This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 30 November 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Dyirbal

Dyirbal is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken by about twenty nine people in North Eastern Queensland. (And if that doesn't sound desperately fragile enough for you, there are eight recorded dialects of Dyirbal.)

Dyirbal is an extra precious and extraordinary language. For one thing, nouns are divided into four groups consisting of a) most animate objects and men; b) women, water, fire, violence and exceptional animals; c) edible fruit and vegetables; d) everything else.

The thing for which Dyirbal is most famous, however, is its taboo, until about 1930 when it died out, on speaking it to your mother-in-law. In fact it was worse than that because actually the taboo included speaking your own language to a child-in-law, father's sister's child, or mother's brother's child, as well. 

At least, when I say you couldn't speak your own language, you could use the same grammar, but you couldn't use any of its words - except for the four different words that describe your grandparents.

The special language you had to use if one of these taboo relatives is listening is called Dyalŋuy (the ordinary form of Dyirbal is called Guwal). 

Dyalŋuy is only a quarter of the size of Guwal, but there are various tricks that you can use to get round any lack of vocabulary. You can use altered forms of Guwal words, for instance, and you can also borrow words from neighbouring languages. It's thought that all Dyirbal-speaking children would have ben fluent in at least one neighbouring language and so the switch to using a mixture of the two language would be fairly easy.

And, do you know what? 

I say to myself, as so very often, what an absolutely gob-smackingly wonderful world...

Word To Use Today: any you like, but only very polite ones, please, to your mother-in-law and cousins.

Tuesday 29 November 2016

Thing To Do Today: scour something.

All the Black Friday stuff may be over (hurray!) but here, nevertheless, are two words for the price of one (and, let's face it, the price of one is, well, nothing, so what sort of a bargain is that?).

Ladies and Gentlemen,* I present to you the word scour.

Now, the oldest meaning of scour is to do with getting rid of muck. Most usually we scour saucepans after they mysteriously go and boil dry (I blame the weather/varying chemical composition of natural gas) but a riverbed can be scoured by the force of flood water, and (I hope you aren't eating) scouring a cow is designed to give its insides a good clear-out.

On a gentler note, washing raw wool for the first time is also called scouring.

But what about when a whole countryside is scoured for an escaped villain? And what about when you're trying to find a dropped earring? Or a baked bean on stripped pine floor? 

It's rather nice to think of someone scraping up every clump if heather on a moor to find the villain (or, even more thrillingly, a completely innocent man-who-knows-too-much). It's satisfying, too, to imagine someone scooping up every fluff of dust in the hope of scooping up the earring/baked bean with it. Sadly, though, this scour is a completely different word.

At least, it started off as a completely different word - but nowadays both sorts of  scour are pretty-much meshed in my mind, at least.

Thing To Do Today: scour something. The cleaning meaning comes to us through the Middle Low German schūren, from the Latin excūrāre, to cleanse, from cūrāre, to attend to or to heal. The searching sort of scour comes from the Old Norse skūr.

*Can one say that nowadays without offending the LGBTTQ+ people? Hope so!

Monday 28 November 2016

Spot the Frippet: bottle.

No, no, people have told me all my life: you don't search for a needle in a bundle of hay; you search for it in a bottle of hay.

Really? Personally, I search for a needle in a needle case. Still, never mind, if that's what people want to do...

Anyway, bottle. An easy spot, this one, especially when you consider that in Britain bottle means courage, in Australia to be full bottle is to be knowledgeably enthusiastic, and that more or less everywhere to be on the bottle means to be habitually drinking alcohol in an uncontrolled way.

Then there are bottle banks where you recycle old bottles, bottle brushes, bottle gourds

Courge encore verte.jpg


File:Bottlenose dolphin with young.JPG
photo by Peter Asprey

bottlers (in Australia and New Zealand anything or anyone excellent or outstanding), bottle trees:

and bottle washers (which are people in such menial positions that they might be required to wash the yes, bottles).

A magnetic bottle is a way of containing plasma using magnetic fields, and a bottleneck is a similar sort of thing, only using badly adjusted traffic lights instead of magnets.

And then, of course, there's all the bottles...

File:Coke bottles with names.jpg
photo by Doorknob747

Spot the frippet: bottle. The container word comes from the Old French botaille from the charming Latin word butticula, a small cask. The bottle-of-hay word is also from an Old French word, botel, from botte, which means bundle.

Sunday 27 November 2016

Sunday Rest: sanctimonious. Word Not To Use Today.

If ever there was a word that deserved to have a moan in the middle of it, this is it.

Sanctimonious means pretending to be holy. 

How does someone do that?

He wears the clothes, he goes regularly to the holy places, and he quotes the holy writings on every possible occasion.

Well, all right, but how do we tell sanctimony from sanctity?

Well, you know the expression do as I say, not do as I do

The sanctimonious person is one who stops after say.

