This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 31 October 2016

Spot the Frippet: ghoul.

Even though it's Halloween today it doesn't mean that ghosts are going to be easy to spot: but how about a ghoul?

The evil-spirit sort of ghoul is tricky (I very much hope), and so is the sort of ghoul that robs graves and in eats dead bodies (or, in even nastier cases, eats live bodies).

Luckily those ghouls have been chased away by our civilisation's devotion to electric light, law and order, science, health and safety, and cosmetic surgery, but that still leaves us with those ghouls who are interested in morbid or disgusting things. Going by the look of the modern blockbuster, the best-seller lists, and the TV guides, that's rather a lot of us.

So, how to spot a ghoul?

Well, it's quite simple as far as I'm concerned.

It's anyone who enjoys observing zombies, operations, or eats Pot Noodle.


Spot the Frippet: ghoul. This word comes from the Arabic ghūl, from ghāla, he seized. 

Sunday 30 October 2016

Sunday Rest: brocialism. Word Not To Use Today.

Brocialism is to do with brothers, though not the sort of brothers who have parents in common, but the sort of brothers who are involved in the Class Struggle.

Brocialism describes a sort of socialism in which, naturally, women's rights are absolutely central. Unfortunately at the same time it's a sort of socialism which avoids doing anything practical to encourage or establish them.

Now, I'm not saying that brocialism isn't a useful concept worth naming.

But making it sound as if it's an attack of flatulence caused by a middle-management expense-account lunch was probably a mistake.

Sunday Rest: brocialism. This word is a blend of brother and socialism. The word social comes from the Latin socius, a comrade

Saturday 29 October 2016

Saturday Rave: His Pilgrimage by Sir Walter Raleigh

Today is the anniversary of the execution of poor Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618. 

Why poor Sir Walter? Well, I can't claim he hadn't committed an offence for which legally he deserved to die, but he almost certainly hadn't committed the one for which he was executed.

Raleigh was an extraordinary man: adventurous, restless, reckless, arrogant, brave and foolish. He served two monarchs and annoyed both of them very much indeed. 

He was, as well as being a soldier, adventurer, explorer, trader, politician and spy, a very good poet.

Here he is, in middle age:

painting by William Segar, 1598.

This poem is a favourite. It's supposed to be written by a man on the point of death, and the story is that it was written by Raleigh while awaiting execution in the Tower of London in 1603 (he was reprieved that time). 

On first glance probably the most amazing thing about this quietly reflective poem is that it was written by Sir Walter Raleigh. A second look explains more or less everything.

Here's the beginning, but the whole glorious thing can be found here.

His Pilgrimage.

Give me my scallop-shell of quiet
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation.
My gown of glory, hope's true gage:
And thus I'll take my pilgrimage.

Blood must be my body's balmer;
No other balm will there be given;
Whilst my soul, like quiet palmer,
Travelleth towards the land of heaven:
Over the silver mountains,
Where spring the nectar fountains:
There will I kiss
The bowl of bliss:
And drink mine everlasting fill
Upon every milken hill.
My soul will be a-dry before:
But, after, it will thirst no more.

Word To Use Today: pilgrimage. This word comes from the Provençal pelegrin, from the Latin peregrinus, foreign, from per, through, and ager, field.



Friday 28 October 2016

Word To Use Today: rigmarole.

What is all this rigmarole?

Well, it probably started with a ragman, that is, a man who collected rags to sell to...well, anyone who wanted rags. A paper maker, perhaps.

This ragman was a good ragman, but nothing else is known about him except his character is thought to have been used in Mediaeval times in a sort of fortune-telling game. The idea was that you had a long piece of paper or parchment on which were written a list of descriptions of various characters, each description literally having a string attached beside it. The idea was that you rolled up the list into a scroll that had the strings dangling from it, and then everyone chose a random string. The scroll would then be unrolled, thus revealing everyone's true character. Or something equally hilarious.

The list was traditionally headed by the description of Ragemon the Good, and it looks as though a rigmarole was originally a ragemon roll.

Was the game so boring that it became a byword for long complicated recitals of instructions or of nonsense?

Well, probably not, especially as the unrolling of the scroll must have been quite fun as everyone would have had to have kept hold of their string. 

What seems to have happened with the word rigmarole is that the sight of legal documents, also written on scrolls and with the seals of all sorts of important people dangling from it on ribbons, reminded people irresistibly of good old times playing with ragman rolls. And so the term was tranferred to legal documents - and, sadly, a name for a good game turned into a term for a long boring or ridiculous list.

Word To Use Today: rigmarole. An easy word to use these days, when we have so many computers to help us do things.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Gombroon: a rant.

I was looking for a frippet for us all to spot the other day and came across the word gombroon

Now, gombroon may sound like a Scottish word for something terribly worthy, like biscuits made of dried porridge, but according to my Collins dictionary gombroon is the pottery and porcelain wares of Iran and China. This makes gombroon a source of wonder and delight, and quite an easy spot.

