This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday 31 December 2017

Sunday Rest: satoshi. Word Not To Use Today.

A satoshi is one hundred millionth of a bitcoin.

At the time of writing that wasn't enough to buy anything, being about a hundredth of a US cent. Still, that doesn't matter, much, because you can't actually buy things with Bitcoin: not many things, anyway.

In fact a satoshi is really more like a grain of gold dust than money, in that it's valuable without being an awful lot of use. The difference is that a satoshi is a special kind of invisible, intangible gold dust...


Am I the only one who feels as if we've entered an Age of Fairy Tales?

Because I have an odd feeling that midnight might be about to strike.

File:Cinderella 3 from The Blue Fairy Book 1889 author Andrew Lang.jpg
illustration by G P Jacomb Hood.

Word Not To Use Today: satoshi. Satoshi Nakamoto is the pseudonym of the person who invented Bitcoin. He has claimed to be Japanese, is widely suspected of being American, but uses British English. This month his wealth in Bitcoin might have made him the 44th richest person on the planet.

Saturday 30 December 2017

The House of Hanover by Walter Savage Landor.

The great mystery about the English poet/dramatist Walter Savage Landor is why on earth he chose to use his middle name professionally. I've avoided him for years on the assumption that he was yet another grim Victorian.

Walter Savage Landor ILN.jpg

But actually he wasn't. He was known by his friends as the gentlest of men. 

Unfortunately he was at least as efficient at collecting enemies.

The basic trouble seems to have been that he couldn't keep his mouth shut. He was expelled from school and university (though that was for shooting at the windows of a noisy fellow-student) and he was regularly asked to go out when his family was expecting visitors in case he caused embarrassment. He always proved incapable of holding back from insulting people (though he was a generous critic), and his exasperated but affectionate friends were always having to charge to the rescue.

Fortunately Landor was rather good at a zingy come-back line, even if it did sometimes take him a couple of years to think of one.

Even his wife took him back, in the end.

Landor wrote poems in Latin and English (some very much admired), imaginary dialogues between famous people, and some unsuccessful plays. 

I'm not sure you can honour this effusion, below, with the name of poetry, exactly, but it's a joy, and shows Landor's genius for Just Not Caring.

George the First was always reckoned
Vile, but viler George the Second.
And what mortal ever heard
And good of George the Third.
But when from earth the Fourth descended
God be praised the Georges ended.

Unfair, in parts: but so funny that I find I don't care much, either.

Word To Use Today: savage. This word comes from the Old French sauvage, from the Latin silvāticus, belonging to a wood, from silva, a wood.

Friday 29 December 2017

Word To Use Today: pellicle.

A pellicle is a thin skin or film of the sort found on a mushroom:

File:Kaldari coprinoid mushrooms.jpg
photo by Kaldari

or on any printed-out photograph:

File:Eichhörnchen Düsseldorf Hofgarten edit.jpg
photo by Ray eye. (This photograph is, obviously, not printed-out, but it's lovely, anyway.)

Pellicle is a word both ridiculous and lovely. TS Eliot famously called his black and white cats jellicle cats I think it's fair to assume that he would have been charmed by the word pellicle, too. 

And if it's good enough for him...

Word To Use Today: pellicle. This word comes from the Latin pellicula, from pellis, skin.

Thursday 28 December 2017

The familiarity of penguins: a rant.

This Christmas, according to Clare Fischer of the excellent Marine Conservation Society, 114,000 tonnes of plastic packaging will be thrown away and not recycled.

That's equivalent, says the headline on their website, to 3.3 million emperor penguins:

Three point three million emperor penguins? 

Look, I'm sorry and all that, but to be honest I'm having a bit of difficulty visualising three point three million emperor penguins. 

(Are there three point three million emperor penguins..?)

File:Emperor penguins (1).jpg

(Look, there are definitely at least three. Photo by lin padgham.)

I'd probably get more of an idea of just how much waste that is if did it with seagulls. Or pelicans. I mean, I can see why the Marine Conservation Society is looking for a sea creature, but something you get in zoos might be more helpful. Or they could have used something you see in films. A bottle-nosed dolphin, perhaps. Or even a blue whale.

I suppose I could do the maths, if it'd be helpful.

The amount of plastic packaging thrown away over Christmas will be 114,000 tonnes (how do they know?) which is roughly equivalent in weight to:

114 million herring gulls
11.4 million pelicans
57,000 bottle-nosed dolphins
814 blue whales...

...and a quite ridiculous number of partridges in pear trees.


Which statistic made you think most? 

Whichever it was, the emperor penguins have at least got us talking about plastic waste, haven't they? So perhaps the analogy, bonkers though it seems, was a good idea, after all. 

Oh, but fifty seven thousand dolphins...

