This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 31 August 2018

Word To Use Today: tuxedo.

In Britain we call tuxedos (or tuxedoes) dinner jackets

If you are required to wear one to an event then the invitation will probably say black tie and not mention the jacket at all.

Yes, it is odd.

File:Black Tie-Regular LGE.jpg
Illustration by Loris Gerber Loris_85The frilly shirt is unusual round here nowadays. 

Mind you, if you are female and are invited to a black tie event then you will be expected to wear neither a black tie nor a dinner jacket, but something much less cosy and comfortable.

Something like this:

Jean-Paul Gaultier, 1997. Wikimedia commons

A funeral is conventionally a black tie event, in that it is conventional for men to wear black ties, but under no circumstances should anyone wear black tie. Black tie is reserved for celebrations and wearing one at a funeral would appear unkind, to say the least.

The difference between a dinner jacket and a tuxedo is mostly geography, but the other difference is that a dinner jacket is designed to allow a man to merge into the woodwork, and a tuxedo is designed to allow him to shine under a spotlight.

But that's largely down to geography, too.

Word To Use Today: tuxedo. This is the North American word for dinner jacket. A country club in Tuxedo Park, New York, gave this garment its name in the 1800s. The name of the garment is often shortened to tux.

Thursday 30 August 2018

Speed Cameras: a rant.

I'm just back from a few days in the western part of the British county of Norfolk.

It's land that's been reclaimed from the sea: 

File:RSPB Strumpshaw Fen Norfolk Brick Hide view.jpg
photo by LittleHow

and it's famed for its huge skies, rich dark soil, drainage ditches, wildfowl, and boring straight roads which suddenly turn at right-angles.

This last largely accounts for its other reputation, which is for fatal traffic accidents.

The authorities could install speed cameras, of course, which are no doubt A Good And Necessary Thing, but the trouble is that speed cameras are resented with such bitterness that they are not only ignored, but it's not unknown for people to cover their lenses with ink.

But now, I see, some genius in western Norfolk has come up with a new and cunning wheeze.

There are no speed cameras any more. Instead there are safety cameras.

And how hard it is for a poor boy racer to resent them, now.*

Word To Use Today: safety. Safe comes from the Latin word salus, which has meant safety for a couple of thousand years.

*Girl racers, presumably, are similarly frustrated.

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Nuts and Bolts: phraseological calques.

A calque is a word or phrase that's been inspired by one in another language.

It's not a straight borrowing, like, for instance, the word entrepreneur which English has borrowed from French (and when I say borrowed, obviously that doesn't mean that French speakers are no longer able to use it, or that we're going to give it back).

Calques come in various flavours and work in various ways. Phraseological calques are, yes, phrases inspired by those in other languages. Flea market, for instance, is a direct translation of the French marché aux puces.

The French were also there first with free verse (verse libre) and the Old Guard (Vieille Guarde).

The Romans were bound to be first in lots of things, for obvious reasons, and they inspired our Milky Way with their via lactea. In nuce has been turned into our in a nutshell.

A really good turn of phrase can go through a whole chain of languages. The Greek sōphronistēres inspired the Arabic adrāsu 'likmi, the Latin dēns sapientiae, and eventually our own wisdom teeth.

El momento de la verdad, the final thrust in a bullfight, gives us our moment of truth.

Meanwhile the French have been inspired by our own hard disk (disque dur). If we go to a French flea market, what we find there is based on our own phrase second hand (seconde main).

And, you know something? Over the course of all these centuries, I don't think that anyone faced with a phraseological calque has ever murmured cultural appropriation.

And thank all the gods for that.

Words To Use Today: well, how about second hand? The Latin secundus means coming next in order, from sequī, to follow. Hand hasn't changed as a word since Old English.

Tuesday 28 August 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: noisome.

Noisome means offensively smelly. I've always assumed the word was something to do with noses, but as it happens it doesn't.

There are some things I do know, though, and one of those is that any moderately clean body wearing moderately clean clothes smells better than the industrial-strength deodorant/gels/perfumes presently designed for what I'm afraid I should now, in the currently fashionable usage, call the youth

It makes me wonder whether the production of these unguents is a deliberate or accidental ploy to get the poor boys spurned by all self-respecting girls.

It works rather well, in any case. 

Word To Use Today: noisome. This word is linked to the word annoy. 

Which is fair enough.

Monday 27 August 2018

Spot the Frippet: something cuneate/cuneal.

