This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 30 September 2017

Saturday Rave: a talking shop.

On this day in 1938 The League of Nations unanimously outlawed...

Well, can you guess? 

Let me (like a politician) be absolutely clear: in an international organisation set up to maintain world peace, an issue had been discussed by various of the world's leaders. Then the most experienced and skilled diplomats had made the most careful possible choice of words to ensure that the resolution was clear (or, of course, not).

In this case it was clear. Completely and utterly transparent.

Everything that persuasion in the form of language could do had been done, and everyone (well, everyone who had bothered to join The League of Nations and hadn't subsequently gone off in a huff, anyway) was agreed.

On this day in 1938 The League of Nations unanimously outlawed 'intentional bombing of civilian populations.

It's enough to make you weep.

Word To Use Today: league. This word comes from the Old French ligue, from the Italian liga, and before that from the Latin ligāre, to bind.

Friday 29 September 2017

Word To Use Today: quinquereme

A quinquereme, as I'm sure you know, is a Roman ship propelled by oars arranged in five levels.

My Collins dictionary helpfully points out that these oars were on each side of the ship, which is certainly true, but has left me wondering whether this was entirely a good thing. It meant the ship could travel in a straight line rather than in constant frantic circles, but then a quinquereme was an extremely nasty thing to have bearing down on you with a view to sinking your own ship.


I may have just solved the problem of naval warfare.

So what use is the word quinquereme to us nowadays?

None whatsoever, as far as I can see, except for the sheer pleasure of saying it.

If you know the beginning of John Masefield's poem Cargoes, and can murmur Quinquireme* of Nineveh from distant Ophir as you go about your day then every hour will surely shimmer with voluptuous joy...

...and quite possibly get you your own seat on the train, too.

Word To Use Caressingly Today: quinquereme. This word comes from the Latin quinquerēmis, from quinque, five, plus rēmus. oar.

*That's how Masefield spells it. I like it, too, personally.

Thursday 28 September 2017

A growing rage: a rant.

Look, growing something and developing it are different things.

Growing happens all by itself. Yes, it may be that someone provides the conditions for the growth to happen, as with turnips, or dahlias, or children, but the actual growth happens as if by magic.

The same sort of thing occurs with population growth. Obviously individuals are helping that happen, but the population as a whole doesn't have that particular intention because a population can't have an intention.

Developing something, on the other hand, is what happens when you take deliberate steps to make something get bigger, or smaller, or more refined, or more profitable.

So, please, stop talking about growing a business.

You develop a business in growing mangelworzels.


Word To Use Today: develop. This word comes from the Old French developer, which means, delightfully, to unwrap.

Wednesday 27 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: hendiadys.

No, it's all right, this is easy. You've been using hendiadys more or less all your life: hendiadys is just the clever name for it.

Hendiadys basically comes about when, instead of using one word for a thing and another word to describe it, as in:

 the dinner was sitting in a pool of greasy gravy 

you join the two words together with an and, tweak one of them a bit, and say: 

the dinner was sitting in a pool of grease and gravy.

That's more or less all there is to it, really. 

Jolly powerful and effective it can be, too.

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.

Poor Ophelia!

Nuts and Bolts: hendiadys. This word is a Latinised form of the Greek phrase hen dia duoin, which means one through two.

Tuesday 26 September 2017

Thing To Do Or Be Today: flash.

Are you flash? If you've got it, do you flaunt it?

Do you display your roll of bank notes at every opportunity, or brandish your super-platinum Amex card in the most public way possible?

Do you have a personalised number plate?

Do you drive your car lying down?

Are your shoes bitterly uncomfortable? 

Does your neck ache from the weight of the gold hanging round it?


Well, you'll just have to rely on flashing past someone at speed, or having a flash of genius, won't you?

I suppose I've got a chance of the former if I can spot a very very old person going for a walk.

Thing To Do Or Be Today: flash. This word started off meaning to rush in the way a flash flood rushes; but where it came from before that is a mystery.

