This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 30 November 2018

Word To Use Today: wackaging.

It all started in Wonderland.

'Drink me!' said the bottle Alice found (and, oh-so-foolishly, she did indeed drink it. Was there no Health and Safety in those days?).*

This label was, as far as I know, the first example of wackaging, which is where the packaging of a product, usually some sort of foodstuff, displays jokes and, often, a self-consciously informal way of addressing the consumer.

Oatly, which make dairy-like oat-based products, have recently been using the slogan: 

milk, but made for humans

and the other day I saw something out of the corner of my eye that said Hello! and I discovered that this is the name of a new Lindt chocolate bar.

Wackaging quite often involves messages from the foodstuff itself: keep me in the fridge! Recycle me! Try me with vodka and lime! Lick me, love me!  

Innocent drinks have been credited with beginning the current wackaging trend back in the 1990s. The company's copywriter, Lucie Bright has said 'to be honest, we were mucking about when we started...we've always talked to everyone in the same way we talk to our friends, but with fewer swear words.'

And now the idea has taken hold and many companies are trying to be funny and/or wacky to make themselves and their products look fresh and hip. (That's companies which sell things in Britain, anyway: it seems to be too silly a trend for most of the world.) There's a new tea brand, for instance, called Make mine a builder's! (builders being known in Britain for drinking strong tea).

Whether wackaging is quirkily inviting or off-puttingly annoying is a matter of debate.

But I think it's a joyful word, all the same.

Word To Use Today: wackaging. This word is a mixture of wacky and packaging. The word pack has been around since the 1200s, and wacky appeared in the 1800s meaning someone who behaves in a silly way, as if he or she has just been whacked over the head.

*Though Alice did, rather charmingly, check there wasn't a poison label first.

Thursday 29 November 2018

Capital Flight: a rant.

Reports that academics at Leeds Trinity University in Yorkshire have been banned from using capital letters have been greatly exaggerated.

To be frank, they're not true.

It is true, however, Leeds Trinity academics are advised that they should be "avoiding officious language and negative instructions:" but that, says vice-chancellor Professor Margaret House, is just best teaching practice. 

As an example, shouting Don't go near the tiger! would presumably not be recommended. But then how many tigers are there in Yorkshire?

In any case this wouldn't be as bad as writing Don't go near the TIGER! because apparently writing in capitals might draw attention to the "difficulty or high-stakes nature of the task". And I suppose that as long as it's a very relaxed, fully-fed sort of a tiger then that'll be all right.

The memo in which these pearls of wisdom have been promulgated also suggests that when explaining assessment tasks "any lack of clarity can generate anxiety" which must be true (Consider your distance carefully with regards to the thingy).

Now, we can't but admit that, as Professor House points out, using all capital letters isn't elegant, whatever the subject. And the instruction to be "explicit about any inexplicitness" is good advice too.

So if you should come across a stripy animal, nothing like a horse, then you really should consider the level of intimacy which would be recommended as safe for a member of the public.

Word To Use Today: TIGER. This word comes from the Old French tigre, from the Latin tigris, from Greek. The word originally comes from Iran.

Danio rerio port.jpg
photo by Soulkeeper 

Wednesday 28 November 2018

Nuts and Bolts: iso- prefix.

Isos is the Greek for equal: but, as it turns out, some are more equal than others.

There's the isobar sort of equal, where a line on a map joins points of equal atmospheric pressure; and then there's the isomer sort of equal, where various chemicals are made of the same atoms, but these atoms are joined together in different arrangements.

The isobar sort of equal, used on maps and charts, gives us isobath (equal depth of water) isochime (equal water temperature) isochor (equal volume of a fluid when temperature and pressure change) isochrone (equal time of travelling to one particular point) isogloss (a line surrounding the area of some linguistic feature, such as a pronunciation) isohel (equal sunshine) isonome (equal abundance of a plant species) isopach (area of equal thickness of a rock stratum)  isotach \(equal wind speed) isothere (equal summer temperature) and isotherm (equal temperature).

There's also the very useful isopleth, which joins areas on a chart or map of equal whatever-it-is-you-need-to-join up.

The isomer sort of equal gives us (for example) isochromatic, which describes things that are the same colour, and isomerous, which describes things (usually pants) which have equal numbers of parts or markings.