Word To Use Today: pelican. This is a bit odd. The word seems to comes from the Greek word pelekus, which means axe. Pelekas in Greek means woodpecker.

PS There are fewer than 600,000 emperor penguins in the world.

Wednesday 27 December 2017

Nuts and Bolts: cross cousins.

At this time of family get-togethers it's quite likely you'll have a cross cousin, but happily this doesn't imply that anyone's angry.

It's all, as so often, a matter of names: technically, a cross cousin is a descendant of a parent's opposite-sex sibling.

(A parallel or ortho-cousin is the decendant of a parent's same-sex sibling.)

This is all rather a relief unless you live in a society, such as a traditional Iroquois one, where you're quite likely to be encouraged to marry one of them.  

Word To Use Today: cross. Cross as in cross cousin or cross-legged is to do with the shape of an X-shaped cross. This meaning was extended in the 1560s to mean contrary, and by the 1630s to mean peevish.

Tuesday 26 December 2017

Thing To Do Today: box.

It's Boxing Day today in Britain, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. 

Boxing Day, as the name suggests, is an opportunity both to get rid of some of that extra weight put on during Christmas Day, and also to sort out any arguments that may have arisen due to being cooped up for far too long with relatives.

There's an unofficial system of seeding and handicaps for the actual fighting: a great-aunt, for instance, can have a stand-up match with a grandmother as long as they both wear knitted mittens, but a dispute between a grandfather with only one leg and a teenager can only take place if the teenager remains sitting throughout and puts a balaclava on backwards...

...oh all right, not really. It'd be great, though, wouldn't it? 

No, round here we do what families all over the world do, which is bicker a bit, and then either forget all about it or else fester until the next year. 

Actual physical assault is really rather rare, and, if it happens, usually only involves a turkey drumstick.

The reason today is really called Boxing Day is because it's the day that, by tradition, tradesmen call hoping for a present of money, which is called a Christmas Box. This is probably because servants would have to work on Christmas Day, but on the day after would be given a box of presents, money and perhaps left-overs to take home to their families.

Taking some exercise today is still a good idea, and if you have a punch bag then I'm sure that will prove some much-needed relief.

Otherwise, a brisk walk, perhaps.

Thing To Do Today: box. The container word comes from the Latin boxus from the Greek puxos. The fighting word might come from the Dutch word boken, to shunt, or push into position.

Monday 25 December 2017

Spot the Frippet: gift.

In German, Gift means, literally, poison - but, however awful your family is, and however temptingly the brandy glints, avoid this at all costs.

Some English gifts are, admittedly, about as welcome as poison (the novelty spoon-rest; the ornamental mushroom; the set of orange saucepans).

What these gifts have in common is their durability, and it's hard, when it seems that one is stuck for life sharing a house with a plastic reproduction of the infant Samuel prophesying before the Lord, to be entirely tranquil. Still, we can always ask our clumsiest friend round in January for a visit. 

And the ornamental mushroom is easily stolen if displayed in the porch.

(Hmm...I wonder if an after-Christmas rent-a-thief business might be a goer...?)

Most gifts, however, are signs of love and affection (if really dreadful taste) and are of course blessings, if in hideous disguise.

May I take this opportunity to wish a Happy Christmas to all those who visit The Word Den, and may at least some of the gifts around you be of the kind that can be recalled with warmth and happiness.

File:Lorenzo Leonbruno da Mantova - The Nativity - Google Art Project.jpg
painting by Lorenzo Leonbruno of Mantova 

And as for the rest, I recommend a donation to your next raffle, tombola, or prize draw...

...or starting that rent-a-thief business.

Spot the Frippet: gift. This word is Old English and means a payment for a wife. The Gothic fragifts means engagement.


Sunday 24 December 2017

Sunday Rest: get-go. Word Not To Use Today.

If your Christmas is going to include the word get-go then your turkey is too large, your anxiety levels are entirely inappropriate for a celebration of love, and you haven't explained to the children carefully enough that if they get up before dark then they might scare Father Christmas off before he's had a chance to drop off the presents.

(See? He's still working at dawn...)

I mean, I doubt the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night ran off screeching come on, or we won't be in at the get-go!

After all, didn't someone say And on Earth, Peace?

Happy Christmas, and goodwill toward men*!

Word Not To Use Today: get-go. This word seems to have emerged in 1960s America.

*And don't start all that gender lark, either! 

Saturday 23 December 2017

Saturday Rave: The Virgin's Song. Anonymous.

In a year that's seen Greggs, a large British bakery chain of shops, produce an advertisement showing three kings venerating a sausage roll placed in a manger, I feel the need for something still and beautiful and tender.

This poem was written some time after 1300. It's about someone homeless and cold and heart-breakingly poor.

Except in...

...but read it, and you'll see.

