This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 28 February 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: ghastly.

Ghastly has become sadly unfashionable as a word. Is there anyone, even the oldest old lady, who still proclaims more or less everything to be ghastly, from the propensity of actors in BBC dramas to mumble, to the lack of parking in the Old Town?

Is there still anyone who, when asked tenderly how they are feeling, feebly mutters ghastly! as they nurse their hangover, cold, or stubbed toe?

Is there any way we can use ghastly without sounding at least hundred-and-six years old? 

Well, we can still use it to mean pale-faced (I've always associated ghastly in this sense with ghostly, and that similarity is not entirely a coincidence). 

Best of all, I think, is to go back a couple of hundred years and use ghastly to mean in a horrible or hideous manner.

So that's got the Eurovision Song Contest sorted, hasn't it.

Thing Not To Be Today: ghastly. This word comes from the Old English gāstlīc, spiritual, which is related to gāst, which gives us ghost, and goes right back to the Sanskrit hēda, fury or anger.

Monday 27 February 2017

Spot the Frippet: something roman.

There are still some people of the ancient Roman Empire around:  

File:Roman skeleton.jpg
Skeleton at Fishbourne, West Sussex. photo by Jaguar

though I have to admit that none of them are exactly perky.

Modern Romans, i.e. people who live, or were born, in the city of Rome, are much friskier:

the Roman Isabella Rossellini (with David Lynch (though he was born in Montana))

There are also Roman Catholics, who can come from anywhere (the Pope comes from Argentina). Then there are Roman arches, blinds, candles, collars, noses, numerals, and snails:

File:Helix pomatia, Burgundy snail, Roman snail, edible snail or escargot 5.jpg
photo of Helix pomatia by Hsp90

But of course you don't need to look out for any of those because two different roman things have been dancing all the time before your eyes: this post is written in the roman alphabet and (except for the italics) it's also written in roman type.

Extra points if you can think of a roman (a French mediaeval verse narrative), a roman à clef (a novel in which real people are depicted under pseudonyms) or a roman-fleuve (novel or series of novels about a group of people over several generations).

Spot the Frippet: something roman. The word roman means to do with Rome, of course, and the city was called after its founder and first king Romulus...unless, as some say, it was the other way round and Romulus was named after Rome. In that case the Rome comes from Rumon, the old name for the River Tiber; the Etruscan ruma, which is to do with teats (upon which Romulus and his twin sucked after they were adopted by a wolf); or from the Greek rhōmē, which means strength.

Sunday 26 February 2017

Sunday Rest: stomatology. Word Not To Use Today.

This is an important word. I don't deny that. If it didn't exist then doctors would have to coin a word that meant the same thing.

Both bits of the word are impeccably Greek, too: it's not a lumpy Greek/Latin hybrid like, say, the word television*.

And it's easy enough to pronounce.

So what's wrong with it?

Well, the fact that it doesn't mean to do with the stomach, as anyone might think, but to do with the mouth.

File:Ostrich, mouth open.jpg
photo by Donarreiskoffer

It's all very well the doctors showing off their Greek, but, good grief, it would have been nice if all that medical lot had noticed that most of us have been talking English for a while, here.


Word Not To Use Today: stomatology. Stoma means mouth in Ancient Greek. The logy bit comes from the Greek logos, which means word.

*Not that I have any objection in practice to hybrid words. I mean, in the case of television, an all-Greek version might have given us telescope, which would have been confusing. Though I suppose an all-Latin version, perhaps something like longivision, would have worked. 

Actually, I quite like longivision.

Saturday 25 February 2017

Saturday Rave: the works of Anthony Burgess.

All novels are experimental, said Anthony Burgess, who was born a hundred years ago today. It's not quite true, but it's a nice idea, and perhaps they should be.

