This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 31 May 2018

The discourteous thief: a rant.

I picked up the phone the other day to hear an automated message telling me that due to security issues with my internet service provider my internet connection would be disconnected in twenty four hours.

If this was going to cause problems, I was asked to dial 1.

I must admit that I was deeply upset by this call. I mean, if a criminal wants to take over my computer, steal my identity, and cream off lots of money from my account, you'd think that at least they'd have the simple courtesy to phone in person.

Wouldn't you?

Word To Use Today: cream. This word comes from the Old French cresme, from the Latin crāmum. The word was Celtic before that.

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Nuts and Bolts: gazetteer.

Is your local newspaper called a gazette? Mine is.

In Britain, as well as being a newspaper, a gazette can be a publication which lists official appointments. That's why an army officer here is said to be gazetted when he takes up his new rank.

A gazetteer is a book, or a bit of a book, that's a bit like an index, except that it only lists and describes places.

The word gazette is quite likely to come from the Italian word for magpie. 

File:Magpie in Madrid (Spain) 77.jpg
photo by Luis Garcia (Zaqarbal)

It's quite easy to imagine how a word for magpie came to mean a word for a compilation of some kind. 

But it didn't happen in the way you'd imagine.

Word To Use Today: gazette. This English word appeared in the 1600s from France. Before that it came from the Italian gazeta, which was a news-sheet costing a gazet, a small Venetian copper coin. In turn the coin might be named after a gaza, a magpie, which word comes from the Latin gaia, a jay.

Tuesday 29 May 2018

Thing To Read Today: a book on the Index.

The Index Librorum Prohibitorum is a list of books formerly banned by the Roman Catholic church (in 1966 Cardinal Ottaviani, swamped with potentially harmful new books, threw up his hands and gave up trying to keep track of all them all). 

It was quite common for all of a writer's books that were at all to do with morals or religion to be put on the Index, but between 1929 and 1966 the ban was extended (possibly unintentionally) to the complete works of some authors, whatever the subject. 

Everything by Zola and Sartre was forbidden, for instance.

Then there were, at various times, bans for Jean de la Fontaine's children's tales, Montaigne's Essays, Richardson's Pamela, Voltaire's Candide, the love novels of Balzac and both Alexanders Dumas, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

Charles Darwin's works were never banned, but his grandfather Erasmus Darwin's book, Zoonomia, was.

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables was banned until 1959, which is particularly strange as the Index was run by Catholics who weren't allowed to read the book. 

As this was the case, how on earth could anyone make the judgement to get the Les Misérables ban lifted?

Thing To Read Today: a book on the Index. Index Librorum Prohibitorum is Latin for list of forbidden books. Index means pointer in Latin, from indicāre, to disclose.

I've read quite a lot of them, and I'd probably have enjoyed them even more if I'd known they'd been forbidden.

Monday 28 May 2018

Spot the Frippet: something penannular.

Annular means ring-shaped, and penannular means almost ring-shaped.

These two Celtic brooches, for instance, are penannular:

File:LEIC-D37E54 - Roman or early medieval penannular brooch (FindID 581063).jpg
photo by Anna Booth.

Or, much easier to spot, so are many earrings:

File:Ribbed Penannular Earring MET 26.7.1321-26.7.1322-26.7.1323 EGDP014180.jpg
These are Egyptian, from around 1500BC. They're in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Um...the Ancient Egyptians didn't actually have three ears, did they?

You might see a penannular pattern on some bracket fungus:

File:... bracket fungi (9589410673).jpg
photo by Dinesh Valke from Thane, India

or a pennanular key-ring, or a jar-opener:

File:Jar Opener.jpg
photo by Horatio Snickers. If there really can be anyone in the world called Horatio Snickers.

You might spot a coiled penannular caterpillar:

Idea leuconoe - Image: Paper kite caterpillar
paper kite caterpillar

 or you could just take a big bite out of a doughnut.

Or, make things really very easy indeed, you could even try to find a nice curly example of the letter in the Roman alphabet that comes between b and d.

Hmm...I think we can all claim 100% success rate on this one.

Spot the Frippet: something penannular. The pen bit comes from the Latin paene, which means almost. Annular comes from the other Latin word annulus, which means ring.

Sunday 27 May 2018

Sunday Rest: fatuous. Word Not To Use Today Unless You're Not An Idiot.

There's actually nothing wrong with the word fatuous. True, it's nothing to do with the word fat, but the added spectre of that insult adds even more power to the general contempt implied.

So why feature the word fatuous today?

Well, because there are many more occasions when it can't be justifiably applied than where it can.*

For instance, using the word fatuous to complain about the coverage of a public event watched by an estimated 1.9 billion people (yes, yes, I'm talking about the royal wedding) because it is of no importance or interest is plainly... got it.

