This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 31 October 2018

Nuts and Bolts: How Not To Sell Your House.

England is full of pretty villages, and the pretty villages are full of Rose Cottages and Meadowsweet Farms and Honeysuckle Houses.

But I, a dweller of bland suburbia, have always had a hankering to name my own bog-standard house Ghormenghast, after the dark and terrifying pile in Mervyn Peake's trilogy. It would be a lovely joke. 

So why haven't I done it?

Because no one is going to buy a house called Ghormenghast, that's why.

Though, I don't one in these modern times believes in all that haunted house/superstition nonsense, do they?

File:House Cemetery Haunted House-2187170.jpg

Well, the answer to that question is that yes, they must do, because the English online estate agent House Simple has done a survey that's showed that sales of houses in Bone Lane, for instance, are slow to non-existent. No one much wants to live in Bloodhills, either. Or in Broomstick Lane (that one is quite near me, in Tring, Hertfordshire).

And as for Cauldron Crescent and Cackle Street, well, they do little better than Dead Lane and Coffin Close.

But why wouldn't anyone want to live in Deadmans Lane or Spook Hill? Or Headless Close or Vampire Street? Why isn't Hell Lane any more popular than Warlock Close?

I can only think that people regard whole thing rather like other superstitions such as touching wood or not walking under ladders: that is, that you don't have to believe in it for it to be true.

Watch out! It's behind you!

File:Image of a ghost, produced by double exposure in 1899.jpg
1899 image, The UK National Archives

Word To Use Today: spook. This word comes from Dutch, and before that from the Middle Low German spōk, ghost.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Thing Not To Do Today: mangle something.

You can mangle your fingers in a mangle:


 if you can find one still in use.

Mangles were for wringing the water out of clothes. You fed the dripping sheets or whatever between the rollers as you turned the handle, and tried, usually unsuccessfully, to keep your fingers clear. 

Our mangle stood under a bit of corrugated roof by the shed. It was a run-down thing, that mangle, its rubber rollers cracking and its paint dull, but it still retained its enthusiastically vicious temperament. It snatched at fingers at all opportunities. I wouldn't have been half so good on the piano if it hadn't been for the grabbing and stretching tendencies of that wretched machine.

So I'm glad mangles have gone out of our lives, though I expect it won't be long the greenest of us will be seizing with earnest delight upon this zero-carbon method of wringing out our clothes, and soon we'll be guilt-tripped into mangling away once more.

But even though we're currently part of a mangle-free generation, there are still mangling opportunities to avoid. That beautifully-presented pudding, for instance: do please start eating neatly at the edge instead of mashing the whole thing into a brown stew-like mess. Do not use the sledgehammer when assembling the flat-pack: try re-reading the instructions instead. Watch out for low bollards in the car park: they are specially designed to be just slightly out-of-sight of anyone in the driving seat of a car.

And if you're a surgeon...

...but no. 

That doesn't even bear thinking about.

Thing Not To Do Today: mangle something. There are two different words, here. Mangle, as in squeezing the water out of washing, comes from the Dutch mangel, from the Latin manganum, which is a war-engine device for throwing stones or fire (I told you they were vicious). 

Mangle meaning to mutilate comes from the Norman French mangler, probably from the Old French mahaignier, to maim.

Monday 29 October 2018

Spot the Frippet: tartan.

Tartan comes from Scotland, right?


Just to be clear, nowadays tartan is a pattern, originally a fabric design, where lines of different colours meet each other at right angles. The pattern of weaving means there's often a diagonal element to the thicker stripes.

tartan montage by User:Celtus

In the USA and elsewhere, tartan is often called plaid, but in Scotland a plaid is basically a blanket. The man here:

is wearing a tartan plaid over his shoulder.

The first tartan patterns were probably made in what is now Austria in the 6th century BC, but tartan is now most strongly associated with Scotland.

The story of tartan is the story of war, technology and fashion. To begin with, a particular tartan pattern would be associated with a district, and not with a particular name or family: the colour of the tartan was simply the colour of the obtainable locally-sourced dyes.

In 1746, as a result of a rebellion by tartan-wearing Scots, the wearing of tartan was outlawed for a couple of generations, and when it was allowed again it was no longer viewed as ordinary Highland dress but as a symbol of nationality.

Soon a combination of bright synthetic dyes and a desire for both romance and order (the Victorians loved classifying things) gave rise to the idea of family tartans. There are now thousands of them, often available in modern, weathered, ancient and muted versions, depending upon how bright you like your tartan (as I've already said, modern dyes are much brighter than ancient ones).

