This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 28 February 2018

Nuts and Bolts: periphrasis.

Periphrasis is calling a spade an agricultural digging implement.

It flouts the George Orwell's rule if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out (which, it occurs to me, is a good example of what not to do: why not cut out every word you can?)

Anyway, periphrasis is an extra-words thing. The grammarians tend to think of it in terms of saying I did go rather than I went, and look longingly at Latin, which tends to construct sentences by changing the endings of words rather than bunging in a few extra ones: the four words palmam qui meruit ferat tend to be translated in English as he who has earned the palm, let him bear it...though quite honestly 
achievement should be rewarded gives you the same idea, so Latin doesn't always necessarily come out shorter.

In short, periphrasis is avoiding the shortest or most straightforward way of saying what you mean. It might be because of a natural pomposity: your peregrinations in this metropolis have not as yet been extensive, might have some difficulty in penetrating the arcana of the Modern Babylon in the direction of the City Road says the thoroughly irritating Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. It might because of an embarrassed refinement I must pay a visit to the little girls' room; it might be reverence, as when someone Jewish says HaShem, 'the name' in conversation instead of uttering the true name of God.

But always, always, the question with periphrasis of this type is: what are they trying to hide?

The answer might tell you more than the words themselves.

Word To Use Today: periphrasis. Peri- means around, near, or about, or enclosing; phrazein is Greek for to declare.

Tuesday 27 February 2018

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: overwhelmed.

Regular visitors to The Word Den will be sadly familiar, I fear, with the feeling of being underwhelmed; but to be overwhelmed is rarer.

To be overwhelmed is to be so much surprised as to be unable to function. You can be overwhelmed in a good way by a gift of some magnificence or careful thought (emeralds, white chocolate, an original Edward Ardizzone drawing); or in a bad way (by terror, grief, or (if you're a boat) by being turned upside down by the sea.

The main question is, though: what if you're only whelmed?

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: overwhelmed. The word whelm comes from the Middle English whelmen, to turn over, capsize, experience a reversal, or to make an arched cover (the link with covering perhaps being something to do with the Old English word hwealf, which has the meaning to bury).

This is the overwhelmed ship Tirpitz in Tromsø fjord, Norway. Photo by Daventry B J (Flt Lt).

This being the case, to overwhelm should surely mean to set the right way up again.

But it doesn't.

Underwhelm started out as a 1900s joke.

Monday 26 February 2018

Spot the Frippet: something popliteal.

English is the biggest language in the world (the universe, too, possibly) but there are still lots of words that are missing from it. Tingo, for instance. In the language of Easter Island, tingo is the act of borrowing things one by one from a friend until there is nothing left.*

I do wish tingo was available for us to use in English, but I have to admit that the English language is already full of treasures, many overlooked, describing things delicate, beautiful, wondrous and priceless. 

The word popliteal, on the other hand, describes the back of the knee.

If you spend the day entirely alone, and are not a contortionist, I would recommend the services of a mirror.

Spot the Frippet: something popliteal. This word has been around in English since the 1700s, but has never really made much of a splash. It comes from the Latin popliteus, the muscle behind the knee, from poples, the inner or back part of the knee.

*Tingo is the title of a wonderful book by Adam Jacot de Boinod, which is full of such non-English treasures.

Sunday 25 February 2018

Sunday Rest: hasbian. Word Not To Use Today.

The word hasbian, with its nasty echo of has-been, describes a lesbian who is now heterosexual or bisexual.

I'm not saying that such people do not exist; but the presence of the word in the English vocabulary is surely an encouragement not only to ignorance, but to persecution.

Word Not To Use, Ever: hasbian. This is a 1900s mix of has-been and lesbian.

Saturday 24 February 2018

Saturday Rave: L'Orpheo, by Claudio Monteverdi and Alessandro Striggio

There's nothing particularly original about L'Orpheo. It wasn't the first opera (that's reckoned to be Jacopo Peri's Dafne, now sadly lost. Peri's Euridice, which does survive, is earlier than L'Orpheo, too). But L'Orpheo is the work where the various elements of what is now called opera first came together into something that worked really well. 