Well, I wanted to know more, so I did some research (I don't just make all this stuff up, you know).

Good old Wikipedia has some stuff about gombroon:

Gombroon ware is a form of white pottery resembling porcelain, pierced with holes or slits, and perhaps sparsely decorated with simple black or blue lines, which was created in late 17th and early 18th century Gombroon (now Bandar Abbas), Iran. It was made from crushed quartz, white clay, and frit, which when fired becomes glassy.

[Frit is ground up glaze: that is, glass, pretty-much.] 

Here's the Wikipedia illustration:

That's an elegant bowl (though not, as far as I can tell, pierced with either holes or slits) - but my problem is, who's right about gombroon? Does gombroon include, as Collins says, the porcelain of China? Or is it just this particular sort of pottery from Gombroon?

Well, to find out I went to a traditionally published source. The Encyclopedia Britannica mostly agrees with Wikipedia, though it agrees with Collins in saying that gombroon can be porcelain. It also says, rather sweetly, that the stuff's so delicate it looks like glass.

I decided at that point that I'd better go to a real expert.

The world-famous Ashmolean Museum in Oxford writes authoritatively of gombroon, describing it as soft-paste porcelain and describes the stuff as largely white and incised, as well as pierced.

So there we are. You can't argue with the Ashmolean...

...but, hey, let's put that beyond doubt with an opinion from the world-famous Victoria and Albert Museum in London. 

It describes gombroon wares as instantly recognisable by their plain white body, which is sufficiently vitrified to become almost glass-like in its translucency 

though it does admit that 

the term may have been used to describe Iranian fritwares in general, and not specifically white wares.

Okay, I'm tired now. Whose definition to accept? A dictionary? A respected and up-to-date on-line encyclopedia? A respected conventional one? A great world-famous museum? Or another great world-famous museum?

Well, don't look at me. I haven't the foggiest.

Word To Use Today: gombroon. Most authorities believe that gombroon ware, whatever it was, was made in Iran and exported (by the Dutch or English) to Europe from Gombroon, now Bandar Abbas, and that's how it got its name.

As for me, I've more or less stopped believing anything.

Wednesday 26 October 2016

Nuts and Bolts: galliambics

Galliambic metre is associated with the cult of the goddess Cybele, whose adherents are rather often described as frenzied.

If you want to be technical, it goes like this: 

uu_u_u_ _//uu_uuuu x. 

To put it in another way, as Oxford Living Dictionaries tells us, galliambics means relating to or consisting of two catalectic iambic dimeters...*, no, come back!

Okay, if you don't want to be technical, then it's a rhythm thing, and this superb video, uploaded by fiatlapides, shows you everything you need to know (it starts in Latin, but there's an English version about six minutes in):

Do galliambics have any relevance at all for those of us who seldom speak Latin? 

Not really, though Tennyson imitated the form in Boadicea - but that doesn't stop it being simply terrific, does it?

Thing To Consider Today: galliambics. This word was made up in the middle of the 1800s from the Latin galliambus, a song of the Galli. The Galli were the priests of Cybele. And often, as I said, frenzied.

*In other words, according to Collins Dictionaries, four lesser Ionics.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Thing To Do Today: eat.

It's three thirty pm, and due to various unforeseen circumstances I haven't had lunch, yet.

Or, indeed, breakfast.

Oh, and eating is just so wonderful. Sinking your teeth into...well, you'd better fill in yourself what you most like to sink your teeth into, because if there's a kind of food that pleases everyone then I don't know what it is.

I mean, apparently the vast majority of the inhabitants of the Philippines don't like cheese! 

There are other people, however, who love cheese as long as it's not it's made with cows; some who'll eat cows but not if they're cooked with butter; and some people who view cow products with such great reverence that they don't even turn their noses up at its urine.

Some people don't eat seafood because it's banned by God, and some people don't eat seafood because when they were young by the time the seafood cart got to their village it was most likely lethal. Some people don't eat seafood because it's disgusting, and some people don't eat seafood because it makes them go purple and stop breathing.

All fair enough.

Rats are usually shunned as food because they carry plague, but the Great Cane Rat carries monkey pox (which is quite surprising as the Great Cane Rat isn't either a rat or a monkey, but something more like a porcupine).

Indonesian bats are delicious as long as you're not Muslim or Jewish, but Muslims can eat ostrich while observant Jews can't (and really you'd have to be a very unobservant Jew not to notice you were eating an ostrich). Jews are fine with giraffes, though.

Hardly anyone eats cats, though there's a German word Dachhase, or roof-hare, which describes a cat passed off as a hare.

In Somalia mostly you can't marry anyone who eats fish.

Salad, then? Surely vegetables are harmless?

In Early Mediaeval Europe uncooked foods were thought to be slightly dodgy, and there were penances for eating them.

Cooked vegetables don't come off very much better. Some religions ban onions because are said to inflame the passions (which is not my experience at all: quite the reverse, in fact). Jains won't eat turnips. The Yazidi don't eat lettuce. Pythagoreans don't eat beans (possibly because they are believed to have souls). Some people won't eat raspberries because there might be insects lurking inside them, and you can't import poppy seed to Singapore.