It's fatuous, isn't it.

Word Not To Use Today Unless You're Not An Idiot: fatuous. This word, meaning complacently or inanely foolish, comes from the Latin fatuus. It's related to the word fatiscere, to gape.

*It occurs to me that this is true of almost all words, like toadstool and bucket and didgeridoo. But, hey...

Saturday 26 May 2018

Dracula: by Bram Stoker.

Today is World Dracula Day.

I only found out about that yesterday, or I would probably have gone to the trouble of reading the book. Well, I have read some of it - I've trudged through the first few chapters on a couple of occasions - but never made it further. 

Still, lots of people say it's really good.*

Ah well. Perhaps I'll manage to get through the blasted book before the next World Dracula Day. 

(Why on earth is there a World Dracula Day???)

Still, as so many professional critics regard reading the actual book as a sad curb on their creative flights I invite you to do as they do, and make up your own mind, even if you are, like me, in a state of blissful ignorance.

One thing no one can deny about Dracula, though, is that it's seminal. Films, TV, computer games, T shirts...there's a very funny and well-written Man from UNCLE book by David McDaniel called The Vampire Affair that refers constantly to the Dracula legend. It came out in 1966 and is available on Amazon.

I can thoroughly recommend that, at least.

Word To Use Today: Dracula. Dracula was (or may have been) the son of Vlad II Dracul. Dracula means son of Dracul, and dracul means dragon in Romanian.

*On the other hand Jamo's review on Amazon says: The whole thing is about a bunch of privelidged people talking about how amazing eachother are! that realy is 90% of the book. I found the characters so intensely unlikable that I realy was rooting for old Dracula to just turn up and kill them all sharpish.

Friday 25 May 2018

Word To Use Today: zoon.

A zoon may sound like a race of alien beings with a particularly zippy line in personal aircraft, but...

...well, actually, in a way zoons (or zoa) are exactly that. If on a small scale.

A zoon is a colony of animals which live stuck together, like corals or sea pickles (sea pickles are stuck together with jelly). Siphonophorae are zoons, too, but being colonies of jelly fish they're more or less all jelly.

Here's a young sea pickle:

Tunicate off Atauro island.jpg
photo by Nick Hobgood 

some pretty coral:

File:Coral Reefs.jpg
image by Georgemakar

and a siphonophore:

File:Marrus orthocanna.jpg
Photo of Marrus orthocanna by Kevin Raskoff 

Neat, huh?

And now we can all go away and spend at least three minutes wondering about writing an incredible sci-fi story...

Word To Use Today: zoon. Sadly, you say this ZOH-on, not zoooon. It comes from the Greek word zōē, which means life.

Thursday 24 May 2018

Good Readers: a rant.

Ofsted is the British Government Department which...well, this is from from the organisation's website.

Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills. We inspect and regulate services that care for children and young people.

Our goal is to achieve excellence in education and skills for leaders of all ages, and in the care of children and young people.

There's also reassurance that Ofsted's evaluation tools and frameworks are valid and reliable.

Well, that's all good, isn't it. 

Right, then, here's a slide from a talk by Ofsted's Head of English, Sarah Hubbard.   

What do you think?

Personally, not only has it persuaded me that I am not a good reader, but it has also persuaded me that I really can't be bothered to become one.

Somehow I doubt that was Ms Hubbard's intention.

Word To Use Today: slide. This slide was presumably presented via Powerpoint, but in the olden days images to be shared were printed on small squares of transparent film framed in cardboard. Each one had to be slid in front of a bright light which projected the enlarged image onto a screen.

It was much more fun than powerpoint because there was always a chance the image would come up upside-down.

Carousel slide projector, photo by Adamantios. The slides in this incredibly sophisticated device* were fitted into the groves in the disc on the top, and then dropped down in front of the light source by means of a switch.

The word slide comes from the Old English slīdan and is related to various other slippery words such as sliderian, to slither.

*Well, it was once.

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Nuts and Bolts: epithalamion.

An epithalamion is usually a wedding poem (though it can be a song, a piece of music, or even a painting).

It seemed appropriate to feature epithalamia in the week of a royal wedding that's been received with glee, rejoicing, loving-kindness, ennui and, in some small dark unhappy quarters, contempt.

Ah well. This has probably been the reaction to weddings down the ages, for they've been around a long time. Epithalamia themselves are ancient. The Song of Solomon is often counted as one, and that was written...well, people argue about that, but certainly earlier than 300 BC; and the Greeks were singing epithalamia even before that, usually at the door of the bridal chamber. One epithalamion would be sung as the couple retired, and then another (possibly even less welcome) would wake the couple up the next morning. Epithalamia were generally full of good wishes and hopes for a happy marriage.

