This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 31 January 2019

Sentencing: a rant.

Roderick James Nugent "Rory" Stewart MP is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. He's written three travel books, won many awards, and been a columnist in both Britain and the USA.

I suppose this gives him the right to throw his weight around a bit, but I was surprised to see him making a fuss about the need to ban short sentences.

Ban short sentences? What's wrong with lines like Reader, I married him?


Let's have the tongs and the bones.**


Have you ever seen Spode eat asparagus?*** 

In fact the whole idea of banning short sentences is utter nonsense, and I think that Rory Stewart should stop pontificating about literature and stick to his job, paid for by the British tax payer, as Minister of State for Prisons...


Word To Use Today: sentence. The Latin word sententia means a way of feeling, from sentīre, to feel.

*Yes, all right, you know that one.**** 

**Yes, yes. Of course you do.*****

***Got you? It's from The Code of the Woosters, by PG Wodehouse.

****But just in case, it's from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

*****And that's Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Wednesday 30 January 2019

Nuts and Bolts: tricolon.

A tricolon is not, as far as I know, part of an animals' digestive system. Nor is it a punctuation mark with an extra dot in it.

Instead it's similar to an isocolon, a bicolon, and a tetracolon. And they're all phrases with a certain number of parts.

The purest form of one of these -colon things will have the same number of words in each part, but people aren't too fussy about this.

An ancient and famous tricolon is Julius Caesar's veni, vidi, vici, I came, I saw, I conquered. An English tricolon is the expression free, gratis, and for nothing.

There are many others: beg, borrow, or steal; Tom, Dick, and Harry; [Never in the field of human conflict was] so much owed by so many to so few.*

There are two special forms of tricolon, the tricolon crescens and the tricolon diminuens. The first is where the three items get louder or more important or bigger as they go along, and the second is, obviously, the opposite.

Dwight D Eisenhower was using tricolon crescens when he said: [This world in arms is not spending money alone.] It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

And Dorothy Parker gave an example of a tricolon diminuens when she said: [I require three things in a man]: he must be handsome, ruthless and stupid.

Which category wine women and song fits into I leave it to yourself to determine.

Thing To Use Today: tricolon. Tri- is from the Greek for threis; kōlon means limb or clause.

*That's the famous orator Winston Churchill, of course.

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Thing To Do Today: claver.

The whole world is being rocked by desperate ISSUES.

Everything is of CRITICAL IMPORTANCE, from the amount of sugar your three-year-old eats to the exact wording of an email sent by one official to another official the year before last.

The ABSOLUTELY VITAL includes everything from the design of your wood-burning stove to the word you use to describe your own sex (the word you use to describe someone else's sex is a matter so fraught with extreme danger that most of us have given up even trying).

Think before you speak they used to say. Now it's more like read a couple of doctoral theses before you speak...and then, probably, decide not to bother.

The word claver means to talk idly, or to gossip.

Personally, I think we should all do more of it.

Thing To Do Today: claver. This word has been around since the 1200s, but no one's sure where it came from. 

But it's all right, that really doesn't matter all that much.

Monday 28 January 2019

Spot the Frippet: trivet.

A trivet was originally a metal three-legged frame for holding a pot over a fire:

File:Trivet, French.JPG
Yes, I know this one has four feet. Sorry! Photo by Robert Lawton

Nowadays a trivet is anything that's used to stop a hot pot burning a table (though it has to be a bit more substantial than a mat or a coaster). It might be metal, wooden, or even made of silicon.

Here are two:

File:Trivet (AM 1967.42-1).jpg

File:Trivet Valencia Ulla Procopé Arabia Finland.jpg

A chopping board, for instance, is not a trivet unless it's being used as one. Then it is. Then later it'll disappear and become a chopping board again.

The philosophers among you may find this interesting.

If you never enter a kitchen, and are never served from a very hot serving dish, then you might be able to spot a trivet in the mirror because you yourself might be as right as a trivet (I hope you are). Right as a trivet is a rather old-fashioned expression meaning in perfect health.

I can find two explanation of the origin of this odd phrase. One is probably wrong, but is much too gloriously eccentric not to share.

Spot the Frippet: a trivet. The Old English form of this word was thrifēte. The Latin tripēs means three-footed. The word trivet was in use as trevet by the early 1400s. 

There's a story that trivet in the expression right as a trivet is a garbled form of Truefit, the name of a maker of very fine wigs. But the expression steady as a trivet is old, and the expression, sadly, probably came from there.