Monday 25 September 2017

Spot the Frippet: mandolin.

I once tried to borrow a ukulele for a concert performance, but because of some confusion (probably mine, quite honestly) when it arrived, a week before my big spot, it turned out to be a mandolin.

So I had to learn to play the mandolin. I think I did quite well for someone who'd only been playing a week, but of course it wasn't very good - and thank heavens for that, because I only knew one piece and if I'd been asked for an encore I'd have been sunk.

Finding a musical mandolin around the place is unlikely to be easy, but hearing one is no further away than YouTube:

Happy, now? Surely everyone must be who's listened to that.

Anyway, the reason why mandolins are in my mind is because at the weekend we had luncheon guests and for them I made a flan topped with a spiral of sweet potato shavings arranged on their edges to look like a big orange rose. I had to make the sweet potato shavings with a potato peeler, and, boy, did I miss having a mandolin.

No, not to amuse me as I laboured away, but to slice the vegetables:

One of these mandolins is surely spottable in a kitchen or kitchen shop near you. Or perhaps a restaurant might oblige by giving you a glimpse of theirs.

The question, though, is, why have a musical instrument and a vegetable slicer got the same name?

You really want to know, too, don't you?

Spot the Frippet: mandolin (or mandoline if you prefer). This word comes from the Italian mandolino, diminutive of mandolo, lute, from the Greek pandoura, which is a three-stringed instrument. As for its connection with the vegetable slicer, everyone is curious but baffled. The most convincing idea (to me) is that the name was first given to a wire-type slicer (like an egg-slicer) and the name was transferred from there; but some say that the early mandolins were held against the body and the action of using them was very like strumming a musical mandolin.

Sunday 24 September 2017

Sunday Rest: gorpcore. Word Not To Use Today

Last week we were recoiling in appalled horror from normcore; this week we lurch, protesting bitterly, out of gorpcore's sticky reach.

(For those so far innocent of these horrible words, they both describe fashion trends. (And I'm sorry to say that between normcore and gorpcore there was, inevitably applecore (ouch!) which involved dressing up like a middle-aged Apple executive.).)

Now the main problem with the word gorpcore is that it's really very ugly indeed. The second problem is that most of us won't have a clue what a gorp is. The third problem is that even if you do, it's not going to help much.

Gorp stands for Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.

And what has that to do with fashion? It could be a hat trimming, possibly (though inconveniently liable to attract sea gulls, I would have thought).

Gorpcore's actual connection to fashion is, thankfully, less direct. You eat gorp when hiking or camping, and gorpcore involves wearing clothes associated with striding through the Great Outdoors. This will probably involve padded jackets, walking boots, fleece, and rucksacks.

If you want to do the fashion thing really properly then Prada is selling a rucksack at the moment for £1200.

Luckily I already have a rucksack. I think it's in the loft somewhere. 

Is turquoise nylon in?

Sunday Rest: gorpcore. But you already know from where this word slithered into sorry existence.

Saturday 23 September 2017

Saturday Rave: The Beguiling of Gylfi by Snorri Sturluson

What do you do if there is a new and powerful religion in the land, and you are afraid that the glories of the old (if false) one will be discarded and forgotten?

If no one makes a record of the old religion it will all be lost - but being the author of such an account is likely to make you very very unpopular.

The Icelander Snorri:

Snorre Sturluson-Christian Krohg.jpg
illustration by Christian Krohg

 (called Snorri Sturluson by those who feel uneasy about someone having a name with no surname or patronym attached) solved this problem, in the Iceland of the 1220s, by writing The Beguiling of Gylfi, or Gylfaginning, where the old lore is inserted into the story of a king who stumbles upon the hall of the old gods.

The format is odd - a section of prose followed by a few lines of verse. Admirers of Tolkien will hear the echoes of his work in it - and those who can't stand Tolkien can admire it just for what it is.

Surtr fares from the south / with switch-eating flame, --
On his sword shimmers / the sun of the War Gods;
The rock-crags crash / the fiends are reeling;
Heroes tread Hel-way; / Heaven is cloven.

