This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 30 June 2018

Saturday Rave: The Beggar's Opera by John Gay and others.

Well, yes, you may say, John Gay did write the words of The Beggar's Opera, but what about the music? After all, we don't usually say that The Magic Flute was by Emanuel Schikaneder, do we?

Well, the thing is that the music was stolen. It was a mixture of Scottish folk songs, opera arias, and popular tunes, all well-known at the time of the first production (and so with a large amount of hummability built-in).

The Beggar's Opera was written to make fun of traditional opera, traditional morals, politicians, and polite society. It was a massive success on all fronts.

Opera at the time tended to be extremely large and heroic, full of Gods and Heroes and vocal gymnastics from foreign stars. The Beggar's Opera was about the criminal under-class of London, and was sung by undistinguished Londoners (though Lavinia Fenton, the ex-prostitute and barmaid who played the leading lady, Polly Peachum, eventually became a duchess).

Another factor in The Beggar's Opera's success was that traditional opera was supported by the king, George II, with whom his son Frederick the Prince of Wales was having a life-long feud. Half of London was placing its bets on Frederick, as likely to be the survivor (though as it happens he wasn't). Because The Beggar's Opera was making fun of opera, it was seized upon as an opportunity to cock a snook at the king's court.

The Beggar's Opera was so successful in establishing its own new genre that the very great opera composer Handel found that operas in the grand style were no longer commercially viable - and that meant he had to invent his own new art form, oratorio. And so we have Jeptha, and The Messiah. A definite win for the world.

So, The Beggar's Opera is play about thieves, with stolen music...

...I just hope that when people asked Gay where did you get the idea from? as people do, Gay admitted he got it from a suggestion by the great Jonathan Swift of Gulliver's Travels fame. John Gay was a much loved man, very much supported by the other literary figures of the time, so I would imagine this was one bit of thievery he wouldn't have countenanced.

Here's a song from the opera. In this clip it's sung by Lawrence Olivier and Dorothy Tutin:

As you can see, it's not just the satire that made The Beggar's Opera a success, but the depth of human feeling.


Word To Use Today: beggar. The word beg appeared in English in the 1200s. It's probably something to do with the Old English bedician, which itself meant beggar.

Friday 29 June 2018

Word To Use Today Though Heaven Only Knows How: merchet.

Merchet is such a lovely neat sort of a word.

It's an amount of money paid by a tenant to his landlord to gain permission for the tenant's daughter to marry.

File:Aglauros’s Vision of the Bridal Chamber of Herse, from the Story of Mercury and Herse MET DT222918.jpg
tapestry in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Merchets haven't been paid in England (or, I hope anywhere else) for many centuries.

Sadly, this must make merchet a contender for the most useless word in the dictionary.

And it's such a lovely little word, too.

Word To Use Today Though Heaven Only Knows How: merchet. This word appeared in the 1200s from Anglo French. In those days it meant, literally, market.

Thursday 28 June 2018

Descriptive words: a rant.

Words are tricky things. It's bad enough when things are written down (predictive text, eh?) but when spoken aloud then accents, speed, technical terms, dialect, and speaking-with-the-head-stuck-a-cupboard or through-a-gobstopper all make understanding each other difficult - and sometimes perilous.

But sometimes, just sometimes, you'd think things would be straightforward.

I was in a pasty shop in Dorset the other day (a pasty, for the non-British, is a single-portion semi-circular pie, usually savory:

File:20070802122215!Cornish pasty - cut.jpeg
photo by David Johnson) [1]

and I heard the shop assistant ask the Englishman beside me, who was making his order, small or large?

And the man replied what's the difference?

Word To Use Today: large. See if you can find an English-speaker who doesn't understand what large means. The word comes from the Latin largus, which means ample or abundant.

Wednesday 27 June 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Nicaraguan Sign Language.

How does a new language develop from scratch?

We know that new words are invented all the time, and we know that sometimes two or more languages will meet and merge to form first a pidgin, and then later a creole.

But how about a new language with no ancestors? None at all?

It may seem unlikely that the formation of such a language has ever been observed, but it has, and the most famous and studied of these events happened in west Nicaragua in the 1970s and 80s.

The new language came into being after schools for the deaf were set up for the first time in the area. To begin with the children were taught Spanish finger-spelling by their teachers, but few of the children ever understood this method of expressing meaning, and among themselves they began to use a mixture of the basic gestures and signs they had each individually used at home to communicate with their families. 

This led to a situation where it was now the teachers who couldn't understand what was being communicated; and so an expert, Judy Kegl from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was brought in to help. She discovered that the sign language the children were using had gone past the bolting-together-of-individual-signs stage, and had become a sophisticated language with its own grammar.  

This language is now known Idioma de Señas de Nicaragua, or ISL

What has ISL taught us about the invention of an entirely new language?