My guess is that right as a trivet implied as level as a trivet (right as in right-angle) because, well, you try cooking a fried egg on a sloping trivet and you'll find out why.

I was a Girl Guide, so I have experience.

Sunday 27 January 2019

Sunday Rest: lamestream. Word Not To Use Today.

Is this thing you're so keen on the very most newfangled craze? 

Is it so much the newfangled craze that hardly anyone's even heard of it?

Is it slightly wacky, perhaps even approaching hilarious, just a bit transgressive, and possibly reaching the heights of totes bizarre?

Is it the sort of thing that anyone old just won't, like, get?

Yes, yes, yes, and yes?


Now I understand why you're so ready to dismiss things that are published by mainstream sources as lamestream.

And I'm sorry to say it seems to be largely because you're an idiot.

Still, never mind. People usually grow out of it.

Word Not To Use Today: lamestream. The Old English form of lame was lama. The Old English form of stream was stream.

Saturday 26 January 2019

Saturday Rave: The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

On India's National Day (many and very warm greetings to all The Word Den's friends in India) here's a suitably small quote from the wonderful The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy:

This was the trouble with families. Like invidious doctors, they knew just where it hurt.


Word To Use Today: invidious. This word comes from the Latin invidiōsus, which means full of envy. The English word invidious means to tending to arouse resentment.

Friday 25 January 2019

Word To Use Today: gribble.

A gribble is a wonderful thing.

No really. It may be a small grub-like creature: 

Limnoria 4 punctata.jpg
photo by Auguste Le Roux 

that chomps into seawater-soaked wood (causing damage to piers, jetties and boats, and therefore much annoyance to humans) but, just think: in the age of wooden ships they sailed the seas so successfully that no one now can be sure where they originally came from.

(Mind you, they didn't do much for the hulls of the ships in which they were sailing. Gribble holes can be several centimetres long.)

Still, they are wonderful. When under attack gribbles (in common, curiously, with wombats) jam their tough rear parts, in the case of gribbles their pleotelsons, into the opening of their burrows to block it.

One type of gribble, Limnoria tripunctata, (and this is, I think, particularly wonderful and annoying) enjoys a bit of the wood preservative creosote on its wood dinner, having as it does a mutually beneficial arrangement with a group of creosote-digesting bacteria. 

Now these wonders are surely enough to earn gribbles an honourable place in the rich biodiversity of the world, but there's more. Research is now going on to see whether gribbles can break down wood or straw in seawater to produce sugar, and therefore bio-fuel, in a sustainable way.

Okay, okay. So they're just a sort of grub-type thing. 

But then, consider: exactly what do you do to help the world's environment a better place?

Word To Use Today: gribble. If you have no need to discuss marine pests then gribble is very satisfying used in the place of a swear word. 

The gribble was first described scientifically by the Norwegian Jens Rathke in 1799. The word might be related to the word grub.

Thursday 24 January 2019

An avian delight: a rant.

Imagine...'re a scientist who has loved birds all your life. You've trekked for weeks through the forests of Columbia (or Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru or Venezuela, I'm not sure which) and found the forest to be fascinating, full of life, but sadly full of life just-behind-a-branch, or life in-such-deep-shadow-you-can't-really-see-it.

And then, into a patch of softly filtered light, bounces a bird. It's a round finch-like thing, its breast the soft grey of the clouds and its back a robin's strong olive-brown, and the bird has one extraordinary feature: the lower half of its chunky beak, the mandibular rostrum, is a pale biscuit colour, quite different from the grey of the top half.

Dull-colored Grassquit (Tiaris obscurus).jpg
photo by Dominic Sherony 

(sadly, this bird doesn't show the extraordinary bi-coloured beak)

A new species! Think of it: after all that trekking, all that searching, all that lifetime of fascination with birds, your dream has come true. You have discovered a new species of bird.

And now you have the honour of naming it.

And so what do you call it?

A dull-coloured grassquit.


Word To Use Today: any name of a bird near you. I'll choose a grey wagtail, I think. In Old English the word grey was grǣg.

Wednesday 23 January 2019

Nuts and Bolts: in litt.

People still use Latin abbreviations in English text quite a lot.

No, I don't really know why, either.

Some abbreviations are so commonly used that they've become as English as any other word. Et cetera, as etc, is used all over the place, and everybody knows what it means. The same is true of eg and ie (though these are pronounced one letter at a time, and not by their expanded forms as etc isIn the cases of eg and ie the expanded forms are exempli gratia and id est, respectively).