(You say this KYOOnee-ayt, or KYOOnee-l.)

This is something cuneate:

File:Cake cropped.png
photo by David.Monniaux

and so are these leaves:

File:The birds of America - from drawings made in the United States and their territories (1840) (14562271208).jpg
painting by Audubon, lithograph by John T Bowen

and so is this:

File:Rubber door stop in action.jpg
photo by Strait 

Do you know what it means, yet?

Yes, that's right: something cuneate or cuneal is something wedge-shaped:

Related image

like the tail of this wedge-tailed eagle 

or these:

or, as this is a language blog, the marks on this fabulous tile:

File:Tablet with Cuneiform Inscription LACMA M.79.106.2 (1 of 4).jpg
cuneiform writing, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Sadly, knowing my luck, I'm most likely to spot the door stop.

Spot the Frippet: something cuneate or cuneal. These words come from the Latin cuneus, which means wedge.

Sunday 26 August 2018

Sunday Rest: dementia. Word Not To Use Today.

We aren't as good at dying as we used to be. When we find ourselves at the edge of the cliff we shuffle back painfully, grabbing fearfully at every briar.

Perhaps it's because increasing numbers of us are longer certain what we'll find at the bottom.

Shakespeare spoke of the end of life as a second childishness and mere oblivion, and, you know something? Oblivion seems not such a bad idea when we're travelling towards a cliff.

So I wish we spoke of heading towards oblivion rather than getting dementia. Dementia suggests being demented, and a person demented is not calm, or happy, but angry and confused and frightened. It's a violent, distressing thing, to be demented.

I hope my mind stays okay. But, if it doesn't, let me travel a gentle road towards oblivion.


Sunday Rest: dementia. This word comes from the Latin word dēmentāre, to drive mad. Mēns means mind.

Saturday 25 August 2018

Saturday Rave: The Library of Leuven.

On 25th August 1914, German troops moving through Belgium towards France destroyed the library of the University of Leuven.

Three hundred thousand books and a thousand manuscripts were lost. Many of them were irreplaceable. The attack was seen as a direct assault on learning and culture, and caused worldwide outrage.

In 1915 an appeal was launched to rebuild and to restock, as far as possible, this great library.  

Now, Henry Guppy doesn't sound like the name of a hero, but it was he who organised the appeal from his place of work at the John Ryland library in Manchester. The first consignment of books from universities and libraries around the world was sent to Leuven in 1919. By 1925, 55,782 books had been collected. The foundation stone for a new building, which was largely funded by the American government, was laid in 1921.

I raise a hand of salute to Henry Guppy and to all those learned men and women who gave books to the University of Leuven, and to the international community of those seeking truth, for the search for truth is the ultimate function of all books.

And that is why they get attacked in the first place.

Word To Use Today: truth. The Old English form of this word was triewth.

The beautiful new library of the University of Leuven was destroyed by German troops during World War Two.

But HERE  you can see some better news.

Friday 24 August 2018

Word To Use Today: nomarch.

A nomarch, my Collins dictionary tells me, is the head of an ancient Egyptian nome.

Ah well, I suppose it's rather healthy to come across a completely unhelpful definition from time to time. 

It makes it so hard to be prejudiced.

Word To Use Today: nomarch. (You say it NOmark.) A nome is an administrative area of ancient Egypt or recent Greece. I found this rather a disappointment because I was hoping the head of a nome would be something with an enormous nose and flapping ears.

Come to think about it, though, the faces of how many administrative leaders would you want decorating the wall of your living room? There were probably hundreds of nomarchs with enormous noses and flapping ears.

I feel a lot better, now.

(The Greek word nomos means region or pasture. -arch at the end of a word means ruler. (And it means more or less the same at the beginning of a word, too.))

Thursday 23 August 2018

Keeping quiet: a rant.

Sometimes it's what people don't say.

I've been having a series of eye operations over the last year or so. It's been a bit of a nuisance but at the same time quite interesting and entertaining (I'm pretty-much okay, now, thank you).

After each operation a letter is sent from the surgeon to my doctor to say that the procedure has been carried out and (quite inaccurately because, as I said, it's been fascinating) declaring the operation to have been uneventful.

I've just realised that the letter after the last operation (I'm sent a copy) omits the word uneventful.

I suppose that's rather a cunning way of conveying to the doctor that things went wrong without actually saying so.

