This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 30 April 2018

Spot the Frippet: yttrium.

Given that there are only eighty nine naturally occurring elements in the whole universe, you'd have thought that they'd all have some degree of celebrity.

Just eighty nine...I mean, think how easy it is to list the names eighty nine writers - and I can't honestly claim that writers have much influence on the composition of the furthest reaches of the universe.

Or even, to be honest, on the nearest reaches of the universe. If you can have a near reach.

In any case, the fact is that I intended to write this post about the element thallium, but it soon became clear to me as I researched it that no one neither a scientist nor a poisoner will ever come across the stuff. So, lured by the look of the word, I switched the subject of this post to yttrium.

Which led me to discover that yttrium doesn't exactly clutter up the high street, either.

Still, you can find it in camera lenses (it makes them less likely to shatter) and some ceramics. I hope you never come across it medically because in its radioactive form it is used as a cancer drug, and as a needle it's used in the most delicate sorts of spinal surgery.

If you really want to spot some yttrium your best bet is to look for some jewellery: either garnets or cubic zirconia, which both have very small amounts of yttrium in them.

Mostly, though, I am left with some understanding of why even being an element doesn't bring you many fans.

Spot the Frippet: yttrium. This word comes, like the mineral from which it was first identified, from Ytterby in Sweden. Carl Axel Arrhenius called the mineral ytterbite in 1787, and Friedrich Wöhler isolated the element, yttrium, in 1828.

Sunday 29 April 2018

Sunday Rest: spermaceti. Word Not To Use Today.

Practically all words come trailing echoes. This is inevitable when you consider that words usually borrow parts of their meanings from others: that, for instance, the Italian libro means a book, and libre means books; that the German Kraftfahrzeughaftpflightversicherung is made up of fairly simple parts that give you some hefty clues that it means car liability insurance; and that in the Australian Wiradjuri language wagga is a crow and wagga wagga are crows (though when you duplicate a verb in Thai the action of the verb isn't repeated, but intensified). 

This trend for words to display relationships is very helpful - until you get to a word like spermaceti.

Spermaceti is the waxy substance obtained from the oil in the head of a sperm whale. 

File:Mother and baby sperm whale.jpg
photo by Gabriel Barathieu

It may act as the whale's aid to buoyancy, or it may help the whale with echo-location. 

Spermaceti smells wonderful, and was used formerly to make candles and perfumes.

It has nothing at all to do with either sperm or spaghetti. 


...I suppose we must be grateful for that, mustn't we.

Word Not To Use Today: spermaceti. This word comes from the Latin sperma cēti, whale sperm. If it's Latin sperma means, yes, sperm, and if Greek it means seed. The Latin cētus means whale, from the Greek kētos.

Saturday 28 April 2018

Saturday Rave: Amo el canto by Nezahualcoyotl.

Nezahualcoyōtl was born a prince. In the Mexico of the early 1400s this was not at all a safe thing to be.

Luckily for us - and him - he survived, lived to old age, and bequeathed his kingdom to one of his estimated one hundred and ten children.

As if this wasn't achievement enough, he was a remarkably able and creative designer, engineer, and poet.

He was an original thinker, too: on the whole he rather disapproved of human sacrifice, and he built a temple where even animal sacrifice was banned.

Here he is, in an illustration from the Codex Ixtlilxochitl:

Here is one of Nezahualcoyōtl's poems. It appears on the one hundred peso note of Mexico.

Amo el canto del zenzontle
Pajáro de cuatrocientas voces,
Amo el color del jade
Y el enervante perfume de las flores,
Pero más amo a mi hermano, el hombre.

I love the song of the mockingbird,
Bird of four hundred voices,
I love the colour of jade
And the intoxicating scent of flowers,
But more than all I love my brother, man.

Reading Nezahualcoyōtl's poem, it occurs to me that human sacrifice is still continuing, if with larger weapons of execution.

And it also occurs to me that perhaps what the world needs most is for more of its leaders to be poets.

Word To Use Today: Nezahualcoyōti. This name means coyote who fasts. This seems an odd name to give a baby, few of whom show any interest in fasting. 

But then Nezahualcoyōti was a remarkable person, after all.

Friday 27 April 2018

Word To Use Today: spense.

There have always been people called Spencer all over the place: Lady Diana Spencer was the mother of the present Duke of Cambridge and Prince Harry, and Percy Spencer was arguably even more useful, for he invented the microwave.*

But what are these Spencers claiming to do?

Spence is a rare word, but it has three distinct meanings. It can be a larder, where food is kept; it can be a parlour or sitting room, especially in a cottage; or it can be an allowance of money.

Can you spot the link?

