This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 30 June 2017

Word To Use Today: menispermaceous.

Sadly, this glorious word describes a family of plants, the Menispermaceae.

There are about four hundred and forty species of menispermaceous plants to be found in temperate, sub-tropical, tropical and desert regions. They provide the poison-dart substance curare, and from curare we get Tubocurarine, which is used to relax muscles during surgery. Other menispermaceous plants are used for stomach problems including dystentery, and as a yellow fabric dye.

Jateorhiza palmata - Köhler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-080.jpg
Jateorhiza palmata from Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen 1887.

Ah well...'s still good for a snigger, though, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: menispermaceous. This word comes from the Greek mēnē, moon, and sperma, seed.

Thursday 29 June 2017

Lunatic Luxury: a rant.

Do you call the field you've just covered with houses by its fine and ancient name of Boggy Bottom? Or do you recast it slightly as Moor Valley?

What if you're setting up a hotel in what used to be a prison? Do you have your own private joke and call it Malmaison,* as is the hotel situated in the old Oxford jail; or do you go all sarcastic like the owners of The Liberty Hotel in Boston, which used to be the Charles Street Jail? Or do you air-brush the past completely, as does the Four Seasons Hotel in Istambul? Or do you make no bones about its history, like the Hotel Jail, Luzern, or the Karosta Prison in Latvia?

What if you want to persuade someone that they should buy a house in a former Lunatic Asylum? Well, surely nowadays we're so open-minded and inclusive that if anything this will be a positive selling point?

The famous Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, fondly referenced by such great men as PG Wodehouse and CS Lewis (and the setting for Will Self's interesting Umbrella) has, I see, reinvented itself. It's now called the Princess Park Manor. 

I looked at the prices. A two-bedroomed flat outside London for £790,000? You'd have to be mad to pay that much to live...


Word To Use Today: hatch. This word comes from the Old English hæcc and is related to the Dutch hek, gate.

*Yes, I know about the Hotel Chain and the Empress Josephine, etc. But it still means bad house, and it's still funny.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

Nuts and Bolts: Gothenburg's colon.

The city of Gothenburg in Sweden has many delights (just follow that link if you don't believe me) but we shouldn't really be calling it Gothenburg.

For one thing Gothenburg sounds, well, Gothic, whereas in fact the city wasn't successfully founded until King Gustavus Adolphus came along in 1621, which was long after the Goths:

photo by Rama

oh, no, sorry, not that sort of a Goth. This sort:

had stopped being a force in any land. 

It is the case, though, that the city of Gothenburg is in Gothia, the ancient land of the Goths, and it does stand on the Göta älv, or Gothia River. There's long been a fortress, or borg, there too.

In fact, although the Swedish form of the city's name is Göteborg, the French formal form is Gothembourg, and the Iberian form is the rather dashing Gotemburgo, basically if you say Gothenburg everyone everywhere knows what you're talking about, and this has been the case for so long that even Göteborg University has changed its name to University of Gothenburg in many international contexts. 

But Göteborg is a modern city, and in 2009 the people in charge decided they'd better come up with a wheeze to show they've moved on a bit from the Ancient Goths. They wanted to do something about the dots over the o in Göteborg at the same time: these dots were felt to be a bit of a nuisance, a bit formal, a bit old-fashioned, a bit insular, a bit hard to type; and so the good people of Göteborg came up with a nice new spelling of the town's name: Go:teborg.

Do you see what they've done there?

Personally, I like it. I'd never have thought that it was possible to make a colon cool, but the good people of Go:teborg really seem to have done it.

And good, I say, for them.

Thing To Use Today: a colon. This word comes from the Greek kōlon, which means limb (a colon started off meaning a whole passage, not just a punctuation mark).

Tuesday 27 June 2017

Thing To Dream About Doing Today: fewtering.

If a fewtrer is a worker in felt, and a fewterer is a keeper of greyhounds, what does the verb to fewter mean?

Well, it can mean two things, though sadly neither of them is anything to do with greyhounds. To fewter can mean to pack together (presumably because you make felt by squashing wool into a mat) and it also means to put a lance into its rest. The inside of a lance-rest, you see, is lined with felt.

Yes, yes, I know, that's of absolutely no use whatsoever to more or less everybody.

But then the useless information is so often the best.

Isn't it.

File:Knights jousting, lance tips broken on shields.jpg
photo by Pseudopanax 2013, Harcourt ParkUpper Hutt*

Thing To Dream About Doing Today: fewter. This word comes from the Old French feutre, filter or felt, from the Latin filtrum, filter. 