Some tartans are known the world over, like this Burberry one:

and that particular one is actually legally copyrighted. But very nearly all other tartans are free for anyone to wear.

You might spot a tartan on a school uniform, a soldier's uniform, a bow tie, a pencil, a mug, a carpet, a scarf, or the lining of a coat.

Extra points if you know what that particular tartan is called.

File:Black Watch or Campbell tartan.svg
Black Watch tartan, photo by Wgabrie

File:Royal Stewart tartan.png
Royal Stewart tartan. Photo by MyNikki

Spot the Frippet: tartan. This word might come from the Old French tartaine, from the Old Spanish tiritar, to rustle (tartan is usually made of wool, now, but then it was silk). On the other hand there's a French word tartarin which means Tartar cloth, and a Gaelic word tarsainn which means across(Mind you, the earliest Scottish cloths called tartans sometimes had no pattern to them at all.)

A tartan is also  sort of old sailing boat. This word is thought to come from the Provençal tartana, falcon, because boats were often called after birds.

Sunday 28 October 2018

Sunday Rest: hetman.

The trouble with the word hetman is that everyone will assume it's a misprint for hitman.

In fact, a hetman is the leader of a group of Russian military types...


...actually, it's not really going to matter all that much, is it?

Sunday Rest: hetman. This word is Polish, and comes from the German Hauptmann, head man. 

The original hetmans were elected leaders who led a democratic Cossack State. 

Cossack Mamay. Illustration by Fedir Stovbunenko

I'm sure they were all absolute masters of charm and urbanity.

Saturday 27 October 2018

Saturday Rave: Psalm 150, versified by Mary Sidney.

The Countess of Pembroke doesn't sound the sort of person it's easy to care much about; but how about clever Mary Sidney? 

Doesn't she sound more interesting?

Mary Sidney was Philip Sidney's sister, and, like him, a poet. She was also a great supporter of writers, letting them stay in her house and encouraging them in all possible ways. She even had various theatre companies to visit (including Shakespeare's) when there was plague in London.

Her most extensive work consisted of completing her brother Philip's verse version of the Psalms. Philip had got as far as Psalm 43 when he died on a military campaign in the Netherlands. There are 171 poems in total (psalm 119 was sensibly split up into twenty two chunks).

The fact that John Donne was an admirer of the Psalms must be some indication of their quality (although admittedly Donne was sometimes very much in need of financial support). In any case we have the psalms available so we can judge for ourselves. They're written in a huge variety of verse forms, surely at least partly designed to show off Mary Sidney's technical ability. Here is a happy one, and the very last.

This one is a sonnet.

See if you think it looks exhausted after all that effort.

Oh, laud the Lord, the God of hosts commend,
Exalt his pow'r, advance his holiness:
With all your might lift his almightiness;
Your greatest praise upon his greatness spend.

Make trumpet's noise in shrillest notes ascend;
May lute and lyre his loved fame express;
Him let the pipe, him let the tabret bless,
Him organ's breath, that winds or waters lend.

 Let ringing timbrels so his honour sound,
Let sounding cymbals so his glory ring,
That in their tunes such melody be found
As fits the pomp of most triumphant king.

Conclude: by all that air or life enfold,
Let high Jehovah highly be extolled.  


Word to Use Today: laud. This word comes from the Latin laus, which means praise.

Friday 26 October 2018

Word To Use Today: chino.

I wish that chino meant, as it should, half a pair of chinos. But sadly it doesn't.

The word came to my attention as the result of a list in the Telegraph newspaper of Twenty Five Items Of Clothing Every Man Needs In His Life (yes, I'll read anything). 

One item read as follows:

When jeans won't cut it and a suit just feels a little too much, a good pair of chinos still covers you in that middle ground, as it has for decades.

File:Chino pants.jpg
photo by Kuha455405

It's always been my opinion that the chief function of jeans, suits and chinos is to cover you in that middle ground. 

But anyway, that word chinos...

My nearest dictionary says origin obscure, but Google (Google itself) is confident that the word comes from the South American Spanish word for toasted, because of the colour of the cloth.

Does anyone out there own a pair of chinos the colour of toast?

Wikipedia, on the other hand, speaks of a cotton twill chino cloth developed in the mid 1800s for British military uniforms. The Americans military started wearing trousers made of the stuff when they were in the Philippines during the Spanish-American war, and because this cloth was made in China the garments were called pantalones chinos (Chinese trousers) or chinos for short (or, indeed, shorts).

So who is right? 

Well, the obvious problem with the toasted theory is that chinos were first made in the colour called khaki, and that nothing you toast goes khaki (khaki comes from the Urdu khāk, which means dust). 

