This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 30 November 2017

Literature for the young: a rant.

All right, then. Complete the following sentence:

If literature is to have any point for young people...

I have a passionate interest in literature for young people (I'm a children's writer, after all). Literature (by which I mean good books) has been my comfort, my refuge, my friend and my teacher nearly all my life. 

If literature is to have any point for young people...

...well, how do you think that sentence ends? 

A clue: this sentence appeared in The Guardian newspaper of 11/11/17. (For the non-British reader, the Guardian is the newspaper of the educated intellectual, you're right, it doesn't sell that many copies.)

So: if literature is to have any point for young people...

Another clue: the quote is from the British playwright and novelist Hanif Kureishi.

If literature is to have any point for young people...

Still not sure? Well, think about what literature meant to you when you were young.

Here's the answer: must be to examine and dismantle the structures that maintain white power.

Well, did you get anywhere even remotely close?

Thought not.

Word To Use Today: point. This word used to mean spot in Old French. Before that it comes from the Latin pungere, to pierce.

Wednesday 29 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: getting a beta.

Transliteration when someone writes down a language in an alphabet which isn't its usual one. 

The Word Den does this rather often with Greek words.

Well, when The Word Den says Greek, it generally means Ancient Greek, and when it says Ancient, it mostly means before the fall of Constantinople in 1453. 

Yes, it makes a difference. 

The Greek letter beta, β, for instance, is pronounced as a b in Ancient Greek (βιβλος, which sounds like biblos, for example, means book (yes, as in bible)). But to get that b sound in Modern Greek you have to write the letters mu pi: μπ.

The letter β in Modern Greek makes the sound we in English write down as v.

Mind you, if you think that's confusing, the Greeks have always pronounced a capital P as an R. 

Still, they were there first, so fair enough.

Thing To Consider Today: beta, β. The name of this letter comes from the Hebrew bēth, from beyith house, which seems to comes ultimately from the Egyptian hieroglyph for house: O1.

Tuesday 28 November 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: a hypochondriac.

As we are all aware from the press, fifty eight per cent of people die of heart disease; two thirds of us are felled by of cancer; forty three per cent of us expire of diabetes; and septicaemia takes off twenty two per cent more.*

The good news is that this puts the murder rate at minus eight nine point six recurring per cent, and that you have more chance of having tea with Elvis in Shangri La than being run over by a bus.

File:A hypochondriac tells her doctor that she has a pain in her Wellcome V0011548.jpg
photo from the Wellcome Collection

This being apparently the case, who can blame us for being anxious about our health? Indeed, the authorities positively encourage us to be so. We are instructed to prod and scan ourselves at regular intervals in a search for morbid signs. Hypochondria is practically an official virtue.

Ah well. Even if hypochondria makes us miserable, and everyone around us even more miserable (therefore taking away the point of actually staggering on with this Life thing anyway) then at least the counsellors and psychiatrists presumably get to see an uptick in business.

And what more could anyone want than to give money to them?

Thing To Try To Avoid Being Today: a hypochondriac. Hypochondria is Latin and means the abdomen (which was believed to be the seat of melancholia, that is, sadness). It comes from the Greek hupokhondrios, of the upper abdomen, from hypo- under, plus kondros, cartilage.

*All figures are approximate.**

**I.e. made up.***

***Yes, like everyone else's.

Monday 27 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: something hypogeal.

You're going to have to dig deep to find this one.

Well, actually, digging shallowly would do, because something hypogeal is something which lives or occurs below ground.

Yes, moles:

File:Mr Mole.jpg
photo by Mick E. Talbot

are hypogeal, but they're difficult to see: but what about a potato? Or a peanut? Or a pebble?

There, that's three ideas and they're just a few very obvious ps.

Talking of ps, hypogeal germination is a botanical term which means that the first leaves which emerge from a seed, the cotyledons, always stay below ground. And, rather neatly, the pea plant is an example of this.

File:CSIRO ScienceImage 3245 Pea plants in flower.jpg
photo by Carl Davies  CSIRO

So good luck with spotting something hypogeal. It's a new way of looking a the world, isn't it?