Now, I realise that, according to a lot of noisy people nowadays, liking opera is a sign of the evil and manipulative disposition of someone who enjoys grinding the faces of the poor. But that is, frankly, nuts: for one thing I'm a children's writer. I mean, how poor can you get?

And for another, L'Orpheo is a masterpiece You can find L'Orpheo on YouTube for free if you're interested, but I especially wanted to mention Alessandro Striggio. He wrote the words.

Words like these:

Io la Musica son, ch’a i dolci accenti,
 Sò far tranquillo ogni turbato core, 
Ed hor di nobil ira, & hor d’amore 
Posso infiammar le più gelate menti. Io sù 

Cetera d’or cantando soglio 
Mortal orecchio lusingar talhora, 
E in questa guisa a l’armonia sonora 
De la lira del Ciel più l’alme invoglio;

I am Music, who in sweet accents, 
Can make peaceful every troubled heart, 
And so with noble anger, and so with love, 
Can I inflame the coldest minds. 

Singing with my golden Lyre, 
I like To charm, now and then, mortal ears, 
And in such a fashion that I make their souls aspire more 
For the resounding harmony of the lyre of Heaven. 


I invite the noisy people to Spot the Evil there.

Word To Use Today: harmony. The Latin word harmonia means a concord of sounds. It comes from the Greek word harmos, a joint.

Friday 23 February 2018

Word To Use Today: murrain.

'A murrain on you!' 

That's something people quite often say in novels set in mediaeval times, but whether a murrain is a nasty attack of indigestion, a spell of bad luck in the horse shoe tossing competition, or rats moving into your kitchen, I have never thought to enquire.

Titania does give us a clue in Midsummer Night's Dream:

The fold stands empty in the drownéd field
And crows are fatted on the murrain flock.

but I have only ever read or watched MND, not studied it, and so I've always just let myself be washed over by the glory of the verse without bothering too much about every tiny little detail.

But if we were in any doubt that a murrain was a Bad Thing, then the Book of Exodus makes it clear enough:

Behold my hand shall be upon thy cattle which is in the field, upon the horses, upon the asses, upon the camels, upon the oxen, and upon the sheep there shall be very grievous murrain.

File:The Phillip Medhurst Picture Torah 330. Murrain in the livestock. Exodus cap 9 vv 6-9. Le Clerc.jpg
The Philip Medhurst collection of Bible illustrations

So what is a murrain, exactly? 

Well, the point is rather that no one ever really knew. It was anything that made large numbers of domestic mammals drop down dead - perhaps rinderpest, perhaps erysipelas, perhaps foot-and-mouth or anthrax - some of which diseases could finish off quite a few humans, too.

And if the murrain didn't get you, the famine that ensued after the loss of your animals might; and if you survived the famine then the Black Death might well come along when you were too weak to put up much of a fight against it, and the murrain would get you after all.

I'm never going to wish a murrain on anyone, that's for sure. But when I next begin a cold, I might try bravely dismissing it as just a touch of murrain.

It has a heroic ring.

Word To Use Today: murrain. This word comes from the Old French morine, from morir, to die, from the Latin morī.

Thursday 22 February 2018

Uplevelling: a rant.

What is uplevelling?

I came across this page, below, on Facebook the other day, which gives us some idea:

No automatic alt text available.

I'm not sure exactly who produced it, but it's apparently a work sheet, or page of a text book, used in English schools.

There is a great fashion in England for teaching grammar to children. This sounds a good thing, and it should be a good thing, because of course you're much more likely to be given well paid and/or interesting and worthwhile things to do if your writing and speech can be easily understood.

But this...

I suppose the idea of the exercise above is that if you make all the changes required then the sentences will get higher marks in a grammar exam - that is, they'll go up a certain number of levels, which is presumably how the exam results are expressed.

Ah well. I must at least be glad that it's called uplevelling and not improving your writing:* because according to the work-sheet's criteria this passage, for instance, is a pile of utter rubbish.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonour others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails. 

(That's by St Paul, from his letter to the Corinthians. St Paul was well known for writing a good letter.)

I was going to finish this post by uplevelling that first sentence: love is patient, love is kind, but I've realised that it won't in any way make the world a better place, and anyway I really can't bear to do it.

I can only hope that our poor children are taught about truth and beauty, as well as levels.

Word To Use Today: level. This word comes from the Latin lībella, which is the diminutive for lībra, scales. 

