This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 31 December 2018

Spot the Frippet: dots.

Fed up with the New Year traditions of your home country? 

Have you had enough alcohol, nor want to stay up until midnight, and definitely don't want to risk being snogged by Cousin Rodney as the clock strikes twelve?

Do you believe that watching Scottish revelry on television will get the year off to the worst possible start?

Don't you actually like collard greens?

Don't you want to smash crockery on a neighbour's door (as has formerly been the Danish custom) or to throw flowers in the sea, as in Brazil?

Well, then, why not go for a Filipino New Year celebration? All you have to do is make a lot of noise (set off firecrackers, bang pots, sound car horns etc). Then you also have to jump in the air at the stroke of midnight (to make yourself grow taller), open all the doors and windows (to let in blessings), eat twelve grapes (a borrowed Spanish tradition, one for luck in each month of the year), and find and gather together lots and lots of round things. So: wear polka dots, eat oranges, and fill your pockets with coins (as long as they're round coins, which isn't always the case in Britain).

Apparently the round things will make you get rich. 

NB: I'm not saying it'll work: but it can't do any harm, can it?

Well, not as long as they're your coins, it can't, anyway.

Spot the Frippet: dots. The word dot comes from the Old English dott which means, rather horribly, the head of a boil. It's related to the Old High German tutta, which means nipple and the Dutch dott, which means lump.

Sunday 30 December 2018

Sunday Rest: fuel. Word Not To Use Today.

Yes, the word fuel rhymes with yule, cruel, mule and drool, but I could forgive it even that if it hadn't been for the massacre of the poor word in the song. 

You know, The Song. 

The one that came out about a hundred years before deep and crisp and even was something to do with pizza.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gathering winter fyu-oo-ell.

wood-cut by Arthur Gaskin

I don't know if there have been any fatal attacks provoked by the pious screeching of the word fuel in that Christmas Carol.

But if there have been, I wouldn't be surprised. 

Still, the word's got a neat derivation, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: fuel. This word comes from the French feuaile, from feu, which means fire, and before that from the Latin focus which means hearth or fireplace. 

The words to Good King Wenceslas were written by John Mason Neale, in collaboration with his editor Thomas Helmore, in 1853. The tune was written in the 1200s and was originally for a song about the coming of Spring.

Saturday 29 December 2018

Saturday Rave: Skating. From the Prelude by William Wordsworth

So many New Year's poems are full of darkness and gloom. It's as if the New Year is more about the death of old hopes than the birth of new ones.

But here's a winter poem - it's actually part of a very long one - which literally takes place in darkness, but is at the same time full of energy and the joy of Nature, noise, speed, and youth.

And in the frosty season, when the sun
Was set, and visible for many a mile
The cottage windows blazed through the twilight gloom,
I heeded not their summons: happy time
It was indeed for all of us - for me
It was a time of rapture! Clear and loud
The village clock tolled six, - I wheeled about,
Proud and exulting like an untired horse
That cares not for its home. All shod with steel
We hissed along the polished ice in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures, the resounded horn,
The pack loud chiming, and the hunted hare,
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while the far distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy not unnoticed, while the stars
Eastward were sparkling clear, and in the west
The orange sky of evening died away.

That's the thing about being a poet, you see: you really notice what you're feeling.

It's not always a blessing: but oh, what a gift it is to the rest of us!

Word To Use Today: skate. This word comes via Dutch from the French éschaisse, which means improbably, stilt.

Friday 28 December 2018

Word To Use Today: mistletoe.

Well, we all know what a toe is: but what's a mistle?

Well, the other mistle- thing is the mistle thrush, the largest of our British thrushes. It's also called a storm cock because of its wonderful habit of sitting in the top of trees and singing its heart out as a storm approaches. 

File:Fledgling mistle thrush.jpg
photo of a young mistle thrush by Jim Champion

But the thrush turns out to be called after the plant, so this doesn't help us. 

File:Mistletoe Berries Uk.jpg
photo by Alexbrn

(I'd better say here that though thrushes enjoy mistletoe berries, they are poisonous to humans.)

There are hundreds of species of mistletoe, and they  can be found all over the world. Its distinctive, semi-parasitic way of growing on trees has attracted lots of folklore, often connected with fertility. The Celtic Druids believed the berries could cure illnesses, protect against nightmares, and even foretell the future; but it was the Ancient Greeks who first began kissing under the mistletoe (I don't want to spoil anyone's fun, but if you want to do the kissing thing properly then you have to pick one berry before each kiss), and later the Romans would settle their differences under it (a particularly useful function at this time of year).

In York Minster in mediaeval times there was a special winter mistletoe service where wrongdoers could be pardoned. Mistletoe was used to ward off evil, too.

So there are lots of customs to choose from, unless you want to do what people have been doing for thousands of years and start your own personal mistletoe tradition.