Spot the Frippet: something hypogeal. This word comes from the Latin hypogēus, from the Greek hupogeios, from hypo- under, plus ge, earth.

Sunday 26 November 2017

Sunday Rest: Birmingham. Word Not To Use Today

Mrs Elton, in Jane Austen's masterpiece Emma*, is a dreadful woman. She is snobbish, conceited, vindictive, manipulative, unavoidable, uncaring, asinine and self-righteous.

I'm wondering, though, if perhaps in her blundering stupidity she might have got one thing right.

'One has no great hopes of Birmingham,' she says. 'I always say there is something direful in the sound.'

And, though Birmingham is full of valuable people:

ELO - Time Tour 81-82.jpg
ELO. Photo by TyrystorELO 

 and civic wonders:

St Martin's church and Selfridges department store in the Bull Ring
St Martin's Church, The Bull Ring, and Selfridges Store. Photo by GavinWarrins

 I can't help but think in that direful she was actually on to something.

Word Not To Use Today: Birmingham. (The British Birmingham is pronounced BERming'm.) The word comes from Beormingahām, which means the home or settlement of the Beomingas, who were the people of Beorma. Beorma in Old English means frothy or fermented (as in the head on beer) and is the same word as our modern word barmy.

*Not that I am seeking to suggest Jane Austen only wrote one masterpiece.

Saturday 25 November 2017

Saturday Rave: Shtiler, shtiler, ovntwint by Jacob Fichman

It's all-too-easy to ignore poetry not written in one's own language, but it's a great loss. 

This poem was originally written in Yiddish by a Moldovan, Jacob Fichman.

Here's the first verse, the title of which translates as Silent, Silent, Evening Wind.

And there we are: the idea that different times of day might have different winds is already something new as far as I'm concerned.

Silent, silent evening wind
you are coming from afar.
You come from the endless steppes.
You come from the seas which have no end.
Where the grasses sway back and forth;
where the waves whisper to each other.

The whole of this short poem, which is so sad and yet so hopeful at the same time, can be found HERE, both in English and in the original Yiddish.

Word To Use Today: Yiddish. This word comes from the German Jude, which means Jew.

Friday 24 November 2017

Word To Use Today: seawan or seawant.

The opposite of seawan is peag.

Isn't that wonderful? Even without the foggiest idea what it means the phrase has a mysterious resonance.

The opposite of seawan is peag.

Seawan...that might mean anything from the pallor of a drowned child to the mysterious shadows that bloom in sea-glass.

Sadly, I feel that some of you are expecting me to explain away that splendid and infinite ignorance... perhaps those of you who are enchanted by the mystery of seawan and peag should look away now.


Seawan are beads made of polished shells. They have to be loose, not strung (the strung ones are called peag). They've been used as currency by Native Americans - and, yes, the same sort of thing is more often known as wampam.

So have I spoiled it? 

Was ignorance actually bliss?

I'm afraid that in this case it was.

Word To Use Today: seawan or seawant. This word comes from the Munsee (or some say Narragansett) word seawohn, which means scattered or loose.


Thursday 23 November 2017

Moist: another rant

If you want to see some beautiful science, have a look at this article from PLOS ONE.

It's about the word moist, and particularly why the American public dislikes the word so much. 

Well, when I say the American public, an aversion to the word moist is apparently commonest among young, educated, neurotic and female members of the public.

(I should say here that I don't mind the word moist at all (and have already written about it HERE) but then I'm not American or young.)

Five scientific experiments were conducted by Paul Thibodeau from Oberlin College, and were designed to find out why people dislike the word moist so much. Is it the sound? Is it because it's the fashion? Is it because you have to screw up your face in a disgusted kind of a way to say it? Is it because the word might make you think about disgusting things? The results were many and interesting, and can be found by following the Plos One link above, but here are some of the answers.

Prof Thibodeau found that quite often people didn't actually know why they hated the word. People who thought they hated the sound, for instance, proved not to mind words like rejoiced or hoist.

The people who claimed to hate the word moist most violently also loathed words like phlegm and vomit, suggesting that perhaps all these words are avoided for reasons of hygiene. (It's difficult to say whether this disgust is instinctive or learned, until you remember that most people, even young, educated, female, neurotic Americans, don't have any great aversion to the word moist at all. So it's probably learned, then, isn't it?)

