This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 31 August 2017

A proper apology: a rant.

Look, when I need to look at a webpage and all that comes up on display is that stupid buffering circle swooping round and dismally round then I deserve a proper apology.

Something like this:

We regret that this webpage has proved impossible to load. We apologise for the slow-running of our service and for any inconvenience caused. 

Please click RELOAD, or revisit this webpage at some other time. Thank you.

See? Straightforward and dignified. 

What does no good at all is coming up with a square sad face above a sign that says:

 Aw Snap!

(Aw Snap? What language is that, for heaven's sake?)

followed by:

Something went wrong with displaying this webpage

which, guess what, we already knew.

Good grief. I mean, how many deaths from enraged apoplexy do these people want on their consciences?

Word To Use Today: apologise. This word comes from the Old French apologie, from the Greek apologia, a verbal defence, from apo- away from, or off, plus logos, speech.

Wednesday 30 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: company names.

I used to have a publisher (perhaps I still do, though I don't think they've paid me anything for a while) called Beijing Dick and Sun Glory Children Reading Advisor Incorporated.

The name still delights me, especially as my other publishers tend to have boring names like Oxford, Pearson, or Collins.

But is it a good name?

The advice the business media company Forbes gives on its website is to keep a company name short, pronounceable, relevant and/or memorably clever. Good old Beijing Dick doesn't fulfill many of these criteria (though it is pronounceable) but it does have considerable charm, which goes for something (though not, sadly, for selling books, see above).

But the proof of the pudding, as so often, must be in the eating, so what are the names of the five biggest companies in the world? 

We have Walmart (which doesn't, as far as I know, sell walls); State Grid (power supplies); Sinopec Group (petrol refining); China National Petroleum(more petrol refining); Toyota (motor vehicles (this one is named after its founder)).

Throw in a few other successful companies such as Amazon and Apple, and you can see that only the being pronounceable rule seems to count for much. 

But now there is a new rule. China has just banned companies from having long or strange names. It's thought this ruling was triggered by a Chinese company called (deep breath):

There is a Group of Young People with Dreams Who Believe They Can Make the Wonders of Life Under the Leadership of Uncle Nui Internet Technology Co Ltd.

On the whole I don't think the Chinese need have bothered. I mean, how long is that company going to last?

Not very long under that name, I fear.

Word To Use Today: a favourite company name. Lego, perhaps, which is short for the Danish leg godt, which means play well.

Tuesday 29 August 2017

Thing To Do Today: spruce yourself up.

A model, as seen on a catwalk, is a Work of Art. He has been primped, plucked, pumped, polished, primed and posed to be as perfectly pretty as a picture.

File:Ny Nordisk Mode, Catwalk.jpg
photo by Benjamin Suomela

His body is a thing of such splendour that it takes on a haze of grandeur even if wearing an unironed T shirt and an ancient pair of jeans.

File:Male Model John Quinlan 4.jpg
John Quinlan, photo by Sandra Kimball

But on you?

Look, it's the difference between Tracey Emin's unmade bed and your own: it's fine for everyday when no one much is looking, but not for when you show people round.

And anyway, putting on a less stinky T shirt wouldn't do any harm, would it.

Thing To Do Today: spruce yourself up. The first item of spruce clothing was a jerkin made from spruce leather:

Picture of jerkin.jpg

which was reckoned dead smart in the late 1500s. The leather, like the timber of the spruce tree, came from Prussia, which gave us the word spruce.

Monday 28 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: camel.

Ah, yes, you may know what a camel is, but did you know that a camelopard (they say) looked like this? 

 Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

And did you know that the hairs on a camel hair brush come from the tail of this creature?

File:Eastern Grey Squirrel.jpg
photo by

(Though they sometimes come from an ox or a pony.)

But that's to take nothing away from the beautiful camel itself:

photo: By Garrondo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Those one-humped camels in the picture are dromedaries, and the two species of camels with two humps are called Bactrian camels. The second species of these, the Wild Bactrian camels found China and Mongolia is, sadly, extremely rare.

Although camels are usually associated with dry places (and, I'm afraid, bad-temper) there's another sort of camel that's found in water. This camel is either a fender tied to a boat to stop it knocking against a wharf, or a larger buoyant version of more or less the same thing attached to a boat to make it float higher in the water.

