This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 28 February 2019

An expert opinion: a rant.

France has an academy whose duty it is to make rules for the French language.

This passage is from the opening remarks of a 1990 report from M. Maurice Druon, Permanent Secretary of l'Académie française. 

M. Maurice Druon, Secrétaire perpétuel de l’Académie française.

Quand un Premier ministre se penche sur l’état de la langue française, ce qui n’arrive pas tous les jours, il met ses pas, volens nolens, dans ceux de Richelieu. Quand le Cardinal fonda l’Académie, il lui assigna pour principale fonction de donner des règles certaines à notre langue, de la rendre éloquente et pure, capable de traiter des arts et des sciences. En installant, en octobre dernier, le Conseil supérieur ici assemblé, vous le chargiez, entre autres missions, de formuler des propositions claires et précises sur l’orthographe du français, d’y apporter des rectifications utiles et des ajustements afin de résoudre, autant qu’il se peut, les problèmes graphiques, d’éliminer les incertitudes ou contradictions, et de permettre aussi une formation correcte aux mots nouveaux que réclament les sciences et les techniques. 

When a Prime Minister examines the state of the French language, which does not happen every day, willingly or not his steps are following the path of Richelieu. When the Cardinal founded the Academy he gave it as its main function to make rules for our language to make it eloquent and pure, and capable of dealing with the arts and the sciences. When setting up our High Council last October you charged it with, among other things, formulating clear and precise proposals for the spelling of French, and bringing in useful corrections and adjustments to solve, as much as possible, writing problems to eliminate uncertainties and contradictions, and also to allow to the correct formation of new words that science and technology demand.


And what experts does the English language have to keep it pure and accurate? 

None at all. The language is a bun fight. A free-for-all. 

I mean, no one's even trying to make the language eloquent.

But, I don't know...there are times when precision might perhaps be overrated; and, actually, there's no doubt that trying to impose rules on English usage is the one thing guaranteed to drive English speakers to passionate and complete rebellion.

Maybe we're best pottering about through the mist, after all.

Word To Use Today: one that's not been approved by the authorities. Which is, let's face it, more or less all of them.

NB Curiously, volens nolens, which is used in M. Druon's introduction, is actually Latin.

Wednesday 27 February 2019

Zipf's Law of Abbreviation: Nuts and Bolts.

So who was Zipf?

This man here:

George Kingsley Zipf 1917.jpg

George Kingsley Zipf was a linguist. He promoted the ideas now called Zipf's Law (of which more another time) and also Zipf's Law of Abbreviation.

Zipf's Law of Abbreviation says that the more frequently a word is used, the shorter it is likely to be.

Zipf talked about the principle of least effort, which is the idea that people will always try to make their communications as efficient and accurate as possible: basically, no one wants to spend time and tongue waggles on something if they can get across their message more easily.*

Zipf's Law of Abbreviation looks right, and it feels right (for the languages I know, at least). 

But is it true?

Well, Christian Benz of the University of Tuebingen and Ramon Ferrer-i-Concho of the Universtat Politècnico de Catalunya have analysed 1262 texts in 986 languages from eighty different language families (including Zaparoan, Uralic and Muskogaan) and found that in every case it is true.

So, yes, it's therefore almost certainly a universal feature of all languages.

And so now we can all preen ourselves on being efficient users of our languages.

I mean, it's nothing to do with being impatient and lazy, is it?

Word To Use Today: any you like, but do notice that the ones you use most will be short!

*Though there are those among us who seem to fear that if they stop talking their mouths will seize up. 

Ha! If only!

Tuesday 26 February 2019

Thing Not To Today: holystone anything.

The question is, what is a liberated woman liberated from?

Oppression, ignorance, prejudice, constant childbirth blah blah blah...Yes, yes, we know all that (though, of course, that doesn't stop it being all important and all true). But one of the most important things a liberated woman has escaped is surely the holystone.

A holystone is a rounded chunk of sandstone used for cleaning wooden floors, and especially the decks of ships (when, and this is where my argument wobbles a little, it would of course actually have been men doing the holystoning - though not the captain or the fourth lieutenant or even the coxswain: it was a task for the lowliest of the ship's company).

So let us give thanks for mops and mats, varnish and vinyl.

And let us spend the time liberated from holystoning in proving how much talent, of both men and women, and how much advantage to the health, wealth and happiness of the world, has previously been wasted cleaning floors.

Thing Not To Do Today: holystone anything. A holystone, as previously explained, is a stone. It's holy because you have to kneel down to use it.

Monday 25 February 2019

Spot the Frippet: something obovoid.

Something ovoid is shaped like an egg, so what does something obovoid look like?

