This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 31 August 2019

Saturday Rave: The Bee by Emily Dickinson.

It's the end of summer here in England. The countryside is rich with fruit and flower and honey - and in the towns millions of eyes are staring into small screens, fascinated with rather ordinary but arrogant people, whether in far away countries or living next door. 

And all those millions of eyes are blind to the lot of it.

So here, for a shot of sumptuous sensual delight in a very ordinary thing (and to what more glorious object can Art aim?) here's a poem by someone (not English) whose life was quiet enough to see the real things around her.

Like trains of cars on tracks of plush
I hear the level bee:
A jar across the flowers goes,
Their velvet masonry

Withstands until the sweet assault
Their chivalry consumes,
While he, victorious, tilts away
To vanquish other blooms.

His feet are shod with gauze,
His helmet is of gold;
His breast, a single onyx
With chrysoprase, inlaid.

His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee's experience
Of clovers and of noon! 

Now go off, for goodness' sake, and have a proper look at a beetle!

Word To Use Today: chrysoprase. Chrysoprase is a green gemstone. The word comes from the Greek krusos, meaning gold, and prason, which I'm afraid means leek.

Friday 30 August 2019

Word To Use Today: painter/painting/painted.

While a painter is someone who paints (either the walls of houses or pictures), or else it's a piece of rope attached to the front end of a ship for tying it to something that's less likely to float away.

Unless, of course, it's this magnificent beast:

Mountain Lion in Glacier National Park.jpg

(though usually they're called cougars. This one is in Montana, USA.

Painter's colic is another name for lead colic. (Yes, it's because painters got stomach ache because their paint was full of lead.)

While I'm here, painting-by-numbers describes someone who shows no sign of originality; and while a painted lady:

File:Painted Lady (35829494543).jpg
photo by Renee Grayson

 is a migratory butterfly, a painted woman is one whose make-up suggests she might be likely to wander, but may, all the same, be of irreproachable respectability.

Word To Use Today: painter. The word paint comes from French, from the Latin word pingere, to paint or adorn. The word painter, as in boat, comes, probably, from the Old French penteur, strong rope. The animal word is a form of panther.

Thursday 29 August 2019

The ultimate gift: a rant.

Ghislaine* Maxwell has been in the news. I'd never heard of her before, but as far as I can gather her main claim to fame is that she goes to parties a lot.

But now, having glimpsed a headline in the Telegraph newspaper, I have discovered that Ghislaine Maxwell is actually the ultimate philanthropist.

Ghislaine Maxwell donated to hospital 
where Epstein victim was treated after 
alleged sexual assault

Well, she must be the ultimate philanthropist (greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends**) unless she has some jolly dodgy acquaintances, anyway.

Oh dear.

Word To Use Today: donate. The Latin word dōnum means gift. 

*Ghislaine can be pronounced in various ways, but there's general agreement that the g is hard, as in get, and the s is silent, as is isle. Ghee-LAYN, or ghee-LENN, or g'LENN are none of them wrong. 

**John 15:13.

Wednesday 28 August 2019

Nuts and Bolts: logogriph.

A logogriph sounds like something from Alice in Wonderland - perhaps a rather harassed animal which spends its whole time stressing over the meaning of words (and let's hope he never meets Humpty Dumpty) - but it's not.

A logogriph is a word puzzle, which I'm afraid will probably involve anagrams. In its grandest form the author will cut the one-word answer to the puzzle down into its various constituent parts and give clues to each part, and then, at the end, a clue to the whole thing.

Yes, they do tend to be quite long-winded, and in this age of the one-liner they have fallen, thank heavens, out of favour. Formerly, though, people actually found them entertaining and even respectable people made them up.

Here's one by Lord Macauley:

Cut off my head, how singular I act!

Cut off my tail, and plural I appear.

Cut off my head and tail - most curious fact,

Although my middle's left, there's nothing there!

What is my head cut off?--a sounding sea!

What is my tail cut off?--a flowing river!

Amid their mingling depths I fearless play

Parent of softest sounds, though mute for ever!
...and for those of you who have now lost the will to live, which will surely be most of us, the answer is below.

A logogriph can also be a puzzle consisting of two words which give clues to two other words which are anagrams of each other. For instance QUIET HEARING gives you SILENT LISTEN.

On the whole, I wish the logogriph had been a fabulous beast from Alice in Wonderland. Well, it would have been more fun, wouldn't it?

