This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 30 November 2019

Saturday Rave: Sonnet No 1 by Philip Sidney.

Philip Sidney was good-looking, clever, well-connected, and rich. He was a member of parliament (elected at the age of eighteen (I told you he was well-connected)) a diplomat, a soldier, and a courtier to the very demanding Queen Elizabeth I. Amongst all this demanding activity he somehow found time to write a lot of poetry including over a hundred sonnets.

They're good sonnets, too.

In the end, of course, Sidney died the most romantic possible death, not only giving water to another wounded soldier "Thy necessity is yet greater than mine" but composing a song to be sung at his funeral as he lay on his death bed. (Though when I say romantic, I mean in retrospect: bring shot in the leg and then dying later of gangrene could not have been the least bit pretty.)

To make this even more astonishing, he died at the age of thirty one, an age at which many young men nowadays have only just left university (Sidney graduated from Christ Church, Oxford).

Here's his Sonnet No I. It's a love sonnet, of course, but it's really about creative writing.

I can't imagine anyone ever packing so much useful experience into fourteen exquisite lines.

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she, dear she, might take some pleasure of my pain,
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,—
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain,
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sunburned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay:
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

Word To Use Today: wit. This word was witt in Old English and goes back through history (the lovely Old High German form was wizzi) to the Latin vidēre, to see.

Friday 29 November 2019

Word To Use Today: sinistrous.

Sinistrous can mean ill-omened, or it can describe shells which curl round in a clockwise direction starting from the top or centre.

It's an odd combination of meanings, but, hey, if you're eating the contents of a sinistrous shell then the two meanings do come together. 

And possibly not only for the poor shell fish, either.

Word To Use Today: sinistrous. This word comes from the Latin word sinister, which means on the left-hand (or for the Romans unlucky) side. 

(If you were trying to tell the future by looking at the flight paths of birds then you really didn't want to see one zooming in from the left). 

The word may be connected with the word sinus, which means pocket, Romans keeping their pockets in the left side of their togas. 

Going further back, the Proto Indo European word that gave us the word sinister seems to have meant shadow. There's evidence that ancient Europeans worked out their directions starting from the east, where the sun rises. If you do this in the Northern hemisphere this means the light is always on your right and the shadow on your left.

So the sinister side is the dark side, and everything about the connection between left-handedness and bad things falls into place.

(Not that there's any real connection, obviously.)

Thursday 28 November 2019

The long arm of the chocolatiers: a rant.

I can't eat chocolate. any more: luckily, though, I can still enjoy the baroquely snobbish blurb on the wrappers.

This intense, bittersweet dark chocolate from the Dominican Republic's Cibao Valley offers hints of red wine and berry flavours

says Sainsburys of their own-brand 70% offering - which is great, as long as red wine and berries are what people are wanting.

Then there's Godiva Belgium 1926 72% cocoa Rich Smooth Dark Chocolate

Crafted by Godiva's Master Chocolatiers of Belgium, it says. Made in Turkey.

(Good heavens! They must have very long arms...)

Our deliciously rich, smooth chocolate

it goes on

 is exceptionally crafted with passion and artistic flair, to unlock a rich symphony of flavour notes. Discover the flavour journey inside each pack.

I'm not sure how you can unlock a symphony, let alone do it while journeying.

Ah well. I suppose tastes of chocolate would have been a bit obvious.

Word To Use Today: chocolate. This word comes from the Aztec xocolatl, from xococ, sour or bitter, and atl, which means water.

Wednesday 27 November 2019

Nuts and Bolts: orthoepy

Orthoepy is the technical term for the correct pronunciation of words (or occasionally the correct pronunciation of whole chunks of poetry).

What's correct? Well, as far as English is concerned, it used to be  the King's English (that is, the English spoken by the king of England on the odd occasion when one of them happened to speak English as his native language) but now people quite happily claim American and Australian pronunciations as examples of orthoepy, and there are plenty of passionate advocates for the legitimacy of a thousand other dialects. 

Basically the whole idea of orthoepy has gone right out of fashion.

Amusingly, though, people are still arguing about the orthoepy of the word orthoepy.