(And, yes, I am writing this on a Sunday.)

Sunday Rest: sanctimonious. This word comes from the Latin sanctimonia, which, reasonably enough, actually meant sanctity, from sanctus, holy.

Saturday 26 November 2016

The Task by William Cowper

William Cowper was born in Berkhamsted, England, 285 years ago today.

Here is is, looking romantic:

The most important thing to know about Cowper is, obviously, how to pronounce his name.

Well, I used to know one of his relatives (Berkhamsted's quite near here: Cowper's father was rector of the church where my parents were married) and she insisted you said his name Coo-per

On the other hand the road just a couple of hundreds of yards from here is called Cow-per, and my mother, who was Berkhamsted educated, always said Cow-per, too.

So I suppose we can choose...and I think I'll choose Cow-per

Despise me if you will.

The next most important thing about Cowper is, was he any good?

Oh, yes. Oh yes oh yes oh yes. Robert Burns and Coleridge and Jane Austen all said so, and you can't argue with them...and, let's face it, I can't think of anything else they might have agreed on.

Cowper's poem The Task began after a challenge from a lady to write a bit of blank verse upon the subject of...a sofa. So he did, but the joy of this led him on to write about lots of other things that interested him, including French politics, blood sports and slavery.

I suppose The Task became something rather close to the world's first blog. Actually, it might still be the only one in blank verse.

The Task is long, a whole book (though it's very readable and full of delights). Here's just a tiny flavour:

There, fast rooted in his bank,
Stand, never overlook'd, our fav'rite elms,
That screen the herdman's solitary hut;
While far beyond, and overthwart the stream
That as with molten glass inlays the vale,
The sloping land recedes into the clouds;
Displaying on its varied side the grace
Of hedge-row beauties numberless, square tow'r,
Tall spire, from which the sound of cheerful bells
Just undulates upon the list'ning ear

Word To Use Today: elm. This tree, almost wiped out in England by disease, has gone by the same name for a thousand years.

Friday 25 November 2016

Word To Use Today: ragamuffin.


Is that a bread snack for audiences of Indian classical music?

Sadly, no, though there is a musical connection because the most modern meaning of ragamuffin is dance-oriented reggae.

For much longer, though, a ragamuffin has been a ragged (or, at least, scruffy) person, nearly always a child.

(You say it RAGGaMUFFin.)

Ragamuffin is a rather affectionate term, not heard nearly as often as it should be. This is probably because the adventures children have nowadays are more likely to involve virtual drive-by shootings, world-design, and animal capture than they did in the olden days, when we did exactly the same thing but using mud and sticks.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: ragamuffin. If all the children you see are too clean and tidy then I suggest you go and splash about in a few puddles yourself. 

Go on: set a good example.

Word To Use Today: ragamuffin. This word comes from a character in 1393 William Langland's poem Piers Plowman. Ragamoffyn is a demon. His name is probably based on the word rag meaning a piece of recycled cloth.

Thursday 24 November 2016

Micro-aggression: a rant.


Is that something like spitting in the cup when you're making someone's coffee? Or using both armrests on a plane? Or clearing the throat meaningfully when the girl on the desk is ignoring you?

No, no. Those aren't micro enough. Think smaller. your coat on when visiting someone's house?

No, smaller still.

...saying thank you in a slightly sarcastic tone of voice when the barman has slurped beer over the top of the glass?

Smaller. lots of perfume?

Okay, look, I can see you're not going to get it. Micro-aggression is a verbal attack of which the attack bit only exists in the mind of the observer. It's the sort of thing where the reply to What a lovely hat! Might be: Why, what's wrong with it?

Micro-aggression isn't a stupid concept, because that sort of thing certainly exists, but it's an extremely stupid label for this sort of behaviour because a) there's nothing either small or aggressive about it, and b) it puts the blame on an entirely innocent party.

We already have a word for it, anyway.


And, no, I wasn't meaning to imply any personal criticism to anyone when I mentioned the armrest thing. Really.


Word To Consider Today: paranoia. This word is Greek for frenzy, from paranoos, distrught, from para- near, plus noos, mind.

Wednesday 23 November 2016

Nuts and Bolts: string quiz.

Writing recently about the plant eschscholzia and the astrophysical term syzygy has got me thinking about words where strings of letters come together in surprising ways.

Of course every language will have its own idea of a normal progression of letters (have you heard the story of the Polish man who was asked by an optician if he could read the third line and said read it? I know him!?).

But apart from words obviously pinched from other languages, like eschscholzia (called after Johann Friedrich von Eschscholz, a Russian citizen described in Wikipedia as Baltic German) and syzygy (which is Greek), you can find some odd tangles of letters in quite ordinary words that have been English for a long time.

So: what English word contains the consecutive letters wkw? 