Well, it's shaped like an egg, too, but with the gloriously pernickety difference that while something ovoid is egg-shaped with the broader end at the base, something obovoid is something egg-shaped with the narrow end at the base.

File:Rocky Mountain flowers - an illustrated guide for plant-lovers and plant-users (1920) (14598276899).jpg
This illustration is supposed to have an obovoid leaf in it. I suppose it's the one fourth from the left at the bottom.

This, below, is the obovoid fruiting body of the studded sea balloon, a sort of brown algae:

Illustrations of Soranthera ulvoidea

Now, I accept that you're unlikely to come across any brown algae on your day's commute to work or school, but a look at a fruit stall or a garden for obovoid objects might be interesting.

species of plant

(Interesting, too that according to botanists the base of a grape is where it is attached to the stalk, ie at the top.)

This obovoid fruit is Citrus maxima

If all else fails, there are only four shapes of people, and three of them are ovoid, obovoid, and egg-timer.

The other is toast-shaped, or flat.

Which is the commonest where you are?

Spot the Frippet: something obovoid. Ob- means upside down or back to front; the ovoid bit comes from the Latin ōvum, egg.

Sunday 24 February 2019

Sunday Rest: gammon. Word Not To Use Today.

Gammon is the salted or smoked uncooked flesh of a pig's leg.

Once it's cooked, it's called ham.

But although gammon isn't the most elegant of words, it hasn't bothered me until the last few months, when it's acquired a new meaning.

A gammon is now a white no-longer-young person who isn't nearly as left-wing as the person using the word. The idea is that the complexion of an angry white man, or perhaps a white man who's outdoors a lot (and therefore not from the big city) is the colour of gammon.

I don't know about you, but that strikes me as both racist and unpleasant.

File:BBQ Gammon Sliced (4767063533).jpg
photo: Beck from East Midlands, United Kingdom

Word Not To Use Today: gammon. The meat word comes from the Old Northern French gambe, leg. 

The gammon which is part of the game backgammon is to do with the Middle English gamen, which means game, and this is probably the idea behind gammon and spinach! an expression formerly used to mean nonsense!

There's also a gammon which is a way of tying a mast to a ship, and this is probably to do with the way a gammon joint is tied for cooking.

Saturday 23 February 2019

Saturday Rave: The Spring by Thomas Carew

We're still too early for this poem, really, but it's a truly glorious thing and the sun is shining like mad, here, so here it is.

Now that the winter's gone, the earth hath lost
His snow-white robes, and now no more the frost
Candies the grass, or casts an icy cream
Upon the silver lake or crystal stream;
And makes it tender, gives a sacred birth
To the dead swallow; wakes in hollow tree
The drowsy cuckoo, and the humble-bee.
Now do a choir of chirping minstrels bring
In triumph to the world the youthful Spring.
The valleys, hills, and woods in rich array
Welcome the coming of the long'd-for May.
Now all things smile, only my love doth lour,
Nor hath the scalding noonday sun the power
To melt that marble ice, which still doth hold
Her heart congeal'd, and makes her pity cold.
The ox, which lately did for shelter fly
Into the stall, doth now securely lie
In open fields; and love no more is made 
By the fireside, but in the cooler shade
Amyntas now doth with his Chloris sleep
Under a sycamore, and all things keep
Time with the season; only she does carry 
June in her eyes, in her heart January.

Thomas Carew, as you will have deduced, lived in a time before the seasonal migration of birds was understood.

Well, it still doesn't seem that likely, does it.

Word To Use Today: swallow. The Old English form of this word is swealwe.

Friday 22 February 2019

Word To Use Today: glacier.

What are glaciers made of?

photo by Paxson Woelber - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Yes, ice, that's right, well done, but what's the ice is made of? No, it's not actually made from frozen water, but from compressed snow.

Now, if you think of glaciers as smallish things a long way away then consider this: ten percent of the Earth's land surface is covered by glaciers (you don't get them on the sea). Glaciers are so heavy they carve the rock underneath them as they go, and they're the largest source of fresh water on the planet.

Glaciers move slowly, under the force of their own weight - either outwards from a central mass if it's a continental glacier (which contain 99% of glacial ice and form the ice sheets of the polar regions), or down a valley of it's an alpine glacierAntarctica's 13.2 million square kilometres of continental glacier have an average thickness of 2,100 metres.

So, you know, they may not be next door, but they're still really quite big and important. Aren't they?

photo, Pakistan, by Guilhem Vellut

Word To Use Today: glacier. This word comes from French - from dialect of Savoy, probably - and is derived from the Latin glacia, and before that from glaciēs, ice.