Word To Use Today: logogriph. This word is made of the Greek logos, word, and griphos, puzzle or fishing basket (presumably one like a lobster pot, from which the prey can't escape).

The answer to Lord Macauley's logogriph is the kind of fish called  a cod. Head cut off: od (which sounds like odd, geddit?); tail cut off co, as in company; middle consists of o, or zero; head alone c, or something which sounds like sea; tail alone d, which sounds like Dee, a British river.

Tuesday 27 August 2019

Thing To Do Today: pogo.

You can pogo with a Pogo Stick, if you can find one:

animation by Blacklemon67 at English Wikipedia 

but it's easier and much safer (especially for the over-eighties) to pogo without one.

It just involves jumping up and down on the spot.

To pogo with style you should put on some very loud music (probably not by Beethoven), flip your hair backwards and forwards (if you have any) and try to look earnestly ecstatic.

Having a heart-attack half-way through isn't at all in the spirit of the thing, so do take care.

Thing To Do Today: pogo. This word was first used in 1921 and comes from the trade name of the Pogo Stick. Where that name comes from is not accepted as proved by the dictionaries, but the Pogo Stick was invented by the Germans Max Pohlig and Ernst Gottschall, so if the word isn't based on their names then that's a heck of a coincidence.

Monday 26 August 2019

Spot the Frippet: podium.

This is probably the most commonly recognised type of  podium:

File:YOG Wrestling Freestyle 110kg Medal Ceremony 17 (cropped).jpg
Sergei Kozyrev (RUS) Amir Hossein Zare (IRI) and Ahmed Mahmoud Khalil (EGY), wrestlers. Buenos Aires, 2018. Photo by Gastón Cuello

and they can be found in various different types of venue:

File:HE XUNTIAN Sunyata Dance, Clarinetist He Yemo and The Israel Symphony Orchestra in 2014.png
Israeli orchestra, soloist He Yemo. The conductor He Xuntian is on the podium. Photo by Xmly

(NB: a column with a book rest on top is, strictly speaking, not a podium at all, but a lectern. I understand that in America, however, usage has progressed too far to insist on this).

There are also architectural podiums:

The Maison Carrée is standing on one in, Nimes, AD 4 -  7  

and anatomical ones, like each tube foot of a starfish:


So: which type of podium is closest to you now?

Spot the Frippet: podium. This word comes from the Greek podion, which means little foot.

Sunday 25 August 2019

Sunday Rest: melancholily. Word Not To Use Today.

Melancholily really is a genuine word. It means sadly

So why not use sadly?

Well, it might be because you think using eccentric words is a fine and good thing (which it is, on occasion). British children, for instance, are taught to call long rare words wow words, and the poor kids have been given the impression that the use of the words harrumphed or gushed, for example, make for a more vivid sentence than the word said. 

(Which, unless you equate vivid with annoying and off-putting, they most definitely don't.)

Why else might someone use the word melancholily?

I suppose he or she might be pompous; or a show-off; or tin-eared.

Or, of course, all three.

Ah well. I suppose it might serve as a useful warning to make one's excuses and leave, mightn't it.

Word Not To Use Today: melancholily. Melancholy can mean what is now called depression, or it can mean a general tendency to lowness in mood. The word comes from the Old French from the Latin melancholia from the Greek melankholia, from melas, black and kholē bile. The belief was that low mood was called by too much black bile in the system.

Saturday 24 August 2019

Saturday Rave: The Book of Common Prayer, edited by Thomas Cranmer.

England, having thrown off the authority of the Pope in the 1530s, was in need of some new religious rules to support the revised political order and its consequent belief-system.

The results were, first, The Book of Common Prayer, composed by committee and edited by Thomas Cranmer; and, second, a very bloody rebellion.

To be strictly historical about it, the rebellion wasn't entirely about the book - there were other problems, including a tax on sheep - but a major grievance was that The Book of Common Prayer was written in English instead of the Latin of the Pope's Catholic Church. 

Latin, being largely incomprehensible throughout the land, was felt to be even-handed, but an English prayer book, though it would be understood by most, would be mere mumbo-jumbo in the West Country of Devon and (especially) Cornwall, where Cornish was the language of the common people. 

(The Catholic church, as it happened, had been rather supportive of Cornish language and culture.)

