This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 31 January 2018

Nuts and Bolts: the exasperated aitch.

We once had a French exchange student to stay with us. She was charming, and her English was excellent, but she couldn't do voiceless pharyngeal fricatives.

But did she want to? I hear you very reasonably ask.

Well, as, unwittingly unkindly, we'd asked her to stay in Hemel Hempstead, in Hertfordshire and then taken her on a trip to Hatfield House, the answer is, yes, she did, rather often, because a voiceless pharyngeal fricative is the panting sound usually written in English as H or h.

The sound occurs in all sorts of languages - Chechen, Arabic, Sioux, Somali, Hebrew, Spanish - though not, obviously, in French.

The letter H seems to have started off as a hieroglyph that looked something like two ladders placed sideways on top of each other, but by the time the symbol had been adopted by the people who spoke Old Semitic it looked like a rectangular buckle and sounded just like our English H does today.

By the time the Etruscans had got hold of it, in what is now Italy, it was looking as it does now, H, and it was in this form that the Romans took it over and passed it on, though not directly, to us.

How do you say its name? The Romans called it, pleasingly, aha, but nowadays it's said aitch. If you're are born since 1982 there's a 24% chance you'll say haitch - though, oh, I do wish you wouldn't.

But back to our poor French exchange student. She had some excuse for her difficulty. French has two kinds of H at the beginning of words, the H muet, or mute, and the H aspiré, or aspirated (which means it makes a sound). 

The odd thing is that the French H aspiré isn't actually...aspirated. Both H s are completely silent, though the French do pretend that you can hear the H aspiré. For instance, most French words beginning with an H are treated as if the H isn't there. For instance, l'homme, which means the man, is said lomm, and as you can see the word le has been changed to l' to make it easier to speak at the speed of sound, which is something French speakers like to do. 

But some words, like homard, which means lobster, doesn't have a l'. It's always le homard, never l'homard. Because, as I said, French pretends the H, an H aspiré is pronounced, even though it isn't. Le hasard, the chance, is another example.

Actually, I think that's quite neat.

Word To Use Today: aitch. There are a few reasons why you might start this word with a voiceless pharyngeal fricative, mostly to do with ignorance fashion, and fear, but personally I won't buy any product advertised if one is used.

Ironically, an italic lowercase version of the unstable h is the symbol of Planck's constant.

Tuesday 30 January 2018

Thing Not To Do Today Unless You're a Kind Genius: negging.

It's been going on for millennia, but now we have a word for it: negging.

The idea is that instead of saying nice things to fanciable girls (or boys) you insult them. This is supposed to make you look honest and intriguing and independent - even, possibly, amusing. It might well make the targets of your insults feel insecure, too, and less inclined to assert themselves. And then you're in.

The trouble is that the line between the sweetly teasing and the brutal is wafer-thin.

'Did that shirt shrink in the laundry?' might pass as a very obvious joke - it certainly acts as a warning to avoid the perpetrator, unless the victim has a high tolerance of very obvious jokes - but 'your roots are showing' is quite likely to be crushing and a put-off unless the victim's ego is in really excellent order.

Still, you might just get away with negging if it's disguised as showing an interest...

'I really like that dress but, I don't know, perhaps you should have gone with red shoes.'

...but I doubt it.

The other sort of negging involves leaving negative posts on a comments board. Sometimes it's genuinely helpful, but mostly it's tends to be a display of the writer's unhinged, twisted and bitter mind.

Still, even that can be quite amusing to a reader, from time to time.

Thing Not To Do Today: negging. This is, presumably, short for negative. Nec is the Latin for not.

Monday 29 January 2018

Spot the Frippet: puddle.

Here in England we spend a lot of time talking about the weather. It's probably because we have no idea what's going to be happening from one hour to the next.

Last Sunday there was a morning of heavy snow, an afternoon of pelting rain, and by evening the temperature was up to 9 C and the moths were waking up and getting ready to go for a jaunt.

It keeps us humble - well, humbler than otherwise, anyway.

So, to puddles. They're seldom in short supply round here, but even if you live in arid climes there's bound to be a puddle of coffee on a worktop somewhere close by. Bathrooms are puddly places, too.

Few of us are likely to come across a canal under construction, but the mixture of wet clay and sand used to line canals (and some ponds) is, rather charmingly, called puddle.

You can even find puddles in the middle of stretches of water, for a puddle is also the patch of rough water left by an oar at the end of a stroke.

When you find your puddle, stop for a moment to admire its elegant curved edges, the glints and gleam of the liquid, and the glimpse it gives you of the heavens on Earth.

File:Refection in rain puddle.png
photo by Fourandsixty

You'll go on your way more cheerful, if you do.

Spot the Frippet: puddle. This word is a diminutive of the Old English word pudd, which means ditch.

Sunday 28 January 2018

Sunday Rest: seaborgium. Word Not To Use Today.

What's seaborgium?

Is it some part-mechanical part-animal collective, possibly involved in deep-water mining with the aim of taking over the world?

