This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 31 July 2019

Nuts and Bolts: natural ambigrams.

Of course the first question you will be asking is what's an unnatural ambigram when it's at home?

An ambigram is a piece of writing that can be viewed in more than one orientation. Amazing things can be done with clever letter designs: 

designed by Basile Morin (the other orientation is most easily viewed on a tablet computer or phone. Otherwise, you'll have to do a headstand to see it).

A natural ambigram is one where a word makes sense when viewed differently even without clever font design.

Sometimes the words might be the same when viewed upside down, as in the word dollop (well, more or less, apart from the l s being in slightly the wrong place). That example only works in lower case, but the word MOW, for example, works in both upper and lower cases. Then there are words like TOOTH, which stays the same if you write the word vertically: 


and then put a mirror vertically down the middle of it (though why anyone should go to the trouble of doing that I do not know.)

A similar sort of thing happens if you put the mirror in horizontally in the word BOOK.

What's the use of ambigrams?

They're used in advertising sometimes, but they're just for fun, really.

But then that's important, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: ambigram. The claim is that this word was made up by the American professor of cognitive science Douglas Richard Hofstadter in about 1983, though the first known unnatural ambigram was made by Peter Newell in 1893. The Latin ambo means both, and -gram comes from the Greek gramma, which means letter.

Tuesday 30 July 2019

Thing To Do Today: flatter someone.

People who come to play in The Word Den are an open-minded, curious, intelligent lot.*

Right: so now I've done my bit of flattery for today, how about you doing yours?**

You do look nice in that dress.

I know I can count on you to do it properly.

The children so much look forward to seeing you.

I'm longing to read your next book.

You're such an inspiration.

You'll be able to understand these numbers.

Just think: you'll be making the world a happier place, and making friends at the same time...

…but then, a clever person like you will have worked that out already.

Thing To Do Today: flatter someone. Flattery is quite often insincere and done for personal gain; but not always. The word probably comes from the Old French flater, to lick or fawn upon.

*Which must mean, now I come to think about it, that there are open-minded, curious, and intelligent people in every nation of the world. 

Well, that's something we could all usefully bear in mind.

**Not that I didn't mean it, natch.

Monday 29 July 2019

Spot the Frippet: chasmogamy.

If monogamy is being married to one person, and bigamy is being married to two, then what's chasmogamy?

To give you a clue, the chasmo- bit comes from the Greek word khasma, which means, yes, chasm.

Any ideas?

No, it's nothing to do with a marriage that leaves you in a vale of sorrow or a pit of despair. 

To give you a further clue, chasmogamy is the opposite of cleistogamy (and here the cleist- bit comes from the Greek word kleis, which means key).

Before I reveal just what chasmogamy is, please stop for a moment and marvel at the wondrous things that are your logical faculties and imagination...

Done that? 

Okay, then: chasmogamy is the opening of a flower to reveal its reproductive bits so that it can be cross-pollinated.

Nearly all flowers are chasmogamous:

File:Up Flower Meadow Mineral King.jpg
photo of the gloriously named Bigelow sneezeweed and other flowers by by Jane S Richardson

File:Nicotiana sylvestris-IMG 9349.jpg
nicotiana sylvestris, photo by C T Johansson

File:Valeriana officinalis 002.JPG
valerian officianalis, photo by H Zell

…but some flowers, including peas and violas and peanuts, sometimes have a large number of cleistogamous flowers, too. The seeds produced by these flowers are clones, and their advantage to the plant is that if it is living in a difficult place then, firstly, a clone will probably survive (because it's exactly the same as its parent, which has itself survived); and, secondly, producing the seed takes up less energy because you don't have to bother with petals and scent and nectar and all that jazz.

It's a neat system.

Perhaps fortunately, though, very few of these advantages are transferable to human societies.

Spot the Frippet: chasmogamy. The -gamy bit of this word comes from the Greek word gamos, which means marriage.

Sunday 28 July 2019

Sunday Rest: beegan. Word Not To Use Today.

A beegan, of course, is a vegan who eats honey.

Why don't vegans eat honey? Well, because it's made by animals, and the feeling among vegans is that taking away the bees' honey is exploitative.