Further research has come up with a young British soldier called Harry Lumsden:

Harry Lumsden - Project Gutenberg eText 16808.jpg

He was soldier in India and in 1848, with his subaltern, William Hodson, he came up with the idea of making uniforms khaki-coloured (khaki because dust was involved in the manufacture of the dye) because the traditional white military trousers were both impractical and dangerously visible. So the cloth was made in India to start with, and the trousers were called khakis.

Chinos made in every colour, now, so they really did need a new name. And chinos meaning made in China makes sense to me.

Thursday 25 October 2018

The Lure of the Foreign: a rant.

One of the two best-selling colours made by the British firm Edward Bulmer Natural Paints is celadon.

Celadon is not only a beautiful word, but it is the colour of a glaze used in oriental pottery:

Korean pot, photo by de Calais

Celadon was highly fashionable in China for a while, being the colour of precious jade, but then the blue-and-white painted stuff came along and then everyone moved on. But that's fashion for you.

Still, having your walls painted in celadon would show you to be a person of culture and refinement, wouldn't it. I can see why you'd choose it.

The other best-selling Edward Bulmer paint colour also has a name with a foreign origin. It is Cuisse de Nymphe Emue and it's a sort of sludgy pink.

Cuisse de Nymphe Emue translates as thigh of an aroused nymph

And what sort of a reputation that gets you I do not know.

Word To Use Today:'d better be celadon, I think. Although celadon glaze was originally Chinese the word is actually European, and no one is sure quite where it came from. Honoré d'Urfé's romance L'Astrée (based on Ovid's Metamorphoses) involved a shepherd called Celadon who wore pale green ribbons*. Or celadon might be a form of the name of the Sultan Saladin, who was known to send celadon ware as presents. Or it might be from the Sanskrit sila dhara, which means green stone.

*Though in Ovid, Celadon is actually two guys who get killed in fights.

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Xavante

The language of the Xavante people is much cherished in its homeland, the Eastern Matto Grosso of Brazil.

It's one of only two known languages in the world which arrange their sentences in the order Object-Subject-Verb (basically, you start a sentence by naming the thing that's had something done to it, then you name the person or thing that's done the action, then you say what the action was. Sausages man ate, that sort of thing).

The other very distinctive thing about Xavante is that its grammar specifies very exactly the person to whom you are speaking. It's common for languages have this feature to some extent, of course, but Xavante even has special forms for speaking to your grandparents or, sweetly, to your fiancé(e).

Not many people speak Xavante - fewer than ten thousand - but those people are proud of and love their language, and teach it to their children. Seven thousand of the Xavante people speak only Xavante, which is a good thing for the language, though I'm not certain if it's such a good thing for the people.

Still, if they're keeping such a treasure alive then I, for one, am very very grateful. 

Word To Use Today: one in Xavante. The number one in Xavante is misi, two is maparane, and three is si'ubdatō.

If you want more, then HERE is the Lord's Prayer in Xavante. Our Father is, irresistibly, Wamama.

Tuesday 23 October 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: glaikit.

(You say this word GLAY-kit.)

Here's a lovely Scottish word (though it's been used in Ulster and the North of England, too).

I can't pretend there aren't alternative words for glaikit, but there are so many occasions for its use that one more can only be a good thing. 

You can say it with such energetic contempt, too.

Glaikit means stupid, foolish, witless, or thoughtless.

It might prove useful to have such a word that no one's near you is going to understand.

Or it might have its uses when coming across dangerous driving in the car. 

Especially if the children are listening.

Thing Not To Be Today: glaikit. The Scots word glaiks means pranks, and that word probably came from the Middle English gleek, a jest or trick.

Monday 22 October 2018

Spot the Frippet: mandarin.

The easiest mandarins to spot are fruit:

Citrus reticulata April 2013 Nordbaden.JPG
photo by 4028mdk09

but there are also more mysterious mandarins among us. These may be civil servants so shiningly powerful, so polished and wily, that they are quite beyond the power of politicians to grasp or control.

That sort of mandarin has long existed in China, except that a Chinese mandarin would have attained his position by means of examination rather than by family background and bland cunning.

The word mandarin has now been extended to include other people of such great influence (and often wealth) as to be immovable. This sort of a mandarin might perhaps be someone irresistibly influential in the realm of the Arts.

Then there are mandarin collars:


And mandarin ducks (native to China, but kept all over the world for their astonishing splendour):

File:Mandarin Ducks.jpg
photo by Keven Law

and of course there's Mandarin the language, spoken by two thirds of the vast population of China.