Nearly all English iso- words are one or the other, except those that are to do with isolation which, pleasingly, stand pretty-much alone.

Word To Use Today: one beginning iso-. Isolation comes from the Latin insulātus made into an island.

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Thing Not To Do Today: gazump someone.

Gazumping sounds sounds fun (and it might be, if you like inflicting agonising disappointment on people) but gazumping is selfish and often plain wrong.

Gazump is a British and Australian word, and it usually refers to a house sale. It happens when someone has agreed a price for a house and then a dastardly gazumper goes in and offers a higher price, causing the original buyer to lose the purchase.

The meaning of gazump has now spread outwards and now might cover a swindle such as a house seller (or his agent) pretending to have a gazumping offer; or it might be an example of just plain demanding more money for a house at the last minute. 

Some sensible countries like Scotland have laws which make this practice illegal.

Here in England, though, we have to keep our fingers crossed as a house sale goes through, while we gradually go white with terror.

Thing Not To Do Today: gazump someone. This word appeared in the 1920s when it meant to swindle. It may come from the Yiddish gezumph, to overcharge or cheat.

Monday 26 November 2018

Spot the Frippet: vertex.

It's Monday morning, so let's start at the top: or, to give us a veneer of technical understanding to our discourse, the vertex.

A vertex is the highest point of something, though being a highest point isn't always enough. The Netherlands, for instance, has a highest point:

File:Vaalserberg, highest point monument.jpg
Vaalserberg, The Netherlands. Photo by Tk420 

but although it's a point, as you can see it's not actually pointy, and a vertex usually has to be pointy (though possibly not in your own case, because you carry a rather rounded vertex around with you wherever you go (it's the crown of your head)). 

In Maths, the word vertex can be used in many ways, but most straightforwardly a vertex is any point of a many-sided straight-sided shape, whether it's flat like a hexagon or three-dimensional like a Toblerone.

File:Toblerone 3362.jpg
photo by Ashley Pomeroy

In astrology, a vertex is a point located in the western hemisphere of a chart (the right-hand side) that represents the intersection of the ecliptic and the prime vertical. 

I have absolutely no idea what this means, but fortunately it's all rot, anyway, so it doesn't matter.

I hope you have fun spotting some vertexes - or, if you're feeling technical, some vertices.

In any case, I always find that a nice irregular plural illuminates the day.

Spot the Frippet: vertex. This word means highest point in Latin, and comes from vertere, which means to turn.

Sunday 25 November 2018

Sunday Rest: dulcify. Word Not To Use Today.

Imagine a word meaning to make pleasant or agreeable. One to cast over a sentence a haze of delight and ease.

One which summons up sweet shade, glowing health, and sparkling water (or, alternatively, if that's your sort of thing, chairs clustered outside cafés in streets dotted with interior design shops and 
pervaded by the subtle ambiance of faraway bagpipes).*

So, what word would that be?

Well, despite the dictionary, it's not going to be dulcify, is it.

Sunday Rest: dulcify. This word comes from two Latin word, dulcis, sweet, and facere to make.

*Okay: very faraway bagpipes.

Abraham Bloemaert - The Bagpiper - WGA02274.jpg
painting by Abraham Bloemaert

Saturday 24 November 2018

Saturday Rave: Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.

Anna Sewell's novel Black Beauty is credited with starting the pony genre of children's fiction. It's also credited with being the most influential anti-animal-cruelty novel ever written.

Black Beauty is the only horse/pony novel I've ever read, but it's one of the few books that has made me cry.

It's Anna Sewell's only book, written at the very end of her life (she survived publication by only five months, though that was enough to show that it was going to be an enormous and influential bestseller - it's now reckoned to be the world's sixth best-selling novel). Sewell was an invalid all her adult life, unable to walk any distance, and her dependence on horse-drawn transport formed the basis for her great respect for horses.

Is Black Beauty great literature? 

Well, it's effective writing, and it's changed the way the world thinks, so I'd have to say yes, even though Anna Sewell's chief interest wasn't really in words:

'We call them dumb animals, and so they are, for they cannot tell us how they feel, but they do not suffer less because they have no voices.'

And no one could say she didn't argue her case beautifully.

Word To Use Today: dumb. This word hasn't changed since the years of Old English. Before that it might have had something to do with earlier Indo-European words for confusion, dizziness and mist.