But whatever the reasons, think on this: an aversion to the word moist doesn't seem to be doing the sellers of moisturiser any harm, does it?

Word To Use Today Unless It Bugs You: moist. This word is related to the Latin mūcidus, which means musty, and mūcus, which, I'm afraid, means mucus. But then who doesn't have some dodgy relatives? 

Wednesday 22 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: figuring the bass.

This being St Cecelia's Day, the patron saint of music, I thought it would be appropriate to have a look at something fundamentally musical. 

And there's nothing more fundamentally musical than bass notes.

The bass notes form the base of the music - and, yes, base and bass are basically the same word (see what I did, there?).

These low notes can be sung - by a bass, naturally - or played on a bassoon or a double bass or some other large instrument, like a contrabass tuba.

If you play the sort of instrument which can produce more than one note at a time, then you'll usually play the bass notes with your left hand (or your right thumb if it's a guitar-type instrument. In this sort of instrument the lowest notes are at the top of the instrument - a fact which makes more sense if you remember that the player views his or her strings upside down).

Anyway, how does a player know which bass notes to play?

Well, they can be written down in the same way as the higher notes, of course, but sometimes they're written as what's called a figured bass. This is when some of the bass notes are written down in, er, figures. Figures, that is, as in the numbers 2 or 3 or 4 etc.

The basic idea is that the figures tell you the size of the gap between the bottom note and the next one up (sometimes they tell you other notes, too, but let's not complicate things).

So, the music will have the lowest note written down as a musical note just like any other, and, underneath it, it will say 3, for example. 

Now, as must be clear to everyone, that means that as well as the bass note you also play the note two up from it...


...yes, well...

...I sometimes think that poor St Cecelia must get terribly busy, at times...

Word To Use Today: bass or base. These words comes from the Latin basis, which means pedestal (yes, the sort of thing you put a basin on, though sadly a basin is nothing to do with base).

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Thing Not To Be In Today: in a state of latah.

Language is playfully bonkers, deadly accurate, euphonious, and a cacophony...

...but the reason it truly fascinates me is the way it shows us the world.

Latah is a psychological state you'll probably only have observed if you've been to Malaysia and spent time teasing women too old to have children.

It's when, after a shock (even something like being poked suddenly, or shouted at), a person (usually a no-longer-youthful, not-very-educated woman) begins to scream, swear, jiggle about, laugh uncontrollably, sweat, mimic the people around them, and do whatever people tell them to do, however embarrassing that might be afterwards (though they probably won't remember what's happened).

Why this happens is a mystery. Some other cultures exhibit something rather similar, but the state of latah is a purely Malay phenomenon. 

But...I don't know...I've never thought about it before, but the link between a shock and someone being suggestible is a real one everywhere. 

And without that Malay word (which English has borrowed, though it's rarely encountered) I probably wouldn't have realised it.

It's certainly something to bear in mind if you have a shock.

Thing Not To Be In Today: a state of latah. This word is Malay.

Monday 20 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: latex.

The real reason The Word Den featuring latex is really to share the thrilling news that the plural of latex is latices.* 

The sad thing is that The Word Den can't imagine any circumstance in which anyone would need to use a plural of latex.

Ah well.

Latex is the milky-looking fluid that oozes out of about 20,000 different types of plants, including the rubber tree, whose latex is used to make, yes, rubber:

photo by Jan-Pieter Nap

Latex usually appears when a plant is wounded, when it acts as an insect repellent. In fact, the latex of the Sandhill Milkweed is more than a repellent because it kills nearly a third of the baby Monarch butterfly caterpillars that try to feed on it.

Where to find latex? Well, apart from in the garden it's used to make balloons, gloves, mattresses and chewing gum; latex from poppies is the basis for morphine and codeine; it's used in paints (when you scratch a scratch card, you're scratching away latex), and it's found sometimes in cement, and often in glue.

All that, and it has a ridiculous plural, as well.

What sort of brilliant stuff is that?

Spot the Frippet: latex. This word comes from Latin, where it means liquid or fluid.

*Though you can say latexes, instead, if you're boring.)