Here's a traditional Mandarin song, Peng You. It doesn't sound very traditional to me - or very like Mandarin - but I'll trust there's something authentic in there somewhere.

Spot the frippet: mandarin. This word arrived in English from the Portuguese mandarim, via the Malay menteri, from the Sanskrit mantrin consellor, from mantra, counsel. So it's not Chinese after all.

Sunday 21 October 2018

Sunday Rest: womxn. Word Not To Use Today.

Even those who feel passionately that having the word man inside the word woman is demeaning (and who also know that, according to the people who made it up, womyn doesn't include women who started off as men) then they're still not going to be saying the word womxn today, are they.

And why is that?

Because, as far as I can discover, no one has the faintest idea how to pronounce it.*

Sunday Rest: womxn. This word was made up to include transsexuals (though the inclusion of the letter Y, as in womyn, would have done this better than an X, given the genetics of the thing. Womyn, however, is apparently already bagged by the XX-only brigade.)

The word woman is late Old English and started off as wiman, plural wimmen (which pronunciation we've kept). Before that a female adult human was called a wif or a quean. Wiman was a changed version of wifman, which meant woman-man, man standing for all human beings, as it often still does.

*Wuhmix'n sounds insultingly like vixen: but then perhaps we should be reclaiming vixen as a term of dignified respect...

...although on the whole joining an order of Trappists might be easiest.

Saturday 20 October 2018

Saturday Rave: L'Oreste by Giovanni Rucellai.

L'Oreste is one of the first Italian classical tragedies to be written in blank (ie non-rhyming) verse, and the very first to be written in hendecasyllables (that just means that each line has eleven syllables. Yes, that is an odd number. Literally.). 

L'Oreste is based on the Aeschylus's trilogy of plays the Oresteia (Orestes was the son of Agamemnon).

I can't find an on-line translated version of L'Oreste, but there are a few quotations. The play was written before 1516 but, sadly, despite the half millennium that has been available for their message to sink in, many people are still too dim to have taken them on board.

Quest' oltraggio è fatto ai Dei,
I quai, se non han cura di se stessi,
Non vi curate si vendicarli.

This is an insult offered to the Gods,
And if the Gods themselves make light of it
It is not in your hands that vengeance lies.

Oh, but I wish they would.

Word To Use Today: vengeance. This word comes from Old French, from the Latin vindicāre, to punish.

Friday 19 October 2018

Word To Use Today: widget.

We all have gadgets - heaven knows we all have gadgets! - and a widget is a gadget's small brother.

They're useful things, widgets. Sometimes they're useful things whose name you've forgotten (can you pass me the widget?) and sometimes they're useful things which don't really have a name, like those credit-sized metal things with the holes punched out of them that are supposed to be able to perform the function of at least fifty-six different tools, or the thing on penknives for getting stones out of horses' hooves.

At some point someone has actually invented something - it's a device that adds nitrogen gas to beer when its can is opened to give it a head - but has been so stymied by the task of thinking up a name for it that it is now known, officially, as a widget.

Various computer bits and pieces are known as widgets, too. As is, peculiarly, an airliner.

As you can see, widget is a small but very useful sort of a word.

A widget of a word, in fact, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: widget. This word was invented in the 1900s. It's an altered form of gadget. Gadget entered the English language in the 1800s, perhaps from the French gâchette, a trigger, from gâche, a staple. 

Thursday 18 October 2018

Picking up germs: a rant

This is from a recent letter to the Daily Telegraph newspaper:

SIR - The worst place to pick up harmful germs...must be the supermarket trolley. The handles are often sticky, which must attract millions of microbes.

I try to take a wet wipe to clean the handle before use, but the problem then is safe disposal of the wipe.


It just makes you wonder what the writer does when he's in the best place to pick up harmful germs, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: worst. This word comes from the Old English wierrest.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Nuts and Bolts: doggish.

A universal language would be useful, wouldn't it? Various languages at various times have come some way towards performing this function. Currently it happens to be the turn of English to be very widely used. 

But there's at least one language that really is universal all over the world - and the only problem is that it's spoken by dogs. 

Yes, a Turkish dog will understand a Latvian dog, who will understand a Brazilian dog, who will understand an Indian dog.

Back off! Hello-hello-hello! I'm completely harmless.

But our human languages aren't so versatile. English dogs, for instance, say woof-woof! or sometimes bow-wow (or so English people say) but although these beliefs do have some wider support among other languages they're not in complete agreement. Welsh people's dogs, for example, go wff wff, French ones wouf wouf, and Afrikaans ones woef-woef. The bow-wow sound is recognised even more widely, from India (bow-bow), Hungary (vow-vow), Lebanon (how-how), China (wow-wow) to Malaysia (ow-ow).