So you can get camels on (very) dry land, in the sea - and you get them in the air, too. This is the World War 1 plane called the Sopwith Camel:

RAF Sopwith Camel.jpg

The hump-shaped metal casing designed to protect its machine guns gave the plane its (unofficial) name.

If you're somewhere where there are no boats or camels (which would be a sad thing) then camel is also light sandy sort of a colour. 

This means that, sadly, a camel coat isn't fancy dress, or an item of clothing with some eccentric padding, but a winter garment entirely unsuitable for wearing in muddy conditions.

Spot the Frippet: camel. This word is Old English and goes right back to the Greek kamēlos, the Hebrew or Phoenician gāmāl, and is related to the Arabic jamal.

Sunday 27 August 2017

Sunday Rest: sprue. Word Not To Use Today.

Once written, a book goes first of all to its editor. With any luck the editor will say at once how much she loves the book, but add that there are just a couple of minor things she's slightly unsure about...and basically by means of flattery and reassurance she'll persuade the poor idiot writer to agree to every change she wants.

Well, that's more or less how it works, anyway.

Anyway, once the polite haggling is finished, the book will be published, and then it might be translated and published elsewhere in the world. Now, what the foreign editor/translator does with the manuscript the non-polyglot writer won't be able to discover very easily unless it's in a language very close to English.

The most obvious of these languages is American.

They like things explained, I've found, do the Americans. A simple reference to someone taking biscuits into an office, for instance, is enough to give a US editor the vapours. But we eat doughnuts! she'll say: People will be confused! 

In this instance, as I recall, we compromised on milk.

A lot of the time, of course, a writer doesn't have the time or skill to read through foreign editions, but there was one US edition which swiped me round the face as soon as I saw it. Not only had some editor simplified nearly every sentence (which, as they'd made an exceptionally good job of it, I didn't actually mind very much) but they'd had the insufferable gall to change my name. I write under the name SALLY PRUE. The name on the cover said S PRUE.

Apart from the cheek and illegality of this, sprue is a horrid word. It can mean a particularly smelly form of chronic diarrhoea; it can mean an inferior type of asparagus; or (more respectably) it can mean the channel through which you fill up a mould.

So what did I do about being called S PRUE? Got very cross, of course, both as a champion of equal rights (because it seemed to me that the publisher was trying to conceal the fact that I was female) and as someone who lives by their name. 

It had no effect whatsoever: but it made me feel better.

Word Not To Use Today: sprue. No one knows where the mould or the asparagus words come from, but the diarrhoea word, charmingly, is related to the Middle Low German sprüwe, which means tumour.

Saturday 26 August 2017

Saturday Rave: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Inspired by the hilarious example of so many of our great minds, as revealed in the Sunday newspaper literary columns, my holiday raves have been some of the heaviest, most serious and generally least suitable holiday reads imaginable. 

Last week it was Clarissa, and now it's War and Peace.

It took me half a century to get round to reading War and Peace. Well, I did read the first paragraph several times but it's frankly quite dreadful, and so I put the book aside. 

The trouble is that so many of our great minds (see above), urged to name the best novel they've ever read, have had an inconvenient habit of saying War and Peace, so the dreadful suspicion was always lurking in my mind that the book was a transcendent masterpiece, and that I was missing out on a profoundly mind-altering and moving experience.

So, recently, with a new translation by Anthony Briggs before me (which I trusted would improve that awkward first paragraph) and a very useful list of characters to refer to, I took the plunge.

So here are a few things I didn't know about War and Peace until I actually got round to reading it.

War and Peace has short chapters, many of only two or three pages. This is a great help in making the reader feel he's making progress.

There's a lot more Peace than War.

War and Peace is not a novel. For one thing it's got great chunks of reflections on the theories of history and war in it, and for another the book has also got a lot of actual history in it, too. (If you're saying, well that doesn't necessarily stop it being a novel, then you're right, but Leo Tolstoy himself said that the book isn't a novel, and he should know. 'War and Peace,' he went on, 'is what the author wanted to and could express in the form in which it was expressed'.)