Anyway, apart from these and a few other examples (CV, N.B.) one cannot help but wonder if the only point of Latin abbreviations is to puff up the intellectual credentials of the writer.

Such a one is in litt, which I came across recently in a book on natural history designed for the general reader. It came, rather often, in a series of footnotes attached to quotations from authorities. 

Okay. Do you know what in litt means? 

Can you guess what in litt means?

(In my own case, the answers to these questions were no and no.)

Does in litt express a concept for which there is no easy English alternative?


Does the use of the abbreviation in litt tend to induce extra respect for the author?

Not in my case, no.

Did its presence again and again finally result in reference to a dictionary?


So something was learned, then?

Yes. I suppose so...

...but, look, I'm still really irritated, okay?

Expression Probably Not To Use Today: in litt. This stands for in litteris and means in correspondence. 

Tuesday 22 January 2019

Thing To Be Today: gnomic.

So the great question of the day must be: are gnomes gnomic?

And if not, why not?

(Gnomic, in case you're wondering, describes a short and profound-sounding saying about Life The Universe and, well, Everything.)

Sadly, rather as in Hannah Glasse's (mis- but much- quoted) recipe for jugged hare, discovering the answer must I'm afraid first involve catching your gnome.

Now, of the three chief types of gnome, the legendary ones are difficult because, well, they don't exist, though I must accept that the concrete garden ones are seldom known for their witless chatter (and surely soon someone will produce a wireless-enabled gnome which will say solemnly Life is a Bowl of Radishes whenever a cat walks past). 

The other sorts of gnome are easier to find, one type being an little old man with little time for either other people or personal hygiene, and the other sort being an international banker (as in the gnomes of Zurich).

As the first hate people and the second are devoted to money, it would seem the chances of either of them coming up with anything worth hearing are remote.  

But then there's George Soros. He's a banker who's made more than eight billion dollars US, and he also has a nice line in nice lines.

Whenever there is a conflict between universal principles and self-interest, self-interest is likely to prevail, he said.

I'm only rich because I know when I'm wrong. I basically have survived by recognising my mistakes.

The worse a situation becomes, the less it takes to turn it around, and the bigger the upside.

And so there we are. George Soros. A gnomic gnome. 

I mean, what more could anyone want?

Thing To Be Today: gnomic. The word gnome as in legendary creature was made up by Paracelsus the Baddy. No one knows from where he got the idea. Gnomic comes from the Greek gnōmē, from gignōskein, to know.

Monday 21 January 2019

Spot the Frippet: a pou sto.

My pou sto is the loft of my house. It's rather cold at the moment, but only because I'm too mean to put the heating on. It's my pou sto because it contains my computer and my desk.

Someone else's pou sto might be might be a market stall, or a shed, or the cab of a lorry or the counter of a shop.

A pou sto is a place to stand to do something, like a patch of riverbank from which a fisherman operates, or the place a policeman stands to direct the traffic (though it's a long time since I saw anyone doing that), or a look-out's tower.

pou sto can also be any centre of operations. The really big baddies tend to have rather marvellous ones, if one can only find them.

File:007volcanocrater blofeld.jpg
Blofeld's volcano crater from the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice

When you do spot a pou sto, see how much magnificence there is about the place. 

And then see if you can work out if it has anything to do with the amount of evil plotted therein.

House of Commons 2010.jpg
British House of Commons. Photo provided by UK Government

Spot the Frippet: pou sto. This comes from Archimedes, who is supposed to have said that, given a place to stand, with a lever he could move the earth: dos moi pou stō, kai kinō tēn gēn

(You can also use pou sto to mean the intellectual or moral foundation of an activity, so the law might be the pou sto of an attorney's business. But obviously no one can spot that sort of thing.)

Sunday 20 January 2019

Sunday Rest: smishing. Word Not To Use Today.

Smishing is what happens when someone tries to perpetrate a fraud via a link on a text message.

The text message will say click on this link to win the prize; or click on this link to see some cute kittens; or click on this link or we'll have to close your account. That sort of thing. 

Then, when you do, you're asked to enter your personal details and password.

The most amazing thing is that there must be some idiots somewhere who actually fall for it.

Sunday Rest: smishing. This rather horrid word is a mixture of SMS and phishing. SMS stands for Short Message Service, and is the system by which text messages work. Phishing is a similar attempt to defraud using email, and is a variant spelling of fishing (because they're both attempts to catch a prize by trailing some sort of bait).

Saturday 19 January 2019

Saturday Rave: Oblio by Arturo Graf.