They're easy, aren't they? Well, they are if you know the answers, anyway - and you will if you look at the end of this post.*

All these particular peculiarities happen to be caused by two words having been joined together to make one, though it's not always obvious this had happened: in the word answer, for instance, the coming together of the prefix and- meaning against, or in reply, and some word like swarâ, meaning affirmation or swearing, happened a very long time ago - before the Old English word form of answer, andswaru, came into being. 

I rather like the knobbliness these odd words give to English. I think it makes my native language just eccentric enough to be interesting.

And if that tells us anything about the English character, then that's interesting, too.

Word To Use Today: one that's slightly knobbly, perhaps. 

*There are probably other answers to these, but mine are awkward, answer, worthwhile, loincloth, and sandwich and clergyman. Extra points if you can use all of them in a single sentence.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

Thing To Do Today: quaver.

Today is St Cecilia's Day, and St Cecilia, as of course you already know, is the patron saint of music.

Now, you may not think of yourself as musical, but how about having a quick quaver, anyway?

Luckily, one way to have a quaver doesn't involve any musical talent whatsoever, because to quaver can mean to say or sing something in a shaky voice. Frightened or old people do it a lot, and so do people who can't sing. Actually, so do people who can sing.

British musicians are more inclined to quaver more than those in America, because British musicians call the American eighth note a quaver (that's a rather quick sort of note that usually arrives in groups). In fact British musicians have several types of quaver for use in the more agitated pieces and we call these even quicker notes semiquavers, demisemiquavers (the notes getting shorter and shorter as the name gets longer) and so on right up to demisemihemidemisemiquavers, which is ridiculous (Americans sensibly call these 256th notes).

Mind you, even if you are musical you'll probably want to avoid those.

These are mere sixty fourth notes, or hemidemisemiquavers.

To inspire you, here are lot of quavers and enthusiasm (and something that sounds at moments a little like a Fred Flintstone impersonation). It was written by Handel in honour of St Cecilia:

If you're worried about upsetting St Cecilia by making hideous noises on her special day then I suppose you could always sing a song of the sort that has even more quavers, but is unlikely to rise quite as far as heaven:

Well, it might be fun to try, anyway.

Thing To Do Today: quaver. This word comes from the 1300s word quaven, to tremble.

Monday 21 November 2016

Spot the Frippet: something crinoid.

Crinoids are usually found in the sea (so what do you think I am? you may ask, with some exasperation, a haddock? But no, it's all right, there's a get-out clause. I'll explain later).

Crinoids have a central mouth (charmingly, with their anus right beside it) surrounded by waving tentacles. They are also called sea lilies, feather stars, or comatulids.

Most crinoids are free-swimming, but some look a bit like sea anemones (but they aren't: the way their stalks grow mean that they're actually the other way up to sea anemones).

These stalked crinoids were drawn by Ernst Haeckel

Colourful crinoids in Indonesia, photo by Alexander Vasenin

Now, crinoids are obviously well worth spotting, but that's not going to be easy for most of us. Luckily crinoid has another meaning, which is shaped like a lily.

So, obviously, this is crinoid:

File:Lilium longiflorum (Easter Lily).JPG
photo by UpstateNYer

And so this is:

File:Shapla Chattar (Water lily).jpg
The Shapla chattar in Motijheel Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Abu Nayeem

as if this:

File:Lotus temple Delhi.jpg
The Lotus Temple in New Delhi, India. Photo by Nikkul 

Fleur-de-lis must be crinoid:

Thumbnail for version as of 23:34, 26 September 2006
That was the shield of Bosnia Hertzogovina in the 1990s. Image by Vernes Seferovic

The throats of young ladies are also sometimes said to be lily-like, but that's really rather creepy (and presumably more to do with texture and colour than shape). 

On the whole, I think I'm going to peer through the windows of a few florists.

Spot the frippet: something crinoid. This word comes from the Greek krinoeidēs, which means lily-like.

Sunday 20 November 2016

Sunday Rest: Brexit. Word Not To Use Today.

It's hard to believe this word hasn't featured as a word-not-to-use-today before. I've written about Grexit, however, and many of the arguments against that horror of a word are, naturally, relevant to the word Brexit.

Brexit, though, has an extra and glorious facet as a word to avoid.

It sounds far too much like...

Well, listen to the wise words of John McDonnell, the British Shadow Chancellor (he's the person who'd be in charge of Britain's money if the Labour Party had won Britain's General Election instead of coming second).

Britain, he warns, is 'hurtling towards a chaotic breakfast that will damage our economy!'.

A chaotic...


Well, I suppose it's possible Mr McDonnell is right, but I think he erred when he went on to say that people who voted to leave the European Union 'don't want a bankers' breakfast any more than I do.'

I quite fancy the idea of a bankers' breakfast, myself. Just for special occasions. A glass of something bubbly, a duck egg or two with a truffle grated over them, perhaps blinis with a little caviar and sour cream...