Jesu, sweetė sonė dear,
On poorful bed lies thou here,
And that me grieveth sore;
For they cradle is as bere,
Ox and assė be thy fere;
Weep I may therefóre.

Jesu, sweetė, be not wroth,
Though I n'avė clout nor cloth
Thee on for to fold,
Thee on to foldė ne to wrap,
For I n'avė clout ne lap
But lay thou thy feet to my pap
And wite thee from the cold.

...except in love.

Madonna and Child from Tauberbischofscheim. Now in the Bode-Museum, Berlin

Word To Use Today: poor. This word comes from the Latin pauper.

Friday 22 December 2017

Word To Use Today: festoon.

File:Festoon (PSF).png

How is the house looking? Are there festoons of ivy threaded cunningly through the balusters and along the hand rail of your staircase, or have you decided to try to keep your elderly relatives alive and with no bones broken until the New Year?

In that case, have you got earwigs falling into the wine glasses from the festoons of greenery stuck to the ceiling?

Are you looking forward to the festoons of paper chains getting flamingly involved when Dad gets over-excited setting fire to the brandy on the pudding?

Do you have your migraine yet from the vicious sparkling of the metallic-doily festoons all along the hall?

It's a nice silly word, festoon; but do you know why we put them up at Christmas time?

No one does, really, but it might be to remind us, in the winter darkness, of the bright Spring to come; it might be to remind us of the promise of the life everlasting; or it might be just because it's been a traditional if mysterious part of the winter celebration for thousands of years.

For a trifler in The Word Den, though, there is another reason...

Word To Use Today: festoon. We festoon the house with festoons during the festival of Christmas because they are festive. The word comes from the French feston, from the Italian festone, from the Latin festa, feast.

Thursday 21 December 2017

Where Santa goes wrong: a rant.

Santa Claus, as I have been told on a wearyingly large number of occasions recently, is comin' to town.

It really makes me rather glad I live in the suburbs.

Actually, it doesn't really matter to me in which neighbourhood Santa Claus hangs out because Santa doesn't come to Britain. It's Father Christmas who brings us our presents, and I would contend that, despite not having the Santa thing going (Santa means saint), Father Christmas is a much nicer, more generous, and truly Christian old man.

I mean, consider the Santa described ad nauseam in J Fred Coots's lyrics:

He's making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who's naughty and nice
Santa Claus is comin' to town
He sees you when you're sleeping
He knows when you're awake
He knows if you've been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake
Oh! You'd better watch out, you'd better not cry
Better not pout, I'm telling you why
Santa Claus is comin' to town.

The implication being, of course, that if you're naughty you won't get any presents.

But, as I said, I have no need to worry because Britain's present-bringer, Father Christmas, brings gifts to even the most miserable and tantrum-prone of us. Even someone with a pout like Cyphotilapia frontosa gets something from the sleigh; even someone driven to stark barking madness and dark misanthropy by inane Christmas songs dribbling from speakers in all the public spaces of the country still gets a prezzie.


You feel a flicker of disapproval?

Then consider this: Santa Claus may be called Santa, but getting what you deserve really isn't in the true spirit of Christmas.

Is it?

painting by Gerard David

Word To Use Today: deserve. This word comes from the Latin deservīre, to serve devotedly.

Wednesday 20 December 2017

Nuts and Bolts: a hundred words for snow.

Everybody knows that, despite what Franz Boas claimed in his 1911 book Handbook of American Indian languages, the Eskimo-speaking people do not have dozens of words for snow.

It's an urban myth, right?


Boas only studied Inuit (there's another Eskimo language called Yupik, and dozens of dialects) so he even didn't have a chance to look at the whole vocabulary, but the main reason why people have dismissed his claims to have knowledge of the Eskimo words for snow is that the Eskimo languages don't always come in words as we know them. In Yupik, for instance, angyagh means boat, while angyaghllangyugtuqlu means what's more, he wants an even bigger boat

Even so, the fact that there's an Inuit word, aqilokoq for softly falling snow, and another piegnartoq for snow that's good for a driving sled, always made it likely that there are going to be quite a lot of other snow-focused words in the language.

But now Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center, has done some more research and has come to the conclusion that Boas was right all along.  

For instance, the Inuit dialect spoken in Nunavik has a word, matsaaruti, which means wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh's runners. In the same language pukak is snow that looks like salt. In Wales, Alaska, the vocabulary of the Inupiaq dialect includes auniq, which means ice that's filled with holes like Swiss cheese.

But then of course the Eskimo languages have lots of words for snow. As must by now be clear, they need them. 

I'm English, so I don't. 

I get by with using the single word snow and lots of rude adjectives.

Word To Use Today: snow. This word comes from the Old English snāw.

Tuesday 19 December 2017

Thing To Be Today: busy.