The Word Den is usually, I hope, a happy place, but here, for a change, is something very sad indeed.

The original poem is in Italian, but I think some of the desolation comes through in English.

Do enjoy a good wallow in hopelessness!


Yes, I am full of years, though my hair
Has not yet become frosted, nor my back curved;
But thinking over the course of my life
My memory shivers, and I cannot find myself.

Inside my heart I can find neither yearnings nor remorse,
Nether sorrow nor anger.
Abandoned and tired, overwhelmed, like
An ice-wrecked ship beyond all human help,

A slow oblivion invades me.
Days pass, and months, and years,
And I do not know it,
Feeling nothing any more.

And if sometimes it happens that
I come back almost to myself
I cannot believe it,
Ashamed to find myself alive.


Oh dear.

Still, never mind. 

At least things aren't that bad, are they?

The original Italian of this poem (and a different translation) can be found HERE.

Word To Use Today: lost. The Old English losian meant to perish.

Friday 18 January 2019

Word To Use Today: walrus.

You're not likely to see a walrus very often, but if you do, you're even more unlikely to see it sitting on a wall.

But then walruses are full of surprises. They can weigh up to 2000 kilograms, and where does all that lovely blubber come from? Lovely fat seals? Oily mackerel or sea gulls?

No. Shellfish, mostly.

No, I don't understand it, either.

Walruses are wonderful creatures. They have few teeth apart from their beautiful tusks, which ivory masterpieces they use for fighting, showing off, and for levering themselves out of holes in the ice.

They use their moustaches to find their food*, and when they get hold of a nice juicy clam they can suck so powerfully that they can extract the meat from it with a single backwards flick of the tongue (so probably best not to kiss a walrus if you value your tonsils, then).

Walruses have an air sac under their chins which they use to help them float while sleeping. 

Walruses have been hunted and hunted, sometimes by orcas and polar bears, but of course mostly by man. The ivory from their tusks is beautiful, but their meat (except for the tongue) is apparently rather horrible. The good news is that now the numbers of walruses being hunted by people is being limited by governments, and their numbers are increasing a bit.

Walruses are altogether most mysterious beasts: but the main puzzle, of course, is still that, with all that blubber and only flippers to walk on, how could any of them ever have got up on a wall?

Word To Use Today: walrus. This is probably a Germanic word (in England we used, long ago, to call a walrusmorse, instead). The wal bit is actually probably something to do with whales, and the rus bit might be a form of the word horse. On the other hand some people think the word comes from the Dutch word wal, which means shore, and reus, which means giant.

*Humans tend to lose food in theirs:

File:Henry Clay Warmoth.jpg
Henry Clay Warmoth and his walrus moustache. HCW was Governor of Louisiana a long time ago.

Thursday 17 January 2019

Without a paddle: a rant.

This is from the press release for a lavatory produced by the company Kohler and shown at the 2019 CES (Consumer Electronics Show) technology trade jamboree (you can read the whole press release, should you wish to, HERE. But, I warn you, there are split infinitives).

Numi 2.0 Intelligent Toilet: Numi, Kohler’s most advanced intelligent toilet, offers exceptional water efficiency, personalized cleansing and dryer functions, a heated seat, and high-quality built-in speakers. The lighting features on Kohler’s flagship intelligent toilet have been upgraded from static colors to dynamic and interactive multi-colored ambient and surround lighting. Paired with the new speakers in the Numi toilet, these lighting and audio enhancements create a fully-immersive experience for homeowners. Amazon Alexa built into the product provides simple voice control of Numi’s features and access to tens of thousands of skills, as well as a seamless integration of voice control into the bathroom.

Others have commented upon the desirability of using a fully-immersive toilet, but what struck me most forcibly was the idea of hitching a ride on a flagship intelligent one.

Do I really want my lavatory to carry me into battle? That's no way to treat an intelligent entity, even if I did.

And as to what it might do with its tens of thousands of skills, that quite frankly terrifies the life out of me.

Word To Use Today: smart. The Old English form of this word was smeortan. It comes, appallingly,  from the Latin word mordēre, to bite (ouch!) from the Greek smerdnos, terrible.

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Nuts and Bolts: fortis.

A fortis - (the plural is fortes*) - is a sound made with a lot of breath pressure or muscular effort.

The sounds p and f are examples (hold your hand in front of your mouth and say a p sound, and feel the breath pressure. See? Talking is exercise!).

Fortis can also be used as an adjective to describe such a sound.

