This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 31 December 2016

Saturday Rave: The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

The obvious work to feature today is Robert Burns' Auld Lang Syne, a work traditionally sung on New Year's Eve, and which in its original form includes the phrase a right good willy waught, which adds considerably to the gaiety and bafflement of the season. (It's actually to do with drink.)

But, instead, here's a bit of Hardy. Thomas Hardy's brilliant at the countryside, and he's good at celebration, but there's a strong trail of melancholy running through his work that sometimes overwhelms the joy.

Here, you can almost see it happening: but it doesn't, quite.

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.


Though how you can tell the age of a thrush from looking at it I have no idea at all. 

Perhaps it was wearing an age badge. 

Or a cardigan.

File:Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) singing in tree.jpg
Photo of a Song Thrush by Taco Meeuwsen

Word To Use Today: thrush. This word is thrӯsce in Old English. Rather marvellously, it's related to the word throat.

Friday 30 December 2016

Word To Use Today: Friday.

Friday. It's a Friday

Yes, I know it doesn't feel like a Friday, but it is.

As it happens, it's quite unusual that today is a Friday (no, I know they come round every seven days, but December 29th is more commonly a Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday. Or, indeed, a Sunday or Monday. Only Wednesday is as bad at being December 29th as a Friday. This must be true because it says so on Wikipedia, but I do not pretend to understand it).

Friday is an important day for many religions of the world, some faiths feasting and some fasting, but I must just note that in Thailand Friday is blue. (I don't understand this, either.)

Some Fridays are famously unlucky, though Good Friday is supposed to be the best day for sowing your parsley.

Particularly enchanting is the report that the goddess after whom Friday is named used to (and perhaps still does) spin the clouds.

painting by John Charles Dollman

Isn't that lovely?

Word To Use Today: Friday. This word comes from the Old English Frīgedæg, day of Frige. Frige is rather like the goddess Venus, after whom Fridays in France, for example, are named.

Thursday 29 December 2016

The Tyranny of Bowls: a rant.

Being mildly bullied by the Government, the forces of the Law, criminals, social media, and, of course, our dear friends and family, is, sadly, inevitable.

There's no need, though, for us to put up with being bullied by inanimate objects. Plates, particularly. Or bowls. 

Mugs are possibly the worst culprits of all.

What's the point of having a plate which instructs us by the means of a message on its rim to fill it with PASTA?

And there's no ignoring these inscriptions, is there. I mean, eating a rice pudding in a bowl marked SOUP is going to skew the eating experience bewilderingly towards a risotto, however strong-minded we are.

Consider the utter olfactory confusion of drinking tea out of a COFFEE mug; or the horrid disappointment of a healthy green salad served on a plate labelled EGGS & BACON.

Still, I felt vindicated the other day. I was sent a catalogue from the china company Emma Bridgewater.

The picture of their lettered 'Black Toast' French Bowl couldn't show all the letters of the circular legend PORRIDGE... all it said was ORRID.

Quite right, too.

Word To Use Today: horrid. This word meaning unpleasant comes from the Latin horridus, prickly or rough, from horrēre, to bristle.

Wednesday 28 December 2016

Nuts and Bolts: the language of the arctic.

What do polar bears sing on holidays?

Freeze a jolly good fellow...

Okay, okay, sorry, not really. Well, what with the body language, the chuffs and the scent markings they don't have to.

photo taken by Ansgar Walk, CC BY 2.5,

For instance, if a polar bear wants to play with you it might wag its head from side to side, or it might stand up, paws by its sides and chin lowered onto its chest. (Mind you, 'playing' usually involves a mock battle, so I wouldn't hang around in the hope of a nice quiet game of monopoly. And if it does want to play monopoly, I'd let it win.)

If a polar bear calls hoping for a meal, he will approach slowly, circle around the food, and then do a gentle nose-to-nose kiss. How spookily human is that?

Polar bears chuff when they're worried; hiss and snort and lower the head as a threat; roar when angry; and growl in warning, which, when you come to think about it, is all pretty human, too.

If a polar bear wants to avoid annoying a larger bear, he will always stay down-wind of him. 

This is not very human behaviour, though I can't help feeling it should be.