Though quite honestly I'm not sure that cunning is absolutely the most desirable quality for a health system to have.

Word To Use Today: cunning. The Old English cunnende is related to the Old English cunnan, to know.

Wednesday 22 August 2018

Nuts and Bolts: endangered poetry

It's a delightful fact that people visit The Word Den from all over the world. At the moment of writing the largest number of readers are in France, but last week it was Italy, and quite often it will be the USA or Russia or Ukraine.

Everyone is equally welcome, of course, whether they're from the largest country in the world (Russia) the most populous (China) or tiny places like the island of Réunion, or the even tinier island of Sint Maarten (which is, really, only half an island).

At the moment, thrillingly, somewhere called Unknown Territory is in the top ten, and I'm amazed there's anywhere in the world that can't be recognised by Blogger.

All this means that you're a wonderfully diverse lot, and the reason this is important is that there's an organisation in London called the Endangered Poetry Project which needs the help of people like you.

The inspiration for the project has come from the observation that many extinct languages only survive in fragments of songs or poems. As UNESCO believes that perhaps half the world's languages will be extinct by the end of this century (we're losing as many as one language every two weeks) Chris McCabe, the project's librarian, is convinced that recording and storing poems from endangered languages is a matter of great urgency.

The project has poems in Faroese, Kristang and Alsatian (do make up your own joke, here) and quite a few other languages, but it needs more. It needs every endangered language in the world.

So if you know a poem in an endangered language then the Endangered Poetry Project would love to hear from you. 

Please. It's urgent, so do forward a link to this post to anyone who might be able to help.

Instructions on sending poems can be found HERE.

Poem To Say Today: one in your own first language.

Here's an anonymous poem in mine:

World is vast and wide.
So much out there to explore.
Right now, let's eat lunch.

Tuesday 21 August 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: shoddy.

Something shoddy is something made with poor quality materials.

It's the pair of trousers that splits the first time you wear them, or the hairdryer that gives you an electric shock every time you switch it on, or the chair that gives you a splinter.

Shoddy behaviour is slightly different. Shoddy behaviour is doing something deliberately ungenerous. It's letting people down. It's betraying a trust.

Shoddy behaviour is drinking someone else's drink, or not turning up to play in the match, or leaving the old lady lying on the pavement.

It's nothing criminal, just the sort of thing that displays the grubbiness of a soul.

And, obviously, compared to that, a wonky seam on a T shirt weighs as nothing.

Thing Not To Be Today: shoddy. The cloth called shoddy, which consisted of recycled wool mixed in with a bit of new stuff, was invented by Benjamin Law in Batley, West Yorkshire, England, in 1813. It was a very good thing, because it made clothes much cheaper, and created a market for worn-out fabric. 

The reason shoddy came to mean cheap and nasty is probably because in the American Civil War so many uniforms were needed so quickly that they were made with poor quality shoddy which sometimes fell to bits within days or even in heavy rain.

As to why the fabric was called shoddy in the first place, no one really knows. Shoad is scraps of mining ore and rock; or perhaps it's to do with the shed clothing from which the fabric is made.

Monday 20 August 2018

Spot the Frippet: an object of virtu.

Objects of virtu (or vertu) aren't for me: for one thing I can't be bothered with all the dusting, and for another I enjoy wide open spaces, especially when it comes to window sills.

If I am a connoisseur, then I get much more pleasure from cheese and Monteverdi than eighteenth century shepherds and shepherdesses:

(Hideous, aren't they?)

But, hey, there's no accounting for taste, and people cherish all sorts of horrible stuff, even to the extent of dusting it.

File:V and A Museum snuffbox 28072013 07.jpg
snuff box in the V&A museum, London. Photo by Vassil

What makes a thing an object of virtu? It has to be an object of fine art designed to be collected and displayed. It has to be beautiful (although this is a notoriously slippery idea, see above), rare, or otherwise appealing to a connoisseur.

They don't have to be ugly:

File:Piriform watch, signed Ilbery, London, c. 1800, gold, enamel - Cinquantenaire Museum - Brussels, Belgium - DSC08936.jpg
watch c 1800. Photo by Daderot

Sometimes being eccentric is enough::

File:Vase with coiling dragon MET DP167159.jpg
vase, Vienna, c 1725

But on the other hand a certain business does seem to help:

File:Minton majolica Novelty Teapot.jpg
c 1875, Minton, Photo by Davidmadelena

Still, it's fun to despise other people's taste, isn't it?