Well, no, seaborgium is nothing to do with the word cyborg, as it happens; it is something futuristic and rather alarming, though.

Seaborgium is a transuranic element, atomic number 106, symbol Sg, which was discovered in 1974. It doesn't occur naturally, and for this reason no one can be sure exactly what its properties are.

It was named after Eric Seaborg:

who didn't discover it.

I'm not the first to wonder if seaborgium is the ideal name for an element. The International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry stamped on the original suggestion of calling element 106 seaborgium because the Nobel prize-winner Eric Seaborg was still alive at the time, and it was decided that no element could be named after a living person.

That made all hell break loose among those of Seaborg's friends who had discovered the thing (Seaborg himself was an old and much-respected man who had earlier discovered plutonium, curium, and americium). Seaborg himself pointed out that 'This would be the first time in history that the acknowledged and uncontested discoverers of an element are denied the privilege of naming it.'

In the end the American Chemical Society, possibly tired of checking under their cars for nuclear devices and screening their tea for radioactivity, gave in. Their statement said:

In the interest of international harmony...we are pleased to note that 'seaborgium' is now the internationally approved name for element 106.

Is this the only word ever coined in the interests of international harmony?

Eric Seaborg died, tickled pink, in 1999.

But I still don't think seaborgium is really the ideal name for an element.

Ericium, though, would have been lovely.

Saturday 27 January 2018

Saturday Rave: Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll.

The gorgeous and strangely stirring nonsense that is the poem Jabberwocky is usually associated with Through The Looking Glass And What Alice Found There, Lewis Carroll's sequel to Alice in Wonderland.

But the first verse of the poem was written some years before Looking Glass's publication, for Mischmasch, a magazine Carroll wrote for the amusement of his family and friends.

He titled it A stanza of Anglo-Saxon poetry, and to make this claim marginally more convincing he wrote the word the with a y and a small e.

Twas bryllig and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.

'It seems very pretty,' says Alice, when she's heard it, 'but it's rather hard to understand!'

Well, of course it is. Let's take just one word, raths. Humpty Dumpty says a rath is a sort of green pig (but then Humpty says that words mean what he says they mean). Carroll himself says a rath is a species of badger with smooth white hair, long hind legs and horns like a stag, that lives chiefly on cheese - except that later he changed his mind and he said it was a kind of land turtle that lives on swallows and oysters.

If there is anything to be learned from this, it is that nonsense is tremendously liberating - and in fact I'm tempted to start a new lifestyle cult which involves repeating meaningless phrases while adopting unnatural poses.

Hang on, though: that's been done rather a lot already, hasn't it...

...but I suppose if I claim it'll also help people to lose weight...

...oh good grief. I'm terribly afraid that might even work...

Word To Use Today: one that means nothing at all. See if anyone notices!

Friday 26 January 2018

Word To Use Today: nogging.

They don't have nogging in Scotland and New Zealand. There they have dwang*.

They're both lovely words, but they could hardly be more different: the warmth and comfort of nogging opposed to the racy, almost extra-terrestrial dwang.

What are they? 

They can be the short horizontal bits of wood that go to make up a section of the frame of a building, or else they can be the brickwork that fills the gaps between the wooden bits of a half-timbered house.

Stuff like this:

File:Kilbarchan Scout Hall, Barn Green, Kilbarchan - - 961784.jpg
Kilbarchan Scout Hall. The nogging is just being fitted. Photo by scott tennant

and this:

and this:

Image result for wiki commons dwang

What do you think is best for its job?  Nogging or dwang?

Personally, it'd break my heart to have to do without either of them.

Word To Use Today: nogging (or dwang). A nog is a block of wood, perhaps from the Middle English knagge, a peg. The Dutch word dwang means force.

*Except around Auckland, where they have noggin

They don't have nogging in America, either: there it's blocking, which is a perfectly good word, if not so picturesque.

Thursday 25 January 2018

A ravelled sleeve: a rant.

As if last week's Kiribati problems weren't bad enough, now I'm all tangled up in a sixty-eight metre tapestry. 

This one:

File:Bayeux Tapestry Horses in Battle of Hastings.jpg
(This is just a small section. It was made quite soon after 1066, which is when the events it depicts took place. As you can see, it's an utterly marvellous work of art)

It's presently situated in Bayeux, in Northern France, and shows the invasion of England by a Norman army led by William the Conqueror. The result of the battle? Well, the clue, as they say, is in the name.

(It does seem my simple patriotic duty to point out here that until earlier that year England's king had been St Edward the Confessor. Yes, that's St as in saintSo can anyone claim the conquering was a sign of progress? I don't think so.)

Anyway, the Bayeux Tapestry (it's actually an embroidery, but hey...) is one of those things every English child studies at primary school, and it's been called the Bayeaux (bay-err) Tapestry all my life until the other day, when the BBC started calling it the bi-oo tapestry, the first syllable, bi- as in the word by.