Lastly, no one is quite sure about this, yet, but it's thought that bears might attract their mates by leaving a trail of scent. In the bears' case the scent is caused by their smelly feet. 

But, hey, the principle is human enough, isn't it?

Word To Use Today: arctic. This word comes from the Latin arcticus, from the Greek arktikos, northern (literally: of the [constellation of the] bear, from arktos, bear).

Tuesday 27 December 2016

Thing To Do Today: curry something.

Well, we've had our roast turkey/chicken/goose, we've eaten it cold the next day, and now, quite frankly, we'd be rather relieved if the cat stole it.

But sadly even the cat is turning up its delicate nose at the drying strings of meat attached to the carcase, and so we're going to have to give the stuff a jolly good currying.

File:Cashew Curry.JPG
photo by Prasadsovani

Onions, ginger, garlic, cumin, coriander, chilli; then whatever else you happen to fancy - coconut, tomatoes, cream, cashews; then more coriander (fresh this time); your cold meat or left-over veggie roast; and then suddenly the scent of it all is bringing everyone hurrying to sit down with a new and hearty appetite. 

What else can you curry? Goat; potatoes; a rug (this will not involve onions, obviously, but rather beating it briskly to clean it); leather (you curry leather after the tanning process to make the stuff flexible and waterproof); favour (where you are very very nice to someone with money or power); or a horse (which might involve onions etc, but will probably be part of its grooming routine).

And then what?

Then, heaven help us, we start thinking about food for the blessed New Year.

Thing To Do Today: curry something. The food word comes from the Tamil kari, which means sauce or relish. All the other meanings comes from the Old French correer, to make ready.

Monday 26 December 2016

Spot the Frippet: tip.

Today in Britain today is Boxing Day, when traditionally tradesmen are given a present of money. This present is called a Christmas Box, but during the rest of the year, of course, it's called a tip, which makes a nice easy thing to spot after the rigours of Christmas.

To make things even easier, tip is really four words. There's the sort of tip that's the far end of something, like a finger, or a mountain, or a knitting needle; there's the tip that's a payment given for services rendered (in Britain it's usually 10%, and only given if you get good service); there's the light/glancing blow tip, such as one might make when playing cricket; and (also in Britain) there's a rubbish dump tip where refuse has been, well, tipped.

This last meaning is widely and commonly transferred: a student's untidy room is a tip

File:Untidy room.JPG

This is vastly satisfying to point out, and I recommend it to friends throughout the world.

Spot the Frippet: tip. The end-of-something word comes from the Old Norse typpa; the dumping word is rather mysterious, but is related to topple, which comes from the Old Norse toppr, tuft; the hitting word is also mysterious, but might comes from the Low German tippen; and the payment-for-services word is probably related to tippen, too.

Sunday 25 December 2016

Sunday Rest: nice. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, here's a challenge for us all on Christmas Day: avoiding the use of the word nice.

Mnd you, the great Henry Tilney, of Northanger Abbey, has a lot of fun with it.

'But now really, [Catherine asks him] do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?'
'The nicest - by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.'
'Henry,' said Miss Tilney [that's Henry's sister], 'you are very impertinent'...
'I am sure,' cried Catherine, 'I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should I not call it so?'
'Very true,' said Henry, 'and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! - It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement - people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.'
'While, in fact,' cried his sister, 'it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise.'

Now, Isabella was of course quite right to tell Henry he is impertinent, but Henry was also right to point out that the poor word nice does for everything. It must be one of the laziest words in the language, and today of all days, which will see the results of a great deal of effort, it should be very firmly banned.

The potatoes, pudding, pies and presents are not nice. Neither is the cake, the sherry, or the paper hat. 

So just make a bit of an effort, okay? The parsnips are admirable, excellent, first-class, perfect, fabulous, splendid, magnificent, marvellous, sensational, superb, wonderful, gorgeous, lovely, heavenly, capital or possibly even top-notch.

Anything, almost anything, but nice.

Happy Christmas!

Word Not To Use Today: nice. This word arrived in English in the 1200s, when it meant foolish. It comes from the Old French nice, simple or silly, from the Latin nescius, ignorant.

Saturday 24 December 2016

'Twas The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore

The world is an utterly amazing place, and the ways we tellurians choose to describe it are extraordinary and, not seldom, quite hilariously bonkers.