Well, perhaps the most fascinating thing might be that it was when younger children joined the school and started using the sign language that it stopped being a basic bolting together of signs, and became infinitely more subtle. For instance, the space in which signs were made became variable and important, and this variation might express something like a pronoun, or might express an individual left/right concept missing from the signing of the older children.

And the conclusion to be drawn from this? 

Well, one conclusion this extraordinary story suggests is that in the beginning we didn't teach children to speak.

They taught us.

Word To Use Today: deaf. The Old English for this word was dēaf.

Tuesday 26 June 2018

Thing Possibly To Do Today: swizzle.

If you're in America then the chances are that you'll do your swizzling with a swizzle stick, for in America a swizzle is any unshaken cocktail, and a swizzle stick is the thing used to stir it. It makes the cocktail extra fizzy, as well as mixing it.

That's all straightforward enough.

In Britain, though, you have to be a bit careful about swizzling, because in Britain a swizzle is the same as a swiz - and a swiz is a swindle or a cheat or disappointment, or at the least something blatantly unfair.

It's the sort of word a child might use, but even an adult might use it in the face of extreme adversity, such as being cheated by the arrival of a mother-in-law of a pleasure such as watching the football. 

Or perhaps the word swizzle might be used if you discovered the money-off petrol voucher only works after midnight on a Tuesday if you're already registered on a website that requires you to divulge your bank details, dress size, and insurance provider.

The Word Den recommends that all swizzling is done with sticks. 

Because, obviously, anything else is just mean.

Thing Possibly To Do Today: swizzle. The origin of this word is mysterious, but as far as the cocktail is concerned might well have something to do with the words swirl and fizz.

Monday 25 June 2018

Spot the Frippet: pabulum.

The word pabulum means three related things.

First of all, pabulum means food. This makes it a very easy Spot indeed, because it might be almost rarer for a person to be in a place where he or she can't see anything to eat than that he or she can

Pabulum was first used to describe the nutrients a tree or animal absorbs in order to function, but then in the 1600s pabulum came to mean subjects worthy of reflection, something so intellectually stimulating that it could be regarded as food for the mind. 

And then something odd happened, and the third and most recent meaning of pabulum is something that's designed to avoid controversy by being dull, safe, and stodgy. It might be a piece of writing, perhaps, or some very undemanding television.

Now, you might be remembering England's food reputation as the land of the bland and be seeing a connection.

But, actually...

Spot the Frippet: pabulum. This word comes from the Latin pascere, to feed.

The change between pabulum meaning something essential and nourishing to something mind-destroyingly uninteresting did actually occur because of some very bland food, but as it happened it wasn't English but Canadian. 

In the 1930s a team of Canadian doctors invented a kind of baby food they called Pablum, based on the word pabulum. It was so tasteless that the poor word pabulum was affected and its meaning took a 180 degree turn.

Sunday 24 June 2018

Sunday Rest: chicest. Word Not To Use Today.

There should be some way of writing down a non-confusing version of the word that means most chic - but if there is I don't know what it is.

There's no problem when the word chicest is said out loud, but when written down I always end up wondering what on earth a chice is (sadly, a chice doesn't seem to be anything. It isn't even in the Oxford English Dictionary)*.

So what to do? Chic is the last thing to describe this confusion.


No: that just draws attention to the problem.

Most chic?

Supremely chic?

Either of those last two will do. 

Just as long as I'm not having to worry about chice.

Sunday Rest: chicest. The word chic arrived in French in the 1800s, but no one is certain where it came from.

*Unless chice is the plural of chouse on the mouse/mice model... that would be great, but sadly chouse is a verb, so it isn't. It means to trick or cheat.

Saturday 23 June 2018

Saturday Rave: typewriters.

Typewriters were always a pain. You had to be a skilled and experienced operator to work them effectively, and this meant that everyone who needed to send business letters had to have access to a specialist typist to type them.

This meant that no one in the days of typewriters could send the briefest business letter without first writing it down by hand, or else saying it into a recording device, or else dictating it to a shorthand-trained secretary. 

After that it would be given to a typist, who would invariably read or mishear epiglottic for erotic and then the whole page - the whole page! would have to be typed out again.

A typewriter, you see, doesn't have abackspace button.

But I have come to praise typewriters, not to bury them, and when I saw one for sale the other day in a second-hand shop I was strongly tempted to buy it. Yes, typewriters were heavy and noisy and very hard work. Yes, they'd only give you at most three smudgy and faint copies of your letter (and only then if you'd put the carbon paper in the right way). Yes, a single keystroke error took a couple of minutes to correct. Yes, they were horribly slow unless you were very skilled indeed. But...

Actually, my affection for typewriters may be entirely sentimental. They were dreadfully awkward machines, but they were much more legible (and in the right hands, quicker) than writing by hand. They also gave employment opportunities to many women in the early twentieth century who were too educated or refined to do heavy manual work.

