - and he wanted to have some fun while he was about it. And what gave him (and his readers) a great deal of amusement were the more obscure peculiarities of English Law.

His Misleading Cases, which first appeared as a series in Punch magazine, were explorations of some of the more amazing aspects of the Law, in which Herbert's protagonist Albert Haddock (or, as Haddock insists on appearing in one story about the iniquities of Copyright Law, Haddock, Haddock, Haddock, Haddock, Haddock & Co) appears before Mr Justice Swallow to argue his case.

What laws apply if a car collides with a boat? In law, are snails domestic animals or wild and ferocious beasts?

Among all the fun there are serious points to be made. A P Herbert was genuine in his desire to reform the law (though I shouldn't imagine he was too bothered about snails). He was an important campaigner for new laws on divorce (though his own, apparently very happy, marriage lasted fifty six years) and his Misleading Cases sometimes had pointed things to say about, for instance, defamation, liquor licensing, or the use of the police as agents provocateurs.

Delightfully, AP Herbert's Misleading Cases were several times mistaken for genuine cases by legal experts with no sense of humour; and, even more delightfully, because the stories are firmly based on real law, they have even sometimes been quoted in judicial decisions.

A great hero, A P Herbert, and his stories (and his more serious novels) are terrifically entertaining reads, too.

Word To Use Today: law. This word comes from the Old English lagu, from a Scandinavian word. The Icelandic lög means things laid down.

Friday 23 September 2016

Word To Use Today: kibble.

Kibble is actually two words - or three if you count a linked verb-and-noun twice - and I can't think why we don't use it more often.

I mean, wouldn't you feel happier for saying the word kibble? You know you want to.


See? Happiness and satisfaction in a twitch of the tongue and a pout of the lips.


A kibble can either be a bucket used in a well or mine for hoisting things, or (especially in America) it can mean pellets used as pet food. 

Okay, I admit you might not come across either of those sorts of kibble very often, but kibbled wheat or rye can be found in some of the chewier types of bread, and kibbled onions are those dried onion pieces sold in tubs to people who don't really like the taste of onion.

Luckily we also have the verb kibble, which means to grind into small pieces, so anyone who uses a pepper mill, or cooks with whole spices, or makes real coffee, is having a jolly good kibble

Sometimes happiness can be found in the smallest things, can't it.


Word To Use Today: kibble. The bucket word comes from the German Kübel from the Latin cuppa, which means cup. Sadly, the origins of the pellet sort of kibble is a mystery.

Thursday 22 September 2016

Technicolors: a rant.

Look, if you want to sell something - a pair of boots or a sofa, say - and you plan to sell it by means of a catalogue, advertisement or website - then it's no good describing its colour as forest, mango, vole, cherry, or trout.

Sunrise will not relay enough information.

Neither will flame, calypso, festival or pony.

I mean, is forest green or brown? Is cherry red, or something nearer cerise (see what I did, there?)? 

Mango - is that yellow or green?

Is that pony a bay or a chestnut?

And, oh, good grief, and that's not a rainbow trout, is it?

Please, please, we can't be sure half the time from the pictures, so just tack a simple green onto the end of forest and we'll know where we are. 

Sunset orange. Festival red. Pony brown.

You never know, I might even buy something, then.

photo by Ken Hammond/USDA

Word To Use Today: trout. This satisfying word comes from the Old English trūht, from the Latin tructa, from the Greek troktēs, which means sharp-toothed fish. 

Wednesday 21 September 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the Law of Naming.

Why shouldn't you call your child Cupcake?

Well, for several reasons, but in England none of them are legal. Some other places in the world, however, have naming laws. The justification for these laws is sometimes social, sometimes grammatical, and sometimes practical, religious or political. Portugal has forty-one pages of banned names (which include all shortened forms of names as well as nicknames).

Kind Italy, full of pity at the thought of a poor child saddled with a stupid name, bans ridiculous and shameful names, and a similar feeling is presumably behind Sweden's decision to ban the names Metallica and Ikea. Germany insists that a child's name should not lead to humiliation (Germany also bans non-sex-specific names, surnames-as-given-names, and proper nouns). In Mexico the same sort of principle of avoiding humiliation has led to a ban on literary characters and film franchises (so presumably James Bond is a double no-no (a no-no-no-no?)).