Whatever you do, have fun!

Word To Use Today: mistletoe. The toe bit comes from the Old English tan, meaning twig, which was added to the word for the plant, mistle. Where the word mistle came from is a bit of a mystery, but perhaps it's something to do with the Germanic word mash, meaning sticky (the berries are sticky), or the other Germanic word mist, meaning poo (the seeds are spread in bird poo).

So there we are. Mistletoe is poo on a stick.

What a lovely thing to put up in your living room!

Thursday 27 December 2018

The Language of Candles: a rant.

Well, candles make Christmas interesting, don't they? Warm, seasonal, migraine-inducing, and capable of lighting up your whole Christmas if placed too near a curtain or the Christmas tree. 

File:Lighted candle at night16.JPG
photo by Edukeralam, Navaneeth Krishnan S

Still, candles are full of meaning. People all over the world light candles to give extra strength to a prayer; and then there's licnomancia. 

Licnomancia is the art of using candles to tell fortunes. (That link will take you to a fairly complete course in how to do it. No, of course it doesn't work!) 

By coincidence, I came across a different example of another sort of candle-language in the classic book Anne of Green Gables by L M Montgomery

This system is 100% guaranteed to work.

You will need a lighted candle and a piece of cardboard.

You stand at a window and use the cardboard repeatedly to mask the candle so that from outside the candle appears to emit flashes of light. 

You also need a clued-up friend who can see your window.

In the book, Anne's code goes like this: 

Two flashes for are you there?

Three flashes mean yes.

And four flashes?

That means no.

Well, it made me laugh.

Five flashes, by the way, mean come over as soon as possible, because I have something important to reveal.

Irresistible, isn't it?

I wish there was a phone ring-tone that said that!

Word To Use Today: licnomancia. This is Spanish. -mancia comes from the Greek manteia, soothsaying. The licno- bit comes from the Greek lukhnos, which means lamp or light.

Wednesday 26 December 2018

Nuts and Bolts: Inuktun.

There being elves all over the world (or so I'm told) we can, I suppose, assume that there are many Elfish languages.

We can also, I think, accept that elves will quite often speak the local human language (or is it the other way round?) for purposes of playing tricks, seduction, trade, etc.

In that case, many elves must be fluent in Inuktun, which is the language of the people who live nearest to the North Pole. These people are to be found in Qaanaaq, in Greenland, and its surrounding villages.

There aren't many people who speak Inuktun - perhaps a thousand in all - so perhaps Inuktun might even be unique in the world in being spoken by more elves than people. I mean, Santa must need a lot of help.


Inuktun is also known as North Greenlandic, Polar Eskimo, or Thule Eskimo (and those are only the English names for the language. One Danish name is, endearingly, thulesproget. In the official Greenlandic dialect it's Avanersuarmiutut).

There's no official way of writing down Inuktun, and the language is not taught in schools, but most inhabitants of Qaanaaq use it in their everyday communication. 

The Inuktun-speaking people probably didn't get to Greenland from Canada until the 1700s. Inuktun-speakers say their esses differently from nearby people (more like the ch in loch), and they are especially relaxed about the need for vowels between consonants. In fact they only seem to have three vowels and thirteen simple consonants, plus five more consonants that are only used in combination.

I'll leave you with a lovely Inuktun word, aivvaqatauqattarhamahukkalaanga. It means although I have taken part in a walrus hunt. Aivvaq means to hunt walrus, qatau means to do together, qattar means to do habitually, hama describes something to do with a completed action, and hukkalaaq means although or but.

Isn't that marvellous and beautiful and amazing? It seems almost beyond human ingenuity to construct a word like that...

...hmm... you think the elf-language theory above might sometimes work in the other direction?


Ah well!

Word To Use Today: Inuktun. This word means big people.

Tuesday 25 December 2018

Thing To Do Today: troll.

Deck the hall with boughs of holly
Fa la la la lah la la la la!
'Tis the season to be jolly
Fa la la la lah la la la la!
Don we now our gay apparel
Fa la la, la la la, la la lah!
Troll the ancient Christmas carol
Fa la la la laaah la la la la!

This post is about trolling, but now I'm wondering what gay apparel looks like...and if it's really an entirely sensible thing to recommend.

Ah well, it would probably serve to broaden one's experience. And it is the season for goodwill to all men, after all.

Anyway, trolling. Nowadays this tends to mean being nasty to people via the internet, but originally the internet term meant to make controversial statements in order to get a reaction - which is, of course, the very essence of any Christmas get-together.

Ah well.

Trolling can also mean to search systematically for something, as in Mum was carefully trolling the guests for opportunities to off-load some curried salmon canapes.

These sorts of trolling are to do with trolling's older meaning of fishing by trailing a baited line along behind a boat.

The sort of trolling in the carol, though, means to sing in an enthusiastic and carefree sort of a way.