Many designs of typewriter were invented in many countries before the first one was made commercially. The Hansen Writing Ball, above, invented in Denmark by Rev Malling-Hansen, was produced from 1870. The keyboard was arranged so that the most frequently used letters were conveniently placed, but it only typed capital letters.

The first typewriter to be commercially successful came along in 1878 and was invented by Americans Christopher Latham Sholes, Frank Haven Hall, Carlos Glidden and Samuel W Soule, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Entertainingly, Sholes later decided he hated the thing and refused to have anything to do with it.) This was the first machine to be called a typewriter. It had a QWERTY keyboard, and the rest is history.

Despite everything, you know, I still feel rather sad that the rest is history.

Word To Use Today: typewriter. Well, it's obvious where this word came from, but it's quite interesting that to begin with the person who operated the machine was also called a typewriter

An earlier version of the machine, invented by John J Pratt, had the much more thrilling name of pterotype. 

It would have been nice if that name had been the one to survive, wouldn't it?

Pteron in Greek means wing or feather.

Friday 22 June 2018

Word To Use Today: moai.

I was intending to write about the Japanese word moai, which means to come together for a common purpose, but when I searched for information about the word I was reminded that there are other moai in the world:
Like these>

photo by Aurbina

These moai all come from Easter Island.

photo by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen The moai on the second right has his hair, or pukao, on. The mana, or strength and prestige of a chieftain, was believed to reside in his hair.

This sort of moai is a relic of a country that was once forested but is now bare of trees; of a people that is now extinct; and of a culture finally destroyed and nearly obliterated by the slave trade and missionaries.

So it's a good thing we have the other sort of moai, the Japanese sort, to cheer us up. These Japanese moai consist of groups of people which meet to support each other socially, financially, spiritually, and in good health and bad. They started in Okinawa, when groups of farmers got together to discuss how to plant their crops in such a way that the effects of bad harvests could be minimised. 

Nowadays, as well as resource-pooling, planning and problem-solving, moai act as a supportive extended family. They provide trustworthy and reliable help in everyday life, in crises, and in grief.

As a bonus, evidence shows that moai are the reason the people of Okinawa live much longer than most of the rest of us do.

One word, two such different meanings: and which moai is the more wonderful? 

I leave it to you to decide.

Word To Use Today: moai. The Japanese word means meeting for a common purpose. The Easter Island word comes from the Rapanui language of the island and means statue.

Thursday 21 June 2018

Threatening Stars: a rant.

A film called Ocean's 8 has just had its British release. I understand it's a bit like Steven Soderburgh's Ocean's Eleven, but with a cheaper cast and a feeling it's not worth bothering to write out the names of numbers properly.

It also appears that none of it takes place under water. This is a disappointment, but not a huge one,because I'm no more likely to see Ocean's 8 than I ever was to see Ocean's Eleven.

But never mind the film, there's enough fun to be had with the reviews and the publicity. The i newspaper had a piece which particularly caught my eye. It said that one of the stars, Mindy Kaling, had been intimidated to work with Rihanna.

Well, I was terribly shocked. I mean, I know that Rihanna is a primarily a singer rather than an actress, but I wouldn't have thought intimidation was necessary to provide her with fellow actresses. 

What I wanted to know was, what did the casting director do? Did he whisper something in he ear about the poor quality of brake cables nowadays? Mention a potential fashion for concrete stilettos?

Did Mindy wake up with a dolphin's head beside her on the pillow? 

But upon further reading I was relieved to discover that the answer to all those questions is no. No one intimidated Mindy into anything. Instead Mindy had felt intimidated about working with Rihanna because she feels that music stars are starrier than mere actresses.

'They can do whatever they like and nobody thinks it's crazy or weird,' she said, rather sweetly, if erroneously.

Well, I wish Mindy a long and distinguished career. 

But most of all I'm glad, poor love, that no one sent round the mob.

Word To Use Today: intimidate. The Latin word timidus means fearful, from timor, fear.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Nuts and Bolts: hyperbaton.

The original idea of hyperbaton was that you drew attention to a word by sticking it into the middle of a phrase where you weren't expecting it. 

But different languages are struck together in different ways, and for this reason the way hyperbaton works changes a bit as you go around the world.

If you are speaking a language like Ancient Greek (unlikely, I know) where the order in which words come along in a sentence isn't necessarily all that important as far as the basic meaning of the sentence is concerned, you can easily alter the order of words to give emphasis without changing the essential meaning of what you're saying. 

In the English language this is just a bit more difficult - though not difficult enough to stop people doing it. 

We might say diamonds, I love, which expresses the force of a passion for diamonds more strongly than I love diamonds.