The Beguiling of Gylfi forms part of Snorri's Younger Edda. It's 20,000 words long, and the reason it's called the Younger Edda is that there might have been an older one, which, very sadly, has been lost. 

Thank every heaven that Snorri saved this treasure for us all.

Word To Use Today: Edda. This word might be to do with the place in Iceland called Oddi; it could be something to do with the fact that edda means great-parent, and therefore suggests that the work holds the wisdom of the old; it could be because of the Latin edo, meaning I write, suggests poetic art.

Friday 22 September 2017

Word To Use Today: ojama-shimasu.

As I come to the end of my second month of living with builders, plumbers, plasterers and electricians, I find myself wishing for an English equivalent of the Japanese ojama-shimasu.

It's a phrase that's said whenever a visitor enters someone else's house, and it means sorry to cause bother.

There's an idea behind the words of being modest, and aware that you're intruding, as well.

It's a conventional phrase in Japan, and it's used so often it probably doesn't always mean very much. But still, for someone like me watching as her house degenerate into a building site, it would give quite a lot of comfort.

Word To Use Today: ojama-shimasu. It's possible, of course, to say the same thing as ojama-shimasu in English, although it takes a lot longer and a lot of care. Still, if you are planning to wreck someone's house, it might be worth doing from time to time.

Thursday 21 September 2017

Ta: a rant.

Twitter can be a truly great platform full of amazing and beautiful things, but may I just point out that the thank-you tweet is an idleness, an evasion, a scandal, and an abomination?

Thank you so very much to everybody for this kind opportunity to express my gratitude.

Word To Use Today: platform. This word comes from the French plateforme, from plat, flat, and forme, lay-out.

File:Bond Street tube Westbound Platform 1.jpg
Bond Street Tube Station, London, westbound platform. Photo by Oxyman

Wednesday 20 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: the largest possible capers.

This post isn't about the wildest leaps of dancers:

File:1953 Ballet Grand Pas - Jean-Paul Andreani au Foyer de la danse de l'Opera de Paris.jpg
Jean-Paul Andreani, photo by Christjeudi10  

No, the capers to which I refer are the buds of the Mediterranean bush Capparis spinoza, which we usually come across salted or pickled and used as a flavouring.

Illustration Capparis spinosa0.jpg
Illustration by Otto Wilhelm Thomé

The smaller the capers are the higher their quality is deemed to be, and so there needs to be a clear grading system.

So: do we have minuscule, minute, tiny, small, and medium?

No, the truth is much more lovely. We have non-pareil, surfines, capucines, capotes, fines, and grusas.

And just how gloriously bonkers is that?

Words To Use Today: one that describes a caper. Non-pareil means without equal; surfines means very fine; capucines and capotes are coats or cloaks with hoods; fines means fine; and grusas means dashed in Swedish (though I doubt very much that's relevant as the rest of the words have basically ended up French). My guess is that it's something to do with the French gross, meaning, well, gross. Gruesa is Spanish for bulky.

Tuesday 19 September 2017

Thing To Do Today: reel.

Cotton reels were invented about a decade after the invention of cotton thread, which was itself invented after Napoleon's 1806 Edict of Berlin banned countries in continental Europe from trading with Britain (which made silk and linen thread hard to obtain)

I don't know what people did during the decade they were waiting for the cotton reel to be invented, but the Edict certainly did wonders for innovation and the smuggling industry.

Anyway, reeling. The word started with the sort of reels that fishing line and film come on, and then migrated into meaning the sort of reeling people do when surprised, thumped, or drunk. The word then migrated in another direction to cover certain extraordinary folk dances which involved chasing each other round in circles (though squares and lines also have a major role to play). Here's a Scottish reel:

All in all, reeling presents an opportunity to those of more or less every lifestyle and preference. Whether contemplative fisherman, convivial party-goer, or all-too-convivial-trying-to-find-his-way-home-er.

We're all good for a quick reel.