I'm very fond of, and recommend, Burgess's lovely Enderby Books, but Anthony Burgess is most famous for having written the novel upon which the film A Clockwork Orange was based. This is what he said about it:

The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d'esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die. I should not have written the book because of this danger of misinterpretation.

There we are: a clear and convincing explanation, in the beautiful prose that's representative of Burgess's work. Burgess is instinctively humane and often funny, but above all, I think, elegant.

Here's a bit from that book he repudiates as a knocked-off jeu d'esprit:

The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came a violin solo above all the other strings, and those strings were like a cage of silk around my bed. Then flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum, into the thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss, my brothers.

So just imagine what Burgess can do when he's actually trying...

Word To Use Today: gulliver. A lot of the made-up words in A Clockwork Orange are based on Russian (he also knew Malay, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Welsh, as well as some Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese Swedish and Persian). Gulliver here means head, and comes from the Russian golová.

Friday 24 February 2017

Zingiberaceous: Word To Use Today.

I rather suspect this post may be a waste of time: I mean, how could anyone resist using the word zingiberaceous?

Could there possibly be a more magical word? Is there anywhere a word more likely to conjure up cascades of diamonds, singing carrots, sarcastic unicorns, or castles made entirely of strawberry mousse?

The answer to that question, is, plainly, no.


(The g sounds like the j in joyful.)

If there are those among you who do not believe in magic then I feel sorry for you, but all the same you will probably like to know that the official use of the word zingiberaceous is to describe something to do with plants of the ginger family. 

These include the plants which give us turmeric and cardamom: and, obviously, ginger.

Now, even the least imaginative of us can't deny the culinary magic added to even the humblest of ingredients by ginger, turmeric and cardamom.

Fancy a curry?

That would be absolutely zingiberaceous!

image from McCormick and Company

Word To Use Today: zingiberaceous. This word comes from the Latin for ginger, which is zingiber.

Thursday 23 February 2017

A bone of contention: a rant.

Last Friday, at the fishmonger section of my Tesco supermarket, I saw a sign:


File:Pangasius meat.jpg
photo by Brücke-Osteuropa

My head still hurts, a bit.

Word To Use Today: fillet. This word means - well, it means lots of things, but as far as fish is concerned it describes a portion that's been boned.*

Word To Use Today: The word fillet comes from the Old French filet, from fil, thread, from the Latin fīlum.

*I realise to my delight that the word boned is a contranym, that is, a word that means both itself and its own opposite. A boned fish had had the bones taken out, but a boned corset has had bones put in.

Possibly the writer of that notice was wearing a corset... 

...mind you, the nice person behind the fish counter was quite generously built, so I doubt it was him.

Wednesday 22 February 2017

Nuts and Bolts: sui generis.

Sui generis is Latin and means of its own kind: basically, in a class of its own, or unique.

You say it soo-I jenneriss.

It has various meanings in philosophy and biology etc, but as far as language goes it describes a work which doesn't fit into any particular genre.

These are rare, almost impossible to get published, and must annoy librarians very much indeed.

The other problem with them, of course, is that if they're successful then they end up starting their own genre and then ten-to-one in half a dozen years they're eclipsed by their offspring.

Ah well.

Phrase To Consider Today: sui generis. You know you've got one of these when someone describes it as seminal and then you realise it's never really produced any offspring. Like James Joyce's Ulysses, perhaps.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: livid.

I stood, my heart pounding, as the door opened to reveal the massive staggering figure of the steward. The livid spots on his seamed cheeks bespoke a horror which chilled me, as though death itself, emanating from the doomed figure, had wrapped me in its clammy embrace...

...hey, you know something? I get paid good money not to write stuff like that.

It's rather a pity, really.

Anyway, livid. Mostly when we're livid we're absolutely furious, and it's true that sometimes we do need to be. Mostly, though, even when the really annoying things happen, like people not putting their shoes on the shoe rack, or people stirring their cup of coffee wrong (the spoon has to scrape along the bottom of the mug!) they aren't quite worth being livid about when an exasperated snarl is quite as effective.