Sharing this enthusiasm is Welsh Conservative leader Andrew R T Davies, for, as he said as his party's conference in Birmingham a little while ago, 'mark my words: we will make breakfast - Brexit! - a success'!

Well, I suppose if you lay on a mixed buffet you can't really go wrong, can you.

Word Not To Use Today: Brexit. This is, obviously, a mash-up of Britain and exit. Apart from the danger of saying breakfast by mistake, using this word is likely arouse very strong passions and can indeed be Highly Explosive. Really best avoided if you want to keep your friends.

Saturday 19 November 2016

Saturday Rave: The Gettysburg Adress by Abraham Lincon

The main speaker at the opening of the military cemetery at Gettysberg was, of course, Edward Everett.

His speech was 13,607 words long, took two hours to deliver, and was reckoned (by its originator, at least) to be so important and magnificent that it was reproduced in print for all to admire.

After Mr Everett's long speech, the committee had arranged for the president to say a few words. Poor Abraham Lincoln had been feeling extremely unwell on his journey to Gettyburg - he was sickening for smallpox - but he gave a speech of just a few sentences that even now, after seven score and thirteen years, still raises the hairs on the back of the neck.

Four score and seven years ago...

Just listen to the rhythm of that opening phrase. It's like the ocean surging in to shore.

The Gettysburg Address is so short that there's room to type it out here in full. It was given in the middle of a desperate war by a sick man (though not one with wooden teeth: we know almost nothing about Abraham Lincoln's teeth). 

And it's fabulous.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that the nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we do not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 

Word To Use Today: Lincoln. The city of Lincoln in England probably got its name from the Brythonic (Celtic) lindon, meaning the pool. (The same word gave us Dublin, which means black pool.)

Friday 18 November 2016

Word To Use Today: steeple.

My town has a rather fine steeple:

Hemel Hempstead - St Mary's Church - - 407742.jpg
St Mary's Church, Hemel Hempstead

In fact my town has more than one, but that's the famous one. It was built in the 1300s and, at 200 feet tall, is one of the tallest in Europe.

(I wonder how many buildings going up today will still be standing in the year 2700?)

So, what is a steeple? Well, it consists of a spire (that's the pointy bit) plus any bits of the building (lantern, belfry, tower etc) underneath it.

A steeplechase is a race (sometimes on horseback) with both flat bits and obstacles to get over. It was originally run across country with a steeple serving as an easily visible finishing post.

A steeplejack is the person who'll mend or build your steeple (or, as this sort of work doesn't come along all that often, your tall chimney or other terrifying structure). Gulp.

Why is the thing called a steeple?

Why, because it's steep, of course.

Word To Use Today: steeple. The Old English word for this was stēpel, and the word steep is related to the Old High German stouf, a cliff.

Thursday 17 November 2016

Mr Knightley's housekeeper: a rant.

In moments of doubt there are various books to which mankind turns in search of succour, wisdom, and revelation.

(Moments? Who are we kidding?)

Mine tends to be the Complete Works of Jane Austen.

In the passage below, Mrs Elton, who manages to be just about the only person in Emma's Highbury too monumentally stupid to notice what a complete dork she herself is, is talking to Mr Knightley (the clue as to his own character, as so often, is in the name).

'If any difficulties should arise, my housekeeper is extremely clever.' [says Mrs Elton]
'I will answer for it, [says Mr Knightley] that mine thinks herself full as clever, and would spurn anyone's assistance.'
'I wish we had a donkey...'*

Now, Mr Knightley really does happen to be nearly as clever as he thinks he is, and he's certainly right on this occasion, because telling people you're clever than they are is unlikely to endear you to anyone. 

(Giving out the message that anyone who disagrees with you is stupid and/or immoral isn't going to help, either.) 

And, you know something? Just at the moment I can't help thinking that reading Jane Austen might have saved everyone an awful lot of trouble.

Word To Use Today: hodge. Mrs Elton's housekeeper is called Mrs Hodges (not a lot of people know that) which is a name used for a typical rustic. A hodgepodge is a confused mixture or a stew. The word comes from hotch, from the Old French hocher, to shake.

*This looks like a political statement, and if it were it would be rather clever. Actually, though, I try to avoid making political statements (because hey, what do I know?) so it's really just an accident.

Wednesday 16 November 2016

Nuts and Bolts: genericide

How do you get the dust out of your carpets?

I tend to hoover mine, even though the brand of vacuum cleaner I own is...actually, I haven't the faintest idea what brand it is. But I don't think it's Hoover.

In the same way, I doubt the aspirin in my medicine cabinet is anything to do with the company (Bayer) which first sold the drug under the trade name Aspirin, or that the rollerblades that were so fashionable when my children were teenagers were made by

A trade name that's used as a common noun in this way is called a generonym. It's obviously a sign of great success on the part of the named company, but it's a rare case of all publicity not being good publicity because it means that people have stopped recognising that a Hoover vacuum cleaner, for example, is anything special.