Spot the Frippet: an object of virtu. Virtù is Italian. The Latin virtūs meant manliness or courage.

Personally, I can't see the connection, but there you go.

Sunday 19 August 2018

Sunday Rest: selfitis. Word Not To Use Today.

Long, long ago, when I was young and impressionable, people used to sneer at the word television because - shock horror! - the first part of the word came from a Greek word and the second part came from Latin. 

Ah well. It filled these people with happy contempt, so it served some purpose. I mean, otherwise one can't help suspecting that they would have had completely miserable lives.*

Anyway, that was then. Nowadays it seems that no one cares anything for the derivation of words, and so we have come up with the word selfitis, (Old English beginning, Greek ending) which apparently describes a strong propensity for taking photographs of oneself.

The suffix -itis usually implies some sort of inflammation, and so..., actually...

Selfitis: an inflamed sense of self. 

You know, I think I'm coming round to the word selfitis, after all.

Sunday Rest: selfitis. The suffix -itis comes from the Greek -itēs which means belonging to. Self comes from the Old English seolf.

*By the way, making the word all Greek would have left a TV called a telescope, which would have been rather confusing; but I suppose it could have made it all Latin, and then we'd have been watching distavision.

Saturday 18 August 2018

Saturday Rave: By The Sea by Emily Dickinson

It's summer here and people are flocking to the seaside. What will they find?

It all depends upon whether they are geniuses or not.

Here's a poem about a visit to the sea by Emily Dickinson. 

It has a much-quoted first line.

I started early, took my dog,
And visited the sea;
The mermaids in the basement 
Came out to look at me.

And frigates in the upper floor
Extended hempen hands,
Presuming me to be a mouse
Aground, upon the sands.

But no man moved me till the tide
Went past my simple shoe,
And past my apron and my belt,
And past my bodice too,

And made as he would eat me up
As wholly as the dew
Upon a dandelion's sleeve - 
And then I started too.

And he - he followed close behind;
I felt his silver heel
Upon my ankle, - then my shoes
Would overflow with pearl.

Until we met the solid town
No man he seemed to know;
And bowing with a mighty look
At me, the sea withdrew.

If the purpose of Art is to show you something you thought you knew, then these are valuable lines.

Now, some clever people may say the poem's about something else entirely.

But it doesn't have to be, does it?

Word To Use Today: sea. This is a word of the northern lands. The Old English form was .

Friday 17 August 2018

Word To Use Today: shenanigans.

Shenanigans are the sorts of things you don't want on your CV. The sorts of things you don't want your mum to know about. Or your teacher. Or your boss, or your priest.

Shenanigans aren't necessarily bad, exactly - or, at least, the point of shenanigans isn't usually to hurt anyone. No, it's to have a good time, or a profitable time, albeit in a way of which the authorities would probably not approve.

These things may have a victim, true, but if they do then the word shenanigan is really very effective at casting an aura of innocent fun, or minor mischief, over the whole affair.

(And some shenanigans are affairs.)

There can also be hint of secret plans about shenanigans; of bribes, perhaps, and favours called-in, but, as I've said, the main thing is that the word itself is a construct of such charm and easy humour that even the most nefarious of activities comes over as little more than harmless mischief.


Word To Use Today: shenanigan. This word appeared in the mid 1850s and seems to be connected with the American Gold Rush. Where the word comes from is a matter of argument, but the Irish sionnachaíonn has the meaning foxy, so it may be something to do with that.

It's possible, though rare, to have a single shenanigan: but, let's face it, when someone gets up to mischief he or she seldom wants to stop.

Thursday 16 August 2018

Sorry Is Not The Hardest Word: a rant.

About four times a week I go past a garage with a sign outside it which reads:


File:Hammock nap on patio.jpg
photo by Michael Nutt 

I don't believe them, you know.

Word To Use Today: sorry. This word comes from the Old English sārig. It's connected to the word sore, which is connected to the Latin saevus, which means angry.

Wednesday 15 August 2018

Nuts and Bolts: baby talk.

I mean, what do generations of parents and grandparents know?

All that silly baby-talk - saying doggy instead of dog, and choo-choo instead of train, and using all those silly high voices. Why on earth have parents all over the world and in every language on earth done that for so many hundreds of years?

Well, obviously, it's because they're uneducated, because otherwise they'd have read the books by the academics and they'd know that such a thing is, not only ridiculous and illogical, but positively harmful.