Friday 23 November 2018

Word To Use Today: shengmu.

Sheng mu can mean several things in Mandarin Chinese expressions. It partly depends on the diacritical marks (the small squiggly things that are usually known as accents).

Shēng mŭ is used to describe the first consonant of a Chinese syllable. It also means natural mother or birth mother.  

Shèng mŭ, however, means holy mother, goddess, or the Virgin Mary.

It's this last version of shengmu that's beginning to be seen used in English, though it's nothing to do with goddesses. Instead shengmu has begun to be used (in Mandarin and English) to describe someone whose politics are based on claims of a large and hypocritical amount of self-inflating empathy.

It's a word to leap upon joyfully, but it's also a very young word in English, and for the time being I fear it must be used with caution, as in China it tends to have an anti-refugee slant which has been used to insult even ordinary citizens who express sympathy with displaced persons, so it's a word that's teetering between the useful and the appalling. 

Still, if it does end up allowing us to insult the hypocritically saintly among us then it's going to be a very useful, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: shengmu. This word comes from the Mandarin Chinese.

Thursday 22 November 2018

Mum's the word: a rant.

A large majority of people that have been pregnant or have given birth identify as women, the British Medical Association informs doctors in a booklet called A Guide To Effective Communication: Inclusive Language in the Workplace.

Well, I'm sure we are all awestruck. I mean, just imagine what it must be like to have that sort of in-depth technical knowledge! 

The advice goes on:

We can include intersex men and trans-men who may get pregnant by saying "pregnant people".

And so we can, but how about the vast majority of pregnant people who do actually identify as expectant mothers? Or who quite appreciate the no longer recommended term Mrs? Or who rather like having a husband being referred to, well, as a husband?

If the BMA's booklet gets its way, I shall no longer even be a wife or a mother, even though as a matter of fact I self-identify as both.

Personally, I find this rather upsetting. I mean, I've suffered for the labels Mrs, wife and mother.

And I jolly well think I should get the credit for it.

Word To Use Today: identity. This word comes from the Latin identitas, from idem, which means the same.

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Nuts and Bolts: accentual verse.

Hickory dickory dock
The mouse ran up the clock
The clock struck one, the mouse ran down,
Hickory dickory dock.

[It might be worth pointing out here, for readers for whom English is not the first language, that hickory and dickory are basically sounds without meaning.]

There are lots of ways of getting verse to stick together, from using words that are similar to each other in some way (rhyme or alliteration for example) to arranging words so they play out a rhythm.

Accentual verse uses rhythm to stick itself together. For centuries it was fashionable in English serious verse to arrange each syllable so the verse walked along on what are called feet (a foot, in this case, being an arrangement of loud and quiet syllables. The word bother, for instance, has a loud syllable followed by a quiet one; in a line of verse the normal thing was to have a sequence of similar feet (in the case of bother loud-quiet) all in a row: Bother bother bother stupid scansion! That sort of thing.

Accentual verse uses the same idea, but much more freely. The verse Hickory dickory dock has basically two heavy stresses per line: 

HICKory dickory DOCK
The MOUSE ran up the CLOCK
The CLOCK struck one, the MOUSE ran down,
HICKory dickory DOCK.

This sort of thing is very useful if you're planning to dance a baby about to the verse, or skip to it. (It doesn't matter how many quiet syllables there are between the loud ones.)

The history of accentual verse runs from the earliest English verse (Beowulf, for example) to modern rap. It often uses other devices, too, not just the heavily stressed syllables. There'll often be a break in the middle of a line, or rhymes, or repeated sounds.

But it's wonderful to think of the form stretching all the way from Baa Baa Black Sheep to the Beastie Boys.

Word to Use Today: accent. This word comes from French, from the Latin accentus, from cantus, which means chant or song, which is a translation of the Greek prosōidia, which can be either a song sung to music, or the tone of a syllable.

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Thing Possibly Not To Do Today: bridle.

Here's a lovely contranym, that is, a word which means its own opposite.

Think about it: if you bridle your passions you're reining them in (ooh, look at that! An unmixed metaphor! What is it with people and horses?), but if you bridle at something that's been said to you then you are displaying scorn or indignation (though in a silent and non-violent way).