Something that's glacial, by the way, is very slow or very cold. For instance, a glacial look is extremely chilly, and glacial progress nicely describes the course of any government project anywhere in the world.

Thursday 21 February 2019

Absolutely clear: a rant.

The British Prime Minister, Theresa May (and please don't call her Prime Minister May, because it's wrong and annoying), has a habit of saying let me be absolutely clear...and then going on to say that the thing is everything will be fine once she can just get everyone to agree with her.

Which, of course, isn't clear at all. Let's face it, it's not even politic.

Clear has become a word, like undoubtedly, which signals opacity and doubt. This is clearly the case is, perversely, about something less clear than this is the case.

He's undoubtedly a villain has a faint feeling of uncertainty that he's a villain doesn't possess.

Both clear and undoubted move us gently from the realm of fact to the realm of perception. It's really rather clever.

Anyway, there was a recent example of the use of the word clearly in a piece about Alexa-type devices in the Daily Telegraph. You know the sort of thing I mean: those machines that listen to your activities so they can tell burglars when you've gone out. The piece said:

It's clearly convenient to be able to turn on your bedroom lights from your Amazon Echo speaker in your kitchen...

And I was pleased to discover in this a statement so bonkers that even the word clearly isn't crafty enough to obscure it.

Word To Use Today: clear. This word comes from the Old French cler. The Latin clārus means clear, bright, brilliant or illustrious.

Wednesday 20 February 2019

Nuts and Bolts: Verspätungsschal.

Claudia Weber works in a travel agent's office in Munich.

Unfortunately, her own attempts at travel were often sadly inadequate. Frau Weber's commute to work went wrong a lot - which, really, is enough to make a person wonder if he or she is in the right job.

So after a while Frau Weber decided to make a Verspätungsschal, a delay scarf, as a brilliant and original way of illustrating what was going wrong.

She knitted one row of the scarf for every journey she made to work. If her train was on time she knitted a blue line; she knitted a grey one if the train was five minutes late, pink for a half hour delay, and red if the train was even later than that.

For an entirely new way of communicating it didn't half strike a chord among German commuters, to the extent that when it was auctioned on ebay it made 7550 Euros for the charity Bahnhofsmission.

Here's the finished scarf, from a post about the auction on Twitter:

All hail Frau Weber, I say, for finding a truly universal language, and I hope she now feels quite happy in her profession.

Word To Use Today: Verspätungsschal. As in I'd make my own Verspätungsschal, except that I support Manchester City, perhaps.*

(By the way, as it happens Germany's railways, Deutsche Bahn, are state-owned.)

*Geddit? Manchester trains are famously late, and so the scarf would turn out mostly red, the colour of Manchester United.

Tuesday 19 February 2019

Thing Not To Be Today: bouldered.

Bouldered means high on drugs.

It's a good, vivid expression. The person in question will be sensible as someone who's been hit on the head by a boulder; as clear-thinking as a boulder; and will walk as steadily as if the floor is strewn with boulders.

There are a dozen unanswerable and excellent arguments to be made against being bouldered, many of which concern the cost to health, wealth and society, and of course you've heard them all.

But it's worth mentioning because the word bouldered has a rather satisfying derivation.

Thing Not To Be Today: bouldered. This is like being stoned, but even worse.

Neat, huh?

The word boulder probably comes from Scandinavia. There's a Swedish dialect word bullersten, from the Old Swedish bulder, rumbling, and sten, stone.

Stoned, as in under the influence of drugs (or, to begin with, alcoholic drink) refers to being so drunk as to be as as lively as a stone.

Monday 18 February 2019

Spot the Frippet: mask.

I hope the mask you see isn't being worn by a surgeon, that's all. 

File:UW surgery and residents.jpg
University of Washington, Seattle.

I hope instead that any mask you see is being worn by a fencer (a sword-fighter, I mean):

File:Romania v France EFS 2013 Fencing WCH t163933.jpg
photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen

or perhaps an ice hockey player. 

Or, if you happen to be Ancient Greek who's reading this via some sort of time-slip worm-hole type thing (you never know) an actor:

File:Mosaic depicting theatrical masks of Tragedy and Comedy (Thermae Decianae).jpg
(though this mosaic is actually Roman. It's in the Hall of the Doves, Palazzo Nuovo.)

Or perhaps your nearest mask being worn by someone spraying paint or sawing chipboard.

Of course if you're in Venice then masks are everywhere, on every other street stall.

File:Venetian Carnival Mask - Maschera di Carnevale - Venice Italy - Creative Commons by gnuckx (4820456037).jpg
photo by gnuckx

but if you are somewhere else then you might be able to find a dragonfly larva or a fox: their faces are called masks, as are the faces of Siamese cats:

File:Siamese cat.JPG
photo by Achileos

Or perhaps, in your quest for eternal beauty, you are wearing this sort of mask:

photo: By Sérgio (Savaman) Savarese - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

The question always to ask with masks, of course, is: what is the wearer hiding? 