But still, eating is terrific, isn't it. One of the very great pleasures of life. I heartily recommend it an interesting and varied diet. I've heard that baked tarantulas contain some white slimy stuff that's absolutely delicious.

But for me, now, it's whatever's in the fridge. And quite possibly everything that's in the fridge. 

Let me to it!

Thing To Do Today: eat. This word comes from the Old English etan, and goes right back to the Sanskrit admi.

Monday 24 October 2016

Spot the Frippet: kaleidoscope.

It's Autumn here in England, and the leaves are beginning to change colour. Soon, the gales will tear them from their branches and turn the whole world into a whirling kaleidoscope.

The original kaleidoscope was the toy, a rotatable tube containing mirrors that turned fragments of glass or beads into an infinity of patterns. It was invented and named in 1817 by the Canadian Sir Eoin Cusson. He designed his kaleidoscope as a scientific instrument, but the two hundred thousand kaleidoscopes that were sold in three months in just London and Paris made it clear that it wasn't just scientists who were fascinated by the kaleidoscope's possibilities.

The word kaleidoscope soon extended its meaning, so that now any frequently changing and complex pattern is called a kaleidoscope. It might be a crowd, perhaps: 

File:Shatin crowd 1.jpg
photo by KTo288

or a roundabout: 

File:Carousel longshot Philly.JPG
The Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia, photo by Smallbones

or even a roundabout:

The Plough 'Magic' Roundabout, Hemel Hempstead

Nowadays the word has been stretched even further, so that any rapidly moving and complicated set of circumstances is a kaleidoscope. It often describes a group of people jostling for position, such as a government, army, war, office, or coffee group.

Personally, I think I'm going to go for a walk in the woods.

Spot the Frippet: kaleidoscope. This word comes from three Greek words: kalos, beautiful, eidos, form, and skopein, to examine.

Sunday 23 October 2016

Sunday Rest: orthogonal. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, ortho is boring: it means straight, right, or upright. And gonal presumably means having a certain number of sides or angles (as in octagon or hexagon).

So, as well as sounding like the death-groan of something ancient and hopefully extinct, the word orthogonal is clearly going to be far too tedious to bother with.

Or is it? Perhaps it really describes something marvellous, like the path made by an enchanter's wand, or a type of gold-encrusted biscuit eaten by enclosed nuns at Septuagesima, or the soft first fur of a young wombat.

And does it?


Sorry, orthogonal is just what it sounds like, only, if anything, worse. It means to do with right angles or uprights. Unless, that is, you're doing maths, when it describes a pair of vectors that have a defined scalar product equal to zero, or a pair of functions that have a defined product equal to zero.

I don't know about you, but neither of those definitions is going anywhere as far as I'm concerned.

While I'm here, an orthogonal projection isn't something to hang towels on, but a way architects can draw buildings. If they so wish.

But, I mean, who would?

File:Orthogonal projection envelopes 24-cell.png
Image produced by Robert Webb's Stella software :

Word Not To Use Today: orthogonal. The Greek orthos means straight, right, or upright. The Greek gōnia means angle.

Saturday 22 October 2016

Saturday Rave: The Ussher Chronology.

It's time to cast a kind eye over the critics who help us understand difficult works of art. Well, one critic, anyway.

According to James Ussher, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh (1581-1656):

James Ussher by Sir Peter Lely.jpg

the world was created at approximately six o'clock in the evening on October 22nd, 4004 BC.

Ussher worked this out from the bible, of course - well, not from the old Greek version called the Septuagint (people tend to live a lot longer in that one) but from the Hebrew bible.

It's quite an easy calculation to make as far as the oldest part of the story goes because the Bible tells us who everyone's dad is, and how long people everyone lived (though the date of the birth of Abraham is still hotly disputed). After that there are gaps in the record, so Ussher had to work the chronology out using externally verifiable dates (importantly, the date of the death of King Nebuchadnezzar).

Once Ussher had done all the reading and thinking and sums the answer came out as about 4000 BC. Unfortunately that doesn't quite work because that means that then Jesus Christ wouldn't have been born until after Herod died, so in the end the date 4004BC for the creation of the world was the best Ussher could do (he decided to believe Matthew and not Luke about the date of Jesus' birth (it's jolly tricky to believe both of them)).

Ussher deduced the time of year for the creation from the fact that the Autumn Equinox is the date of the Jewish New Year, and the creation must have been begun on a Sunday because the seventh day, the day of rest, must have been the Sabbath. The time of day was indicated by a reference to the evening and the fact that in many ancient (and modern) calendars, the day starts at dusk.

But what sort of a man devotes so much time and ingenuity to a piece of literary criticism? 