Well, if you can't, I'll tell you:

Word To Use Today: spence. This word started out as the Latin dispendere, to distribute. From there we got the French despense, a larder, a place from which food is distributed. The larder word soon gave rise to espenser and took on two meanings: the person who distributes the stuff in the larder, that is, a chief servant or steward; and a sum of money doled out by the steward, who was for a time called the despendour. 

Spence meaning sitting room in a cottage is the place where food is divided up to be eaten.

*I say that Percy Spencer invented the microwave, but that's obviously not true: microwaves have been around billions of years, and are one of the most important sources of information about the Big Bang. 

Percy Spencer, however, was the one who worked out you can use them to heat soup.

Thursday 26 April 2018

Russia in Wonderland: a rant.

Russia has many wonders...

File:Moscow Russia Kremlin image of Kremlin.jpg
photo by Victorgrigas

File:Male Ribbon Sea Ozernoy Gulf Russia.jpg
male ribbon seal. Photo by Michael Cameron NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC/NMML 

File:Kuthiny Baty.jpg
This is Kutkhiny Baty, a pumice rock formation on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Photo by  Игорь Шпиленок, Igor Shpilenok.

...but the wonders of the title of this post are more of the Alice variety - or, actually, more of the Humpty Dumpty variety. As Humpty Dumpty famously says to Alice: 'When I use a means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less'.*

A Russian news team from REN Russian TV has recently visited the hospital in Salisbury where the ex-Russian spy Andrei Skripal is being treated. The visit took place in the middle of the night, which must be outside normal visiting hours, but the team found their way easily enough to the Microbiology Department.

This is where it all gets a bit strange.

The presenter, Mr Khanin, tells the camera the sign on the Microbiology Door says 'Don't enter: stay back' and then goes on to express wonder at this being the sum total of the security protecting the people from the Novichok nerve agent. He finishes by suggesting that the lack of security is proof that the whole Novichok attack was dreamt up by the hospital authorities.

Of course no one without first-hand knowledge can be completely sure what happened to the Skripals in Salisbury, but I do know what it says on the door of the Microbiology Department.

The words are:


Word To Use Today: slippery. This word seems to have been made up by William Coverdale to translate the lovely German word schlipfferig in Psalm 35 of Martin Luther's Bible. The Old English form of the word was slipor

Pleasingly, it means cunning and untrustworthy as well as tending to make things slip.

*Yes, yes, all right, that quote is actually from Through The Looking Glass, but that would mess up my title and introduction. Just smirk condescendingly and give yourself a pat on the back for being such a know-all, okay?

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Nuts and Bolts: telestich.

You say this word telly-stick,* but, confusingly, it isn't a device for changing channels on a TV when the battery on remote control is dead, but a form of verse.

A telestich is very like an acrostic, but instead of the first letters of the lines making a word, the last letters do.

This is neat, though sadly no one much seems to have got round to writing anything much in telestich form. There's a beautiful very short example by Michael Lockwood that's both an acrostic and a telestich HERE, but an example of a pure telestich has eluded me.

That means I'm going to have to write one myself, I suppose.


Um...gosh, it's jolly awkward...

What an agendA!
Staring through the windoW
Hoping for a lightning-cracK
That will soW
An ideA,
Some glimpse of a pointeR...
...but it's dark, and I'm doomeD.


Ah well. I'm sure you can do better!

Word To Use Today: telestich. This word comes from the Greek telos, which means end. Stichos means a line. 

*Though some people say tiLESS-tick, apparently.

Tuesday 24 April 2018

Thing To Do Today: rib someone.

Usually nowadays ribbing involves alternating plain and purl knitting stitches in such a way as to make a surface like a ploughed field (or, indeed, ribs).

File:Cap, skull (AM 2007.78.4-3).jpg
The lower section of this cap is ribbed. It was knitted by Tom Boyle, a New Zealander in Word War Two, to be worn under a military helmet. He knitted one for every man in his unit.

That sort of ribbing is to be found on the cuffs of most knitted garments.

But what if you can't knit?

Well, then there's the newer meaning of rib, which means to tease, usually in a good-natured way not intended to cause hurt. 

It's not always easy, but teasing someone about something you genuinely admire about them is probably the way to go.

Here comes the walking dictionary!

Your knowledge of fashion is non-existent, but we'll be all right if we suddenly need a general theory of the universe.

I don't know what all those traffic policemen see in you.

I suppose the essential thing is to find someone you love before you start.

Thing To Do Today: rib someone. The teasing word is twentieth century, short for rib-tickle. The anatomical word comes from the Old English ribb, and is related to the Old Norse rif, which means reef.

Monday 23 April 2018

Spot the Frippet: mouse.

Everyone knows that a mouse is both a small rodent:

File:Fancy mice.jpg
photo by Polarqueen at English Language Wikipedia

 and a pointer device for a computer screen:

File:Parts of a computer mouse.jpg
photo by Adarshjchandran

 but did you know it also a (rare) slang term for a black eye, as well as being way of securing a shackle to prevent a load from slipping off it (it's a term used on a ship)?