*Though, very sadly indeed, the word improve is used in one place. Oh dear!

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Njerep.

There's only one person left who speaks Njerep fluently, but there are a few people who speak it a little - and by a few I mean exactly three

All of these people are old.

The speakers of Njerep live in the village of Somié
 on the Nigerian-Cameroon border. Obviously, because only one person speaks the language properly, it isn't used much in conversation except perhaps to make a joke, or to say something secret.

Does it matter that Njerep will soon be no more?

Well, here are a few words of Njerep to help you decide:

gāā              tadpole

nòr lòbó      witch
hōn             voice
táp              war
bă               elder brother or sister of the same sex
bīnī             dance
tʃímbí          the name of the night
sátē             to sit with the legs extended

Does the language that contains these words hold within it a unique and marvellous understanding of the world?

You bet.

Weep, weep for Njerep.

Word To Use Today: well, bă would be a useful word for us to have in English, wouldn't it?

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Thing To Be Today, Possibly: chubby.

The wonderful stone age sitcom The Flintstones:

Box artwork for The Flintstones (1988).
(here it is in a later computer-game guise)

 had a story once where Wilma

Wilma Flintstone.png

 and Betty

Betty Rubble.png

 got jobs advertising some food stuff on television.

(It was, obviously, a stone television.)

As far as I can remember the advertising jingle they had to sing had an ending that went something like:

If he's a chubby hubby
He's a happy pappy!

To be chubby is to be endearingly rounded, but we seem to have lost sight of the appeal of chubbiness. We strive to appear emaciated, and, failing, give up entirely and before we know it we are buried hopelessly in our own bodies.

Perhaps we need a campaign to celebrate a little chubbiness, just the occasional intriguing wobble.

Well, it just started here.

Thing To Be Today Possibly: chubby. This word appeared in the 1600s. It might refer to the agreeably plump fish called the chub:

File:British fresh water fishes (Plate- Chub) (8550933557).jpg
Illustration by A F Lydon

Monday 19 February 2018

Spot the Frippet: piano.

My Collins dictionary begins its definition of the piano a musical instrument resembling a harp...which it doesn't, really, especially if the piano in question is an electric one.

Still, with a conventional grand piano you can see what they mean:

File:Keyboards - Rhodes piano, Leslie speaker with microphone, Hammond C3, Grand piano with microphones - Studio A, In Your Ear Studios.jpg
photo by Will Fisher

and, fair enough, a conventional piano does work by making strings on a frame go twang.

Another sort of musical instrument, a piano accordion, has keys like a piano, though the sound is quite different and is made by blowing air through a frame of reeds. They're slightly more portable than a conventional piano and are sometimes used by buskers, being slightly more tolerable in the open air than inside.

photo by Cayambe 

A piano roll is a length of paper with holes punched in it which instructs a pianola, or automatic piano, which notes to play. A pianola is more reliably accurate than a human player, though sadly completely impervious to cat-calls, slow hand-claps, and rotten tomatoes if you want it to shut up.

A piano trio is mostly not piano at all, but violin and cello:

 A piano quartet has proportionally even less piano

File:Zwaag Piano Quartet.JPG
Zwaag Piano Quartet, photo from Noblegoose

A piano duet, conversely, is all piano:

Fran and Marlo Cowan (after sixty two years of marriage)

though whether it'll be played on one or two pianos is impossible to tell until you get there.

A piano nobile is blessedly quiet unless, as often happens, some idiot has put a piano in it. It's the main floor of a big house, the place where the grand reception rooms are. It's often the floor with the posh windows one up from the ground floor.

The greatest irony is that piano means...

Spot the Frippet: piano. Piano is the Italian for soft. In the case of the musical instrument it was originally gravecembalo col piano e forte, harpsichord with soft and loud, first abbreviated to pianoforte and then to piano. Piano nobile is Italian for great floor or noble level.

If this all sounds a bit cynical then, with twenty nine years as a piano teacher behind me, I feel I have every right to be so.

I still do play most days, though.

Sunday 18 February 2018

Sunday Rest: phast. Word Not To Use Today.

A phast?

Well, what does it sound like?

Yes, that's right: but a fast from what, exactly?  