Verse is full of hyperbaton. Apart from anything else, it helps with the rhyme and rhythm of the stuff. In amateur hands I admit this usually ends up a horrible mess (I once wrote the line And through my mind the dreams do creep. I was only nine years old at the time, but I knew even then that it was truly horrible). In expert hands, though, hyperbaton can be powerful and glorious. His coward lips did from their colour fly, reports Shakespeare, via Cassius, of a poorly Julius Caesar, making it very plain that the cowardliness of Caesar is the important thing he wants to get across.

But there's a fly in the ointment - and it is, of course, called Yoda. 

Powerful you have become works as an example of hyperbaton. It makes the word powerful important. But what about The dark side of the Force are they? Is that hyperbaton, or is it just that Yoda's English is a bit rubbish?

Ah well. Having a Greek label to stick on our mistakes does give them a sort of dignity, so Yoda not bothering me is.

Though I can't say that The wisdom of Yoda I really admire, all the same.

Nuts and Bolts: hyperbaton. This word comes from the Greek word which means stepping over, from hyper, over, and bainein to step.

Tuesday 19 June 2018

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: pullulate.

I always thought that to pullulate meant to make a Native American Indian war-cry sort of a noise, but apparently that's some other word.* 

Still, do feel free to let loose a war-cry if it would make you happy - though possibly not when in a meeting with your head teacher/most important client.


To pullulate actually means to produce lots of young: to breed like rabbits, in fact. 

File:Southern swamp rabbit baby.jpg
young Southern Swamp Rabbit, photo by Mike Perry

If this isn't in your current life plan, then it can also mean to teem or swarm, so a crowd pullulates. This is much cheaper than doing the constant-breeding thing.

If you're a plant (yes, it's unlikely, I know) but if you are a plant, then pullulating means to bud, sprout, or germinate. So that seed tray full of young beans? They're all pullulating like mad.

photo by KVDP

So on the whole it's a good job that pullulate doesn't mean to emit a war-cry, isn't it?

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: pullulate. This word comes from the Latin word pullulēre, to sprout, from pullulus, a baby animal.

*I just looked it up and the war cry thing is ullulate. So I was close.

Monday 18 June 2018

Spot the Frippet: fizgig.

File:Rotating green fireworks in a wheel spinning Holland.jpg
photo by Peter van der Sluijs

A fizgig is a frivolous or flirtatious girl. 

Now flirting, in these serious times, is an activity fraught with peril, but observing from a safe distance a girl intent on idle and/or lively pleasure can only add to the gaiety of the world.

File:Friends having fun! (5867333292) (2).jpg
These lovely girls are in a State Park in Virginia

If you dare not do even so much as that, then fizgig, helpfully, has other meanings. It can be a be a fizzing firework; a spinning top which makes a similar noise; it can be what's usually called a fishgig, that is a pole with barbs on the end for spearing fish; or it can be (especially in Australia) a police informer.

You could hardly ask for more variety in a word.

Fortunately, I think, my own best chance of one of these is the frivolous girl.

Spot the Frippet: fizgig. It seems likely that this word comes from fizz, which used to mean to fart, and gig, which used to mean girl. 

Fishgig is mysterious, but might comes from the Spanish fisga, which means harpoon, and so originally had nothing to do with the word fish.

Sunday 17 June 2018

Sunday Rest: obnubilate. Word Not To Use Today.

This word is marked as literary in the dictionary, but surely no one with any literary taste at all would consider using this monstrosity of a word.

(You say the second syllable nyoo, by the way. Yes, that does make it even worse, doesn't it.)

Apart from the hideous sound of the thing, obnubilate presents other obvious disadvantages to the user: there's the no-one-has-a-clue-what-you're-going-on-about thing; the this-person-is-showing-off thing; and, worst of all, the this-person-is-trying-to-make-me-feel-small thing.

In fact the only even slightly positive aspect to the word obnubilate is that it means to darken or obscure, and so it's one of those autological words which are examples of their own meaning.

But still, that's not nearly enough of a reason to justify anyone's using it.

Word Not To Use Today: obnubilate. This word comes from the Latin obnūbilāre, to cover with clouds, from nubes, cloud.

Saturday 16 June 2018

Saturday Rave: Ulysses by James Joyce.

Today is Bloomsday. Or, as some in Ireland call it, Lá Bloom.

Against all appearances, Bloomsday is nothing to do with flowers, but commemorates the adventures of Leopold Bloom, the main hero of a book called Ulysses written by James Joyce.

It's quite a long book, and at times I must admit it seems even longer than it is because Joyce wasn't too bothered about making it plain what was going on, either in the plot or in the minds of the various characters.

Mind you, this is largely because the characters aren't too clear about what's going on in the plot or their own minds, either. But then, who is?