Except...hang on...

...the academics (or, at least, some of them) have changed their minds. They've found out that using words ending in a ee sound, like tummy or bunny, enable children to learn all sorts of new words faster. Reduplication of sounds, like choo-choo, helps, too (though using words where the sound of the word is connected to its meaning,like crash! or bang! didn't give the same result. The author of the study, though, Dr Mitsuhiko Ota of the University of Edinburgh, wonders if enough data were collected in the study to be sure of this, and also wonders if the study's definition of this sort of word was really properly rigorous in relation to very young children).

The study found that even though special baby-talk vocabulary only makes up about five per cent of speech, it still has a measurable effect on the number of words used by children at nine, fifteen, and twenty one months.

"Even though words such as choo-choo and bunny appear superfluous, they may play an important role in bootstrapping the development of the lexicon as a whole," the study says.

Which leaves me wondering if, instead of using the word bootstrapping, the study had said boot-boot or bootstrappy then somehow I might have understood what it means.

Word To Use Today: bootstrap. I looked this up in a dictionary, and apparently this refers to a way of advancing oneself or accomplishing something, as in, presumably, pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

Adult vocabulary increases in different ways from those of small children!

Tuesday 14 August 2018

Thing Not To Do Today: grill.

The fashion in cookery at the moment seems to be for recipes without nearly enough food in them. 

(Note to food journalists: lettuce, however ornamented, is not enough!)

Still, fashions come and go. A little while ago we were being asked to put chilli in absolutely everything, and before that (when fat was the enemy) we were supposed cook everything under the grill.

But grilling things is a nuisance. Half the time the flame on a grill is too far away from the food for it to be much more than a sun bed (even when the grill pan is propped up on two chopping boards) and apart from that you can't see what's going on, you can't get to your oven without doing contortions, and the washing up is horrendous.*

In any case, the fat's the best part.

A barbecue grill, I admit, is a slightly more convenient. It does at least incinerate the flies to something that can pass as charcoal.

There is another sort of grilling, one which involves asking searching, inescapable questions. It's occasionally permissible, and even charming, in a really curious three-year-old. 

Otherwise it's the realm of policemen, inquisitors, and tax collectors, and best avoided.

Thing Not To Do Today: grill. This word comes from the Old French gril, gridiron, from the Latin crātīcula, fine wickerwork.

*This may be just my cooker. 

I'm getting a new one.

Monday 13 August 2018

Spot the Frippet: hottie.

In Great Britain it's not at all remarkable for even quite old people take a hottie to bed with them half the nights of the year.

File:Helen Kane and Betty Boop - Photoplay, April 1932.jpg

Mind you, in Great Britain a hotty or hottie is a hot water bottle.

Spot the Frippet: hottie/hotty. This word comes from the Old English hāt. The Gothic heito means fever

photo by Peng

(In the USA a hottie is a fanciable person.)

Sunday 12 August 2018

Sunday Rest: exude. Word Not To Use Today.

It's possible to exude a sense of optimism, but there's something about the word exude that reminds me, even in this instance, of horrid things like diseased and depraved clowns.

Most other things people exude I really don't want to think about. 


Still, it's a horrid word for a horrid thing, so I suppose at least it's honest.

Sunday Rest: exude. This word comes from the Latin exsūdāre, from sūdāre, to sweat.


Saturday 11 August 2018

Saturday Rave: The Mesoamerican Long--Count Calendar.

Let's face it, our Western calendar system is rubbish.

Not only does it work in two directions, forwards and backwards, centring on a date that almost certainly isn't the date of the birth of Jesus Christ, but everything is counted in bonkers ways.

We have millennia, centuries, and years, which is, fair enough, a practical sort of a system, but then some idiot has divided the year into unevenly-sized months (only one of which is the same length as an actual month, that is a lunar cycle - and that's only once every four years).

Then the month is divided into various odd numbers of days, the day into twenty four hours, the hours into sixty minutes, and the minutes into sixty seconds. 

Below that we go into milliseconds and things start to make sense again.

But the plain fact is that this is such a crazy and difficult system that we have to have a parallel system called a week which ignores all of this, just to give ourselves regular breaks.

The Mesoamerican Long-Count calendar begins, quite logically, on the day the world of human beings began to be formed. That, according to the Maya, was August 11 3114 BC. On this day some gods set up three stones at a place named First-Three-Stone-Place, and once everyone had a reference point then the sky could be raised and things generally put in order.