A phast is the act of avoiding looking at one's phone.

Now, the word phast has never been pretty, but it has for some time had a perfectly respectable meaning: PHAST is a computer-aided system designed to analyse virus-based elements within bacteria. 

But now, sadly, we have this new sort of phast - and, sounding as it does exactly like fast, it's one that doesn't give anyone any clue what it is that's not being consumed.

You know, I'm even wondering if it's worse than digital detox.

It's a close-run thing.

Sunday Rest: phast. The computer program is made up of letters from Phage Search Tool, a phage being a virus, or bits of a virus, that lives inside a bacterium. The other meaning is presumably a mixture of the words phone and fast


Saturday 17 February 2018

Saturday Rave: Gustavo Adolpho Becquer.

Gustavo Adolpho Bécquer (1836 - 1870) is said to be the second most-read Spanish writer after Cervantes.

He was a poet, a playwright, and a teller of stories. He suffered greatly from unrequited love, had an unhappy marriage, and died young and in poverty, possibly from consumption.

He was also impossibly good-looking.

Portrait of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, by his brother Valeriano (1862).jpg
portrait by his brother, Valeriano Bécquer

Naturally, with all those qualifications, what could he be but hugely and in every sense romantic?

Here's part of one of his poems to give some sense of the extraordinary rush of his creative spirit. It was translated into English by Mason Carnes.

Longings to weep and sudden
Flashes of joy; strange wishes,
Memories dim and misty

Of things that never were;

Nervous energy vainly
Striving to find an outlet;
A winged steed swift-speeding

Through space, unbridled, wild;

Madness that thrills and kindles
And raises high the spirit;
Of genius creative

Ebriety divine

Such is Inspiration.

Gigantic voice that orders
The brain's anarchic chaos
And hurls swift through the shadows
A thunderbolt of light;

Strong dazzling golden bridle
That curbs the flying courser -
The mind wild and ecstatic

And checks its mad career


I find it magnificent and strangely wonderful. 

Here's to Gustavo Adolpho Becquer.

Word To Use Today: courser. In this poem a courser is a swift horse. The word came to English in the 1200s from the Old French coursier, from cours, course.

Friday 16 February 2018

Word To Use Today: pukka..

Here's a word that's come down in the world, and almost half-way round it, too.

Pukka is an Indian word that means properly done, or perfect.

But when the English language appropriated pukka, in the 1600s, it was used to mean genuine, or of good quality, or correct, or authentic. Until quite recently it was commonly used only by people who'd lived in British Colonial India, or their descendants, so it was most definitely a word of the ruling classes. 

And then at the turn of the millennium a cook called Jamie Oliver, in the guise of a chirpy East Londoner, started using the word pukka on TV and it rapidly lost whatever cachet it had, and became, briefly, a word used by hip people who were also pretending to be chirpy East Londoners.

All of which means I've never really been able to use the word pukka without wincing.

But, hey, it's a perfectly good word, and am I going to be allow myself to be embarrassed into avoiding it?



Couldn't I just say genuine? Or good-quality



All right, perhaps I'll try, then.


...I suppose anonymously, on a message-board, wouldn't count...?

Word To Use Today: pukka. This word comes from the Hindi pakkā, firm, from the Sanskrit pakva.

Thursday 15 February 2018

Know thyself: a rant.

The Oracle at Delphi was the most famous, and possibly the most infuriating, of all the oracles of Ancient Greece.

Still, I have to admit that the poor woman had a lot to put up with. She had to sit on a three-legged seat over a crack in the earth, from which the fumes of the decaying Python (he was killed by Apollo:

illustration by Virgil Solis) 

were said to come up and throw her into fits of inspiration. 

Mind you, the fumes might have originated from geothermal activity, which could quite easily have included enough ethylene and ethane to inspire anyone - or some people say she might have had some helpful herbs to chew. In any case, her inspired speech could only be understood by the priests of the oracle, who would come up with some neat verses which elegantly and carefully failed to answer any question asked of her.

Anyway, one of the oracle's most famous utterances was know thyself, and I thought of an experiment to see how well we do.

In a minute I want you to sit up straight and clasp your hands loosely on your lap. Keep your eyes on the screen. Try to feel calm and lovely.