Have you written your cards, bought your presents, made the pudding, fed the cake, cleared the spare room, checked the bed linen, remembered the spare towels are worn out, got in the booze, looked for recipes for a gluten-free vegan, thought of three party games that the drunk and confused can mange, despaired at the offerings on the TV, wondered where on earth you're going to put the turkey, tried to convince yourself that bread sauce isn't essential even though it's your favourite bit of Christmas, told yourself it's all for the children, really, remembered that the children have all long grown up, had an existential crisis, and pulled yourself together?

Really? Well, good for you. Then you'd better start counting the cutlery, finding the napkins, practising your what-a-lovely-present face, finding the instructions for how to turn the sofa into a bed, and wondering if a novelty Christmas jumper is now obligatory.

Just try not to snarl too obviously when people start singing about Peace on Earth, okay?

Thing To Be Today: busy. This word comes from the Old English bisig, and is perhaps from the Latin festināre, to hurry.

Monday 18 December 2017

Spot the Frippet: card.

How sad it is when friends die - even, and in some cases especially, the long-sundered and seldom-seen ones.

On the other hand, it does make the Christmas card list shorter.

For those friends who remain, and to whom cards must be sent, what news to convey along with the message of joy etc? How to avoid the Scylla of self-pity while dodging the Charybdis of smugness?

Is there anything to tell, anyway, apart from holidays and illnesses, builders and children? May we sprinkle tragedy among the glitter, triumph over the crib?

Still, even if one eschews Christmas cards altogether there will still be no difficulty in spotting a card, or a piece of card. A library card (which probably isn't actually made of card at all, but never mind) a cereal packet, a playing card...

...or perhaps a card in human form. This is one of those wearisome people who think they're funny. 

Unfortunately Christmas only encourages them. 

Ah well!

Spot the Frippet: card. This word comes from the Old French carte, from the Latin charta, a leaf of papyrus, from the Greek khartēs and before that probably from Egypt.

Sunday 17 December 2017

Sunday Rest: in posse. Phrase Not To Use Today.

Sadly, in posse doesn't involve being a member of a Wild West gang:

the Ned Christie posse

 which is intent on catching a villain in a black hat* (which must be quite good fun, and doesn't even require very much detective work unless the said villain is smart enough to, well, take his hat off - which, as far as I have observed, very few of them do. I suppose it's analogous to some of our local English villains who have HATE and KILL tattooed on their knuckles.).

No, in posse means possible or potential. In Latin.

And why anyone would choose to use it I have no idea at all.

Sunday Rest: in posse. This is Latin for in possibility. Lawyers use the phrase from time to time, and the example usually given is of a foetus being a child in posse, that is a potential child, rather than in actual being (in esse).

But then some lawyers are dreadful show-offs, aren't they.

*Not that Ned Christie wore a black hat: though some of the members of the posse do. But then they were the baddies, weren't they?

Saturday 16 December 2017

Saturday Rave: the divine Jane.

I know the birthdays of four writers off by heart. Three of them are members of my close family (my father, a daughter, and me) and the other one is Jane Austen, which is today, the sixteenth of December. 

Happy Birthday Jane!

I've written about Miss Austen's work several times before, but, good heavens, so I should have done. Her complete works run to only six novels* (and two of those were published posthumously, so we can't be sure exactly how finished they are. The title of Persuasion, for example, is not Miss Austen's own (her working title was The Elliots makes much more sense, to me)).

But, if Miss Austen's works are not particularly extensive, they are particularly fine. In fact I would say they are uniquely intelligent, cogent, funny, generous, human, divine, and glorious.

Here, more or less at random, are a couple of sentences from Miss Austen's first full-length novel, Sense and SensibilityAs a rule Miss Austen's characters are miracles of subtlety, but as it's the pantomime season I've chosen something broader. And, ooh, Miss Austen has a wonderful way with a baddy:

Mrs Ferrars was a little, thin woman, upright, even to formality, in her figure, and serious, even to sourness, in her aspect. Her complexion was sallow; and her features small, without beauty, and naturally without expression; but a lucky contraction of the brow had rescued her countenance from the disgrace of insipidity, by giving it the strong character of pride and ill nature.

Still giving joy after a couple of centuries, too.

illustration by Chris Hammond (1860 - 1900)

Thank you, Jane!

Word To Use Today: insipid. This word comes from the Latin insipidus. Sapidus means full of flavour.

*Not counting the novella Lady Susan.

Friday 15 December 2017

Word To Use Today: Berliner.

A Berliner is an inhabitant of Berlin. President J F Kennedy was declaring solidarity with the beleaguered city when, on a visit in 1963, he said Ich bin ein Berliner.

Berliner Pfannkuchen are doughnuts, and much amusement has been caused by the idea that President Kennedy was declaring himself to be a fried pastry. Sadly, in some ways, the story doesn't quite work, especially as in Berlin they aren't called Berliner Pfannkuchen anyway, but just Pfannkuchen.