The Long-Count calendar therefore uses a one-direction numbering system. It's based on the number twenty, except that whereas in a pure twenty-base system the figures 100 equals twenty x twenty, or what we call four hundred, the Long-Count system has a quirk whereby the second digit from the right (and just the second digit from the right) rolls over to zero when it gets to eighteen...

And if you think that's daft, then consider: the second-digit-from-the-right rule makes the figure 100 equal 360, which is almost the number of days in a year.

And that's really rather neat and clever.

Word To Use Today: calendar. This word comes from the Latin kalendārium, which means account book. The kalends were the dates upon which debts became due.

Friday 10 August 2018

Word To Use Today: noddy.

This is a noddy (and a baby noddy):

File:Black noddy and chick.jpg
Black noddy and chick. Photo by Glen Fergus

And so is this:

Noddy Goes To Toyland 1949 cover.jpg
(Noddy is the one in the blue hat.)

A noddy can also be a fool or a dunce. (Pleasingly, the genus name for the bird, Anous, is Greek for stupid.)

Something that's noddy is easy even for a noddy to use or understand.

Then there are noddies, which are shots of a TV interviewer reacting to his interviewee, and a single example of this sort of shot is a noddy. This word is to do with the word nod, as in moving the head up and down.

If I use this word today then I'd probably choose to talk about the birds. Oh, the poor birds. The Brown noddy has the scientific name Anous stolidus. As we know, anous is the Greek for stupid - and, I'm afraid, stolidus is the Latin for stupid. 

In what way are noddies so foolish? Well, they are well-known for ignoring predators - even humans - to the extent that they can be picked up by hand from their nests.

To be fair, though, there really are a lot of them, so they must be doing something right.

Word To Use Today: noddy. Enid Blyton's character isn't very bright, but he's called Noddy because he nods a lot, which sets the bell on his hat ringing. The word meaning foolish used to mean drowsy, and is probably linked to nod, the head movement. The interview shots are based on the same idea.

Noddy meaning easy is marked origin obscure, but, as I've said above, it might be linked to the idea of so easy even someone stupid could use it.

Thursday 9 August 2018

Nothing wrong with that!: a rant.

I know it's ridiculous that the British government's second house isn't elected, and consists of people bearing the titles Lord or Lady, but the system does mean that the Lords tend to be old, and this (and the title) tends to make them feel obliged to be gentlemanly in speech. 

It can be quite refreshing.

Anyway, David Owen, who used to be Foreign Secretary in the House of Commons but is now one of the Lords, was interviewed for the Daily Telegraph newspaper of 30 July 2018. Lord Owen was giving his opinion of the present British Prime Minister, to whose party he has never belonged.

'I'm not going to criticise Mrs May,' he says (see? Always the gentleman, bless him) 'She was given an extremely difficult hand.' (Generous, too, even to an opponent. Isn't that typically lordly?) 'I think she has courage and she has persistence, (you can see, now, why I have an affection for the House of Lords, can't you?) 'but persistence can be very damaging,' (well, that's reasonable comment, and, after all, he has a job to do) particularly if it is basically blind-headed obstinacy.'



...just think what he might have said if he wasn't a Lord...

...or had decided to be critical...

Word To Use Today: criticise. The Greek kritikos means capable of judging, and kritēs is a judge.

Wednesday 8 August 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Oromo. Not as simple as ABC

Oromo is the most commonly-spoken first language in Ethiopia. 

There are Oromo speakers in nearby countries, too, and all together the language (or languages, because there are various varieties of Oromo) are spoken by about twenty five million people (though I've also seen that figure quoted as forty million).

The alphabet in which Oromo is written down is, and has always been, a deeply political thing.

The Oromo language was first written down by slaves in the 1840s, and these people used the Roman alphabet, but in the 1870s the conquest of Ethiopia by the Emperor Menelik gave rise to a decree that the Ge'ez script should be adopted by all the languages of the country.

That state of affairs carried on for about a hundred years but then, after a military coup, the written Oromo language switched back to the Roman alphabet again (the Roman alphabet was already being used by Oromo speakers outside Ethiopia, and it was also used in areas controlled by the Oromo Liberation Front). The switch back to the Roman alphabet happened in 1991.

But recently something odd has happened. The Oromo language is still written in Roman letters, but the order of the alphabet has been changed. It now starts L A G I M Aa* S.