Here's a photo to help:

File:Water Calm (5628778500).jpg
photo by D Sharon Pruitt


Now: how well do you actually know the back of your hand?

Thought not!

Word To Use Today: oracle. The Latin ōrāre means to request. The Greeks called the oracle at Delphi by the name of Pythia, and her utterances krēsmoi.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

Nuts and Bolts: a most important saints' day.

Today, February 14, of course, commemorates the saint...

...well, who do you think?...

...yes, it's St Cyril and St Methodius!

Let's hear it for the guys!


(What? No, no, St Valentine is just a made-up thing. Probably something to do with birds pairing up at this time of year and the sale of pink velvet. Sorry.)

Anyway, St Cyril and St Methodius;

painting by Zohari Zograf

were missionaries, and they were the first people to write down the Bible down in Old Church Slavonic. They did this some time between their arrival in Moravia (that's mostly part of the Czech Republic, now) and the expulsion of their students, so that's between 863 and 885 AD. Old Church Slavonic had quite a lot of sounds not represented in the Latin alphabet, so to do this it's said they invented the glagolitic alphabet, the present-day version of which we call, yes, cyrillic. It's used most famously in Russia and Ukraine.

The only slight problem is that Cyril wasn't called Cyril at the time. He took on that name when he became a monk, shortly before his death on 14 February 869. Until then he was called by his birth name of Constantine. (And Methodius, for that matter, was originally called Michael, but hey...)

The Glagolitic alphabet proved to be jolly good at writing down Old Church Slavonic, and was used in Croatia right up to the 1800s.

SS Cyril and Methodius have, moreover, absolutely nothing to do with roses or pink velvet... 

...though I suppose you could possibly wear a long grey beard in their honour.

Word To Use Today: glagolitic is a bit pf a gargle, but never mind. It comes from the Old Church Slavonic glagol which means utterance.

Tuesday 13 February 2018

Thing To Do Today: transmogrify.

'Oh, to be a cat!' my daughter exclaimed, struggling to recover fully from 'flu and regarding with envy her own splendid feline. Jasper has temporarily given up his habit of stalking small furry things in the fields to lie on top of the wood burner, deigning to descend more or less only for meals.

It occurs to me that if my daughter were really to become a cat she'd have to transmogrify (not that I'd dare term her magnificent midnight-black Jasper a moggy:

File:Black cat on Fluffy.jpg
photo by Scott (this isn't really Jasper)

...but the thought amused me).

To transmogrify means to change shape, particularly into a grotesque or bizarre one. So now I'm wondering what I'd like to be myself.

Grotesque or bizarre...

...perhaps a rather small golden dragon, exquisitely enchanting hatchling, in a country entirely bereft of murderous saints.

File:Gent Belfort.JPG
Ghent belfy. Photo by Wernervc

Well, at least I'd be warm!

Thing To Do Today: transmogrify. This word first appeared in the 1600s, but from where it came is a mysterious as the process itself. It might be a mixture of transmigrate and modify; but I suspect magicians, myself.

Monday 12 February 2018

Spot the Frippet: something manky.

No, not something manly; something manky.

Something manky (at least here in South East England) will be a bit dirty, a bit worn, a bit disgusting. The sort of object you don't want to touch or have in the house.

You know that suitcase covered in mildew in the loft? It's gone all manky.

You know that café where the ketchup is crusted darkly round the top of the bottle, and the glasses are opalescent with limescale and the ghosts of old orders?

You know that shop where the paint is peeling off the door, and the advertisements stuck in the window have long faded to illegibility?

You know the stuff down the back of the sofa?

And the floor under the washing machine?

All a bit manky, probably.

The dictionary says that things that are worthless, rotten, or in bad taste are manky, too - but that's not the case round here.

Well, in that case manky would describe more or less everything, wouldn't it.

Spot the Frippet: something manky. This word came to England via Polari from Italy. The Italian mancare means to be lacking.

Sunday 11 February 2018

Sunday Rest: consonant. Word Not To Use Today.

This is, plainly, a word with far too many n s in it.

Yes, there may be only three, but they do a lot of damage. A goose might be able to say consonant with some degree of elegance, but it's beyond human capabilities to utter the word without giving the impression of being in the throes of a heavy cold.