The word fewterer is, sadly, nothing to do with any of this. The word comes from the Latin vertragum, greyhound.

*No, I can see a lance rest, either. Still, you get the general idea.

Monday 26 June 2017

Spot the Frippet: damsel.

Coleridge, in an opium-enhanced vision, famously saw a damsel with a dulcimer. I'm prepared to accept that dulcimers are difficult to spot nowadays:

File:Appalachian dulcimer.JPG
Appalachian dulcimer, photo by Eihpossophie

but what about damsels?

A damsel is an out-of-date word for a young unmarried female or (to use another very old-fashioned word) maiden. The basic feeling behind the word is that a damsel is delicately beautiful, mysterious, and to be cherished.

Of course I know that nowadays young ladies are strong and independently-minded and equal to absolutely everything and all that, but, I don't know...perhaps it might be a nice to remember from time to time that they're also lovely and to be valued. Possibly even protected, sometimes.

If you cannot spot a damsel (for political reasons, perhaps?) then how about a damsel bug

File:Grey Damsel Bug - Himacerus major (15398326551).jpg
photo of a grey damsel bug by Line Sabroe

They're relations of the bedbugs, but they eat other insects instead of people. Which is sort of a good thing, I suppose, if you're human.

A damselfly is a type of small dragonfly which tends to rest with its winds folded across its back.

File:Common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) male lateral.jpg
photo of a Common Blue Damselfly by Charlesjsharp of  Sharp Photography, sharpphotography

Or there are damselfish, which are very beautiful, though I must admit unlikely to be spotted swimming along a High Street near you.

File:Cocoa damselfish.jpg
photo of a Cocoa* Damselfish from USGS

Still, who needs them when you have so many of the human kind around?

File:The Damsel of the Sanct Grael or Holy Grail.jpg
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Damsel of the Sanct Grael.

Spot the Frippet: damsel. This word comes from the Old French desmoisele, from the Latin domina, mistress. 

*I think this is the cocoa damselfish, so called because the bit that's blue in this photograph is sometimes brown.

Sunday 25 June 2017

Sunday Rest: hyponasty. Word Not To Use Today.

If only the word hyponasty really did describe someone with such an irresistible desire to do evil that he went about proclaiming no one can stop me now! before falling, complete with fluffy white cat, into an elephant trap he'd dug for someone else earlier then hyponasty might be one of my favourite words.

Sadly, it describes the process where a plant grows extra cells on its undersides, making its stems etc turn upwards.


Word Not To Use Today: hyponasty. The word-beginning hypo- comes from the Greek hupo, under. The word-ending -nasty comes from the Greek nastos, pressed down.

This derivation makes no sense to me at all.

Saturday 24 June 2017

Saturday Rave: Elizabeth's poets.

There was quite a fuss when Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne. 

Well, of course there was, but the occasion had a special significance - or people thought it might - because we had, not just a new queen, but a new Queen Elizabeth. The first one, you see, had proved extremely interesting.

File:Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait') by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.jpg
portrait by Marcus Geeraerts the Younger

And, sure enough, the new one is, too, if in rather different ways:

File:Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visiting NASA, May 8, 2007.jpg
photo by NASA?Paul E Alers

God bless her.

Anyway, among the many splendours of the Court of the first Elizabeth were a whole bunch of politicians who relied upon the queen for their power. And what sort of a man did Queen Elizabeth want to reward and encourage? Well, being good-looking and amusing helped.

So: how do you amuse a queen?

You sing, you dance, and you write poetry.

The courtier poets included the Earl of Oxford (the one who, it has been said, wrote Shakespeare's plays (cleverly, several of them postumously)); Edward Dyer; John Harington; Philip Sidney (the your need is greater than mine one); Walter Raleigh; Fulke Greville; Robert Sidney; and the Earl of Essex. 

So when the new Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, hopes were raised of a new generation of dancing,singing, poet politicians.

On the whole, it didn't happen, and looking round at our current crop of world politicians I can only say, with utmost fervour, thank God for that.

Fulke Greville's literary life lasted nearly fifty years, and he ended up as Chancellor of the Exchequer (the man in charge of the money). Here's the end of his Chorus Sacerdotum.

If Nature did not take delight in blood,
She could have made more easy ways to good.
We that are bound by laws, and by promotion,
With pomp of holy sacrifice and rites,
To teach belief in good and still devotion,
To preach of Heaven's wonders and delights:
Yet when each of us at his own heart looks,
He finds the God there, far unlike his books.