The Prayer Book Rebellion failed, of course. The casualties were horrible - 2,300 dead, and uncounted numbers of wounded. The Prayer Book, however, survived. It's a masterpiece of measured English, but was it worth all those lives?

Well, what does the book itself say?

Give peace in our time, O Lord.

So, that'd be a no, then. 

Word To Use Today: prayer. This word, suitably in the circumstances, comes from the Latin word precārius, which means obtained by begging, from prex, which means prayer.

Friday 23 August 2019

Word To Use Today: aluminium/aluminum/alumium.

Aluminium/aluminum: but which?

The oldest?

The most up-to-date?

The one that's easiest to say?*

The one that's used by most people?

The one that's used where you live?

The chemical element aluminium/aluminium was first identified by Humphry Davy in 1808. And what did he call it? Alumium. So that's the oldest word for the stuff.

Four years later, no one knows why, he started calling it aluminum instead. 

Now, America latched onto the new and up-to-date name, but the British muttered and moaned about the word now not fitting the pattern of other elements, which tend to have -ium endings (like sodium and calcium) and in the end The Quarterly Review decided to add an extra letter i to the mix to give the word a more classical sound. So the British ended up with aluminium.

Neither of these words is easy to say, so on the whole I'd suggest returning to the original alumium, thus annoying everyone in the world equally.

Well, that has to be fair, doesn't it?

Word To Use Today: alumium/aluminium/aluminium. Alumine was the French word for aluminium oxide. This word comes from alum, bitter salt, from the Greek word aludoimos, bitter. So this word just might have the same roots as the word ale.

*Did you hear about the lady who asked if the tinker was copper-bottoming the pans he was mending? No, he said, I'm aluminiuming'em mum.

Try reading that out loud!

Thursday 22 August 2019

Perfectly good: a rant.

Why is it that when in English someone describes something as perfectly good they mean it's only adequate and completely undesirable?

I mean, why????

Sometimes I think I'll never get the hang of this speaking English thing...

Words To Use Today: perfectly good. Perfect comes from the Latin word perfectus, from perficere, to perform, from per, through, and facere to do. The Old English form of good was gōd.

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Nuts and Bolts: dittography.

The computer program WORD is rather good. Its grammar is a bit dodgy, sometimes, and its spelling is sadly inflexible, and it suffers rather from Thinking It Knows Best. But then who doesn't? 

(I hate to admit it, but very often WORD does know best.)

The program is over-keen, however, on the concept of dittography.

Dittography is the unintentional repetition of letters or words in a piece of writing. What WORD doesn't understand is that sometimes this repetition is intentional.

I shall now proceed to upset the poor thing.

The ice cream's edges of delicate, delicate ice crystals were deliquescing into tiny spheres of glossy cream in the sun. So what did I do, do you think? Did I take it over to where the mayor was waiting at his table? No, I licked it with a questing, joyful tongue: deeeelicious! Yum yum!

Having said all this, the word dittography usually describes that sort of mistake in very early manuscripts of the Bible.

Still, this doesn't make teasing WORD any less fun.

Did you hear the story about the sign painter who made the gaps too large between the words on the pub sign for the PIG AND WHISTLE?

The landlord was quite cross. 

'That's no good,' he said. 'You've left too much space between PIG and AND and AND and WHISTLE!' 

Word To Use Today: dittography. The word ditto comes from the Tuscan word detto, which means said, from the Latin dicere to say. The Greek word graphein means to write.

Tuesday 20 August 2019

Thing You're Probably Going To Do Today: wait.

How much of your life do you spend waiting instead of living?

File:Waiting By The Window.jpg
Waiting by the Window by Carl Holsøe

Admittedly the two aren't mutually exclusive, but even so waiting does tend to bite large chunks out of your actually-doing-stuff time.

Perhaps today is the day to make sure that none of the waiting time is wasted...

...unless, of course, you enjoy doing absolutely nothing. 

Then it's fine.


Thing You're Probably Going To Do Today: wait. This word comes from Old French waitier, and is related to the Old High German wahtēn to wake. 

Monday 19 August 2019

Spot the Frippet: mere.

There are four types of mere in my Collins dictionary, but of course you can't spot the one which means only. 

She is a mere child = she is only a child.

The other three types of mere, however, are out there and fully visible.