As a child, I pronounced this word consternant, and people kept correcting me. 

But now I wonder if, subconsciously, I was just trying to make the word a better place.

Sunday Rest: consonant. Consonants are vocal sounds which involve the total or partial closure of the vocal tract. 


The letter T does this with the tongue, but the letter P does it with the lips.

I don't know of any alternative to using this word apart from talking about more interesting things.

So on the whole I'd recommend that.

Saturday 10 February 2018

Saturday Rave: Out upon it, I have lov'd by John Suckling.

John Suckling was an extraordinary character. For a start, he was said to be the best player of bowls (the sort you play on a bowling green) in England. He was also said to be the best card player in England, too, and, indeed, he invented the game of cribbage, though part of his reputation might be something to do with his having sent packs of cards to all the stately home of England and then embarked on a tour of visits that netted him the equivalent of several million pounds. 

I don't like to be suspicious about those cards, but...oh dear...

John Suckling was also a soldier who spent £12 000, an absolutely enormous sum, raising a mere hundred horse for Charles I's first Scottish War. The troop was magnificent to behold, but, sadly, not very good at all at the actual fighting bit. 

Ah well! 

Suckling had a similar attitude to drama, producing some of his own plays, spectacularly, at vast expense (though they weren't, apparently, very good plays).

As if all that wasn't enough, he wrote this wonderful...I don't know what to call it. A love poem? 

What do you think?

Out upon it, I have lov'd
Three whole days together;
And am like to love three more,
If it prove fair weather.

Time shall moult away his wings,

Ere he shall discover
In the whole wide world again
Such a constant lover.

But the spite on't is, no praise

Is due at all to me;
Love with me had made no stays,
Had any been but she.

Had it any been but she,

And that very face,
There had been at least ere this
A dozen dozen in her place.

Word To Use Today: constant: This word comes from the Latin constāre, to be steadfast, from stāre, to stand. 

Friday 9 February 2018

Word To Use Today: nilgai.

This is a nilgai:

File:Nilgai at Giza Zoo by Hatem Moushir 118.JPG
photo by Hatem Moushir

The plural of nilgai is also nilgai - or nilgais, which you say nill-guys, or, thrillingly, nilghau (you say it nillgaw) or nilghaus - are large Indian antelopes. That one in the picture is a male: it's easy to tell because it's grey, and the females are brown (and almost always have no horns).

Its scientific name is Boselaphus tragocamelus, which translates, more or less, as the cow-deer billygoat-camel; but then people have always been confused about nilgai. On the Indian subcontinent, where it lives, it's variously regarded as a cow, a divine creature, or vermin.

Okay, then, here's a question: the gai bit is Hindi for cow, but what does the nil bit mean, do you think?*

Word To Use Today: nilgai.

*No, not stripy-socks. No, not, white-tie, either. Here's a clue. What colour is it?

Yes, that's right, grey or brown, according to sex. So the answer to the question what does nil mean in Hindi? is, obviously...

Well, I said the thing was confusing.

The Hindu nīlgāw translates as blue bull, from the Sanskrit nīla, dark blue, plus go, which means bull.

Thursday 8 February 2018

A final ambition: a rant.

You've got to eat a peck of dirt before you die, people say, happily, as they gobble up a dropped slice of cake, or suck the fluff off a piece of toffee that's been accidentally dribbled onto a jumper.

Got to eat a peck of dirt before you die? 

But a peck can be any amount from a wren's beakful:

File:Variegated Fairy-wren male.jpg
variegated Fairy Wren, photo by Glen Fergus

to the 9.09 litres of the (obsolete) UK measurement (it's slightly smaller in the US).

And in any case, why on earth should dying be any sort of an ambition?

Word To Use Today: peck. The measurement word turned up in England in the 1200s but no one knows from where. The bird sort of peck turned up in the 1300s and no one's sure about that, either, but the Middle Low German pekken means to jab with the beak, so that's probably some relation.

Wednesday 7 February 2018

Nuts and Bolts: assibilation.

I spent some time recently pondering the word Kiribati, in which the final ti is pronounced ss.

This oddity is an example of assibilation, which describes the process when a non-hissy sound is turned into a hiss by a speaker. 

The name Kiribati started off, you see, as the local pronunciation of the island group's colonial name Gilbert.

