This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 31 March 2017

Word To Use Today: cabbage.

Apparently cabbage is going to be the next big thing. Particularly pickled cabbage, as in the Korean kimchi and the German sauerkraut.

Amazing health benefits in pickled cabbage, apparently, and anyone who's anyone is going to be scarfing barrels of the stuff - and as it is, between us we humans eat over seventy million tons of cabbage a year.

But then why should a fondness for cabbage be a surprise?  Cabbage has long been close to our hearts. I mean, if the French, so dedicated to elegance and haute cuisine, can refer to their loved ones as little cabbage (petit chou*) then who is to argue?

The cuteness of cabbage is also a matter of simple patriotism for any member of the Commonwealth, for it has the approval (presumably) of Her Majesty the Queen herself, cabbage being the Duke of Edinburgh's affectionate and intimate method of address to his wife (by which I mean that he is said to call her cabbage; he doesn't, as far as I know, go waving them about in her face in moments of high emotion).

If you really can't bear cabbage anywhere near you, then cabbaged can mean exhausted, and cabbage can be a slang term for either tobacco or cash - though neither of these products is nearly as lavish with the vitamins and minerals as the original thing.

So let's hear it for cabbage

After all, a billion slugs and caterpillars can't be wrong, can they?

Word To Use Today: cabbage. A lot of European and Asian words for cabbage come from the Celto-Slavic cap, meaning head. Our English word has come directly from the Old French caboce.

*Okay, chou in this case is probably more to do with its cream puff meaning than actual cabbages (though French baby boys are found in cabbages, so,, perhaps best not to think too much about that) but hey...

Thursday 30 March 2017

Cruising: a rant.

I love the holiday brochure season.

I have a leaflet here from Hurtigruten Cruises bearing a photograph of a small cruise liner nosing its way through the waters of an impressively sparkling mountain-lined fjord.

The headline?

Immerse yourself in the beauty of Norway

I can't honestly say it inspires confidence.

File:Geiranger Fjord.jpg
photo of Geiranger Fjorby karaian

Word To Use Today: immerse. This word comes from the Latin mergere, to dip.

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Nuts and Bolts: a four letter alphabet.

Describe yourself in four letters.

Yes, all right, cute is fair enough, but that doesn't give us the full picture, dpes it? it doesn't give any hint of your penetrating intelligence, brown eyes, and ability to crack your knuckles.

What I'm looking for is a system to describe every single physical and mental aspect of you in just four letters.

Yes, I'm talking about a four-letter alphabet.

Now, there doesn't seem to be a human society that uses an alphabet that only has four letters (though Hawaiian has only thirteen) but such a thing would be possible.

However, there is already a language that describes you, every part of you, using four chemicals usually represented by the letters A C G and T (they stand for adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine).

These chemicals make up your DNA, and therefore they form the instructions that make you your own self, and not your mother, say, or Scarlett Johansson or Leonardo da Vinci. 

Or Donald Trump.

Yep: powerful stuff.

Now, because you are made up of lots of cells stuck together, these DNA instructions have to be present in nearly every single cell in your body*.

Okay: so if you laid out all the DNA-based instructions in all the cells of your body end to end, how far do your think they'd reach?

a) if you curled it round in a spiral you could fit it on the head of a pin.

b) it'd go all the way round a football pitch

c) nearly as far as a marathon 

d) more than sixty five times from the Earth to the Sun and back.

What do you think, truly wonderful person? 

The answer's below!

Word To Use Today: guanine. This word comes from guano (which is seabird poo), which is very similar stuff to guanine. The word comes to us from Spanish, from Quechuan huano, which means dung.

The answer to the multiple choice question is, astonishingly, d. Yes, it does seem vastly unlikely. I worked it out partly from information in Bill Bryson's excellent book A Short History of Nearly Everything...I think I got it right. Another estimate I found says your DNA stretches twice all the way round the Solar System. Mind you, no one's sure about how far that is, so it doesn't help all that much, but either way we're talking billions of kilometres.

*Though not in mature red blood cells, hair, or hard skin.

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: miserly.

Did you know that to a civil engineer a miser is a large hand-drill-type thing for making holes in loose soils? 