I don't say it'll make you popular, but if you're going to sing then that's the way to do it.

Happy Christmas!

Thing To Do Today: troll. All these words come from the Old French troller, to run about.

Monday 24 December 2018

Spot the Frippet: eaves.

So here it is, Merry Christmas...

...sorry. People have told you that much too often already. And, I mean, the everybody's having fun just rubs it in, doesn't it.

Anyway, it's Christmas Eve today and what I want to know is, has the eaves you find round houses:

File:Italianate eave with brackets.jpg
these posh eaves are in New York, Photo by Stilfehler

File:Eaves, Miyin Temple, 12 February 2018, 02.jpg
Miyin Temple. Photo by Huangdan2060

 got anything at all to do with the sort of eve we have today, meaning the time just before something?



It's rather refreshing to find something that hasn't, quite honestly, isn't it.

Spot the Frippet: eaves. This is one of those nice words, like scissors and trousers, which doesn't exist as a singular. The Old English form was efes, and it's a step-cousin twice removed (okay, the dictionary just says related) to the Gothic ubizwa, porch, and the Greek hupsos, height.

The word eve, as in Christmas, comes from the Old English ǣfen

Sunday 23 December 2018

Sunday Rest: yule.

Yule isn't the prettiest word. Well, if it was, it wouldn't rhyme with cruel, mule, and drool.

I'm afraid that the sticky-sweet and nauseating seasonal confection called a yule log only makes things worse.

File:Buche de Noel (Yule Log).jpg
photo by Mitantig

Still, the word does give a fair impression of what you feel like doing after you've been required to eat one, doesn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: yule. This word comes from the Old English winter pagan feast called geōla.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Saturday Rave: Mr John Knightley's Christmas by Jane Austen.

The man on the till in Screwfix was wearing a Christmas jumper. It was black and white and inscribed with the words BAH HUMBUG!

The man on the till in Sainsbury's told me, wearily, that he was too old for all this Christmas stuff. At a guess, he was twenty five.

BAH! HUMBUG! is a quotation from that most famous of scrooges, a character called, yes, Scrooge, in the novella A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  Dickens has a reputation for having invented the 'traditional' English Christmas, but families have been getting together at Christmas time for centuries, and as human nature has changed little in that time the season has always have had its stresses as well as pleasures.

So here, to hold out a consoling hand across the centuries, is Mr John Knightley embarking upon on a Christmas Eve outing. He is to be discovered in Jane Austen's novel Emma, which was published twenty-eight years before Ebenezer Scrooge's adventures; and, like all the very best fictional characters, he extends understanding, comfort, and joy to us all.

Emma soon saw that her companion was not in the happiest humour. The preparing and the going abroad in such weather, with the sacrifice of his children after dinner, were evils, were disagreeables at least, which Mr. John Knightley did not by any means like; he anticipated nothing in the visit that could be at all worth the purchase; and the whole of their drive to the vicarage was spent by him in expressing his discontent.
“A man,” said he, “must have a very good opinion of himself when he asks people to leave their own fireside, and encounter such a day as this, for the sake of coming to see him. He must think himself a most agreeable fellow; I could not do such a thing. It is the greatest absurdity—Actually snowing at this moment!—The folly of not allowing people to be comfortable at home—and the folly of people's not staying comfortably at home when they can! If we were obliged to go out such an evening as this, by any call of duty or business, what a hardship we should deem it;—and here are we, probably with rather thinner clothing than usual, setting forward voluntarily, without excuse, in defiance of the voice of nature, which tells man, in every thing given to his view or his feelings, to stay at home himself, and keep all under shelter that he can;—here are we setting forward to spend five dull hours in another man's house, with nothing to say or to hear that was not said and heard yesterday, and may not be said and heard again to-morrow. Going in dismal weather, to return probably in worse;—four horses and four servants taken out for nothing but to convey five idle, shivering creatures into colder rooms and worse company than they might have had at home.”

God bless us, every one!

Word To Use Today: absurdity. This word comes via French from the Latin absurdus, which means dissonant or senseless. Surdus means dull-sounding or indistinct, and the ab- bit is there to make the word stronger.

Friday 21 December 2018

Word To Use Today: fluke.

There are three sorts of fluke in the English language, a lucky one, an unlucky one, and a couple of fishy ones.

Yes, I know that doesn't add up to three, but it's that sort of a word.

The unlucky fluke is a parasitic flat worm. There may be as many as 24,000 species of them. They practically all live in snails (which isn't too threatening to me, personally) but at another stage of their life they practically all live in vertebrates, that is, animals with backbones, (which is more personally worrying). Flukes are both male and female simultaneously, use their mouths both for feeding and ejecting waste (I told you they were unlucky) and tend to take it in turns to produce young with the help of a mate or all by themselves. They cause all sorts of horrible diseases, sometimes in humans, though only in places where human waste isn't treated. 