The same thing has happened all over the place, in all sorts of languages, including English and various Latin-based languages. The English and French -tion or Italian -zione ending of words, for instance, started out in Latin as something pronounced tee-oh, but which is now in English sadly reduced to 'shn.

Germanic languages have done their bit towards assibilation, too: the ss in Wasser, wasn't originally there (as can be seen by its English equivalent, water).

This process carries on today. In some southern American dialects a th sound at the end of a word is assibilated, so that bathroom becomes something like barssroom, and birthday berssday.

Slightly stretching the idea (I think) are examples which count the sound ch (as in church) as a hissing sound, or sibilant. Here we get the mechanism for the word dyke turning to ditch, as well as a strong tendency in all of us to say the word nature naycher instead of naytyer.

And of course in any discussion of assibilation no one can forget the undoubted influence of dentures...

Thing To Use Today: assibilation. This word is, pleasingly, itself an example of assibilation because the word was assibilatio in Latin. Sīlibāre means to hiss. 

Tuesday 6 February 2018

Thing To Do Today: a scavenging stroke.

Becoming a hero has always been largely a matter of vocabulary.

A tooled-up thug, or a knight in shining armour? 

The head of a cult, or an inspiring source of wisdom?

A torturer of heretics, or a saint?

A scavenging stroke has a heroic ring to it - it sounds like the fatal claw-stab as a falcon stoops on a partridge - but a scavenging stroke is actually the final movement of the piston in a four-stroke engine. 

No, it's all right, it's not complicated. An engine is basically a box with a plunger-type thing called a piston attached to it that sucks stuff into the box, or allows stuff out. The first pull of the piston sucks in the fuel (that's the first stroke of the four strokes) the first push of the piston squashes the fuel (the second stroke) so that when it explodes the fuel pushes the piston out again (third stroke) and the second push gets rid of the waste gases (the fourth stroke).

Then it all starts again.

All visitors to The Word Den are, naturally, notably intelligent, but unless your own intelligence is artificial you're unlikely to possess pistons.

Still, by analogy it seems reasonable to me to term the expulsion of waste gases a scavenging stroke... 

...and thus make heroes of us all.

Thing To Do Today: a scavenging stroke. The word scavenge comes from the Old Norman French escauwage, examination, from escauwer, to scrutinize. The link with scavenge seems to be the idea of cleansing something.

Monday 5 February 2018

Spot the Frippet: scarf.

File:The youruba gele "head scarf".jpg
Yoruba-style scarf. Photo by Morinzel

File:A Christmas Card having A Snowman with Black Hat, Blue Scarf, and Red Background.JPG
photo by Quratt ul ain

File:Geraldine Laufer Dec 2015.jpg
Geraldine Laufer, photo by David Laufer

A scarf is such an easy spot that perhaps we should play scarf snooker, where you have to spot scarves in particular colours according to the order in which snooker balls are potted in a game.

The order in which to spot the scarves in scarf snooker is: red, then some other colour (both these spotted alternately a total of fifteen times if you're feeling very keen); then yellow, green, brown, blue, pink, black.

If you're incapable of noticing clothes then a scarf joint is used in woodwork and looks like this:

If you're incapable of noticing joints in woodwork, then scarfskin is the rather horrid name for the epidermis: basically that's the outer layer of the skin you can see.

It quite often comes wrapped in scarves, too.

Spot the Frippet: scarf. This word appeared in the 1400s from no one knows where, but there's a Latin word scrippum, which means pilgrims pack, which might have something to do with it.

Sunday 4 February 2018

Sunday Rest: petaurist.

This word comes from the Latin petaurista, which means tightrope walker.

But a petaurist isn't a tightrope walker. Show one a tightrope and the chances are it'll do something entirely different.

So what does a petaurist do?

It glides:

File:A hand-book to the marsupialia and monotremata (1896) (14592071317).jpg
Illustration by Richard Lydekker. This type of petaurist is also known as a sugar glider.

Here's another petaurist:

Mahogany glider.jpg
That's a mahogany glider. It's endangered, so admire it while you can.

Petaurists are marsupials, native to Australia and New Guinea, and there are six species, all quite small (perhaps 40cm including the tail). They can't fly, but by using the flaps of skin between their front and back legs they can glide as much as 140m. 