Word To Use Today: pomp. The word comes from the Old French pompe, from Latin pompa, procession. It's related to the Greek pompein, to send.

Friday 23 June 2017

Word To Use Today: halcyon.

Halcyon days are calm and quiet ones, especially those around the winter solstice (and of course it's presently the winter solstice just as much as the summer one). For the rest of us, any period of peace and happiness can be called halcyon.

Other things can be halcyon, too, if they're peaceful, gentle, calm, or happy and carefree.

Well, it'd be nice, wouldn't it.

The first halcyon was a Greek demi-goddess called Alcyone. She was blissfully married to Ceyx, but in their besotted love for each other they would sometimes call each other by the names of the King and Queen of the gods, Zeus and Hera. Zeus wasn't flattered by this (he was notoriously grumpy) and one day when Ceyx was out fishing Zeus struck Ceyx's boat with a thunderbolt. 

When Alcyone heard the news of Ceyx's loss she despairingly flung herself into the sea, but the gods in their compassion turned both Alcyone and Ceyx into halcyon birds so they could continue to live together. The gods also gave Alcyone and Ceyx the power to charm the seas to calmness during the time of year that they made their nest on the water (presumably this was so they didn't either lose their eggs or get seasick). 

It's a beautiful story. Even better, there's a real-life halcyon:

File:Halcyon malimbica.jpg

It's otherwise known as the blue-breasted kingfisher, or Halcyon malimbica. (Photo by tj. haslam.)

Word To Use Today: halcyon. Halcyon comes from alkuōn, the Greek word for kingfisher. The kingfisher just might be called after Alcyone, but probably isn't.

Thursday 22 June 2017

Ten million pounds of...grubs? A rant.

Rolls-Royce has made a ten million pound car.

It's probably very nice, although the fact that it's only got two seats would put me off buying it. Its glass roof, also, though glamorous, can't be kind to a bald patch (not that I have a bald patch, but I'm thinking of those who can afford to spend ten million pounds sterling on a car).

Anyway, what have Rolls-Royce called this paragon among cars?

The Sweptail.

The what?

Honestly, ten million quid, and the car sounds like something small and scaly that infests the area under your bath.

Well, I wouldn't have the thing for a tenth of the cost, I can tell you.

Not even if I could afford it.

Word To Use Today: Sweptail. Apparently the back of the car has a back-end that goes downwards in a rather elegant curve, so it's basically sweep + tail.

They'd have done better making the most of that glass roof and calling it the Skyroller, wouldn't they?

Wednesday 21 June 2017

Nuts and Bolts: order of honorifics.

Honorifics are the bits of someone's name which indicate position or qualification. If you're the Head of the Anglican Church, for instance, then you're the Most Reverend and Right Honorable The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury - and a major qualification for the job must be the ability to sit through that lot without giggling.

Customs vary widely - and wildly - throughout the world. In Britain only a medical doctor (who probably isn't actually a real doctor, i.e. someone with a PhD, at all) will get away with styling himself Doctor Smith in his everyday life, but in Germany to be able to call yourself Doktor Doktor Schmidt (because you have two PhDs) is pretty cool.

The rules everywhere are endless and complicated. In terms of letters after your name, academic honours will probably come last, with the order in which you obtained them reversed: Phd BA, for example. If you're a Knight of the Garter, have been awarded the Order of the British Empire, are a Member of Parliament, and a doctor of philospohy, then you'd be Sir John Smith KG OBE MP PhD.

(Unless, obviously, your name was Joe Brown.)

If you've won military medals then they have their own special order of importance, as Private Henry Tandy VC DCM MM shows (though the very best thing about Private Tandy is that he didn't die winning them, but lived to be eighty six. Good for him). 

But the winner for a whole alphabet soup of honorifics might be someone with no academic or religious qualifications, no medals for bravery, and no inherited titles.

How about the Right Honourable Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, KG, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCMG, GCIE, PC?

Horatio Herbert Kitchener.jpg

Did well, didn't he?

Word To Use Today: honour. This word comes from the Old French onor, from the Latin honor, which means esteem.

Tuesday 20 June 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: cheesed off.

Apparently it's only the British who get cheesed off: so what, exactly, for The Word Den's non-British readers, does being cheesed off mean? 

It means to be fed-up, bored, or angry, but not quite fed-up, bored, or angry enough to go on a rampage with a wet mop. It's more the sort of feeling that needs to be relieved by a long whingeing rumble of a moan.

It's how you feel when you have two essays to write; when it's raining again; when he leaves the apple core on the coaster for you to clear up for the third night running; when the fox keeps on pooing on the lawn; when yet again the supermarket has moved all the tinned tomatoes.