Well, that's a small mercy.

The lucky fluke is one where doing something done badly leads to an excellent outcome, like holing out at golf after the ball has hit a tree trunk; or else it can be something that happens against huge odds, like digging up a parsnip and finding your long-lost wedding ring encircling it, or getting a photograph of a weasel riding a green woodpecker.

A fishy fluke can be found forming the tail of a whale*:

File:Southern right whale caudal fin-2 no sky.JPG
southern right whale. Photo by Dr.Haus

 They can also be found on the ends of anchors; or fluke can be another name for the sort of fish called a flounder:

File:Flounder (PSF).png

This sort of a fluke is jolly tasty, so at least gives us some sort of a revenge revenge on the unlucky flukes, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: fluke. The key to this word is probably the flounder, which by its shape has probably given rise to the use of the word to mean the parasite, and the anchor and whale words, too. The Old English for flounder was flōc, related to the Old High German flah, smooth.

The fluke of luck word appeared in the 1800s, but no one knows from where.

*All right, I know a whale isn't a fish, really. But they're still fishy! 

Thursday 20 December 2018

Word To Use Today If You Think You're Hard Enough: metaphysics. A rant.

How often have I looked up the meaning of the word metaphysical? Exactly as often as the slippery concept has slid from my mind, that's how often. Very often indeed.

I love the metaphysical poets - John Donne, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, are all heroes of mine - but even when I know what it means I've never been able to work out how they are, well, metaphysical.

I know that meta is Greek for after, and that physic can mean a) physics; b) medicine; or, formerly, c) the natural world. But what comes after any of those?

...hang on, what does the dictionary say?

the system of first principles and assumptions underlying an enquiry or philosophical theory

but, hang on, meta means after, and first principles must surely come before. What on earth is going on?

Well, as it turns out, joke and an idiot editor, that's what.


Word To Use Today If You Think You're Hard Enough: metaphysics.

The metaphysical poets seem to be so called because of a waspish comment of Dryden's. 

He affects the metaphysics, not only in his satires, but in his amorous verses, where nature only should reign, and perplexes the minds of the fair sex with nice speculations of philosophy, when he should engage their hearts and entertain them with the softnesses of love.

The philosophical kind of metaphysics is so called because the editors who were putting together Aristotle's complete works put the chapters on nature before the chapters on philosophy. So the philosophical bits come after the bits on nature: so they're meta physic, or after nature. Geddit?


Wednesday 19 December 2018

Nuts and Bolts: kennings.

Kennings are poetic descriptions originally used, and characteristic of, Old Norse, Old English, and Icelandic poetry.

They usually consist of two words, often hyphenated. You might get something like wave-plough to mean a ship, or crow-feeder to mean a fighter (that is, someone who kills people and leaves them to be eaten by the crows), or earth-hall to describe a burial mound.

Sometimes kennings can get jolly complicated and baffling: a treasure-harmer might be a chieftain (that is, one who gives away his treasure to his followers); Ymir's skull doesn't give much clue that it means the sky unless you know the story of the ancient giant Ymir. Sif's hair is gold (Sif's hair in that story is a wig made literally of gold).

Modern English still has echoes of the old kennings. Stout-hearted started off as one, and so did dwelling place, but they've diminished into cliches through time and over-use.

Still, there's no reason why we shouldn't let more speech-sparklers through our tomb-shields,* is there?

And both in ink-spill and in lip-streams, too.

Thing To Use Today: a kenning. This word was borrowed in the 1800s from Snorri Sturluson's treatise on poetry, written around 1220 AD. The Old Norse kenna means to know, recognise, perceive, show or teach.

*Line of teeth!

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Thing Not To Be Today If Possible: wabbit.

I've always assumed that wabbit meant cowardly and weak, and that the word was basically a mispronunciation of of the word rabbit.

File:G-BJST Art Work (27763093838).jpg

But then my own ignorance does so often give me shining glimpses of the glorious infinite. 

Wabbit is actually a word meaning weary or exhausted or slightly unwell.

Well, at least I'm making progress.

Thing Not To Be Today If Possible: wabbit. This word appeared in the 1800s, probably from wobart which means feeble or withered.

Monday 17 December 2018

Spot the Frippet: gull.

Christmas is coming...

...whether that fact fills you with delight or despair probably depends upon whether the shopping is done, and how much you're looking forward to spending time with your family.

But, in either case, why not stop the headlong rush for a moment to enjoy the vision of calm and freedom provided by a lean and creamy shape slicing its way through the sky.

File:Seagull flying (5).jpg
photo by Arnold Paul

Why are gulls so loftily calm? Well, possibly because they don't bother with presents, or cooking their Christmas dinner:

photo by Gary Miller, Environmental Protection Agency. Hackensack dump, New Jersey.