On the other hand in Israel dogs say hav-hav, in Albania ham-ham (which is understandable), in Burma woke-woke, and in Indonesia guk-guk.

But the dogs? They understand it all

Even, mysteriously, when the message is sprayed on a lamp-post.

Thing To Do Today: try to hear a dog say guk-guk, perhaps.

A really thorough and excellent article on this topic has been written by Stanley Coren and can be found HERE.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: virescent.

The Word Den has visitors from all over the world, and recently this has included large numbers from somewhere called Unknown Territory. This is thrilling, because, well, surely everywhere is known to the Great God of the Internet.

I can only think that Unknown Territory is somewhere under the sea (or on it: a cruise liner?) or some sort of a secret hideaway (Tracy Island? Could it be real?) or just possibly on Mars.

If the last is in fact the case then please, Martians, don't be offended by the title of this post. I have nothing against the naturally virescent (that is, things which are, or are becoming, green). Really. Trees in the spring: fine. Parrots: fine. Bank notes: fine. 

It's just not very healthy for humans.

Chinese girl tretchikoff.jpg
The Green Lady by Vladimir Tretchikoff (though on my screen she actually looks bright blue)

You see, a virescent human will be either seasick or envious or inexperienced or gullible.

They say that poison is green, too: but I think that was just a rumour put about by someone who didn't like broccoli.

Thing Not To Be Today: virescent. This word comes from the Latin virēre, to be green.

Monday 15 October 2018

Spot the Frippet: ladder.

Ladders can be spotted in libraries:

File:Library of the Catholic Seminar in Budapest, former monastery of the Order of Saint Paul the First Hermit 03.JPG
Library of the Catholic Seminar in Budapest. Photo by JezW

 in (mainly British) knitwear and hosiery:

File:Stocking run.jpg
photo by Molly from Bronx

(in America they're called runs, but ladder is rather good, I think)

 They're used in building:

File:Steeplejack on a chimney in 1960 arp.jpg
photo by Adrian Pingstone of 1960s Bristol. (Look at that safety, there isn't, is there. Eek!)

and on tower blocks:

ไฟล์:NYC - Buildings with fire exit ladders - 0200.jpg
photo of New York fire escapes by Jorge Royan

There are also virtual ladders. If you want to get higher up a, well, a hierarchy, then you may find yourself on a social or professional ladder - and it may well feel even more precarious than a job as a steeplejack.

Mind you, you can climb some ladders without taking any risks at all...

...but watch out for snakes, do.

File:The ladder of life is full of splinters.jpg
photo by Mykl Roventine

Spot the Frippet: ladder. This word comes from the Old English hlǣdder. I wish we still had common English words that begin hl.

Sunday 14 October 2018

Sunday Rest: vitellogenic. Word Not To Use Today.

File:New Forest calf.jpg
photo from the New Forest, England, by Jim Champion

Vitellogenic is a perfectly good word, really. I just can't imagine any occasion upon which anyone might want to use it.

Word Not To Use Today: vitellogenic. This word means producing or stimulating the production of egg yolk. It comes from the Latin vitellus, which originally meant little calf but later, somehow, came to mean egg yolk. Vitulus means calf.

I suppose if you were a member of a family of biologists who had been trying out some new sort of chicken feed you might just use the word vitellogenic. The Universe is vast and multifarious, so such a family might even exist. 

Though the chances of them speaking English can't be great.

Still, if you hear anyone say it, do let us know.

Saturday 13 October 2018

Saturday Rave: A Girl by Ezra Pound

Understanding a subject is a good thing, naturally, but luckily it's not always necessary.

Sometimes understanding something isn't even desirable:  fascinating mysteries, when researched and analysed, sometimes turn out to be mere mistakes, or stupidities, or gaps.

Here's a short poem by Ezra Pound.

A Girl

The tree has entered my hands,

The sap has ascended my arms,
The tree has grown in my breast-
The branches grow out of me, like arms.

Tree you are,

Moss you are,
You are violets with wind behind them,
A child - so high - you are,
And all this is folly to the world.

Yes...sometimes I'd choose mystery over complete understanding.

Wouldn't you?

Word To Use Today: violet. This is a lovely word as long as it's pronounced with three syllables. It comes from the Latin viola  which is an even more horrid word when pronounced with two.

Friday 12 October 2018

Word To Use Today: hex.

What do you think about when you see the word hex?

Witches? Computer coding? Mediaeval music? Geometry?