The first sort of mere is a lake or marsh, and probably not a very cheerful one. (But then marshes aren't often cheerful.) I associate this sort of mere with Tennyson at his gloomiest:

Long stood Sir Bedivere
Revolving many memories, till the hull
Look'd one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.*

The second mere is a boundary or boundary marker:

File:Tri-States Boundary Marker top view.jpg
tri-state boundary marker, USA. Photo by Cohee

and the third is a flat club usually found in New Zealand:

File:New Zealand; Maori wooden club (mere). Albumen print. Wellcome V0038536.jpg
Wellcome Images.

I suppose this is a grim thing, too, but it does at least sound cheerful: you say it merry, pretty much.

The boundary marker seems the easiest to spot, as well as being the most fun, so I think I'll go off and find one of those...

...would a garden fence count?

Spot the Frippet: mere. The lake word comes from the Old English mere, meaning sea. The boundary word comes from the other Old English word gemǣre. The weapon word is, of course Māori.

*Those are the last lines of Morte d'Arthur.

Sunday 18 August 2019

Sunday Rest: eulogy. Word Not To Use Today.


...well, if there's a word that sounds more like someone throwing up then I don't know what it is.

Still, I suppose they can be a bit sickeningly over-sweet.

Sunday Rest: eulogy. In mediaeval times his word meant high praise. (Eus is Greek for good, and logos means word.) It comes from the Latin eulogium from the Greek eulogia, which means praise, but along the way the word has probably got a bit mixed up with the similar Latin word elogium, which means inscription on a tomb.

Saturday 17 August 2019

Saturday Rave: Hertha by Fredrika Bremer.

Hertha was published in 1856. It was written by Fredrika Bremer, and it managed not only to be both dark and funny, but to start a parliamentary debate in Sweden which resulted in a new law giving Swedish adult unmarried women their legal majority.

It also raised the profile of the argument for formal higher education for women. The result, in 1861, was the opening of a university for women teachers, the Högre Iärinneseminariet. As if this wasn't extraordinary enough, the novel also inspired the publication of the women's newspaper Tidskrift för hemmel.

There can't have been many novels which have has such as effect on the political world.

Fredrika Bremer was born in 1801 and brought up to be a young lady, an occupation that drove her almost mad with boredom and frustration. She started writing in order to raise money for charity, but she found in her writing the opportunity to speak the truth about women's lives in nineteenth century Sweden.

She said:

I would like to become an author to whose works everyone who is sad, depressed and troubled (and especially everyone of my own sex who is suffering) could go, assured of finding in them a word of redress, of comfort, or encouragement.

That's a quote from a letter. Here's one from Hertha:

One day is so terribly like another that people don't know how to distinguish one from another. For this reason many an inhabitant of a little town, that he might not drop fast asleep from sheer weariness, endeavours to keep himself awake by drinking punch, playing at cards, at many other such pastimes, which have the result of making the purse light and the heart heavy. The ladies again, when they do not partake of the gentlemen's pastimes - which sometimes happens - generally amuse themselves with coffee-parties, novel-reading, and petty scandal, by way of a little spice to this thin spiritual soup of daily life.

Sharp, funny stuff.

If you have very good eyesight you can read the whole novel HERE.

Word To Use Today: scandal. This word comes from the Latin scandalium, a stumbling block, from the Greek skandalion, a trap.

Friday 16 August 2019

Word To Use Today: wotcher.

Exactly how much of a snob are you?

Will you happily say Good morning? Or would that be too posh?

Will you say Hi, or Hey: or would that be too modern?

Are you fussy to the point that you don't even approve of Hello? (It is just about possible: the word, used as a greeting, is less than a hundred and fifty years old, and was coined by an engineer* rather than a classics scholar).

Will you say Good day? or is that too ridiculously formal (unless, of course, you're Australian)?

And how about wotcher? That manages to be out-of-date, slang, and never used in middle-class society...


Are you a snob?

Go on, then, prove it: greet the next person you see with wotcher.

I'll let off the Americans amongst you saying the next word in the traditional greeting: 

Wotcher cock!

Word To Use Today: wotcher. This is Cockney (that is, east London slang) for What cheer? It was coined in the 1800s.

Actually, I do wish What cheer would come back as a greeting: it might stop everyone grumbling the whole time.

The word cheer, in the sense of a welcoming face, comes from the Greek kara, which means head.

*Thomas Edison. It was originally an exclamation of surprise at the workings (or lack of them) of his newly invented telephone.