The Romans took up the custom, though they tended to sing theirs at the reception after the happy couple had left - and the words tended to be less suitable for sober society.

The tradition stuttered a bit after that, though the French Ronsard and the Italian Metastasio were part of crazes for ephithalamia, and there was a similar English craze that saw John Donne, Ben Jonson and, very notably, Edmund Spencer write wedding poems (Spencer's takes up a whole book).

Nowadays wedding poetry is rare, though, having just come from doing a Google search of  'poems for a wedding' I can say with great feeling not nearly rare enough

In fact the offers on Google enough to make me wonder if the original custom of singing the epithalamion in private, away from the guests, might really have been the most sensible way of going about it.

Word To Use Today: epithalamion. This is Greek. Epi- means upon, and a thalamos is a bridal chamber. The official plural is ephithalamia, but -mions is also used a lot.

Tuesday 22 May 2018

Thing To Do Today: simmer.

Are there as many technical bits of jargon in cooking as there are in computers? 

Well, I don't know, quite honestly, but as cooking terms must occur every language known to man,* and as computer terms are largely international, I suspect the cooks have the larger vocabulary.

So, the term simmer. This originally meant to keep food for a time in water just hot enough to make small bubbles rise to the surface. That temperature is probably, depending upon the weather and how high you are above sea level, about 95 degrees centigrade.

If you live up a mountain, or there's a thunderstorm brewing, then your simmering water will be cooler, and the cooking will take longer.

If you have someone around who does all the cooking for you then I am sorry for you, for you are missing a great pleasure, but in that case there are other ways to simmer. You can always look forward to your dinner in a state of simmering anticipation; an approaching trip or celebration might find you in state of simmering excitement; a difficult colleague might cause you to exist in a miasma of simmering anger; a difficult boss might induce simmering resentment; and a difficult computer might lead to simmering frustration.

In all these cases, we in England try our best not to come too obviously to the boil.

Except when watching the news and the football, obviously.

Thing to do today: simmer. This word first appeared in the 1600s. The best guess is that it's an imitation of the sound of a simmering pan.

*Possibly not Klingon**.

**Actually, even in Klingon. I just looked it up, and the word for to boil, for instance, is pub.

Monday 21 May 2018

Spot the Frippet: tack.

Here's a little word that does a lot of work.

It can be a sort of nail with a big flat head:

photo by S.J. de Waard 

a large temporary stitch for holding fabric in position:

File:Basting (PSF).png

the stickiness of wet paint, a sailing direction that takes you diagonally towards the wind, poor-quality food, anything cheap and gaudy, riding harness for horses:

File:Balimore the beautiful horse.JPG
this photograph is entitled Balimore the beautiful horse. Photo by Revital Salomon

 or a tack can be (in Scotland) an area of land held on a lease.

A thumb tack is what British people call a drawing pin:

File:Brass thumbtack.jpg

I'd feel sorry for the small word having to do so much work, except that it's a spiky little thing, full of energy and bounce, and it seems to be thoroughly enjoying itself.

Spot the Frippet: tack. In the 1300s the word tak meant fastening or nail. It's related to the Middle Low German tacke, a pointed instrument, and the theory is that it goes right back to a Proto-Indo-European word meaning tip or point or prong or twig, and which word is also connected to another Proto-Indo-European word meaning to rip or fray. Tack meaning food is the same thing as hardtack, which word appeared in the 1800s though no one knows from where. The word tack meaning cheap and gaudy appeared around the same time and started off meaning an inferior horse. The Scots lease word is from tak, the Scots form of take.

Sunday 20 May 2018

Sunday Rest: bromance. Word Not To Use Today.

'Who can trace to its first beginnings,' asked PG Wodehouse in The Clicking of Cuthbert 'the love of Damon for Pythias, of David for Jonathan, of Swan for Edgar? Who can explain what it was about Crosse that first attracted Blackwell? We simply say, "These men are friends", and leave it at that'.

And so it was, until some cretin coined the word bromance.


File:Cima da Conegliano - David and Jonathan - WGA04912.jpg
Despite appearances, this pair is not Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee, but David and Jonathan plus the top bit of Goliath. Painting by Cima da Conegliano (1459 - 1517).

Word Not To Use Today: bromance. I think, if I could be bothered to look it up, this word would prove to be a mixture of brother and romance...

...okay, in the end I just had to look it up. The word is said to have been coined by Dave Carnie, editor of the skateboard magazine Big Brother, to describe a relationship that develops between skaters.

Saturday 19 May 2018

Saturday Rave: Go Seek Her Out by James Joyce.

May all the blessings of heaven descend upon Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and I hope their wedding proves to be the prelude to a fairy tale marriage...