And, even more importantly, why?

Spot the Frippet: mask. This word comes from the Italian maschera, from the Arabic maskhara, a clown, from sakhira, mockery.

Sunday 17 February 2019

Sunday Rest: the B word. Word Not To Use Today.

I have written about this as a word to be avoided before, but since then things have got worse: now any mention of it in Britain is reckoned to be so much a matter of tedium and despair, a word inducing so many winces of pain and crippling embarrassment from those on both sides of the question, that even on national media it is as often as not referred to as the B word.

On the whole, for this people seem to be grateful.

Word Not To Use Today: the B word. This Initial-Word formula has until now been only usually been used for swear words so offensive that they cannot be spoken out loud. 

I have once heard it used, though, ("the C word") by a publisher referring to the name of a rival organisation.

Saturday 16 February 2019

Saturday Rave: Nikolai Leskov.

Nikolai Semyonovich Leskov was born in Russia in 1831.

He became a writer by accident. He had had an insecure debt-ruled upbringing, and he had not taken kindly to school, and so he ended up working for Scott & Wilkins, a trading company owned by his aunt's English husband. He travelled all over Russia for Scott & Wilkins, dealing with all classes of people, and all sorts of different ethnic and cultural groups. He thrived on the variety and challenge, and later described these years as the happiest of his life.

Part of Leskov's job involved writing reports of his business undertakings, and his literary abilities showed themselves so clearly in these accounts that his uncle realised they were worthy of publication.

Thus it occurred that Nikolai Leskov's career as a writer started with a work entitled Sketches on Wine Industry Issues.

The folk origins of Leskov's work showed clearly in the style, now called skaz, which involves the narrator's use of slang and dialect, of which he was one of the originators. 

Later, Leskov wrote: 'I think I know the Russian man down to the very bottom of his nature but I give myself no credit for that. It's just that I've never tried to investigate 'the people's ways' by having conversations with Petersburg's cabmen. I just grew up among common people.'

Even nowadays, that's a sadly unusual way for a novelist to source material.

Leskov wrote a great deal, but, not being a member of any particular political party, he was largely ignored by Russian critics. His work was much admired by Tolstoy and Chekhov, but most of it was denounced by the Soviets.

I'll leave you with the first line of his most famous work, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Katerina Lvovna lived a boring life in the rich house of her father-in-law during the five years of her marriage to her unaffectionate husband; but, as often happens, no one paid the slightest attention to this boredom of hers.

Can't wait to find out what happens next?

Well, you can HERE

It's violent and bleak and terrific.

Word To Use Today: boredom. This word appeared in the 1700s, from no one knows where.

Friday 15 February 2019

Word To Use Today: topaz.

For years - years - I've been repeating to myself the quotation the topmost topaz of an ancient tower and wandering what on earth it was on about.

Why would anyone put a topaz on a tower?

I've looked up topaz in dictionaries, hoping for an obscure and enlightening meaning; I've pondered the possibility of the line invoking some ancient sunrise tradition; but nothing I've been able to discover has made it make anything like sense.

I've never even, until now, been sure from where the quotation came. It has the powerful, mystical feeling of Tennyson - and if it was Tennyson then it must mean something!

But at last, at last, I've found the origin of the line. It's from a thirty one page book called The Enemy Conquered; or, Love Triumphant, written by G Ragsdale McClintock, a man now, sadly, only remembered for the wonderful review by Mark Twain of the above opus.

And Mark Twain, thank heavens, explains all.

The reader must not imagine that he is to find in it [the book] wisdom, brilliancy, fertility of imagination, ingenuity of construction, purity of style, perfection of imagery, truth to nature, clearness of statement, humanly possible situations, humanly possible people, fluent narrative, connected series of events - or philosophy, logic, or sense.

And later, bless him, Twain gets on to the topmost topaz.

We notice how fine and grand it sounds. We know that if it was loftily uttered, it got a noble burst of applause from the villagers; yet there isn't a ray of sense in it, or meaning in it.

No ray of sense or meaning...

I can't tell you how relieved I am by that!

A topaz is just a topaz. A jewel. It's beautiful, and has been said to cure lunacy.

photo by Pithecanthropus4152 

But not, I'm afraid, in the case of The Enemy Conquered, or Love Triumphant.

Poor G Ragsdale McClintock.