And I suppose that's true, in a way.

It's not a straightforward, though. For one thing, many industrially-produced crops, such as avocadoes, almonds, apples, plums, cherries alfalfa, blueberries, melons, cucumbers, squashes, lettuces and tangerines are pollinated by brought-in hives of bees - and plonking the poor things in a monoculture where they only have one thing to eat for weeks on end is not exactly kind on the bees, either.

Still, as vegans say, they may not be able to protect bees completely by avoiding all these crops, but they can still do their best to help save the insects from exploitation by not buying honey.

One argument in favour of eating honey is that the point of bee keeping is, well, to keep bees. It's not to kill them, or to allow them to starve to death. Bees live in hives provided by beekeepers, but there's usually nothing to stop the bees leaving if that's what they want (after all, they wouldn't be able to make honey if they couldn't leave the hive).

There are more arguments, of course, and people must make up their own minds.

About the word beegan, however, my mind is firmly made up.

Sunday Rest: beegan. Word Not To Use Today. The word bee used to be o in Old English.

Saturday 27 July 2019

Saturday Rave: Lord Ullin's Daughter by Thomas Campbell.

Thomas Campbell (1777 - 1844) was a Scots poet. A quick look at Wikipedia when I was first writing this post convinced me that perhaps the most wonderful thing about him is that he wrote a poem called The Battle of Mad and Strange Turkish Princes.

This poem, sadly, did not appear to be available on line - and that, as Rambling Ducky has so kindly pointed out, below, is because Campbell never wrote it. Rambling Ducky tells us that no one ever wrote it, and that the poem is nothing but a figment of Wikipedia's imagination. 

Ah well! We still have Campbell's splendidly tragic ballad Lord Ullin's daughter.

Here it is.

A Chieftain to the Highlands bound,
Cries, ‘Boatman, do not tarry;
And I’ll give thee a silver pound
To row us o’er the ferry.’

‘Now who be ye would cross Lochgyle,
This dark and stormy water?’
‘Oh! I’m the chief of Ulva’s isle,
And this Lord Ullin’s daughter.

‘And fast before her father’s men
Three days we’ve fled together,
For should he find us in the glen,
My blood would stain the heather.

‘His horsemen hard behind us ride;
Should they our steps discover,
Then who will cheer my bonny bride
When they have slain her lover?’

Outspoke the hardy Highland wight:
‘I’ll go, my chief – I’m ready:
It is not for your silver bright,
But for your winsome lady.

‘And by my word, the bonny bird
In danger shall not tarry:
So, though the waves are raging white,
I’ll row you o’er the ferry.’

By this the storm grew loud apace,
The water-wraith was shrieking;
And in the scowl of heaven each face
Grew dark as they were speaking.

But still, as wilder blew the wind,
And as the night grew drearer,
Adown the glen rode armed men -
Their trampling sounded nearer.

‘Oh! Haste thee, haste!’ the lady cries,
‘Though tempests round us gather;
I’ll meet the raging of the skies,
But not an angry father.’

The boat has left a stormy land,
A stormy sea before her -
When oh! Too strong for human hand,
The tempest gathered o’er her.

And still they rowed amidst the roar
Of waters fast prevailing;
Lord Ullin reach’d that fatal shore -
His wrath was chang’d to wailing.

For sore dismay’d, through storm and shade,
His child he did discover;
One lovely hand she stretch’d for aid,
And one was round her lover.

‘Come back! Come back!’ he cried in grief,
‘Across this stormy water;
And I’ll forgive your Highland chief,
My daughter! - oh, my daughter!’

‘Twas vain: the loud waves lash’d the shore,
Return or aid preventing;
The waters wild went o’er his child,
And he was left lamenting.
Word To Use Today: wight. The Old English form of this word was wiht. It means human being.

Friday 26 July 2019

Words To Use Today: white dielectric material.

In 1964 The radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were working at the Holmondel communications antenna in New Jersey. Unfortunately their experiments were made impossible because they couldn't get a clear signal; they kept picking up a constant, hissing interference.

They tried everything to get rid of the interference. They rebuilt the equipment, put duct tape over any joins, and even went up into the dish with brooms to clean off the white dielectric material the birds had deposited there.