In English the fact that some sounds take more energy to say than others doesn't make a lot of difference as far as meaning is concerned, but in the Ewe language of West Africa (no, it's nothing to do with sheep) then the strength with which a consonant is pronounced can be jolly useful in distinguishing one word from another.

Word To Use Today: why not work off some extra holiday weight with some words with fortis consonants. 

Pippistrelle, perhaps. Or pepper. Or puff. Or, if you don't want to get too energetic all at once, tapir:

photo by  Bradypus

Of course, if you've really overindulged then Peter could always pick a peck of pickled peppers, couldn't he?

*You say it FORteez.

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Thing Not To Do Today: pluto.

No, not plateau: pluto.

To pluto actually isn't that different in meaning from the verb to plateau, but while to plateau means to maintain the same level of achievement, weight, etc, to pluto means gradually to lose importance.

But to which pluto does it refer? you may ask. And it would be a reasonable question because all of them are, sadly, pluto-ing. (I think that must be how you spell it. Plutoing looks just wrong.)

Consider: there are far fewer worshippers of the god Pluto than there used to be; many cartoon animations have risen up to challenge the dog Pluto's status in the affection of the children of the world; and then there's the planet. Or, actually, there isn't the planet, because Pluto, poor Pluto, isn't a planet any more.

And who doesn't feel sad and wistfully nostalgic about that?

It is said that every political career ends in failure. Well, I suppose that for all of us it's either failure or going out with a bang, so there are worse things than pluto-ing. 

But, hey. Let's not do either today, eh?

Thing Not To Do Today: pluto. Pluto the god, after whom the other plutos are named, may originally have meant rich father because he was the ruler of the underworld from whence gold, diamonds, and germinating seeds come.

Monday 14 January 2019

Spot the Frippet: bobble.

The media is (or are, if you're feeling particularly pedantic) full of scare stories. If it's not global warming, it's antibiotic resistant bacteria; and if it's not them it's the threat of your woolly jumpers forming bobbles:

No, I don't know why this matters, either, but some people seem to worry. You can even buy special razors to snip off the little balls of wool. On the other hand, some of us have a life.

Anyway. Bobbles. They most commonly come on the top of hats:

File:2018-01-01 (215) Bobble hat.jpg
photo by GT1976

and I've spent far too long this morning wondering why.

Is it to make people look taller? Is it to cushion the head from the impact of falling objects? Is it simply that the human psyche is unable to resist anything that looks even remotely like a kitten?

I'm going to plump for the kitten option, myself. I mean, human young tend to get dressed up to look as round and fluffy as possible:

File:Well-clothed baby.jpg
photo by Andrew Vargas

and I think that's the kitten thing coming out, too:

File:Cute grey kitten.jpg
photo by Nicolas Suzor

Perhaps we humans, in our distant past, had very fluffy, fat offspring, and the need to care for them has left some lingering trace.

...sorry I seem to have got off the subject a bit. Anyway, bobbles can also be found on cushions and lampshades and key rings and even attached to ribbons bearing slogans.

When you see one, try to work out if it makes you feel all warm and protective.

Because if it does, we may be able to tweak soldiers' uniforms a bit and thereby solve the problem of war.*

Spot the Frippet: bobble. This word comes from the verb bob, because that's what bobbles do. The word bob has been around since the 1200s, but no one's sure where it came from.

*I mean, you put them on buildings, too, couldn't you.

Sunday 13 January 2019

Sunday Rest: bae. Word Not To Use Today.

A bae (pronounced bay) is a boyfriend or girlfriend.

It's a fairly new word (it seems to have been coined this century) and at first sight it looks as if it might be a useful one.*

But all the same, it's an odd sort of a word. Where has it come from? Has it the sort of derivation that allows it to be used by respectable people?

I mean, you have to be so careful with new words. Is bae at root an acronym? It's certainly better than bog or bag - or gob or gab, for that matter (boyfriend and/or girlfriend, or girlfriend and/or boyfriend).

As it happens, the derivation of the word bae is perfectly respectable.

Though cringe-making. 

Horribly, horribly cringe-making.

And in my opinion it's well worth saying two extra words to avoid it.

Word Not To Use Today: bae. This word is short for baby or babe. 

The word baby may have come about because it's one of the first sound a baby can make.

*Though, having said that, I can't imagine any likely circumstance in which I might use it.

Saturday 12 January 2019

Saturday Rave: Frances Brooke.

What is eccentricity other than a determination not to pretend?

The marvellous Frances Brooke, the unmarried daughter of a respectable clergyman, left Lancashire for London in the 1740s to pursue a career as a novelist, poet and playwright. She managed quite nicely, too, becoming a friend of Dr Johnson and part of the busy literary scene.