The cultured thing would be to claim that mediaeval music springs immediately to mind.

But I'm afraid that in my case it's witches.

Baldung Hexen 1508 kol.JPG
painting by Hans Baldung

Ah well!

Word To Use Today: hex. The word meaning to cast a spell comes, via Pennsylvanian Dutch, from the German Hexe, witch, and might be linked to the Old High German hagzissa, which is where the English word hag originated. 

The computer coding word is short for hexadecimal notation. Hexadecimal means to do with the number sixteen, and hexadecimal notation is necessary when doing arithmetic based on the number sixteen (you use the numbers 1 - 9, and then A - F to represent the numbers from ten to fifteen. It's a bit of a faff for people, but computers find it easier than our usual decimal system).

Hex in mediaeval music is to do with tunes written with the notes of a six-note scale (or based on that idea, anyway). 

This idea got renewed attention in the 20th century, when people wanted to find ways of making music without the slightest sign of any tune at all.

In geometry, hex usually stands for hexagon:

honeycombe, photo by Waugsberg 

All the to-do-with-six meanings are based on the Greek hex, which means six.

Thursday 11 October 2018

Snail-mail: a rant.

I phoned the hospital to enquire about an urgent fax that had failed to arrive at my doctors' surgery, but I was told that the hospital doesn't have a fax machine any more.

Well, I thought that was a very good thing. There are so many faster and more effective ways to communicate: email, text, face-time type things, telephone, electronic transfer, couriers...and there are probably a dozen other new information systems of which I am not aware. Nowadays they can probably bounce messages off the moon.

I was glad that the hospital had consigned their fax machine to history.

Well, I was glad until someone said:

Still, we put a first class stamp on it, as it was urgent, which we don't usually do.

Ah well. 

I'll just have to hope it wasn't that urgent, after all.

Word To Use Today: class. This word comes from the Latin classis, which means class, rank,. or fleet, from calāre, to summon.

(But coming across the word fleet just makes things even worse!)

Wednesday 10 October 2018

Nuts and Bolts: how to speak.

Devices to help people who are physically unable to speak aren't new.

Professor Stephen Hawking was a famous example of someone who used one. His device depended on the operator using tiny muscular movements to make a selection from an index of letters, words, and phrases. It works, but slowly.

Recent research has suggested that every different word in a person's vocabulary exists in a certain very particular part of the brain, giving hope of direct brain-to-speech-machine system; but the trouble with that is that each individual brain is quite likely to be wired up differently - and that each different language is very likely to work differently, too.

That's why some new research, announced in the Journal of Neuroscience, is so exciting. It takes a completely new and very elegant approach.

What lead researcher Professor Marc Slutzky and his team at Northwestern University did was to record brain activity when brain-surgery patients were making the various sounds (only forty four in total) that make up the English language. As a result, Dr Slutzky's team have now been able to developed a machine/brain interface that can decode the sounds the brain is instructing the lips, tongue and vocal chords to make. 

It turns out that these instructions work in much the same way that the brain's instructions for arm and leg movements.

The next step is to design a machine that can produce the decoded sounds.

This is so promising, elegant and exciting. Think of it, a machine that can automatically turn thoughts into speech...


...well, I just hope they make sure the thing has an off-switch, that's all.

Nuts and Bolts: brain. The word brain comes, via Old English, from the Greek brekhmos, which means forehead.

Tuesday 9 October 2018

Thing Probably Not To Be Today: well-upholstered.

Someone extensively covered in fat, though not to the point where the weight sags under the force of gravity, is termed well-upholstered.

Yes, just like a sofa:

File:American empire style sofa, c. 1820-30, wood, mahogany veneer and brocade upholstery, Dayton Art Institute.JPG
American 1820s sofa. Photo by Wmpearl

Two thoughts occur. First, what a good thing it is that fat spreads itself so neatly over extensive areas of the body rather than appearing as a second nose, or a third ear; and, second, what's upholstery got to do with the sort of holster that holds a gun?

Well, nothing, actually.

Thing Probably Not To Be Today: well-upholstered. In the 1600s an upholster was a small furniture dealer. Why? Well, to uphold a belief is to give support to it, and furniture gives physical support to all of us (I mean, who isn't grateful for cushions?). 

Holster is a different word entirely. It's Dutch, and is related to the Old Norse hulstr, sheath, and the Old English heolstor, darkness.

Monday 8 October 2018

Spot the Frippet: salver.

File:Salver MET DP232314.jpg

My dictionary says, correctly, that a salver is a tray, usually made of silver. And then it mentions that they're used for visiting cards, and suddenly I want to print myself some visiting cards and take them round the neighbourhood.