This part of the process is called genericide.

Do you remember walkmen? 

Right. And have you any idea at all who made yours?

Thought not.

Word To Use Today: aspirin, perhaps. This word was coined by the company Bayer AG using the scientific name for meadowsweet, Spirea ulmaria, from whence the stuff was extracted.

Illustration by Janus Kops (Public Domain in the US because it's old). 

The scientific name of Meadowsweet is now Filpendula ulmaria, though.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

Thing To Be Today, Possibly: swift.

The race, as irritating old people used to say at school assemblies, is not always to the swift.

Yeah, try telling that to a PE Teacher.

Still, I can see what they were getting at. Hares-and-tortoises; Mary Wesley, whose first adult novel was published at the age of seventy one; Earl Grey, who took up a new job as Prime Minister at nearly eighty. 

But, the thing is, who's to say that these tortoises mightn't have got more done if they'd got there sooner?

Anyway, to move (swiftly) on: there are birds that are, by definition, swift:

Apus apus -Barcelona, Spain-8 (1).jpg
(this is a common swift)

and there are also swift moths:

Korscheltellus lupulinus01.jpg

 Egyptian swift pigeons:


 a swift fox:

Swift Fox.jpg

 and some swift lizards:

(swift is this vivaparous lizard's name in Cheshire dialect. There are also several American swift lizards).

Apart from the swift pigeon, which merely looks a bit like a swift, they're all notably speedy.

But what about the rest of us? Is it a good thing to be swift?

Well, Elizabeth Coatsworth wrote a poem called Swift things are beautiful, but Lysander in Midsummer Night's Dream speaks of love as being swift as a shadow, short as any dream

Hmm...perhaps it'll best if we leave swiftness to the cheetahs and the dentists.

Thing To Be Today, Possibly: swift. This word comes from the Old English swiftan, to turn. This meaning can still be seen in the word swift being used for the cylinder of a carding machine and a device for holding skeins of wool.

The scientific name for a common swift (the bird) is Apus apus. Apus, rather endearingly, means no-feet.

Monday 14 November 2016

Spot the Frippet: a perigee-syzygy.

A syzygy is when the sun, the earth and some other celestial body lie in a straight line.

This might mean that we on earth can see the other celestial body, or not, depending upon the order in which they arrange themselves. 

Luckily for us, today we can see the other celestial body in question, and it's the most splendid and beautiful other celestial body there is (yes, our lovely moon). Not only that, but the moon is itself at its most splendid and beautiful because today the moon is at its perigee, which means it's the closest to the earth it's going to get (221,525 miles) and we haven't seen its like for nearly seventy years.

Today the moon will look the biggest it ever does (and it will look at its very largest when it is close to the horizon).

If you are not a fan of wonderful words like perigee-syzygy then, well, you are probably in the wrong place; but if you've got here by accident then you might like to know that this perigee-syzygy is also sometimes called a supermoon (the astrologer Richard Nolle coined this term in 1979. He also claimed that a supermoon is associated with earthquakes, but he's only an astrologer and so he plainly dear...poor New Zealand!).  

Anyway, I saw the moon rise yesterday, and it was amazing and beautiful, and today it will be even better. 

May the clouds part for you, and may the moon shine upon you, wherever in the world you may be.

Moon over Umaid Bhawan Palace, June 23rd 2013.,

Spot the Frippet: today's perigee-syzygy of the earth-moon-sun system. Syzygy comes from the Greek suzugos, yoked together, from zugon, yoke. Perigee comes from the Greek peri, near, plus gea, earth.

Sunday 13 November 2016

Sunday Rest: auspicious. Word Not To Use Today.

The word auspicious is the sort of will-he won't-he sneeze where you're confronted by an anxious and gasping face and you find yourself wondering whether to pretend you haven't noticed your companion appears to be dying, or else to dive for cover under the nearest table.


...(will he? Won't he?)...



Auspicious usually means favourable or hopeful (it's sometimes used to mean special, too, but that's likely to bring down scorn upon the speaker so I wouldn't advise it).

Fortunately, however silly the word auspicious might be, it doesn't mean that being hopeful ever entirely goes out of fashion.

It's just that sometimes it's very much harder work.

Sunday Rest: auspicious. This word comes from the Latin auspex, an observer of birds, from avis bird plus specere to look. A Roman fortune-teller watched birds including eagles, vultures, woodpeckers, owls and ravens, and he got his answers by both watching their flight and listening to their voices.

There have been owls hooting round here, lately. What they were saying I cannot say, but it sounded most like noooo...


Saturday 12 November 2016

Saturday Rave: the gift of names.

November 12th was a good day for Natural Historians, and Natural Historians are simply terrific for words.

How so?