Well, a man who lived in dangerous and confusing times, that's who. Ussher was a puritan, a monarchist, and an Irishman with an instinct for conciliation who was living through a very bloody Civil War. (He was also a historian with a natural reluctance to dismiss stories for want of hard proof, as he showed in his history of Christianity in Britain, Britannicarum ecclesiarum antiquitates, where he devoted a whole chapter to the entirely fictional adventures of the entirely fictional King Lucius.)

I can see why poor Bishop Ussher might have been glad to retreat to his study to work out the date of the creation of the world.

And I'm not entirely sure why, but it's also rather a source of comfort, in some strange way I don't really understand, that he did.

Word To Use Today: creation. This word come from the Latin word creāre, to produce or make.

Friday 21 October 2016

Word To Use Today: clint, clinting, Clintonite.

I wrote about the word trump some time ago, so it seems only fair to feature the word Clinton, too.

The only trouble is that the source of the name Clinton seems to be either the river Glyme in Oxfordshire, England:

River Glyme, photo by Motacilla 

or the Middle Low German word glinde, which means an enclosure or fence. Neither has, as far as I can see, left any trace on conversational English (the ton bit comes from tun, the Old English word for settlement).

However, I can give you Clintonite:


which is a brittle mica with the chemical formula Ca(Mg,Al)3(Al3Si)O10(OH)2.  If Clintonite is any use for anything then I'm afraid I don't know what it is, but it's found in Orange County and is definitely not radioactive.

If Clintonite takes us nowhere very much, then there's always the word clint, which can be either a hard sticking-upwards rock, or a rough stone used in the sport of curling. Sometimes clint has been used as a verb in the place of the commoner words clinch, clink or clench, too.

Clinting is the making of a subdued sound. Thackeray describes horses' hooves in his poem Peg of Limavaddy as making a dismal clinting

I'm afraid I have to admit that none of this is tremendously inspiring... 

...but then...

Word To Use Today: one with clint in it. Clintonite was named in 1828 (or 1843, depending on whom you believe) after the American statesman De Witt Clinton (1769 - 1828). Clint comes from the Danish and Swedish klint, rock.

Thursday 20 October 2016

Two countries united by a common laughter: a rant.

People complain about Americanisms creeping into British English, because...oh, for the usual reasons. 

There is one good reason for regret, however, that no one seems to consider.

A friend phoned the other day from Gulfport, Florida. Although he's lived in America for several decades his accent has never moved further west than Yorkshire, and I think this is the reason I expect to understand him. This being the case, when he told us they were having an addition at home then naturally I understood that his living-at-home unmarried daughter was expecting a baby. 

I wasn't immediately sure exactly how much to celebrate.

As it transpired, however, congratulations and commiserations were both unnecessary. 

Apparently the addition was just an extra bathroom.

A universal language would deprive us of a lot of joy, you know.

Word To Use Today Just For Fun: addition. Or extension (though heaven knows what an extension is in the USA). Addition comes from the Latin addere to add, from ad, to, plus dere to put; extension is also Latin and comes from extendere to stretch out.

PS The said daughter may not have a baby on the way, but she does now have a job with benefits. Apparently in Florida this doesn't imply a job so lowly paid that the state is obliged to give her a top-up.

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Evolution or Revolution?

'The moment an Englishman opens his mouth,' says Professor Higgins in GB Shaw's Pygmalion, 'another Englishman despises him.'

But despises him for what? 

Well, for having been born on the wrong side of town, or for having gone to the wrong school, most probably (though wrong in this context might mean absolutely anything).

Still, Shaw was writing a long time ago, and things are different, now. Nowadays, every time an Englishman opens his mouth another Englishman despises him for something quite different. 

And what's that? Well, for being the wrong age, most probably.

The thing is that English pronunciation is changing fast. Estuary English, which just a couple of decades ago was predicted to take over the whole country, is now spoken only by rather old people.* Young fashionable people now speak MLE, or Multicultural London English, which is heavily influenced by Black and Asian speech - and where London leads the country follows.** 

Dr Dominic Watt of the University of York has been studying these accent changes. He expects words to carry on becoming simpler and shorter and easier for non-native speakers to say. He thinks thick will become fick and this will become dis, and cute will become coot

Will it really happen? Perhaps. But I note something else reported by Dr Watt, which is that the dropped h (as in 'ouse of 'orror) of Estuary English is becoming rarer.

I also note that there are a lot of very small people running about the streets of London, and I'm pretty sure the last thing they'll want to do when they start growing up is to speak like their currently oh-so-hip parents.

And how will the now-small people speak? 

Well, I have no idea; but if tweed can make a comeback then I refuse to despair even of the subjunctive.

Word To Use Today If You Are Grown Up: one that isn't slang will probably be safest.

*The really old folk speak cockney - well, apart from the Queen and high-budget film villains they do, anyway.

** Or so Londoners tell us.

Tuesday 18 October 2016

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: wangle something.

Want to get a pay rise, an extra helping of pudding, or a discharge from the army?

Well, you're not likely to be able to get one through official channels, are you, and of course you don't want to be dishonest. I mean, you wouldn't dream of doing anything criminal or selfish, would you, and you're definitely not a cheat. 