Sunday 19 November 2017

Sunday Rest: latifundium. Word Not To Use Today.

A latifundium is a large agricultural estate:

File:North Central Pennsylvania Farm.jpg
This one is in North Central Pennsylvania. Photo by fishhawk

Yes, that's quite a nice thing to know, but, however much you may wish to share this knowledge, I must warn you that the uttering of this word will make you look like a total poser.

And the reason it will make you look like an total poser, I may add, is because it will be true.

Word Not To Use Today: latifundium. Originally this was a Roman estate worked by slaves. The word comes from the Latin lātus, broad, and fundus, farm or estate.

Saturday 18 November 2017

Saturday Rave: A plum of Plum.

The world is awash with creative writing classes. I've attended several, usually as tutor, but once quite recently as a pupil. 

Well, I wanted to find out what I was supposed to have been doing all this time.

Creative writing classes can be both interesting and fun, but they don't provide what people need to become writers - what people really need - which is a stubborn ability to carry on, probably through years of neglect, and to keep on carrying on no matter how little notice people take.

And then, in the end, if you can manage to die, minimally published, starving, and broke, in a garret, you might even be awarded the status of genius. 

So anyway, creative writing classes. The very best of them you can get for free from your local library in the form of other people's, yes, creative writing. Sadly this does mean you'll have to work out the lessons the books teach you all by yourself, but, look, the creative thing does imply a bit of doing-it-yourself, doesn't it?

So have a look at this. It's from PG Wodehouse's Mulliner Nights

Then see if you can work out how he did it.

Everyone has his pet aversion. Some dislike slugs, others cockroaches. Egbert Mulliner disliked female novelists.

Yes, it's pure and absolute genius.

And PG Wodehouse, let me tell you, didn't even die in a garret.

Word To Use Today: Egbert. This name comes from the Old English ecg, which means sword, and beorht, which means bright.

Nowadays the impression given by the name is sadly less heroic.

Friday 17 November 2017

Word To Use Today: garnet.

The garnets you see in jewellery are usually red:

File:WLA hmns Garnet and Diamond necklace.jpg
(necklace designed and created by Ernesto Moreira and to be seen at the Houston Museum of Natural Science)

 though they can be yellow or green:

photo by Arpingstone 

Garnets are classed as semi-precious (which doesn't imply they're less beautiful than precious jewels, it just means there's enough of them about to be useful. Garnet paper, for instance, has powdered garnet stuck onto it and is used as sandpaper, and garnets are also used to cut steel and to filter water).

There is another sort of garnet, which is a device for lifting cargo off ships, but that's a quite different word.

Possibly the most interesting thing about this word, though, is its derivation.

Word To Use Today: garnet. The loading-cargo word probably comes from the Dutch garnaat. The jewel word comes from the Old French grenat, red, from pome grenat, which means pomegranate, which comes from the Latin pōmum, apple, and grānātus, full of seeds.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Pigweed Delight: a rant.

The Prince of Wales, God bless him:

has opened the Forgotten Foods Network, a scheme run by Crops For The Future in Malaysia. It will study ancient food crops in the hope of improving yields in the face of climate change.

One such possible crop is Aztec pigweed.

Now, Aztec pigweed may be nutritious, tasty, resilient, and grow at a rate which makes bindweed look like a bonsai tree, but if there's one thing it needs, it's an agent.

I mean, Aztec pigweed? 

For a start, Aztecs are a) dead, and b) much too closely associated with human sacrifice; and then you have the weed bit - no one wants anything to do with weeds - and calling people pigs is going to get you precisely nowhere.

On the other hand, getting an agent costs you (at least) ten per cent, so here's a solution for free. Call the stuff by its other name, which is beautiful, mysterious, and romantic.

I mean, who could resist a steaming dish of amaranth?

Word To Use Today: amaranth. If you come across this word in poetry it will almost certainly mean flower that never fades. It comes from the Greek amarantos, unfading, from marainein, to fade.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: ablauts.

Why is a long thing lengthy, and not longthy?

Why do we sing songs and not song them? And, after we sang it, why is it sung?

Well, I don't know, to be honest, but that sort of a change of vowel in words that are related to each other is called an ablaut (it's a German word, so you say it AB-lowt).