Which just goes to show how ridiculous the whole idea was to start with.

Word To Say Correctly Today (ha!): orthoepy. This word comes from the Greek ortho- straight and epos word. You can say the word ORthohEEpee, ORthohEPPee, ORthohIPPi, ORthohUHpee...or however you like, really. I would probably stick with four syllables, though.

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Thing To Neither Be Nor Do Today: faint

Being faint is to do with lacking things - conviction, brightness, or force.

You can be in exactly the same state in a good way - you can be questioning instead of convinced, soft instead of bright, gentle instead of forceful - but if you're faint then you're annoyingly insipid, dull, or weak.

So don't damn someone with faint praise, glow with enthusiasm about...well, there must be something, if it's only the joy you felt upon leaving the performance (I had such fun this evening, darling!).

Don't be faint-hearted, have courage.

And if you haven't the faintest idea how to do that, well, then: work it out!


...I suppose, ironically, the best option might involve fainting at the critical moment...

Thing To Neither Be Nor Do Today: faint. This word comes from the Old French, from faindre, to be idle.

Monday 25 November 2019

Spot the Frippet: fairy.

They say that the bottom of the garden is the easiest place to see a fairy, or, if you have no garden, then try the loneliest crossroads you can find. I'm not saying it'll be easy (or possible) but that's what people say.

On the other hand, you can always blow the fairies from a dandelion clock:

File:Blown dandelions (Diente de Leon, Dandelion).jpg
photo by Vicente Villamón 

or there is bound to be a fairy cycle:

File:Childrens bike.JPG
photo by Keanu @ no:wp

a fairy ring:

File:Fairy Ring 0004.JPG
photo by Aviddoghug 

or (in Australia) some fairy floss:

File:Cotton candy Μαλλί της γριάς.JPG
photo by FocalPoint

near you.

Fairy penguins, shrimps and swallows will probably be further away (though, please note, the fairy swallow is not actually a swallow, but a pigeon):

File:Fairy Swallow (Wing Pigeon).jpg

Easiest of all, there are (or very soon will be) fairy lights everywhere:

File:(1)Fairy lights UNSW-3.jpg
photo by Sardaka

Even so, there's nothing quite as good as the real thing, which in Britain at least can be seen in the form of Fairy Godmothers at the Pantomime in theatres across the land:

File:D23 Expo 2011 - Cinderella and her Fairy Godmother (6075263601).jpg

If all fails, make a wish.

Well, you never know...

Spot the Frippet: fairy. This word comes from the Old French faerie, which means fairyland, from feie, fairy, from the Latin Fāta, the fates.

Sunday 24 November 2019

Sunday Rest: finsta. Word Not To Use Today.

A finsta is a second Instagram account, access to which is restricted to close friends. The idea is that the photographs and videos on it reflect the poster's real life and interests rather than some highly varnished and glamorous version of it.

I actually quite like the word finsta, but weep that anyone should feel any need for any other type of account.

Sunday Rest: finsta. This word is a portmanteau of the words fake and Instagram. This is rather odd, as the finsta is actually the account which reflects reality. 

The word fake is interesting. It first appears as thieves' slang in the 1700s, where it meant to mug or wound someone - perhaps even yourself, to make yourself more pitiful for begging purposes. It might have originated via Polari from the Italian word facciere, to make or to do. On the other hand the word fake might have come from the dialect slang words feak, to twitch or move quickly, or feague, to put a live eel or ginger up the backside of a horse in order to make it seem more energetic.

Well, that's an image that will haunt me for ever. 

Especially whenever anyone says fake news.

Saturday 23 November 2019

Saturday Rave: Areopagitica, by John Milton.

I have a bit of a problem with John Milton. His mind was tough and his poetry magnificent, but...

...I think what it comes down to is that he irritates the heck out of me.

Still, many people revere Milton, so this is plainly my fault. I think that part of it is that I've never recovered from reading Robert Graves' wonderful novel Wife To Mr Milton.

Is this why I have mixed feelings about Areopagitica? (The title refers to the hill in Ancient Greece where trails were held.)