Thing To Do Today: reel. All these words are connected. They started off with the Old English hrēol, which is related to the Old Norse hrǣlī, weaver's rod and the Greek krekein to weave.

Monday 18 September 2017

Spot the Frippet: tiller.

A tiller is a lever used to steer a boat:

File:Miss March manning the tiller of the narrowboat 'HEATHER BELL' nas it carried flour from Worcester to Tipton during 1942. D7652.jpg
This photograph shows Miss March manning the tiller of the narrowboat HEATHER BELL as it carried flour from Worcester to Tipton in 1942.

but of course we mustn't forget the dancing Tiller Girls:

Tiller Girls, London Plaza 1928.

though they're no longer in existence (a revival is planned).

Luckily for those of us who live far from both very old-fashioned nightclubs and navigable water, a tiller is also both a grass shoot which comes up from the base of a stem, and another name for a young tree or sapling.

File:Rowan sapling in Gullmarsskogen.jpg
photo: W.carter

though the main question for you to answer is: which of these three meanings gives you most joy?

Spot the Frippet: tiller. The boat-steering word comes from the Anglo-French teiler, the beam of a loom, from the Latin tēlārium, from tēla, a web. The tree/grass word comes from the Old English teīgar, twig. The Tiller Girls were founded by a Mr John Tiller.

Sunday 17 September 2017

Sunday Rest: normcore. Word Not To Use Today.

I've come rather late to the word normcore, which is really sad, because if only I'd been a bit later I might have missed it altogether.

Normcore is now most usually used as a way of mocking old people. I think the idea might be that old folk are so hilariously unattractive they're asking for it. 

What young, beautiful and desirable people do in their mockery is to put on their grandparents' clothes (not literally, of course, or we'd have lots of aged people going around in a state of undress. This would benefit absolutely no one. I mean they put on their grandparents' style of clothes).

This, of course, involves a lot of beige and comfy elastic.

See? Utterly hilarious.

Of course it means these bright young things are forced to wear a permanently ironic expression and go everywhere at a haughty strut, just in case people failed to understand the joke.

But, hey, at least they got to wear some nice comfy flats for a change. So not all bad, hey.

File:Normcore example.jpg
photo by Rossco wm

Word Not To Use Today: normcore. Normcore is a mixture of normal and hardcore. The word appeared in the webcomic Templar Arizona before 2009. To start with the word implied the satisfaction to be obtained in being nothing special, but later it came to signify an ambition to dress so as not to be noticed. This was perhaps a reaction to the tyranny of the fashion world, but, as seen above, the fashion world soon managed to make being unfashionable in this way one of the most fashionable things on earth. 

Ah well.

Saturday 16 September 2017

Saturday Rave: The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes.

Alfred Noyes was born 137 years ago today. I shall be for ever grateful to Noyes for writing Daddy Fell Into The Pond, which was one of the works which opened my mind to the joy of poetry, but The Highwayman is probably Noyes' most famous work.

The whole text can be found HERE, but this is the beginning:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding - 
Riding - riding - 
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

It's such splendid stuff - I love the sound of the galloping of the highwayman's horse beneath the words - and the whole poem tells a proper story of love, madness, cruelty, heroism and some very nice clothes. Not only that, but it's quite short, and the ending, very neatly, is hinted at in the opening lines.

When Noyes was asked why the poem had become such a success, he said that at the time he wrote it (he was twenty four) he was still genuinely excited by love and adventure and heroism.

I'm much older than that, but surely no one could get to the end of The Highwayman unmoved - and while there are tales like The Highwayman we'll fight old age off yet.

Word To Use Today: torrent. This word comes, oddly, from the Latin torrēns, burning, from torrēre to burn.

Friday 15 September 2017

Word To Use Today: gusset.

Is there a word that's more satisfying to say than gusset?

On the whole I think not.