Could that be right? Wikipedia suggests the UK pronunciation is bi-yerr. I've never heard that said anywhere, though the Oxford Learners Dictionary site agrees with Wikipedia. In the USA they say, apparently, bar-yoo according to Wikipedia and bi-YERR according to Oxford. 

But what of the French, who should, after all, know, Bayeux being in France? 

Ba-oo-errrr (the oo is pronounced, according to Wikipedia, like ee, but with the lips pursed).

Sadly, in an English sentence that's going to sound as if you're about to throw up, so I think on the whole I'll stick to Bay-err. 

With any luck the pronunciation's old-fashioned enough to come over as quaint.

Word To Use Today: any of them, really, as long as it's not Bayeux.

Wednesday 24 January 2018

Nuts and Bolts: poker-face.

How do you feel?

Digby Tantam, Professor of Psychotherapy at the University of Sheffield, England, thinks I might not have to ask if we were in the same room. The smell of you, he suggests, might well tell me the answer.

He describes his theory in his projected book The InterbrainHis reasoning, as far as I understand it, goes something like this.

Because we can work out all sorts of things about each other without them giving us verbal information, we must be able to interpret non-verbal information going on. 

Professor Tantam calls the system through which this sort of interpretation works the interbrain.

Professor Tantam's idea is that this system operates in a largely unconscious way, and he refers us to the ancient idea of gut feelings. 'We can know directly about other people's emotions and what they are paying attention to,' Professor Tantam says in an interview in The Telegraph newspaper, and he postulates a direct connection from one brain to another.

A lot of this kind of communication, he suggests, comes down to one person smelling the illness, fear, or intense interest of someone else. His idea is that we broadcast these feelings through an 'inadvertant leak'. 

It seems to be true that the area of the brain used in smelling is intensely active, and presumably all that activity is doing something, after all.

Professor Tantam also suggests that the feelings of heightened emotion experienced in a church, at a football match, at a concert, or at a theatre, are due to emanations from everyone else giving rise to a sense of transcendence.

This is all very interesting: but is it true? I'm not sure. I haven't read Professor Tantam's book, which isn't out until next year, but Professor Tantam apparently says this kind of connection doesn't work in autistic people, and that hatred or disgust also disables the interbrain mechanism. 

Presumably it's also disabled in accomplished liars and people playing poker. 

What I want to know, is, are people with no sense of smell notably less sensitive to others? And, conversely, is it the case that most people understand each other quite well most of the time?

Good heavens, I'd be out of work as a novelist if that were the case, wouldn't I?

Word To Use Today: one beginning inter. This is Latin, and can mean between, among, together, mutually, or reciprocally.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Thing To Be Today: psychic.

(You say this word SI-kikk, the first syllable rhyming with hi.)

Being psychic involves receiving thoughts or impressions in a way unexplained by the rules of physics. That's not necessarily impossible because even physicists accept that some of their laws are mutually exclusive (ie wrong)

Still, if breaking the laws of physics seems too hard, then you can instead receive a thought or impression that appears to fly in the face of the laws of physics. That just means it's very unlikely. For instance, as a example of my own psychic powers, I've just read two books in a row* which feature someone playing the aria from J S Bach's Goldberg variations. How amazingly psychic must I be to choose those two books out of all the books in the world?

(Well, as far as I'm concerned, not at all, but hey...I once did the same thing in reading two books in a row which mentioned Dorothy L Sayer's translation of Dante.)

As a further encouragement to flex your psychic powers, the standard for being deemed psychic can be astonishingly low. 

'Ooh, you've made me a cup of tea. I was just fancying some tea. You must be psychic.'

As that example shows, psychic powers quite often involve mind-reading. 

But is mind-reading actually against the laws of physics?

More about that tomorrow.

Word To Use Today: psychic. This word comes from the Greek psukhikos, of the soul or life.

*They were THE LIE OF THE LAND by Amanda Craig and GHOSTWRITTEN by David Mitchell. Both well worth exploring.

Monday 22 January 2018

Spot the Frippet: anchor.

There are more anchors about then you'd think. In Britain, brass buttons tend to display them in tribute to the uniform of the British Navy. In this case the anchor will be fouled - that is, tangled up in its rope - which is a thing an anchor should never be.

So why is a fouled anchor as a symbol of a proud navy? Probably because there was one on the shield of Lord Howard of Effingham, the commander of British forces against the invading Spanish Armada in 1588, and the Navy never got round to changing the badge after Lord Howard left. It's not as silly a symbol as it seems, because the fouled anchor is an old Christian symbol signifying hope in tribulation.

File:USNA, OCS, and NROTC anchor.png
(This is actually a United States Navy fouled anchor, which is probably a left-over from the British tradition.)

Where else might one find anchors? Well, on ships, of course, if you happen to have one handy. Round here The Anchor is a common name for a pub, and will quite often be found in Anchor Lane. The heavy men at the far ends of a tug-of-war competitions are called anchors (you could organise an informal competition in the classroom or office). An anchor ring is one made of any cylindrical bar of metal. The brakes of any vehicle are called anchors in moments of high drama: he slammed on the anchors.