...though, now I come to think about it, fairy tales aren't generally the happiest or safest places to live. Step-relations, for instance, are notoriously unreliable.

But still, away with doom and nay-sayers, this is a day to celebrate the happiness of two young people, and here to help is a wedding poem by James Joyce. As a bonus it's much shorter than Ulysses and much easier to understand. 

The poem is addressed to the wind, and it's a rather simple thing: but then so, at its best, is love.

Go Seek Her Out

Go seek her out all courteously,
And say I come,
Wind of spices whose song is ever

O, hurry over the dark lands
And run upon the sea
For seas and lands shall not divide us
My love and me.

Now, wind, of your courtesy
I pray you go,
And come into her little garden
And sing at her window;
Singing: The bridal wind is blowing
For Love is at his noon;
And soon will your true love be with you
Soon, O soon.

Word To Use Today: courtesy. This word was originally to do with having courtly manners. It comes from the Old French, from the Latin cohors, which meant cohort.

Epithalamium is the spelling of this word used in all the various on-line versions of this poem, from which I have copied the text. It's quite often spelled epithalamion. It means a wedding-poem either way. 

Friday 18 May 2018

Word To Use Today: calzone.

Have you ever thought how much easier it would be to eat pizza if someone had thought of folding the thing in half and sticking the edges together to make it into a pie?

Well, someone has, and it's called a calzone.

Calzone fritto.jpg
(This calzone has been fried, but they're more usually baked.)

There's a recipe for a calzone HERE.

Now, this is all very well, you may be thinking, but is there some good reason for featuring a random food dish in The Word Den?

Well, yes, there is. 

And it's here:

File:Checkered pants - white boots.jpg
photo by Oxfordian Kissuth

Word To Use Today: calzone. This word, charmingly, is the Italian for trouser leg or stocking. It comes from the word calzoni, trousers.

Thursday 17 May 2018

A secret admirer: a rant.

My husband has never appeared on the 100 Best-Dressed Men in the World list.

I'm not even sure, to be honest, that he'd appear on a list of the 100 Best-Dressed Men in the Street. A life dedicated to wildlife does tend to leave an impression of having been dragged through a hedge backwards - which is perfectly understandable, as a keen naturalist will never let a thicket of blackthorn get between him and a good caterpillar. 

File:Naturalist on the River Amazons figure 38.png
(This from the 1863 The Naturalist on the River Amazons by Henry Walter Bates. Note how casually dressed the naturalist is, even though everyone else is all togged up for a posh wedding.)

In spite of this, we discovered the other day that at least one stranger finds my husband deeply attractive.  

The news came in a letter.

You are always on my mind, it began. I confess I like to imagine what you're wearing as you read my letter... 

Yes, we were slightly unnerved.

Have I caught you in the kitchen, in your pyjamas? 

Make that totally unnerved.

Perhaps relaxed in in puppytooth slim-fit cutaway? 

My husband hastily checked to see if the letter was signed.

Or fully suited and booted..? My hopes are soaring.

It was signed - by the director of a company from whom my husband has once bought a shirt

Everything we do, we do for you.

I'm not really sure if the revelation of the identity of the sender of the letter proved to be more a relief or a disappointment to my husband, but my husband isn't going to be in a hurry to buy any more shirts from the company.

You see, my husband didn't realise when he entered upon the transaction that he was embarking upon an intimate relationship with a complete stranger. 

He really just wanted a shirt.

Word To Use Today: shirt. The Old English form of this word is scyrte, and is related to the other Old English word sceort, which means short. 

Wednesday 16 May 2018

Nuts and Bolts: phatic utterances.

Phatic speech was first noticed seriously in 1923 by the academic Branislaw Malinowski. He noted that people spend a lot of time saying effectively meaningless things (Hello! Whoops! How are you? Toodle-pip!) and his theory was that people did it in an attempt to keep everyone friendly.

Douglas Adams' character Ford Prefect in The Hitchhikers' Guide To The Galaxy Trilogy came up with a parallel theory: is worth repeating...the theories that Ford came up with, on his first encounter with human beings, to account for their peculiar habit of continually stating and restating the very very obvious, as in 'It's a nice day,' or 'You're very tall,' or 'So this is it, we're going to die.'

His first theory was that if human beings didn't keep exercising their lips, their mouths probably shrivelled up.

After a few months of observation he had come up with a second theory, which was this - 'If human beings don't keep exercising their lips, their brains start working.'

But which of these theories is the more likely to be true?

Well, of the three authorities quoted, Ford Prefect was definitely not a genius; Douglas Adams definitely was a genius; and Bronislaw Malinowski I don't know much about, but he gained PhDs in philosophy and science in two different languages, so he was presumably no slouch.