Well, that without Mr Fuchs we wouldn't have the gorgeously sultry word fuchsia (and it would be much, much harder to spell, too); and without Sir Joseph Banks we wouldn't have the pleasure of the sprightly banksia flower.

Just think how much poorer would the world would be without Grévy's zebra (yes, you do say that gravy) or the voluptuous Przewalski's horse.

November 12 saw the births of three scientists who all gave their names to new life forms, and I dedicate this post to them and to all scientists who, in being so honoured, have enlarged the vocabularies of the world.

November 12 1729 saw the birth of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who of course gave us bougainvillea:

Bougainvillea Flower.jpg
Bougainvillea spectabilis

November 12 1793 ushered in Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz (I realise that my theory about easy spelling entirely falls down, here) who gave us the various varieties of eschscholzia:

Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve

 and 1896 gave us Salim Ali, the ornithologist and the owner of, thank heavens, a lovely short name, which has been given to a Salim Ali's swift. (Salim Ali also has a bat and Himalayan Forest Thrush: 

Himalayan Forest Thrush or Zoothera salimalii.jpg
Himalayan Forest Thrush, Zoothera salimalii

named after him).

I am grateful, in a way, that Johann Friedrich Eschscholzia's efforts mean that there is now an English word containing the consonant string schsch.

But I can't help hoping that the next great discovery is made by someone called Smith. Or Hobbs. Or Brown...

Word To Use Today: eschscholzia...or Californian poppy, I suppose, if you're a wimp. A Fuchs, by the way, is the German for fox.

Friday 11 November 2016

Word To Use Today: placebo.

The placebo effect is that wonderful thing, a scientific principle that's actually understandable. The idea is that if you give a poorly person something he thinks is medicine, then his confidence in the stuff will make him expect a recovery, and so hasten it.

It sounds a bit unethical, but it's not really any different from an old-fashioned cataplasm, or kissing someone better.

The placebo effect is so well-established as a scientific principle that it has to be taken into account when new medicines are tested. You have to get a bunch of people with the same illness, give one group the medicine and the others stuff which contains no medicine, without telling anyone which group is which. Then you look to see if one lot get better more quickly than the other.

What's sometimes called a placebo can also be tried on angry or grumpy people in order to soothe them/make them happy/make them rewrite his or her Will. A placebo here might take the form of a chocolate, a luxury holiday for two on a tropical island (sadly this is all too rare), or a nice cup of tea.

If you're a Roman Catholic then a placebo may be the evening service of the offices of the dead. 

That sounds a bit surprising, but there actually is a link: the clue's in the Roman bit.

Word To Use Today: placebo. The Catholic word came into English first, in the 1200s, because the first words of the vespers of the offices of the dead are Placebo Domino. Placebo means I shall please (and Domino means the Lord).

Thursday 10 November 2016

Calling the kettle black: a rant.

I salute Mark Rittman for coolness under pressure. In fact I think he deserves a medal for gallantry.

I like to think I could cope with burglars breaking into my house - hey, come to think about it, I have coped with burglars breaking into my house - but Mark Rittman's experience would have destroyed me.

It was all a problem, as so often, of communication. 

Mr Rittman has a Smarter iKettle. This kettle is so smart, in fact, that you give it its instructions via a smartphone rather than having to go to all the trouble of manually pressing an ON switch. This means, of course, that you can switch the kettle on from, like, anywhere in the world! 

Should you wish to.

As it says on the website: 'It makes you wonder what you will do with all your spare time'.

Well, wonder no longer. This is what Mr Rittman did with his spare time on the 11 October 2016: he spent most of it trying to persuade his kettle to listen to him.

His Great Trial started when he discovered, a little after 9 am, that his kettle couldn't obey his orders because it was busy undergoing a forced debugging. 

Several hours later, when (as we must assume) the kettle was successfully debugged, it became clear that the kettle's base could no longer communicate with Mr Rittman's phone at all. In fact, as it turned out, the kettle's base couldn't even communicate with the kettle

Still, after some encouragement from Mr Rittman, and a couple of hours of extra scanning, it did seem finally to make contact: unfortunately the surprise of this happening was so great that the base-station re-set itself and lost contact with everything again.

Well, Mr Rittman is a hero, so instead of jumping up and down on the thing as I would have done he patiently recalibrated it, during the course of which operation it became clear that the base-station had only been pretending to connect with the kettle all the time.

I would have thrown the thing through the window at this point, but Mr Rittman is a professional computer person and so he applied his intelligence to the problem. He realised that the problem wasn't really with the kettle or the base station, after all, but with the fact that neither spoke the same language as his smartphone. 

So he set out to act as interpreter.

Being an expert, it only took about eleven hours for Mr Rittman to get his kettle working (luckily he had a saucepan to keep him supplied with hot drinks in the meantime). 

Ever so sadly, by the time the kettle did boil I'm not sure he could find a mug to drink from, as by then his internet-enabled lightbulbs had decided to reset themselves...