Tolstoy was a great admirer of the works of Anthony Trollope and started off meaning to take Trollope as a model for writing of the book. This may account for some of Tolstoy's addresses directly to the reader, and the completely random hunting scene.

About two per cent of the Tolstoy's final version of War and Peace wasn't in Russian, but in French.

War and Peace is longer than it used to be. The first full-book version missed out many of Tolstoy's philosophical musings (and it was all in Russian).

War and Peace is shorter than it used to be. The Russian alphabet was reformed in 1918 and several useless letters were removed. This made the book about eleven pages shorter.

Tolstoy didn't think War and Peace was much good. 'People love me for my trifles - War and Peace and so on - that they think are important', he said.

The book is famously about Napoleon's march on Moscow in 1812, but the original title of the book was The Year 1805.

It took Tolstoy a year to write the first scene.


Now, the thing is, is War and Peace any good? Well, so many people say it's a masterpiece that I suppose it must be. But personally, I'm afraid I couldn't honestly recommend it.

I mean, that first paragraph...

Word To Use Today: peace. This word comes from the Latin pāx.

Friday 25 August 2017

Word To Use Today: chrematistic.

Here's a beautifully crisp word: chrematistic.

Chrematistic means to do with money, but it's not the sort of respectable money you get by earning a living. No, the chrematistic stuff is the extra money that goes on the top of a thing's intrinsic worth to make up its price. 

In other words it's the profit which doesn't (some say) profit anyone but the person raking in the dosh.

Chrematistic is also to do with levels of interest, exchange rates, and middle-men. It's the money which grows without obviously doing anything useful on the way. It's been frowned upon by Aristotle, Plato, St Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Karl Marx...

...but, hey, that lot came up with all sorts of weird stuff, didn't they? I mean, Aristotle thought that eels don't reproduce, and Luther thought that a lay person who preached in church should be put to death.

And chrematistic is such a lovely word...

...still, we don't have to approve to use it, do we?

Word To Use Today: chrematistic. This word comes from the Greek khrēmatizein to make money, from khrēma, money.

Thursday 24 August 2017

An explosion of..something or other.

I saw a headline in an online newspaper the other day:

The UK's digital economy. It's about to explode

it said.

I wish I'd read the article, now, because I still don't know whether that's a good thing or not.

In the Guardian headline of 14 April 2015:

 'Timebomb' UK economy will explode after election 

it's a bad thing. But in the Washington Post of 28 June 2017: 

The app economy is about to explode 

it's a jolly good one.

Ah well. I can't find that headline on Google, so I suppose I'll never know.

Still, I haven't heard any loud bangs, recently, so I expect it's all rot, anyway.

Word To Use Carefully Today: explode. This word comes from the Latin explōdere, to drive off by clapping or hissing [an actor on the stage], from plaudere, to clap.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: phonation.

Phonation is to do with how (and if) your vocal chords vibrate when you say a sound or a word.

Try putting a finger on your Adam's apple (your vocal chords are inside it) and saying a long deep ooooh. Then try whispering it.

See? No vibration if you whisper.

But of course it's not as simple as that. In the English sound b, for instance, the vocal chords start vibrating part of the way through saying it. The sound p isn't voiced (ie the vocal chords don't start vibrating) until after it's finished.

An s in English may be voiced (bugs) or not (butts).

But English is simplicity itself compared with some other languages. The Mexican language Mazatec uses, as well as our voiceless and voiced phonation, breathy, slack, stiff, and creaky ones. In the Bor dialect of Dinka, spoken in South Sudan, whether you say a word in an ordinary-voiced, breathy, harsh, or yawning phonation might make it mean diarrhoea, go ahead, scorpions or to swallow - which could, obviously, be a matter of life or death: or, possibly even worse, really serious embarrassment.

It's all rather wonderful, isn't it?

Thing To Consider Today: phonation. This word comes from the Greek phōnē, voice, of course.

Special thanks today to Wikipedia for knowing all this stuff.

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Thing To Be Today: suspicious.

Some years ago a late-running train meant that I found myself stranded at a railway station on the North Yorkshire Moors. It was winter, it was getting dark, I had an hour to wait for my connection, and the station environs made Wuthering Heights look like something directed by Cecil B DeMille.

There was in fact just one person within screaming distance, a young woman sitting on the only bench on the platform. 