In the end, defeated, they consulted Robert Dicke at Princetown, who realised straight away that this interference was the last traces of the cosmic radiation from the Big Bang that began the universe. 

Penzias and Wilson didn't know much about cosmic radiation, but they wrote a paper describing how they'd got on with trying to get rid of the hissing interference. The interpretation and explanation of what it was they left to Robert Dicke. 

Despite this, it was Penzias and Wilson who received the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics. 

I'm not saying that this was entirely fair, but using the term white dielectric material in their written report must surely have swept away any doubts on the part of the judging panel.

It seems, as you can see, that to be a Nobel prize-winner doesn't actually require knowledge and genius; but to avoid cheapening the brand he or she surely must have dignity. 

And describing their sweeping up of that encrusted bird mess would surely have put a stop to Penzias and Wilson having any chance of a prize.

Word To Use Today: dielectric. A dielectric is a substance that can sustain a static electric field within it. It can also be an insulator. The word comes from dia- which means through, and the Greek word ēlektron, amber (because amber is a notably dielectric material).

Thursday 25 July 2019

The Oxford Dictionary of bad women: a rant

an adult human female.

lady, girl, member of the fair/gentle sex, female;

Wednesday 24 July 2019

Nuts and Bolts: palinode.

A palinode is a poem in which the poet says, basically, you know what I said in that other poem I wrote? Well, it was rubbish.

The first person who definitely wrote a palinode was Stesichorus, who, in the 7th century BC, changed his mind about the Trojan War being all the fault of that silly Helen woman.

Geoffrey Chaucer did the same sort of thing at the end of The Canterbury Tales, apologising for the fact that his work was a bit, well, worldly and full of "vanitees".

Wherfore I biseke yow mekely, for the mercy
Of God, that ye preye for me that crist have
Mercy on me and foryeve me my giltes; and
Namely of my translacions and enditynges of
Worldly vanitees, the whiche I revoke in
My retracciouns:/ as is the book of Troilus
the book also of Fame; the book of
The xxv Ladies; the book of the duchess;
The book of seint valentynes day of the parlement of brides;
the tales of counterbury,
Thilke that sownen into synne;
the book of the Leoun; 
and many another book.

Though whether this genuinely a palinode or really an advertisement I wouldn't like to say.

Thing To Consider Today: palinode. This word comes from the two Greek words palin, meaning back or again, and oide, which means song. The palin bit is the same as is found in the word palindrome, though not in Sarah.

Tuesday 23 July 2019

Thing To Do Today: mourn.

It's my dad's funeral today.

Thing To Do Today: mourn. This word comes from the Old English murnan. 

Monday 22 July 2019

Spot the Frippet: something paly.

Something can be paly without being pale.

In fact, something paly is usually not pale at all.

Paly means vertically striped. It's a term used in heraldry, and if you're being very heraldic about it then you put the word paly after the thing it describes. (This is because heralds haven't really noticed that the English language has been invented and so still talk a variety of French: so a blazer paly is a vertically striped blazer.)

Oxford half blue blazer (the word blue and half  here are nothing to do with the pattern or colour). Photo by Rmbyoung.

Strictly speaking, heraldic rules say that you can't put two colours next to each other, which you might think makes it difficult to draw stripes; but once you know that in heraldry white and yellow aren't colours (they're called argent and or, that is gold and silver, so they count as metals) then things make more sense.

Keith of Castleacre Escutcheon.pngBy Robin S. Taylor - Own work, with stag heads File:Coat of Arms of John Loder, 2nd Baron Wakehurst, KG, KCMG, GCStJ.png by Rs-nourse, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Luckily, there are vertical stripes to spot all over the place.

Here, delightfully, is a pin striped tit-babbler:

File:Pin-striped Tit-babbler Macronus gularis by Dr. Raju Kasambe (2).jpg

photo taken in India by Dr. Raju Kasambe

But even for those of us not lucky enough to be in India, there will be some wall paper paly, or a shirt paly, somewhere not too far away.

See if you can find it!

Spot the Frippet: something paly. This word comes from the Old French palé, from the Latin pālus, stake. It's basically the same word as the sort of pales you find making up a fence.