Use the more permanent technique of
I found this illustration HERE.

If you have none of these sorts of mice in view, then a human mouse will be a quiet, timid or perhaps cowardly person, a term usually applied to a woman.

Actually, now I come to think about it, to old women...

...well, that means the women of the world must be making some progress, then.

Spot the Frippet: mouse. This word comes from the Old English mūs. The Greek word was exactly the same - but then mice have long been great travellers. 

Sunday 22 April 2018

Sunday Rest: glasnost. Word Not To Use Today.

The word glasnost came into English when the Soviet Union was breaking up and Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader of Russia.

It described a new direction for the country involving public frankness and public accountability. It encouraged Russian citizens to discuss the faults of their government, to criticise their leaders, and also to allow something approaching a free press.

Of course no one uses the word glasnost now because, as the new Russian government keeps telling us, the Russian leadership never does anything at all it might wish to keep secret, nearly all Russians are completely happy with their government, and the most free press in the world would have nothing to say that isn't already being said.'s still a rather nice word, though. 

If a rather sad one.

Word Sadly Not To Use Today: glasnost. This word is the Russian for openness. For centuries it particularly referred to public court proceedings, but in the 1980s its meaning began to widen, and this wider meaning is how the word is now understood in the West.

Saturday 21 April 2018

Saturday Rave: Rumpole, by John Mortimer.

There have always been plenty of admirable characters in fiction - the whole thing started off, after all, with the wrath of Achilles - but the lovable ones have always been in shorter supply.

The thing is, it's horribly easy to dislike someone for his (or her) virtues; it's not nearly as easy to cherish someone despite, or even because, of his (or her) vices. 

When it happens, it's a sign we've been entirely seduced. 

And Rumpole? 

He gets us both ways. 

Horace Rumpole started off in a TV series starring the actor Leo McKern, and later Rumpole's...can I call them adventures?..were transcribed by his creator, John Mortimer, into several books. I love the books, and I love Rumpole. He may be old, unclean, cigar-fumed, plump, unambitious, contrary - and unsuccessful, too, as the world judges it - but he is shrewd, brave, and, most of all, he has an understanding of, and love for, his fellow men that flows as wide as the Thames near whose banks he plies his slightly grubby trade, and wider than the woefully cheap claret in which he find consolation at the end of each doggedly determined day.

Rumpole spends his life defending petty criminals - who may have been convicted of dozens of crimes but who just might not have done this particular one - and annoying more or less everyone else, including the judges, his wife, and those colleagues of his whose social and professional ambitions aren't assisted by being associated with someone covered in cigar ash, and whose barrister's wig was bought decades ago from a retired Chief Justice of Tonga.

Rumpole of the Bailey.jpg
caricature of Leo McKern as Rumpole from the episode Rumpole and the Younger Generation.

Rumpole has his small vanities (the glories of the Penge Bungalow murder trail are never forgotten), but he is in just as frequent rueful contemplation of his inadequacies. He sees himself, as he sees everyone, whole; and the lowlier they are, the more he loves them.

And I'll tell you something: in Rumpole we have proof that an entirely illusionary character can make the world a better place. 

And Hallelujah for that.

Word To Use Today: defence. Rumpole only ever defends, never prosecutes, which is one reason for his lack of professional advancement. The word comes from the Latin dēfendere, to defend.

Friday 20 April 2018

Word To Use Today: parapara.

The parapara is the stuff of nightmares

And who cures nightmares? 


The parapara, you see, catches birds. It's mostly found on the smaller islands of New Zealand - Three Kings Island, and Hen and Chickens Island, for example - but it's sold in Garden Centres and in this way its malign depredations have spread throughout the country.

It's not that the parapara dislikes birds - or, conversely, that it likes them (if only as a light snack) - but the parapara carries super-sticky seed pods (yes, that's right, it's a tree) for eight months of the year. The idea is that the seed pods will stick to visiting creatures (large sea birds, mostly, which are big enough to carry the pods) and that these creatures will take the seeds off and accidentally drop them somewhere else.

Where it all goes wrong is that the seed pods are stuck very strongly to the plant.

This can cause a horrifying chain of death. Insects visit the parapara and get stuck to the pods. A small bird sees a juicy bug, alights on it, and gets glued on, too - and then, like some dreadful parody of a fairy tale, a hawk will see the bird struggling, and...'s horrible, isn't it? Even the birds that manage to struggle free will have their feathers so gummed up that they are unable to fly and are likely to fall easy prey to a cat or a snake.

The good news is that few New Zealanders enjoy looking out of their windows to find their gardens adorned with the corpses of small pretty birds such as kingfishers or fantails:

File:New Zealand Fantail - New Zealand 24420679467).jpg
photo by Francesco Veronesi

 and so the parapara is becoming rare.