Word To Use Today: topaz. This word probably comes from the Greek Topazos, the old name of St John's Island in the Red Sea where a similar mineral was mined. Or the word might come from the Sanskrit tapas meaning heat or fire.

The whole of Mark Twain's scintillating review can be found HERE.

Thursday 14 February 2019

Valentine Verse: a rant.

Roses are red
Violets are blue,
Sugar is sweet
And so are you.

Excuse me a moment, I'm feeling a little nauseated...

...deep breath...

....OK. I can do this.

That horrible sugary little rhyme has many variations, all of them rubbish. It even has a Folk Song Index Number (it's 19798. Yes, that is a lot of folk songs).

And in any case roses are very often not red, and violets are, well, violet. 

It was Sir Edmund Spencer who first seems to have come up with the roses are red, violets are blue line (in The Faerie Queene) and by the end of the 1700s the line had become part of a nursery rhyme (which are allowed to be nonsense).

Whether Victor Hugo knew about either of these sources I don't know, but in Les Misérables he came up with a French version that actually makes sense:

Les bleuets sont bleus, les roses sont roses...

The cornflowers are blue, the roses are pink...

And you know something? Murmuring something in French might even have some effect on a sweetheart, especially if he or she doesn't understand French. And even if he or she does, then, as the rest of the verse involves a bit of shopping for very pretty things while walking along the streets, it still might just do the trick:

Nous achèterons de bien belles choses
En nous promenant le long des faubourgs
Les bleuets sont bleus, les roses sont roses,
Les bluets sont bleus, J'aime mes amours.

Well, Roses are red isn't going to get you anywhere, is it?

Word To Use Today: rose. This word has meant, well, rose, for over a thousand years. The old Greek form is rhodon.

Wednesday 13 February 2019

Nuts and Bolts: Barngala.

Barngala is a language spoken by the Aboriginal people of the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia.

Except that in 2011 it wasn't spoken any more. In fact, no one had spoken it since the 1960s, when the Australian Government took away all the Barngala children, put them in orphanages or foster homes, and forced them to speak English.

But that wasn't the end of Barngala, because an Israeli professor at Adelaide University, Ghil'ad Zuckermann, found some records written by two missionaries, the Revd Clamor Wilhelm Schürmann and Christian Teichelmann, in the mid 1800s, which provided enough information to reconstruct the language.

But who would want to learn it? Why, the Barngala community of the Eyre Peninsula, of course. They were thrilled and happy to be able to learn their own language, and workshops began in 2012.

Most marvellously, a 3000 word dictionary has now been released as a mobile app.

The Barngala phrase of the week is nina yoowa?

It means Are you good? Or, in other words, How are you?

The answer (I trust) is Ngai yoowa (I am good).

Not a lot of people knew that until recently. 

Words To Use Today: Ngaidya midyi means My name is...So, in my case, Ngaidya midyi Sally. 

So now you can answer the question Noongoo wandyi midyi?

How clever is that?

Tuesday 12 February 2019

Thing Not To Do Today: go pear-shaped.

A pear, if you can find one in the thirty minute interval when it's neither tooth-cracking wood nor bladder of rotting juice, is a marvellous thing.

It's beautiful, too:

Pomological Watercolor POM00006921.jpg

So what's wrong with being pear-shaped? 

Well, nothing, really. 

It may not be the most fashionable figure for ladies at the moment, but on the other hand a low centre of gravity is jolly useful if you're trying to negotiate icy pavements.

In Britain, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand, however, a plan that has gone pear-shaped has gone seriously wrong.

It's not an expression used for very serious incidents: no one would refer to a fatal car journey as having gone pear-shaped, except ironically (and even a British person would be careful about using irony in such a situation).

But if you were planning to meet someone and you couldn't get there because of a diversion; or your souffle turned out to be more of a sad puddle; or your attempt at the world domino-toppling record is plagued by minor earthquakes and/or cockroaches, then things will have gone pear-shaped.

How to avoid this, I'm not sure. 

I suppose you could always not make plans involving transport, whipped egg whites, or world records.

But then nothing ventured...

...ah well. 

Good luck, anyway.

Thing Not To Do Today: go pear-shaped. There has been lots of argument about this expression, but it seems to be Royal Air Force slang from the 1980s, a euphemism for an expression describing the position of the mammary glands when fallen flat on the back and thus out of action.

The most surprising thing about this is that anyone serving in the RAF felt in need of a euphemism.

Monday 11 February 2019

Spot the Frippet: chicle.

No, really, this is easy.

I just wish there wasn't no much of it stuck over the pavement.

Yes, chicle is the substance of which chewing gum is made (or one of the substances: there have been many, and the chewing gum companies keep the ingredients for their own gum secret. The oldest known chewing gum is 6,000 years old and was made of birch gum, but chewing gums have been invented in many civilisations using ingredients from chocolate to rubber).

bleeding a chicle tree, 1917, Belize.