Yes, it takes a bit of time to get cheesed off, but all the same it seems that some people actually enjoy it - and some people (comedians, journalists, politicians) make a career out of it.

The trouble is that the approach of the habitually cheesed off is likely to make people run screaming. 

So, on the whole, a slightly amused equanimity might be a better attitude to cultivate.

Thing Not To Be Today: cheesed off. This word doesn't seem to be anything to do with the food product but perhaps with the verb to cheese which means to stop (as in cheese it!) or, in prison slang, to grovel.

Mind you, the connection with those last two meanings isn't that obvious, is it. 


Eric Partridge's guess is that this sort of cheese is the same word as cease, which comes from the Latin cēdere, to yield.

Monday 19 June 2017

Spot the Frippet: hemelytron.

When my husband finished spotting all the butterflies round here he began to look for something else to study (because, as he now says with a certain degree of happy contempt, a butterfly is just a moth that's afraid of the dark).

Of course there are wonders everywhere, and among them are hemelytra, which you will find on bugs (that's true bugs I'm talking about, not just any random unidentified tiny animal). The hemelytron is the thing's forewing. You'll find the joined-on end of the wing is thickened like the brightly-coloured forewing of a ladybird (that's the same as a ladybug in some parts of the world) but the free end is thin and membranous like a bee's wing.

Here are a pair of hemelytra:

Eichen-Schmuckwanze Rhabdomiris striatellus 2.jpg
Photo by Richard Bartz of a Striped Oak Bug in Munich, Germany. CC BY-SA 2.5,

Beautiful, aren't they?

And what a world, where even a bug is designed as well as that.

Spot the Frippet: hemelytron. This word comes from the Latin hemielytron, from hemi- which means half, plus the Greek word elutron, which means a covering. 

By the way, a ladybird or beetle's forewing (the coloured bit you can see when it is at rest) is an elytron, because the whole forewing is stiffened, not just half of it (so it's hemelyton without the hemi-, see?). 

As that is the case, I think it's arguable that you can chalk yourself up four hemelytra if you see a ladybird...well, you can as you're not fussy and long as no one's looking, anyway.

Sunday 18 June 2017

Sunday Rest: faucet. Word Not To Use Today.

American English is a bold and vigorous thing, and mostly I'm happy to welcome its many innovations into my own British version of the language. If anyone decided to standardise the spelling of the two dialects it wouldn't bother me much at all (though I would be a little sad if I had to write standardize)*.

It would be useful to have a word to describe a person of British heritage, too. (Brit hasn't really caught on, here.)

So on the whole I don't mind if people want to alphabetize something instead of putting it into alphabetical order; I don't mind if people want to do Math instead of Maths.


That word faucet. Force-it.

It's not as pretty as our English word tap, is it?

File:Big Tap wp.jpg
The Big Tap in Cowes, Victoria, Australia. Photo by Bilby

Word Not To Use Today: faucet. This word comes from the Old French fausset, from the Provençal falcet, from falsar, to bore.

*Even though it's recommended in the Oxford English style book already.

Saturday 17 June 2017

Saturday Rave: Out Back by Henry Lawson.

The poet Henry Lawson had a romantic life, if romantic is taken, as it so often is, to mean the same as doomed.

Henry Lawson was born during the Australian Gold Rush in 1867, the product of a very unhappy marriage. By the age of fourteen he was completely deaf. He worked in the building trade, for various unsuccessful newspapers, and with various grasping publishers, and he was always poor. His own marriage deteriorated to the extent that his wife had him imprisoned for not paying maintenance for his children. He became alcoholic and depressed, and died in the single room that was his home in 1922.

He was then given a state funeral, his portrait was put on a bank note, and a statue was erected to him.

All in all, reality wasn't something Lawson could ignore, and he's best known for his unflinching look at life in the outback of Australia.

Here's the beginning of his poem about just that.

The old year went, and the new returned, in the withering weeks of drought,
The cheque was spent that the shearer earned,
and the sheds were all cut out;
The publican's words were short and few,
and the publican's looks were black - 
And the time had come, as the shearer knew, to carry his swag Out Back

Henry Lawson is famous for being a realist. But all the same, I should imagine that there were times when the poor man wouldn't have minded being a romantic at all.

Word To Use Today: cheque. (They're called checks in America.) This word means a money-order in Britain and America, and wages in Australia and New Zealand. It's the same word as check, meaning to make sure, and comes from the Middle English chek.

You'll find the whole of Henry Lawson's poem HERE.