They'd be jolly useful, actually. They tell you things. For one thing, if you don't receive one in return then the message is conveyed that any further visit (which might involve meeting an inhabitant other than the maid) will be unwelcome. 

Wouldn't that make life simpler?

Your maid (if well-trained) will also, of course, use a salver to bring in your letters (except that nowadays not many of us have maids, and letters tend to have such a brief existence between the doormat and the recycling bin that putting them on a salver would be ridiculous).

We're more likely to bring out something that might be called a salver for parties, where a food-tray thing for displaying what a friend's mother calls picky-bits is perennially useful.

But what most often goes on a salver round here, I'm afraid, is a restaurant bill. Or, in private houses, a small salver might provide a resting place for keys, paper clips, or the drips from vases of flowers.

It's enough to make us feel suddenly quite civilised, you know.

Spot the Frippet: salver. This word comes from the French salve from the Spanish salva, the tray from which the king's taster sampled food, from the Latin salvāre, to save.

Sunday 7 October 2018

Sunday Rest: oroide. Word Not To Use Today.

The word oroide sounds literally horrid, doesn't it?

It's rather a horrid thing, too. Oroide is a mixture of copper and tin, or copper and zinc, or copper and goodness only knows what other metals, all squidged together make something that pretends to be gold.

Brass is oroide, and so is bronze (but not fool's gold because that's basically iron).

Let bronze be proudly bronze, I say:

File:Bronze Marcus Aurelius Louvre Br45.jpg
Marcus Aurelius: photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen 

and brass be brass:

photo by en:User:Nevilley

I mean, who wants anything made of pure gold, anyway? It'd only get bent out of shape in the exciting passages.

Sunday Rest: oroide. This word comes from the French for gold, or, plus the Greek eidos, which means form.

Saturday 6 October 2018

Saturday Rave: The Jazz Singer: Samson Raphaelson, Alan Crosland, Warner Brothers

The Jazz Singer was the first full-length film with built-in sound. 

The plot of the film came from a short story by Samson Raphaelson called "The Day of Atonement". The director of the film was Alan Crosland, and the star was Al Jolson.

The Jazz Singer is about forging an identity in a land of immigrants - and also about making it in show business.

The sound element of The Jazz Singer was recorded on discs which had to be synchronised with the film's images. This, by all accounts, required a projectionist with split-second timing and (I should imagine) more than two hands.

Despite this, the premiere of The Jazz Singer on October 6 1927 was a sensation and a great success. Sadly, none of the Warner Brothers (and they really were brothers) were there to see it because, Sam, the most fervent supporter of the film's new Vitaphone sound system, had died of pneumonia the day before.

The first words heard spoken in the film are, famously, 'Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain't heard nothing yet.'

And we hadn't, had we?

The Jazz Singer 1927 Poster.jpg

Word To Use Today: talkie. The word talk was talkien in the 1200s. It's related to the Old English talu, which means tale.

The film was a solid commercial success, even though most cinemas hadn't got sound equipment and so had to show the film in a silent version.

Friday 5 October 2018

Word To Use Today: cakeism.

Should this word be a Friday Word To Use Today or a Sunday Word Not To Use Today? I'm not sure.

Cakeism is a new word, coined during that tortured fiasco of a proceeding called Brexit.

Cakeism refers to the old saying you can't have your cake and eat it. (Actually, of course, you can have your cake and eat it, but the implication is that if you eat your cake you'll no longer have it.)

File:Armenian Wiki birthday cake 2014.JPG
a cake to celebrate the birthday of Armenian wiki. Photo by Beko

The French have a phrase that expresses the same idea, though in French they can't have their butter and the money for selling it.

The idea of cakeism has come to the fore because the British are said to want all the advantages of EU membership with none of the costs or duties. 

Well, of course we do. Who wouldn't?

This cake motif assumed particular prominence after a Member of Parliament, Mark Field, managed to allow a page of his notes to be photographed by the press. 'What's the model?' he asked. 'Have your cake and eat it?' 

Entertainingly, this incident led to a formal denial that having your cake and eating it was official government policy.

My chief worry in all this is that the negotiators in Brussels aren't being given nearly enough to eat. Why else are they so fixated on cakeism and cherry picking?

And why, for that matter, is what most of what they produce pure fudge?

Word To Use Today: cakeism. The word cake comes from the Old Norse kaka

(A kaka, as a matter of interest, is an extinct parrot.)

Thursday 4 October 2018

Crocodiles in Dundee: a rant.