Still, I suppose that if your first instinct upon being insulted was to hit your interlocutor over the head with a meat axe, then that might well require some bridling in both senses, mightn't it?

Fortunately other passions are available for pursuing at full gallop, whether it be for Matisse, Meatloaf, macrame, mountaineering, moths or Mercedes.

Enjoy them at full throttle if you can.

File:Muybridge race horse gallop.jpg
photos by Eadweard Muybridge 1904

Thing Possibly Not To Do Today: bridle. This word comes from the Old English brigdels and is related to bregdan, which means both to move suddenly and to draw together, and is the origin of our word braid.

Monday 19 November 2018

Spot the Frippet: bricolage.

Believe it or not, bricolage is actually sometimes concerned with bricks.

No, things aren't usually that simple.

Bricolage is the jumbled effect you get when buildings of different ages and styles are erected next to each other. It can be charming, or it can be something close to sacrilege (The Prince of Wales described the proposed extension to the National Gallery in London as a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend".

This is Peter Ahrends' carbuncle design

This is how it turned out in the end:

Photo by Richard George - Own work, CC BY 2.5,


Examples of architectural bricolage are often most interesting seen from the rear, so I'd recommend walking along the backs of High Streets - or Low Streets, for that matter - and seeing whether you find a carbuncle of the warty or jewel kind.

Spot the Frippet: bricolage. This word is French, so you say it bree-coh-LARJ. In French bricolage means Do It Yourself. Bricoler means to tinker.

Bricolage can also describe anything made from mixed media, especially if it's made of things that just happen to be lying around. It's also music produced by found or home-made objects such as pots and spoons.

More widely, bricolage is the process of creating a personal identity by choosing objects from various other cultures, and the means by which any problem is solved or piece of knowledge acquired through the piecing together of existing knowledge or beliefs.

Sunday 18 November 2018

Sunday Rest: heliotaxis. Word Not To Use Today.

Disappointingly, heliotaxis are not solar-powered vehicles for private hire.

No, the word describes the movement of an organism in response to sunlight.

For example, worms tend to move away from the sunlight (that's negative heliotaxis) and cats tend to move towards it (positive heliotaxis).

Humans are their usual awkward selves: half of them go one way and half the other...

File:Solar taxi at Dartmouth.jpg
2008 photo by SayCheeeeeese

...though of course they'd all take the taxi if they had the chance.

Sunday Rest: heliotaxis. Hēlios is the Greek for sun. Taxis is the Greek for arrangement. Tassein means to place in order.

Saturday 17 November 2018

Saturday Rave: A Fairy Song by William Shakespeare

That William Shakespeare, eh? He wrote some heavy stuff.

Death, race, betrayal, love, hate, treachery, suicide, murder, mutilation. You name it, he was there and, quite frankly, down and dirty with it.

Well, that's the stuff that shows a writer is important and clever, right? Someone like Shakespeare wouldn't be doing with all that stupid fantasy stuff. That's just for idiots.


Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough briar,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon's sphere;
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green;
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours;
In those freckles live their savours,
I must go and seek some dewdrops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslips ear;
Farewell, thou lob of spirits: I'll be gone;
Our queen and all her elves come here anon.


That's from A Midsummer Night's Dream. you think it might be an idea to pause a little before we completely dismiss all writers of fantasy, after all?

Word To Use Today: briar. This word comes from the Old English brēr.

Friday 16 November 2018

Word To Use Today: gulch..

This is an ugly, gulping word, but it's still good fun to say.


The only gulch I've ever come across, in fact or fiction, is Dead Man's Gulch:

Dead Man's Gulch poster.jpg

a film so little-watched that even Wikipedia doesn't know anything about the plot (though the poster shows two guys and a girl, so we know it was jolly exciting (and it shows hats and horses and a gun, so we also know it was a Western)).

However seldom-watched, the film has brought the word gulch to the attention of England, and for this I am grateful. 

A gulch is a narrow ravine cut by a fast stream, and in order of size as a geological feature it seems to go after canyon and ravine. (I mean, you couldn't imagine a Grand Gulch, could you?)

The word is native to North America, and how those of us in the rest of the world are going to use it today is a puzzle.

It might make a vivid metaphor for the throat, though, mightn't it? Especially one that needs a long, long drink. 

And that'd be linguistically rather clever, too.