If you're too busy even to enjoy the effortless grace of a sky-sliding gull, then a gull is also someone easily fooled or cheated.

This time of year, you're going to be pushing your way through crowds of them.

It might be worth checking before you lay out too much cash that one of them isn't you.

Spot the Frippet: gull. The bird word is Celtic (the Welsh for gull is gwylan). The easily-fooled word is, curiously, probably also to do with birds: there's a dialect word gull which means an unfledged bird. This word probably comes from the Old Norse gulr, yellow.

Sunday 16 December 2018

Sunday Rest: nocebo.

A nocebo is the opposite of a placebo: a placebo is a non-active substance administered as a medicine that sometimes has the effect of curing illnesses because people have faith in it; a nocebo is a substance (often a real medicine) that causes unwanted side-effects because people expect to have negative side-effects. (A side-effect that is actually caused by a medicine isn't a nocebo.)

To make things more complicated still, expecting to have side-effects can cause anxiety, and being anxious can cause the body to produce hormones that make it more likely that the body will feel pain.

Now, as you will already have noticed, the thing wrong with the word nocebo is that it looks as if some ignoramus has come along and shoved no at the front of the end of the word placebo to make something that means the opposite. And this would indeed have been an offence against the English language.

As a matter of fact this isn't how the word was coined at all. Its origin is entirely logical and respectable.

But it certainly doesn't look it.

Word Not To Use Today If You Can Help It: nocebo. The Latin nocēbō means I shall harm, from noceō, I harm* (it's the first person singular future active indicative). The Latin placēbō means I shall please, from placeō, I please (ditto). The word nocebo was coined by Walter Kennedy in 1961. He was obviously too learned to guess what pain he was causing to all us ignoramuses.

*Some rather harmful things done as part of a treatment, such as applying a tourniquet, can be termed nocebos, too.

Saturday 15 December 2018

Saturday Rave: Ho mia kor! by L L Zamenhof

Ho mia kor! was written in 1887. It's one of the very first poems in the Esperanto language.

Esperanto was a brave attempt to invent a language that people of many nations would find familiar, and therefore easy to learn and use.

Read this short poem, and see if it works for you.

Ho mia kor', ne batu maltrankvile,
El mia brusto nun ne saltu for!
Jam teni min ne povas mi facile,
Ho, mia kor'!

Ho, mia kor'! Post longa laborado
Ĉu mi ne venkos en decida hor'?
Sufice! trankviliĝu de l' betado,
Ho, mia kor'!    

Did you understand it? Any of it? I thought I probably understood quite a lot, but then I've been delving into languages all my life - and, of course, probably understanding something is not much  good at all. Ĉu mi ne venkos en decida hor? was plainly about deciding something, but I thought it was something to do with wind (venkos). But it isn't. 

Here's a literal translation for you to see how you did.

Oh, my heart, don't beat untranquilly
Out of my breast! Don't now jump!
Already I cannot easily hold myself
Oh, my heart!

Oh, my heart! After long labouring
Will I not win in the deciding hour?
Enough! Calm the beating.
Oh, my heart!

Esperanto was, I think, worth a try, if only to discover that the easiest way for us all to speak the same language is for one extant language to take over.

At least, it makes it easy for some of us.

Word To Use Today: one not in Esperanto! Dr Esperanto was the pseudonym of L L Zamenhof, who invented the language in the late 1800s. Esperanto means 'one who hopes'. 

Bless him!

Friday 14 December 2018

Word To Use Today: zarf.

The English language is vast and increasing, but there are still many potentially useful words that don't form part of its vocabulary.

What is the word for the condition of a piece of soap that has expanded into something that may, unless you're jolly careful,  disintegrate into scented slime when you pick it up?

What's the word for a spot of undissolved coffee floating in the top of a cup?

What's the word for the noise people make, something between delight and sympathy, when they see someone walk into a lamp post?

On the other hand, the English language does have zarf, a tremendously useful word that almost no one knows, but which we all nearly need fairly regularly.

A zarf is a holder to protect the hands from hot cups, especially coffee cups.

No, no, it's quite all right. 

All part of the service.

Word To Use Today: zarf. This is originally an Arabic word which means container or sheath. The plural of zarf can be, variously, zarfs, zarves, or, thrillingly, zuruuf.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Spaced out: a rant.

I rather like Twitter, but then my feed is full of poetry and images of ducks, dresses, and works of art rather than shengmus, spite, and self-advertisement.

I just wish my Facebook page was the same.

Even so, Twitter is a very new way of using words, and an amusing pitfall with the medium appeared recently.

Mr Rudy Giuliani, an American lawyer and politician, posted this message (look at the colours of the text):

The political implications of the Tweet don't matter for our current purposes (except to note the amazing amount of indignation it's possible to get into a single Tweet) but do you see the bit of text that's come out in blue? This is the result of a feature on Twitter which forms an automatic link to another web page if you type in that page's URL address.