In modern times, chewing gum might be made of butadiene-styrene rubber, paraffin, petroleum wax, polyethylene, or polyvinyl acetate, as well as chicle or some other more natural product; but as no one in their right mind would put any of those chemicals in their mouth, it might be best to tell ourselves it's all made of chicle.

(The coating of a modern piece of chewing gum is probably polyol (no, luckily that's not any sort of a tadpole, but a chemical sweetener)).

Is there anything even slightly charming about chewing gum, even when it's made of chicle? Well, the cooling feeling you get while masticating chewing gum is down to the negative enthalpy of dissolution, which sounds like something Diana Wynne Jones might have dreamed up, but is actually what happens when sweeteners dissolve and take energy from their surroundings to do it.

Anyway, chewing gum isn't all bad. Not quite. It can help people who have just had stomach surgery, it can reduce the incidence of tooth decay, and it can boost brain power for a short time. 

But once it's been spat over the pavement, of course, it's of absolutely no use at all.

Spot the Frippet: chicle. The Nahuatl word tziktli means sticky stuff. 

Which is curiously close to the English.

Sunday 10 February 2019

Sunday Rest: vishing. Word Not To Use Today.

Vishing is a silly-sounding sort of a word, and it's clearly going to be something to do with phishing, isn't it?

Well, yes, it is. It's phishing done by telephone. Someone - a person, or, more usually, an automated message - will pretend to be from some trustworthy institution, like a bank or a utility company (do feel free to interject hollow laughter at this point) in an attempt to extract enough personal details to make a quick spring clean of the recipient's bank account.

Who'd fall for that?

Only the inexperienced, naive, vulnerable, elderly or innocent. No one important, in fact.

Now, I don't dispute that it's useful to have some word to describe that activity.

But I wish it wasn't one that made the whole process sound so much like a joke. Especially when we have phone scam to make things plain and easy.

Word Not To Use Today: vishing. This word is a mix-up of voice and phishing. Phishing is basically the same word as fishing, because of the way both involve trailing bait in order to catch a prize. The word vishing is an early twenty first century invention.

Saturday 9 February 2019

Saturday Rave: Natsume Sōseki

Natsume Sōseki is recognised as perhaps Japan's greatest modern writer (though not that modern: he was born in 1867 and died in 1916).

Natsume Sōseki was born Natsume Kin'nosuke, the last child in a family of six children, very much an after-thought, and very much resented by his parents. In fact he was given in adoption as a baby by a childless couple, who looked after him until they divorced when Sōseki was nine. He was then returned to his family, but the death of his mother and two of his brothers soon afterwards made home life very unhappy, as did his family's disapproval of his ambition to become a writer.

When the young man did start to write, at college, he began to use the name Sōseki, which is a Chinese word implying stubborn. (NB: this is the one and only personal characteristic every writer definitely needs to have).

Sōseki spent a couple of very unhappy years in England as a student, but otherwise he lived all his life in Japan. He wrote poetry, novels, and short stories, and he has now reached such a level of respect and fame that he has featured on a Japanese bank note. 

Here's a haiku of Sōseki's - a suitably wintry one if you live in the Northern hemisphere (and most people do).

Over the wintry
forest, winds howl in rage
with no leaves to blow.

I think it's wonderful.

Word To Use Today: stubborn. This word was stuborne in the 1300s, but no one is sure where it came from before that.

Friday 8 February 2019

Word To Use Today: zaffer.

Zaffer is obtained by roasting some fairly poor-quality cobalt oxide: or, if you haven't got any cobalt oxide handy, some low-quality cobalt arsenate will do. 

It doesn't sound very interesting or lovely, but it is, because zaffer can be used to prepare smalt, which is the stuff that makes glass blue:
photo by Arpingstone

Zaffer has also been used in blue enamel and, in the form of a glaze, on blue and white pottery.

File:Blue and white vase Jingdezhen Ming Yongle 1403 1424.jpg
Jingdezhen vase, about 1415. Photo by World Imaging

So much beauty from a lump of contaminated rock.

Zaffer used to be used in alchemy. 

I think it's of the discipline's great successes, too.

Word To Use Today: zaffer. This word has been around since the 1500s, and comes from the Italian zaffera. It's perhaps something to do with the word sapphire.

Thursday 7 February 2019

They Know What You Want: a rant.

The other day I wanted a synonym for the word stuff, and because my Thesaurus was upstairs and getting it would have involved climbing over two builders, I looked it up on line.