But the foremost authority on this subject is, of course, you, yourself. 

Why do you keep saying completely meaningless things? Things that don't convey much at all, and definitely don't expect an answer? Things like hey?

Well, consider. 

What would you think of someone who didn't

Phrase To Use Today: a phatic one (Hello will do). The word phatic comes from the Greek phatos, which means spoken.

Tuesday 15 May 2018

Thing To Be Today: at bay.

No, no, I'm not suggesting that you howl like a hound on the scent of a fox:

File:English Foxhounds in full cry.JPG

(unless you really want to, obviously. Though finding the place for a good bay these days is far from easy, and don't blame me if you get asked to leave the bus, restaurant, or wedding service). 

No. What I'm suggesting is that you face off someone who's attacking you, though please don't do it in such a way as to invite violence or further attack. 

If further attack's a possibility then you're probably best hiding under a table.

If you aren't the focus of obvious attack at the moment then that's great, but do not forget all the other ills that flesh is heir to. 

I suggest you hold these at bay with disinfectant, woolly scarves, or pies, depending.

There we are. A good reason to eat pies. What more could anyone want?

No, no, that's all right. All part of the service.

Thing To Be Today: at bay. This word comes from the Old French abailer, to bark. As you'd expect, it's probably an imitation of the sound that hounds make.

Monday 14 May 2018

Spot the Frippet: something protean.

Protean is a word I've been coming across for about half a century without ever quite getting round to finding out exactly what it means.

Here are a few examples of protean things.

File:Mammatus-storm-clouds San-Antonio.jpg
Mammatus clouds, Photo by Derrich

File:Water drop 001.jpg
photo of a drop of water by José Manuel Suárez

File:Zeus Camiros Rhodes black background.jpg
Photo of the god Zeus - well, a statue of him, anyway - by Jebulon 

I could also add the symptoms of infection with HIV, but that's something for which I don't want to do an image search.

What do all these things have in common?

Can you work it out?

Well, they're all shape-shifters, or shape-changers, or they can appear in many different forms or guises.

So protean means liable to change shape, or appearing in different forms. 

Thank heavens I've got that sorted out at last. 

Spot the Frippet: something protean. Although the god Zeus was always changing shape (usually in order to seduce someone) it's another Greek mythical character, Proteus, who has given his name to the habit. Proteus was a sort of sea-shepherd who looked after Poseidon's sea-creatures and also had the gift of prophesy. This gift turned him into a huge celebrity, and so he started changing shape to avoid recognition.

The only way to get a selfie (or a prophesy) out of Proteus was to sneak up on him when he was asleep, and then hold onto him while he changed from one shape to another, until in the end he got fed up and told you what you wanted to know.

Sunday 13 May 2018

Sunday Rest: mortician. Word Not To Use Today.

We don't have morticians in England. Here we have undertakers (which I admit is a euphemism both bland and unhelpful) or we have funeral directors - which is not a euphemism, nor bland, nor unhelpful.

Still, a lot of my problem with the word mortician is that I am much more familiar with Morticia: 

Morticia adams origional.jpg
Carolyn Jones as Morticia Addams in the 1960s TV series

than morticians, and though Morticia is a admirable woman in many ways she's not the sort of person to whom I would happily entrust the corpse of a loved one.

Mind you, it's not always loved-ones we end up having to bury.

Now, there must be very many morticians who don't look as if they've just slid out of a crypt, but some job-description less dramatic, less necrophiliac, would be reassuring.

Things are bad enough as they are, after all, without worrying about the person in charge might be looking to whip up custom.

Word Not To Use Today: mortician. This is mostly an American word which was made up in the 1900s. It's basically the beginning of the word mortuary with -cian tacked on the end, as in the word physician. 

Unfortunately, because of the way the word has been carved up, it rather suggests that, as a physician brings physick, a musician music, and an optician optics, a mortician brings death.

Saturday 12 May 2018

Saturday Rave: Life is but a melancholy flower. Anon

Is it possible to be delighted by a detail of prosody?

See what you think.

There are several songs containing the words Life is but a melancholy flower, but the one that has given me joy since childhood is the one that's sung to the tune of Frère Jacques (known in this neck of the woods as Frair-oh Jacker. Yes, that one).

Joy, you may say? When the sentiment is so full of gentle sorrow, such an all-pervading nostalgia, a sweet acknowledgement that existence is a thing of a fleeting and elusive beauty which slips constantly past our senses and leaves, as the Bard said, not a rack behind?


I admit that the first two lines can get you down a bit:

Life is but a, life is but a
Melancholy flower, melancholy flower...

Fair enough, by this time we are all feeling so wistful, so full of existential angst, that we are practically ready to put on a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and a duffle coat, and devote our lives to tobacco, apricot cocktails, and Paris.