A medal. The man deserves a medal for services to communication.

And probably a kettle with a switch on the side of it, too.

Word To Use Today: patience. This word comes from the Latin patientia, endurance, from patī, to suffer.

Wednesday 9 November 2016

Nuts and Bolts: good old Al.

Why do words begin with the letters AL?

Well, for one of several reasons. It might be because it means NOT-something-beginning-with-an-L. An example is the word aliterate (which describes someone who can read but is disinclined to do so). The a- bit means not in Greek. (Though of course the AL in the word almighty means, well, more or less the opposite: it's short for allAlways and alone are to do with ALL, too.)

A word might begin with AL because it means IN THE STATE OF something beginning with L, such as alive.

Alack is quite similar, though it's short for Ah! Lack!

A word might begin with AL because the word's borrowed from a foreign language. Aliyah, which means immigration to the Holy Land, is the Hebrew word for the act of ascending (for those who like such things, it has a cool plural: aliyoth). Albino comes from the Latin albus, which means white.

Quite a lot of these foreign words begin with with AL because they come from Arabic, and al is the Arabic for the. Some of these words are outstandingly cool, such as the sea fish the albacore, which comes from al+bakr, which means the young camel; albatross, from al+ghattās, means the white-tailed sea-eagle; alcohol, which comes from al+kuhl, the powdered antimony; alcove from al+qubbah, the vault or arch; and Almagest (a mediaeval book on astronomy or astrology) comes from al+majisti, which simply means the greatest.

Sadly, the word alkahest is the invention of our old enemy Paracelsus the bighead, who made up the word to describe the universal solvent sought by alchemists (there's another one! It comes from al+kīmiyā, the transmutation). It seems that he did this just because it looked really quite cool.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: one beginning with AL.

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Thing To Do Today: vote.

The late and much lamented Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy trilogy (yes, I know there are more than three books, but if Douglas Adams called it a trilogy...), tells us a story about a planet where the inhabitants are ruled by lizards. 

It's a successful democratic system, and the people are quite happy to have the choice of voting for either one lizard or another.

The instant reaction of a reader of this tale is to smirk at the stupidity of these people...

...and then the more reflective of us will say hang on...

So. Is there any point in voting, when one only has lizards to vote for?

Is there any point in voting, when all one can vote for is a future that may never exist?


It's because, whomever we're ruled by, the really important thing is that they're running scared.

Thing To Do Today: vote. Your vote today may be for anything from the ruler of your country to which channel to watch after dinner. Always worth doing.

The word vote comes from the Latin vōtum, a solemn promise (ha!) from vovēre, to vow. 

Monday 7 November 2016

Spot the Frippet: something tawny.

The trouble with spotting something tawny is that no one seems to be exactly sure what colour tawny is. It's defined in various dictionaries as light brown, reddish-orange, yellowish-brown, or darkish yellow - and more or less everything in between.

Well, here is a tawny owl:

File:Waldkauz-Strix aluco.jpg
photo by Andreas Trepte

which, as you can see, isn't actually one colour. And here:

File:Meadow Pipit by Jenny Jones.jpg
photo Jenny Jones

is the tawny pipit, which isn't one colour, either, so after those two examples you might decide that tawny actually means streaked. But how about tawny port?

File:Port wine.jpg
photo: Jon Sullivan

Or how about a Tawny Owl (NB the capital letters)? When I was a Brownie Guide, Tawny Owl was the assistant leader of our Brownie pack. 

As I recall, she was principally blue.

This confusion makes spotting something tawny either very easy indeed (anything vaguely brown) or to the scientifically inclined almost impossible (first define your terms!).

Well, all right, you scientists, I'll do my best.

Tawny is basically the same word as tannin, the stuff that's used to preserve leather. This is tannin powder:

And here it is in solution:

Tannin is found in tea (as well as various not-brown things such as red wine) but for the vegetable tanning of leather then you'll probably be using the bark of chestnut, hemlock, guebracho, mangrove, acacia. Terminalia species, or, especially, oak.

Well, that's good, I can see at least four oak trees from my window.

Job done, then. 


Spot the Frippet: something tawny. This word comes from the Old French tané, from taner to tan.

Sunday 6 November 2016

Sunday Rest: protease. Word Not To Use Today.

Is protease a campaign for the promotion of banter?

Well, of course not. (You say it PROH-tee-AYZ, as it happens, anyway, not pro-tease.) 

The word does look uncomfortably as if it's to do with teasing, though, doesn't it.

Protease is in fact dull but important. In fact, you use all the time. Protease is basically stuff for breaking down protein, as after your Sunday Roast (or, indeed, Thursday porridge).

Proteases occur in all organisms, and they do all sorts of stuff such as helping with blood clotting, and in the invertebrate prophenoloxidase-activating cascade. (No, sorry, I have no idea what that means: I just couldn't resist all the lovely long words)

So, protease is a good thing, yes?