Ulysses is based on Homer's story of Odysseus's journey home from the Siege of Troy (Ulysses is another form of the name Odysseus). Now, Odysseus's journey took ten years and involved rather a lot of fighting, kings, gods and enchantments, so when I tell you that Ulysses the book takes place on one single day, June 16th 1904, and mostly follows the wanderings of a middle-aged advertising man about the city of Dublin, then you can see that the link between the two stories is fairly loose and limited.

Another obvious difference is that Homer's story is written in verse, and Ulysses, while it at times has a wild, chaotic and surging poetry, is definitely prose. 

And prosaic, too.

So, is it worth bothering to read it? 

Well, that's difficult to say. I loved and understood most of it, and have read some of it twice. A lot of people get bored and give up. 

Today, June 16th, some people will be showing their love and enthusiasm for the book by going to Dublin and taking part in reconstructions of scenes from the story, or by doing a themed pub crawl (though admittedly this may be only a sign of a love of acting and pub crawls).

I'd say the book's well worth a try, though it's probably most fun if you can read it in a Dublin accent.

Word To Use Today: bloom. This word has been around since the 1200s. It's related to the word blow, meaning to blossom, which comes from the Old English blōwan, and is related to the Latin flos, flower.

The date for the novel was chosen because that was the day of James Joyce's first date with Nora Barnacle, who later became his wife.

Friday 15 June 2018

Word To Use Today: bum-clock.

Sometimes words make the mind boggle: what on earth, one must  wonder upon first encountering it, can a bum-clock be?

Some sort of an aid to achieving regular calls of Nature?

But no, it's not that.

What do you think it is?

No, sorry, not even close. 

A bum-clock is a beetle.

In Scotland it's a beetle that makes a droning noise as it flies: 

File:Cockchafer or May Bug. Melolontha melolontha. Scarabaeidae - Flickr - gailhampshire.jpg
this is a cockchafer or may bug. Photo by Gail Hampshire

but in England bum-clock has been used to mean any insect that hums.

It all makes a bit more sense when you know that bum is another word for hum (and, pleasingly, that something that bums a lot is bumbling...which is, of course, what bumblebees do).

File:Bumblebee on Lavender Blossom.JPG
photo by Martin Falbisoner

As for the clock bit...

...sorry, no one's got a clue about that, but the word clock has been used to mean beetle since 1550. A clock-leddy, for instance, is a ladybird.

Thursday 14 June 2018

A New Job: a rant.

The advert that popped up on my computer caught my attention because it was directed specifically at people in my area. 

It's always slightly creepy when the internet knows where you live.


Well, no, not really. As a writer I work alone, mostly - which is good, on the whole, because working with passionate professionals sounds exhausting. I mean, passionate? I'd rather work alongside someone who's pleasant, business-like and efficient. 


Um...well, occasionally, I suppose. But it's a terrible nuisance. I mean, I'm generally trying to get a book written.


Ah, I see...

...well, at least I now understand why the council are having so much trouble filling vacancies that they're having to advertise on the internet, anyway.

Word To Use Today: vacancy. The Latin word vacāre means to be empty.

Wednesday 13 June 2018

Nuts and Bolts: idioglot.

An idioglot can be two different things - and you are one of them.

An idioglot can be a musical instrument that plays only one note. This sort of idioglot is held in the mouth and plucked.

The vital feature that makes an instrument an idioglot is that the vibrating bit is an integral part of the instrument. It's not something like a clarinet, for example, where the vibrating reed has to be tied onto the mouthpiece.

An idioglot sounds a simple thing - and it is, really - but you can make quite complex sounds by singing along as you play. This will sometimes provide three notes: you'll get the note of the idioglot; the note sung; and a sort of growl of anguish as the two clash. 

The Indian form of idioglot is called a morsing:


and is usually played as apart of an ensemble, or as an accompaniment to singing. It generally plays in time with the other instruments as a sort of echo.

The Philippino kubing:

and Hmong are similar sorts of things. (The video above is very short, but well worth hearing.)

If you are asking what all this is doing on a blog called The Word Den, well, the other sort of idioglot (the one that you are) is someone who speaks an idiolect, and an idiolect is the particular form of language that each particular individual uses.
There you are. It was nothing to do with idiots after all.
Well, that's a relief, isn't it?
Word To Use Today: idioglot. The Greek idios means private or separate, and glossa means tongue.

Tuesday 12 June 2018

Thing To Do Today: twang something.

It's string-like things that twang: well, long things, anyway. 

Could you produce a twang by running a spoon along some metal railings? I suppose you might if they were made of hollow steel, but you'd probably only get a rattle if they were made of cast iron. 

Something needs to vibrate audibly for a while for it to twang, and who knows just what will do that? 

The only way to find out is to try it.

But that's the thing with twanging: there's a huge human desire to twang things just to find out what sort of a noise you're going to make. Who has never been tempted to twang a guitar string, or a harp string, especially if it's not actually yours?