The last two lines, moreover, are repeats of the first two: but, as I said before, oh, the delights of prosody! 

Life is but a, life is but a,
Melancholy flower, melancholy flower,
Life is but a melon, life is but a melon,
Cauliflower, cauliflower.

So true, too isn't it? 

So very, very true...

Word To Use Today: melancholy. This word comes from the Greek melankholia, from melos, black, plus kholē, bile. (As it happens, melon comes from the Greek mēlon, apple, and the cauli- bit of cauliflower is from the Latin caulis, which means stem. Neat, huh?)

Friday 11 May 2018

Skulduggery: Word To Use Today.

File:Dragoon grave Skull and Crossbones.jpg
The grave of Charles Spicer of the 17th Light Dragoons, in Stretton, England. Photo by Keith Williamson.

The lovely word skulduggery describes a secret activity that's designed to make an unfair profit, but is probably not seriously illegal.

If Macavity, Mungojerrie and Griddlebone had a confederate (though they are of course each much too smart to have anything of the kind) then I'd expect him to be called Skulduggery. has a galloping rhythm and an inescapable flavour of grave-digging that are together irresistible. In fact I don't know why we don't all use the word skulduggery far more often.

The stuff is everywhere, after all.

Word To Use Today: skulduggery. This word is an altered version of the Scots sculduddery, obscenity. Before that there was a form sculdudrie, which meant adultery. 

As far as can be ascertained, the word doesn't necessarily have anything to do with either skulls nor digging.

Thursday 10 May 2018

Unprofitable hype: a rant.

I'm grateful to Matthew Lynn in the Daily Telegraph newspaper for alerting me to the research results of academics Pratik Kothari, Don M Chance and Stephen P Ferris from the University of Missouri. 

Kothari's team investigated the link between a company's success in terms of profitability and the claims it has made for itself.

As in other walks of life, companies are all-too-ready to designate their own performance as astonishing, incredible, amazing or massive: but it turns out that only incredible is actually true.

Kothari's team looked at all the companies in the S&P 500 list of companies who used extremely flattering language - amazing, or sensational, for instance - to describe their own performance over the period 1999 - 2014. Then the team compared those companies' increases in value over this period with those of other companies on the list.

It turned out that only 18% of these boasting companies markedly increased shareholder value, and that the performance of 75% of them was more or less the same as the average for the whole S&P 500 list. 

7%, amusingly (as long as you haven't fallen for the hype), did significantly worse than average.

The results of Kothari's study are that 'unjustified claims of remarkable performance are the norm'. And that 'boasting about performance is rarely associated with value creation and is consistent with executive narcissism'.

Well, that's no surprise to anyone, is it? People generally notice by themselves if a company has done something profitable. It's only when it hasn't that it has to start bragging to attract attention and investment.

Well, thank heavens people who boast constantly about their business acumen seldom have much power in the real world...


Word To Use Today: braggart. This word has been around, doing a very very good job, an amazing job, since the 1200s; but sadly no one knows from whence it came.

Wednesday 9 May 2018

Nuts and Bolts: antilipos or transgrams.

First of all, antilipos isn't Greek, so you don't have to say it an-TEE-lipposs.

Well, that's a relief.

An antilipo (ANteeLIE-po. The LIE bit can be pronounced either like, well, lie, or like the beginning of lip) is the opposite of a lipogram, which is a piece of writing which misses out a particular letter. 

I've never known why anyone should wish to do this, but, hey, there it is.

An antilipo, or reverse lipogram, or transgram, is a piece of writing where every word has to contain a particular letter.

A meta-transgram is an explanation of what a transgram is, written in the form of a transgram. 

Heaven help us all.

My immediate reaction to all this is that some people need to get out more, but after trawling the internet I've failed to discover a single example of an antilipo, so it seems after all that almost no one has ever been bored enough to construct one.

It's good to know, too, that there is a limit to how much people are prepare to torture themselves.

One last point: if no one has ever made an antilipo, can it be said to be a literary term? (Well, don't ask me.) But assuming that a meta-transgram has to include the words letter and word, then all the words in a transgram would have to include the letter R, won't they. 

If it was in English.

I'll tell you what, let's devote a couple of minutes to an attempt at a meta-transgram.

Meta-transgram: interpretative self-referential literary work describing meta-transgrams, every word therefore featuring particular letters (or letter) nearly certainly R.

Improvements welcome!

Word To Use Today: antilipo. Anti is Greek for against, and lipo is from the Greek lipein to omit.

Tuesday 8 May 2018

Thing Not To Be All Day Today: naissant.

Naissant, like the more familiar rampant, is a term used to describe the pictures painted on shields and coats of arms.