Anything that provides steadiness and security in a mad world can be an anchor: a desk, perhaps, or a car, or a partner, or a faith.

But of course the easiest anchors to spot are the ones on TV sitting smiling at their desks or on their sofas, trying to be friendly but authoritative, and persuading experts to say what's needed as concisely as possible and then move on.

Mind you, that sort of anchor I do my very best to avoid.

Spot the Frippet: anchor. This word comes from the Greek ankos, which means bent.

Sunday 21 January 2018

Sunday Rest: pyknic. Word Not To Use Today.

Pyknic (yes, you say it the same as picnic) is an entirely useless word. Well, everyone will think you actually mean picnic, of course.

And pyknic is entirely different.

Pyknic describes someone squat and, well, fat. Someone broad and fleshy. Someone wide of chest.

Pyknic is basically a Greek word, and the unfortunate coincidence of pyknic/picnic would be much more understandable if the word hadn't been made up in the 1900s, when the word picnic was already in wide use.

I can only suppose the person who coined the word was either a) having a laugh; b) trying to show off; c) forgetful of the fact that Ancient Greek is not everyone's first language or, d) so firmly ensconced in an ivory tower that he'd forgotten that it was possible to take a feast outside.

Anyway, pyknic

I won't use it if you won't.

Sunday Rest: pyknic. This word comes from the Greek puknos, which means thick.

Saturday 20 January 2018

Saturday Rave: Carl Linnaeus the Younger.

Carl Linnaeus is famous throughout the world for developing a scientific system to describe all the variety of life on Earth.

He was a great and much-respected man, and from his work flowed a river of discovery that led to Darwin and beyond, right down to us in the present day.

Now Carl Linnaeus had a son, and to the resentment of many Carl Linnaeus had this son made a professor even though the son had passed none of the usual exams. The young man followed his father in making a career classifying the natural world, though the son is really only known nowadays for his book Supplementum Plantarum systematis vegetabilium, which consists mainly of an edited version of some of the work his father and his father's colleagues had already done.

In fact we should probably not have heard of this son at all, except that the elder Carl Linnaeus's fatherly pride and optimism led him to name the baby after himself.

Or was it pessimism?

Because I rather think it's mostly the case that Carl Linnaeus the Younger's life only looks a little bit of a failure because of his famous name.

Word To Use Today: ancestry. This word comes from the Latin antecēdere, one who goes before.

Friday 19 January 2018

Word To Use Today: mottanai.

Mottainai (you say the ai bits like the word I) is a word of Japanese origin. It's to do with regret at wasting things, whether physical objects such as food, or perhaps time, or even thoughts.

Mottainai! as an exclamation means That's a terrible waste! 

In Japan, mottainai is part of a movement that encourages the mending of possessions so they can be used as long as possible, and now the word has moved out of Japan and has been taken up by environmental campaigners all over the world. It's even been used by anti-war campaigners, working on the principle that if we don't waste things there'll be enough to go round and we won't need to fight for what's left. 

Somehow I doubt war is quite as simple as that: but it can only be a help.

Word To Use Today: mottainai. This word has been around since the 1200s, and started off being to do with the sense of gratitude and unworthiness when receiving benefits from a superior. 

At root, it's a Buddhist idea. Mottai is to do with the sacredness and worth of a material object, and nai means lack of. 

Thursday 18 January 2018

Kiribati: a rant.

My husband came down to dinner the other day with the exciting news that according to the quizmaster on Pointless the name of the Pacific island group of Kiribati is pronounced kirribash.

Here's Kiribati's very beautiful flag:

Flag of Kiribati

Well, that means I've been pronouncing Kiribati wrong all my life, but, hey, the ti in attention is pronounced sh, after all.

Just to be certain (the speakers on our flat-screen TV aren't very good) I looked up Kiribati on Wikipedia. 

The first pronunciation Wikipedia gives is kiribess and the second kiribartee

Does this mean I can carry on with saying kiribartee without people sniffing contemptuously and pulling their skirts aside whenever I enter a room?

Well, I consulted a third authority, my trusty Collins dictionary. And what did I find?

A choice between kiribass and kiribattee.

So what could I do? Use the original name of The Gilbert Islands and risk being thought colonialist?

No, I decided to consult a real expert.

The Kiribati Government website offers no opinion, but, ah, the tourist board says you pronounce the name kiribas, so that must be right.

Kiribas... you say that kiribaz? Kiribass? Kiribars? Kiribarss?



Word Probably Not To Use Today: Kiribati. This word is the Gilbertese pronunciation of Gilberts. The name was adopted at independence.

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Nuts and Bolts: dead posh colours.

In Keats' poem The Eve of St Agnes there's a particularly fevered bit where some light comes through a stained glass window and threw warm gules on Madeleine's fair breast.

It's a line that's been stuck in my mind for about thirty five years, so I should imagine it's there for good.

Gules (a horrid word) means red, though only usually if you're describing a heraldic shield or its accoutrements. (I imagine Keats was aiming to big up Madeleine's poshness, as well as her succulence.)