Areopagitica is a pamphlet arguing against censorship - and it makes its argument both logically and successfully, and many philosophers whom came after him took Areopagitica as their starting point.

Areopagitica 1644bw gobeirne.png(Although it's called a Speech to Parliament on the cover, it was never a speech, and, as John Milton wasn't a Member of Parliament he couldn't have made it, anyway. I told you he was irritating.)

The other two irritating things about Areopagitica is that, first, one reason Milton was so charged-up about censorship was that his own treatise on divorce had been suppressed (he wanted divorce on the grounds on incompatability. If you want to know more about the circumstances I do recommend Wife to Mr Milton); and, second, after making a series of clear and admirable arguments he goes and says that none of it counts if the stuff's about things he doesn't agree with, such as Catholicism, or superstition, or attacks on the government.

Milton's argument goes something like this: a) it was the Catholics who started this censorship lark, and you don't want to be copying them; b) reading wrong things expands the mind and confirms what is right; c) licensing laws are expensive and useless, and most people will come across the bad ideas by other media such as word of mouth, anyway; d) you can't trust the censors; and, e) as long as a written work isn't allowed to be anonymous then you can sort out the author after publication, anyway.

So, two hearty cheers for John Milton.

It should be three, really, but I can't quite bring myself to suggest it.

Word To Use Today: censor. This word comes from the Latin word cēnsēre, to consider.

Friday 22 November 2019

Word To Use Today: mastodon.

Mastodon is a brilliant word for, well, a mastodon

Mammoth on the left, mastodon on the right. Illustration by Dantheman9758

The mas bit sounds weighty, and the don bit sounds like a mighty robot.

(As a matter of fact the derivation is nothing to do with being either massive or powerful, but there you go.)

Mastodons were common, once, but that was a long time ago.

I still miss them, though.

How to use the word? Well, as so often PG Wodehouse shows us the way. He writes of occasions when 'Aunt is calling Aunt like mastodons bellowing across primaeval swamps' (though I would have thought that a swamp would have been rather a dangerous habitat for an animal as heavy as a mastodon).

That other master of the English language, Betty Rubble, compares Fred Flinstone's singing voice to that of a mastodon who's got caught in the tar pit.

So there we are. Mastodon. A word all ready to add spice to your conversation and to describe any over-large and over-noisy character near you.

Word To Use Today: mastodon. This word comes from the Latin and means, literally, breast-tooth. Even though a mastodon's teeth have bumps on them which are more or less in the shape of nipples, this is a very odd name indeed.

Thursday 21 November 2019

The assault of the dead: a rant.

One of the disadvantages of reading on line is that sometimes headlines are cut-off in the  middle.

Not long ago, in the on line edition of the Telegraph newspaper, I saw a headline beginning:

Lord's sex assault: female fan assaulted during Test match by man using dead

Now, that such a thing has occurred is very sad indeed, and although the Lord of the Lord's Cricket Ground in London is not the Lord (as in the Almighty) but a benefactor to cricket called Mr Thomas Lord, for cricket fans Lord's is nonetheless sacred ground, and an assault of any kind is therefore doubly shocking. 

But at the same time I believed it would be unkind and ill-mannered to pry into someone else's misfortune, and so I left the report unread.

Except...a dead what?

I got on with my week, but the question kept coming back to haunt me. What might you find in Lord's that's dead?

A pigeon? 

A pot plant?

I read on line that the waiting for full membership of the MCC has a fifty to sixty year waiting list, so there are bound to be regular casualties...

No, it really wasn't something I wanted to think about.

At last, by chance, I came across the headline in full:

Lord's sex assault: female fan assaulted during Test Match by man using dead member's pass, court hears


And I still don't know whether discovering the full story was more of a disappointment or a relief.

Word To Use Today: lord. A lord is the man who gives you your bread. It comes from the Old English hlāford, that is, loaf-ward or loaf keeper.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Nuts and Bolts: what the phth!

I came across some monophthongs the other day (they're vowel sounds which stay the same all the way through, without swerving about at all. Just ordinary ones, in fact), and it got me thinking about that phth group of letters.