Well, you do now.

The usual meaning of miser is, of course, a person who hoards money or possessions with a great and fierce fervour. 

It seems that the pleasure of a hoard, whether of beautiful shiny gold or of invisible (and really non-existent) money in the bank, means that a miser can't bear to exchange any of it for anything, whether flowers, respectable clothes, or friends.

At the bottom of being miserly is a desire for control; and at the bottom of that must almost always be a lurking well of fear.

There's something else connected with misers, too: I used to do yearly a door-to-door collection for charity, starting at the rich end of my street and finishing with the shared-house single-roomers. 

Not only did the donations get larger as the means of the people reduced, but the connection between the words miser and miserable was absolutely as plain as day.

Have a happy day!

Thing Not To Be Today: miserly. Miser is Latin for wretched.

Why the drill is called a miser no one knows: but then as very few of us have heard of the thing this is perhaps not surprising.

Monday 27 March 2017

Spot the Frippet: raffia.

All right, all right, the real reason the word raffia is featuring on The Word Den is that I've just discovered that the scientific name of the raffia palm was until quite recently Raphia ruffia, and I want to share the joy of it this Monday morning.

No, really, it's my pleasure.

The leaf veins of the raffia palm (now, apparently, called Raphia taedigera, (though all delight is not lost because its fruit is still called an uxi nut)) yield a useful sort of stringy stuff, used as, well, string, but it's also woven and knotted and knitted together to make decorative (occasionally) items for the home (a source of delight to me ever since an imaginary body called The Country Crafts and Folklore Council was described in the BBC TV comedy series Yes Minister as the Raffia Mafia...and anyone who's ever been to any ordinarily competitive mothers' coffee morning will laugh, too).

You might find raffia around the pace in the form of baskets, hats or shoes. It's favoured for tying up plants in the garden, too.

The raffia palm:

Raphia australis.jpg
Photo by Andrew Massyn (Kirstenbosch Gardens Cape Town, Public Domain,

is grown in Madagascar, Tropical Africa, and Central and South America. This might be rather a long way away from where you live, but the stuff is probably to be found in your local garden shed or handicraft shop, or in a placemat near you.

Mind you, if you're in Bandundu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, you might be able to get yourself a Munganji suit made of raffia to dance in.

No one will have the slightest trouble spotting raffia then.

photo by By Nick Hobgood (Flickr [1], CC BY 2.0,

Spot the Frippet: raffia (or raphia). This word comes to us from from Malagasy. 

Sunday 26 March 2017

Sunday Rest: submental. Word Not To Use Today

Submental is an impossible word to use. Not only does it reek of intellectual snobbery, but there's also a distinct tinge of prejudice against those we now sadly have to call differently abled.

In fact submental is such a disaster zone that even the fact that it means situated beneath the chin doesn't help much.

Does it.

Soupy Sales Lunch With Soupy 1960.JPG

Word Not To Use Today: submental. This word comes from the Latin mentum, which means chin.

Saturday 25 March 2017

Saturday Rave: the meaning of music.

What does music mean to you?

No, really: what does it mean to you?

Well, obviously a 'March' is meant for strutting about, a 'String Quartet' is meant for two violins, viola and cello, and an 'Allegro' is meant to be fast.

Sometimes, especially with music from 1800 onwards, you get more of a clue what's going on. Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, for example, goes in for what I imagine to be solitude, and then you get some crashing waves (though unless you know that Fingal's Cave is by the sea the piece might bring to mind...shepherds and whirlwinds?  An artist's garret and a busy airport?). 

Now, it's entirely possible that someone's written a piece called Ham and Mustard Sandwiches at Four o'Cock in Basingstoke - and if they have then I'd love to hear it - but the thing is, what can music really convey? Most people can pick up happiness or yearning, but what about those ham and mustard sandwiches? Apart from anything else it's going to depend upon whether you like mustard, aren't gluten-free, and don't think pigs unclean, isn't it.

The piece below doesn't, I think, call up anything prohibited or likely to cause an allergic reaction. But what is it about?

Try not to peek until you've listened to it (it's only about a couple of minutes).