Ah well, I seem to remember that President Jimmy Carter made up for this when he visited Hamburg and said Ich bin ein Hamburger...but surely that can't be true, either, because I can't find mention of it anywhere on the web.

Berliner is also a small-format newspaper - the sort that doesn't wrap itself round your head when it's windy, or tear in two when you try to turn the page, or require formation-reading on a crowded train.

Berliners are, naturally, despised by those who have mastered the arts of reading the large broadsheet formats.

Word To Use Today: Berliner. Technically a Berliner newspaper is slightly bigger than the usual size of tabloid newspaper, but the tabloid press has adopted the term, presumably to make themselves look a little more respectable. 

The format was first manufactured in Berlin.

Thursday 14 December 2017

Carrying on regardless.

Look, let's take this step by step, shall we?

File:Worn steps (24546440604).jpg
photo by Tim Green

To regard means to notice and consider. So, therefore, regardless means not noticing something and considering it.

He went out in his thin jacket regardless of the blizzard.


So, how about this monstrosity?

 He went out in his thin jacket irregardless of the blizzard.

Any ideas?

Well, usually ir- means means not, as in irrational or irreversible, in which case the line above makes no sense at all. Just sometimes, though, ir- means to cause to happen, as in irradiate or irrigate. As irregardless seems to be an attempt to make the word regard stronger by a double negative this last meaning is, admittedly, a bit nearer to what I think is meant by irregardless - but it's still not the same.

But does irregardless work as an extra strong-version of regardless?

Well, if it does, only at the expense of making the speaker or writer look woolly-minded and illiterate. So, personally, I avoid it.

Word To Use Today: regardless. The French word regarder is one of the first I ever learned. It comes from re- which means again, plus garder, to guard. 

Wednesday 13 December 2017

Nuts and Bolts: the ideomotor effect,

Does dowsing, the process by which buried treasure (most often water) communicates its presence to a person walking across the soil above it, work?

The answer seems to be yes, sometimes. In particular dowsers are effective at finding water in places which are situated on large areas of underground water.

The next question is: does dowsing work more often than mere chance?

Well, no one has yet managed to prove this using any rigorous scientific method, though some large companies who need to look for water or oil do employ dowsers. 

Well, you've got to look somewhere, so why not go with every clue you have?

So the next question is: are all dowsers fakes?

The answer to that seems to be no. A sincere dowser seems to rely on the ideomotor effect, which is when a thought causes an involuntary contraction of the muscles. To make things even more obscure, this thought may not be one of which the thinker is aware.

It's the same mechanism that's reckoned to account for the various forms of "ghost-communication" such as table-turning and ouija boards.

So it may be that an effective dowser is just very good at the unconscious analysis of geological or geographical clues (and people do lots unconscious analysis: when judging the flight of a ball, for example).

Or perhaps, just perhaps, there's some mysterious communication with the Earth going on, after all...

I still can't help hoping, you know.

Word To Use Today: ideomotor. This word was coined by William Benjamin Carpenter in 1852. The ideo- bit is from the Greek idea which means, well, idea; and the motor bit comes from the Latin movēre, to move.

Tuesday 12 December 2017

Thing To Do Today: a yorker.

You know the game of cricket? 

Well, probably not, but the game has a rich and glorious vocabulary. (No, don't worry, the game isn't nearly as confusing as its r & g vocabulary suggests.)

At a basic level, cricket consists of someone chucking a ball at a man with a bat, and the idea is that batsman hits the ball as far away as possible and then sprints from one marked place on the field to another before the other team can retrieve the ball. Each journey from one mark to the other is called a run. If you get from one mark to the other and then back again before the ball is retrieved, for example, then that counts as two runs. You're supposed to keep on going until the other team get the ball back. If you manage to hit the ball to the edge of the playing field without it touching the ground you automatically get six runs. If the ball gets to the edge of the playing field but bounces before it gets there, or rolls part of the way, then you get four.

The man who chucks the ball is called a bowler. His job is to make the ball hard to hit.

A yorker is a ball designed to bounce under the bat, or just behind it, as shown by the green line here:

image by Trengarasu

A yorker is extremely tricky to hit because there are three upright sticks on the ground just behind the batsman that he's not allowed to knock over (so he can't step back very far) and it's just as tricky to bowl. 

Few visitors to The Word Den will be planning on playing cricket today, but a very difficult to answer question is sometimes called a yorker (usually, I must admit, by old men). But, hey, asking difficult questions is a healthy thing, and, anyway, I don't see why the old men should have all the fun, do you?

Thing To Do Today: a yorker. This is probably called after the cricket-obsessed English county of Yorkshire, though in the 1800s to pull Yorkshire meant to deceive someone, and there's also a Middle English word yuerke, also meaning to trick or deceive, which may have something to do with it.