So really the only difficulty with The Word Den is sometimes deciding which piece of imperishable genius to feature as a Saturday Rave. Today, however, the choice is so obvious that it's hardly a choice at all.

It's the night before Christmas, you see.

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her 'kerchief and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter's nap.

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St Nick.
More rapid than eagles his courses they came,
And he whistled and shouted and called them by name.

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! Dash away! dash away all!

As dry leaves that before a wild hurricane fly,

When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky,
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of toys, and St Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each tiny hoof.
As I drew in my hand, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St Nicholas came with a bound.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot,
A bundle of toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

His eyes - how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!

His cheek were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow;

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,

And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.

He was jolly and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle.
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,


Imperishable genius? Great poetry? Well, I love the idea of St Nicholas covered in soot, and The prancing and pawing of each tiny hoof, is a terrific image, so yes, I think it may be great poetry in its way, even if it's sometimes a rather sentimental, shoving-things-down-just-because-they-rhyme and a not-bothering-too-much-about-being-consistent-or-original sort of greatness.

But, hey, it's that sort of a time of year, isn't it?

Word To Use Today: stocking. This word comes from a dialect word, stock. Presumably one of those was a bit longer than a stocking.

Friday 23 December 2016

Word To Use Today: present.

Have you been bombarded with catalogues this year, all bursting with suggestions for things to buy as presents for Christmas?

My absolute favourite suggestion this year has come from the excellent nhbs. According to them, the perfect gift for Christmas is a volume entitled Provisional Atlas of the Aculeate Hymenoptera* of Britain and Ireland, Part 9. 

(I am particularly delighted by that Part 9. The Provisional adds a certain relish, too.)

Suggestions for presents from other catalogues have included a Trick Electric Shock Pen and an inflatable crown (one for the head, not the teeth, which would be even more bizarre).

Strangely enough not one single catalogue has offered to sell us what we in our household really want for Christmas, namely a Robinson Moth Collecting device:

photo by Donald Hobern

some artists' light bulbs, and a life-sized resin model of a lamb.

I make you a present of these suggestions. Just in case in helps.

Word To Use Today: present....hang on, present as a noun isn't listed in my Collins dictionary. How odd. Never mind, Oxford tells us that this word comes from the Old French phrase mettre une chose en present á quelqu'un (though that doesn't look like Old French to me). It means to put a thing into the presence of someone.

*Aculeate Hymenoptera are bees and wasps and ants.

Thursday 22 December 2016

Trolling: a rant.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la lah la la la la!
'Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la lah, la la la la!
Dress we now in gay apparel
Fa la lah la la lah la la la!
Troll the ancient Christmas carol
Fa la la la lah la la la la!

I feel completely let-down. Troll the ancient Christmas carol, indeed!

You know all those traditional Christmas songs that connect us with centuries of joy and festivity, antique mystery, and eternal faith? Made up by the flipping Victorians, most of them.

No, really. You know that very oldest one, O Come O Come Emmanuel, with its strange talk of branches and quarries and stuff that clearly means something entirely different? Those words were written by T A Lacey in 1906.

Ding Dong Merrily On High? Old tune, yes: words written 1924.

Hark the Herald Angels Sing? Not until Wesley wrote it in the 1800s, you didn't.

Good King Wenceslas? John Mason Neale, 1853 (though, again, it's an old tune). And Wencelas wasn't a king, anyway, he was a duke!

Oh, and worst of all: you know that lovely story about Silent Night being written because the mice nibbled the organ bellows?

...but no, no, I won't tell you that one. Some dreams are best left undisturbed.

So. Are there any properly old carols which do connect us with centuries of faith and feasting etc?

Well, God Rest Ye Merry, The First Nowell, and I saw Three Ships are a bit older than the ones above.

So I'm going to have a jolly good troll of those.

Word To Use Today: troll. This word has nothing to do with the Scandinavian demons, but is a word that means, variously: drawing a baited line through the water in order to catch a fish; posting deliberately annoying stuff online; and singing a chorus loudly and heartily. It comes from the Old French troller, to run about.

A rather longer and more measured two-part history of the Christmas carol can be found HERE and HERE.