It's jolly useful.

But you see what's happened here? Mt Giuliani has neglected to type a space. That's all he's done (twice, but the second time doesn't matter). He meant to type the harmless words for G-20. In July, but he's missed out the space after the full stop. And to the Twitter system G-20.In looks like the address of a web page in India.

Most entertainingly, once the Arizona-based website designer Jason Velazquez had spotted Mr Giuliani's error, it soon was the address of a web page in India.

The webpage G-20.In apparently has a message on it very annoying to Mr Giuliani, and so far it's been seen by over 16,000 people.

And so now poor Mr Giuliani is now even more full of indignation than he was to start with. 

But as for the rest of us...

...well, you really have to laugh, don't you?

Word To Use Today: indignation. This word has been around in English since about 1325. The Middle English form was indignacion, which is almost the same as nowadays, as is the Latin form, indignāri, to be indignant.

Which just goes to prove that there's always something, doesn't it.

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Nuts and Bolts: isogloss.

An isogloss is a line on a map which marks the boundary between one linguistic feature and another.

It might mark a boundary between two different pronunciations (grass to rhyme with crass and grass to rhyme with farce, perhaps); or two different meanings for the same word (canny can mean either kind or knowing, depending on whether you're in Northern England or Scotland); different ways of saying the letter r; or even two quite different languages.

Here's a map of Germany from Wikipedia.

Public Domain,

This map shows the division of High German into Upper and Central German (green and blue, respectively) as distinguished from Low Franconian, and Low German, which is shown in yellow. The black lines show the famous Benrath and Speyer lines which divides the languages (which just goes to show what an interesting word famous is).

Of course what we really need is a three-dimensional map that shows us the effect of time, as well. Then we could see how everyone stopped saying dear meaning expensive, and when the word often had a sounded letter t.*

It could show us what effect the advent of literacy, radio and TV had on language, too.

Whether wisdom would emerge from such a device I do not know. Probably we'd be left with a puzzle that makes a Rubik's cube look like a one-piece jigsaw. 

Still, that's what academics are for, isn't it.

Word To Use Today isogloss. Iso- comes from the Greek isos, which means equal or similar; and glōssa is Greek for dialect or tongue. 

As the intelligent reader will have spotted, an isogloss shows, not similarities, but differences, and this is why some people point out that it would be more logical to call it a heterogloss. (Hetero means other.)

But then, what has logic got to do with language, eh?

*In the mid-twentieth century, I'd guess. It was part of the speak-as-you-spell movement.

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Thing To Pretend Not To Be Today: perfervid.

The British aren't all that good at being perfervid.

In fact, in Britain to be perfervid will probably be seen as embarrassing, or even bad form. 

To be perfervid is practically a sign of unreliability or even madness.

The thing is that we tend to be a rather laid-back lot in England, and perfervid describes someone who's extremely enthusiastic or zealous. It describes someone who has a passion for some cause: whereas in England we most admire a person who casts a cool eye over a situation and then makes a joke about it.

It's very hard to be both perfervid and funny; and round here funny wins every time.

In Italy, I understand, being passionate is perfectly acceptable. In Eastern Europe to be zealous seems to excite high admiration.

Here, though, if you work eighty hours a week then I'm afraid the thing to do is treat the activity as a mild inconvenience.

Still, who really wants passion?




Thing To Pretend Not To Be Today: perfervid. This word comes from the Latin per- which makes words more intense, and fervidus, which means fervid, which itself means intensely enthusiastic and passionate.

Monday 10 December 2018

Spot the Frippet: zareba.

Technically, a zareba is a stockade or enclosure of thorn bushes around a village in northern East Africa. It can also be used to describe the area so enclosed.

Obviously for most of us the chance of having one of those to hand is fairly remote, but whenever I see the word zareba I don't think of East African hedges, I think instead of the magnificent PG Wodehouse story The Clicking of Cuthbert, which features (wrong word, as you shall see) the great Russian literary novelist Vladimir Brusiloff.

His first glance at the novelist surprised Cuthbert. Doubtless with the best of motives, Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair

I shall be looking out for beards, today...

...and wondering what motives each man has for growing the ridiculous thing.

Spot the Frippet: zareba. This word comes from the Arabic zaribah, cattlepen, from zarb sheepfold.

Edward Lear limerick

illustration and verse by Edward Lear

Sunday 9 December 2018

Sunday Rest: neonate. Word Not To Use Today.

A neonate is delicate and small and helpless and beautiful and full of promise - and it is the most precious thing on Earth.

And it's also what anyone with an drop of humanity in his veins would call a baby.

File:Baby (4396868797).jpg
photo by Dylan Parker

Word Not To Use Today: neonate. Yes, neo- is to do with being new (Greek neos, new) and -nate is to do with being born (Latin nasci, born) but, good grief...