The other good news is that goats just yum them up.

So: should we rejoice in the parapara tree's demise? Or protect a few specimens?

Not easy, is it. 

Perhaps we should banish them to a few small islands populated by enormous sea birds.

Word To Use Today: parapara is a Māori word.

Thursday 19 April 2018

The width of a window: a rant.

Computers have made writing easier in lots of ways - hitting the backspace key, for instance, is a thousand times quicker than rolling the paper part of the way out of the typewriter, putting a shield over the carbon paper, using a typewriter rubber on both copies, and then lining everything back up again - but computers are still full of traps, all the same.

There are those worrying little red squiggles that suggest a word is spelled wrongly (colour, realise, plough, maumet, and granodiorite all bring out the red squiggles); and then there's the lovely cupertino effect, where your phone turns a simple reference to the Pakistani political party Muttahida Quami, to something possibly more likely but really quite embarrassing:

The opposition blames the government and the pro-government Muttonhead Quail Movement (MQM), which runs Karachi, for the violence.

(That particular cupertino trick was played on the news agency Reuters.)

And then there's the width of windows. 

A title window for a Word Den post - or an email - only has so much space in it. Email title space varies according to the email provider, but it's usually about sixty characters. This means you have to be careful to be fairly brief so that the end of your title isn't cut-off. 

If you're reading your email on a phone you may have even less space.

I got an email the other day from the grocery chain Tesco's on-line arm, which trades as Tesco Direct.

The latest offers and more from Tesco's Dire

the title promised.

Ah well. I suppose that's honest, if nothing else.

Word To Use Today: dire. This word is to do with the Latin word dīrus, ominous or fearful.

Wednesday 18 April 2018

Nuts and Bolts: National Anthems

It's not easy, writing a National Anthem. You're not going to please everybody, even if you have a top person writing the tune. Josef Haydn wrote the music Germany uses for its National Anthem (though Haydn actually wrote it for the Emperor of Austria), but the German Anthem is currently being attacked by feminists for going on about The Fatherland.

It could be worse: the Bulgarian anthemMila Ridieno, or My Motherland, is, oddly but consistently, identified by Siri, the Google Avatar, as Lius Fonzi and Daddy Yankee's Despacito.

The words for India's National Anthem were written by Rabindraneth Tagore, no less, but people still complained about the Indian National Anthem's performance at a cricket match last year because Amitabh Bachchan sang Tagore's words too slowly.

The Czech National Anthem is currently getting it in the neck for being too short and unpatriotic: but can it really be worse than the Greek National Anthem, which weighs in at a hundred and fifty eight verses? Or the British National Anthem, which actually calls, in a never-sung verse, for one part of the population, Scottish rebels, to be crushed?

Or how about the Netherland's National Anthem, which proclaims lifelong honour to the king of...well, can you guess?*

I suppose the purpose of a  National Anthem is that it brings people together in an expression of solidarity and support for their country; that it has a rousing and bracing effect.

So I'll leave you with a couple of lines from the National Anthem of the Congo:

And if we have to die
Does it really matter?

On the whole I think I'm happier bawling God Save Our Gracious Queen than that.

Word To Use Today: anthem. This word comes from the Old English anthemne, from the Latin antiphōna, which means sung.


Tuesday 17 April 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: mardy.

Mardy probably still counts as a dialect word, but it's increasing its range and I expect most English people now recognise it, and probably understand it. 

This may be down to the lift it's got from the Arctic Monkeys' song Mardy Bum.

My dictionary says that the word mardy refers to a child, but, hey, either the dictionary is wrong, the usage has changed - or perhaps it's just that there's a lot of childish behaviour about.

The dictionary definition of mardy is spoilt and irritable, and that's pretty close if yours is a Yorkshire type of mardy; but if it's an East Midlands' mardy then it'll probably mean awkward, bad-tempered or terse.

Mardy may be combined with a less-than-complimentary noun such as cow, or, as in the Arctic Monkeys' song, bum

Sometimes mardy will be shortened to mard, especially in the powerful phrase he's got a mard on (in a bad mood).

Anyway, being sulky or whiny or mardy is not for us. 

Though pointing it out in others is pretty-much irresistible.

Thing Not To Be Today: mardy. This word comes from mar, from the Old English merran.

Monday 16 April 2018

Spot The Frippet: dingo.

A dingo is the wild dog of Australia, Canis lupus dingo, (or perhaps, as some say, Canis dingo).

Dingo walking.jpg

The dingo been established in Australia for three and a half thousand years or so, and seems to be most closely related to the New Guinea Singing Dog (note the dingo's bushy tail). It eats more or less anything it can catch, including kangaroos and - very, very occasionally - people.