But what about those livid cheeks (see above?). The steward is dying, not angry (though, fair enough, I don't suppose he's actually all that pleased about it.) What does livid mean here?

Well, people usually go red with anger, but livid here usually means either grey, or the bluish colour of a bruise. A livid sky will probably be an ugly orange-and-purple. But livid can occasionally mean flushed red (which gives us the connection with anger) or, on the other hand, deathly pale.

The great thing is that, when we read the passage above and didn't quite know what livid meant, well, we're in good company - because neither does anyone else.

Thing Not To Be Today: livid. This word comes from the Latin līvēre, to be black and blue, or to be envious or spiteful. 

Monday 20 February 2017

Spot the Frippet: lug.

A lug is a projecting thing that fits into a slot. The idea is to keep a door closed, or to stop something falling apart.

Battery compartments usually work on this sort of a system, and they are more or less everywhere. Try the back of a clock.

If you're a sea fisherman then you might use a lug (short for lugworm) as bait. These creatures live under the sand doing not very much and are apparently very tasty. If you're a fish.

File:Lugworm cast.jpg
Signs of lugs: photo from wikipedia uploaded by  Nveitch

Here's an actual lug:

File:Wattwurm alt.jpg
photo by M.Buschmann

lug is also a large basket for fruit or vegetables, or a square sail hoisted on a yard:

File:Lug Sail.png
illustration from Yosemite~commonswiki 

But easiest for most of us to spot is a good Northern British lug, which is an ear (or a stupid man - but this, of course, much more difficult to spot...possibly.). The derived word lug'ole (ear hole) is widely used throughout Britain.

Monday is not a day for verbs, but lug as a verb, meaning to carry effortfully, has given us luggage, which is, rather sweetly, a mixture of baggage and lug.

Spot the Frippet: lug. The verb to lug might be something to do with the Norwegian lugge, which means to pull by the hair (honestly, those Vikings!). The sail might come from the Middle English lugge, pole, or, like most of the other meanings, be to do with the Middle English lugge, meaning ear. 

Where the worm sort of a lug got his or her name is, sadly, still a mystery.

Sunday 19 February 2017

Sunday Rest: mediatise. Word Not To Use Today.

No one, surely, would call mediatise a pretty word, but one has to admit that it's useful to have a verb to describe the way a product or idea can be promulgated hither and, as they say, yon.

Unfortunately the word mediatise isn't anything to do with either the media or promulgating things. It means to annex another state while allowing its former ruler to retain his title and some degree of authority.

This is yet another reason why I'd be jolly glad if the wretched word just bit the flipping dust.

Word Not To Use Today: mediatise. This word comes from the French médiatiser, from the Latin mediāre, to be in the middle.

Saturday 18 February 2017

Saturday Rave: Steptoe & Son.

Alan Simpson died earlier this month at the age of eighty seven. He was with his friend Ray Galton a writer of comedy, of which the most celebrated examples are probably Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son.

Steptoe and Son finished in 1974, but it's still remembered (certainly by me) with affection and awe. It wasn't the most hilarious comedy, nor the most ground-breaking technically, and it certainly wasn't the most varied. It was usually set in one room of a disgusting house attached to a rag-and-bone yard, and the two main characters, father and son rag-and-bone men Albert and Harold Steptoe, were mostly all you got (the series started out as a one-off play for a series called Comedy Playhouse: when the other plays in the series ran over budget, Galton and Simpson needed to write something cheap).

Steptoe and Son is full of bitterness and disappointment and poverty and thwarted hopes and revenge. Both main characters are crazily cobbled-together collections of flaws - one foolishly snobbish, one whiningly manipulative - and they should have been thoroughly dull and unlikable, but the magnificent actors (Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett) and the precision writing meant the audience couldn't help but care deeply for these two filthy, resentful, unhappy but never-quite-defeated failures.