Heraldry employs a huge number of technical terms - there must be half a dozen words simply to describe the position a lion adopts on a shield (and even then the technical term for the lion is leopard) - but there are only seven colours (and two of them, yellow and white, count (again, technically) as metals).

Basically, we have:

Gules, vert, azure, sable, purpure, which are what we ordinary mortals would call red, green, blue, black and purple, respectively.

Then we have yellow and white, which are called or and argent, and which count as gold and silver.

There are also a couple of patterns, ermine and vair, which are called furs even though they come in colours and patterns never seen on any animal on Earth.

Here they are, first vair and then ermine:


See what I mean?

There are a few other variations in heraldic colours, but they're quite rare, so that's basically it.

Again, although there are many many rules of heraldry, with colours it's fairly simple: you can't put a coloured thing on a coloured background; a fur on a fur background; or a metal on a metal background.

Oh, and by the way, one other really useful term: if something on a shield is in its normal colours (like a kingfisher, perhaps) then it's called propre.

And thank heavens for that.

Word To Use Today: azure, perhaps, probably in its usual meaning of deep sky blue. It's come to us from Old French, from Old Spanish, from Arabic, from Persian lāzhuward, which means lapis lazuli.

Tuesday 16 January 2018

Thing To Be Today: a pivot.

Changing direction is no problem if there's just the one of you (unless there's some idiot's wheeled suitcase just below your eye-line all ready to trip you up) but what if there are thirty?

Then, as armies and chorus girls have known for generations, you need someone to be a pivot. This is the person who stays on the spot while everyone else moves round them.

If you're a chorus girl you have to smile while you're going it:

File:Chorus line the Soubrettes at the Cremorne Theatre, South Brisbane ca 1944 (7946599326).jpg
Soubrettes at the Cremorne Theare, Brisbane, ca 1944.

 but in the military not so much:

File:Coldstream Guards by W.B. Wollen.jpg
painting by W B Wollen

...actually, in the military not at all.

(Hey, could we have one of those life-swap TV programmes where chorus girls and the Coldstream Guards do each other's displays? I wouldn't insist on the Guards wearing stilettos to do it.)

But being pivotal needn't involve any physical movement at all. It may be that some cunning wheeze such as digging up a road junction in the rush hour requires action from a host of experts and idiots (two categories not mutually exclusive) and someone is required to make sure no one goes off at a mad angle and wrecks the whole delicate operation. 

Yes, the pivot will be the essential bossy one who does hardly any work at all himself.

Well, I didn't say it was going to be easy or popular, did I?

Thing To Be Today: a pivot. This word might be something to do with the Old Provençal word pua, which means a tooth of a comb.

Monday 15 January 2018

Spot the Frippet: powder.

So tell me: if a powder monkey is a boy whose duties formerly involved carrying gunpowder on a warship, then what would you find in a powder room?

Yes, that's right: ladies' toilets.

I suppose the connection between toilets and powder is via a powder puff, which is a thing like a rabbit's tail used to dab powder from onto the face from a powder compact:

File:Stratton powder compact 02.JPG
photo by Andy Mabbett

But what sort of powder will you spot? Monday is traditionally washing day, so it may be washing powder; or perhaps you'll do some cooking, which uses a whole variety of powders - baking powder, obviously, but also bicarbonate of soda, flour, potato starch, any number of ground spices, and icing sugar (which reminds me of the sort of powder that's good for skiing).

People used to sprinkle their hair and armpits with talcum powder, but that's a fashion which seems to have disappeared, thank heavens.

Then there's the mysterious powder blue:

which is called after the cobalt glass powder called smalt used in washing in the 1600s, an explanation said to be true even though smalt was actually a very dark blue and the idea of using it was to make the washing extra white.

Ah well!

If you still can't find any form of powder then you can take a powder; in Britain this would mean literally taking some sort of powdered medicine, but in the USA and Canada it means to run away or to disappear.

Mind you, how you spot yourself in that case I have not the faintest idea.

Spot the Frippet: powder. This word comes to us from the Old French poldre, from the Latin pulvis, which means dust.

Sunday 14 January 2018

Sunday Rest: oikophilia. Word Not To Use Today.

The word oikophilia was coined, or at least popularised, by the philosopher Roger Scruton, a man with more Greek than most.

Perhaps this is why he didn't realise - or perhaps he didn't care - that although many of us have noticed that a word ending -philia is likely to express a love of something, all that most of us know of oiks is that they are (I quote my Collins Dictionary) a person regarded as inferior because ignorant, ill-educated, or lower-class.

Now, a love of oiks would be a splendid thing, especially as nearly all of us are of a lower class than Sir Roger, but, sadly, instead of being an Anglo-Saxon version of the French nostalgie de la boueoikophilia is in fact a love of home that makes you respect and care for it.

It's an important idea, though I'm afraid the word oikophilia really isn't going to help many of us access it.