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Nuts and Bolts: sumptuary laws.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly
Fa la la la lah, la la la la!
'Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la lah, la la la la!
Dress we all in gay aparrel - 

The language of clothes is ancient, but still of tremendous importance (you wouldn't believe how much fuss has been caused in Britain recently by the Prime Minister's leather - and expensive - trousers. If you want to read more about it, Google Trousergate).

Anyway, just think of how you know who's who in a Nativity play: Mary wears blue (the colour of nature, royalty, and peace), the shepherds wear tea towels (the genuine Arab head-covering is called a ghutra or keffiyeh, and the pattern can identify the wearer rather as Scottish tartan does), and the three kings, most oddly, wear pointy metal hats.

Clothes shout messages all over the place. Think of how you recognise the forces of the law; think of how you know who's in charge at a religious ceremony; consider how you might know that someone might be celebrating Christmas, or Diwali, or Hanukkah.

The history of the language of clothes could fill whole encyclopedias (and probably does), but here are a few random examples of those laws, called sumptuary laws, to stop people wearing whatever gay aparrel they like.

A husband in Ancient Greece could only wear a Milesian cloak if he was intent on cheating on his wife.

In Ancient Rome only the emperor was allowed to have a purple cloak trimmed with gold thread.

In Elizabethan England all men over the age of six (unless you were very important) had to wear a woollen cap on holidays. The idea was to stimulate the wool trade - and, presumably, to show who was very important.

In the Massachusetts Bay Colony you couldn't wear gold buttons unless you were worth two hundred pounds.

In Scotland after the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 the wearing of traditional highland dress was banned. On the other hand in Bhutan, currently, the wearing of traditional dress when visiting government offices is compulsory: not only that, but your scarf or kabney must be saffron if you're the king or chief abbot, but white if you're a commoner but not a government official.

I'm not exactly sure where I stand on sumptuary laws - I mean, I'm all for freedom of expression - but, oh, our right to exercise free choice at this time of parties must generate enough anxious electrical impulses in our poor little brains to light up every Christmas tree in Christendom.

File:Chéruit robe de garden party-sept1913.jpg
Illustration by Pierre Brissaud. (Plainly the wrong dress - and, by the look of it, the wrong time and place, as well.)

Word To Use Today: sumptuary. This word comes from the Latin sumptus, expense, from sūmere, to spend. A sumptuary law deals with consumption, so it might not be anything to do with clothes, but eating, say, swans.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

Thing To Do Today: be jolly.

Yesterday we considered decking our halls with boughs of holly, so it now follows, as the night the day, that we should cogitate sagely on whether 'Tis the season to be jolly.

And it is. It really is.*

Tcha! you may say (if say is the right word to describe the production of the sound tcha), up to your very eyeballs in extra food items no one really fancies much, drink that's going to make people far too honest, and presents that are doomed to hang about getting dusty until at last they fulfill their rightful destiny adding to the country's landfill problem.

Luckily for the British, though, we have a get-out clause about being jolly because for us it doesn't necessarily involve happiness. Someone British can be jolly unhappy, or jolly miserable, or even jolly cross.

If someone British is jolly drunk and wants, say, to tell the whole world about the tragic end of his relationship, he can even be jollied into cheering up and singing I will survive, instead.

The British can even go on a jolly, which is a pleasure-trip paid for by someone else, usually an employer. It might even involve sailing in a jolly boat which is flying the Jolly Roger - though it's more likely to involve a bad meal, slightly slurred speeches, and a lot of wondering about whether one has the courage to make a really radical career-change.

'Tis the season to be jolly? 


Oh, what the heck, it's better than being miserable, isn't it? Pass the mince pies, will you? All together, now! 

Fa la la la la, la la la LAH!

*Thing To Do Today: be jolly. This word comes from the Old French jolif, and before that probably from the Old Norse jōl, which means yule, the Christmas season.

Monday 19 December 2016

Spot the Frippet: holly.

Have you decked your halls with boughs of holly, fa la la la lah, la la la lah?


Well, I'm not surprised, for there are few shocks quite as unwelcome as treading on a cast-off holly leaf as you grope your barefooted way towards your first cup of tea of the morning.

Still, it's nice cheerful stuff, holly, especially the female trees (yes, holly has two sexes - and, just to show it's thoroughly up-to-date and non-sexist etc, the variety called Golden King is female, and Golden Queen male).