Grammatical reasons limit Icelandic names. You can only have a name that can be written in the Icelandic alphabet (so no Cs, for instance) and it has to be convertible into Icelandic genitive form. Danish names must follow standard Danish spelling (so you can't have a Hannns, for example). 

There's a ban on Hebrew spellings in Morocco, and Tajikstan is thinking about a ban on Muslim names. Saudi Arabia bans names such as Nabi (prophet) and Jibreel (Gabriel) which are seen as contrary to religion. Saudi Arabia also bans foreign names such as Maya and Linda, a presumably political principle shared with Kyrgystan, which is proposing a ban on Russian ones.

From a practical point of view, California bans diacritical marks (ie what are usually called accents, as in José) because they're a nuisance on computers. Other states of the USA ban pictograms and numerals for the same reason, and New Zealand bans names which are unreasonably long. China also bans names which can't be entered into a computer, which apparently, astonishingly, has meant that one Chinese couple were unable to call their child @.

Lastly, Malaysia bans the names of animals, fruit and vegetables. 

Oh dear...and I have so wished for a Malaysian grandchild called Warthog Banana Turnip, too.

Word To Use Today: a name that's banned in some other country. Like mine, perhaps (presumably banned in Portugal because it's a shortened form of Sarah).

Tuesday 20 September 2016

Thing To Do Today. Possibly: be jaunty.

An odd word, jaunty. It means sprightly in a cheerfully self-satisfied sort of a way. 

Is this a good thing? 

Well, a jaunty salesperson will be full of information and impervious to disappointment, and to see a jaunty stranger must evoke a certain wondering amusement (what's he got to be so pleased with himself about?).

And what has he got to be so pleased with himself about? Well, if it's his own beauty and intelligence (and it's quite easy to tell) then all we can hope for is a happily-placed banana skin. But if it's the glory of the world and its inhabitants that has filled him with enthusiasm and joy then he'll be bringing a bit of sunshine with him.

And we'll all flock round him, to bask in its rays.

Thing To Do Today, Possibly: be jaunty. This word comes from the French gentil, which mean noble. In English the word started off meaning well-bred, then changed to meaning elegant and smart before moving towards the sort of jaunty we know today.

Monday 19 September 2016

Spot the Frippet: something primeval.

Something primeval (or primaeval) originated so long ago that it comes, or seems to come, from the very origins of the world.

Humans being of such recent manufacture (only about a quarter of a million years) and even shorter memory, primeval is however used to mean more or less anything older than that.

So, mountains can be called primeval, even ones like Everest that are so young they're actually still growing. (If you want to see really old rocks then you must go to the Acasta River in Canada, where the gneiss is thought by some to be four billion years old. Mind you, even that is half a billion years younger than the Earth itself, or, to put it another way, two thousand times longer than humans have existed).

A landscape without plants might be called primeval - well, unless it's all tarmac and skyscrapers it might, anyway.

Dinosaurs would probably count, too. I know they're not around much, but any reptile would probably count:

File:Cordylus niger - Black Girdled Lizard with millipede on its nose.JPG
photo of black girdled lizard with a millipede on its nose taken on Table Mountain by Abu Shawka

 as would some of the spikier birds, like herons:

File:Great Grey Heron.jpg
Great Blue Heron: photo by Scott Bauer

But, having said all that, the fun of a word like primeval lies in its invitation to sarcasm. So, if you know anyone with an three-year-old mobile phone...

Spot the Frippet: something primeval. What I really like about this word (all right, I admit it) is that although it means really really old, it comes from the Latin prīmaevus, which means youthful, from prīmus, first, plus aevum, age. 

Sunday 18 September 2016

Sunday Rest: exergue Word Not To Use Today.

Exergue. It's pronounced EXerg.

Now, is this black hole of a word something that, well, used to be

Nope. It's something you see more or less every day. Something you often hold in your hand.

Something you're pleased to receive, but quite resigned to giving to complete strangers.

Do you know what it is, yet?

An exergue (it really is a horrid word) is the bit of the reverse of a coin or medal underneath the main design. It quite often has the date in it.

As it happens, most of our newest and really elegantly beautiful British coins, (designed by Matt Dent) don't have an exergue, but our fifty pence coin (seen at the bottom of the illustration below) does.

Actually, though, I rather wish that was something I didn't know.

Sunday Rest: exergue. This word came to us from French, and before that from the mediaeval Latin exergum, from the Greek ex, outside, and ergon, work. Interestingly, the French for outside the work is also used in English: hors d'oeuvres.