The educational authorities claim that a USAID funded study on early literacy in Ethiopia recommended this change. The educational authorities, when challenged, also came up with an additional reason for starting the alphabet with an L: it's the commonest initial letter for Oromo words... 

...except that L isn't the commonest initial letter for Oromo words (it's actually thirteenth commonest: very close, as it happens, to L's traditional place in the alphabet, which is twelfth). Additionally, the USAID study didn't suggest that the order of the alphabet has anything to do with Ethiopia's literacy problems. (It largely blamed the habit of the children and the teachers of not turning up for school, and for the fact that even if you do turn up the schools have hardly any equipment.) 

So why has the change really happened? 

There are those who say it's to isolate Oromo speakers from the rest of the world, and so to disadvantage Oromo as a written language. There are those who say it's been done by people still sulking about the 1991 decision to revert to the Roman alphabet.

I don't know one way or the other. But I rather think that the limited amount of money the educational authorities have might be better spent not re-writing text books, but making sure that their schools have any books at all.

Word To Use Today: politics. This word comes from the Greek politēs, citizen, from polis, city.

*Aa is a long A sound, as in father.

Tuesday 7 August 2018

Thing To Be Today: jacent.

We've all been adjacent to something, but have you ever been jacent?

Yep. You have.

If you think about it, -ad at the beginning of a word usually means to, or towards, or near: so, as adjacent means next tojacent should mean really snuggled up - and most of wouldn't object to as an aim for the day.

Sadly, though, jacent simply means to lie down.

Still, you don't have to do it alone, do you?

Thing To Be Today: jacent. This word comes from the Latin jacēre, to lie. Hic jacent means here lie in Latin, which you sometimes see on old tombstones: 

File:Hic jacent.JPG
photo of tombstone in Bad Waldsee by 4028mdk09

Monday 6 August 2018

Spot the Frippet: something party-coloured.

But what colour is a party

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable question, and the answer, also of course, will depend upon whether the party is being thrown to celebrate Halloween or Holi - or, indeed, Christmas or a wedding or winning the Cup Final.

But, as it happens, the party in party-coloured isn't that sort of a party at all. An alternative spelling is parti-coloured, and that makes it a bit less surprising that party/parti in this case means partly one colour and partly another, or others.

The world is full of party-coloured things:

File:Japanese Chin dog.jpg
Japanese Chin Dog. Photo by Pointer8

party-coloured tights. Detail from The Tiumph of May by Francesco del Cossa, about 1470.

File:Rosa Mundi.JPG
Rosa mundi. Photo by Libby norman

(To be party-coloured the colours need to be separate, not smeared or blended.)

So: what's the first thing you can spot?

Mine, very close to hand, was my yellow and white tea mug.

Spot the Frippet: something party-/parti-/coloured. Party used to mean of more than one colour. The word comes from the Old French, where it means striped, from the Latin partīre, to divide.

The word party meaning a social gathering comes from the same Latin word, which also came into English by way of Old French, this time as partie meaning part or faction. 

Which tells you everything you need to know about parties, doesn't it?

Sunday 5 August 2018

Sunday Rest: jargonaut. Word Not To Use Today.

A jargonaut is someone who uses jargon too much.

Yes, it's a piece of jargon that belittles those who use jargon.

Now, is that a piece of post-modern brilliance? Or simple hypocrisy?

I know what I think.

Sunday Rest: jargonaut. This word, of course, is an echo of argonaut, which describes one of the men who sailed on Jason's ship the Argo, which was named after its builder Argus. The Greek naus means ship. The word jargon came into English from French, and is, pleasingly, basically the same word as gargle.

Saturday 4 August 2018

Saturday Rave: A Lament by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Shelley caused a lot of grief in his time, particularly to some young, impressionable girls and their families.

He also wrote some magnificent poetry.

I don't think this, below, is magnificent poetry, but if the metre and language don't do anything much for me, if there's no ravishing turn of phrase or cloud-dispelling use of metaphor, well, at least I can read it and think: well, serves you right!

O World! O Life! O Time!
On whose last steps I climb,
Trembling at that where I had stood before,
When will return the glory of your prime?
No more - Oh, never more!

Out of the day and night
A joy had taken flight:
Fresh spring, and summer, and winter hoar
Move my faint heart with grief, but with delight
No more - Oh, never more!


Well, diddums, quite frankly.

Word To Use Today: delight. This word comes from the Old French deleitier, to please, from the Latin de- away from, and lacere, to entice.