How close did you get?*

Word To Use Today: allegro. This means fast to a musician, but it's actually the Italian for cheerful, from the Latin alacer, brisk or lively.

*Jardins sous la pluie = gardens in the rain.

Friday 24 March 2017

Garganey: word to use today.

A garganey is a small and rather smart duck.  

Here's a male:

Garganey (Anas querquedula) RWD3.jpg

You get them in Europe (I was lucky enough to see one near the Thames the other day), Asia, Africa, India and Australasia - and you can get stray individuals turning up in America, too. 

Now, the thing is, in my Collins dictionary it says that the name garganey comes from the Italian dialect garganei 'of imitative origin'.

So your task, if you choose to accept it, it to imitate the call of a garganey duck.

Here's a recording of the actual duck to give you a clue as to the speed and pitch of the thing:

Of imitative origin?

Well, good luck with that one.

Word To Use Today: garganey. Wikipedia says that the word comes from the Lombard garganei (so far agreeing with Collins), but Wikipedia says that garganei the plural of garganell and comes from gargala, or tracheal artery. 

Good grief, and I thought that no explanation could be less convincing than the imitative origin one. 

Wikipedia also says that it's the garganey's scientific species name, querquedula, that's believed to imitate its call. 

But just who believes it, Wikipedia is too sensible to say.

Thursday 23 March 2017

Upon Westminster Bridge

There was once a revolutionary who, crossing Westminster Bridge, found that he wanted to give the world a message. 

The man's name was William Wordsworth, and, although his journey took place over two hundred years ago, today he is revered and his words seem clearer and more precious than ever. 

I've written about his poem BEFORE, but here are his words in full.

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Ne'er did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!


Sometimes a quiet voice can enter the hearts of millions when a noisy one is obscured by ugliness and echoes.

Word To Use Today: Westminster. Mynster is an Old English word that probably comes from the Latin monastērium, monastery. West is related to the Latin vesper, evening.

Wednesday 22 March 2017

Nuts and Bolts: speaking with forked tongue.

The trouble with research is that sometimes it tells you stuff you don't want to know.

A joint study by Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin Universities has been looking at bilingual people to find out how good they are at judging the accuracy of their own guesses.

I don't know exactly who decided to do this study, or, indeed, why, but thirty one bilingual and thirty one monolingual people were shown circles containing dots, and these people had to estimate which circle had the most dots in it, and also to say how likely they thought their answer was to be right.

Now, being bilingual has several advantages: it means you have to do a lot less sign-languages in shops; it prevents you doing things like confusing a piscine*, say, with a pissoir**; it seems to stave off dementia for a few years; and the general belief is that bilinguists are particularly empathetic and tolerant.

But bilinguists aren't as good at estimating how good their answers are when it comes to dots in circles. In fact, they are ten per cent worse.

Why this should be the case, no one knows, but good for Dr Roberto Filippi, director of the Multilanguage & Cognition Lab at Anglia Ruskin University for making these findings public.

Though, as an academic at an English university with a name like that, the chances are he himself is bilingual. And so...

...but no. I'm sure we can rely on Dr Filippi's judgement entirely.

Word To Use Today: bilingual. Lingua is the Latin for tongue (and it gives us the word linguine, too).

*French: swimming pool.

**French: building containing a urinal.

Tuesday 21 March 2017

Thing To Be Today: devil-may-care.

Cheerfully careless of consequences, that's devil-may-care - and it's quite often cheerfully careless of authority, too.

Now, the thing is, should I be so lightly encouraging this lack of planning, respect and sensible caution? 

Quite possibly not - but what is life if we never throw caution to the winds?

After all, even creeping along the most familiar path with the greatest possible care isn't going to stop sea gulls pooping on our heads, is it?

Thing To Be Today: devil-may-care. The original expression seems to have been the devil may care, for I won't and devil-may-care itself has probably been around since the late 1700s. The word devil comes from the Old English dēofel, from the Greek diabolos, enemy or accuser, from diabellein, to throw across, hence to slander.

Monday 20 March 2017

Spot the Frippet: xanthrochroism.

English doesn't have nearly enough words beginning with an x, so we must celebrate those we have.