Friday 16 June 2017

Word To Use Today: faugh!

My Collins dictionary says faugh! is an exclamation of disgust, scorn, etc, but without mentioning that the last person to use it probably died in the first half of the last century.

Now, one of the reasons for faugh's sad demise must be that hardly anyone knows how to pronounce it (I didn't) but Collins tells me that faugh rhymes with phwoar, law, and cor (English spelling eh?).

Anyway, disgust or scorn...I think I'm going to enjoy using this one.


Word To Use Today: faugh! 

I ought to mention that according to Merriam-Webster faugh sort-of rhymes with back, though with the final sound throatier, as at the end of loch.

Thursday 15 June 2017

Getting your goat: a rant.

A new parliament in Britain starts with the Queen's Speech. Our wonderful queen dresses up gallantly in a long dress, cloak, and a large and heavy crown, and then she sits on a golden throne and reads out a speech written for her by her new government. It announces the main bits of stuff the government plans to do over its term of office.

photograph from the parliament UK website

There are page-boys and gold braid and jewels and lots of knee-breeches and velvet and ermine (any especially stoat-friendly lords will wear fake fur) and it's all very amazing and peculiar.

But this time there's a problem. Well, two problems.

First of all, our recent election didn't return a winner strong enough to survive if everyone else gangs up on them, and so it looks likely that the ceremony will be delayed until the government finds some really reliable friends among the other parties.

Secondly, there's trouble with the goats


Well, not with the goats so much as the goatskin - which, as a matter of fact, doesn't actually come from a goat.

I told you it was all peculiar.

The thing is, the Queen's Speech is written on high-quality paper designed to last a couple of thousand years (at least) and this stuff is called goatskin paper, even though it has never even seen a goat.

Now, the paper's no problem, but apparently the ink that's used to write the speech takes several days to dry, and the wrangling over who's going to support the largest party, and under what terms, has been going on for so long that the opening of the British Parliament might be held up so the ink of the Queen's Speech, when an agreement has been reached as to what should be in it, has time to dry off.

Good grief. You'd think they could just use a photocopy for the time being, wouldn't you?

Word To Use Today: goat. The Queen's Speech used to be written on real goatskin, but now it's written on high-quality paper with amazingly impractical ink. As a nod to tradition, the paper has a hallmark in the shape of a goat. The word goat comes from the Latin haedus, which means kid.

Going goat is an expression used in parliament to refer to the moment the Speech must be ready in order for it to be sent to the Queen for her approval before the State Opening of Parliament.

Wednesday 14 June 2017

Nuts and Bolts: dactyls.

A dactyl is a type of foot, which is really peculiar because daktulos is Greek for finger.

What sort of foot is a dactyl?

It's the type of foot that goes jogging along through so much verse and lyrics and poetry. This sort of foot consists of a heavy stress, together with the weak stress or stresses (if any) that go with it.

For instance, a line of verse that goes da-DAH, da DAH, da DAH, da DAH (like Wordsworth's I WANdered LONEly AS a CLOUD*) consists of four feet of the sort called, as it happens, iambic. You can have other rhythms, too, like DAH-da, DAH-da (TWINkle, TWINkle...) or DA-diddy, DA-diddy, DA-diddy, DA-diddy.

A DA-diddy. DA-diddy poem is made up of feet called dactyls.

Fate sent me, scared, where the lilies are icy, and
Turned their white faces like ghosts scenting death...

Or, in an example I haven't just cobbled together:

Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onwards

which is the beginning of Tennyson's Charge of the Light Brigade.

Dactyls are a bit sticky to write in English, but were used a lot on Ancient Greek.

How to remember that a dactyl goes DAH-diddy? Well, you just remember the Greek daktulos and look at a finger. You have the heavy joint near your hand, and then two smaller, weaker ones.


Word To Consider Today: dactyl. This word, as you know, comes from the Greek daktulos, which means finger.

*In that example the need of the poem to jog leads most people to stress the word AS, which is ridiculous.

Tuesday 13 June 2017

Thing Not To Do Today: slommack about.

Slommack is a dialect word. Some authorities say it means a dirty untidy woman or slob (though slobs are surely nearly always men), and some say a slommack is a woman no more fastidious in her personal relationships than her undone housework.

So who is right? 

Well, I have referred above to authorities, but with dialect words surely anyone who's come across the word is as much an authority as anyone else, because a dialect word doesn't claim a universal meaning, only one for a particular place and time.

This is jolly convenient because it makes me as much of an expert as anyone, for I spent a lot of my younger days being told by my mother to stop slommacking about.