Here's a shortish clip from YouTube. The large cast makes it not really typical of Steptoe, but it's wonderful, all the same.

Plus ça change...

Thanks, Galton and Simpson, and bless you both.

Word To Use Today: comedy. This word comes from the Greek kōmōidia, from kōmos, village, and aeidein, to sing.  

Friday 17 February 2017

Word To Use Today: cubit/qubit.

Ah, so that's how Noah got all the animals into the ark.

The thing is, the ark was three hundred cubits by fifty by thirty, right? And a cubit is the distance from your elbow to the tip of your middle finger, which in my case is about seventeen and a half inches, or forty four and a half centimetres in your money. So therefore the ark was about one hundred and thirty three metres long, or roughly half the size of the Titanic.

File:Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat by Simon de Myle.jpg
painting by Simone de Myle

Now, that clearly isn't big enough to get all the animals in, especially fourteen at a time (read the original!) but how about if those measurements weren't in cubits, but in qubits?

A qubit is...well, an ordinary bit is the basic unit of computering, and consists of a switch that can be on or off. (This is usually written down as 1 or 0, but is really more of a true or false sort of a thing.)

qubit is more or less the same as a bit, except that it works on a quantum level (it's all right, no one really understands about quantum levels: just accept that it works, okay?). The difference between a bit and a qubit is that instead of being either on or off, it's both on and off at the same time.

Well, I said that no one really understands it.

Anyway, back to Noah: could a confusion between a cubit and a qubit help with the animals-fitting-in-the-ark thing?




Word To Use Today: qubit/cubit. Cubit comes from the Latin cubitum, which means elbow. The concept of the qubit was introduced by Stephen Wiesner in 1983, but the word was probably coined by Benjamin Schumacher in 1995 - and, yes, calling it a qubit was basically a joke.

Thursday 16 February 2017

A Russian Entanglement: a rant.

I saw this headline in the Telegraph Online recently - in fact, I saw it on the day after Mike Flynn, the US National Security Adviser, resigned.

Concern about Russia's entanglement with Donald Trump won't end with Mike Flynn's resignation

Gosh, they're a bit behind the news, I thought. He already has resigned.

I checked once or twice to see how long it would take them to take the headline down: but they never did.

Eventually, I worked out why. The headline is talking about a concern that won't end as a result of the resignation, not saying that a resignation won't be the consequence of the concern.'s jolly difficult, this language stuff, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: resignation. This word comes from the Old French resigner, from the Latin resignāre, to unseal, invalidate, or destroy.

Wednesday 15 February 2017

Nuts and Bolts: pentastich.

Pentastich is such a nice, silly, pompous-looking word. Even better, it means something really quite simple.

A pentastich is a poem, or distinct chunk of a poem such as a verse, that has five lines.

Like this:  

A woman who thought it a wheeze
To take BAs, MAs and LitDs
Collapsed from the strain
That way making it plain
She was killing herself - by degrees.

Boom boom!

There are of course more serious versions of the pentastich, but you get the idea.

Thing To Recite Today: a pentastich (you say the last bit STIK). The penta bit is from the Greek penta, five, and the stich bit comes from the other Greek word stichos, which means row, line, or verse.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: pungent.

What do you smell like this Valentine's Day? 

Roses? Lavender? Cedarwood? 


Whatever it is, I assume you're going for some subtly alluring scent rather than a sinus-scouringly pungent one (there 's nothing worse than a pungent unguent).

Pungent things, of course, have their place (and it seems to be Sweden, where the official advice about the traditional delicacy surströmming, a type of fermented herring, is said to be to open the tin outdoors, but to eat the stuff indoors because of the flies), but for anyone who cherishes words the chief matter of interest is, of course, what exactly is a pung?

Well, it's a horse-drawn sledge used in North America.

And what's that got to do with the word pungent?

Sadly, absolutely nothing whatsoever.