She wrote under the name of Mary Singleton, Spinster, and produced her own magazine The Old Maid, which she began when she was thirty one. She did actually marry, eventually, but mostly managed to avoid the annoyances of cohabitation by yoking herself to a man just about to set off for Canada. She did follow him, again eventually, and even stayed for five years, producing what may have been the first novel written in North America, The History of Emily Montague.

Here are a couple of stanzas from a patriotic poem written by Frances Brooke in support of the sadly rather short-lived Prince Frederick (and therefore designed to annoy the King and his government). 

Prophetic, lo! my raptur'd mind
Beholds, as rolling minutes move,
A patriot-monarch, who shall find
His safety in his people's love.
Unbrib'd, around his grateful subjects stand,
While base Corruption, blushing, leaves the land!

Then o'er Britannia's beauteous isle
Shall peace and arts together rise;
Encourag'd by the Royal smile,
Shall future Homer's reach the skies:
Each modest muse shall raise her drooping head,
Nor pine, neglected, in the barren shade.

(I apologise for the apostrophe in Homer's, but that's how it is in my source.)

No, I agree she doesn't seem to have been a very good poet, but, hey, she made a living at writing so good for her. You can read the rest of her Ode To Fame HERE.

The main reason I have an affection for Frances Brooke, I must admit, is because she seems to have been the first person to give pleasurable annoyance to generations of pedants by using the word literally in a figurative sense:

He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of the women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.

And I, for one, am grateful.

Word To Use Today: beauteous. This is a word much-used by bad writers. This word comes from the Old French biau, beauty, from the Latin bellus, handsome or charming.

Friday 11 January 2019

Word To Use Today: thyme.

In the dead of winter a scattering of herbs over dinner can bring a welcome remembrance of summers past.

(Though it's probably best not to try it on a doughnut.)

For those of us whose regularly produce food fit for the Gods (that is, our cooking more akin to a burnt offering than something meant for human consumption) I recommend the herb thyme:

photo by Evan-Amos

 a word whose derivation provides everyone with the most wonderful and complete excuse for their utter lack of skill.

File:Overcooked Pizza.jpg
photo by Kevin Payravi

Word To Use Today: thyme. (You say it the same as the word time.) This word comes from the Old French thym, from the Latin thymum, from the Greek thumon, from thuein, to make a burnt offering.

Thursday 10 January 2019

Ultima Thule: a rant.

The NASA New Horizons spacecraft has just reached minor planet (486958) 20014 MU69.

You can see why it's been given a nickname, can't you. It's being called Ultima Thule.

Now, Ultima Thule may be named after the far northerly and unidentified land described in ancient times. (I mean, no one's even sure where Thule is, and Ultima Thule must be even further out (ultima is Latin for last).) 

Ultima Thule might be Greenland, it might be Iceland, it might be Norway, it might be some unidentified Scottish island. No one knows.

But is the minor planet indeed named after that Thule? Or is it something to do with the Swedish outdoor brand Thule which was founded in 1942 by the Thulin family. (It sells roof racks, among other things.)

Well, a camping trip to the minor planet would be pretty far out, wouldn't it?

Luckily, we can tell which was the inspiration for the nickname from its pronunciation. The ancient land is pronounced THYOOli, and the roof rack brand is pronounced TOOli.

Well, NASA should know. And what are they saying? 


Well, I hope those roof rack people paid NASA well for all that publicity, anyway.

Word To Pronounce Properly Today: Thule. This word was said by the Greek astronomer Geminus of Rhodes to derive from a word for the very long winter night, and to mean the place where the sun goes to rest.

Wednesday 9 January 2019

Nuts and Bolts: isolex.

An isolex is a sort of isogloss. To save you having to follow the link, an isogloss is a line surrounding an area with a common linguistic feature, and an isolex is a line on a map surrounding an area where a particular word is used.

For example, the isolex for the word bargain, in the sense of a plastic beaker with a lid containing a small opening to admit a straw, would tightly surround my current house. (That's a bargain, I said long ago to my two very small daughters, when I spotted a cheap one on a shop shelf. And so it always was, as far as they were concerned.)

Your own house could probably have its own isolex drawn round it - or, if not your house, one might surround the environs of your family. (I doubt, for example, that many other people call a mincemeat turnover a mysteron, as my family does.)