What my mother meant was never very easy to pin down, but my general impression was that to slommack was to loiter, to be ungainly, to sit untidily, to fail to be useful, or to be in the way, 

I cured myself of slommacking, instantly and miraculously, by leaving home as soon as I possibly could.

And now instead of slommacking I reflect, meditate, cogitate, ponder, and write books.

Thing Not To Do Today: slommack. I haven't been able to discover any derivation for slommack, but it's linked in my mind with slump, which is a Scandinavian word connected with the Norwegian slumpa, to fall, and in Low German means bog.

Monday 12 June 2017

Spot the Frippet: dairy.

If you're in New Zealand, where do you go if you want to buy a pack of bin liners at eight o'clock in the evening?

Yes, that's right, a dairy

I know that in most English-speaking places a dairy is a place that makes and supplies milk products, but in New Zealand it's a shop that's open outside usual trading hours.

It's a lovely use of the term, if likely to sow confusion among non-natives.

If you live in a house too small to have its own dairy in which to churn your cream into butter - which is basically, let's face it, all of us - then anything made of milk is termed dairy. This use is usually encountered nowadays as I don't eat dairy, a deeply irritating if efficient phrase managing to signal smugness, superiority, and entitlement in a very few words. 

(Yes, there are poor people who really can't, but in this (and every) case a brief but sincere apology for causing trouble is due, and will soothe many a savage breast.)

Anyway, milk, butter, cheese, ice cream, cream, are all dairy products, and the animals which give us the milk to produce them are dairy animals.

There are dairy cattle:

File:Cow female black white.jpg


Nigerian Dwarf Dairy Goat, photo by Jmkarohl


By Schaeferhof - Self-published work by Schaeferhof, CC BY-SA 3.0,


photo by Heiko S 


A one-humped camel

By Jjron - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

and even donkeys:

dark-coloured donkeys
Photo by Aloisio  

But best of all is the derivation of the word itself, which is, so pleasingly, absolutely nothing to do with dairy products at all.

Word To Use Today: dairy. This word comes from the Old English dǣge, a servant girl, that is, one who kneads bread (it's basically the same word as dough).

Sunday 11 June 2017

Sunday Rest: dactylology. Word Not To Use Today.

I used, long ago, to be a bell-ringer. English bell-ringing is a scientific intellectual exercise (as well, of course, as being a physical one) and as it turned out I hadn't got either the brains or the muscles for it.

I do not understand why, but more or less every Englishman knows, and is proud to know, the scientific term for bell-ringing, which is campanology. Sadly, faced with a bell-ringer, very few Englishmen can resist showing off their knowledge. So, they'd say (the more self-aware of them trying not to smirk) you're a campanologist. And I'd smile weakly, agree, and edge towards the door. 

Because, you see, I was a ringer. A bell-ringer, if you like, to distinguish me from bird-ringers, but campanologist was way, way too pompous for anything with which I wanted to be associated.

The same is true, I would suggest, of the word dactylology. Though it describes a very fine and sophisticated means of communicating with people who can't hear, the use of the term sign language will make you look, in ordinary circumstances, much less of a dork.

File:Sign language V.svg

Sunday Rest: datylology. The Greek word daktulos means finger.

Saturday 10 June 2017

Saturday Rave: Mad Dogs and Englishmen by Noel Coward

In tropical climes there are certain times of day
When all the citizens retire to tear their clothes off and perspire.
It's one of the rules the greatest fools obey,
Because the sun is much too sultry
And one must avoid its ultra violet ray.
The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts,
Because they're obviously, definitely, nuts!

So begins Noel Coward's great song. The rest of it can be found HERE and will, I'm sure, prove a source of enchantment and instruction. Just have a look at the extraordinary rhyming scheme, for a start.

Then how about having a listen to Coward himself singing it at a speech to turn many a rapper faint:

The English tend to find obvious displays of patriotism off-putting, but we do enjoy a well-turned insult. So for us - and I hope for you - this is just bliss.

Word To Use Today: violet. This is a lovely word when pronounced with three syllables, and rather nasty when pronounced with two. It comes from the Latin viola, which means violet. The -et bit means small.

Friday 9 June 2017

Word To Use Today: tortoise.

What's a tortoise?

Well, it depends rather upon where in the world you are, but on the whole most people think of a tortoise as a land-dwelling reptile that has a shell on its back, the carapace (and one under its belly, too, the plastron).