Mind you...

The creature also needs inconvenient amounts of attention.

You can't store it in a safe, a fridge, a greenhouse or a museum.

It gets between you and your sleep.

It's unreasonable and very messy.

But even so, calling it a neonate is just making it obvious to the world you really don't care. 

Isn't it.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Saturday Rave: Gentle Desdemona by King Charles II

No, okay, it wasn't King Charles II who wrote about Desdemona, that was Shakespeare, but on this day in 1660, after The Return of the King (no, not Tolkien's Aragorn, do keep up at the back, there) either Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall became the first woman to play a role on a public stage in England, and her role was Desdemona in Shakespeare's play Othello.

We no longer have actresses, of course, only actors of various and infinitely varied sexes.

But it was fun while it lasted, wasn't it?

Word To Use Today If You're Brave Enough: actress. This word stretches back further than you'd think, right back to the 1580s when, however, it meant a woman who did something. The stage sense appeared around 1700, so Margaret Hughes or Anne Marshall were actually actors. 

The word actor started off with the idea of being someone who manages some activity (particularly, oddly, driving sheep). An actor was also the accuser in a court case. It started to be applied to stage actors about the time the word actress first appeared, in the 1580s. The Latin word agere means to set in motion.

Friday 7 December 2018

Word To Use Today: venom.

'But I don't come here for venom!' you may be thinking, quite reasonably enough. 'I get enough of that at home!'

(And at work, and, heaven help us, constantly on the news.)

But the thing is that I can't resist featuring the word venom because it has such a neat derivation.

Still, it does give me the chance to tell you something cheering. I came across a beautiful story recently of a Chinese spider (it goes by the daunting scientific name of Toxeus magnus) that produces milk and suckles its young. It carries on feeding the young spiderlings until after they are are technically independent, too. And it might have as many as thirty six kids.

There. That's rather lovely, isn't it. The details can be found HERE, but I wouldn't recommend them. They don't give that good an impression of those 'higher' and also sometimes venomous life-forms, humans.

Word To Use Today: venom. This word comes from the Old French venim, from then Latin venēnum, which means poison or, astonishingly, love potion. The word is related to venus, which means sexual love.

Thursday 6 December 2018

Out of this World: a rant.

Yesterday was World Soil Day - and as if this wasn't enough of a delight for one week, tomorrow International Civil Aviation Day is coming along to add lustre to our existence. 

As it turns out, every week is scattered with celebrations. November the nineteenth was World Toilet Day, for example, and June the fifteenth was Global Wind Day.

Now, these are all things worth celebrating. I mean, without soil and civil aviation where would we get the beans with which, I assume, we should celebrate Global Wind Day?

But, I don't know. I'm having trouble with September the thirteenth. September the thirteenth is World Sepsis Day. And who on earth would want to celebrate that? 

I mean, World Anti-Sepsis Day I could understand.

But never mind, we have a real treat to which to look forward soon. On December the twentieth we shall all wake up to World Barking Day. The idea, apparently, is to celebrate our inner dog...'s the lamp posts I feel sorry for, myself.

Word To Use Today: soil.This word comes from the Latin solium, which means a seat. This would be very puzzling if it weren't for the fact that some of the Anglo-Normans were a bit rubbish at Latin, and the word they were actually meaning to borrow was solum, which means the ground.

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Nuts and Bolts: How To Plan Your Novel.

Kate Atkinson is a wonderful novelist, and recently on the BBC Radio programme Desert Island Discs she told us that when planning a novel she finds it helpful to have a good tidy.

'There is something about mindlessness, as opposed to mindfulness, that is very creative,' she said.

That other fine novelist, Dorothy L Sayers, had a rather similar take on the matter. Her novelist heroine Harriet Vane is shown putting her sticky novel to one side 'to clear' as if, as her creator observes, it was soup.

Faced with the experiences of two such literary titans then my own voice can add but a trivial note, but I myself find that a bit of mild sweeping can help enormously.


It might be because staring with concentration and energy directly at the nothing which is an unplanned novel is likely only to generate more nothing. Laying a sock in a drawer, however, or gently encouraging dust into small piles, or going for a walk, leaves room for the mild wonderings that may spark just the sort of line of enquiry which, seized upon, might even turn into a book.

And after all, at worst you end up with a cleaner house. about a novel about a woman who is despised for her devotion to housework, but then turns out to be the wisest of them all? 

Compare and contract with a evangelical pastor? 

Or a philosopher?

Hmm...the philosopher idea is quite interesting...

....and I haven't swept the bedrooms for a while...

Nuts and Bolts: sweep. in about 1200 this word was swepen. It's related to the Old Norse sveipa, and also to the words swipe and swoop.

Tuesday 4 December 2018

Thing To Do Today: hold up something.