Still, now we know we can draw a line called an isolex round the area that encompasses our families' use of our special words for stuffed rabbits, or trips to the loo, or whatever, we can feel rather proud, and rather clever, when we use it.

Word To Use Today: a word that has a very local isolex. The iso- bit of this word comes from the Greek isos, which means equal, and the lex bit cones from the Greek word lexis, which means word.

Tuesday 8 January 2019

Thing Probably Not To Be Today: wizened.

File:Old zacatecas lady.jpg
Curiously compelling lady from Zacatecas, Mexico. Photo by Tomas Castelazo 

Wizened is a very old word to describe some very old things. On the whole, in fact, it describes things that are too old. If you want to see something wizened (not that you do) then look in your fruit bowl. You're bound to find a grape there that's most of the way to being a raisin, or a pear that's gone through its half-hour window of perfection and got to the stage where you suspect its withered stalk will no longer support its weight.

The sort-of good news is that there are fewer wizened people about than there used to be: we're mostly too inflated with fat for the wrinkles to have anywhere to sink. True, newborn babies sometimes make their entry to the world looking a hundred years old, but now even hundred-year-olds will often have a bit of dash and glamour about them.

Dagny Carlsson of the blog Life begins at 100

But still, the fear of being wizened lurks in our minds. The face cream industry world-wide is expected to reach 141 billion US dollars in 2019 - and there are only 7.7 billion people on the planet, so that's $18 each. And even though the fact that these creams are sold as cosmetics means that they must have been scientifically proved not to have any lasting effect (otherwise they would have had to be registered as medicines), still fear drives us to buy the stuff.

Or perhaps it's not fear, but vanity.

Well, we'd rather be plums than prunes, wouldn't we.

Thing Not To Be Today: wizened. This word was wisnian in Old English. 

Wizened is also an alternative spelling for weasand, the windpipe.

Monday 7 January 2019

Spot the Frippet: finial.

It's easy in midwinter to hunch against the weather and see no further than the flagstones under your boots.

(Yes, friends in Australia and New Zealand and other southern climes, feel smug if you must. The rest of us are suffering here.)

So, to encourage you to look up (though not if it's actually hailing), then how about seeing if you can spot a finial? It'll probably be sticking up from the top of a spire, dome, or roof end.

File:Taj Mahal top of finial.jpg
Taj Mahal. Photo by Rob Pinion (Robpinion)

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Thorns, Suffolk, England, Photo: Keith Evans / Roof finial / CC BY-SA 2.0

File:Fence Post Finial from the Jerathmeel Peirce House, Salem, Massachusetts MET 138508.jpg
This elegant object was designed by Samuel McIntire for a fence post at the Jerathmeel Peirce House in Salem, Massachusetts, USA.

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Chartres Cathedral in France.

If you are surrounded by modern undecorated tower blocks then you may yet find a finial on a piece of furniture:

File:Chairs (France), 1780–90 (CH 18464635).jpg
The finials on this French chair are on the thing's shoulders.

Do have fun searching - and even if you don't find a finial, then just a glimpse of two of the sky, however grey, will, I hope, be very cheering.

Spot the Frippet: finial. This is basically the same word as final. The Latin word finis means limit or boundary.

Sunday 6 January 2019

Sunday Rest: twelfth. Word Not To Say Very Distinctly Today.

It's twelfth night, a time for taking down the decorations, telling yourself that you really should get round to reading some more of Shakespeare's plays, and, in the past, a lot of jolly role-swapping (this last surely due for an ultra-fashionable revival).

However you celebrate, good luck with sounding all the consonants of the word twelfth.

Word Not To Say Very Distinctly Today: twelfth. The Old English form of this word was twelfta

Those Old English were no fools, you know.

Saturday 5 January 2019

Saturday Rave: A New Year's Resolution by James Agate.

This year I want to be a kinder, more generous person, with better hair.

The trouble is that these are large ambitions, and I can see that perhaps a more limited one might have more chance of success. In fact I think I may try for the American critic James Agate's New Year Resolution instead.

It goes like this:

New Year's Resolution: To tolerate fools more gladly, provided this does not encourage them to take up more of my time.

The trouble is, though, that it practically always does.

Word To Use Today: fool. The Old French fol meant mad person. It comes from the late Latin follis, empty-headed person, and is connected, satisfyingly, with the Latin word for bellows.

Friday 4 January 2019

Word To Use Today: friable.

The soil in my garden is cold, wet, stony, and so claggy that it can be moulded into pots. 