Ah well.

Thing Not To Be Today: pungent. This word comes from the Latin pungens, piercing, from pungere, to prick, The word pung is short for the Algonquian tom-pung, which is related to our word toboggan.

Monday 13 February 2017

Spot the Frippet: harbour.

The sad wrecks of the ships Hesperus and the Deutschland have been rendered immortal in poems by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

But what about the Steamer London?

Well, that was described by that great man of letters William Topaz McGonagall:

'Twas in the year of 1866, and on a very beautiful day,
That eighty-two passengers, with spirits light and gay,
Left Gravesend harbour, and sailed gaily away
On board the steamship "London,"
Bound for the city of Melbourne,
Which unfortunately was her last run,
Because she was wrecked on the stormy main,
Which has caused many a heart to throb with pain,
Because they will ne'er look upon their loved ones again.

Well, quite. 

(You can find the whole poem, if you're feeling strong, HERE).

The harbour from which the Steamer London set out was a seaside one like this:

File:Brixham Harbour from King Street - - 1772678.jpg
photo of Brixham Harbour by David Dixon

(I've put in because it's so pretty, though Gravesend Harbour actually looks like this:

photo by Clem Rutter, Rochester Kent.)

Luckily for most of us, we don't need to go to the seaside to find a harbour, for a harbour can shield us, from, well, most of the natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

We might find a harbour at home, or with friends; in libraries, with families, in baths, in books...though of course one man's harbour  may well be another man's torture-chamber.

So: where's your harbour?

And where's your Steamer London?

Spot the Frippet: harbour. This word was originally nothing to do with the sea or ships. It comes from the Old English herebeorg, from here, army, and beorg, shelter. Rather sweetly, it's related to the Old High German heriberga, hostelry.

Sunday 12 February 2017

Sunday Rest: disintermediate. Word Not To Use Today.

To mediate means to put yourself between quarrelling people or factions in an attempt to get them to agree - or, at least, to stop quarrelling.

To intermediate means...hang on, that's the same thing, isn't it (though of course you can also use intermediate as an adjective to mean in-between).

So, disintermediate: that must mean to get yourself out of the way so that the opposing forces can smash each other to pieces, yes?

Well, not exactly. It's used in finance to describe getting rid of the middle men such as banks and brokers. 

It might even be a good idea - but it's still a rubbish word.

Isn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: disintermediate. This word comes from the Latin mediāre, to be in the middle.

Saturday 11 February 2017

Saturday Rave: listening to the world.

What do these lines have in common?

There's something rotten in the state of Denmark.

It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.

No democracy can exist unless each of its citizens is as capable of outrage at injustice to another as he is of outrage at injustice to himself.

As you probably know, these lines come from, respectively, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Aristotle. As you will also probably know, this means that they were written by very different people living in very different times.

One writer was principally a playwright, one a novelist, and one a philosopher. 

Two of them wrote in English (and England) - but what do they all have in common?

Well, on this day in 1978 the works of Shakespeare, Dickens and Aristotle were all removed from the censorship list of The People's Republic of China.

And so today we can celebrate a billion people having been given an extra source of wisdom and joy.

Word To Use Today: China. This word has only been English since 1555, and to start with it was the name of the people. Where the name came from before that is still a matter of argument.

Friday 10 February 2017

Word To Use Today: lemony.

What's lemony?

Well, lemons, obviously. Also lemonade, lemon grass (Cymbopogon citratus), a scented-leaf geranium (Pelargonium limoneum) lemon curd, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis):

File:Lemon Balm Plant.jpg
photo by Marlene Bertrand

 lemon squash, lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora):

File:Aloysia citrodora 002.JPG
photo by H Zell

 the flowers of the lemonwood tree (Calicophyllum candidissimum):

File:Calycophyllum candidissimum, known as Degame. (9406928384).jpg
photo by Dick Culbert

...and irritable Australians.