Who wouldn't love to hear a bow string twanging beside his ear as it shoots an arrow? Who has never trapped a ruler in the flap of a desk and twanged the free end?*

Who has never wanted to try out a jews harp?

By Krzysiu - Own work, CC BY 4.0,

The desire to twang things is a very mysterious but irresistible part of the human condition. 

Go on. Give into the urge. You know you want to.

I mean, you must be able to find an egg slicer or an elastic band somewhere.

photo by de:user:Rainer Zenz

Thing To Do Today: twang. Someone made this word up in the 1500s in imitation of the sound.

 *That would be everyone too young to have had a proper desk, poor things.

Monday 11 June 2018

Spot the Frippet: a ringtone.

Goodness knows I am no technical wizard, and goodness knows I try as hard as I can to be broad-minded, but I do find it hard to suppress a sense of irritated contempt when someone's pocket starts emitting the bog-standard Nokia ringtone.

I mean, it must surely be a sign that the bearer of the phone has no taste at all. I mean, if they had any taste then they'd have changed it, wouldn't they? Or asked a three-year-old to change it for them. Or taken the phone back to the shop. Or jumped up and down on it until it shut up. 

Still, next time you hear a ringtone, see how much you can deduce about the person from whose phone the noise is coming - and do it before you look round to see who's bellowing I'm just about to go into a tunnel

Does The Ride of the Valkyre imply someone of culture? Or someone who hopes to be thought of culture? Or is it merely someone intent on world domination?

Is the owner of a phone spouting London Calling by The Clash an avid Millwall Football Club supporter? Or is he just someone who comes from London? And/or likes The Clash?

How old will the person be whose ringtone consists of Blackbird Calling in the Dead of Night?

And, all right, if you're so clever, what sort of ringtone do I have? A bit of my favourite Handel? More Than Words by Extreme? Loster Words by Iron Maiden? X Amount of Words by Blue October? 

Feel free to approach me in person and tell me how great I am, if you think you can guess.* 

Spot the Frippet: a ringtone. The word ring was hring in Old English. Tone comes from the Greek tonos, which means tension as well as tone, from teinein, to stretch.

*I'm afraid my phone goes dring dring.

Sunday 10 June 2018

Sunday Rest: Italexit. Word Not To Use Today.

There are those, curse them, who are beginning to talk about Italexit to describe Italy's possible trajectory towards leaving the Eurozone and/or European Union.

I freely admit that Italexit as a word doesn't have all the disadvantages of Brexit (I mean, people aren't going to keep mistakenly referring to it as breakfast) or Grexit (which sounds like a dying frog), but then the word Italexit has entirely new disadvantages of its own, the chief of which are: a) Brexit was neatly constructed and even perhaps mildly witty, once, whereas Italexit, the word, is a meandering mess; and, b) at least with Grexit the dying-frog thing turned out to be prophetic.

Still, with the word Italexit there is one huge ray of hope.

And that's the beautiful word Libertalia, which some people are beginning to use, instead.

Word Not To Use Today: Italexit. This word is, obviously, a mash-up of Italy and exit. I suggest we all show some respect for two wonderful languages and use Libertalia, instead.

The name Italy is mysterious, and over the years it has referred to various bits of what we now call the country of Italy. It may come from the Oscan Viteliú, meaning the land of calves. (That's calves as in cows, not as in legs.)

Saturday 9 June 2018

Saturday Rave: Anything Goes by Cole Porter

Anything Goes is the title of a musical first performed on Broadway in 1934. The book was originally by PG Wodehouse and Guy Bolton, and the music and lyrics were by Cole Porter.

Was ever a child so set up for delicious success by its sparklingly talented parents?

Possibly not - but there are, as we know, too often wicked fairy godmothers lurking in the wings, and this one, in the guise of Fate, caused a terrible tragedy. There was a fire on board the passenger ship SS Morro Castle that killed 138 people, and this made a light-hearted musical set upon an ocean liner (and including a bomb-plot) quite impossible to put on.

Bolton and Wodehouse were out of the country at the time of the tragedy, and so...well, the management ran round in circles in their scramble to adapt the story into something acceptable, and things got very complicated indeed. The fact that the resulting book of Anything Goes has such a long history of revisions is a sign they weren't entirely successful, but the musical is still performed in various guises, and we still (thank heavens) have the songs.

And (thank heavens again) we still have the particular song Anything Goes.

Here's the middle bit:

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
But now, God knows,
Anything goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words
Writing prose
Anything goes.
If driving fast cars you like,
If low bars you like,
If old hymns you like,
If bare limbs you like,
If Mae West you like,
Or me undressed you like,
Why, nobody will oppose.
When ev'ry night the set that's smart is in-
Truding in nudist parties in
Anything goes.