No, no, please, this is a law-abiding blog. Please do not load up your holsters, saddle up your horse, and ride out along a lonely road to wait for a stage coach.

Apart from anything else, you'll probably die waiting.

No, I was thinking more of the other sort of holding up. The opposite sort (yes, holding up is a contranyn, something meaning two opposite things depending upon how you use it) because there's also the sort of holding up that means to give support to: to stop something falling over or down, or perhaps to keep it from withering. 

An example I came across recently was holding up democracy, where it meant to give support to it, not to hold it to ransom.

The easiest thing to hold up is probably an example, as an encouragement, or perhaps a discouragement, to others.

Friends, I hold up, as examples of various things, Mr Donald Trump, Queen Elizabeth II, the Brexit negotiations, and instant mashed potato.

If you are feeling literal today, then, of course, you could actually hold something up. A piece if art, perhaps. Or just a hand.

Or, if trying to get into a supermarket car park, the traffic.

Minneapolis. Photo By Calebrw - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Thing To Do Today: hold up something. The word hold hasn't changed very much since Old English times, when it was healdan

Monday 3 December 2018

Spot the Frippet: amulet.

An amulet is a charm worn to fend off evil.

I've been wondering about amulets since someone gave me a rabbit's claw set in silver (eergh!). These are said to be lucky - though it didn't do much for the rabbit, did it - and on reflection I think this is probably not an amulet because although rabbit claws are supposed to give good luck, no one claims they ward off evil.

But there are genuine amulets about in various guises. The Hand of Fatima:

File:Part of a silver necklace decorated with the 'hand of Fatima Wellcome L0057649.jpg
photo by Wellcome Images

 is remarkable for warding off harm to more or less everyone, including Muslims, Christians and Jews (particularly generous of it/her). 

My own grandfather carried a punched silver French franc all through World War I, and my father carries it still at the age of ninety seven, so it's been doing sterling* service for well over a hundred years.

A holy man can confer protective powers on any object, commonly a depiction of some sort of relic or saint. The artistic value of these representations is often severely limited, but they are almost certainly lovelier than carrying a caul around (a caul is the thin membrane which sometimes surrounds a baby when it's born) which are supposed to protect people from drowning.

An easier insurance policy to find is a St Christopher medallion, which, they say, protects all travellers:

File:Saint Christopher Medal.png

wikimedia commons

As for me, I believe none of it; but then I understand amulets work even if you don't believe in them, and this may be why I always carry a small hawk bell in my purse. 

How many people would you have to ask before you find someone with an amulet?

Well, why not ask round and find out.

Spot the Frippet: amulet. This word comes from the Latin amulētum, meaning an object which protects someone from trouble, but where the word came from before that no one knows.


Sunday 2 December 2018

Sunday Rest: restroom. Word To Use With Caution Today.

There may be nothing wrong with the word restroom as it stands, but a word of warning to American friends: if you go into a British pub or hotel and ask for the Men's Restroom then you are going to cause a great deal of hilarity.

Either that, or they'll show you to a bedroom.

And then charge you for it.

Word To Use With Caution Today: restroom. The Old English form of rest was reste or ræste. Before that the word seems to have described a distance, possibly a distance to be covered between two rests. 

Though how far that is, it's hard to imagine.

Saturday 1 December 2018

Saturday Rave: A Winter Night by Robert Burns

Robert Burns wrote in the Scots dialect of his homeland, which means that some of his vocabulary is strange (and sometimes, let's face it, incomprehensible to the non-Scot). 

But even so this poem shares enough with standard English to thoroughly chill our bones.

When biting Boreas, fell and doure,
Sharp shivers thro' the leafless bow'r;
When Phoebus gies a short-liv'd glow'r
Far south the lift,
Dim-dark'ning thro' the flaky show'r,
Or whirling drift:

Ae night the storm the steeple rocked,
Poor Labour sweet in sleep was locked,
While burns, wi' snawy wreeths upchoked,
Wild-eddying swirl,
Or thro' the mining outlet bocked,
Down headlong hurl.

List'ning, the doors an' winnocks rattle,
I thought me on the ourie cattle,
Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
O' winter war,
And thro' the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle,
Beneath a scar.

Ilk happing bird, wee, helpless thing!
That, in the merry months o' spring
Delighted me to hear thee sing,
What comes o' thee?
Whare wilt thou cow'r thy chittering wing
An close thy e'e?

Ev'n you in murd'ring errands toil'd
Lone from your savage home exil'd
The blood-stain'd roost, and sheep-cote spoil'd
My heart forgets,
While pityless the tempest wild
Sore on you beats.


Word To Use Today: brattle. This word can mean anything from a fight to a clattering noise, but here it chiefly means a sudden short spell of bad weather with wind, and rain or sleet. It comes from the Old Scots brattill, which means a rattle or sharp assault, and imitates the sound of its meaning.