No, really: lemony is Ozzie slang for irritable or angry. 

Brilliant, isn't it?

I wonder of Lemony Snicket knew?

Word To Use Today: lemony. This word comes from lemon, of course, which comes from the Arabic laymūn.

By the way, a snicket, in Northern England, is a narrow walled or fenced passageway.

Thursday 9 February 2017

Like a Native: a rant.

It's surely only polite to pronounce place names as the locals do.

Even if it would be ridiculous to speak of Napoli or Venezia or München or Moskva when in an English-speaking country (or to fail to pronounce the s on the end of Paris, or to pronounce the x in Mexico), when you're visiting a place it's just simple good manners to do one's best with the lingo.

The Welsh for Wales, Cymru, should be pronounced K'mree. The Welsh for Angelsey*, Amlwch, is pronounced...oh dear, it's hard to explain, but it starts off Am, as expected, and the rest is like the word look, but with the final sound more like the ch in loch. 

You can hear it said properly HERE.

Welsh is actually easy once you've learned the rules. In Cwmbach, for instance, the w and ch sounds is the same as in Amlwch, and the rest is as you'd expect. W (when used as a vowel) and ch are, as far as I know, always the same as in Amlwch.

Which brings me to Wr Twr. This is quite a common place name on Welsh maps, and I have spent many years idly wondering, first, why there were so many places with the same name, and, second, what its significance might be. 

Books of reference were no help, so one day we drove especially to Wr Twr to see if we could guess what was so special about it.

Sadly, all we found there was a water tower.



Word To Use Today: one pronounced as a native. Noo Yuk, perhaps.

*I should have said that Amlwch is a town in Anglesey, not a name for the island itself.


Wednesday 8 February 2017

Nuts and Bolts: lemma

When you have a bunch of related words - like am, is, was - then the lemma is the one you look up in the dictionary. 

In the above example the lemma is, of course, be.

Identifying an English lemma is not usually as difficult as that, of course, but it can be tricky in Russian, say, where words tend to come in many different forms depending upon the work they have to do. 

Lemmas can also be awkward in languages like Irish, where the first letter of some words sometimes changes.

The lemma tends to be the shortest form of the word - even if, as in Arabic, the shortest form of a verb is the third person plural  masculine past tense.

The word lemma itself has two alternative plurals, lemmas and lemmata, but the word you'll find in the dictionary is lemma. And so lemma, rather neatly, is itself a lemma.

Lemma has another language-based meaning which describes the moment when someone is wanting to say something and they have the concept they need in their heads, but haven't got round to finding the actual word for it, yet.

Mind you, this sort of lemma might not actually exist.

Word To Consider Today: lemma. This word is the Greek for premise, and comes from lambanein, to take (as in to take for granted).

PS This happens to be The Word Den's two thousand, two hundred, and twenty second post. 

Do feel free to celebrate.

Tuesday 7 February 2017

Thing To Do Today: have pity.

There's more than one place in England called Pity Me, but the one I know is in County Durham. It was there that I was told about the bus driver, who, encountering a priest who asked for Pity Me, Single, replied Pity me, Father: married!

Well, it amused me at the time.

Where the name of the place Pity Me originates, whether from French or Latin or English, is discussed HERE, but the story I like best is that the monks taking St Cuthbert to his final resting place in Durham Cathedral dropped his coffin, upon which an irritated voice from the coffin ordered the monks to pity me.

Pity seems to have gone out of fashion lately in favour of empathy. I think this is, well, a pity. I know the saying no one wants to be pitied, but, as Charlie Brown says, there are times when I'll take all the pity I can get.

The great advantage of pity, however, is that it encourages us to take pity on others. 

Of course empathy (and its rather old-fashioned sister sympathy) encourage us to do something, too, but it's mostly to admire our own sensitive navels.

So go on: put a penny in the box.

Well, it's a start, isn't it.