Word To Consider Today: oikophilia. Oikos in Greek can mean house, home, a family, or a family's possessions.

Saturday 13 January 2018

Saturday Rave: Public Radio.

Today sees the 108th anniversary of the first public radio broadcast: hurrah!

The programme featured those non-identical twin operas Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.

Well, when I describe it as a broadcast, it's true its reach was broader than ever before (when Dr Nussbaumer made the very first musical radio transmission in 1904, yodelling a folksong, it could mercifully only be picked up in the room next door) but the recipients of the transmission of New York's Metropolitan Opera's production of Cav and Pag were just a few people wearing earphones in expensive hotels in New York, ships in the harbour, and a few enthusiastic early adopters in their own homes. 

The cast bit of the broadcast didn't work that well, either: the microphones were too far away to pick up much of the singing on stage, and interference drowned out much of the rest.

Still, it was a beginning, and we must thank Lee de Forest for arranging it.

And who was it whose singing was sort-of heard, on that memorable 13 January in 1910?

Only Caruso, that's all.

I really think some of the success of the system must be put down to him.

Word To Use Today: radio. This word is short for radiotelegraphy. The radio- bit comes from the Latin radius, which means ray and is the same as the word that describes part of a circle.

Friday 12 January 2018

Word To Use Today: tenace.

I do find it rather wonderful that a tenace, a pair of non-consecutive high cards held by someone in a game such as bridge or whist:

File:Playing card heart 10.svg

File:Playing card heart A.svg

(images by en:User:Cburnett)

should have nothing whatsoever to do with the words ten or ace.

How anyone's going to find a way of easing the word tenace into the conversation today, though, I have absolutely no idea.

photo by Zephyris

Word To Use Today: tenace (you say it, well, ten, followed by the word ace). This word came into English in the 1600s from French, from the Spanish tenaza, forceps, and before that from the Latin tenāx, holding fast.

Thursday 11 January 2018

Over-liked: a rant.

It's a simple enough question: do you like butter?

File:Buttered crumpet.jpg

Annoyingly, the answer nowadays will quite probably be yes, I like it over margarine

But why would anyone want to spread butter over margar...

...oh, I see. You mean you prefer butter to margarine. Then why not say so?

It gets worse.

Do you like wearing leggings?

Yes, I like them over skirts.

Do you like elephants?

Yes, I like them over people.

There must be some reason why a way of stating one's opinion has suddenly become so much harder to understand. 

But I shudder to think what it might be.

Word To Use Today: prefer. This short, easy, unambiguous word comes from the Latin praeferre, to carry in front.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Nuts and Bolts: epideictic.

An epideictic speech is one designed to show off the speaker's skill as an orator.

Although epideictic is the usual form of the word (you can say it either eppyDAYKtikk or eppyDAIKtikk), personally I prefer the rarer form epidictic, because it sounds sillier (eppyDIKKtikk).

Epideictic oratory will consist of a speech praising or blaming someone. It's usually not controversial, so generally you're just telling your audience stuff they already know and agree with. It's the sort of thing you'll hear at an awards ceremony, if you can stay awake long enough.

The intrinsic boredom of such proceedings is one of the reasons, I should imagine, that encouraging a speaker to show his skill at enthralling the audience has come to be seen as such a good idea.

Word To Consider Today: epideictic. The Greek word deixis is to do with display or show. The word epideictic has hardly changed since Ancient Greek times, when it was epideiktikos.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

Thing Not To Do Today Unless You're A Cat, Probably: tree someone.

Language changes, of course it does. It needs to change. James Murray, the very learned first editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, would be puzzled to tease out the meaning of a sentence involving the verbs sync, program, vlog or blog, but they're words we need, and so we must have them.

Hey, you know that new invention for losing weight?

What new invention?

Well, I can't tell you unless someone makes up a new word for it, can I?

But still, this doesn't mean that all new words are good ones, and some of the worst aren't even necessary. To podium is a particularly horrid example. It means to win a medal at a sporting occasion, and I expect before long people will be said to gold, to silver or to bronze

But still, from a personal point of view I can't say it's going to affect me much because I don't watch sport. Those new words may inflict a certain amount of agony on fans, but if you watch sport you're presumably in it for the agony: I mean, nearly everyone involved ends up with their dreams in tatters, don't they. 

That's why I don't watch it.

But to arrive (finally) at the verb tree. Mr Christopher Horne has written a letter to the Daily Telegraph which ends thus:

In 1970, as chairman of the highway planning committee of Hammersmith council, I was asked to approve a recommendation that Britannia Road be "closed, pedestrianised, treed and bollarded".

I declined.

Well, good for him, I say, but I note that there is something extra annoying about the word treed, which is that it already exists. To be treed by a stag is to be forced to take refuge up a tree from a fierce one. 

I don't know what Hammersmith was like in the 1970s: but if anyone was treed, I can't help hoping it was the highway planning committee.

Though not their gallant chairman.

Thing Not To Do Today Unless You're A Cat, Probably: tree someone. The word tree goes right back to the Greek word drus.