I'm also pleased to report that Cole Porter was no hypocrite, but a fervent exemplar of his own principles, as expressed in this song. 

He lived flamboyantly in rented palaces, put up platinum wallpaper, once hired the entire Ballet Russes for a party, and for another celebration hired fifty gondoliers to act as footmen and presented as entertainment a tight-rope walking troupe. 

His (very rich and domineering) grandfather wanted him to be a lawyer. 

But Fate was kind, in this case, and not cruel.

Word To Use Today: a colporteur is a peddler who sells books, especially bibles. I don't know if Cole Porter's parents knew this when he was named. The word colporteur comes from the French, probably from comporter, to carry, and probably altered by the idea that the word was something to do with porter à col, to carry on the neck.

Friday 8 June 2018

Word To Use Today: rowth.

Here's a splendidly vigorous Scots word to strengthen our English tongue.


(You can write in routh if you like. Either way you say it to rhyme with mouth.)

Rowth can either mean an abundance of something, or it can describe something that's found in large quantities. You can have rowth of friends, or rowth parcels, and to me it makes both the friends and the parcels sound full of excitement and challenges.

So thanks, Scotland, for this bit of grit to add some heft to our smooth English speech.

Word To Use Today: rowth. This word appeared in the 1700s, but no one's sure where it came from...a dog barking at a large flock of sheep, perhaps: rowth! Rowth!


Thursday 7 June 2018

Pure, But Far From Simple: a rant

An on-line advert popped up the other day. It was from the clothes company Pure, and it was offering me an embroidered laundered linen tunic (yes, the laundered bit is confusing: but then I suppose it's better than an unlaundered one).

Anyway, the headline said: 


Now, three questions immediately sprung to mind, namely: What's a fresh? Where is Titude? and What's that got to do with an embroidered laundered linen tunic?

I still haven't worked out the answer to the last question.

Word To Use Today: attitude. This word comes from the French, and before that from the Italian attitudine, from the Latin aptitūdō, fitness, from aptus, apt.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

Nuts and Bolts: How Not To Drink in Bhutan

Driving under the influence of alcohol is stupid and dangerous: I mean, just consider how stupid and dangerous the drivers are who haven't been drinking.

Frightening, isn't it?

The question is, how do you get people to stop doing it?

In Britain there are two methods. Firstly, the penalties for drink-driving are severe, including automatic bans, fines and imprisonment. 

The other method involves advertising campaigns. The short TV films involved often start off all happy and full of beautiful people, and end up in dark tragedy.

The same sort of approach is taken to the dangers of speeding.

But consider: if something terrible happens to the actors in a film, then what do people do? Do people try to remember every detail of these tragic events as they go about their daily lives? Or do they tell themselves it was all fiction, try to put the most heart-rending bits out of their minds, and get on with doing other stuff? 

This desire not to wallow in sorrow might be one reason why these Tragic Advertisements might not be the most effective way of getting the drink-driving message across (that, and the comforting belief that it probably won't happen to you).

The small Himalayan nation of Bhutan has another approach. One of their advertisements goes like this:

After drinking whisky
Driving is risky.

And then there's:

Going faster
Will see disaster.

Drive slow
To avoid grave below

On the bend
Go slow friend

Don't be a gama*
In the land of lama.

and the slightly less elegant:

Don't hurry, be cool,
Since heaven is already full.

(though how they missed rhyming cool with fool I do not know).

But the proof of the pudding is, as always, in the eating. So what do the road-safety figures for Britain and Bhutan tell us? 

In Bhutan in 2013 about one in five thousand people were killed in traffic accidents. 

In Britain it was about one in thirty eight thousand...

...which just goes to show that if anyone knows anything about anything, it certainly isn't me.

Word To Use Today: traffic. This word comes from the Old French trafique, from the Old Italian traffico, from trafficare, to engage in trade.

*I've seen gama defined variously as a crazy person, a legendary wrestler, and an annoying river creature.

Tuesday 5 June 2018

Thing To Be Today: feat.

Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands,
Curtsied when you have and kissed
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.*

We all know about feats of strength, or athleticism, or endurance, but how does anyone dance featly?

I mean, dancing footly we could understand.

Well, a feat of something-or-other is a skillful or remarkable or daring achievement, and feat, as in trip it featly, means skillful, too, in a neat and suitable sort of a way.

So it follows, as you'll have noticed, that in the verse above tripping means, well, not tripping, but being balanced and graceful and generally twinkle-toed.

I'd love to see a rush-hour crowd tripping it featly instead of barging their way through the crush, but I suppose that's an impossible dream. 

File:Shinagawa Station.jpg
(though this elegant lot look as if they'd dance rather nicely. This is Shinagawa station, Tokyo. Photo by mdid.)

Never mind. We can try being neatly skillful in other things, like putting out the bins and stacking the dishwasher.