As if that's not odd enough, the female trees have bones (that's another name for the berries).

Magicians have used holly for ages to make a tea to cure measles, though holly berries are poisonous. (Mistle thrushes, though, will guard a holly tree's berries from all-comers.) Magicians have also applied mashed holly leaves (thoroughly mashed, I hope) to ease the pain of broken bones. 

Holly is said to protect against lightning, poison and goblins, and to promote fertility. But I wouldn't rely on that, either.

In any case, there's no need to find odd magical uses for holly, because it's wonderful just as it is. Apart from brightening up the winter forests, its shed leaves make a dry bed for hedgehogs, and the timber is very white and fine-grained and is used in furniture and engraving and walking sticks. It burns well, too (though it's said to be unlucky to cut holly trees down).

If you see a picture of a stage coach this Christmas, look at the driver's long whip. If it's a good one the stock will be made of holly, of four or five years growth of the second cutting, grown on stony ground.

What could be more marvellous and magical than that?

Spot the Frippet: holly. This tree grows all over temperate zones. If you're somewhere too hot or cold, then there's always this:

or this:

The word holly comes from the Old English holegn, and is related to the Old Slavonic kolja, prick.

Sunday 18 December 2016

Sunday Rest: aneroid. Word Not To Use Today.

Words ending in -oid remind me of three things: hemorrhoids and adenoids (for obvious reasons) and Yorkshire (because many traditional Yorkshire names sound as if they end with -oid (though admittedly they're usually spelled -oyd)).

Yorkshire: God's own county, the most beautiful place on Earth filled with the world's finest industrial heritage of dark satanic mills, and populated by the meanest-with-money, kindest, dourest, most friendly people anywhere.

Or so we're very often told, mostly by those who have left.

The word aneroid, though, has yet further horrors lurking in its depths for aneroid barometers used to be on the 'O' Level Physics syllabus. 

Now, I had an excellent Physics teacher, Mrs Whenray; I sat next to clever friends; I managed to borrow a very fine text book; and I was quite good at learning things off by heart. By these means, to everyone's amazement, I scraped through: but the experience has left a scar.

Which one was the aneroid barometer?

Well, you know something? If someone had at any point explained to me the derivation of the word, I would have known.

File:Aneroid Barometer (PSF).png
Illustration from Pearson Scott Foresman archives

Word Not To Use Today: aneroid. This word comes from French, from the Greek an- meaning not, and the Greek nēros, which means wet.

Saturday 17 December 2016

Saturday Rave: The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The English writer Penelope Fitzgerald was born a hundred years ago today.

She was a clever woman from a distinguished family, and this book, The Gate of Angels, is set in Cambridge in 1912.

Our hero is a young teacher at the university concerned with the mysteries of nuclear physics who finds that the strange and random nature of the sub-atomic world seems to be affecting the whole district:

How could the wind be so strong, so far inland, that cyclists coming into town in the late afternoon looked more like sailors in peril?

Even the cows, scrambling to get at the willow leaves on the wind-felled trees, stumble and fall, but they carry on munching, displaying their pale bellies carelessly to the world.

One afternoon our hero wakes up to find himself in bed in an unknown house. As if this isn't odd enough, there's an equally unknown woman beside him (and he's not at all that kind of a man).

The Gate of Angels is a wonderful book - funny, odd, delicious and short. Just as a bonus, it has a character based on the ghost-story writer MR James, too.

I can't give away the ending, can I? But I can say that, perhaps surprisingly for such a book, it really does have one. And a rather a magical one, too.

File:Simone Martini - The Angel of the Annunciation - WGA21448.jpg
Angel by Simone Martini, 1333

Word To Use Today: angel. This word comes from the Greek angelos, which means messenger.

Friday 16 December 2016

Word To Use Today: umbrageous.

Here's a word as thick as soup, and a good sustaining soup, too. can practically taste the richness.

As well as being swooningly luscious in itself, the word umbrageous is particularly good-value because it means two quite different things: it can describe someone who is always ready to be resentful or to take offence; or it can describe the leaves of trees that cast shade.