You occasionally get the same sort of thing happening in English with plurals: goose and geese; mouse and mice; foot and feet.

Woman/women is another example, and in fact it's a double one: the man/men bit of the word changes, but so (invisibly) does the sound of the o.

Some ablauts are just a bit more subtle. In the words telegraph and telegraphy, for instance, both the second e and the a both change sound.

Ablauts are not only an English thing. The idea was first described by the fourth century BC Sanskrit grammarian Pānini. Much later in Europe, in the early 1700s, Lambert ten Kate wrote about them in a book about the similarities between German and Dutch.

German is a language that really enjoys its ablauts, so here, to finish, is the German word for burst in various tenses. 

It's splendid stuff for chanting.

Bersten, birst, berstet, barst, geborsten!

Nuts and Bolts: ablaut. This word was coined by Jacob Grimm (yes, the fairy tale man) in 1838. Ab means off in German, and laut means sound.

Tuesday 14 November 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: a chauvinist.

Do people sometimes have different opinions from yours?

So, why is this? Do explain it to me. 

Is it because the other people are stupid? Or because they are ignorant? Or evil?

Or could it be because you are yourself wrong?

Well, as this last is a vanishingly small possibility, let's assume that you are completely and utterly correct in all your opinions (in which case I should perhaps spell that you with a capital Y). How then do we account for the perverse beliefs of others?

Well, let's suppose we ask everyone in the world to tell us why they hold their opinion of, say, chocolate. We could then file these answers into correct, stupid, ignorant, and evil piles. Then we'd have to hope the proportions of the piles tell us something useful.

The first thing, obviously, is to decide which opinion is correct.

Hmm... know, this isn't going to be easy, is it? Unless, of course, you're sure that only your own opinion matters.

My Collins dictionary defines chauvinism as a smug irrational belief in the superiority of one's own race, party, sex etc

That sounds spot-on to me...

...but then what do I know?

Thing Not To Be Today: a chauvinist. The first chauvinist was Nicolas Chauvin of the Napoleonic wars, who was noted for his enthusiastic, unthinking, and loud patriotism. 

There are, sadly, two small problems: first, Chauvin didn't become famous until after Napoleon's downfall; and, second, no one's sure if he ever actually existed.

Monday 13 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: cattle.

I don't have to go far from here to see some cattle. The nearest kind to where I live are usually ones like these:

File:Belted Galloway cow J1.jpg
Photo by Jamain

That beast is a Belted Galloway cow, but other cattle come in different shapes:

File:CSIRO ScienceImage 2643 A Brahman Bull.jpg
Polled Brahmin bull, photo by  CSIRO


File:Cow highland cattle.jpg
Highland cow, photo by Mahaba

 and sizes:

File:Dexter cow, Three Counties Show.jpg
Dexter cow, photo by David Merrett

though they're all usually of the genus Bos.

But what if you live in a cattle-free zone?

Well, passenger planes have a cattle class (though the airlines usually call it economy) and of course cattle dogs are to be found all over the place.


Oh, it's Australian. 

What does it mean? 

Catalogue, I'm afraid.

Yes, they are, aren't they: absolutely everywhere.

Spot the Frippet: cattle. This word comes from the Old Northern French catel, and is basically the same word as chattel, from the Latin capitāle, wealth.

Sunday 12 November 2017

Sunday Rest: mouthbrooder. Word Not To Use Today.

A mouthbrooder, despite appearances, isn't someone with a habitual enbittered pout, but a sort of fish (or, occasionally, frog) which carries its eggs and young around in its mouth.

Cyphotilapia frontosa. Photo by Matthew Miller. (Can you see the babies?)

Mind you, as you can see, that can often be the same thing.

Word To Use Today: pout. No one is sure where this word comes from, but the Danish word pude means pillow.

There are some species where the fathers take on the mouthbrooding, but it's usually the mothers.

Saturday 11 November 2017

And death shall have no dominion by Dylan Thomas.

I haven't seen many remembrance poppies about this year. In fact, I haven't even had an opportunity to buy one.