It wasn't until after I'd taken a seat myself that I discovered she was muttering - and not just muttering, but groaning and moaning and giving out mad chuckles and yelps that echoed round the deserted station and would, quite frankly, have made Nelly Dean herself look askance.

Now, I like to be friendly, and in these circumstances I was keen, as you may imagine, to avoid causing offence. But what to do? Move off and hide behind a lamp post and risk being thought stand-offish? Or stay where I was and hope my presence wouldn't cause this lady further agitation?

My mind was made up by a change in my companion. She suddenly sat bolt upright, turned towards me, fixed me with wild pale eyes, and said, very loudly and clearly: "SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES!" 

Then she went back to muttering again.

I went and found a lamp post.


It used to be the case that only dodgy circumstances made us suspicious, but now we are always being offered chances to help Nigerian princes with their finances, and or to be helped by the Microsoft technical department, I'm afraid that suspicion is a daily requirement of existence.

I don't let it sour my existence.

I do, however, do my best to avoid deserted railway stations.

Thing To Be Today: suspicious. This word comes from the Latin suspicere, to mistrust.

Monday 21 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: mitt.

It's an interesting word, mitt. Not the derivation, so much, which quite quickly runs into the sand (see below), nor its use as a short form of the word mitten.

(Still, while I'm here, there are, of course, oven mitts:

File:Baking glove.jpg
photo by Lymantria

and baseball mitts:

File:Baseball glove.png

and mitt is also a slang word for a boxing glove.)

No, to me the interesting mitt is the one which means a hand that causes mess, inconvenience, and possibly crime.

Here, get your grubby mitts off that clean washing!

(Though grubby mitts aren't necessarily actually grubby. They might just be naughty, as in: keep your grubby mitts away from that cake!)

Someone with a history of petty theft might have mitts: lock the drinks cupboard, Bob, or Uncle Bernard'll have his mitts on the ginger wine.

Mitt's meaning can be extended into metaphor, too: that scheme's got her mitts all over it. (That is, it shows signs of her self-interest.)

So: where can you spot your nearest mitt? In a kitchen, or on a sports field?

Or sprouting from your wrists?

If not, then whose hands do cause mess, inconvenience and crime?

It's not that difficult, is it?

File:Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau The Cunning Thief.jpg
painting by Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau

Spot the Frippet: mitt. This word is short for mitten, which comes from the Old French mitaine.

Sunday 20 August 2017

Sunday Rest: coiffure. Word Not To Use Today.

This word is fine if you're French, or speaking French (though do say it the French way. It shouldn't rhyme with manure).

File:Pierre-Auguste Renoir - La Coiffure.jpg
La Coiffure by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. PD-US

Otherwise, the word coiffure, meaning hairdo, can only really be used with enormous amounts of irony, probably heavily infused with camp.

Actually, that sounds quite fun. It's vital to use it only in the presence of those with a sense of humour, though. 

Still, if you fancy a bit of danger, and a challenge...

Word Not To Use Today: coiffure. This word is French, and is basically the same word as coif. The Latin cofea means helmet or cap. 

Saturday 19 August 2017

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

There's one huge problem with the novel Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady: it's nearly twice as long as War and Peace.

Actually, now I come to think about it, I can hardly imagine two more different books than Clarissa and War and Peace. W&P takes you across half of Europe and manages to be about...well, about bits of more or less everything that was happening (or not happening) to Russians in the time of the reign of the French Emperor Napoleon...and Clarissa is about the fate of one young lady. Yes, she's called Clarissa. In fact she's called Clarissa Harlowe, which turns out to be quite interesting.

The plot of Clarissa could be summarised in a few sentences - which, obviously, I'm not going to do - but it's a book that's haunted me for decades. Yes, Lovelace the protagonist is a poser who gets very dull and annoying at times, but, gosh, you don't half get involved with the characters.

Oh, and I'll tell you what: I'd say that Clarissa has the most searing death-scene (not, as it happens, of a main character) in the whole of literature.

And the book starts with a duel.

I mean, what more could anybody want?

Well, stronger arms to hold the flipping thing, for a start.

Words To Consider Today: Clarissa Harlowe. Clarissa comes from the Latin clarus, which means bright, clear or famous; Harlowe is originally a place name from the Old English hoer, a pile of rocks, and hlaw, a hill. 