File:Tashkent Shady Alley.jpg
photo, believe it or not, of the desert city of Tashkent by Zlerman

In England at the moment, in deep winter, umbrageous foliage is mostly to be found on the occasional yew tree or in deep dark pine woods, but the thin and spiky leaves of these evergreen trees don't give the sense of heavy plenty the word umbrageous deserves. This is really one for you lot in the sunny southern summer.

A readiness to take offence, though...ooh, this time of year, when people are herded together for hours with all the people they manage to avoid the rest of the time, is exactly the season for that.

In fact, it's going to be rather tempting to try being rather umbrageous myself.

Word To Use Today: umbrageous. This word comes from the French ombrageux, from the Old French umbre, shade, from the Latin umbra, which means shade or shadow.

Thursday 15 December 2016

Christmas Party? Problem Solved!: a rant.

Party to go to? Wondering what to wear?

Is it really true that all-over sequins will present no danger of someone confusing you with the cold buffet salmon?

Will your habit of going into a fit of screaming agony at every attack of cramp really not take away the glamour of those killer heels?

Will the Rudolf-the-reindeer sweater with the light-up nose really not damage your promotion prospects?

Fear not, because all these problems are at an end. You can simply wear...

...a suit made entirely out of bubblewrap.

Yes, that's right. You can get them at for a very reasonable £17.99. The thing even features a modest hood and, as the catalogue so helpfully tells us, it is 'perfect for almost every occasion.'

So there we are. Social success is just a click away.

Do send pictures.

Word To Use Today: bubble. This word came to English from Scandinavia. My dictionary says it is of imitative origin. This sort of makes sense to me, though I have no idea why.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

Nuts and Bolts: obelus.

This is an obelus:


The obelus was originally used to highlight dodgy bits of a manuscript, especially the parts that were suspected of being by someone other than the original writer. It was invented to mark bits of Homer, but later it was used to flag bits of the Gospels.

Nowadays we usually come across this sign in maths, where it means division...

...unless you're in Norway, where they still use the obelus sign  ÷ in its old meaning of minus

Yes, I thought aaarrrggghhh when I found that out, too,

Thing To Use Today: an obelus. This sign was invented by a guy called Aristarchus to mark dodgy bits of Homer, but by 1659 it was being used to mean division (except, as we've seen, in Norway, and, until quite recently, in Denmark). The word obelus comes from the Greek word obelos, the sharp end of a lance.

Tuesday 13 December 2016

Thing Not To Be Today: garish.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.

So declares Jenny Joseph in her 1961 poem Warning. I've always found it a source of hope. One day I'll shake off the restraints of...well, sanity, quite possibly: but then sanity is like gold, beautiful and useful but so rare that you have to be able to make do without it for most of the time.

Anyway, garish. Garish is, my Collins Dictionary says, gay or colourful in a crude or vulgar manner; gaudy. Well, I don't mind looking gay (presumably gay in this context means happy, but, hey, I don't mind either way). But crude and vulgar...there's a point where crudity and vulgarity prove painful to the delicate sensibility.

There's also a point where it becomes repulsive, and even frightening. And we wouldn't want to worry anyone, would we.

I know they're fashionable, but those brass pineapple biscuit barrels are just going to have to go.

Thing Not To Be Today: garish. This word first appeared in the 1500s. It came from an obsolete English word gaure, which meant to stare.

File:Garden gnome with wheelbarrow-20051026.jpg
photo by Ioannes.baptista

Monday 12 December 2016

Spot the Frippet: perpend.

Here's a word that's given me cause to perpend (that is, weigh something carefully in my mind).

What it's made me perpend is, well, walls. Generally I've tended to regard walls merely as things not to walk into, or things to stop people catching trauma-inducing glimpses of me in my bath, or useful structures for stopping the roof from falling on my head.

But coming across the word perpend has made me look at the wall itself. 

A perpend stone is a long stone (or you can get similar bricks) that goes right from one side of the wall to the other, like some of these:

photo by Humphrey Bolton

(A perpend stone also called a tie-stone because it stops the wall falling apart.)

But even if the walls near you aren't quite as picturesque as the one in the picture then you can still spot a perpend, because a perpend is also a vertical line of mortar between two bricks.

File:Brick wall close-up view.jpg
photo by Pawel Wozniak

I think we can all smile a little wider for knowing that.