Here's my yorker: have you ever stolen anything?

Monday 11 December 2017

Spot the Frippet: weeds.

But what's a weed?

Are the sunny marigolds that have seeded themselves along my garden wall weeds? Our builder thought so, presumably, as he carefully dug them all up, but luckily more have emerged, shining like cheerful little suns through the English December murk.

File:Calendula officinalis 001.JPG
photo by H. Zell

Mind you, they annoy at least one of our neighbours rather a lot.

What about weeds on a larger scale? Is the unmown grass round the hoardings full of weeds or wild flowers? 

File:Roadside hoarding near A557, Widnes - - 491341.jpg
photo by Chris Palmer

Is the area a nature reserve or waste land?

Can we call that metre-tall ash tree that's sprung up from nowhere (as ash trees do) a weed, or are weeds by definition little scraggly things that don't threaten to block out all available light and cause serious damage to the foundations of the house?

Some weeds, however, everyone can agree on. The weed is, or used to be, tobacco; weed without the the may well be marijuana; if the weed is walking then it's probably either a thin, small and weak sort of a person, or a similar kind of a horse.

A widow's weeds are the black mourning clothes widows used to wear, poor things:

File:Olivia - Edmund Blair Leighton.jpg
painting of Olivia by Edmund Leighton

and a weed used to be a black band worn as a sign of mourning. 

Before that, weeds used to be clothes of any kind, but nowadays that's just confusing to everyone.

Mourning clothes have gone out of fashion, luckily, so this Spot the Frippet will have to be one of the other kinds. 

Have fun deciding what counts.

Spot the frippet: weed. The plant word comes from the Old English weod and is related to the Old High German wiota, fern. The mourning word comes from the Old English wǣd.

Sunday 10 December 2017

Sunday Rest: wedmin. Word Not To Use Today.

Prince Harry is getting married to his beautiful leman. Bless them both! 

The prince not known as a man of conspicuous oratory, but he does seem to have been responsible for bringing the word wedmin to a large and understandably rather censorious public.

Wedmin describes the administration duties involved in preparing a wedding. On the occasion when Prince Harry most famously used the word he had the job of Best Man at his brother Prince William's wedding (which was quite a big affair): 

File:Wedding Prince William Balcony Buckingham Palace 2.jpg

and I think he can be forgiven for feeling burdened, confused, and occasionally exasperated.

But even the smallest, simplest wedding is bound to produce some sense of burden, confusion and exasperation, so perhaps wedmin has its uses, after all.

Nevertheless, a wedding is supposed to be an event of unrelieved joy and perfection, remember, so best only mutter it in private, eh?

Sunday Rest: wedmin. This word seems to have been coined in 2007, and is a mixture of the words wedding and administration. The word wedding comes from the Old English weddian, and is related to the Gothic wadi, which means pledge.

Saturday 9 December 2017

Saturday Rave: Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair by Richard Lovelace.

Richard Lovelace (you say it loveless) was born exactly four hundred years ago today.

He had the misfortune to live in interesting times, and the further misfortune to be an interesting person - young, handsome, wealthy, and well-born - which of course made it worse. He survived the English Civil War partly because he was in prison at a couple of the most critical periods of the conflict, and it was there that he wrote probably his most famous poem To Althea, From Prison, which is the one that includes the lines Stone walls do not a prison make/Nor iron bars a cage.

It was impossible for someone living at that time not to be political, but he wrote many poems of friendship, and love, and a series about small creatures including The Snayl and The Grasshopper.

Song to Amarantha, that she would dishevel her hair is about a beautiful and desirable lady - but if it's a love poem then there's a nasty little sting in the tail.

Here's the beginning:

Amarantha sweet and fair
Ah braid no more that shining hair!
As my curious hand or eye
Hovering round thee let it fly.

Let it fly as unconfin'd
As its calm ravisher, the wind,
Who hath left his darling th'East,
To wanton o'er that spicy nest.


The whole not-very-long poem - and that stinging tail - can be found HERE.

Word To Use Today: nest. This word has stayed the same since before the Normans came. Rather sweetly, it's related to the word beneath.

Friday 8 December 2017

Word To Use Today: typhoon.

Typhon was a monster. A Greek monster, as it happens, and one of the whirlwinds.

His mother was the Earth and his father may have been one of various strange beings, or he might have had no father at all, but the main idea is that Earth, furious with the Gods for destroying her children the Titans, produced Typhon to wreak revenge upon them.

Typhon was quite a guy. He had a hundred or so snake-like or dragon-like heads and his eyes sent out fire. Encouragingly, despite these disadvantages, he found love with another monster called Echidna and they had several small monsters who carried on the annoy-the-Gods thing with gusto. Cerberus, the Sphinx and the Hydra were some of the kids.