It may have been competition with the dingo that wiped out the thylacine on the Australian mainland.

Historically, some individual dingoes have lived in association with human dwellings, and some have been entirely wild. In the Australian Yarralin language the former are called walaku and the latter ngurakin.

Dingoes are getting rarer all over Australia because they breed readily with domestic dogs, and, this being the case (and also as most of us aren't currently living in the Australian bush) you may ask how on earth are we to be expected to spot a dingo?

Well, by making use of some splendidly vigorous Australian slang, that's how, for in Australia a dingo can be a cheat or a coward, or it can be someone acting in a cheating or cowardly way, or someone who drops out of something. To dingo on someone is to let them down.

Suddenly there are dingoes everywhere, aren't there?

It may even be a source of some private satisfaction to work out who the chief dingo is in your class, street, family or office.

Word To Use Today: dingo. This word comes from the Dharug language, which is native to the Sydney area of Australia.

Sunday 15 April 2018

Sunday Rest: edicule. Word Not To Use Today.

Strangely enough, edicule does not describe the natural contempt felt by the unschooled for the highly educated.

Instead it's a shrine. It may be situated inside a religious building, but it's not built as part of it.

This is the Ascension edicule on the Mount of Olives:

photo by en:user:adriatikus

And this is the Jesus Tomb edicule inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre:

File:Crowd waiting to entre the edicule (4112100461).jpg
photo by Joe Goldberg from Seattle.

Now, this is all very well. These things exist, and so they need a name.

But a word describing the contempt of the uneducated for the highly schooled would be ever so much more useful.

Word Not To Use Today: edicule. This word comes from the Latin aecula. Aedēs means temple or shrine, and is related to the Greek aithēr, bright upper sky. The -cule bit is a Latin way of indicating something small.

Saturday 14 April 2018

Saturday Rave: Morocco bound.

The little red squiggles used to get to me. If I wrote colour, or sceptre or recognise on this blog then exception would be taken to my British spelling and red squiggles would pop up, irritating the hell out of me.

Luckily I've learned to breathe deeply and ignore them.

Whose fault are the squiggles? Well, I'm not blaming Blogger, which provides a marvellously (another squiggle!) service free of charge; so I suppose I have to blame Noah Webster of dictionary fame.

Noah Webster pre-1843 IMG 4412 Cropped.JPG
portrait by James Herring

The trouble is that Webster was a man of such robust argument that he was really rather splendid. His essay at the beginning of  his A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language certainly takes no prisoners, containing as it does a long and bitingly contemptuous dismissal of poor Dr Johnson's scholarship. 

And then he gets on to spelling - or, as he of course calls it, orthography.

It's robustly-argued:

Strange as it may seem the fact is undeniable, that the present doctrin that no change must be made in writing words, is destroying the benefits of an alphabet, and reducing our language to the barbarism of Chinese characters insted of letters. 


It is fortunate for the language and for those who use it, that this doctrin did not prevail in the reign of Henry the fourth; for it was as just then as it is now; and had all changes in spelling ceased at that period, what a spectacle of deformity would our language now exhibit! 


Every man of common reading knows that a living language must necessarily suffer gradual changes in its current words, in the significations of many words, and in pronunciation.

 Webster's criteria for changing spellings is not quite what you'd think: 

But gradual changes to accommodate the written to the spoken language...especially when they purify words from corruptions, improve the regular analogies of a language and illustrate etymology, are not only proper, but indispensable.

Spelling reform is nowadays mostly seen as a way of improving regular analogies. Purifying words from corruptions (whatever that actually means) and illustrating etymologies (which had been a big trend in the seventeenth century and is still causing all sorts of trouble (it inserted the quite unnecessary b in the word debt, for instance) is never going to attract many supporters nowadays.

But still, although I've been left with myriads of squiggles, I can't help but admire the splendidly grumpy and arrogant Webster.

And if he wants his countrymen to write defense and color and traveling then that's fine, of course. (Americans, however, refuse to use his suggested spelling of tongue, tung. Or, indeed, doctrin.)

But color... you were going to cause all this bother then perhaps he should have gone all the way to culler and had done with it.

Word To Use Today: one with an alternative transatlantic spelling. Antagonise, perhaps.

The title of this post comes from the film The Road To Morocco. 'Like Webster's dictionary we're Morocco bound.' (Morocco is a type of leather.)

Friday 13 April 2018

Word To Use Today: paraskevidekatriaphobia.

Today is Friday the thirteenth.

If this worries you then you are suffering from paraskevidekatriaphobia.

Why would anyone be afraid of Friday the thirteenth? 

Well, it wasn't very lucky for the composer Rossini, who died on Friday the thirteenth; but then, to provide a bit of balance, it was fine for all the Bachs, Beethoven, both Haydns, Verdi, Monteverdi, and a host of other composers, who didn't.