This is the reason they don't need to walk along tightropes.

They're also known as flying phalangers.

Flying phalanger, sugar glider, fluffy glider, mahogany glider...

...why on earth has someone landed the poor creatures with a name like petaurist?

Sunday Rest: petaurist. The scientific name of the glider genus, Petaurus, was given to them by an Englishman, George Shaw.

As far as I can discover he only knew gliders from their skins.

George Kearsley Shaw.jpg

George Shaw.

Saturday 3 February 2018

Saturday Rave: the poems of Catherine Baker.

Twitter gets a bad rap.

It's true that some unwise and unkind people use Twitter to inflict their foolish and revolting views upon the public, but there's a lot of life-enhancing poetry to be found there, too.

I found this poem by Catherine Baker on Twitter. I've never met Catherine, but she's edited a few of my books so I feel I know her quite well.

Catherine's poetry on Twitter started as a daily Tweet in haiku form as an experiment to discover how long she could go on finding something cherishable to describe and share. 

The answer to that question has pretty much turned out to be forever.

Catherine's poems can be found @catbake, and I recommend them strongly for the refreshment of the spirit.

This poem is a little longer than a haiku, but it's typical of Catherine's poetry in that it looks with care and precision something usually unnoticed, and connects it with our own experience of the world.

living your whole life
between these two rushing roads
motorway fieldmouse
burrowing into silence
where no foot can follow you
the seeds are all yours
and the ancient scent of herbs
woken by the rain


A work of art shows us something. A good work of art shows us something we've never seen before.

And all for free on Twitter.

Thanks, Catherine.

Word To Use Today: scent. This word comes from the Old French sentir, to sense, from the Latin sentīre, to feel.

Friday 2 February 2018

Word To Use Today: ridotto.

Here's something frivolous for a winter's day (or a summer one for our friends in the Antipodes).

A ridotto is a ball - the sort with music to dance to. They were last truly popular under that name in the 1700s, but by all accounts they were fun: a chance to get dressed up, meet members of the opposite sex (and sneer at the get-up of those of the same sex).

Ridotti were also quite often in masquerade, that is, with everyone wearing masks. It must have been wonderful for anyone suffering from an outbreak of acne, but the opportunities for whispering gossip into exactly the wrong ear must have been quite tremendous.

Perhaps this is why they went out of fashion so soon. 

For myself, I rather regret them.

Word To Use Today: ridotto. (Google gets quite excited by this word: it's sure you mean something else:

Italian Risotto.png

Not one of these.)

This word ridotto comes from the Italian ridurre, meaning to close off or make private, but originally a ridotto was the foyer of a theatre, where refreshments were served during intervals. The Great Council of Venice opened its 'Ridotto,' a casino, in 1638 to try to close down illegal gambling clubs:

File:Pietro Longhi - The Ridotto in Venice - WGA13416.jpg
The Ridotto by Pietro Longhi

 but by 1774 it was closed again to 'preserve the piety, sound discipline and moderate behaviour of the citizens'.

Thursday 1 February 2018

A fictional bus ride: a rant.

The Queen's eyebrows were bad enough. 

The drama The Crown has had marvellous reviews, and I did just wonder about taking out a subscription for Netflix so I could watch it. It was said to have cost $100,000,000, so surely it must be worth seeing.

But then I saw a picture of the eyebrows of Claire Foy, who plays the Queen, and I decided not to bother.

HM the Queen has always had natural-looking eyebrows:


 and Claire Foy's were hardly visible. Well, if Netflicks can't be bothered to invest in a couple of false eyebrows, then can they have cared much about the rest?

I hardly think so.

And now we have the Oscar-nominated flim Darkest Hour, about Winston Churchill and the outbreak of World War Two. Again, I wondered if it might be worth seeing until I heard a sound clip, which I'm pretty sure had Churchill say I've never ridden a bus.

Well, of course he hadn't. No one in Britain rides buses, we ride on buses. The only things we ride here are horses and storms. And, again, if the film makers can't be bothered to run the script past someone who speaks British English, can the whole thing be worth my time?

Well, it's not getting it, I can tell you.


Word To Use Today: ride. This word goes right back to Old English, when it was rīdan.