I could probably make some joke about this, but don't quite dare.

Saturday 17 September 2016

Saturday Rave: In The Room, by James Thomson.

Of course there are fashions in poetry as in clothes, but just because a dress, for instance, would look outlandish leaning over a supermarket freezer:


it doesn't mean we can't get a lot of pleasure from it.

James Thomson BV* was born in Scotland in 1834 and brought up in an orphanage in London. He was a soldier for a time, and then a clerk, but by his mid-thirties he was struggling with the triple difficulties of insomnia, alcoholism and depression. He died in 1882 at the age of forty seven.

In The Room by James Thomson is astonishing. It reminds me a little of Van Gogh's painting because it's full of the feeling that everything in the whole world is alive and full of force and might suddenly get up and do absolutely anything. It makes me wonder if Thomson, poor man, suffered from other mental illnesses as well as depression.

Here's the last stanza, but it's worth reading the whole thing because, although it's a bit sentimental in places, it has a good story told in an extraordinary way.

And while the black night nothing saw,
And till the cold morn came at last,
That old bed held the room in awe
With tales of its experience vast.
It thrill'd the gloom; it told such tales
Of human sorrows and delights,
Of fever moans and infants wails,
Of births and deaths and bridal nights.

Word To Use Today: bed. This word has hardly changed in English in over a thousand years. Its Old English form was bedd.

*BV after a name usually stands for Blessed Virgin. Unfortunately I have no information as far as Thomson is concerned about either of these qualities, but in his case BV stands for Bysshe Vanolis, the pseudonym under which he wrote his poetry. (There was a much more famous Scottish poet called James Thomson who lived in the century before this one.)

Friday 16 September 2016

Word To Use Today: stramash.

This is a lovely word to say, especially if you can say it in one of the accents of its Scottish origin (you say it STRAmash).

You could channel your inner Private Fraser, perhaps:

John Laurie Dads Army.jpg

Stramash means a tumult, or an uproar, or a brawl. I particularly recommend it to the teachers among us - or, indeed, to the heads of any organisation or family.

As if the word stramash as a noun doesn't give joy enough, it can also be used as a verb, when it means to smash or destroy: so we use it to describe the works of dictators, town planners, and puppies, too. 

I really can't think how I've manage to get on so far without it.

Word To Use Today: stramash. This word is Scots and first appeared in the 1700s. It might be an improved and extended form of the word smash.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Devastated: a rant.

Are you devastated?

I mean, has the coffee shop run out of vanilla sprinkles?

Have your pansies turned out to be the wrong shade of mauve?

Have you broken the point of your pencil?

I ask because of a headline I spotted in the Telegraph newspaper a few weeks ago:

Pokemon Go fans devastated after game update resets their progress back to level one,

it said.

Well, naturally my heart bled for them.

But, heavens above, however will they feel if their rabbit dies?

Word To Consider Today: devastate. This word means to let waste or make desolate, to destroy, to overwhelm with grief or shock. It comes from the Latin dēvastāre, from vestāre, to ravage, which is related to vastus, which means waste, or empty. 

Real devastation

This was caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the city of Tacloban, The Philippines. Photo DFID - UK Department for International Development

Wednesday 14 September 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Athabaskan.

We all owe a lot to the Athabaskan languages.

There are about forty five of them. Most of them are spoken in Alaska and northern North America, but some are spoken in areas as far south as Mexico.

They're about as different from each other as the Indo-European languages are: as different as English and Greek, for instance (though just as obviously historically connected). In fact, in some ways they're more different than English and Greek because some of the Athabaskan languages use tone (where the pitch of the voice makes a word mean different things) and some don't.

Several of the Athabaskan languages are terrifyingly close to extinction: Han and Holikachuk, for example, have recently each been down to only twelve speakers. Twelve! 

One great problem with - or perhaps great glory of - the Athabaskan languages is that their grammar is very difficult because they're distinguished by an inconvenient habit of breaking their own rules. Personally, I admire this in a language.

Why do we owe them so much?

Well, the Athabaskan languages were used by the linguist Edward Sapir (1884 - 1939) as proof that culture isn't constructed by language (there were people arguing at the time that Europeans were best because they had the best language) because Athabaskan speakers belong to very different cultures.

It's been an important principle in supporting native languages throughout the world. It was important in showing the Europeans are best people to be ignorant and wrong, too.