It's true that there were thirteen at The Last Supper, but then that went off quite well, really, considering: and in any case The Last Supper took place on a Thursday.

So what's the answer? 

Sadly, no one knows. Again, one or two unlucky things have happened on Friday thirteenth, but most of them haven't. 

(By the way, if you're Greek then actually Tuesday the thirteenth is the worst day. If you're Italian then it's Friday the seventeenth.) 

Friday the thirteenth is bad for airlines because people tend to avoid flying on that day. The Finns, amusingly, hold their National Accident Day on Friday the thirteenth. 

Luckily for the organisers, it's not particularly a day when bad things happen.

Word To Use Today: paraskevidekatriaphobia. This whole circus may have been started by Thomas W Lawson's 1907 novel about a financial scandal Friday the Thirteenth. The word comes from the Greek paraskevi, Friday, and dekatreis, thirteen. And from phobia, of course, which from the Greek word phobos, fear.

Thursday 12 April 2018

The wrong sort of race: a rant.

The scholarly Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, discussing the increasing economic importance of artificial intelligence, says:

It [Chinese policy] calls for the output of 100,000 robots annually within three years, with the open intent of leapfrogging the US in a robotic arms race.

Far be it from me to criticise China's economic ambitions, but surely, if someone was trying to leapfrog something, wouldn't it be much more effective to do it in a robotic legs race?

Just asking.

File:Leapfrog 1932.jpg
Girls playing leapfrog in France, 1932

Word To Use Today: leapfrog. Leap comes from the Old English hlēapan; frog comes from the Old English frogga.

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard writes for The Telegraph newspaper.

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Nuts and Bolts: semantic satiation.

Well, semantic satiation sounds complicated, doesn't it, but it's really the simplest thing in the world... world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world world...

So, now, tell me: what is a world, exactly? 

Not sure after all that repetition? Well, that's semantic satiation for you.

It's a phenomenon that's been recognised for a long time (Edgar Allen Poe used the idea in his story Berenice) though the actual term semantic satiation is much more recent. The idea is that any word, if repeated very many times, baffles the brain to such an extent that the word temporarily loses its meaning.

Yes, it works with any word. Go on, try it - with the word bubble, for instance. Or cardigan. Or your name.


What seems to be happening is that the particular path in your brain that leads from the sound of the word to its meaning opens as usual, but because the path that's being opened isn't going anywhere useful (bubble bubble bubble bubble...) then after a time the brain sensibly shuts this pathway down as annoying and useless; and so for a while the brain won't be sure what the word usually means.


Your brain is really rather clever, isn't it?

Word To Use Just Once Today: semantic. This word comes from the Greek sēmantikos, having significance, from sēma, a sign.

Tuesday 10 April 2018

Thing To Be Today: pavonine.

This lovely word means like a peacock.

It can describe anything that resembles a peacock - which at first thought would seem to, a peacock, but actually the word pavonine might refer to a peacock's horrible screeching cry:

File:Peacock calling.jpg
photo by Albinfo

its strutting walk, its silly topknot (see above):

 its disapproving eye, or its frankly ridiculous train of a tail:

File:Peacock National Bird Of India - Kanha National Park.jpg
photo by Ashishmahaur

Pavonine can also describe something with the colours, pattern or iridescence of a peacock's tail:

File:Peacock Feather Close Up.JPG
photo by Satdeep gill

Whether you choose to dress in turquoise and green:

File:Zang Toi peacock gown (5313139).jpg
Zang Toi peacock gown. Photo by abigail

to wear a spiky topknot:

File:Chloe Moo of Darwin - 2013 Myer Fashions on the Field (10705418974).jpg
Chloe Moo, photo by Chris Phutully

to view the world with a certain hauteur:

File:Dame Edith Evans 6 Allan Warren.jpg
Dame Edith Evans. Photo by Allan warren

 or to trail a few metres of fabric after you:

File:1860's Dress featuring a Train..jpg

 is, of course, up to you.

I suppose I could wear my dark green cardigan and blue jeans, and I could certainly borrow a fascinator to complete le tout ensemble: but on the whole I think I won't.

I think I might try walking around as if I'm made of slightly faulty clockwork, instead.

Thing To Be Today: pavonine. This word comes from the Latin word pāvōnīnus, from pāvō, peacock.

Monday 9 April 2018

Spot the Frippet: uvula.

My primary school headmaster was very keen on clear diction. He didn't mind our accents (which were either Deepest London or Rather Rural) but he hated mumbling.

I MUST OPEN BY BIG FAT MOUTH, we used to have to recite in chorus, 


The little wiggly thing that hangs down at the back is called, more scientifically, the uvula

There are photographs of it on wikimedia commons, but they are, frankly, too disgusting for a Monday morning. Or, indeed, a Sunday evening. Or any point in between.