Xanthrochroism is a condition found in animals which turns their normal colours yellow or orange,

Like this:


(this is the wild version:

File:Carassius auratus grandoculis by OpenCage.jpg)

or this:  

Xanthochromistic Argentine horned frog
(That's an Argentinian Horned Frog. They usually look like this:

Regular Argentine horned frog
photos by Grosscha )

Or the budgie on the right:

File:Melopsittacus undulatus - albino and lutino.jpg
photo by Jhwodchuck 

English also has the word xanthrochroid, too, but that refers to a race of people who have pale hair and faces.

I worry that xanthrochroid might be an offensive term, but as there doesn't seem to be such a thing as a xanthrochroid race on Earth I can't see that it can be.

It makes one hard to spot, though.

 I think I'll stick with looking out for a goldfish.

Spot the Frippet: xanthrochroism. This word comes from two Greek words, xanthos, which means yellow, and khroia, skin.

Sunday 19 March 2017

Sunday Rest: meatspace. Word Not To Use Today

Ooh, I hate this word.

 I think I'd hate it even if meatspace was just somewhere for you to put your, yes, meat - but it's far, far worse than that.

Meatspace is a term used by those poor sad people who live as much as they possibly can in cyberspace*. For them, I'm afraid, meatspace means the real world.

I know that to use the words pathetic, purblind, and pedestrian in this context would be unkind.

But they're tempting.

Word Not To Use Today: meatspace. It's not clear who first came up with this word, but it's certainly been around since 1993 (it was used, jocularly, in the Austin Cyberspace Journal). It got into the Oxford English Dictionary in the year 2000.

*Why poor and sad? Because, basically, the universe (or God, if you wish) has been going for thirteen billion years (or about six thousand if you're going for the Biblical option) and the internet has been going for less than thirty and is all made up by humans.

Saturday 18 March 2017

Saturday Rave: together, not apart.

Even today, with Twitter and Facebook (and, let's face it, blogs) it's hard for the voice of a single person to speak loudly enough to make much of a difference, especially when their message is about the evil deeds of the Big People.

What's needed, of course, is a chance for all the small voices in a place to speak together.

Twenty five years ago today the people of South Africa - all the people of South Africa - got a chance to say whether they wanted the government apartheid system to continue.

Guess what?

Their voice came over so loud and clear that no one on Earth could ignore it.

Word To Use Today: democracy. This word comes from the Greek dēmokratia, goverment by the people, from dēmos, people, and kratos, power.

While we are on the subject on democracy, on this day in 1990 the German Democratic Republic finally lived up to its name (and they say that Germans don't have a sense of humour) and held its first democratic elections.

Friday 17 March 2017

Nugget: Word To Use Today.

Here's a tough, knobbly sort of a word.


(Nugget, by the way, is how I pronounced the word nougat when I was young, but nougat (NOOgar) is entirely different from nugget.)

Anyway, a nugget is something small but excellent and valuable, often to be found in a heap of dross. Nuggets used usually to be pieces of gold:

File:Gold nugget (Australia) 3 (16848650019).jpg
photo by James St. John

but nowadays they're generally dry bits of chicken in a fried crust:

File:Foster Farms breast nuggets frozen.JPG
Photo of Foster Farms Frozen Breast Nuggets by BrokenSphere


Luckily, sometimes you can come across nuggets of satisfying information, like the fact that in Australia or New Zealand something nuggety is likely to refer either to a stocky powerful human or other animal; and that Nugget is a sort of shoe polish, and that in New Zealand people sometimes nugget their shoes.

Word To Use Today: nugget. This word has only been around since the 1800s, and where it came from no one is sure, but there's a West-England dialect word nog, meaning a wooden block built into a masonry wall to provide a fixing for nails, which might have something to do with it.

Nougat comes from the Provençal nogat, from noga, nut, from the Latin nux.

Thursday 16 March 2017

A lack of contrast: a rant

Dr Simon Harper, an expert in Human Computer Interaction at the University of Manchester talks about situational impairment. It sounds a gentle thing, but I have more robust words for yellow text on a white background, or pale pink on white, for that matter.

What's sparked this rant? The care instructions that have come with my new handbag. Small white print on a pale pink background.