So, yes: we all owe a lot to the speakers of Athabaskan.

210 gwichin hunter summerclothing.jpg
Alaskan Athabaskans c 1851

Word To Consider Today: Athabaskan. This word is an anglicised version of the Cree name for Lake Athabasca in Canada, and means there are reeds one after another.

Tuesday 13 September 2016

Thing To Do Today: be demure.

The Autumn is approaching here in England, and all the woollies and raincoats we're going to be wearing will make it quite easy for us to be demure.*

Well, it's not easy in a bikini, is it?

Anyway, I recommend the pleasures of quiet self-containment. Of reserve. Of curbing all that gushing energy, whether aggressive or hilarious, in favour of a sedate and courteous shy charm.

(I don't think I've ever heard the word demure used of a man, but think it might be worth a try. I suspect its attractiveness to the female sex might prove to be absolutely staggering.)

Colin Firth - Bridget Jones Diary

Thing To Do Today: be demure. This word might come from the French demorer to delay or linger, and is perhaps influenced by meur, which means ripe.

*Although, today, typically, the forecast is suddenly for 30 degrees of heat. Pah!

Monday 12 September 2016

Spot the Frippet: muse.

Ah, yes, the muses: they were the Greek goddess-protectors of the Arts and Sciences, weren't they. 

I can only usually remember Thalia and Terpsichore, but the others are Calliope, Clio, Erato, Euterpe, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, and Urania.

(I can't imagine how I manage to forget Polyhymnia and Urania, but I always do. Perhaps I should have called my daughters after them. Polyhymnia and Urania Prue...

...hmm, perhaps not.)

Anyway, the trouble with spotting these lovely ladies is that if they exist (which must be extremely doubtful) they seem to be invisible at the moment except in works of art. I suppose it might be worth looking for them in a museum, which word comes from muse and means The Home of the Muses, but I'm afraid that even there your chances of an encounter are vanishingly slight.

File:Lyon Mosaïque de la muse Euterpe de la salle Rameau.jpg
This is Euterpe, the Muse of Music, from the Salle de Rameau, photo by GO69

Luckily, though, there are other sorts of muses.

One muse is a bagpipe (though nowadays we generally only remember this in its diminutive form, musette - and even then not very often), but another, much easier-to-spot muse is someone (usually female) who inspires a work of art.

This means that anyone can be a muse as long as you can get a poem or a sketch out of them. You don't have to know them or get close to them:

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland lass!

was, presumably unknowingly, Wordsworth's muse, and so was Frances Cornford's fat white woman who nobody loves - and Cornford only saw her from a train.

So here goes, then. Look - see, over there? That lady in the leggings and T shirt?

Lady, straining at the seams
Behind your sad face
Sparkle dreams.

Have fun!

Spot the Frippet: muse. This word was in its Greek form Mousa.

Sunday 11 September 2016

Sunday Rest: humectant. Word Not To Use Today.

Photo of Crest Multicare Whitening Toothpaste by Scott Ehardt. Doesn't it look horrible?

Need to persuade yourself not to consume that pot of instant noodles, or that can of fizz?

Try reading the ingredients on the packaging.

Not entirely coincidentally, that's the most likely place you'll come across the word humectant. Other places you might come across it are in face creams and tobacco products, but you probably won't be much tempted to eat those..

The purpose of a humectant is to keep things just moist enough. Soft raisins will have been treated with a humectant, as will soft ice creams, chocolates with gooey centres, some sorts of cheeses, and the sort of cookies that bend before they break.

Toothpaste has them, too.

Now, I'm not saying humectant isn't a useful word. Humectants are, too, sometimes perfectly harmless things, like honey (though the possibly yummy and nutritious but definitely unappealing-sounding Sodium hexametaphosphate is one too). 

No. All I'm saying is that, especially for something that's found in food, it would be much pleasanter if it didn't sound quite so much like someone throwing up.

Word Not To Use Today: humectant. This word comes from the Lattin ūmectāre, wet, from ūmor, moisture. 

Saturday 10 September 2016

Saturday Rave: Never weather-beaten sail by Thomas Campion.

The Autumn is approaching in England, and perhaps that's what's turned my mind nostalgically to a poet with a flower name. 

Thomas Campion (1567 - 1619) trained as a lawyer, but was much more interested in poetry, music, and the stage. He never seems to have practised law, and in fact when his inherited money ran out he was so disinclined to be a lawyer that he went to France and trained as a doctor.