Here's a shield with a lion naissant on it:

File:Blason Ramillies.svg
That's the Coat of Arms of the municipality of Ramillies. Illustration by Evil berry

Here's another example, a stag naissant, this time:

File:Macorquodaill of that Ilk arms.svg
Illustration of the Coat of Arms of Macorquodaill of that Ilk by Czar Brodie.

As you can see, naissant means appearing to be cut-off at the waist.

These days, the thing that makes people appear to be cut-off at the waist is all too often a desk...

...which makes the word naissant's derivation just deeply, deeply ironic.

Thing Not To Be All Day Today: naissant. This word comes from the Old French, where it means being born.

Having said all this, it occurs to me that sitting at a table to eat a meal is one of life's greatest pleasures, and also makes you look naissant. So I wouldn't want to volunteer for an entirely naissant-free day.

Monday 7 May 2018

Spot the Frippet: scat.

The Word Den has already examined the word scat when it's a verb, but how about scat as a noun: that is, a thing, rather than an action?

scat is something worth spotting, I can tell you, because it can be a very beautiful fish:

File:Scatophagus argus.jpg
photo of Scatophagus argus by Fokko Toelstede, Wikipedia-User „Nyks

though admittedly you're only likely to spot one of those if you're underwater in the Indian or Pacific Oceans, or looking at an aquarium, where they are useful for sucking up the gunk that ends up on the bottom of the tank.

The other type of scat is, I'm afraid, an animal dropping.

Now, you may ask why anyone would want to try and spot one of those?

Well, it's better than treading in it, isn't it?

Spot the Frippet: scat. Both words were made up in the 1900s. The fish name is short for the scientific name Scatophagus, which I'm afraid means dung eater, from the Greek skōr, dung, and the Greek phagein, to consume. 

The dung word comes from the same source.

Sunday 6 May 2018

Sunday Rest: mesocarp.

Well, a carp is a fish, and meso- means middle, and so...

...but no, you are much too sophisticated to fall for that. A carp is a fish, certainly, but the ending -carp implies a fruit (yes, that's right, it's Greek).

But what exactly is a mesocarp? What can a middle fruit be? 

Mesocarp sounds rather nasty, whatever it is.

Well, the mesocarp of an almond will have disappeared long before you buy it, and the mesocarp of a walnut will also have disappeared (unless you're eating it pickled); but the mesocarp of an orange or lemon will still be there. You'll probably call the pith.

And, yes, that is quite nasty.

But, on the other hand, when you think of the great dripping, slurping, sugary pleasure we get from the flesh of an apricot:

photo by xamumu

or the intense joy to be had from eating a ripe glistening mango, or a glowing fragrant peach, it seems a great crime that botanists have christened the flesh of those fruits the mesocarp, too.

illustration by LadyofHats

Doesn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: mesocarp. As you know, meso- is Greek for middle, and -carp is Greek for fruit. 

As you'll also know, sinking your teeth gently into the melting flesh of a warm peach is much more fun than biting a chunk out of its mesocarp.

Saturday 5 May 2018

Saturday Rave: The Mask Murders letters of Dr Garson.

It's down here in black and white, we say, meaning that proves it.

But what if the experts are divided on what the black and white stuff says? 

One spring morning in London in 1905, William Jones discovered the door of the Oil and Colour shop where he worked unexpectedly locked. When the door was broken down the body of the proprietor, Thomas Farrow, aged 71, and the mortally wounded body of his wife, Ann, aged 65, were found, as were two cast-off black stockings which had presumably been used as masks.

There was strong circumstantial evidence for believing that the brothers Alfred Edward and Albert Ernest Stratton were guilty of the murders, but there was nothing nearing absolute proof until a fingerprint was found on the forced-open cash box.

The leader of the investigation, Detective Inspector Charles Stockley Collins, the foremost fingerprint expert in England, was certain that the fingerprint (which turned out actually to be a thumbprint) belonged to Alfred Stratton; but would a jury accept this very new kind of evidence as something strong enough to hang a man? Testifying for the defence was Dr George Garson, who was believed by the defence team to be a very great expert in fingerprints. (He was actually nothing of the sort: he was a fervent advocate of anthropometry and saw the modern trend for fingerprinting as a poor rival to his own speciality.)

Dr Garson gave evidence that he could not with certainty identify the print on the cash box as having been made by Alfred Stratton - but during the cross-examination two letters of Dr Garson's came to light. 

One was to the solicitor for the defence, and one was to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who organised the prosecution. The letters had been written on the same day, and in both Dr Garson expressed himself willing to testify for either side, depending upon which side would pay him more money.

Dr Garson was hence proved to be, in the judge's words, 'an absolutely untrustworthy witness' and the defence case collapsed.

The Stanton brothers were found guilty of the two murders. 