Monday 8 January 2018

Spot the Frippet (and then run): nudnik.

Nudniks are usually to be found in the USA. Well, that's the place where they'll be called nudniks, anyway, (you say it NUDDnick) but actually you'll find them pretty much everywhere.

A nudnik is an annoying person. He (or she, or it (does that cover all the bases?)) might be a persistent nag, a bore, a pest or even a jerk.

You know that guest who spends the whole dinner party telling everyone how the food should have been cooked? The neighbour who complains constantly about the sound of lawn mowers? The colleague who prides himself on what he calls winding people up? The man at the party who's an expert in something, but his voice is so boring your eyes glazed over before you found out what it was? All nudniks.

Oh, the relief of having a word for one of those at last!

Spot the Frippet (and then run): a nudnik. This word comes to English through Yiddish, and before that from Polish and Ukrainian. The Polish nuda means boredom, and the -nik means connected with or characterised by.

Sunday 7 January 2018

Word Not To Use Today: margrave.

I'm not saying that margraves don't go around, as their name suggests, knocking the heads off stone angels on mausoleums (yes, yes, all right, mausolea, if you must), flinging handfuls of green glass gravel around cemeteries, or obscuring the final E on tombstones bearing the legend SHE WAS THINE, but a margrave is, technically, a sort of German nobleman below the rank of count.

I've never met one, but some margraves can make their eyes go crossed:

File:Markgrafen Albrecht von Brandenburg-Ansbach (FR026).jpg
Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach by Lucas Cranach the Elder.

and some of them wear very bad toupees and like to dress up as woodlice:

File:Philipp William margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt.jpg
painting by Antoine Pesny of Philipp William, Margrave of Brandenburg-Schwedt. 

Altogether, it makes me feel that they should have a much jollier name.

Word Not To Use Today: margrave. This word comes from the Middle Dutch markgrave, which means count of the march. A march in this case is a frontier district and the word is the same as the mark that's a line drawn on a piece of paper.

Saturday 6 January 2018

Saturday Rave: Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night is famously sub-titled Or What You Will, which sub-title must surely be a display of petulance. The play itself hasn't, to the literal-minded, got a lot to do with Twelfth Night, and presumably one helpful person too many pointed this out to a frazzled Shakespeare, who I imagine snapped Well call it what you like then! only, being Shakespeare, naturally he did it in Elizabethan English...

...and some oaf of a copyist duly noted it down.

An intelligent observer, however, may have noted that Twelfth Night, with its cross-dressing and servants acting as if they are masters, is actually very like the antics and celebrations of 6 January in Elizabethan times (the play may have been first performed at Court on Twelfth Night) and might have wondered if Shakespeare was being a bit clever.

Shakespeare made a habit of that sort of thing, after all.

What further stresses and strains caused the poor Bard to put these following words into his character Fabian's mouth:

If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as improbable fiction.

I do not know, but perhaps he also had 'friends' pointing out that he'd done the mistaken identity/cross-dressing/twin thing quite enough in his Comedy of Errors.

But, hey, if that was the case they was wrong. We'll happily watch any amount of people blundering about, especially if they're people who think themselves important and fall over from time to time.

And if they're in love then basically it's all we could ever want...

...except Darth Vader, possibly, anyway.

File:Deverell Walter Howell Twelfth Night Act II Scene IV.jpg
painting by Walter Deverell

Word To Use Today: clever. This word appeared in the 1200s as cliver, which meant adroit.

Friday 5 January 2018

Word To Use Today: ectoplasm.

Does ectoplasm exist?

A spiritualist will tell you that it does, and that ectoplasm is the substance which comes out of a person when they are in a trance and communicating with the dead.

(I understand the stuff can't be detected by unbelievers.)

But what would a scientist say? What about a cytologist, who studies the cells which make up living things? Would he believe in ectoplasm?

Well, what do you think?*

Word To Use Today: ectoplasm. This word is made up of the Greek ektos, which means outside, and plasm, which in biology means to do with cells and comes from the Greek plasma, something moulded.

*Yes, a scientist would believe in ectoplasm because to him ectoplasm is the outer layer of the innards of some cells, especially protozoa. 

File:Radiolaria scheme.svg

This is a sea protozoa called Radiolaria. Its ectoplasm is the stuff numbered 10 and is a clear gel.

Illustration by Franciscosp2

Thursday 4 January 2018

Two long students: a rant.

As life goes faster we rely more and more on subs.

No, not in this case the sort of sub that's a submarine, nor the sort that's a large filled bread roll, a subscription, a substitute, or an instruction in music to do something suddenly, but the sort that should really be called a subeditor.

What do they do? Well, they're supposed to correct the journalists' spelling and grammar, for one thing, but they also write headlines.

Have you ever been lured to read an article by a headline promising a juicy scandal, only to find the piece is actually about the ridiculously high price of oranges? That'll be down to a subeditor.

Now I come to think about it, as a job it must be a lot of fun.