I hope it isn't because of the idea that's being put about on social media that wearing a poppy implies an approval of, and support for, war. (It's hard to see how a symbol of the blood of soldiers can do that, but that's what people are saying).

Here's the beginning of a poem by Dylan Thomas. It was written in 1933, which we now know, sadly, was between-the-wars.

Does writing a poem about war show support for wars?

Well, what do you think?

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have star at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

The first and last lines come from St Paul's letter to the Romans.

The whole poem can be found HERE.

File:Poppies again 1 (5781248599).jpg
photo by Tony Hisgett

Word To Use Today: dominion. This word comes from the Latin dominium, ownership, from dominus, master.

Friday 10 November 2017

Word To Use Today: dornick.

Most words, like our own dear queen, have fairly obvious relatives. 

A cupboard, for instance, plainly started off being a rather different piece of furniture, and it's not difficult to guess how its meaning evolved.

Some words, however, drop in from Mars: or, in this case, Belgium, which is, after all, very much the same thing.


Can you guess what it is? 

Even though a dornick is two quite separate things, almost certainly not.

The oldest dornick is a kind of heavy and very expensive damask cloth (damask is the sort of fabric that has patterns on it made by weaving in extra-shiny thread). Traditionally, dornick is used for curtains and vestments (especially the cloaks priests wear).

Something like this:

Gothic Chasuble & Stole - Gold 'Gothic' silk damask - Chasubles - Vestments

The other sort of dornick word you only find in the USA. 

This sort of dornick is as different as possible from the first one, because it means a small stone, pebble, or occasionally, coin. There used to be an expression as hard as dornick to describe a tough man:


The two sorts of dornicks are all alone - they aren't even relations of each other.

So perhaps we should adopt them.

Word To Use Today: dornick. The cloth dornick is named after the Belgian town now called Tournai, where it was manufactured. The stone dornick probably comes from the Irish Gaelic dornōg, from dorn, which means hand.

Thursday 9 November 2017

Changing problems: a rant

Ah, the dear Académie Française! Always so passionate. 

Its members (they call themselves Les immortels, or The Immortals, which seems a strange sort of thing to do to me: but then I'm English) have the responsibility of guarding the purity of the French language (to speakers of the proudly mongrel English language also a strange idea) and the poor things are under constant attack from...well, the rest of the world, basically. Anyone who speaks anything other than perfect French.

But now, what horror! the French language is under attack by its own government. 

The civil service of President Macron is adopting gender-neutral forms. Now, these are certainly inclusive and respectful, but they are a) not standard French and b) the ones that have been chosen are very difficult to write on a computer.

The essential problem with French as it stands at the moment is that if you have a bunch of French people of both sexes (the official French language only recognises two sexes) then linguistically they're all treated as male. You might be describing a crowd of ninety nine women and one man, but you're supposed to call them your amis, which is the word for male friends (female friends are amies). In France, my family is anglais, even though three quarters of us are actually female and therefore anglaises.

So, in the name of equality (if not liberty and fraternity) a new way of describing mixed groups has been invented, the écriture 
inclusive, for use by the civil service and academia. 

What you have to do is put a dots in to show you're writing about both sexes. A group of mixed friends becomes ami·e·s, for instance.

(You see what that mid-point dot has done to the formatting of this post? Tut!)

I'm sure the person behind this idea is perfectly well-meaning, but, look, I don't have a floating dot on my keyboard. French keyboards don't usually have this facility, either. 

And, after all, if you must, why not write it ami.e.s?

The immortels - sorry, there are a few women among them, the immortel·le·s - are in despair, and talk of mortal danger to the language.

Well, it's their job to make a fuss about this sort of thing, so I suppose you can't blame them. 

And, honestly, why on earth didn't the revolutionaries come up with some system you can type?

Word To Use Today: chairman? Postman? Actress? Or else some alternative your conscience deems appropriate.

Wednesday 8 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: nonce words.

A nonce word is one coined for a particular occasion.

For instance, if you ever needed to communicate an intense need for chocolate it would be possible to speak of suffering from chocodrawal symptoms.

If you needed to express your displeasure at someone else's infant - or, indeed, your own - getting into your private possessions or your conversation then perhaps toddlecreep would cover it.