Spot the Frippet: perpend. This word comes from the Old French parpain, but the thinking word comes from the Latin pendere, to weigh.

Sunday 11 December 2016

Sunday Rest: nonecumene. Word Not To Use Today.

I'm going to avoid using this word (see above) because it's so boring I'm afraid I might accidentally fall asleep before I get to the end of it.

I mean, it doesn't even have any up-or-down letters to give it a bit of excitement.

The non isn't promising, either, is it. Whatever something ecumene is (yawn) then something non you-know-what is going to be, presumably, even less interesting.

But is it really less interesting?

Well, we don't know.


Because it's never been quite interesting enough for anyone to think it worth the trouble of finding out.

Word Not To Use Today: nonecumene. This word means place where no one lives. The map below shows these places as grey or white:

This word comes from the Greek oikoumenē, from oikoumenos, inhabited, from oikos, house or habitation.

Saturday 10 December 2016

Fame is a fickle food by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was born on the 10th December, 1830. 

She died in 1886. 

Eighty nine years later, in 1955, someone finally decided it might be a good idea to publish her poems in an 'unimproved' version.

So there we have proof: the world was ever quite quite bonkers.

It's true that Emily Dickinson was never an obvious celeb. She was never fashionable, and she became more and more reclusive as she got older. She was also unmarried and female, which at the time* didn't make her an obvious source of genius.

But genius there was in plenty. To give you some idea, this poem is numbered 1659.

Fame is a fickle food

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set

Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the Farmer's Corn -
Men eat of it and die.

Word To Use Today: Emily. Emily comes from the Roman family name Aemilius, which means trying to equal or excel, from aemulus, which means rival.

*at the time: ha!

Friday 9 December 2016

Word To Use Today: dimity.

I associate this word with mice in clean petticoats, but that's probably something to do with an early over-exposure to the works of Beatrix Potter (her little books were cheap enough to be Sunday School prizes, and at one time that was the main way I got hold of books).

Dimity is a beautiful word, prim-yet-energetic, and it's always been a favourite. You can hear it skipping as it goes. I suspect this is why, especially in Australia, it's been used as a girls' name.

Dimity is a strong cotton fabric, usually white (though it can have stripy patterns) with some thicker threads woven through it. Nowadays it's most usually used for upholstering beds or making curtains.

In former times dimity was used to make bustles, so my mice-in-petticoats idea isn't too far out:

Sadly for its wholesome image, a dimity also used to be a sort of almost-invisible upper garment worn by early and shy exponents of the strip-tease.

Which is still rather sweet, when you come to think about it.

Word To Use Today: dimity. This word comes from the Mediaeval Latin dimitum, from the Greek dimiton, from mitos, warp thread.

Thursday 8 December 2016

A souvenir of the coronation: a rant.

Sometimes context is everything.

Tributes have been made after the sad death of Margaret Rhodes, cousin and life-long friend of Queen Elizabeth II and by all accounts a sparky and dependable person.

The Telegraph of 29/11/16 reported:

There was a lack of formality about the place [Mrs Rhodes' house] that Her Majesty seems to have liked. Mrs Rhodes had in her downstairs loo...the stool that she sat on when in attendance at the coronation in 1953.

Well, I suppose if you were going to keep it anywhere...

Word To Use Today: stool. The Old English version of this word was stōl, which has an ancient Greek relation (also like our dear Queen), stulos, which means pillar. The object in question is called a stool because some people in the world have a habit of sitting on something rather like one when Nature calls.

Wednesday 7 December 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Parma.

How do things get their names?

Well, Maria Luisa of Parma, Princess of the Asturias:

File:Maria Luisa de Parma1.jpg
painting by Anton Raphael Mengs

came from a family which ruled the town in Northern Italy called Parma.

Parma cathedral:

File:Duomo di parma, controfacciata.JPG
photo by sailko

has, obviously, always been stituated in the place.

But what of other things called Parma?

Parma ham has to come from the Parma area (there's a law that says so), and Parma violets:

File:Favourite flowers of garden and greenhouse (Pl. 32) (7789059768).jpg

were first discovered in Italy (though the odd little violet-flavoured sweets called Parma Violets:

are British).

 But what about the Parma wallaby?