But of course a tortoise starts off inside another shell entirely:

photo by  Mayer Richard 

Tortoises are tremendous beasts. The oldest land animal in the world was said to be an Aldabran tortoise called Adwaita, who may have lived to be 255 years old (you can get some idea of how old a tortoise is by looking at the number of growth rings on its shell, though this doesn't work if it's a pet which hasn't had to hibernate).

File:Galapagos Tortoise (5213306875).jpg
Galapagos tortoise, photo by Daniel Ramirez

Sadly, and as is often the case with people, too, old age does not necessarily bring wisdom. The brain of a South American tortoise does not have a hippocampus, which we humans use for processing emotion, and also when learning, for navigation, and for memory. Still, it may be that a tortoise can remember things using a different part of its brain, or perhaps ( sad thought) there's not much in a tortoise's life that's worth remembering. After all, they never go anywhere very much - the world record for a tortoise sprint is 5 miles per hour (8 kph) - and when hibernating they tend to get so bored that they even stop breathing.

Still, who isn't fascinated by tortoises? Why, some even come decorated in Art Deco style:

File:Indian star tortoise - Houston Zoo - cropped.jpg
photo of an Indian Star tortoise by Jacob.jose

And who can help but wonder, when gazing into a dark, inscrutable eye, what alien kind of intelligence dwells behind the scales?

Word To Use Today: tortoise. This word probably comes from the Old French tortue, which is probably something to do with the Latin tortus, twisted. Originally, though, the word tortoise comes from the Greek tartaroukhos, coming from Tartarus, because tortoises were believed to come from the Underworld.

Thursday 8 June 2017

Especially for kind people: a rant.

Look, if you send people envelopes inscribed 


then what sort of person do you imagine is going to open them?

Word To Use Today: torture. This word comes from the Latin tortūra, a twisting, from torquēre, to twist.

PS I've had more or less to give up watching drama on TV, too.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

Nuts and Bolts: the seal of authenticity.

A hobbit's will must be signed with the signatures of seven witnesses in red ink. That red ink, in particular, always seemed to me to be a very clever touch because of course it meant that people knew exactly what they were signing. 

(I suppose there's a book to be written about a wicked hobbit who invents a black ink which fades to red over time, but on the whole I hope no one writes it.)

Anyway, the thing that reminded me of hobbits' wills was a remark made by Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the US House of Representatives Oversight Committee '[I'm] going to get the Comey memo, if it exists' he said. '...I have my subpoena pen ready'.

Now, Mr Chaffetz's subpoena pen may be nothing more than a figure of speech, but it sounds like a good idea to me to have a special pen for important decisions, especially if it's kept locked up somewhere so you can't get at it in a hurry - and preferably requiring a very small key to open it that's impossible to manipulate when drunk. 

Of course there's a long history of extra security for authenticating documents. When Bad King John reluctantly agreed to go along with the list of demands on Magna Carta, he had to attach the impression of his Great Seal to prove he really had properly agreed to it:

Great Seal of King John

(though he still tried to wriggle out of the deal).

Similar seals have been used for thousands of years, This one:

is dated about 1,800 BC. It's hollow, shows the worship of the god Shamash, was probably worn on a string, and comes from Mesopotamia.

And it wasn't just ancient kings and priests who have been required to attached things to documents. From 1891 until 1964 in England all receipts for a value over £2 had to have a tupenny (two pence) postage stamp attached to it to make it valid in a court of law.

Now of course we have to make do with passwords and dongles and retinal scanners and fingerprint scanners and voice recognition and goodness knows what else. The codes for the USA's nuclear weapons are printed among random numbers on a credit card-type thing sealed inside a plastic case. It's changed daily, is carried upon the president's person, and is called, bafflingly 'the biscuit'.

All very secure, I suppose. But, I don't know, I might feel safer if the codes could only be triggered by seven signatures in red ink. 

Seven hobbits' signatures in red ink, preferably, too.

Word To Use Today: subpoena. This word is Latin for under penalty.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

Thing To Be Today: brave.

Being brave means stepping away from the track you've trodden smooth.

It's saying what's surströmming?* and having it anyway.

It's going to the party in the orange blouse.

It's being resolute, but not angry.

It's asking her out.

It's saying what you believe, and listening with an open mind to those who disagree.

It's looking at everything properly.

It's asking for help.

It's not asking for help.

It's knowing that something else is more important than you.

It's jumping into space.

It's picking yourself up again.

Above all, it's being properly alive.

Thing To Be Today: brave. This word comes from the Italian bravo, courageous or wild, and before that may come from the Latin barbarus, barbarous.

*Swedish fermented fish. There's a video below, but I couldn't honestly recommend that you watch it. Unless you're feeling brave...