This is from a report in The Telegraph online newspaper about tooth decay among Scottish children:

In terms of dental health, 170 children had to have teeth extracted every day in 2017.

Well, their mouths must have been horrifically overcrowded.

File:Nile crocodile head.jpg
photo by Leigh Bedford

Word To Use Today: tooth. The Old English for this word was tōth, which is basically the same word as the Latin dens.

Wednesday 3 October 2018

Nuts and Bolts: caught napping.

"Cats are not dogs!"

So begins PG Wodehouse's short story The Story of Webster from  his collection Mulliner Nights. 

(Webster, by the way, is a cat.)

This story came to mind when it occurred to me that the ideal opportunity to perpetrate a dognap (that is, to steal a dog in order to ransom it) might be to pounce when both the pooch and its owner were having a catnap.

Further research revealed the words Flynap and Wet-Nap, too.

So what, in all these cases, is a nap?

Well, the catnap one is easiest, because in this case the nap just means, well, nap, as in short sleep. Dogs and people have catnaps, too, of course, but cats may be said to have elevated the activity into an art form of extreme elegance.

The word dognap is different. It's based on kidnap (that is, to steal away a child (or anyone else) for the purposes of ransom). The nap here is an extinct version of nab, which still to this day means to steal, or, at least, to seize a brief opportunity to acquire something. 

But what about Flynap? I mean, however you creep up on flies they never seem to be asleep - and, let's face it, kidnapping a fly would be the work of a lunatic.

Well, Flynap is basically a substance called triethylamine, and it's used to anaesthetise fruit flies, presumably for scientific purposes. Cleverly named, I'd say.

And Wet-Nap

Well, Wet-Nap is a moist tissue for cleaning the hands, and this nap is, presumably, from napkin, which comes from Old French nape, tablecloth, from the Latin mappa, which is means small cloth or towel, and is related, surprisingly, to our word map.

By the way, I discovered during the research for this post that the Shetland Islands word for lamb is, rather sweetly, kidi

It's not relevant, just nice to know.


Tuesday 2 October 2018

Thing To Be Today: mysterious.

The Louvre in Paris has a special entrance for those who aren't bothered about seeing the vast majority of the cultural and artistic treasures on display, but just want to tick off the flipping Mona Lisa.

File:Mona Lisa.jpg
Illustration by Leonardo da Vinci

It's a small painting, and one not likely to inspire joy, but Mona Lisa is a remarkably longstanding example of someone who's famous...well, for being famous.

The critic Walter Pater, in the days when publishing a book called The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry was more or less the equivalent of opening a Twitter account, gave her a boost with the immortally ridiculous lines:

She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave...

none of which is, obviously, even slightly true, but does make poor old Lisa sound drenched in mystery. And people are suckers for anything mysterious.

Nowadays, luckily, it's not hard to be mysterious. Anyone who doesn't post on social media more than twice a day practically counts as a recluse - and we all know how fascinatingly full of mystery they are.

So: if you must post a selfie today then at least try out a mysterious smile: you know, the tooth-free one that lets people imagine you might be a vampire.

Take it early enough in the day and you might even manage to look several centuries undead, to enhance the illusion.

Thing To Be Today: mysterious. The word mystery comes from Latin, from the Greek word mustērion, which means secret rites.

Monday 1 October 2018

Spot the Frippet: dipper.

My favourite sort of dipper is hard to spot even if it's there (which it nearly always isn't). It's a bird that looks like a bulky wren:

File:White-thraoted Dipper - Aosta Valley - Italy S4E3468 (16864636648).jpg
Italian dipper. Photo by Francesco Veronesi

 which spends a lot of time underwater in shallow, fast flowing streams. When they blink you can see their startlingly white eyelids. I love them.

Still, if you fail to spot one of these beautiful birds then, rather neatly, you yourself are a dipper, because in bird watcher jargon to dip out means to miss a bird you've travelled especially to see, and to call such a person a dipper is a long-established joke.

There are other dippers, too. If you are a painter and have a small pot clipped to your palette for turps or water then that is a dipper. A car dips its headlights by means of a dipper. A dipper is slang for a pickpocket (now they are hard to spot).

On the other hand there are big dippers, which aren't hard to spot at all - although round here in Britain we call the starry one the plough:

File:North Star, Big Dipper and Cassiopeia.jpg

 and the fun fair one:

File:Giant Dipper Roller Coaster-10.jpg
San Diego. Photo by Visitor7

 a roller coaster.

Ah well. We can always fail to spot the bird, can't we?

Spot the Frippet: dipper. The word dip comes from the Old English dyppan and is related to the Old High German tupfen to wash.