They were executed on 23rd May 1905.

Word To Use Today: proof. This word comes from the Old French preuve, a test, from the Latin probāre, to test.

Unless you're a Scottish lawyer, the past tense of to prove is conventionally proved, not proven.

Friday 4 May 2018

Word To Use Today: liquorish or lickerish.

The word liquorish, or lickerish, can mean lustful, greedy, tempting, appetising or tempting.

So the connection with liquorice (or licorice) is absolutely and completely...


File:Liquorice Allsorts in a glass bowl.jpg
photo by David Edgar

Word To Use Today: liquorish. This word comes from the Old French lechereus, which means lecherous. The Anglo-French lecher means to lick.

The word liquorice also comes via Old French, but it's from the Latin liquirītia, from glycyrrhīza, from the Greek glukas, sweet, plus rhiza, root.

Thursday 3 May 2018

A real life-saver: a rant.

Do you love nature?

The chances are you'll say yes, of course! and go on to waffle self-righteously about the iniquity of plastic straws, and your deep nostalgia for hedgehogs, skunks, vampire bats, or whichever other item from your childhood's wildlife register is currently under threat.

But here's another question: is there room for people as well as nature?

I'd hope you'd say yes, of course, to that, too, but there's no doubt there's a strong misanthropic streak among many lovers of the natural world. The most extreme example I ever came across was a lady who objected to the killing of mosquitoes in malaria-infested areas of the world, but even mild-mannered elderly people stomping round suburban nature reserves sometimes give a strong impression of resenting anyone else who ventures to visit them.

This subject has been in my mind since visiting Tyttenhanger Quarry, which is maintained as a Nature Reserve by the owners, Lafarge Cement UK. 

Here's the reserve (it's much prettier when the sun's shining):

Photo by Nigel Cox, CC BY-SA 2.0,

The place has paths round many of the old quarries. These are now lakes, but industrial Health and Safety rules must still be in operation because at regular intervals along the paths there are placed lifebelts.

The sign on each one says:


This has left me wondering if the people of Tyttenhanger might be even more misanthropic than the poor mosquito lady.

Word To Use Today: life. This word has been around for ages. The Old English form was līf.

Wednesday 2 May 2018

Nuts and Bolts: German Rules.

The German people are said to enjoy a good rule, but anyone who has ever struggled to learn the German language knows it is a thing of exceptions, and exceptions to exceptions.

Take German verbs..., no, please. Just take them.

I mean, I know that our English verbs can do odd things - sing, sang, sung, is an example of an English verb refusing to do the expected (in Germany, not at all coincidentally, they say singen sang gesungen) but most English verbs, in fact eighty six per cent of the commonest thousand ones, work to the rule add an -ed to make the thing into a past tense, add an occasional -s or -ing for other purposes, and otherwise leave the blasted thing alone.

But German verbs... German, only forty five per cent of the commonest thousand verbs follow the commonest pattern - and, as the logicians among you will have spotted, this means that no verbs in German can really be said to be regular because they're all exhibit minority patterns.

Now, what I want to know is this:

a) is the German people's reputed love of rules a reaction to the glorious chaos of their language?

or b) is the glorious chaos of the German language an example of no one being prepared to change a multitude of very ancient rules?

Do tell us if you know, won't you.

Word To Use Today: a wonderful German one like Kummerspeck,  which means, literally, grief bacon. It's the weight people put on through comfort-eating at a time of emotional distress.

Tuesday 1 May 2018

Thing To Visit Today: an ale.

It's the First of May. 

In some countries this involves huge processions and displays of military hardware, but England is different. 

The English are more interested in ales.

No, not the sort of ale that's an alcoholic drink. An ale in the sense in which I'm using it is a sort of talent competition, though without the actual, er, competition bit.

And, as in all these affairs, the talent is a fairly optional, too.

The ale, however...

Ales have been around since Mediaeval times, and are events when sides of Morris Men (that is, groups of a particular type of English folk dancer) get together to display their best dances. It's not a competition, but a convivial gathering. The first ales were fairs arranged by the local parish church.

You're not likely to be able to get to a Morris dancing display unless you're in England - and they aren't so common, even here - but there are fairs everywhere, and ale (that is, beer, more or less) in many places.

If you can't find a fair or a place selling beer to visit then I can only suggest you put on your own display of dancing to enhance the gaiety of the season.

If you want it to look authentic then you probably need either a handkerchief or a stick to wave. The dancing should look something like this:

Well, I never claimed it was pretty, did I?

Thing To Visit Today: an ale. Churches that put on fairs used to provide ale as an added attraction, and this is how the celebrations got their name. Morris dancers are still strongly associated with pubs and beer. In Old English the word ale was alu, or ealu.