Monday 5 June 2017

Spot the Frippet: ninny.

A ninny is a dull-witted person (in North America they're sometimes called ninnyhammers).

How easy a spot is this!

Obviously most politicians of all the other parties (and some of yours) will qualify, as will the person between you and the shelf at the supermarket; the person blocking the road junction; almost all the journalists on several newspapers easily available in your local area; at least three of the people in your class/office/family (quite possibly including a boss/teacher/parent); the interviewee on the radio; the presenter on the radio; the neighbour who double-parks; the person who displays his musical taste for everyone to hear; and, of course, the dog who eats wallets and the white cat who sleeps on the black velvet jacket.

Mind you, they say it takes one to know one. 

As proof of this, see below, because the word ninny seems to have been made up by a real idiot...

Spot the Frippet: ninny. This word seems to be an example of false splitting based on the phrase an innocent (from when, in the 1500s, innocent meant simpleton), This became, in the mouths of the ignorant, a ninnocent and was shortened from there. 

Where the hammer in ninnyhammer came from no one knows, but it might be just to rhyme with yellowhammer. (The hammer in yellowhammer probably comes from a German word for the sort of bird English speakers call a bunting.)


Sunday 4 June 2017


Look, shouting This is for Allah! as you stab someone is rather like shouting This is for Vegetarians! as you sacrifice a goat.

Here is a beautifully written example of the Basmala:


The Basmala occurs many times throughout the Koran, each time reminding believers that God is gracious and merciful.

So, which bit of gracious and merciful do these people not understand?

Sunday Rest: flexitarian. Word Not To Use Today.

A flexitarian is someone who eats meat, fish and vegetables, just like anybody else, but wants to look fashionable and clever about it.

Will adopting such a fancy label fool anyone?

I doubt it. Anyway, why not call oneself a vegetarian and then eat the bacon anyway, in the way of traditional hypocrites?

Word Not To Use Today: flexitarian. This word comes from flexible, plus -arian to make it sound like vegetarian. The Latin flexus means bent.

Saturday 3 June 2017

Saturday Rave: Kolin, by Detlev von Liliencron

The Battle of Kolin took place in 1757 during the Seven Years' War. Detlev von Liliencron's poem about it, Wer weiss wo (Who knows where?) was written long afterwards in 1883, but the last thing it was, or is, is out-of-date.

Sometimes it takes the diminishing effect of distance to let you see things whole.

Liliencron wrote his poem in German. It begins:

Auf Blut und Leichen, Schutt und Qualm,
Auf rosszerstampften Sommerhalm
Die Sonne schien
Es sank die Nacht, Die Schlacht ist aus,
Und mancher kehrte nicht nach Haus
Einst von Kolin. 

On blood and corpses, debris and smoke,
On crushed and trodden summer grass
The sun was shining.
It sank the night. The battle was over,
And many did not return home
Again from Kolin.

Perhaps Liliencron's poem seems sentimental, now, but HERE you can find a marvellous...well, it's more of a reaction than a the poem by

It's well worth reading, especially to see how the story has cascaded and changed down the centuries from the terrible Battle of Kolin in 1757.

Word To Use Today: battle. This word comes from the Latin battālia, exercises performed by soldiers, from battuere, to beat.

Friday 2 June 2017

Word To Use Today: slorm.

Slorm might sound like the domain of some particularly irritable dragon, but it's a very useful word indeed. In fact those of us not from the Midlands of England, where slorm has its home, have been missing out on a treat.

Slorm, you see, means to wipe carelessly.

And surely a day never passes when we don't feel at least tempted to do that.

Word To Use Today: slorm. This word comes from the English Midlands, but I haven't been able to discover where this word comes from historically before that. Sl- is often used for sticky and messy things, though - slick, slop, and slosh, for example - so my guess is that this word, like Topsy, just growed.

Thursday 1 June 2017

Short planks: a rant.

That expression, thick as two short planks.

Look, I can see why someone might be described as being as thick as a plank, and being as thick as two planks is obviously twice as bad as that; but why on earth would the fact that the planks are short have anything to do with anything?

No, no, it's all right, really...yes, I'm taking deep breaths. 

I mean, this has only been irritating me for a bit more than half a century.

I'll cope.

File:Two-plank footbridge to stairs across water.jpg
Two plank bridge, photo by eric molina

Word To Use Today: plank. This word comes from the Old Norman French planke, from the Latin planca, board, from plancus, flat-footed. It's probably, too, something to do with the Greek plax, which means a flat surface.