Rather a bad likeness, it seems, by Wenceslas Hollar

Now, what you're thinking is, well, that's how we got the word typhoon, then.

And, guess what...?

Word To Use Today: typhoon. This word comes from the Chinese tai fung, great wind...

...though poor old Typhon (he was defeated by Zeus in an epic battle and cast down into the Greek hell, Tartarus, in the end) has influenced the spelling.

Thursday 7 December 2017

The shame of being female: a rant.

I've recently re-read John Buchan's The Thirty Nine Steps. It's fine as a thriller (though nothing like as good as the Hitchcock film) but I was surprised by the casual racism of the narrator.

It's unrepeatable on a family blog like this, but there was stuff like a [nationality] [religion] peddler with eyes like a rattlesnake. 

Not nice at all. 

What surprised me even more was remembering that I first came across The Thirty Nine Steps when I was twelve as a set text at school.

Schools have changed since then, and now everyone is much much more careful (in the educational fiction I write I'm not even allowed to mention sausages or the word blast). Recently Natasha Devon, who used to be the British Government's mental health champion for schools, has even gone as far as to urge the headteachers of Britain's most famous girls' schools not to refer to their pupils as girls or ladies because it is patronising.

Patronising? But what's wrong with being a girl?

Mind you, Ms Devon doesn't think it a good thing to call boys boys, either.

Her objection seems to be that if you remind children of their sexes (she calls them genders, but I think sex is what she means) then you are reminding them of all the stereotypes that go with them.

Well...err...not unless you remind them of all the stereotypes that go with them, you're not. I mean, why not use the mention of children's sexes to try breaking them down, instead?

File:Girls playing Soccer.jpg
photo by Sarah Jones


Word To Use Today: stereotype. A stereotype was originally a mould for making type for printing. The Greek stereos means solid and tupos means image, from tuptein, to strike.

Wednesday 6 December 2017

Nuts and Bolts: the universal word.

People have made many attempts to establish universal languages, with varying amounts of failure, but how about universal words?

According to the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, the most truly universal word is huh. The main difference between the speakers of huh in various languages is that if a question in that language goes up at the end then huh does too; but if a question goes downwards then huh follows it.

Not universal, but notably similar in many languages are such words as mama and papa; and coffee and tea. 

Coca cola and Apple must get into any nearly-universal list, too, naturally, but until apple starts meaning computer and coca cola starts meaning fizzy non-alcoholic drink then I'd say they were a bit different.

Wifi and RAM are a third category of pretty-much-universal words.

The reason I've been considering universal words is that the other day I came across a new one. I was trying to put together some Ikea cupboards. The quite long and complex international instructions were all conveyed in excellent illustrations, with only one single word involved in the whole thing.

It concerned the joining together of two halves of a hinge mechanism. You had to link them together in a certain way and push them until they locked.

And the word?


Mind you, knowing what click! meant didn't actually help all that much. 

But, hey, I got there. 

In the end.

Word To Use Today: click. The dictionary says that the word click was coined in the 1600s - but of course that would merely have been the first time anyone has found it written down, so it may be older. It's imitative, of course.

Tuesday 5 December 2017

Thing To Do Today: pounce.

I suppose it's mostly cats that pounce

but people pounce, too.

Cats tend to pounce on delicious meat-filled mice: humans pounce on a variety of other delicious things. It might be the perfect present for the difficult brother-in-law; the rarely-available sheep's milk cheese; the amusing-yet-tenderly-respectful greetings card for the girlfriend; or the stuffed toy for the chihuahua-obsessed toddler.

For those miserable people who never buy presents, have no unfulfilled desires, and don't eat mice, then pouncing can also involve punching decorative holes in metal from the reverse side.

For those miserable people whose metalwork days are over, pounce is also a fine powder, often made of cuttlefish bone, used either for drying ink or treating paper to stop ink from going splodgy. If the pounce is made of charcoal, then you can sprinkle it through holes in a piece of paper to transfer a pattern to another piece of paper underneath it.

I suppose you could transfer a pattern punched in metal in the same way, which would be a sort of double pouncing. But as far as I know no one has actually done it.

Thing To Do Today: pounce. The jumping-on-something word seems to comes from the Middle English punson, pointed tool (which is a bit odd, but there you go); the making holes in metal word is probably related, and comes from the Old French poinçonner; the powder word comes from the Old French ponce, from the Latin pūmes, pumice.

Monday 4 December 2017

Spot the Frippet: something lacertilian.

Do you have lacertilian eyes? 

It sounds quite romantic - perhaps they would long-lashed, dark, and languorous - but sadly that's not the case because lacertilian means to do with lizards.