Word To Use Today: gulch. This word appeared, mysteriously, in the 1800s, but from where no one is sure. There used to be a dialect word gulsh, which meant to sink in (if it was land) or to gush out (if it was water), and the Middle English gulchen means to drink greedily. 

Disarmingly, in about 1250 a gulche-cuppe was a greedy drinker.

Thursday 15 November 2018

Yours, sincerely: a rant.

I know that yours sincerely is just a formula, and that the same goes for yours faithfully (actually, I wish that some of my correspondents were less faithful: emails from some retailers arrive at a rate of more than one a day).

In any case, what's the alternative when ending a message? Love can be scary, and xx is just an all-too-obvious way of wriggling out of writing Love.

Recently we seem now to have entered a warmest regards period in epistolary history, which is blatantly ridiculous because although I hope I do excite warmest regards in one or two people, I doubt if either of them is my solicitor*.

But although I can myself only hold one single person in my warmest regard, I do wish more or less everyone well and happy, and so best wishes solves most problems.

Despite this, I find myself looking back wistfully, and I can't help thinking it'd be nice, just once, to receive a letter that ends I wish to remain, madam, your most obedient servant.

If it was from a Civil Servant then that would be extra lovely...

...well, it could hardly fail to raise a hollow laugh, in any case.

Word To Use Today: civil. This word comes from the Latin cīvis, which means citizen.

*A solicitor round here is more or less the same as an attorney in the USA, I think.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

Nuts and Bolts: aliterate.

An aliterate person is one who can read, but is disinclined to do so.

It's a condition quite often observed in the young, especially those who haven't yet accepted the impossibility of perpetual motion.

Aliteracy can prove chronic and is certainly disabling, but very nearly all humans have some instincts in the direction of aliteracy, particularly when faced with the words Terms and Conditions or Instructions For Safe Use.

This last is an occasion, particularly in connection with chainsaws, when aliteracy may even prove fatal.

Word To Use Today: aliterate. A word with an a- stuck on the beginning is probably, as in this case, something to do with the Greek habit of using a- to reverse the meaning of a word. The word literacy comes from the Latin litterārius, which means concerning reading and writing.

Tuesday 13 November 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: mumchance.

Any minute now the fashion for being Tremendously Sensitive (mandatory silent applause, for example, or removing all statues of anyone who's ever done anything) will bump into the fashion for TV talent shows, and there'll be an explosion of astonishing size and magnificence.

I'm quite looking forward to it.

What will emerge from the ashes I do not know, but perhaps a bit of mumchance might fit the bill. Mumchance means being struck dumb by some great emotion, but originally the word described a play without words. 

Well, it'd certainly improve some of the singing acts.

Luckily there is no need for us ever to be struck dumb in ordinary life, because our esteemed politicians have repeatedly shown us how to avoid it. A politician, faced with a difficult question, either says let me be quite clear and then drones on so boringly that everyone's stopped listening before anyone realises that he or she is avoiding the question, or there goes up a cry of fake news.

Or, in an astonishing recent example, I'm not talking to you because you're a horrible person.

Simple, yes?

And the technique's not even that complicated, either. 

Thing Not To Be Today: mumchance. This word comes from the Middle Low German Mummenschanze, a masked serenade, from mummen, which is related to the French word momon, mask, plus schanze, dance.

Monday 12 November 2018

Spot the Frippet: a percussion instrument.

Almost anything can be a percussion instrument. That table, that wall, that floor (and who needs drumsticks when you've got hands and feet?


Officially, though, a percussion instrument is something specially designed to make a sound when hit. These go from drums:

File:Drummer in The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps 50th Anniversary Tattoo.jpg
photo Old Guard Museum, Washington

to the less obvious piano, where the hammers that hit the strings are usually hidden inside the case:

File:Yamaha CP-70 opened top.jpg
Yamaha piano, photo by Michael Müller-Hildebrand

(Though where that leaves an electric piano or drum-kit I do not know.)

And there are still more percussion instruments around. They may not be musical, but a percussion tool uses the same principle to do its job:

File:Pneumatic drill.jpeg
photo of a pneumatic drill by Anthony Appleyard

Or there are percussion caps, which, sadly, don't protect people from blows to the head, but were formerly used as a means of making a gun fire.

I think I'll try to find something gentler, though...does anyone know where I can find a cow with a bell?