The really frustrating thing is that there's no point in posting a picture of it because all you'd see is a pink rectangle.

Like this:

To be honest, we don't care much if your handbag falls to  pieces     through lack of care because then you'll just have to buy a new one. Still, never mind, dear! (But perhaps I'm too cynical, and the text is  really telling you to buff the silly thing - with  the  skin  of goblins 
for all I know - or mermaid scales or banana skins...Who can say?) 

What does it say?

I have absolutely not the foggiest idea.

Word To Use Today: contrast. This word comes from the Latin contra against, and stare, to stand.

Wednesday 15 March 2017

Nuts and Bolts: just desserts.

It's the sheer hypocrisy that gets me: this pretence that the last course of a meal - the sweet bit - is of no particular weight or importance.

Why do we call a gorgeous dish of fruit whipped up with sugar and cream a fool. What's foolish about it?

If you just mix the fruit and cream together with meringue then it's worse, for then it becomes merely a mess. It's only a mess if you drop it on the floor!

And, that meringue...why do we use meringue as a synonym for bad-taste froth, as in wedding dresses? Meringues aren't'd be more accurate calling that sort of dress a sea-slug:

File:Elysia crispata (Lettuce Sea Slug pair).jpg
photo of a pair of lettuce sea slugs by Nhobgood (talk) Nick Hobgood

Then there's the lovely pudding called flummery, which started off as a sort of sweet set porridge but now means unnecessary nonsense; and trifle, a large glass dish stacked with fruit, jelly, sponge, alcohol, cream and custard. A trifle is the last thing it is, particularly if one lands on your foot.

And so it goes on: a crumble is much more than the bit that crumbles; and a pie is probably named after the various bits of nonsense collected by a magpie.

But still... does soothe away some the guilt about eating the stuff, doesn't it?

Word To Use Today: dessert. This word comes from the French desservoir. to clear away the table. 

Which just goes to show that this hypocrisy isn't purely English.

Tuesday 14 March 2017

Thing Not To Be In America: homely.

Does anyone have a 


t shirt?

No, I didn't think you did.

In most of the English-speaking world, homely can mean in the manner of an ordinary home (so a chandelier isn't homely but a lampshade probably is (unless it's ornamented with gold leaf, diamonds or hand-painted flamingos)) or else homely can mean...well, the homely person is the one who gives you a warm welcome. The one who provides you with a good pie, makes sure your chair is comfortable, and makes preserves for pleasure rather than show. In Ireland homely can even verge towards meaning kind.

And in America? 

Well, I'm not sure how it's happened - perhaps it was originally a way of being kind, or perhaps it was that homely in the plain-and-unostentatious sense got extended to people - but in America homely means plain, or even ugly: someone whose pie is more likely to be their fortune than their face.

This means that we all have to be jolly careful with the word homely.

In Tolkien's Middle-Earth you could talk about something being homely without being shot by enraged elves - 

- but on our own Earth the word is absolute dynamite.

Thing Not To Be In America: homely. The word home comes from the Old English hām and goes right back to the Greek kōmi, village.

Monday 13 March 2017

Spot the Frippet: languet.

For some of us this will involve a mirror.

A languet is (and I quote my Collins Dictionary) anything resembling a tongue in shape or function. 

Well, that presumably includes a tongue, then. Can you see your tongue without using a mirror? 

I can't.

Going back to that definition, I find the function bit jolly intriguing. What on earth performs the function of a tongue except, well, a tongue?

A chap stick, which does sort of act as a lip-moistening device? 

A spoon? (Well, it saves you having to lap up your soup, or your porridge.)

A toothbrush?


No, I can't say I'm really convinced by any of these, but the word languet has existed in English since the 1400s, so someone must have found a use for it at some point.

If we can't find something that resembles a tongue in function, what about in form?

File:Komodo dragon with tongue.jpg
photo of a Komodo Dragon by Mark Dumont

I suppose there are ferns; 

File:Spiers harts tongue fern.JPG
photo of a hart's tongue fern by Rosser1954

and then there are the things behind the laces on shoes and boots:

File:S3 safety footwear.jpg
photo by Francis Flinch

...but the trouble is that you don't need a special word for those because they're all just called tongues.