As for doing someone down, well, it's just not in your nature.

And so you wangle it.

Wangle...such a silly, undignified sort of a word. There couldn't possibly be any harm in it. No, wangling something is just a bit of mischief, a chance to display your charm, cleverness, man-of-the-world knowledge of human nature, and powers of persuasion.

Isn't it.

Well, isn't it?

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: wangle something. This word was originally 1800s printers' slang, and even now wangle sometimes implies some entirely innocent piece of cleverness. One might wangle it so you can make a dress from a slightly smaller than recommended piece of fabric, for instance. The origin of the word isn't clear, but it may be a blend of waggle and wankle, a word which has mysteriously gone out of fashion but which means wavering. It comes from the Old English wancol.

Monday 17 October 2016

Spot the Frippet: turmeric.


 doesn't grow round here in England (it needs tropical heat and lots of rain. Not that the rain is a problem) but I keep powdered turmeric rhizomes (they're underground stems) in my spice box.

Ground turmeric is one of the main things that give a curry its colour, so it's quite easy to spot.

Even if you don't eat curry, then you know the yellow colour of mustard? Well, that's probably turmeric, too (mustard yellow naturally fades quite quickly). You can also find turmeric in ice cream, orange juice, cheese, margarine and even, in winter, butter.

Have you seen the saffron robes of Buddhist or Hindu monks? 

File:Abbot of Watkungtaphao in Phu Soidao Waterfall.jpg
This monk is from Thailand.

Yes, they're probably dyed with turmeric as it's many times cheaper than saffron.

Turmeric is associated with the sun and happiness, and so it's a feature of many religious ceremonies and celebrations. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh a necklace made with a dried turmeric rhizome even acts as the equivalent of a wedding ring.

Turmeric is recommended for clearing up spots (though you would surely end up covered in yellow blotches) and is claimed as a cure for diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease.

Good stuff, then?

Well, the people who gave it its name certainly seem to have thought so.

Spot the Frippet: turmeric. People are still arguing about the origin of this word, but the consensus seems to be that it comes from the Old French terre merite, from the Latin terra merita, meritorious earth.

Sunday 16 October 2016

Sunday Rest: prusik. Word Not To Use Today.

It's bad enough being called Prue, but as for prusik...

...I don't know, though. Dr Prusik saw his name used as both a noun and a verb, so he must have had some affection for the horrible thing. Either that, or he really wanted to be famous.

A prusik is a sort of knot that locks under pressure. 


It's most often used, as above, to make a loop in a cord that you attach to a rope, though the term prusik is used in mountaineering circles for more or less anything that can grab a rope.

To prusik is to climb a rope using prusik loops.

Prusik knots apparently have all sorts of advantages over other types of rope-grabbers, and they are also useful, it is said, for extemporising a pair of handcuffs. They are a hazard on ropes with a very low melting point, though, and they don't work at all on frozen wet ropes.

I would suggest, when it's wet and freezing (and, actually, even when it isn't) visiting a nice tea shop, instead.

Word Not To Use Today: prusik. The prusik hitch is named after the man who may have invented the knot, Dr Karl Prusik. The first mention of the word was in 1931.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Saturday Rave: Fortran.

On this day sixty years ago the new language Fortran was revealed to an appreciative audience for the first time.

It's still being used all over the world today.

So, who are these, er, Forts? Have we been invaded by aliens or something?

Well, yes, in a way. Fortran is one of the very first languages for talking to computers. Now, may I say here that although I've read the whole of the Wikipedia article about Fortran I still haven't got much idea how it works, but Cecil E Leith called Fortran the 'mother tongue of scientific computing' so it must be important. Fortran is particularly good for getting computers to do sums, I understand, and especially those to do with astronomy, weather prediction and things like computational fluid dynamics, which (though this is almost certainly wrong) I assume is something to do with the way some tea pots always drip no matter what you do.

Fortran was developed by IBM, and soon took over from hand-coding because it was about twenty times quicker. One of the developers, John Backus, claims he began to develop it because he didn't like writing programs.

The end of the Wikipedia Fortran article has a section entitled Humor, and as I aim to keep things as light as possible in The Word Den, this is one of the jokes therein:

In Fortran 77 (Fortran has had many versions) variable names beginning with the letters I-N has a default type of integer, while variables starting with any other letters defaulted to the real, although programmers could override the defaults with an explicit declaration. This led to the joke: 'In Fortran GOD is REAL (unless declared INTEGER).

I'm tremendously full of admiration and gratitude for the people who speak Fortran and use it for the public good, but, oh, I'm so glad I gave up working with computers and started writing novels.

Word To Use Today: Fortran is short for Formula Translation.

Friday 14 October 2016

Word To Use Today: influenza.

Do the stars rule your life?

Does Jupiter's visit to the region between you and that bunch of stars that someone a long time ago thought looked a bit like a crab mean that you're going to cross water to meet a tall dark stranger who'll precipitate a change of career and some luck in money-matters?