I clicked a likely-looking link, and discovered it took me to a table, published via Pinterest, of useful words for schoolchildren. 

Since then Pinterest has been pushing teaching resources at me.

We're all familiar with this sort of thing - of being monitored by the big tech firms, I mean. It can be quite useful sometimes (for instance, if your first search hasn't quite come up with the thing you want to buy) and pleasingly ridiculous at others (you bought a new car last week, so why not buy another one today??).

The ability of companies to suggest these products is sophisticated really rather marvellous. They can deduce all sorts of stuff about us, even if they get it wrong.

Does it matter?

Molly Russell killed herself, aged fourteen, in 2017. She'd not been obviously depressed or obviously troubled. She had, it turned out, been viewing a lot of self-harming images on line, particularly via Instagram. 

A month after her death, Pinterest sent her a link entitled I can't tell you how many times I've wished I was dead.

Just think how clever the marketing is that you receive.

And see if you can find one single excuse for the tech giants to send that sort of thing to any child. To any person.

I can't.

Word To Use Today: suicide. This word comes from the Latin suī, of oneself, and caedere, to kill.

During the course of researching this post I Googled "Whatsapp suicide" and the drop-down menu suggested I might be looking for "Whatsapp suicide Momo". 

Momo is a game which is said to encourage children to self-harm. The final challenge is to commit suicide.

It's been reported that several of our children have succeeded.

I'm told it's a hoax.

I hope so.

Wednesday 6 February 2019

Nuts and Bolts: abecedarii.

An abecedarius is a poem where the lines start with every letter of an alphabet, in order.

Abecedarii are very old, and no one knows how they started. They may have begun as a way of invoking the intrinsic magic of letters, but nowadays they tend to crop up more as a way of teaching children their alphabets.

Dr Seuss's ABC is a famous example, but it has been pointed out to nearly every child by one means or another that A is for Apple and that B is for Ball.

And that X causes all sorts of problems.

What's the point of knowing any of this stuff? Well, for me, knowing about abecedarii has soothed away one very longstanding irritation. 

Psalm 119 is too long - it has 176 verses - which is ridiculous. Who's going to want to sing, or listen to, a song with 176 verses? 

Now, it turns out that in the original Hebrew each eight verse section has all its lines starting with the same Hebrew letter. The initial letters of the first section start with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the next section has lines starting with the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and the psalm goes on in this way, section by section, through the whole alphabet from beginning to end. (The mathematicians among you will already have deduced that the Hebrew alphabet has twenty two letters.)

So Psalm 119 is still ridiculous, but at least there's a reason for its being ridiculous. And now I find that in my late mother-in-law Doris's copy of the Bible, given to her as a Christmas present when she was aged eleven by someone who inscribes herself Auntie Dick, the sections of Psalm 119 do indeed have titles beginning with ALEPH and ending with TAU.

I hope someone explained this to poor little Doris. 

But somehow I doubt it.

Word To Use Today: abecedarius. This is Mediaeval Latin for ABC Primer. In the form abecedary, the idea goes back to the 1400s.

Tuesday 5 February 2019

Thing To Do Today: commend someone/something.

To commend someone is, I realise, a deeply unfashionable idea*.

It presumably follows, then, that there are serious downsides to commending people, or else it would be more popular.

Let's see.

Commending people would certainly cause a lot of happiness. 

No downside there as far as I can see.

It would also encourage experimentation and creativity.

That's mostly good, as long as the person commended doesn't decide to cook you a meal involving liver and apricot jam. On the same plate.

Commending people would create friendships throughout the world.

I can't see much wrong with that, either. Well, as long as they don't all want loans at the same time.

So where's this downside?

I think the fear generally is that encouraging people will do damage to the commender's own status.

But we all know what people who are obsessively worried about their own status are called, don't we.

Yes, that's right. 


Thing To Do Today: commend someone/something. Extra points if he is called Bernard. The word commend comes from the Latin commendāre, to commit to someone's care, from mandāre, to entrust.

*Unless they're at school and under the age of about ten.

**Sorry, silly joke. I'm sure that nearly all Bernards are both generous and kind. Do feel free to enter your own adjective in its place.

Monday 4 February 2019

Spot the Frippet: lattice.

You get lattices in gardens, obviously:

And they are also sometimes are found in buildings:

File:Amerian House lattice interior.jpg
The Armerian House, Kashan, Iran. Photo by Matthias Blume

But there are more, many more, everywhere. 

I mean, what about Bravais lattices?

They're a lot smaller than the lattices you see with roses growing up them. A lot smaller: in fact they're the way many substances fitted together.