A gusset is most commonly a piece of of fabric sewn between the seams of a garment to make it stronger or the right shape. Tights (pantyhose in some places, I understand)

File:Lena pantyhose 200x600.png
illustration by Znakezwamp

often boast of their reinforced gussets. These are the bits which sag down as you wear them and make moving at anything faster than a waddle close to impossible.

Builders use gussets, too. (Yes, even the ones who don't wear tights):

photo by TomerTW  The gusset plate is the bit stuck with rivets. According to Wikipedia they're used to connect truss members. The mind boggles.

Originally, of course (though you'll all know this) a gusset was a piece of mail (the stuff that's usually inaccurately called chain mail) fitted between plates of armour, or into the leather or cloth underclothes worn by knights.

Underwear made of leather and mail?

Good grief. And I thought it was bad enough having to wear tights.

Word To Use Today: gusset. This word  comes from the Old French gousset, a piece of mail. It's a diminutive of gousse, which means pod.

Thursday 14 September 2017

Where Adam stands: a rant.

'I mean, all these celebrity shows. Celebrities? I wouldn't know them from Adam.'

As you will be aware, this has become a very common complaint.

Now, The Word Den is always pleased to be of help, so may I point out that Adam is the one in the apron made of sewn-together fig leaves? 

If he is wearing his apron slung low then a further clue (though this is a matter of some argument) may be that he possesses no belly button.

If your celebrity is female then there will probably be other differences, and for an explanation of these I recommend any standard text book on Human Biology.

Word To Use Today: Adam. According to the Bible, Adam was given his name by God, and He might have decided upon it because Adam is the Hebrew for to be red (the Almighty was perhaps anticipating Adam's embarrassment at his nakedness). Or the word Adam might come from the Akkadian adamu, meaning to make. God made Adam out of earth, which in Hebrew is adamah, so that might be part of the name's origins, too. Indeed, it might even be God's first pun.

Wednesday 13 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: colometry.

Colometry is a thing both gloriously obscure and very simple.

It's the habit of some of the Early Christian Fathers (it seems that the Early Christian Mothers had no truck with it) of arranging their writing so each new phrase was on a new line. This made speaking it aloud both easier and more effective.

It's the difference between this sentence from Emmeline Pankhurst's address in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 13 1913:

I am not only here as a soldier temporarily absent from the field at battle; I am here - and that, I think, is the strangest part of my coming - I am here as a person who, according to the law courts of my country, it has been decided, is of no value to the community at all: and I am adjudged because of my life to be a dangerous person, under sentence of penal servitude in a convict prison. 

and this:

I am not only here as a soldier 
temporarily absent from the field at battle; 
I am here - 
and that, I think, is the strangest part of my coming - 
I am here as a person who, 
according to the law courts of my country, it has been decided, 
is of no value to the community at all: 
and I am adjudged 
because of my life 
to be a dangerous person, 
under sentence of penal servitude in a convict prison. 


Come to think about it, it might not be a bad thing if colometry were still in use today; you never know, our public figures might start making a bit more sense, then.

It's either that or give them lessons in punctuation.

Thing To Consider Today: colometry. This word comes from the Greek kōlon, limb or part of a sentence, and -metry, from the Greek metron, measure.

Tuesday 12 September 2017

Thing To Do Today: yawn.

If the purpose of yawning is to get more air into your body (though that's only one theory about it) then why do we spend most of the time when yawning breathing out?

photo: By Daisuke Tashiro - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Well, don't ask me, I haven't a clue, but it's interesting how efficient that short gasp at the beginning of a yawn is. If you want to sing, or play a wind instrument, observe what you do at the beginning of a yawn, because that's the way to get lots of air in quickly and quietly for musical purposes.

No, no, that's all right. All part of the service.

Anyway, here's another question: why is yawning catching?

Again, no one knows (though one idea is that it's to keep a group of animals alert) but it's a widespread phenomenon. Even reptiles will sometimes yawn in imitation of a colleague. Birds sometimes do the same thing. You can even catch a yawn from a member of another species.

But why do we yawn? I mean, if we needed more oxygen then we could just breathe faster. 