Or will it just give you influenza?

I ask, because the word influenza is to do with influence, and in the 1300s an influence (from the Mediaeval Latin influentia) implied some action of the power of the stars.

By the time influenza (the Italian for influence) began to be used as a name for the disease, however, influences were being seen as more earthly, and the idea at that time (1743) was that the disease was an incursion that spread in just the same way as a fashion for, say, tartan braces, might be spread by a boy band.

Nowadays we'd call that sort of trend a meme, making an analogy with genes. 

If you go back to the original source of the Italian word influenza, though, you'll find another analogy entirely.

Word To Use Today: influenza. This word is the Italian for influence, which comes from the Latin fluere, to flow. So influenza is at its deepest root not a power of the stars, nor an incursion, but a river. 

File:3D Influenza virus.png
This is a portrait of the virus that causes all the trouble.

Thursday 13 October 2016

Old words for new: a rant.

Ah, the lovely Oxford English Dictionary: the biggest dictionary in the world, written by a hugely expert and knowledgeable range of editors. 

The online edition is even updated four times a year. 

I mean, what more could you ask? 


...let's look at some of the new words that have entered the dictionary in the current quarter, shall we? There's scrummy, and then there's splenderiferous, too. These cherishable and widely-understood words are both from the works of Roald Dahl (1916 - 1990), and it's that last date that's the reason I sit here with the OED on the shelf and my Collins dictionary on my desk. 

The fact is that it's taken over a quarter of a century for the delectable scrummy to find its way into the OED.

Other new words in this update include transporter (as in Star Trek, first aired in 1966), gender-fluid (coined 1981) and, indeed, Dahlesque, from 1983.

I know that scholarship is painstaking, but, good grief. Am I supposed to wait half a lifetime to understand a new word?

...well, presumably that must be a yes, then.

Word To Use Today. A quite new one. Twitterrhea?? It means the excessive use of Twitter. I'm afraid don't know who coined this word because it's not in the dictionary, yet. The word Twitter was originally twittr (in an analogy with Flickr), employed by founder Jack Dorsey as an extension of twitter's established meaning of a short burst of inconsequential information. 

The rhea bit is, obviously, from the American spelling of diarrhoea, which is to be found in all good dictionaries.

Wednesday 12 October 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Cod Cornish

All right, you may preen yourself on having a brain with more possible connections than stars in the universe*, but you can't talk with your bladder, can you?

But cod can. And, in fact, they do. They use the noises they make with their swim bladders to raise the alarm, establish territories, and court their loves.

Just imagine how effective your chat-up lines would be if you could do it by making noises with your bladder (or, failing that, some other part of your excretory system**).

Unfortunately, according to Professor Steve Simpson from the University of Exeter, there are two grave threats to the continuance of these communicating cod

One is global warming. As the seas warm cod are travelling north to cooler waters, and populations of cod are encountering each other for the first time for centuries or perhaps millennia. The concern is that they will speak in different accents and won't be able to understand each other. 

The other fear is that there are now so many noisy ships' motors in the sea that even if the poor cod can work out what those strange Scottish fish are saying, they won't be able to hear them. 

I mean, it'd be like meeting someone at a night club - and no relationship has ever begun like that, has it?

Hmm...suddenly I begin to have confidence in the love-life of our cod, after all.


File:Portrait of Cod.jpg
Portrait of a Swedish Cod. Photo by August Linnman

Word To Use Today: cod. This word appeared in English in the 1200s and probably came from some German language. The Old High German for cod is cutte

This information comes from a talk Professor Simpson gave on the communication systems of fish at the Natural Environmental Research Council's Into The Blue Season in Liverpool.

*Though actually you haven't. Not even close. Synapses in the brain about 100 trillion; stars in the observable universe about seventy sextillion.

**Yes, I know a swim bladder isn't anything to do with a fish's excretory system. 

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Thing To Do Today: some psephology.

File:Pebble stack.jpg
Pebbles arranged and photographed by Zzubnik

Gosh, there are elections and referendums* causing ructions over the place, aren't there.

But what's best? Who's best? Who's least-bad? 

What if the least attractive candidate has the best policy? 

What if everyone who seeks great power is basically unhinged?

Is how I vote dependent upon my level of education and/or intelligence? 

Or on my character?

Will I have any friends left if I admit to voting Pro-Weasel? Or Anti-Weasel?

Why are all the candidates weasels?

And, of course, most of all: 

Who's going to win?

Psephology is the statistical and sociological study of elections. My chief regret, actually, is that votes are no longer cast, as in Ancient Greece, with pebbles. I would have loved to have seen the lorries full of pebbles trundling down the roads, and all the people leaning out of their bedroom windows to cast a sly extra pebble as they went past.

Ah well, it may all be a bit of a circus, but at least we get to enjoy the tight-rope walkers, the strongmen, and the clowns.

Don't we.

Thing To Do Today: some psephology. This word comes from the Greek psephos, which means pebble.