Thing To Do Today: have pity. This word comes from the Old French pité, from the Latin pietās, duty.

Monday 6 February 2017

Spot the Frippet: pith.

Well, this is an easy spot, isn't it? Just scrape the coloured bit off a citrus fruit and there's the pith.

As for a pith helmet, that explorers used to wear to protect their heads from the sun: 

File:Pith helmet - Royal Canadian Military Institute - Toronto, Canada - DSC00325.jpg
photo by Daderot

presumably that's stuffed with orange skin (I mean, the thing does seem to come with its own juicer).

Sadly, though, this isn't the case. Pith helmets are either made of cork or stuffed with the insides of the sola plant (hence the pith helmet's other name of sola toupee*, which I always assumed was something to do with toupees and the word solar, but isn't**).

Even more sadly, the bits of the sola plant that are used to stuff a pith helmet aren't really pith at all, but a very soft and light sort of wood. Pith is the spongy stuff sometimes found inside youngish shoots, importantly those of the sago plant, which, after processing (it's poisonous) gives us a milky pudding.

The soft insides of a bone or feather can be called the pith, too - and so can the centrally important part of an argument.

Mind you, spotting one of those in this post will be quite impossible.

Ah well!

Spot the Frippet: pith. This word comes from the Old English pitha.

PS: A reader has contacted me via Twitter to point out that sago only makes a milky pudding if you add milk to it. This is true. 

*I'm obviously still confused. I meant topi, here.

**Topi is the Hindi for hat, and toupee is from the Old French toupet, forelock.

Sunday 5 February 2017

Sunday Rest: murage. Word Not To Use Today.


Look, the mur bit sounds like a dyspeptic cow, and the rest rhymes with sewage.

I mean, what's to like?

Murage is a payment demanded for the construction or maintenance of a boundary wall. 

Luckily that sort of thing is so out-of-date that in my dictionary the word is labelled archaic.

Still, if you should happen to need such a term, then I would imagine that the dyspeptic-cow-and-sewage thing is probably the least of your problems.

Sunday Rest: murage. This word comes from Old French, and before that from the Latin word for wall, which is mūrus.

Saturday 4 February 2017

Sing a Song of Sixpence: traditional.

Sing a song of sixpence
A pocketful of rye
Four and twenty blackbirds
Baked in a pie
When the pie was opened 
The birds began to sing
Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?

The king was in his counting-house
Counting out his money
The queen was in the parlour 
Eating bread and honey
The maid was in the garden
Hanging out the clothes
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose

She made such a commotion 
That little Jenny Wren
Flew down into the garden
And popped it on again.

Oh, the fascination and horror of this rhyme! Oh, the horrible cold conviction that the last verse has been tacked on afterwards to make it slightly less nightmarish (look, it doesn't even fit the rest of the rhyming-scheme)!

How can the birds sing when they've been baked? (I still don't know, but pies containing live birds were made and served to kings in mediaeval times.)

Was the maid the one who put the birds in the pie? If not, why is she the one to suffer?

I don't know any of the answers (and nor, I believe, does anyone else) but people have been guessing about this rhyme for a long time. The blackbirds might be rooks, the young of which do make a nice pie (or so I've been told); or they might be monks, and the king and queen the sun and the moon. Or the queen might be Catherine of Aragon and the maid Anne Boleyn. The pocketful might be an old grain measure. Twenty four might be to do with the Bible, and the lost nose might really be a lost soul,

What do I think? 

I think that sometimes nothing is as important or effective as admitting with a shudder that we just don't know.

Word To Use Today: wren. This word comes from the Old English wrenna.

Friday 3 February 2017

Word To Use Today: totem.

Traditionally, totems come on poles:

Totem Pole carved by Canadian First Nations Artist Henry Hunt. (It was commissioned in gratitude to the Kwakiuti community of Vancouver Island for saving timber merchant William John Alsford from starving during a strike. This pole is to be found next to the Grand Union Canal near William Alsford's home in Hertfordshire, England.) 