He did do some medical work, but his passion remained the Arts, and in particular the theory and practice of marrying words and music in song.

He was rather dismissive of 'ear-pleasing rhymes without art' and believed 'we ought to maintain as well in notes, as in action, a manly carriage, gracing no word but that which is eminent and emphatical.' - a sentiment which might almost have come from last week's poet, William Wordsworth.

Campion returned more than once to the problems of rhyme, which he saw very often as warping the work of inferior poets, saying 'the facility and popularity of rhyme creates as many poets as a hot summer flies'. It was a line which proved an excellent way of offending almost everybody.

Ah well. Here's his song O Come Quickly! first the words, and then a performance.

See how well you think he succeeded in marrying words and music while avoiding unnatural emphasis and reminding you of clouds of flies.

Never weather-beaten sail more willing bent to shore,
Never tired pilgrim's limbs affected slumber more,
Than my wearied sprite now longs to fly out of my troubled breast:
O come quickly, sweetest Lord, and take my soul to rest!

Ever blooming are the joys of heaven's high Parasdise,
Cold age deafs not there our eyes nor vapour dims our eyes:
Glory there the sun outshines; whose beams the Blessed only see:
O come quickly, glorious Lord, and raise my sprite to Thee!

Word To Use Today: campion. This word was probably originally a form of the word champion, because the plant campion, Lychnis coronaria:


 were used to crown athletic champions.


Friday 9 September 2016

Word To Use Today: shenanigan.

File:Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) -British Wildlife Centre-8.jpg
Photo of foxes by Keven Law

Shenanigans are the means used to make (possibly illegal) mischief by way of a rather complicated plot.

If a teacher found his pupils stacking up chairs so they could reach the ceiling of their classroom he might ask what are all these shenanigans? 

If it was discovered that various people involved in a scheme had been meeting without telling one of the principals then they might be suspected of shenanigans, too.

Shenanigans is a marvellously vigorous word, and one whose origin has been argued over ever since it appeared in the 1850s.

It could be Spanish, German, Dutch or from a Native American language...

...but personally I don't think it's any of those.

Word To Use Today: shenanigan. This word comes from...well, no one's quite sure where it comes from. It first appeared during the California Gold Rush, and one problem is that as people rushed to the, er, Rush from all over the world, working out where the word shenanigan originated is jolly difficult. 

However, as shenanigan is commonly used in Britain as well as the USA, by far the most likely thing is that the origin of shenanigan is Irish because there were plenty of hard-working and quick-talking Irishmen working in both California and Britain. Irish (Erse) also has the lovely word sionnachaíonn, from sionnach, fox, which means to fox someone, or to play tricks. So it's very likely, I think, that the first shenanigans were Irish ones.

Thursday 8 September 2016

Clapping: a rant.

The Women's Conference of the National Union of Students (NUS) in Solihull, England, has requested that instead of clapping, the audience responds with jazz hands, instead.

Jazz hands? Apparently that's putting up your palm outwards and with splayed fingers. The rapid shaking of hands from side to side is optional.

Clapping was, according to a Tweet from the NUS Women's Campaign 'triggering anxiety'.

Nona Buckley-Irvine, the general secretary of the London School of Economics (LSE) Students' Union (SU), said: 'Jazz hands are used throughout NUS in place of clapping to show appreciation of someone's point without interrupting or causing disturbance, as it can create does add to creating a more inclusive atmosphere.'

Gee Linford-Grayson, the LSE SU's women's officer said 'who doesn't like jazz hands?'

Well, I don't. 

In fact the mere thought of doing jazz hands is causing me severe anxiety. For one thing, they remind me of The Black and White Minstrels, and quite honestly I'd suspect myself of being racist.

In any case, you poor sensitive students, a conference is about conferring

And if you can't even cope with people agreeing with you in their own way then perhaps it isn't a conference you're running at all, but a series of lectures.

Thing To Do Today: clap. This word comes from the Old English clæppan. The word is an imitation of the noise.

Wednesday 7 September 2016

Nuts and Bolts: The age of fairy tales

How old are stories? As old as speech, perhaps:

There was once a boy who wouldn't keep quiet when his family were hunting and in the end they had to leave him behind and he got eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger.

No, actually, they're even older than that: what's a puppy's game of chase-the-tail but the story of a hunt?