Now there is the occasional lizard, like this crested gecko, that looks rather as if it has eyelashes:

File:Crested gecko back.jpg
photo by Michael McConville

(cute, isn't it?) but on the whole lacertilian eyes are not something to which a mammal would aspire. 

Those slitted pupils would, one imagines, be off-putting.

So what else might be lacertilian?

Well, lizards, obviously - but they're all hibernating in Britain at the moment, except for the ones kept as pets, and in zoos.

If you're in Central America then you may get a chance to feast on chicken of the tree, which is the meat of the Green iguana:

File:Iguana iguana Portoviejo 04.jpg
photo by Cayambe

 In Africa spiny-tailed lizards are eaten (though presumably not the actual spiny tails):

photo by Arpingstone

 and Uromastyx species:

File:Uromastyx nigriventris - Uromastyx acanthinurus nigriventris - Ménagerie Paris 05.JPG
Uromastyx nigriventris. Photo by Cedricguppy - Loury Cédric

are the fish of the desert and eaten by nomadic tribes.

Then there's the charming Gila monster, whose poison is used to make the anti-diabetic drug exenatide.

Ans we mustn't forget the Cardiff-based band called Lacertilia which promises 'a cosmic blend of primal rock'n'roll energy, heavy psychedelia and sludgy groove rock'.

But on the whole, I have to say, lizards aren't a lot of good to humans. The big ones might eat rats sometimes, and they small ones are fairly effective insect-eaters, but mostly they go their own sweet way. I rather admire that.

So for today, I think I'll be on the look-out for someone with chilling, unfeeling, predatory eyes.

And then run away from them.

Spot the Frippet: something lacertilian. Lacerta is the Latin for lizard.

Sunday 3 December 2017

Sunday Rest: cudbear. Word Not To Use Today.

It's not often a derivation gives one actual pain, but this is a rare example.

Cudbear is also known as orchil. It's a purplish dye you get when you torture lichen to death by pouring ammonia on it.

Rocella tinctoria - orseille - orchil - archil - Färberflechte - Fuerteventura - 01.jpg
Cudbear lichen, Rocella tinctoria. Photo by Norbert Nagel, Mörfelden-Walldorf, Germany

...though when you put like that perhaps the horrible derivation is justified, after all.

Sunday Rest: cudbear. This word came into being in the 1700s as an hilarious (not) version of Cuthbert, which was the Christian name of Dr Gordon, the man who patented the dye.

The word cuddy, meaning donkey, is probably also based on a silly form of the name Cuthbert.

Saturday 2 December 2017

An importunate chink by Edmund Burke: a rave.

Reading maketh a full man, says Francis Bacon; but then he lived before the invention of the tabloid press and Twitter. Nowadays it's easy to be full to the point of being thoroughly fed up.

Still, there are treasures everywhere, even on Twitter (@CatBake is a particularly glorious example) and this, below, is a treasure I found in a newspaper, though not one of the tabloid variety. I am greatly indebted to Charles Moore and the Daily Telegraph for drawing to my attention this quotation from Edmund Burke's Reflection on the Revolution in France.

As it happens, Edmund Burke did his writing before the tabloid press and Twitter, too. This is from 1790.

Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadows of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.

Although it isn't only British oaks, of course, but American redwoods and Australian eucalypti and Cedars of Lebanon and a whole world of assorted greenery.

Here's to the majority, eh?

Word To Use Today: cud. This word comes from the Old English cudu , from cwithu, what has been chewed, and is related to the Old Norse kvātha, resin, the Old High German quiti, glue, and the Sanskrit jatu, rubber.

Friday 1 December 2017

Word To Use Today: porphyrogenite.

There are a few English words beginning porphyr, and they mean a rather random collection of things.

There's porphyria, which is a disease which causes stomach pain and mental confusion; there's porphyritic, which is a sort of rock that has large crystals embedded among small ones; there's porphyropsin, which is a pigment found in the eyes of some fish; and there's porphyrogenite, which is a prince born to a reigning king.

Can you see the link between all these words?

Well, probably not, apart from the obvious fact that they all start with porphyr- but the answer is the colour purple.

People with porphyria have purple pee*; porphyritic rocks have a structure similar to the rock porphyry, which is purple:

File:Porphyry support for a water basin MET DT8829.jpg
Porphyry stand for a basin, Metropolitan Museum of Art

porphyropsin gives fish purple eyes; and porphyrogenite describes a boy who's born to the purple - that is, born into kingship, purple being the colour of kings:

Henry VIII of England with his son, later Edward VI. Is the lady Edward's deceased mother Jane Seymour? My source doesn't say, but it looks quite like her.

How on earth you are going to use the word porphyrogenite, though, I do not know... 

...hmm...about a politician, perhaps.

Word To Use Today: porphyrogenite. The Greek for purple is porphuros, and the gen- bit is from genēs to be born.

*Try saying that very fast five times.