You may be congratulating yourself on already knowing about your uvula, but did you know you also have an uvula in your brain? It's right in the middle:


illustration by Henry Vandyke Carter from Gray's Anatomy.

You've got one in your bladder, too.

However interesting this is, for spotting purposes we are going to have to rely on the uvula in the throat (the palatine uvula, it's called).

What other animals have an uvula

Well, some baboons have a very small one, apparently. And that seems to be it.


You always knew humans were special at something, didn't you?

Spot the Frippet: uvula. This word means little grape in Latin. It comes from ūva, a grape.

Sunday 8 April 2018

Sunday Rest: Vacuole. Word Not To Use Today.

If a vacuole was a hole that was vacuous - like the mouth of an idiot - then I could put up with it as a word.

(And, now I come to think about it, the English language really needs a word for the mouth of an idiot!)

Sadly, a vacuole is actually a fluid-filled cavity in the cytoplasm of a cell.

Ha! you will say, and what's the point of that when it's at home? and I would join you in a very happy contempt, except that I've gone and done a bit of research and it turns out that the vacuole of a cell is quite useful. It does stuff like stopping plants from falling over, imprisoning poisons and threats, bagging up waste, bagging up water, stopping things getting too alkaline, expelling rubbish, allowing plants to grow quickly, and storing proteins used for germination.

This is all vital stuff... 

....but then that just shows how pathetically inadequate vacuole is as a word, doesn't it?

Word Not To Use Today: vacuole. This word is French for little vacuum. It was coined by the biologist Félix Dujardin in 1842. The word comes from the Latin vacuus, which means empty.

Saturday 7 April 2018

Saturday Rave: I wandered lonely as a cloud: some of it by William Wordsworth

Everyone knows the poem that starts:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd, 
A host of golden daffodils...

File:Barn daffodils.jpg
Photo by Forest Wander

It's one of the most famous poems in the English language. A lot of people study it at school (and duly get put off poetry for life).

Still, it's not really a bad poem. Most of it is about the daffodils, but the last bit is about the treasure of memory:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They [the daffodils] flash upon my inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude:
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

The two lines They flash upon my inward eye/Which is the bliss of solitude were actually made up by William's wife Mary Hutchinson. William admitted this himself, and in fact the whole poem is foreshadowed by the account Dorothy wrote of the encounter with the daffodils in The Grasmere Journal.

This means that the poem isn't entirely by William Wordsworth; however, the great disappointment of the poem for me is my recent  discovery that the story that the first line originally went I wandered lonely as a cow...isn't true. There's no evidence for it at all. Someone with a glorious sense of the ridiculous made it up.

The trouble is that I've got far more pleasure in my life from the idea that the first line was about a cow than the whole of the original poem.

But then I never did like daffodils, much.

Word To Use Today: daffodil. Daffodil is a version of the much lovelier word asphodel, which is now a different flower entirely:

File:Asphodeline lutea - Sarı çiriş - Yellow Asphodel 06.JPG
photo by Zeynel Cebeci

 The word comes from the Latin asphodelus.

Friday 6 April 2018

Word To Use Today: cowslip.

The cowslips are just coming into flower in England:

File:Cowslip Wood (6993930576).jpg
Cowslip Wood. Photo by Tony Hisgett

They've been magical flowers for me ever since reading LITTLE GREY RABBIT'S MAY DAY by Alison Uttley, where all the small animals go around the village in a procession carrying Crown Imperials:

File:Marshal - Crown imperial, narcissi and auriculas.png
(The crown imperial is the big one. Illustration by Alexander Marshal.)

and balls made of cowslips - of which I can't find a picture anywhere.

Well, yes, all right, all right. I was young, okay? And Squirrel wore a very pretty yellow dress and had a blue ribbon in her tail. What more could any six-year-old girl want?

Now, I imagine a cowslip ball is a bunch of cowslips formed into a...well, a ball. It's something I've always longed to see, or make, but I don't know how. The nearest thing I can find is this illustration HERE, which doesn't tell me nearly enough.

But anyway, the other day I wondered what's so cow-like or slippy about a cowslip?

Sadly this has led to a crushing disappointment. So crushing a disappointment that I would strongly recommend you stop reading here.

It's really rather sad.

Word To Use Today: cowslip. The cow bit is indeed to do with the animals (originally from the Sanskrit gāus). The slip part of the word is the same sort of slip that means runny clay, a word related to the Norwegian slipa which means the slime on fish.

Cows' slip...

Oh dear.

And they're such pretty flowers!

File:Primula veris 002.JPG
photo by H Zell.

Thursday 5 April 2018

An hour from Austin: a rant.

Twice recently on BBC Radio I have heard a place described as being an hour north of Austin.