The trouble with nonce words is, of course, that if they're actually any good then they'll be used again and again and soon stop being, well, nonce words, at all.

One other reason nonce words come into being is for use in language experiments.

So let's do one now: which of these creatures is a flooble?

File:Korea-Seoul-Blue insect-01.jpg
photo by Robert


File:Male Aedes Aegypti Mosquito (26418876982).jpg
photo by NIAID


Well, don't ask me: flooble is a nonce word. I just made it up.*

Words To Use Today: nonce word. This phrase comes from for the nonce, which is a mangling of the phrase for then anes, which in the 1100s meant for the once.

*But most people would probably say the first, all the same: rounded sounds tends to suggest a rounded body in most people's minds.


Tuesday 7 November 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: a cheapskate.

It’s never nice to be called a cheapskate. Especially if it’s true.

But is it true? Are you careful, or are you mean? 

Or, to look at it the other way, are you generous, or are you profligate?

Do you serve drinks in thimbles?

Do you always cut the shrink wrap just slightly too small?

Do you buy the extra-cheap bread that's so full of holes you have to eat three times as much of it?

Are you, in short, prepared to embrace some degree of suffering - or inflict it on others - because the inconvenience is outweighed by the pleasure of saving insignificant amounts of money?


Oh you cheapskate!

Thing Not To Be Today: a cheapskate. Cheap comes from the Old English ceop, bargain or price, and is ultimately to do with the Latin caupo, innkeeper. Where skate came from less clear, but the best guess is that it's to do with the old Scots insult skate (the Scots are brilliant at insults) which still has an echo in the word blatherskite or blatherskate, who is a person who talks on and on without saying anything much to any purpose. 

The song Maggie Lauder uses it:

(blatherskate comes near the end of the first verse. Good tune, too, eh?)

 and this may be how the word skate in this sense got to America, where cheapskate seems to have been coined.

Monday 6 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: something rufescent.

Are you a scientist or a poet?

Not sure?

Well, can you spot a rufescent sexual reproductive structure of a subfamily Rosoideae angiosperm? 

If you can, or want to, then you're a scientist.

It will look quite like this:

File:Blush rose 1.jpg

If, on the other hand, when you see it you're only aware of spotting a blushing rose, then there's a brimming well of poetry in you.

(The photograph is of the lovely rose called Maiden's Blush, and was taken by Nadiatalent.)

Anyway, rufescent. It's basically a botanical term that means tinged with red or becoming red:

File:Ilex mitis - Cape Holly tree - berries detail 3.JPG
(these are the fruit of Ilex mitis, the Cape Holly Tree. Photo by Abu Shawka).

This is a rufescent prinea, photo by AriefrahmanThat's not an easy spot unless you're in the right part of India or South East Asia, but never mind: a human cheek reddened with exercise, fever, cold, heat, alcohol or embarrassment is quite rufescent enough for me.

Spot the Frippet: something rūfescent. This word comes from the Latin rufescere, to grow reddish, from rūfus, red or auburn.

Sunday 5 November 2017

Sunday Rest: catholic.

Today is England's Firework Day. Hurrah!

We let off the fireworks to celebrate the failure of the 1605 plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

So, now, tell me: what do you call a small bunch of people who get together in secret and plot to bomb public buildings?

That's right: terrorists.

Now, I'm very fond of bonfire night, but it's becoming increasingly frowned upon because people claim it celebrates the death of Catholics (and it's true both that the plotters were Catholics, and that they were most horribly tortured and executed).

But these plotters weren't just Catholics, or just men, or just humans, or just people with beards. 


The reason we're celebrating the day is because their terrorist plot failed.

Still, hey, it's probably best not to mention the Catholic thing, just in case, eh?

Word Not To Use Today: catholic. With a small c this word means wide-ranging, universal, liberal or broad-minded. It comes from the Latin catholicus, from Greek katholikos, universal, from katholou, in general, from kata- according to, and holos, whole.

Saturday 4 November 2017

Saturday Rave: Morph

People have long felt a need for a universal language. People have quite often tried to make up one from scratch (though computers are demanding new words at such a rate that they seem to be making quite a good job of making one up themselves).