Well, yawning might cool down the brain, or signal to your friends that it's time for sleep (or to stop talking about their holiday). On the other hand baboons yawn as a threat; guinea pigs yawn to be bossy; and penguins yawn when chatting up a potential mate. 

Snakes yawn to put their jaws back together after a meal.

So the real expert here, of course, is you. 

Why do you yawn?

Worth thinking about, isn't it?

Thing To Do Today: yawn. This word comes from the Old English gionian, and is related to the Old Norse jgā, gap.

Monday 11 September 2017

Spot the Frippet: stencil.

Stencilled walls, furniture, and floors have got so screamingly out-of-date over the last thirty years that they're showing every sign of coming back again. This isn't surprising because stencilling has been going in and out of fashion more or less forever.

File:Stencil House, Interior.jpg
This is the Stencil House in Vermont, built 1804. Photo by Storylanding

Indeed, man's very first go at decorating might have involved a stencil:

The appropriately named Cueva de las Manos. The hand-shapes were made in about 7,300 BC. Photo by Mariano.

But where to find stencils now? 

Well, tattoos are often stencilled:

design by Módis Ágnes Vadszederke

as are graffiti:

photo by Victor Grigas

Or, if all else fails, try putting a key or some coins on a flat surface and blowing a little dust over it. 

You'll be part of a very long tradition.

Spot the Frippet: stencil. In the 1300s stanselen meant to decorate with bright colours. The word comes from the Old French estenceler, from estencele, a spark, from the Latin scintilla.

Sunday 10 September 2017

Sunday Rest: goosegog. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, if you can say or hear the word goosegog without wincing at its sugary picturesqueness then it's more than I can.

Still, there's always the version goosegob, which is merely disgusting, and therefore a huge improvement.

Look, just say gooseberry, fool!

photo by Uwe Hermann

Word Not To Use Today: goosegog. This is a word for those who feel obliged to be interesting but have only a rudimentary sense of humour. The goose bit is a mystery: it might come from a group of Germanic words (kraus is one of them) meaning curly or crisp, and before that bent or crooked; or it might be just that people decided to call the thing after a goose for no good reason at all. It's irritating to an etymologist, but happens rather a lot. The gog bit is a form of gob, from the Old French gobe, lump, from gober, to gulp down.

Saturday 9 September 2017

Saturday Rave: An old silent pond, by Basho.

I'm still having a reaction to reading some very long books, so how about a haiku?

Haiku were originally intended to act as an introduction to a longer (and often collaborative) poem, perhaps a tanka or a renga. Later, they began to be valued on as works of art in their own right.

The most famous and revered master of the haiku was probably Matsuo Bashō (1644 - 1694).

Bashō may sound like one of the more obscure Marx brothers, but he's renowned for his incisive delicacy, and in Japan he has even been made a saint.

Here's an example of his work:

 An old silent pond...
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

* * *

It's enough, isn't it?

Words To Use Today: some carefully-placed ones, perhaps.

Friday 8 September 2017

Word To Use Today: cordwainer.

A hay wain carries hay:

John Constable The Hay Wain.jpg
Painting by John Constable, of course. (Not that you can see any actual hay, but then that's probably because this isn't actually a hay wain at all, but is probably a wood wain or farm cart. A hay wain would need higher sides to stop the hay falling off.)

and wainscot is wooden panelling on the interior walls of a house:

File:Hohensalzburg Castle 42.jpg
Hohensaltzburg Castle, photo by Gryffindor

so what does a cordwainer do?

Now if you think these analogies are going to turn out to be a load of old cobblers, then you are quite right - though you are possibly wrong about cobblers.

A cordwainer is a shoemaker, or a worker in the sort of very fine leather for which Cordóba is famous; a cobbler, originally, tended to mend (not necessarily make) shoes.

I don't know why that piece of information is so vastly satisfying: but it is, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: the word wain comes from the Old English wægn; wainscot comes from the Middle Low German wagenschot, perhaps from wagen, wagon + schot, planking, related to the German Scheit, piece of wood. Cordwainer is what's left of the word Cordóba once the English had stopped mangling it.