Now, a light-year is a distance (it's how far light travels in a year, which is about about 1000000000000 kilometres) but an hour isn't.

But how far is an hour? Is that an hour's walk? An hour's cycling? Or in the journey taking place in a car? Or a train? Or a plane?

And what sort of walking/cycling/car/train/plane?

Austin is in Texas, and I suspect that there the majority of journeys there are done by car. But how fast the cars go...

...hang on, I can work it out. The place in question was Pflugerville, and the distance from Austin is given on Google as seventeen point eight miles.

Seventeen point eight miles an hour... has to be a bicycle, then, doesn't it.


Unless the traffic is just terrible.

Word To Use Today: hour. An hour a unit of time. The word comes from the Old French hore, from the Latin hōra, from the Greek word for season.

Wednesday 4 April 2018

Nuts and Bolts: An Enchanting Way With English.

Juliet Samuel in the Daily Telegraph recently introduced me to the wonderful Swahili word kipilefti.

A kipilefti is a roundabout of the road junction kind (some people who speak Swahili - in Kenya, for instance - do actually drive on the left. But I wonder what a kipilefti is called in the places where people don't?).

Anyway, upon further investigation I have discovered that Swahili makes a habit of doing enchanting things with English words when it finds a need for them.

Your motokaa, for instance, which you are driving round the kipilefti, may have a klachi (clutch), and madigadi (mudguards). If you are a foreigner you will be carrying a paspoti for identification purposes.

You may be wearing a shati (shirt) and, delightfully, soksi on your feet. Your posho (rations, from portion) may consist of supu (soup) and perhaps jini (gin) - but not too much, one hopes, or you may end up, predictably, in the hospitali - or, even worse, listening to a heavenly kwaya.

Sometimes these borrowed words are quite difficult to recognise. Kabati may be reasonably obvious in context (it's a cupboard) but how about if there is more than one cupboard, when the word will become makabati?

But never mind, some things are easy. If anyone asks you how you are, the answer is a simple:


Word To Use Today: if you like living dangerously, how about sili? It's the Swahili for seal, as in the animal. 

I admit it's one to use with care, though.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Thing To Have Today: pzazz.

My Collins dictionary defines this word as 'an attractive combination of energy and style: sparkle, vitality, glamour'.

Well, that's the stuff the world needs.

So: smile that charming smile, make the washing up an opportunity to catch bubbles, put a spring in your step, take out the rubbish with a song on your lips, throw in plenty of chilli, wear the hat, wear the top, wear the heels and the sunset tie (possibly not both at once) and, most of all, enjoy every moment.

You'll probably amaze and possibly irritate your friends, but you'll get a lot done and you'll have a ball.

Possibly almost literally:

Thing To Have Today: pzazz. No one knows where this word came from, but it turned up in the 1900s. If you like you can spell it pzazz, pizzazz, pizazz, pazzazz, or pazazz.

Excuse me, please: I'm just going to dance my way down the stairs.

Monday 2 April 2018

Spot the Frippet: pileum.

You can say this word either PILLium or PI-lium.

This is one of those words which make you take notice of something you see many times a day. There are lots of pilea all around you, but mostly unregarded.

To give you a clue what a pileum is, here's a pileus:

File:Cluded Agaric pileus.JPG
That's the top of a toadstool. Photo by Rosser1954 Roger Grifiith.

So what's a pileum?

You can see two here:

File:A history of the birds of New Zealand (7157828090).jpg
Illustration by J R Forster

and one here:

photo by Derek Ramsey Ram-Man

and another one here:

File:Pelican with open pouch.jpg
photo by Keven Law.

A pileum is the bit from the bottom of the beak of a bird to the back part of its head.

Neat, huh? As Edmund tells Catherine in Northanger Abbey: 'You have gained a new source of enjoyment, and it is as well to have as many holds upon happiness as possible.'

So let's all admire the birds!

Spot the Frippet: pileum. The Latin word pileus means a cap made of felt.

File:Man pilos Louvre MNE1330.jpg
photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

If you can't be bothered with birds then do feel free to make and wear your own.

Sunday 1 April 2018

Sunday Rest: monostrophe. Word Not To Use Today.

A monostrophe isn't, as it name seems to imply, a catastrophe with a mighty single cause. So it's not like an earthquake, or an avalanche, or electing a paranoid liar to the political leadership of a country.

No, a monostrophe is a poem in which the whole thing jogs along in the same rhythm.

Gosh, the marketing guys had a stroke of genius when they named that one, didn't they?

Unless it was a misprint for monotony.

Sunday Rest: monostrophe. The mono- bit means single, and the strophe bit comes from the Greek word strephein to twist. In Ancient Greek plays the chorus used to walk across the stage when performing the bit of the verse called the strophe, and then walk back again.