File:CH cow 1.jpg
photo by Daniel Schwen

Spot the Frippet: something percussive. This word comes from the Latin percutere, to hit.

Sunday 11 November 2018

Sunday Rest: waste. Word Not To Use Today.

A third of all British men aged 19 - 22 at the beginning of the First World War were dead by the end of it.

Think of that.

Think of the three young men who live nearest to you, and imagine one of them dead (you don't get to choose which one). Then do the same with the three young men of whom you're most fond; and the three young men whom you see when you're next out; and the three young men in your favourite TV drama.

(Of course it wasn't only the young men who died. My husband's grandfather had five young children, so he wasn't really young. But he died, all the same.)

After you've done all that, be grateful that it didn't happen to your generation. Be grateful that the First World War put an end (once and for all? Oh, I hope so) to the idea that there is anything, anything at all, sweet or noble about war.

Because that's the only thing that's going to stop the whole mess being an obscene, colossal, waste.

Word Not To Use Today: waste. The word comes from the Anglo-French waster, from the Latin vastāre, to lay waste, from vastus, empty.

The Armistice signalling the end of the First World War happened exactly a hundred years ago today.

Saturday 10 November 2018

Saturday Rave: Smoke is the Food of Lovers by Jacob Cats

Jacob Cats was born in 1577 in the Netherlands. He started work as a lawyer, fell in love, lost his love when he got desperately ill with malaria, was cured after several years by the powder of a mysterious doctor from no one-knows-where, retired to make a famous garden and write poetry, got sent abroad as an ambassador once or twice, and then retired once more to cultivate his garden. He died in 1660 and was much-loved for centuries in his own country as Father Cats.

Jacob Cats is best known for writing emblem books, which were popular in Europe at the time. An emblem consisted of an illustration, a poem or motto, and then an explanation of what it was all about.

Here's a poem of Jacob Cats' which, luckily, requires no explanation. It's been translated by a master hand, but sadly I haven't been able to discover whose.

When Cupid open'd shop, the trade he chose
Was just the very one you might suppose.
Love keep a shop? - his trade, oh! quickly name!
A dealer in tobacco - fie, for shame!
No less than true, and set aside all joke,
From oldest time he ever dealt in smoke;
Than smoke, no other thing he sold or made;
Smoke all the substance of his stock in trade;
His capital all smoke, smoke all his store,
'Twas nothing else, but lovers ask no more -
And thousands enter daily at his door!
Hence was it ever, and it e'er shall be
The trade most suited to his faculty:
Fed by the vapours of their heart's desire,
No other food his votaries require;
For that they seek - the favour of the fair  
Is unsubstantial as the smoke and air.


Love, like smoke?

Well, I suppose you can die from both of them.

Word To Use Today: smoke. The Old English for this word was smoca. The Middle Dutch smieken means to emit smoke.

Friday 9 November 2018

Word To Use Today: alimony.

My first husband has successfully avoided paying me a penny of alimony in decades. 

But then we're still married, so I suppose I'll have to live with it.

Anyway, two questions: first of all, what's an ali, and, second, is the ending of alimony the same basic word as money?

Yes, I realise that life would probably be simpler if I didn't care, but hey...

Word To Use Today: alimony. This word proved to be a bit of a let-down, quite honestly, coming as it does from the Latin alimōnia, sustenance, from alere, to nourish. 

Still, that does give it a pleasingly unexpected and mind-boggling connection with the alimentary canal.

Thursday 8 November 2018

Authentic Italian: a rant.

For me, a home-made vegetable stock isn't as important as a bedtime story - but I know that's the sort of opinion that attracts hate-mail.

Nevertheless, when Angela Hartnett, the great Angela Hartnett, offers to teach me how to make the perfect risotto then I'm keen to know what she has to say. I want my risotto to be authentic, but I don't really know what authentic is. Should a risotto consist of a heap of chewy separate grains? Or be something more nearly resembling a poultice? Should the rice be creamy or al dente (you can't have al dente cream, can you, so it's hard to see how it can be both, although both are regularly called for simultaneously in recipes).

But Angela will know, bless her. What should I have been doing all these years?

I tend to stir continuously, but not constantly, says Angela.

Continuously but not constantly...