Friday 3 August 2018

Word To Use Today: deipnosophist.

I know that no one can really use the word deipnosophist with a straight face - at least, I hope not - but it's a word to make people happy, all the same.

A deipnosophist is an expert in the art of dinner-table conversation, particularly if they have the knack of being interesting about unusual things.

Please note that it's conversation, and not a habit of lecturing, that makes someone a deipnospohist, for lecturing people is a terrible habit, especially at the dinner table, and quite likely to get you a face full of custard.

But even so...

...well, there are worse things than a face full of custard, aren't there.

File:Fishfingers & Custard Pi-Pie.JPG
photo by Kalki

Word To Use Today: deipnosophist. This word entered the English language in the 1650s. Deipnosophistēs was the title of a fifteen-volume work by Athenaeus, who lived in the second and third centuries BC. The work takes the form of very wide-ranging dinner-table conversations, and a great deal of what we know about Greek civilisation comes from Athenaeus's books. Deipno- means dinner in Greek, and sophistēs means knowledgeable in the arts of.

Although no one wants to be thought a sophist (that is someone who reasons cleverly but falsely) to be a deipnosophist would be really rather lovely.

Thursday 2 August 2018

William Blake and the pedants: a rant.

It's only quite recently that anyone's discovered exactly where William Blake, the poet and painter, is buried.

There's been a gravestone in the general vicinity for some time, but research and fund-raising by the Blake Society has now led to a new gravestone's being commissioned to cover the actual grave in Bunhill Fields, London.

This is the old stone:

File:Finsbury bunhill blake 1.jpg

But the people who were paying for the new gravestone wanted something fancier. Something more poetic. Something that's more of a tribute to Blake's genius.

A suitable text was decided upon without a public quarrel, but on the issue of punctuation...

The thing is, there are two versions of the agreed text in existence. There's the one in his original private notebook, and the one published.

The published version goes:

I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall....

The version in the private notebook has no punctuation at all, not even (gasp horror!) the possessive apostrophes.

Which version won? 

It's the punctuationless one. 

I think this is a shame, and this isn't because punctuation is inherently virtuous, but because Blake's private notebook should be, well, private.

Good grief. I hope no one goes and puts a scribbling from one of my notebooks on my gravestone. 

For one thing, it'll probably say: cucumber, soya milk, musli...

Word To Use Today: private. This word comes from the Latin privatus, withdrawn from public life, from privare, to bereave or deprive, from privus, single or individual.

Wednesday 1 August 2018

Nuts and Bolts: full stops and periods.

Punctuation does upset people. I don't know why. 

I suppose that if wrong punctuation makes a sentence say something unintended then that might be a disaster, but otherwise I can't really see why such high passions rage, especially in people who are otherwise mild as milk.

Here's a case in point (unintentional pun: sorry): is a dot on the baseline of a piece of text a full stop or a period?

Well, pleasingly, quite possibly neither.

This isn't even a question of where you are in the world, though what an English person calls a full stop is often called in the USA (or the U.S.A.?) a period.

For instance: what's this baseline dot called if you're reading out loud:



(or, hang on, is it a decimal point?)

A typographer might call that mark a baseline dot, to distinguish it from an interpunct, which is a dot raised into the air.

If you maintain that History Is Right, then we should all be writing our full stops or periods as high as they'll go, as Aristophanes of Byzantium did a couple of thousand years or so ago (and possibly call the thing a stigmē teleia). 

(Aristophanes did employ a baseline dot, but it was used essentially as a comma: however, the scribes at the time couldn't be bothered with commas and so this system fell out of use, and by the 9th century AD some people were writing their full stops on the baseline. By the time printing came along this habit was generally established.)

Anyway, the use of the word period dates back to Ælfric of Eynsham, and Old English. The thing he called a period was a sign that looks like a modern full stop - but also, like Aristophanes's, acted as a comma. 

By the time Modern English came along the words period and full stop were beginning to be used consistently throughout Britain and the USA: a period was a baseline dot that wasn't at the end of a sentence. When it was, it was a full stop. That system worked very well right up to about 1900, when things got muddled.

Nowadays...well, nowadays there's an interloper appeared called a full point.


What is right?

Who can say? Not me. 

All I know is that sometimes people just need to go out and get themselves a life.

Word To Use Today If You Dare: full stop or period or full point, whatever rocks your boat. Period comes from the Latin peridos.