But look, here's someone who's already done it:

(photo by Giles Farrington Flickr user giles 72)

He's called Morph, and he was created by Peter Lord and David Sproxton and a lot of other people (one of the modellers was Chris Entwistle).

This is Peter Lord with Morph:

Peter Lord making Morph June 2014.jpg
By The Rambling Man with assistance from Jane Ormes - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Morph speaks...well, it's been called gobbledegook, but Morph makes noises people can understand, so I don't see why that doesn't count as language.

Have a look at this very short film (it's just over a minute long) and see if you can understand him.

Morph's language would be quicker to learn than Esperanto , anyway, wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: morph. This word comes from the Greek morphē, which means shape (and, by the way, shape is what my grandmother used to call blancmange. Coincidence, or what?).

Friday 3 November 2017

Word To Use Today: flight.

I spent yesterday scraping up perished rubber left behind after taking up the ancient underlay on a flight of stairs.

It was more fun than it sounds, partly because flight is such a lovely word. Next time you are labouring to climb some stairs remember that you're doing the human equivalent of flying.

A group of birds also sometimes comes in a flight - it might be a flight of swifts, perhaps, wheeling and screaming:

File:Apus apus flock flying.jpg
photo by Keta

so do groups of aircraft and arrows (come in flights, I mean: they don't usually scream). A raceful of hurdles is a flight, and so is an aviary's flying space. A cricketer, when he bowls the ball in such a way to make it turn bafflingly in its course, gives it some flight.

All mysterious and very nearly magical things - and, now I come to think about it, all literally uplifting.

Have a good day!

Word To Use Today: flight. This word comes from the Old English flyght - which shows that it's been practically perfect for over a thousand years.

Thursday 2 November 2017

Plainly beautiful: a rant.

Look, it may have seemed funkily ironic to call your clothes label Acne, or Fat Face, or Sweaty Betty, or Weird Fish, but what you have to remember is that a) lots of people have no sense of humour whatsoever; b) what most people need when it comes to clothes is reassurance; and c) on the whole people are looking to draw attention away from their acne, fat face, body odour, and inability to master the being-normal thing.

Still, I suppose it's also true that the beautiful smug people won't worry; and that the rest of us tend to follow wistfully, if hopelessly, in their steps; and also that words stop having any meaning if they're used wrongly often enough.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that it seems to have worked out, after all.

Word To Use Today: acne. This skin condition is sometimes called, rather splendidly, acne vulgaris. It should really be called acme, because it comes from a misreading  by medical men in the 1800s of the Greek akmē, eruption of the skin.

Hey, I wonder if the clothes label is a misreading of acme?

Wednesday 1 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: good heavens!

Having spoken of unquiet souls yesterday at Halloween, it seems only polite to give a nod to All Saints Day and the good guys today. 

Now, the thing about saints is that they're variable. You get saints who were holy for a long time, like St Roch, who is said to have observed fasts even when breast-feeding; and then you get saints like St Alban, who led a heathen life and converted to Christianity only just in time to get martyred.

And then, of course, you get saints like St George, who is most famous for being unkind to endangered wildlife.

Now, if George was good (and presumably he was, to have earned the saint label), then presumably we can say that St Alban was better, but that St Roch was best.

But why not good, gooder, goodest?

Well, it seems to have been because people like to be tidy. The root of the word good is the Germanic word gath, which started off meaning to gather together (as, indeed, you might guess by the words gather and together). Once things were together then they became seen as pleasing, and then, later, good.

(Goods, meaning things able to be sold, comes from the same idea.)

Inconveniently, though, by the time the word good had started meaning, well, good, there were other words already in use that meant gooder and goodest. 

The root of these words was bat, which meant advantage (it's left a faint trail in our word boot, as in I got my phone for £20, with a £10 voucher to boot). Now, as I said, boot had been around long enough to have its own comparative, betara, and superlative, betest, and so there wasn't really much point in making up new comparative and superlative forms for good.

The really cool thing is that when a toddler, trying to form a superlative, says I like that one even betera, he's not only being irresistibly cute, but he's speaking Middle English.

But then all two-year-olds are geniuses, aren't they?

Word To Use Today: well, what's the best thing you've done today? That'll do.