The gardening books keep telling me to rake the soil to a friable texture


Friable means easily broken up, or crumbly, but getting the teeth of a rake into my soil is impossible. If you manage to get a fork into it, all you'll turn up is a fork-width cube of solid clay. 

The soil is not always wet, of course. We do get the occasional dry spell. On those occasions the clay goes rock hard and you can't get a fork into it at all.

Ah well! I'm still hoping that at least one or two of the snowdrops I planted in the autumn will come up, even though all I could do was lever up up a block of clay, drop some bulbs in the hole, and then drop the block back on top of them.

By 4028mdk09 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I'll let you know if I see one at any point.

Nevertheless, friable is a lovely word, and after forty years of adding leaf mould and compost to my small plot some patches have at least got down to the texture of clinker. 

It's the worms I mostly feel sorry for, you know. I've never seen a truly happy worm. Still, perhaps if I live to be a hundred or so, and carry on adding organic matter to the soil, I might finally find one that's smiling.

I'll keep trying, anyway.



Word To Use Today: friable. This beautiful word comes from the Latin friābilis, from friāre, to crumble, related to fricāre, to rub down.

Thursday 3 January 2019

The Destruction of the internet: a rant.

The other day I found something wonderfully funny HERE (but don't bother to follow the link because it's not there any more).

It made me laugh and laugh, but then today when I went back to the article to show it to you, I found the funny bit had been quietly corrected. And so now a source of delight to the world has vanished forever.

The internet is a wonderful thing, but I do wish that mistypings and Cupertino errors had the eternal life of misprints.

Still, never mind, I can still tell you about it.

The article concerns a radio programme of Prince Charles's favourite music, and it mentions a very great and famous deceased conductor famed throughout the world (or so I thought) for his leadership of that marvellous orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic. 

Yes, that's right: Herbert von Carrion.

But now they've gone and corrected Carrion to Karajan.

The fools!

Word To Use Today: carrion. This word comes from the Anglo-French caroine, from the Latin carō, flesh.

Wednesday 2 January 2019

Nuts and Bolts: printer's key or number line.

At this beginning of the year, here's something that comes at the beginning of books.

Now, you know that page where they have all the stuff about the date of first publication, and the publisher, and the copyright notices, and the printer

Yep, that's right: that page with the small writing everyone always skips.

Well, under the International Standard Book Number, which looks something like this:

ISBN: 978-0-19-275711-1

 there's often a string of numbers counting down from about ten to one. 

Sadly this isn't, as you might think, a thrilling countdown to the excitements of the book following (apart from anything else, some of the lower numbers may be missing) but instead show the number of printings of the book there have been.*

Sometimes the numbers start with the number one on the left and go upwards, and sometimes the numbers are jumbled up. In all cases, it's the lowest number that tells you how many printings there have been. This line of numbers is called the printer's key or number line.

If the book does happen to be a first edition then you can find this out by reading the rest of the writing on the page; and if its also a first printing (that is, the string of numbers includes a 1) then it's either a book that might be valuable; or it's one that basically no one wanted to buy; or it's one the publishers thought it would appeal to the masses but, unfortunately, didn't.

There may also be a separate series of numbers: 18 19 20, for example, or 01 02 03, that gives an indication of the year the printing was carried out.

So we'll be able to tell if 2019 is a vintage year for printers, won't it? 

Word To Use Today: print. This word comes from the Latin premere, to press.

*This is different from the number of editions. A new edition will have a different cover, or a different text, or a different publisher. This is just the number of times a print run that particular edition of the book has been ordered from the printer.

Tuesday 1 January 2019

Thing To Do Today: be resolute.

I'll post this in nice small quiet writing, just in case you're still feeling delicate after last night's celebrations.

If you are, then you'll already have decided that today is a day for being resolute.

It'll be a day to vow never again to look upon the wine when it's red (or white or rosé). Never again, for that matter, to look upon the beer when it's brown; or the cider when it looks as sparkling as the best champagne, though in a much bigger glass.

And I don't suppose you ever want to be in the same room as a bottle of advocaat.

Your other resolutions might involve never again going anywhere near any of the people who were at last night's party (could you really have done that? With a police horse? Surely that memory must be some dreadful alcohol-induced hallucination. Please. Please!).

Still, I don't know, visitors to The Word Den are a gloriously varied lot, and so perhaps you spent yesterday stone cold sober and in some improving activity like dusting your photographs-of-lamp-posts collection, or visiting the poor.

Well, in that case, how about resolving not to be quite so flipping smug, then!

Thing To Be Today: resolute. The Latin resolvere means to resolve.

Happy New Year!