Two academics have made a claim that some fairy stories can be traced back thousands of years. Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University, and Sara Graça da Silva, of the New University of Lisbon, have used statistical analysis (I don't understand how it worked, but they've done it in rather the same way that a linguist traces the origins of a word) to trace back the origins of stories involving magic. 

Apparently they studied the relationship between folktales and language, as well as the relationships between one folktale and another, and also the way in which folktales may have been transmitted to neighbouring peoples (by some common language, presumably. Or puppet shows?). They looked at the way many European and Asian languages seem to have developed from a common ancestor-language, too.

The story that seemed from the study to be the oldest was 'The Smith and the Devil'. That, the authors of the study tell us, dates back 6,000 years to a Proto-Indo-European language.

But, but, but...

I write and read a lot of children's stories. I live in a house stuffed with thousands of books, and through my computer I have access to more or less every folktale even written.

But, as it happens, I don't know the story of The Smith and The Devil.

Perhaps The Smith and the Devil has come down to us over hundreds of generations - but, you know, it would have been ever so easy just to make something up. We make up stories all the time.

Here's my attempt at a story called The Smith and The Devil. It might be completely different from the ancient one. We'll see.

One day the devil came across a man who was very angry because the wheel of his cart had broken.

If I give you the power to make your wheels strong, will you give me your soul? asked the devil.

The man agreed, and so the devil conjured up a fine forge complete with a large heap of ore, and showed the man how to use it.

But the first thing the man made was a nail, and he nailed the devil to the wall of the hut and went on his way, leaving the devil screaming after him.


Okay, I've looked it up, now, and HERE is the real thing.

Well, there was only one obvious story about The Smith and the Devil, wasn't there?

My feeling is that people that hasn't changed over the last 6000 years, and that's why our stories seem to have tumbled down through the centuries to us.

But of course I can't prove it.

Word To Use Today: smith. This word is Old English and is related to the Greek smilē, carving knife.

Tuesday 6 September 2016

Thing Not To Be Today: inofficious.

Being officious means poking your bossy nose in where it's not wanted, yes? So surely to be inofficious must be a good thing.

Inofficious must mean minding your own business; it must mean being sensitive to other people's need for privacy; it must mean allowing others to settle their owd destinies.

Being inofficious must mean not insisting that complete strangers buy your favourite brand of musli or sit on your picnic rug; it must mean not telling random parents their children should be wearing shoes; it must mean not stating an adverse opinion of the state or style of other people's gardens.

It must mean keeping private the thought that the neighbours' new extension looks like a drive-through car wash.

But, actually, no, not as a rule.

Inofficious can mean uncivil or inattentive, but it's mostly a legal term that means contrary to moral obligation or natural affection, as in, for instance, unfairly disinheriting a child.

And obviously you don't want to do that.

Not when the blighters are going to be choosing your care home.

File:Happy family (1).jpg
Photo by Catherine Scott

Thing Not To Do Today: be inofficious. This word comes from the Latin officiōsus, kindly, from officium, service.

Monday 5 September 2016

Spot the Frippet: inion.

English may be the biggest language in the world but we're still missing an awful lot of words.

What's the English for the back of the knee?

For a mouth-watering scent?

For a piece of food stuck between the teeth?

I'm afraid I can't help you with any of those (and how impoverished our world is by their absence) but how about inion?

Yes, the word reminded me of onion, too, and in some ways it's linked in meaning because the inion the Lowestoft of the cranium, that is, basically, the bit of the head that sticks out the most at the back.

It's great fun spotting these. (It's easiest with bald people.)

Yes, that's right: there's nothing like knowing your inions.

File:Gorilla gorilla skull.jpg
Skulls of male and female gorillas. Photo by Didier Descouens

Spot the Frippet: inion. This is a word used in craniometry (the measurement of skulls. Craniometry been used over the years to prove all sorts of dodgy theories, but today is used quite respectably in archaeology and medicine). Inion is Greek for the back of the head.

Sunday 4 September 2016

Sunday Rest: inhume. Word Not To Use Today.

As far as I can see the word inhume is only used of corpses.

I suppose funeral directors might imagine the word inhume to be more indirect, and therefore somehow easier for the mourners, than the word bury.

But pretending it's not really happening really helps no one at all, especially as it's a job that certainly needs doing. So, you know what? 

I think the word inhume should be very deeply buried.

Word Not To Use Today: inhume. This word comes from the Latin inhumāre, from humus, which means ground (and has nothing to do with hummus, which means chickpeas in Arabic).