...ah well. I can always say this is an authentic risotto of the da nessuna parte* region of Italy as I serve it up, can't I. No one can argue with that.

Word To Use Today: risotto. Riso is the Italian for rice.

*Da nessuna parte is the Italian for nowhere.

Wednesday 7 November 2018

Nuts and Bolts: closet drama.

So, what's a play for, then?

To entertain? Or to terrify? To harrow, or educate, or persuade?

All these answers, obviously, involve some communication with the audience - but what if a play is deliberately designed not to have an audience?

This is the idea behind closet drama, which is a play designed to be read, either in isolation or with a small group.

And what's the point of that? 

Well, the writer may wish to avoid imprisonment for treason, blasphemy or obscenity; or the writer may not happen to have a theatre handy to put on his or her play. It might be that the writer is of too low status to attract an audience (she may be a woman, perhaps); or perhaps the writer wants to write a play that simply isn't stageable.

Closet dramas were written in England from Elizabethan times onwards, and came into their own during the Puritan Commonwealth when all theatres were closed. 

But they persisted even after the return of the monarchy. In the early 1800s, when theatrical fashion turned against serious verse drama and towards sensation and melodrama, anyone wanting to write a literary play was more or less obliged to make it a closet drama. Goethe, Shelley and Pushkin all wrote in the closet drama form.

Nowadays some of the needs of closet drama are met by producing performances on the radio.

Sadly, though, even radio can't do anything to solve the ongoing and still serious problem of censorship. 

Word To Use Today: closet. This word comes from the Old French clos, which means enclosure.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

Thing To Be Today, Probably: woke.

Are you woke? Do you want to be woke

Er...what is woke, exactly?

Woke is too new a word for anyone to be completely certain of its meaning, especially as it still seems to be expanding and finding new places to exert its influence. It started off meaning awakened: in African American Vernacular English I was woke has long meant I was awake, or I was awakened

From about ten years ago, perhaps as a result of its use in music, woke began to mean I became aware [of some issue]; and then, expanding still further, I became aware that everything out there is a lot more complicated than I thought.

Nowadays I was woke has reached the point where it means I became aware that everything was so complicated that the only way to survive was to go along with the currently fashionable viewpoint on Life the Universe and Everything.

And, really, when you think about it that way, I was woke is an extremely efficient way of putting it.

Nowadays, as well as being woke personally, you can have, for instance, woke fancy dress parties, where everyone is so sensitive about causing offence that they more or less have to go dressed as themselves. There are probably woke restaurants and woke weddings, too.

I would comment that we're all walking on eggshells. But I'm afraid that might be seen as lacking in respect to the poor chicks.

Thing To Be Today Probably: woke. The trouble is, if I am myself woke then I probably shouldn't be using the word woke because that might be seen as cultural appropriation. 

Ah well! 

The Old English form of this word was wacian.

Monday 5 November 2018

Spot the Frippet: candle.

Today is Guy Fawkes night, our annual English celebration of the defeat of a terrorist plot to blow up our Houses of Parliament.

We traditionally celebrate with fireworks, and this means that the candle we're most likely to spot today is a Roman candle:

File:Roman candle structure drawing-en.svg

image by Petteri Aimonen

but, considering that we've moved on a long way from basic candle technology and now have homes full of halogen bulbs and LEDs, there are still a lot of candles about.

Many of them seem to be amazingly expensive and designed to give out a treacly, migraine-inducing pong. It's amazing what people will spend their money on, quite frankly.

There are candleberry and candlenut bushes, even something called a candlefish:

File:FMIB 50933 "Black Cod" Black "Candle-Fish" or Beshow.jpeg
image of a Black Candlefish by George Brown Goode from the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank 

 They're none of them going to be easy to spot, but you might see one of those candlewick bedspreads: you know, one that's been disfigured by having long lines of tufts applied all over it, like the course of a craft-crazy worm.

Then there's candlepower. Yes, any sort of light can be measured in international candles (though nowadays it's more usually measured in candelas).

Or, if you go bowling, then a skittle is also named a candlepinBy whom, though, I have not the faintest idea.

Spot the Frippet: candle. This word comes from the Old English candel, from the Latin candēre which means to be white or to glitter.

Sunday 4 November 2018

Sunday Rest: bloviate. Word Not To Use Today

The word bloviate - well, it's obviously either something to do with burping, or it's being sent to oblivion by the James Bond villain Blofeld, isn't it?