The thing is, even when a sub is doing his best, it's not easy to cut an article down to just a few words. The famous Daily Express headline Air pollution now leading cause of lung cancer didn't actually head an article saying anything of the sort. Smoking, for instance, is far more important as a cause of lung cancer. What the article actually said was that air pollution is the leading environmental cause of lung cancer: but presumably environmental was too long to fit in a headline.

Does this matter? Well, yes, it does, because the research shows that even if people read the article then what they tend to remember is the headline. People read the piece to confirm the headline, not to discover what the article says.

Scary, isn't it?

Anyway, I saw this headline in The Telegraph Online of 10 December 2017:

For two long students have been locked into three year degrees when many of them would like to go faster.

It seems that we can't really trust the subs even with the spelling and grammar thing.

Still, I rather can;t help feeling sorry for those two long students.

Word To Use Today: sub. Words beginning with sub are usually to do with the Latin sub meaning under.

Wednesday 3 January 2018

Nuts and Bolts: editio princeps.

The editio princeps (it starts off like a sneeze: iDISHeeo PRINssepps) is the first printed edition of a work.

People collect them. 

I kept the editiones principes (iDISHeeohnays PRINssippeez) of my own books on some shelves in my bedroom until a couple of weeks ago, when a pipe joint popped apart in the roof space and caused a flood down the bedroom wall. Luckily my husband was in the house when the thing burst open, and he, pausing merely to scream in horror (or so I imagine: I wasn't actually there, but the situation was surely worth a scream), heroically advanced through the cascade, seized my dripping Complete Works, and threw them out of the way of the water onto our bed. Then he ran downstairs to turn off the water and hurried back to discover that in the meantime the flood had found a new point of egress and was pouring through the light fitting in the ceiling. If my books hadn't now been all over the bed our mattress would have completely soaked.

Ah well! 

As it happened I turned out to have duplicates for all but a few of the very badly water-damaged books, and those I dried on radiators and then ironed. It takes quite a long time to iron every page of a novel, but it's reasonably effective. 

My editiones principes are now in a book case on the other side of the house, well away from any plumbing.

To put things into perspective, an editio princeps of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in what is now the USA, has been sold for $14.2 million.

I think, however, that mine weren't worth quite as much as that, even before the flood.

Thing To Consider Today: editio princeps. This is basically Latin for first edition. The first word is based on ēditiō, which means a bringing forth.

Before you get too excited, most books only have one edition, and the valuable ones of those are all owned by people you've never even met.

Tuesday 2 January 2018

Thing To Do Today: relapse.

The beginning of January is, obviously, an extremely silly time to make New Year's Resolutions.

Let's face it, on January 1st everyone is too occupied with recovering from the party the night before to be bothered with doing anything.

On January 2nd everyone is beginning to remember what happened at the said party and wondering about emigrating.

In any case, character is destiny: unless you are the sort of person who embraces violent changes of lifestyle with delight and determination, then all that going-to-the-gym, no-carb, no-moaning, being tidy, finishing A Brief History of Time stuff is quite, quite doomed. You're going to end up jogging along this year much you did last (though probably without doing any actual, you know, jogging).

Still, as you relapse, it might be possible to make a some small swerves in the right direction. If you walked to the gym then you wouldn't really have to bother with the going-in bit. Stephen Hawking's great work may be forever out of reach, but you could look up space-time continuum on Wikipedia. You could try some brown carbs instead of white ones from time to time. 

And anyway, you weren't that bad to start with, were you?

Bless you!

Thing To Do Today: relapse. This word comes from the Latin relabī, to slip back, from labī, to slip or slide. 

Monday 1 January 2018

Spot the Frippet: qualtagh.

In a spirit of starting the New Year with hope, good luck, and a word no one's heard of (and one in, quite possibly, a language no one's heard of) then I present to you the Manx Gaelic word qualtagh.

(You say it KWARL-tk.)

Manx Gaelic is a sister language to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, and it's spoken on the Isle of Man:

File:Uk map isle of man.png
map of bits of Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales by UKPhoenix79

(And Manx Gaelic, wonderfully, really is spoken: there's even a bilingual Primary School.)

But what's a qualtagh?

A qualtagh is the first person to enter a house in the New Year (there are similar traditions in England, Scotland, Greece, Georgia and Serbia).

The qualtagh, depending upon where he is in the world, may bring gifts (a lump of coal in some places, or a piece of greenery, or a silver coin, or a drink) or in Greece he may receive them - probably something delicious to eat, or some money.

What's the point of all this? 

A celebration, often, and good luck, always.

So who's going to be the qualtagh for your house? It can be someone who lives in the house, though not if they're in it when the clock strikes twelve on New Year's Eve. Sometimes a qualtagh is luckier if they are tall and dark.

All nonsense, you say? Are you sure?

Well, there's only one way to find out, isn't there?

Happy New Year!

Spot the Frippet: qualtagh. This word can also mean the first person one meets upon leaving the house on a special occasion. It comes from quaail, meeting, plus -agh, which is to do with belonging.