Saturday 3 September 2016

Saturday Rave: Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3rd, 1802 by William Wordsworth.

Have you ever imagined William Wordsworth standing on Westminster Bridge on an early Autumn day and gazing, full of peace and wonder, at the City of London?

Have you ever envied him the opportunity to stop and stare, not beset by business and family troubles? To see transcendence in the ordinary, in the unplanned, in the man-made?

Because if you have you've got it all wrong.

Wordsworth wasn't leaning peacefully on the parapet of the bridge as the sun rose on that morning  - and he didn't write the poem on Westminster Bridge, either. No, Wordsworth was rattling over the bridge on the Dover Coach. His sister Dorothy tells us all about it in her Grasmere Journal:

we left London on Saturday morning at 1/2 past 5 or 6 (I have forgot which) we mounted the Dover Coach at Charing Cross. It was a beautiful morning.

And, by the way, it wasn't September 3rd, either. That was the date of composition of the sonnet. It was July 31st.

Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep! says Wordsworth: which is a surprise because he was heading for Calais to see his nine-year-old daughter Caroline for the first time (she was the result of an affair with Annette Vallon). To complicate matters further, Wordsworth was at the time of his journey planning to marry someone else.

Still, poets, eh? None of this stops Composed Upon Westminster Bridge being an absolutely breathtakingly wonderful poem.

Word To Use Today: heart. This word comes from the Old English heorte and is related to the Latin cor, the Greek kardia, and the Old Irish cride.

Friday 2 September 2016

Word To Use Today: quetzal.

Here's a nice crisp word for a hot day. (If it is a hot day: it certainly is when I'm writing this.)

Anyway, quetzal.

You probably already know that a quetzal is a bird:

a male Resplendent Quetzal

but did you know that, as well as being the national bird of Guatemala, it's the country's standard monetary unit, too?

Quetzals eat fruit and wasps (I don't know if they actually mean to eat the wasps), as well as frogs and larvae, and they're particularly partial to a wild avocado.

Quetzals have been worshipped as gods of the air and wealth (their feathers have been very valuable from time to time) and freedom (because until recently they've always died in captivity). They've also been associated with the snake god quetzalcoatl (the coatl bit means serpent):

Mayan legend says that the quetzal helped fight the Spanish conquistadores, and that before the conquest of Latin America by the Spanish the quetzal used to sing beautifully, but that it will never sing again until the land is truly free (the noise it makes now has been likened to a whimpering puppy).

Finally, as well as being gods, quetzals are equal-opportunity birds.  Quetzals share the child-care, the male generally doing the day-shift when it comes to hatching the eggs, and the female the night-shift.

All that, and just so very beautiful, too:

Pharomachrus auriceps, Golden-headed Quetzal.jpg

Photo of Golden-headed Quetzal (apparently, though I see no gold on the head) by Joao Quental - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Terrific beasts, anyway.

Thing To Consider Today: the quetzal. The plural of this word can be either quetzals or quetzales, and the word comes from the Nahuatl quetzalli, which means large brilliant tail feather. The quetz bit means stand.

Thursday 1 September 2016

The ultimate predator: a rant.

I watched a TV programme called Earth's Mythical Islands the other day. It was about the wildlife of New Zealand. The pictures were lovely, and the commentary was read impressively by Sam Neill.

In this super-saturated environment, drawled Sam, huskily, as the screen focused on another stretch of wet undergrowth, this specialised snail is the Ultimate. Predator.

photo (not from the programme) by Mike Dickison

Ultimate predator? 


Admittedly it was a Powelliphanta snail that can grow to the size of a man's fist, and admittedly the sight of it sucking up an earthworm like spaghetti was outstandingly gross, was a snail! Apart from the fact that most of the poor things get eaten by brushtail possums, pigs, hedgehogs, rats and the native weka:

File:Weka-fledgling 1.JPG
photo by Duncan Wright

you just see what happens when a cow stands on it!

Look, if you want to impress me then tell me some facts. Tell me that it lays bean-sized eggs with shells like bird eggs; tell me that it's unique to New Zealand; tell me how very very rare and threatened it is, and how its shell cracks if it gets dry. 

But don't try and tell me it's a sort of molluscan equivalent of a Bengal tiger, because it isn't.

And anyway, the reality is absolutely marvellous.

Word To Use Today: snail. This word comes from the Old English snægl.