Harlowe is also reminiscent of at least one unfortunate female epithet.

Friday 18 August 2017

Words To Use Today: pteropod/sea butterfly.

Which do you like best pteropods or sea butterflies?

Which do you imagine you'd like most to see

Pteropod sounds scientific and has an exciting echo of pterodactyl (dactyl means finger, by the way); sea butterfly has a whimsical charm which some might consider veers towards the sickening.

Is the choice is between science and fantasy? Between danger and delicacy?

Here's a picture to help:

What do you think now?

Sea butterflies or pteropods mostly eat algae, and they range in size from a lentil to an orange. This doesn't sound too threatening until you discover that they trap the algae in a sticky web. 

Sea butterflies/pteropods live near the surface of the water of all the seas. The 'wings' (which are really, unromantically, a modified foot) flap to propel the thing along just like real wings.

Most pteropods/sea butterflies don't have a shell, and if they do it's very small and thin.

I'm afraid they're molluscs, like an octopuses or a slugs.

So, now what? Sea butterfly or pteropod?

Well, it might depend on who you are.

I'd imagine a male-female bias if I dared...

...but I don't.

Word To Use Today: sea butterfly/pteropod. The pod comes from the Greek pous, foot. Ptero- comes from the Greek pteron, wing or feather. The word butterfly is discussed HERE.

Thursday 17 August 2017

To coin a phrase: a rant.

Good grief this is a mess.

To coin a phrase means to invent a new one - except, of course,  when it doesn't. Nowadays this is most of the time.

It's supposed to be an irony thing. People have started saying to coin a phrase when they're about to use a cliché. I think they're signalling that they know it's a cliché and that they wouldn't dream of using it except as an oh-so-sophisticated joke.

But look, the thing about jokes is that they need to be a) funny and b) surprising (unless, like a catch-phrase, they're conjuring up some memory of ancient joy). The ironic use of to coin a phrase isn't either of those things, and, anyway, employing a cliché to mock using a cliché is, frankly, nuts. 

It also (though this, obviously, is a matter of minor importance) irritates the heck out of me.

So just stop doing it, okay?

Phrase Not To Use Today: to coin a phrase. Just to make this phrase even murkier, a coiner can be someone who makes fake coins, though whether this has any relevance here, I don't know. The word coin comes from the Old French word for stamping die, from the Latin cuneus, wedge.

Wednesday 16 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: acrophony.

Acrophony is when the name of a letter begins with the letter itself. For example, the word dee is the name of its own first letter.

It's a great help in remembering which letter is which.

The idea's been around pretty much since there have been letters to name. Proto-Sinaitic emerged from Egyptian hieroglyphs, where the picture of an ox, or 'alp, eventually turned itself upside down and became our capital letter A, also originally called 'alp.

Acrophony has turned out to be such a good idea that it's found all over the place. The Greek letters alpha, beta, gamma, delta, are an obvious example, though not as obvious as our own English a, bee, cee, dee, e...after which it goes a bit haywire, the next letter being, of course, eff, but never mind. French operates on the same principle, but goes off track even earlier, with the letter c being called seh.

Cyrillic and Old Irish, ancient runes, and Thai all use the principle of acrophony - and good for them.

And, do you remember the radio alphabet? Alfa, Bravo, Charlie Delta...

Just think, modern telecommunications systems still rely on the Proto-Sinaitic word for ox.

I told you it was a good idea, didn't I?

Word To Use Today: well, how about alpha?

Tuesday 15 August 2017

Thing Not To Do Today: scuttle.

Scuttling is defined in my Collins dictionary as to move about with short hasty steps, but surely there's more to scuttling than that.

Crabs scuttle. Spiders scuttle. There's something furtive about scuttling, something predatory or fearful.

Someone who's scuttling is trying, for one reason or another, to avoid notice.


I definitely don't plan to do any scuttling today. Stately as a galleon, that's me...

...except that galleons remind me of the other sort of scuttling, which is actually even worse than the spidery kind. If you scuttle a ship you let water into it so that it sinks; scuttling a plan stops it for ever.

Ah well. At least we have coal scuttles...though even they are heavy, black and dirty.