Hmm...I may have found a truly useless word, here.

It's really rather sad.

Spot the Frippet: languet. (You say it lang-gwet). This word comes from the Old French languette, a diminutive of langue, tongue.

Sunday 12 March 2017

Sunday Rest: swearapeutic. Word Not To Use Today.

As a word, swearapeutic has its good points: for one thing it's easy to guess what it means (that is, the feeling of release that swearing sometimes provides), and for a second thing it allows us to express a useful concept in a single word.

But, having said that, it's still utterly and irredeemably hideous, isn't it.

Sunday Rest: swearapeutic. Word Not To Use Today. This word is, obviously, a mixture of swear and therapeutic. It started off conveying the idea that swearing can be so useful it can take the place of therapy.

Swear comes from the Old English swerian (yes, we've been swearing for a lot longer than we've been having therapy) and therapy is from the Greek therapeia, attendance.

Saturday 11 March 2017

Saturday Rave: The Daily Courant by Elizabeth Mallet.

It was Elizabeth Mallet who started the trouble.

What did she do?


The Daily Courant.png

The Daily Courant was Britain's first national newspaper, which began on 11 March 1702 at Elizabeth's premises at Fleet Bridge, London.

It consisted of a single sheet with foreign news on the front, and advertisements on the back.

As for editorial policy, Elizabeth Mallet declared that she would add no comments of her own, as her readers have 'sense enough to make reflections for themselves.'

She (although pretending to be a 'he') also sets out her authority for publication:

...he will not, under Pretence of having Private Intelligence, impose any Additions of feign'd Circumstances to an Action, but give his Extracts fairly and impartially, at the beginning of each Article he will quote the Foreign Paper from whence 'tis taken, that the Publick, seeing from what Country a piece of News comes...may be better able to judge the Credibility and Fairnesse of the Relation.

Feign'd Circumstances...

Isn't that lovely?

And it sounds a lot nobler than fake news, doesn't it?

Word To Use Today: feign. This word comes from the Old French feindre, to pretend, from Latin fingere to form, shape, invent.

Friday 10 March 2017

Word To Use Today: measureless.

JRR Tolkien said the loveliest sound in the English language was cellar door, but I think I'd go for measureless.

How soft, languid, and teasing can a word be?

Coleridge spoke in Kubla Khan of Alph, the sacred river, which ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea

I mean, just look at that: measureless is so swooningly sensuous he even gets away with calling his sacred river Alph!

And then there's poor Banquo, speaking of the king's measureless content to that nasty Macbeth, thus pointing up the happiness and order the eponymous wretch is intent upon destroying. 

Right then. If a word is good enough for Coleridge and Shakespeare...well, what are we waiting for?


...what's the nearest thing to you that's measureless?

Word To Use Today: measureless. This word comes from measure, of course, which comes from the Latin mētīrī, which has an annoying number of long vowels and still meant measure even then.

Thursday 9 March 2017

Arrow of Fortune: a rant.

I realise, as a mere woman, that I don't really have the same sort of logical mind as a man. Still, I am all for encouraging success, and so it is a matter of some sadness that I cannot begin to understand the mechanism for communicating good fortune to my husband's football team, Millwall, by the wearing of his pair of lucky underpants.

Still, lately it does seem to be working.

Word To Use Today: pants. This word (which in Britain means the same as underpants does in America) is a short form of the word pantaloon. Pantaloon is the name of an old pantaloon-wearing merchant in traditional Italian plays. The name comes from Pantalone, a nickname for a Venetian, and the nickname is probably something to do with the Venetian saint San Pantaleone. 

Here he is:

San Pantaleone, sadly, is not as the patron saint of football (that's St Sebastian, I think) but patron saint of doctors and midwives. 

Mind you, St Pantaleone's alternative name, Panteleimon, means compassion-for-everyone, so I don't see why footballers shouldn't call on his assistance when needed.

And, hey, you know something? That might even be how the lucky pants work.

I knew there must be some logic buried in there, somewhere.

Wednesday 8 March 2017

Nuts and Bolts: Habla Congo.