For instance, a diamond consists of a lattice of carbon atoms arranged like this:

(Carbon atoms arranged in a different lattice pattern form the lead in a pencil (which, obviously, therefore can't actually be made of lead)).

Mixtures of elements can form lattices, too. Salt is one example: a single grain of salt is made up of a lattice of perhaps 1,200,000,000,000,000,000 ions (ions are more or less the same as atoms), half of them sodium ions and half of them chlorine. Each unit of the lattice is a cube, just like the grain of salt itself.

Solid metals are also fitted together like lattices.

Of all the lattices, a crystal is particularly wonderful, giving us a clue as it does of the way its atoms are arranged at the tiniest possible level:

This is amethyst quartz. Photo by Didier Descouens

So now think: how many lattices are there within a metre of you?

Spot the Frippet: lattice. This word comes from the Old French latte, which means lath, a strip of wood.

Sunday 3 February 2019

Sunday Rest: murdabad. Word Not To Use Today.

This sounds like something really terrible, doesn't it? Murdabad?

And it can be.

You might see this word on a placard in a demonstration in India or Pakistan, and it conveys its meaning, down with, powerfully. 

Now we can all, I should imagine, have some sympathy with an occasional need to shout DOWN WITH TEACHERS! or DOWN WITH THE GOVERNMENT!

But associating them with the word bad is something about which we should perhaps be careful.

And letting something that sounds like murder get anywhere near the argument is, I fear, a recipe for pure disaster.

Word Not To Use Today: murdabad. This word is Urdu, and can also mean DEATH TO. It comes from the Persian murda, which means dead.

Having said all that, sometimes you can feel nothing but breathless admiration for people's sheer courage:

File:Taliban Protest.jpg
photo by Shabiha

(Zindabad means LONG LIVE.)

Saturday 2 February 2019

Saturday Rave: Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce.

Joyce spent seventeen years writing Finnegan's Wake, and he reckoned that it'd take the critics three hundred years to work out what it all meant.

(It was published in 1939, so no one is even a third of the way there, yet.)

Finnegan's Wake is therefore impossible. It's actually designed to be very nearly impossible: at one point Joyce even put in some words in the language of the Samoyedic people of Siberia because he found a sentence he thought too easy.*

There are four ways of dealing with Finnegan's Wake. First, don't read it.

This is what most of the world has decided.

Second, treat the whole thing as a kind of wild music. This may well involve reading it out loud (probably best not in a public place).

Third, you can read the guides and join the study groups and think very hard about each non-existent word. Then, eventually, you can either become a Joyce scholar (but only if that's the best way you can imagine spending your life) or you can look back in astonishment at the sheer amount of time you've wasted on a triviality. Or possibly a work of genius.

Fourthly, you can read the first page or two, marvel at the delicious nonsense of it, and move on to something else.

I'm in the fourth category.

Here's the first sentence of the book to give you a flavour:

riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.

It's not too bad, really.

Here's another sentence:

Evilling chimbes is smutsick rivulverblott but thee hard casted thereass pigstenes upann Congan's shootsmen in Schottenhof, ekeascent?

Are you having a life's-too-short moment?

Because I am.

Word To Use Today: rivulverblott. Sorry, I really haven't a clue.

*Having repeated this anecdote, Joyce's list of the languages used in Finnegan's Wake doesn't include Samoyed, or any of its variants. But it does include English, Irish, Norwegian, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Esperanto, Volapuk, Novial, Flemish, French, Italian, Burmese, Basque, Welsh, Roumansch, Dutch, German, Russian, Breton, Hebrew, Sanskrit, Kisuaheli, Swedish, Spanish, Persian, Rumanian, Lithuanian, Malay, Finnish, Albanian, Icelandic, Portuguese, Czech, Turkish, Polish, and Ruthenian. 

Friday 1 February 2019

Word To Use Today: manure.

Gardener: 'I'm going to put some manure on the roses today, ma'am.'

Lady: 'You shouldn't call it manure, you should call it fertiliser.'

Gardener: 'What? But it's taken me forty years to learn to call it manure!'

Manure is - or should be - a mixture of well-rotted straw (or something similar) and animal poo. 

File:Pile of manure on a field.jpg
photo by Paul Clarke

Messing around with the poo of carnivorous animals is neither pleasant nor healthy, but the application of the waste products of chickens, and, especially, horses, will give a boost to any plant.

Gardener: Do you have manure put on your rhubarb?

Lady: No. Custard, usually.

Manure is also a nickname used to annoy Manchester United Football Club fans. I don't know why they find it so irritating. 

I mean, they're both rich and powerful, aren't they.

Word To Use Today: manure. This word appeared in the 1300s from the Latin manuospera, which means manual work. So it's actually always been a very polite word indeed.