Well, not entirely. Move forward the protease inhibitor, which is an antiviral drug that greatly slows down the growth of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus.

Yes. Important, isn't it.

So important, in fact, that I wish the person who'd discovered the stuff had come up with a much less confusing name.

Proteinase is, sadly, already taken for something else. But protase?

I'm not saying it's pretty, but at least it'd give us a bit more of a clue as to the contents of the tin.

Word Not To Use Today: protease. This word comes from protein, which comes from the Greek protos, which means first.  

Saturday 5 November 2016

Saturday Rave: Remember, Remember: traditional.

On November 5th 1605 a plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London was discovered.

When I say a plot, it wasn't just a plot: Guy Fawkes, an ex-soldier who'd been put in charge of the carrying out the attack, had got as far as stashing thirty six barrels of gunpowder, enough to blow the whole place sky-high, in the cellars.

And, when I say the Houses of Parliament, it wasn't just the Houses of Parliament he was planning to blow up because he was going to light the fuse during the the opening ceremony. This would have killed King James of Scotland and England, most of his nearest relatives, all members of the Privy Council, all senior judges, most of the aristocracy, all bishops, and all elected members of the House of Commons.

That's without thinking about the pages, lawyers, officials, cooks and trumpeters who attend such occasions.

Those of the King's family who weren't in the building were unlikely to have fared very well, either. No decision seems to have been taken on the fate of the young princes Henry and Charles, but their sister Elizabeth was to be installed as a puppet Queen.

What was the plot (it's known as the Gunpowder Plot) all about? Well, then as now, politics and religion were an explosive mix. In the case of the Gunpowder Plot the authorities were trying to balance the desirability of freedom of conscience with the rule of law; maintaining what they thought of as truth with not prosecuting others doing the same thing from a different prospective; trying to prevent acts of terrorism while maintaining friendly relations with nearby countries with large armies.

Sometimes the authorities got it horribly wrong by accident, and sometimes they were basically horrible on purpose.

Anyway, enough of the history lesson. What do people actually remember of all this?

Well, November 5th is the English Firework Night, when much gunpowder is exploded and many effigies burned; other than that there's just this rhyme, which is chanted triumphantly at this time of year by English children, even those who care nothing about politics or the theory of religion - which is practically all of them. 

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
With gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

File:Firework photomontage.jpg
photomontage November 5 2007 by Billy Hicks

Word To Use Today: treason. This word comes from the Latin trāditiō, which means handing-over. It's the same word, pleasingly, as gave us the word tradition.

Friday 4 November 2016

Word To Use Today: collywobbles.

Here's something to cheer us up in times of stress: collywobbles (the word, not the actual collywobbles).

Actually it might well be beyond the power of words to go as far as cheering us up all that much when we're suffering from collywobbles, but it must help a bit, anyway.

Collywobbles describe the feeling you get in an upset stomach, or sometimes the results of the looseness therein.

Such is the word's delight, however, that its use has been affectionately extended to cover those other feelings of abdominal unease such as might be caused by an incipient exam, the raising of the curtain to reveal a hungry audience, or the horrid anticipation of being found out.

However endearing the word may be, though, I hope that all the collywobbles you meet today are someone else's.

Word To Use Today: collywobbles. This word turned up in the 1800s. It probably started off as the Latin term for cholera, cholera morbus, but got a bit mixed up with colic and wobble on the way.

Thursday 3 November 2016

ban on Latin abbreviations: a rant

The British Government is to ban Latin abbreviations on all its electric documents, websites etc.

Oh, but I shouldn't use etc, obviously, because that's a Latin abbreviation. I need to use the English word instead. Which would be...

....would et cetera do? It's not an abbreviation. The trouble is that it is Latin, and the point of the ban seems to be to make things clear for non-English speakers and automated readers of text. 

I could use and so on, I suppose. It's certainly easy to read...though not at all easy to look up in a dictionary.

Still, that doesn't mean that most of our Latin abbreviations can't be replaced easily enough. Eg can be changed to for example, ie can be changed

...that is? Oh dear, that's necessarily quite the same, is it. And, again, if you don't understand it then dictionaries won't help you much. 

Still, there must be some English replacement word or phrase: in other words? No, that isn't always going to be right, either.

Tricky, isn't it?

The trouble is I have a horrible feeling that the reason we have these very common Latin abbreviations is that we don't really have an easy English phrase for what they say. 

And, anyway, is et cetera any less English than, say, the phrases bona fide or post script (and what, for that matter, is the English for bona fide and post script (and what is the English post script's abbreviation)?  

I'm not saying that Latin abbreviations shouldn't be banned.

I'm just not convinced that most of them in practice are actually Latin.

Word To Use Today: one that's English and Latin: eg impromptu, animus, bonus, duo, or odium.