I started off this post thinking about dictionaries, and words like likuta, plural mikuta (they used to be coins used in the former Democratic Republic of Congo, which is now Zaire). But I got side-tracked by a trail of magic.

Likuta is a Congolese word, and many people sold as slaves to the New World had Congolese as their native language; so while the Congolese language's home is still in Zaire, the Republic of Congo, and Angola (it has about nine million speakers altogether) Congolese-influenced languages are to be found in the New World. It's one of the sources of the Gullah language of the USA, and the Palenquero creole of Columbia.

Congolese also forms part of the ritual speech of Afro-Americans, especially in Brazil, Cuba and Haiti. 

 Hang on, I thought: ritual speech?

Well, the Congolese-influenced language we're talking about is Habla Congo, and it started off in Cuba. It involves deliberately switching between Congolese words, various forms of Spanish, and the creole of the Cuban slaves.

Habla Congo isn't a secret language, exactly - anyone is allowed to listen to it - but the idea is that no one who's not initiated can understand it.

Now, I'm not initiated, but I'll pass on something I found in Studies in Contact Linguistics: Essays in Honor of Glenn G Gilbert, in a piece by Armin Schwegler. It says that the language its speakers call the lengua conga is never spoken directly to researchers, but always to the altar, the spirit(s) or the sacred magic cauldron or nkisi.


...personally, I find I'm quite happy to leave some secrets exactly where they rest.

Word To Use Today: zombie. This is one of the few Congolese words that's come into English. Zumbi means good-luck fetish.

Tuesday 7 March 2017

Thing To Do Today: be vexed.

We tend to be furious, today, don't we. Or irate, outraged, or fuming.

We blow a gasket (or a fuse, or our tops), go mental, nuclear or postal. 

We freak.

Well, I think it's time to bring back a fashion for being vexed, instead.

We'll be just as angry, but we won't let the neighbour's cat, latest political idiocy, or selfish taxi driver cause us the slightest upset.

We'll display a stiff disapproval, but without tears.

The British used to be rather well-known for that sort of thing, but perhaps this time some other nation should lead the way.

Volunteers, anyone?

Thing To Be Today: vexed. This word comes from the Latin vexāre, to jolt while carrying, from vehere, to convey.

Monday 6 March 2017

Spot the Frippet: lace.

Here's something delicate to soothe away any Monday-morning resentment at having to get up.


There are lacewings

File:Green lacewing 2.jpg
photo by RudiSteenkamp


File:Pinus bungeana Kew2.jpg
photo by Somepics

lace bugs:

File:Sycamore Lace Bug (5437596708).jpg
photo by Gilles San Martin

and, of course, laces:

File:Shoelaces 03.jpg
photo by Oto Zapletal

There's the fabric, too, whether it's the smoke-stained and dismal curtains of those surely too dull to have any secrets worth discovering, or the glorious trappings of the priest, the baby, or the bride.

File:Victoria and albert - white on red lace (4355719590).jpg
Victoria and Albert Museum. Photo by hottholler

Why such a cobweb of threads is a giver of joy is more than I can explain. 

But it is, all the same.

Spot the Frippet: lace. This word comes from the Old French laz, and before that rather sinisterly from the Latin laqueus, noose.

Sunday 5 March 2017

Sunday Rest: burletta. Word Not To Use Today.

Burletta is a perfectly respectable word in Italian, but in English it sounds far too much like a fat lady in a tight corset.

It actually means a brief comic opera, but who's going to know that?

Luckily the word was largely put out of its misery in 1843 by the British parliament. They repealed the Law which said that only the Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatres could put on 'legitimate drama', so after that people no longer had to use the description burletta as a cover for the plays they were staging.

I'm sorry to say, though, that in the USA the term burletta is still occasionally used instead of the satisfyingly crisp burlesque.

Mind you, those performances might very well involve very fat ladies in very tight corsets. 

So fair enough.

Word Not To Use Today: burletta. This word is Italian for little joke.

Saturday 4 March 2017

Saturday Rave: Tom Bowling by Charles Dibdin.

Charles Dibdin was a composer of operas, an actor, a singer, and a song writer. His patriotic songs were so popular that the government of the day gave Dibdin a pension of £200 a year for his contribution to the war effort against Napoleon. 