It would surely be a source of quiet but considerable satisfaction.

Thing To Be Today: feat. This word comes from the Old French fet, from the Latin facere, to make.

*I'm sure you know that's one of Ariel's songs from The Tempest.

Monday 4 June 2018

Spot the Frippet: fantoosherie.

I'm not so very keen on tartan or large bagpipes in quantity, but Scottish words give me great joy: they display a splendid vigour from which standard English so often shies away.

Fantoosh started off meaning ostentatious:

File:Ostentation of Peacocks - - 90012.jpg
photo of an ostentation of peacocks by Mick Garratt.

Nowadays fantoosh tends to mean fancily, or very fashionably, dressed - and especially over-dressed.

From fantoosh we get the gorgeous word fantoosherie, which means fuss, pretentiousness, or swank.

Fantoosh is definitely a term of disapproval. Dressing smartly isn't enough: you have to do it with the intention of making everyone else feel slightly inadequate. 

Yes, you need to take yourself seriously to be fantoosh.

If you want to spot some fantoosherie then weddings, royalty, and high-ranking officials tend to attract it.

Spot the Frippet: something fantoosh. No one is quite sure of this word, but it seems to have appeared during the 1914 - 18 war, and perhaps it was something to do with the English dialect word fanty-sheeny, from the Italian fantoccino, puppet. Whether this is correct or not I do not know, but it does give just the right impression of a small person in thrall to the larger forces of their ego.

Sunday 3 June 2018

Sunday Rest: obesogenic. Word Not To Use Today.

Is your environment obesogenic?

I hope not, because that means it makes you very fat.

Now, the trouble is that I'm finding it difficult to imagine how an environment can make anyone obese - unless, after some unimaginable disaster, one somehow finds oneself having to eat one's way out of an enormous candyfloss machine:

illustration: By Screenshot taken with WINUAE., Fair use,

or one gets a job biting the holes out of doughnuts.

These eventualities being unlikely, I'm wondering if obesogenic is much more than an excuse for greed. So I think I'll stick with the word fattening, which is a warning, rather than obesogenic, which seems to be a sign of inevitable doom.

Sunday Rest: obesogenic. This word comes from the Latin obēsus, from ob- which means (more or less) lots of, plus edere, to eat. 

Saturday 2 June 2018

Drunk Again by Tan Da

In the Vietnam of the early twentieth century there were two themes for government-approved poetry: the ethical and the romantic.

The poet Tn Đà, however, liked to write about politics - and even though his political poetry encouraged patriotism, it raised no enthusiasm at all among the ruling classes.

The trouble was that Tn Đà wasn't the sort of man to submit to convention, so giving him any encouragement was risky. 

Here's one of his poems. It's not at all romantic, ethical, or even political. It's actually disgraceful.

But when I read it I can't help feeling an affection for the old ruffian, all the same.

Drunk Again


It is bad to be drunk, I know,
but let's be bad, let's all be drunk.
Let the earth be stoned, let Heaven
turn crimson!
Who will dare laugh?


Which time is this?
The tenth, the fiftieth, the nth time drunk?
Can't quite focus, must be tipsy again.

Lord, how can I be so tipsy?
Drunk all night, drunk all day, no more mind.
My wife says a souse is good for nothing,
and I drink harder to drown her out.
I leave the world to sober types,
couldn't care less what anyone says.
Hey, maybe that's the point of drinking -
sobriety, propriety - the wives talk their husbands into it.
We should honour the drunk men.

Tn Đà died in 1939 at the age of fifty one. He'd been the editor of literary magazines, founder of a new poetry movement, and written essays, poems and plays. 

He died, some would say inevitably, in great poverty.

Word To Use Today: sobriety. This word comes from the Old French from the Latin sōbrius.

Friday 1 June 2018

Word To Use Today: zugzwang.

Zugzwang is chess term, but it's such a charming word it's a pity it doesn't get out more.

File:Chess Large.JPG
photo by Jyothis

Zugzwang is German, so you have to say both the Zs as tss. And the U sort of halfway between an oo sound and the the u in put. And the g as in get. And the w like the v s in involved.

Gosh, it's complicated, isn't it. Perhaps that's why the word has been left languishing for so long in the dim world of chess. 

Anyway, now we've finally worked out how to say it, what does it actually mean?

Zugzwang is when the only moves a player can make will lead to serious loss or disadvantage (in chess you are forced to move when it's your turn.)

There are, sadly, lots of possible applications of this word in politics, and also many in business and family life. 

Being able to say He's got me in a complete zugzwang might help a bit, though, mightn't it?

Word To Use Today: zugzwang. This, as I've said, is German. Zug means a pull or a tug, and Zwang means force or compulsion. If I were using it in English in a non-chess context I probably wouldn't bother with making the first Z a capital letter, as the Germans do.