Thursday 7 September 2017

The power of words: a rant.

Words are powerful. The mere act of saying something creates a sort of shadow of truth, however unlikely it is.

Mr Putin, for instance, is a master of creating shadows of truth (and then running away and, presumably, giggling). 

And as for written-down words, they have even more authority than spoken ones (which is presumably why writers are sometimes called authors). That's why there are rules about the claims you can make in advertisements. 

Still, if there's a really good product out there, information about it can still be published. 

Here's a piece from the Kaleidoscope catalogue about the fabric of a pair of jeans.

Emana is a polyamide yarn with bio-active minerals incorporated in the polymer matrix which are said to absorb the waves emitted by the human body and send them back in the form of "Far Infrared Rays". The result is a unique formula which is believed to reduce the appearance of cellulite, reduce muscle fatigue and increase skin elasticity, thus delivering smoother younger looking skin.


...actually, even written-down words aren't that powerful, are they?

Word To Use Today: jeans. This word comes from jean, which is the fabric of which jeans are made. Jean has been around since the 1500s and is short for jean fustian, from Gene, Genoa.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: a guide to bird song.

The voice of the herring gull, according to experts Lars Svensson and Peter J Grant, who wrote the excellent Collins Bird Guide, is 'a strident kyow, repeated and loud when used as an alarm. In anxiety a distinctive gag-ag-ag. Familiar exalted 'laughing' display call is a loud deep and clanging aau...kyyau-kya-kya-kya-kya-kya kya...kyau.'

Now, I call that a simply heroic attempt. Look at the careful hyphenation; look at the use of a bold font; look at the use of the word exalted (a seagull! Exalted!). I am genuinely filled with awe and admiration.

Here is a recording of a herring gull call:

...and I'm afraid I have to say that, for all the skill and dedication of Svensson and Grant, the description isn't actually very effectively...descriptive, is it?

Though it's most definitely not the writers' fault.

Let's have a look at the entry for the House Sparrow.

A great variety of simple chirping or chattering sounds, varied in details according to situation and mood. During courtship, long series of well-spaced monosyllabic chirps slightly varied throughout, e.g. chilp chev chilp chelp chü irritation, typical rattling cher'r'r'r'r'r.

And here is the real thing:

Now, I'm pretty certain that no one on Earth could have done that description better - but it does show the sad limits of the alphabet, doesn't it.

Mind you, YouTube is fabulous.

Word To Use Today: errr...something in either Herring Gull or House Sparrow? Chelp!

Tuesday 5 September 2017

Thing To Indulge In Today: persiflage.

The Word Den is largely an exercise in persiflage, and for all us seekers after knowledge the obvious question is, of course, who?

Who was this Percy, whose frivolous banter and inoffensive teasing caused a whole style of speech and writing to be so-named?

Was he one of the Dukes of Northumberland (who are all called Percy)? Surely not, for if baronets are known for being untrustworthy then dukes are a positive byword for grimness (together with an unhealthy fascination with wood worm and spreadsheets).

So in that case could the Percy in question be that utter fop the Scarlet Pimpernel, aka Sir Percy Blakeney? He's much more likely, light comedy and a bit of joshing being just what you need when you're trying to distract the sans-culottes from the beautiful marchioness hiding under your load of firewood; but sadly Sir Percy Blakeney didn't come to the public's attention until 1905, when persiflage was well-established throughout the English-speaking world.

Famous Percys being, unfortunately, rather thin on the ground, the only other one who springs to mind is Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Very Romantic Poet. 

Well, he's known for many playful tricks, including the desertion of his wife and the abduction of more than one very young lady - how their families must have laughed! - but Percy Shelley for some reason decided to work his stratagems by stealth, and not by fast-talking gaiety and charm.

So where does that leave us? 

Well, with a page of persiflage, that's what. Frivolity and teasing.

Oh, but I do wish there'd been a real Percy, though.