But you can get totems in all sorts of places and guises. A totem is a bit like a mascot:

File:Zampa the Lion 125 Anniversary.JPG
photo of Millwall Football Club mascot Zampa by NoOneLikesUs (talk

The difference is that while a mascot is a fellow supporter, a totem is to some extent a personification (animalification?) of the group it represents. It's quite likely to be sacred, too.

A totem can be an bird:

File:Raven on top of a totem pole.JPG
photo by Leonard Kaplan

 a plant, an object (like a mountain or river) or even something as unrepresentable as a wind.

I don't know what my own totem is, but I have a feeling there might be one out there somewhere waiting to be discovered.

Have you discovered yours, yet?

Word To Use Today: totem. This word comes from the Ojibwa nintōtēm, which means mark of my family.

Thursday 2 February 2017

A handy way with meetings: a rant.

Dan Carley has a position in a British Government Department (or institution or service or something) called 'Platform as a Service'. I'm told it's something to do with the cloud.

(Platform as a Service? Good grief, I can feel my blood pressure rising already, and this rant isn't even about that.)

Anyway. Mr Carley, tired of noisy arguments and irrelevances at much-too-long meetings, has devised some hand signals to quieten things down and speed things up.

If you agree with someone, you signal this by holding your hands with both palms facing upwards; disagreement, logically enough, by two palms held downwards; wanting to speak by one palm held up; direct response by fingers in the shape of a gun; a request for clarification by the fingers of one hand making a C shape; and a point of order by a two-handed diamond shape.

After some months' trial the system is apparently working well: people can finish want they want to say without interruption.

But...hey, hang on! Surely Mr Carley is re-inventing the wheel, here. What's wrong with the traditional extended nodding and soft grunts that signals agreement in meetings? Or the rolling-eyes, heavy sigh and contemptuous snort of disagreement? 

One hand held up has indicated a desire to speak (or be excused) for many years; and as for the request for clarification, the screwed-up face and head-scratch with a forefinger speaks at least as loudly as words.

As for the direct response and the point of order, they may not already have established body-language forms, but I don't see how these can be effective without actually, well, speaking...

...hey, I don't know, though...


Word To Us Today: charade. This word is French for entertainment. Pleasingly, given the circumstances, it comes from the Provençal charrado, chat, from charra, chatter, an imitation of the sound chatter makes.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Nuts and Bolts: a sexy syllables.

No, no, sexy syllables are really a thing: if you're trying to woo a lady they've even been proved to help.

Well, they've been proved to help if you're a songbird, anyway.

The nub of the matter is, what do birds like in a song? 

For a long time the answer was thought to be a matter of variety.  I suppose this was analogous with humans, where a man who can talk about music, current affairs and fashion is generally regarded as more fascinating than one who talks about steam trains the whole time.

As it turns out, though, this is not the case with song birds. Female birds prefer one song sung really very well indeed to lots of songs sung indifferently. 

Which, if you think about it, is also analogous with humans.

So, what counts as singing well? 

It may be a matter of the speed of the trills, or the complexity of the song, or the singing in the local accent (yes, songbirds do have accents), or just the sheer loudness

Or, if you're a canary, sexy syllables.

A sexy syllable is one where a bird uses its syrinx (that's the avian equivalent to our larynx) to sing two notes at once.

This isn't easy for a human, but something similar can be achieved (and often is) with the help of other singers (I note that groups of singers have been known to prove attractive to young females). 

File:One Direction at the Logies Awards 2012.jpg
photo of One Direction by Brett Robson – Global Photographics

If this is hard to arrange then a guitar might help. Or even a recording of some kind.

In fact, the idea of sexy syllables might explain rather a lot, mightn't it?

Word To Use Today: syllable. This word comes from the Greek sullabē, from sullambanein, to collect together.