*Saying referenda will get you extra points with those who know a little Latin, but lose you points with those who know rather more. Referendum doesn't have a plural in Latin.

On the other hand, there are a lot more people who only know a little Latin...

Monday 10 October 2016

Spot the Frippet: psammite.

Psammite is, obviously, a psammead's favourite kind of rock, and as a psammead (you say it SAMMeeADD) is a sand fairy, psammite must therefore be sandstone.

So where can we find some sandstone?

Well, in rockeries. Paving. Grindstones. Mixed into tarmac (which seems to be called blacktop in America). 

Structures are often built of psammite even though the softer sorts erode quickly:

File:Red sandstone castle walls - - 1732778.jpg
Ruined wall, Shrewsbury Castle. Photo by ceridwen

Psammite comes in the form of hills and caves:

Lower Antelope Canyon, Arizona: photo by Moondigger 

It's used for statues:

File:Sandstone statues of dancers (10th century), Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City - 20121014.JPG
Dancers, 10th century, Ho Chi Minh. Photo by Jacklee

and towns:

File:Buccleuch St, Dumfries, 2007-07-26.jpg
Dumfries, Scotland. Photo by Contains Mild Peril

I only wish I could point out to you some psammite surrounding the sandy home of a genuine psammead:

Still, if you spot one, do let us all know.

Spot the frippet: psammite. This word comes from the Greek psammos, which means sand.

Sunday 9 October 2016

Sunday Rest: mesial. Word Not To Use Today.

Reasons for not using the word mesial:

1. Only dentists will understand it.

2. It sounds like a slightly up-market version measly, which will mislead anyone gamely trying to guess what on earth you're going on about.

3. It is in fact a synonym for medial, so you might as well use that, as it is much more guessable and you might even pass as a scientist or mathematician.

4. Even better, you could use the phrase in the middle, which means the same thing in most circumstances (except dentistry, where it means towards the middle).

5. Well, you don't want to look like a dork, do you.

Word Not To Use Today: mesial. This word comes from the Greek mesos, which means middle.

Saturday 8 October 2016

Saturday Rave: From a Railway Carriage by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Stephenson's Rocket drawing.jpg

Today is the anniversary of the Rainhill Trials, which took place in Northern England in 1829 to decide upon the best design for a steam locomotive.

The trials were won by Robert Stevenson's The Rocket, an engine which cleverly integrated several existing engineering ideas, and proved to form the basis for steam engine design for the next 150 years.


(You can still see The Rocket at the Science Museum in London.)

In celebration, here's a wonderful poem by another Robert Stevenson, this time Robert Louis. It comes from A Child's Garden of Verses, and it was the poem that first made me notice that words can have such a thing as rhythm.

In those days railway tracks were made in fairly short lengths joined together, and the wheels of the carriages clicked as they travelled over the joins: diddle-dee DAH, diddle-dee DAH, they went.

Or, to be more elegant about it, they made a noise rather like this:

From a Railway Carriage

Faster than fairies, faster than witches
Bridges and houses, hedges and ditches;
And charging along like troops in a battle,
All through the meadows the horses and cattle:
All of the sights of the hill and the plain
Fly as thick as driving rain;
And ever again, in the wink of an eye,
Painted stations whistle by.

Here is a child who clambers and scrambles,
All by himself and gathering brambles;
Here is a tramp who stands and gazes;
And there is the green for stringing the daisies!
Here is a cart run away in the road
Lumping along with man and load;
And here is a mill and there is a river:
Each a glimpse and gone forever!

It's rather nonsense, of course: but then who can bear to be entirely sensible when you're going along very fast on a steam train?

Word To Use Today: steam. This word is Old English. It might be related to the Old High German stioban, to raise dust. 

Friday 7 October 2016

Word To Use Today: fingerspitzengefuhl

I came across this word for the first time just last week in an article about economics.*

Fingerspitzengefühl. (The first g sounds like the g in singer, the second g like the one in get, and the word ends up fool.) 

This is a German word, obviously, and it means...well, it means Fingerspitzengefühl, and the fact there isn't an English word for it is the reason why English has pinched it. 

Fingerspitzengefühl partly describes having your finger on the pulse of a situation (it might be used of a general in a battle, or of a very skilled footballer). It means being able to react instinctively and effectively to any developing situation. But there's also an idea of tact and sensitivity, too (not something usually connected with either generals or footballers in full flow). 

I suppose fingerspitzengefuhl means being so much on top of a situation that you have some attention left over to keep the troops happy.

It's interesting, isn't it, that German has a word for that sort of thing and English hasn't needed it until now. But whether that's down to incompetence, lack of respect, or modesty, I leave it to yourself to determine.

File:Fingers Crossed.jpg
photo by Mjt16

Word To Consider Today: Fingerspitzengefühl. This word comes from the German words Finger, which means, yes, finger, Spitze, tip, and Gefühl, which means feeling.

*I love reading articles about economics, even though I don't understand what they're on about most of the time and I'm not even really interested in economics. 