Thing To Indulge In Today: persiflage. This word comes from the French persifler, to tease, from per, which is an intensive, plus siffler to whistle, from the Latin sībilāre.

Monday 4 September 2017

Spot the Frippet: something apiculate.

No, this is easy. All you have to do is find some leaves, have a good look at them, and see if you can find one with a sharply pointed tip. 

That leaf is apiculate.

File:Fall beech leaves in sun.jpg
photo of beech leaves by Dcrjsr

To be apiculate the leaf must be quite fat in the middle, so pine needles don't count.

File:Hazel sawfly caterpillars.JPG
photo by MEBeton (yes, all right, but that hazel leaf was apiculate before it was nibbled by those annoying Hazel sawfly lavae, okay?)

If you are uninterested in greenery, and see nothing in the countryside so wonderful as yourself, then (as your colossal brain will no doubt have already informed you) all you have to do is take out that sharpened pencil which you keep ready to note down each gem of your shining genius, and admire the point.

Whether you are actually cleverer than a leaf, though, which can turn carbon dioxide into fuel, and replenish the atmosphere with oxygen (as well as often being beautiful and shady, and sometimes deliciously edible) I'm not entirely sure.

Let alone a sharp one.

Word To Use Today: apiculate. This word comes from the Latin apiculātus, from apiculus, a short point. It's connected to the word apex.

Sunday 3 September 2017

Sunday Rest: detritivore. Word Not To Use Today

A detritivore eats, yes, detritus.


The word detritivore's use is usually restricted to those useful animals which tidy away all the various droppings of the rest of us, such a millipedes:

File:Millipede mating.JPG
photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim

(these are being particularly loving, ahhhh...)


File:Purple emperor (Apatura iris) female.jpg
photo by Charlesjsharp Sharp Photography, sharpphotography

(if you want to lure a Purple Emperor butterfly like this closer then what you really need is a nice fresh bit of dog poo. Yum!)

or crabs:

File:Fiddler Crab - Australia.jpg
photo by Denise Chan

(that's a fiddler crab).

As I say, we owe these creatures a huge debt of gratitude, and calling them detritivores is, I think, rather unkind. (There're also called detritiphages, but that's even worse.) I think we should call them housekeepers or cleaners or something that shows some gratitude and respect.

Ah well. I suppose in many instances we can always fall back on teenager, can't we.

Word Not To Use Today: detritivore. This word comes from the French détritus, from the Latin dētritus, a rubbing away. The -vore bit is from the Latin vorāre to swallow up. 

Saturday 2 September 2017

Saturday Rave: Bazonka by Spike Milligan

We've tackled a couple of heavyweights recently, but now it's back-to school/work time and so we can stop thinking so hard. 

Here's something short and sweet and cheerful - and, as it happens, it makes a Word Den post all by itself, too (thanks, Spike).

It begins like this:

Say Bazonka every day
That's what my grandma used to say
It keeps at bay the Asian Flu'
And both your elbows free from glue
So say Bazonka every day 
(That's what my grandma used to say)

The rest of the poem can be found HERE. (It's very short.)

Word To Use Today: well, Bazonka. obviously. This word was used by Spike Milligan's grandma, apparently, but heaven knows where she got it from because no one else does.

Friday 1 September 2017

Word To Use Today: bartizan.

Yes, all right, this is a fairly useless word, but it reminds me The Simpsons so I like it anyway. Think of it as a challenge.

A bartizan, for those to whom the word is new, is a small turret projecting from a wall, parapet or tower.

You know the sort of thing:

File:Chambers 1908 Bartisan.png

How to use it?

The kitchen resembled a particularly well-appointed morgue, with utensils for dismemberment contained in small buckets which hung from rails like bartizans from a mediaeval curtain wall.


Well, I told you it was a challenge, didn't I?

Word To Use Today: bartizan. This word is a version of bertisene, which is itself a mistake because what people were trying to say was bretising. it comes from bretasce, parapet and might come from the Latin Brīto, a Briton.