(That seems odd, but I suppose this was pretty-much the equivalent of a government nowadays paying an agency to run a Facebook campaign.)

Dibdin's most famous song is probably Tom Bowling, a naval song written, not in return for the pension, but as a response to the death of his eldest brother, Captain Thomas Dibdin (our Dibdin, Charles, is said to have been the youngest of eighteen children, and born when his mother was fifty).

Tom Bowling is a great song, though Dibdin gets his naval terms in a bit of a mix: a sheer hulk isn't a total wreck, but a hulk (a ship not designed to go to sea) carrying sheers, which are used as a crane.

Here's Dibdin, a man of great charm (though a bit of a bounder as far as women were concerned):

and here is Tom Bowling, sung by the wonderful Robert Tear:

Not a dry eye in the house...

Word To Use Today: hulk. This word comes from the Old English hulc, from the Greek holkas, barge, from helkein, to tow.

Friday 3 March 2017

Word To Use Today: stompie.

A stompie is South African slang for a short man or a cigarette butt, and to pick up stompies is a brilliant expression, also South African, for something we've all done but never before been able to describe very well.

There's a nice example in PG Wodehouse's Meet Mr Mulliner:

Two men were sitting in the bar-parlour of the Angler's Rest as I entered it; and one of them...was telling a story. I could hear nothing but an occasional 'Biggest I ever saw in my life!' and 'Fully as large as that!'...when the story-teller finished his tale and left...[the other man] came over to my table.

'Dreadful liars some men are,' he observed, genially.

'Fishermen,' I suggested, 'are traditionally careless of the truth.'

'He wasn't a fisherman,' said my companion, 'That was our local doctor. He was telling me about his latest case of dropsy.'

You see? The narrator had been picking up stompies, that is, coming into a conversation late and misunderstanding what was being talked about.

And my life's all the richer for knowing that.

Word To Use Today: stompie. This word comes from stump, and is basically Germanic and related to stamp.

Thursday 2 March 2017

The Fashion For Fiction: a rant.

A very large study by Professor Keith Topping of books read by children in Britain has analysed reading-levels from the age of five or so up to sixteen (though the sample is much bigger at the lower ages).

The results show that overall the books children read get gradually harder until the age of about eleven (which is the age most British children change school) but after that the difficulty stays at about the same level until the age of about fourteen, after which it actually declines.

The report talks of children being under-challenged, and treats this as an area of concern. 

Is it? 

Well, I don't know. At the age of fifteen I was reading a lot of easy books. It made a break from all the physics and the other stresses of being a teenager. Nevertheless, I don't think my reading age was declining, and I've have hated to have been force-fed Dickens.

Perhaps it'd be good to see some more variety in the books we leave around in the hope of attracting older children, though. 

I mean, it couldn't do any harm. Could it?

Word To Use Today: easy. This word comes from the Old French aise, ease or opportunity, from the Latin adjacēns, neighbouring.

Wednesday 1 March 2017

Nuts and Bolts: Tibetan.

You'd like to be able to speak Tibetan? 

Well, which Tibetan?

Standard Tibetan? Would that be the phai-skad every-day form, the zhe-sa formal respectful form, or the chos-skad literary form?

If that makes Tibetan sound complicated then pity Nicolas Tournadre, who has spent twenty years studying Tibetan. He estimates that there are 220 Tibetan dialects, and that these dialects fall into twenty five mutually understandable groups. 

This means, basically, there are twenty five Tibetan languages. This makes Tibetan more diverse than the Romance language group (which includes French, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian. (There are nineteen Romance languages)).

Tournadre has grouped the Tibetan languages further, but even he says that some of them, ie Thewo-Chone, Zhongu, Khalong, Dongwang, Gserpa, Zitsadegu, Drugchu and Baima aren't well know enough to classify.

Oh, and by the way, Tibetan is written in at least three alphabets, too.

Now, do you still fancy speaking Tibetan? Or would you rather have a lie down in a darkened room?

Where's that wet towel...

Word To Use Today: one from Tibetan. Lama (NB: the single ell priest, not the double ell llama), sherpa (which means eastern-dweller) yak or yeti, perhaps.