I think all I can do with this word is to suggest giving thanks for strolling, dry land, and central heating.

Thing Not To Do Today: scuttle. Scuttle is at root really three words. The coal scuttle word comes from the Old English scutel, trencher, from the Latin scutra, platter; the running-about word might come from scud, but made to sound a bit like shuttle; the sinking-a-ship word comes from the Spanish escotilla, a small opening, from escote, an opening in a piece of cloth, from escotar, to cut out.

Monday 14 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: something pomaceous.

Something pomaceous is, obviously, something that relates to, or bears, pomes.

Bears what?

Pomes. You know, fruits like apples, pears, medlars:

photo by Takkk 

and quinces. Basically, a pome is any fruit that has juicy flesh and a core in the middle where you find the seeds - though when I say juicy, I don't necessarily mean edible by humans: the fruits of cotoneasters and whitebeam, for instance, are pomes, but tend not to feature in recipe books. 

Still, makes an apple sound all the juicier, doesn't it.

File:Big red apple.jpg
photo by Paolo Neo

Spot the Frippet: pomaceous. This word comes from Old French from the Latin pomum, apple. 

Sunday 13 August 2017

Sunday Rest: plain turkey. Words Not To Use Today.

It's not often you hear a turkey described as handsome:

photo by Greg Hume 

so calling a poor bird a plain turkey is, I think, particularly unkind, even if it lives in wide flat places.

Plain Turkey: photo by TonyCastro 

Oh, I see: that sort of a plain. 

Luckily the poor bird has a scientific name, Ardeotis australis, and other common English names. Mind you, sadly those names include Australian bustard and orange-footed scrubfowl.

Ah well. 

In the Aboriginal language Arrernte, the name for the plain turkey is kere artewe

I think I'm going to go for that.

Words Not To Use Today: plain turkey. I mean, even if you're wanting to eat the usual sort of turkey as a Sunday lunch, it's really probably best not to have the poor beast plain.

The word turkey's origins can be found HERE.

Saturday 12 August 2017

Saturday Rave: After Blenheim by Robert Southey.

Today is the Glorious Twelfth [of August]. This is when, if you're both rich and like killing things, you are finally allowed to go up on the moors and blast grouse out of the skies.

August 12th is also the date of a stupid number of battles, and in 1952 it was the Night of the Murdered Poets, when thirteen Jewish intellectuals were executed in Moscow after Stalin changed his mind about the desirability of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee he'd set up.

But August 12th was also, thank God, the day of Robert Southey's birth, and Southey (you pronounce it SUTHee (th as in mother, u as in cut) if you want to show you're educated, even though he himself seems to have called himself South-ee). 

Anyway, Robert Southey is one of the less celebrated, though possibly the sanest, of the Lake Poets, and he wrote one of the first anti-war poems, After Blenheim.

It's still a brilliantly effective poem (and quite short) though I don't think many people would say it was actually brilliant poetry. The full text can be found HERE, but here's a couple of verses to give the flavour: 

The poem opens like a modern piece of Scandi Noir, with the children Peterkin and Wilhelmine finding a skull while playing in their grandfather Kaspar's garden.

'Now tell us what 'twas all about,'
Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
With wonder-waiting eyes;
'Now tell us all about the war
And what they fought each other for.'

'It was the English,' Kaspar cried,

'Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
I could not well make out;
But everybody said,' quoth he,
'That 'twas a famous victory.'

Thanks to Southey for this careful view of another famously  glorious day.

Word To Use Today: glory. This word comes from the French gloire, from the Latin glōria, but its ultimate origin is a mystery.

Friday 11 August 2017

Word To Use Today: meriggiare.

In a month that has revealed to us that French speakers consider an Italian accent the most attractive in all the world (and that the English accent comes second)) what better word to use today than the Italian meriggiare?

Especially if you can do it in an English accent.

Meriggiare means to escape the midday sun by resting in the shade. It's not a bad chat-up line, either.

I won't put in a pronunciation guide, as the English accent is only going to help.

Mariggiare, mon ami?

Word To Use Today: mariggiare. This word is Italian. It comes from the Latin merīdiāre, from merīdiēs, midday. 

Thursday 10 August 2017

The racism of racism: a rant.