I suppose that must make sense in some way, but if it does I don't know how.

Thursday 6 October 2016

Children. nowadays: a rant.

One of my books has just been through the editing stage.

No, no, it could have been much worse, thank you. No one said I think it might work better if the central character was a fork-lift truck; or it'd be great if you could just cut fifty thousand words; or is it all right if we make all the characters gorillas?

No, nothing like that. The trouble was caused, not by the editors, for once, but by the flipping children.

The book is aimed at young people aged about eight to eleven, and to my shock I've discovered that children of that age can't be exposed to the words subside, fervently or quest in case their poor brains melt from sheer incomprehension.

I know, I know, that's what I thought: however are they going to learn new words if...

Ah well, never mind. Children are obviously a bit more protected and spoon-fed than they used to be. Times have changed, educational theories have matured, innocent little children are to be treated with the utmost respect...

...and then I got to the bit in the book where a kid says I feel as if I've got crabs in my ears, and found another editorial note:

Please make it clear that these are the sea-side kind of crabs, and not the disease, it said.


So you mean the children know...but don't know...

Well, honestly. 

Children, nowadays.

File:Crabs - Barbados.jpg
photo of Barbados land crabs by SARBAJIT SARBAJNA

Word To Use Today: one unsuitable to use in front of children. Quest, for instance, comes from the Old French queste, from the Latin quaerere, to seek.

Wednesday 5 October 2016

Nuts and Bolts: horse sense.

Some scientists in Norway have just taught some horses to read.

No, really, it's properly true - and Cecilie M Meidel, Turid Buvik, Grete H M Jørgensen and Knut E Bøe of the Norwegian Veterinary Institute have got a good result with every single animal in their experiment, too. Twenty three horses, twenty three newly-literate animals - and this after just ten to fifteen minutes of training every day for a couple of weeks.

Good grief, not all teachers of human animals can claim as much.

The result is that now the horses can tell their humans whether they want to wear a blanket or not by touching a symbol on a board (the horses were placed in variously cold and warm places to check that the horses understood what they were asking).

There were three symbols for the horses to choose from: blanket on (horizontal line) blanket off (vertical line) and no change (blank symbol...which I presume means no symbol at all).

The results of the study were published in the Applied Animal Behaviour Science journal, and it says on their website that horses of the warm-blooded type (the sort bred for jumping and sport) were quicker learners than the cold-blooded type (heavy draft animals).

Now, it's nice the horses can be made properly comfortable, but the next and most important question must be: what do we really want to ask a horse?

File:Hafling Horses.jpg
photo by Julian Berry

Word To Use Today: horse. This word was hors in Old English.

Tuesday 4 October 2016

Thing Not To Be Today If You're A Man: foxy.

Foxy means like a fox. Well, sometimes it means like a fox, anyway.

Foxy paper, for instance, is stained red-brown by the action of mould; foxy wine tastes of the fruits of the wild Northern American plant Vitus labrusca, which are also known as fox grapes; foxy oats have a musty smell from having got wet, gone a bit off (spoiled, for US readers) and then dried out again.

But what about a foxy person?

Well, it depends, doesn't it. A foxy man is cunning (like a fox) but a foxy woman is alluring...

...and what that's got to do with foxes (apart from their beauty) I have absolutely no idea.

So: is the male-female foxy dichotomy hugely sexist? Or merely utterly delightful?

Well, as the woman comes out best in this particular comparison, I, for one, am not complaining.

Thing Not To Be Today If You're A Man: foxy. A fox has been called a fox in England since before the Norman Conquest. The word's origins can be traced right back to the Sanskit puccha, which means tail.

Monday 3 October 2016

Spot the Frippet: raft.

A raft is a simple thing. Anyone could make one, or extemporise one, and so in theory an adventure down the river on a raft is never far away. 

Perhaps that's why rafts are fascinating.

File:Bamboo raft.jpg
photo by Yuval Haimovits

But where to spot one? Well, I suppose any river or puddle might support a leaf acting as a raft to some small creature. When I was very small the Tropical House at Kew Gardens in London contained (and perhaps still does) giant water lily leaves that were said to support the weight of a five-year-old (though, sadly, I was never allowed to find out if it was true).

A large floating area or collection of anything is a raft, whether it is ice, or weeds, or drifting wood, or water birds. 

A raft can actually be a large collection of anything, though if it's away from water this raft is at root an entirely different word. A cupboard might contain a raft of baking trays, or a government might launch a raft of laws, Books also sometimes come in rafts. But, although this raft is at root entirely different from the boat sort of raft, the meanings have got a bit muddled over the centuries and now even this sort of raft tends to describe the sort of thing that's launched or is flat enough to float. 

I could imagine a raft of sandwiches, for instance, but not a raft of doughnuts...

...unless, I suppose someone had sat on them.

Spot the Frippet: raft. The floating word comes from the Old Norse raptr, which means rafter. The collection word comes from the Old French rafle, a snatching up.