Well, it sounds like it!

Sunday Rest: bloviate. This word is almost to do with burping, because it probably comes from the word blow. It means to talk lengthily, especially without having anything worth saying. It first appeared in the mid 1800s.

In the USA the word is associated with US President Warren G Harding (quite often reckoned the worst president ever, even though there is, very obviously, considerable competition) who used the word bloviate to describe spending time doing nothing very much. Sadly one of thing he did do a lot was to go on and on and on about nothing very much, so his special meaning soon switched back to the generally accepted one.

Saturday 3 November 2018

Saturday Rave: Pharsalia by Lucan.

If you'd mentioned the name Lucan to me until recently then my first thought would have been of Lord Lucan, the man who vanished in London in 1974 leaving behind the murdered nanny of his children.

But the other Lucan is extraordinary. 

We have, sadly, lost most of the works of Marcus Annaeus Lucanus, usually known as Lucan, but at first glance he looks to have been an extremely romantic figure, having died most satisfactorily at the age of twenty five.

Then you read more, and things become muddier.

We have three, partly contradictory, accounts of Lucan's short life, but his story seems to have gone something like this. He was born to a wealthy and famous Roman family, and carefully educated in Rome and Greece. When he was grown up he became a friend of the Emperor Nero (not, clearly, a sensible move) but then, after having received several favours and appointments from the emperor, Lucan fell out with him (not at all a sensible move) and began (it is said) writing rude verses about his old friend. As if this wasn't foolish enough, Lucan then joined a plot intended to bring the emperor down. Lucan was forced to commit suicide when it was found out (though not before dobbing in his mum as a conspirator in the hope of being pardoned). Lucan apparently died reciting his own verse.

But still, his poem Pharsalia (the only one that survives that we're sure is his) is fabulous. 

Here's a bit from near the end (it's very long, though even so the poem may not be finished). It's about Caesar's meeting with Cleopatra. The whole poem has been recently and marvellously translated by AS Kline, and can be found HERE.

There, kings, and Caesar, greater than they, were
seated. There too was Cleopatra, not content with
a crown of her own, or her brother for a husband,
her baleful beauty inordinately painted, covered
with Red Sea pearls, a fortune in her hair and
around her neck, weighed down with jewellery.
Her snowy breasts gleamed through the Sidonian
stuff, thread wound tight on the Seres' shuttles,
that Egyptian needleworkers loosen and extend
drawing out the silk. 


I think the technical term is probably phwoar!

But oh, that poor silly genius of a Lucan!

Word To Use Today: caesar. This is the family name of Julius Caesar. Tsar and Kaiser are basically the same word.

Friday 2 November 2018

Word To Use With Care Today: wowser.

To me, wowser is a longer form of the word wow, that is, it's something to say to indicate surprise and joyful satisfaction.

I've just discovered, however, that in New Zealand a wowser is a person of very strict puritanical tendencies, and quite possibly a teetotaller.

Still, I suppose the chances of confusion are relatively slight. I mean, few people express much joyful satisfaction when they see one of those.

illustration by Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye

Word To Use Today: wowser. This word was invented in the 1900s and comes from the English dialect word wow meaning to whine or complain.

Thursday 1 November 2018

A Secret Scandal: a rant.

The idea of a secret scandal is, of course, nuts (if it's secret then there's, obviously, no scandal) but that's more or less what we're having in Britain at the moment.

A prominent businessman has been accused of the sexual harassment and bullying of employees, but, as he has obtained a court order preventing his name from being reported in the press, nobody knows who he is...or, at least, no one would if someone hadn't announced his name in the House of Lords (you can't sue someone for saying that sort of thing in Parliament).

One factor in this man's success at obtaining his court order is that the accusing employees have received money from him in return for a promise not to tell anyone about the alleged harassment and bullying.

I don't know what this man is said to have done, but on BBC Radio 4 the other day a newsreader twice spoke of a nun-disclosure agreement.

The mind, frankly, boggles.

Word To Pronounce Correctly Today: non. Perhaps this word is pronounced nun in some places in the world (the newsreader in question comes from Jamaica). The word non comes from the Latin nōn, which my Latin teacher would have pronounced nohn, to rhyme with bone, but which most people would rhyme with gone