Jason Osamade Okundaye is a student of Sociology and Politics, and an organiser of Cambridge University's Black and Minority Ethnic Society. 

He's been defending himself against criticism:

'I stated that regardless of sexuality, class, gender or age, all white people are racist, i.e. not just one type of white person,' he said.

You have to laugh, you know. 

Word To Use Today: racist. Rather pleasingly, no one is sure where the word race, meaning a group of related people, comes from, but it got to England via French from the Italian razza

Wednesday 9 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: going loco.

How do you name a locomotive?

Well, the very first locomotives seem mostly to have been named as marketing exercises: for instance, those at the Rainhill Trials were called Rocket, Sans Pareil, Cycloped, Novelty and Perseverance. 

Marketing remained important for locomotive names over many years, and this has given us the famous Cannonball Express (there are still lots of express trains) and The Flying Scotsman.

But what was being marketed wasn't always speed, but prestige. In Britain, for instance, we had trains named The Black Prince and (less showily) William Wordsworth. Contemporary celebrities weren't ignored either, and it was possible in the twentieth century to hitch a ride on both George V and Dwight D Eisenhower.

But what of nowadays?

The Swedish Railway Company MTR Express, together with the Metro newspaper, are naming a new fleet of locomotives to travel between Sweden's two largest cities, Stockholm and Gothenburg. Some of the fleet will have names in the traditional mould. There will be a royal name, Estelle, after Sweden's five-year-old princess, and an Ingvar, named after a celebrity, the TV personality Ingvar Oldsberg.

But then things diverge from tradition.

This divergence seems has been caused by some names having been selected, not by the owners of the locomotives, but by public vote. So a third locomotive, with 43% of the vote, is called Glenn (it's a joke: everyone in Gothenburg has been said to be named Glenn ever since the 1980s, when the football team IFK Göteborg had as many as four Glenns in its line-up.)

And the fourth locomotive? Suggestions received from the public included Hakan, Miriam and Poseidon, but the run-away winner, with 49% of the vote was...

Trainy McTrainface.

'news that will be received with joy by many, not just in Sweden,' said MTR Express.

And how right they are.

Words To Use Today: Something Mcsomethingface. Mc or Mac, as found in Scottish or Irish Gaelic surnames, means son of. It comes from the Goidelic language.

More about this meme can be found HEREHERE and HERE.

Tuesday 8 August 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: shooglie.

I earnestly commend the most excellent Scottish word shooglie, especially to those in the USA. 

Of particular interest might be the expression his jacket's hanging on a shooglie peg, which means he's a great danger of getting fired.

Shooglie means shaky, which is an undesirable thing in a coat peg, chair leg, or any means of transport (a Glasgow tram: 

File:Glasgow Coronation tram.JPG

is nicknamed a shooglie.) (Photo by Kim Traynor

But if you have a shoogle (yes, I do mean shoogle) then you might be dancing (though probably not very well), or rocking a baby, or rearranging your ornaments.

Shooglie and shoogle: both lovely words, and I can't think however we managed without them.

Thing Not To Be Today: shooglie. This word might well be something to do with the German schaukeln, to shake.

Monday 7 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: flag.

Flags is rather hard to spot in England. I think it might be because of the deeply-engrained English fear of being thought a show-off.

There are very very seldom flags to be seen hanging indoors, here, even in Government offices. The Queen does fly her Royal Standard outside her current home:

File:Royal Standard of the United Kingdom.svg

 but then she's the Queen.

So where to find a flag? Occasionally you'll see a church that flies a flag from its tower (I don't know why). A modern town hall in a modern square may possibly have room for a couple of flag poles, though they'll probably be empty. An international tourist shop is likely to be smothered in Union Flags:

File:The Union Jack Flag MOD 45153521.jpg

But then most places don't have shops catering for international tourists.

Luckily, there are other, easier sorts of flags. A button on a computer screen to turn on or off a feature is a flag; so is the fringe under a dog's tail:

File:Irish Setter in Tallinn 2.JPG
Irish setter, photo by  Томасина

 or the entire tail of a deer:

Black-tailed deer (obviously). Photo by Bardbom 

 Some people use the word flag to mean bookmark, and in Australia and New Zealand a taxi that has a for-hire sign that sticks up is displaying its flag. A flag officer is a very senior naval officer who's entitled to fly his own personal flag.