Parma wallaby crop2.jpg
photo by Benjamint444

You don't see many wallabies lolloping around Italy, do you.

And, for that matter, what about the cheese?

What, you haven't heard of Parma cheese? But you've heard of Parmesan, and a Parmesan is a native or inhabitant (or cheese) of Parma.

Finally, there are the apples. The name of the red varieties of apples called pearmain, of which the Worcester Pearmain is probably the best known: 

Worcester parmän.jpg

come from the Old French permain, a type of pear, and the best guess is that this word comes from the Latin Parmēnsis, of Parma.

So: what's your best guess about how the wallaby got its name, then? 

Nuts and Bolts: Parma.  The city's name is Etruscan, and the Romans borrowed its name for a round shield. 

Parma is the Australian Aboriginal name for this species of wallaby.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Thing Not To Be Today: awkward

Well, the thing is, what is an awk?

It's a word no longer heard much in polite - or any other - society, but it's been English since the 1400s. The latest reference to anyone using it in my OED is What we have hitherto spoken will seem to have less of auk in it, which is from N Fairfax's 1674 best-selling A treatise on the bulk and selvedge of the world wherein the greatness, littleness and lastingness of bodies is freely handled.

We've also sadly lost the words awkly (which could mean left-handed) and awkness.

They all mean things to do with wrong, perverse, irrational, inept - and, of course, awkward - and they're all words way overdue for a comeback as far as I'm concerned.

Thing Not To Be Today: awkward. The ward bit of this word is the same idea as is found in forwards, that is, in that direction. Awk probably comes from the Old Norse afug, which means turned the wrong way round.

Monday 5 December 2016

Spot the Frippet: trivium.

Ah, the joy of trivia!

Oh, the joy of discovering that texting 555 means laugh out loud in Thailand but boohoo in China (the Thai for five is ha, but in China it's ).

Of knowing that cravats are named after Croatia.

Of where to wear a sautoir or a Windsor knot.

For what you'd use a Dudley fluter.

Or, perhaps the most satisfying piece of trivia of all, the difference between trivia and trivium.

Just gloriously, gloriously satisfying.

Spot the frippet: trivium. In Latin, trivia is the plural of trivium. In English, trivia can be either singular or plural and means unimportant details or facts, but trivium is something entirely different, for trivium is the lower three of the seven liberal arts, namely grammar, rhetoric and logic. (The rest are the quadrivium.) Trivium is the Latin for a junction of three roads (though it also means crossroads), and from there triviālis came to mean belonging to the common streets, and from there arose our English word trivia. 

While I'm here, cravat comes from the Serbo-Croat Hrvat, Croat, a garment worn by the Croat army in the Thirty Years War. A Windsor knot is made in a necktie, and a sautoir is a neck ornament, originally one where the centre formed an X or saltire.

File:09267 sautoir Droit humain.jpg
photo by G.Garitan

Sunday 4 December 2016

Sunday Rest: septicidal.

Some words spring traps for the honestly ignorant (which is, let's face it, all of us who are honest). There's autarky, for instance, which is nothing, despite the sound of it, to do with the rule of auts.

Septicidal is a particularly mean example of this sort of a word because not only is the -icidal bit is really nothing to do with killing, but the sept- bit is nothing to do with either decay (as in septicaemia) or the number seven (as in September),* either.

Septicidal is also a word where consulting the dictionary definition is almost certain to involve another search to discover what on earth it's going on about. Here's the Collins definition:

adj Botany (of a dehiscence) characterised by splitting along the sides of the seed capsule.

...and then, to make things even worse, you discover that dehiscence isn't in the dictionary

Anyway, this is septicidal dehiscence:

By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

That picture is of the plant Ledum palustre, or wild rosemary (though it's really a rhododendron).

Anyway, as it happens the septi- bit in septicidal comes from septum, which is a dividing partition in a living thing. The -cidal bit does come from the idea of killing, though nothing at all hurt, let alone killed.

Ah well. Accusing botanists of being over-dramatic is a novelty, at least.

Word Not To Use Today: septicidal. The -cidal bit comes from the Latin caedere to kill. Septum comes from saeptum, a wall, from saepīre, to enclose.

*Okay, September isn't a great example, is it? Errr...septet, perhaps (which is like a quartet, but nearly twice the size).