Then we have the flower type of flags:

File:Iris pseudacorus LC0338.jpg
photo by Jörg Hempel

and the floor-covering type of flags:

File:Weedy flagstone deck 01.JPG
photo by User:SB_Johnny

Flags are also the long feathers on the leg of a hawk or falcon:

File:Galapagos hawk.jpg
Galapagos hawk, photo by Thomas O'Neil, Tgo2002 

I must say this is all a great relief to me, because personally I'm so English I'm embarrassed even to notice a flag of any nation at all. 

It seems a bit like, you know, showing off.

Spot the Frippet: flag. No one knows where the emblem-on-a-cloth word comes from. The flower word probably comes from Scandinavia, and the floor-stone word originally meant a piece of turf and comes from the Old Norse flaga, a slab.

Sunday 6 August 2017

Sunday Rest: diaphoresis. Word Not To Use Today.

No dears, properly-brought-up girls used to be told (not that I was properly brought-up, but I had a very stiff History teacher) young ladies don't sweat. Horses sweat; men perspire; and ladies glow.

Sometimes ladies glow so much they get positively effulgent, but it's still much more pleasant and elegant than sweating. No one wants to sweat.

However, there is, sadly, something even worse than sweating, and that is exhibiting diaphoresis. That's actually just the medical term for sweating, but it's such a thoroughly horrid word that surely it can only make sufferers feel even worse.

Actually, come to think about it, that's like a lot of medical terms.

Do you think the doctors are just trying to drum-up custom?

Word Not To Use Today: diaphoresis. This word comes from the Greek diaphorein, to disperse through sweat (ugh!) from dia-, across, and phorein, to carry. 

Saturday 5 August 2017

Saturday Rave: Father and Son by Edmund Gosse.

Our house is about to become a fog of plaster dust (we're having the place re-wired) and so all our least washable possessions have been either wrapped, or lodged with friends and family. 

All our library books have been returned, too, and this has given us the perfect excuse to re-visit some old favourites. The most recent of these has been Edmund Gosse's autobiographical book Father and Son. It describes Edmund's mid nineteenth century childhood, first in London and then in rural Devon, with his very strictly puritanical, anxiously loving, and fundamentalist Christian father, the scientist and Plymouth Brethren preacher Philip.

Edmund Gosse's professional life ended up being focused on Pre-Raphaelite poetry and modern Scandinavian and French Literature, so it can be seen that his father's beliefs failed in the end to have much of an effect upon him. I suppose whether you see this as the father's tragedy or the son's will depend upon your own view of God's place, if any, in creation, but either way there's very little theology here to try the patience of even the most ardent atheist, and hardly a quotation from the Bible, either, even though the Bible underpins every moment of Edmund's childhood.

The father of the title, Philip Gosse, is an illustrator and cataloguer of seashore specimens, living at a time when his beliefs about God's place in creation are under attack. He publishes a book which aims to reconcile the Bible and evolution (Darwin has been a friend) but, devastatingly, the world treats his earnest work with scorn. 

Meanwhile his son is coming to the awful understanding that he, himself, has no talent for prayer or even religious belief.

This is a generous, fair and affectionate account of a man who could easily have been portrayed as a monster, and a fascinating read for everyone, whether parent or child.

Word To Use Today: son. This word comes from the Old English sunu. The Sanskrit  form was sūnu.

Friday 4 August 2017

Word To Use Today: petaflops.

The word petaflops is, rather sadly, nothing to do with the French word péter, as made famous by le petomane, the feted French flatulist.

No, petaflops is a computer term to describe the speed of a computer. It is equivalent to a thousand million million floating-point operations per second.

I should imagine that's quite a lot.

How to use this lovely word in everyday conversation is something of a puzzle, but how about:

I fear his/her brain's processing powers are more flops than petaflops.

Yep. That should do it.

Word To Use Today: petaflops. The peta bit of this word comes from the SI unit denoting 10 to the power of 15. (It's the next unit up after tera, ten to the power of twelve.) The flops bit is short for floating-point operations per second.

I don't know which particular o, p, and s they've chosen to use from the phrase, though.