As a matter of fact monophthong comes from the Greek word monophthongos, from monos which means one, and thongos, sound.

(Well, if you think saying phth (which would sound like fth, though not, of course, like the fth in the English word fifth) is hard, try saying sth.)

Where else do we find the sound phth? Well, there's the group of words connected with the organic compounds phthalein, which gives us some lovely blue and green dyes. The phth group appears here because the word is a shortened form of naphthalene. 

There 's phthalate, too, which is a related chemical used to make PVC.

Phthiriasis is a respectable way of saying someone is lousy - that is, literally infected with lice. That word comes from the Greek phtheir, louse.

Phthisis is a condition which involves wasting away, from Greek phthisikos.

In all these words you pronounce the initial phth sound, rather disappointingly, f; though there is the option, with phthisis, of saying it t or fth.

Then we have aphthous, a small ulcer in the mouth or stomach; apophthegm, a short saying; ophthalmic (you'll have come across that one); xerophthalmic, a dryness of the eye; and terephthalate (the T part of PET plastics).

All phth words are of Greek origin (the Greeks had just one letter to represent our th sound. They had just one letter to represent our f sound, too, though in English words that used to be Greek we tend to write it ph, which is silly of us).

All these phth words look rather bizarre and puzzling; but hey, variety is the spice of life, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: one with a phth in it. The Greek word naphthalene comes from Greek, of course, but before that from the Persian neft.

Tuesday 19 November 2019

Thing Not To Be Today: verrucose.

To be verrucose is to be covered in warts (or things which look like warts).

It's fine if you're a frog:

ZakeranaKeralensis.jpgVerrucose frog, India. Photo by L. Shyamal - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

or a toad:

Bombina bombina 1 (Marek Szczepanek).jpgphoto of a European fire-bellied toad by Marek Szczepanek

or a toadstool:

File:Amanita muscaria (fly agaric).JPG
Fly agaric toadstool. Photo by MichaelMaggs

or verrucose sea-purslane (I can't see the warts in the picture, but presumably they're there): 

539.sdh ccdb 24906 f12 h16346 1418682840 jpg

All these life-forms can really bring off the warty look with aplomb. Witches, similarly, seem to view being verrucose as a sign of authority. For the rest of us, though...

...hey, but who knows where fashion will take us?

Still, we're not there yet.

Thing Not To Be Today: verrucose. This word comes from the Latin verrūcōsus, full of warts, from verrūca, a wart. (By the way, the plural of verruca can be either verrucas or verrucae. The latter is pronounced verrOOssee.)

Monday 18 November 2019

Spot the Frippet: pleat.

Pleated skirts are back in fashion, especially mid-calf-length ones which make people look at least fifty years older than their actual age (and a stone heavier, too).

This pleated smock is called a rochet. Still, it probably wasn't particularly intended to be flattering. Photo by Carolus

Some pleats are genuinely useful in allowing freedom of movement:

File:Norfolkjacket 1906.jpg

But many are simply for decoration:

File:Official with Pleated Costume MET LC-65 119 EGDP024372.jpg
Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Egyptian, about the year zero.

and all are a pain to iron:

portrait by Benjamin Greenleaf

It's an odd thing, fashion.

Still, pleats mean you can fold things:

or unfold them, for that matter, a trick that Nature discovered millions of years ago:

File:Pleated Inkcap - Parasola plicatilis (29783391482).jpg
pleated inkcap, Parasola plicatilis. Photo by AJC1

File:Fresh green horse chestnut leaves - - 789803.jpg
photo of horse chestnut leaves by Andrew Hill

Then you can find pleats on lampshades, and furniture, and pie-liners, and probably other places, too.

What's the purpose of the first one you find?

Word To Use Today: pleat. This word is basically the same word as plait and ply (as in plywood). It comes from the Old French pleit, from the Latin plicāre, to fold.

Sunday 17 November 2019

Sunday Rest: virago. Word Not To Use Today.

I daren't use this word. It's too much of a risk.

There have been so many campaigns against using insulting words to describe woman - words such as scold or shrew (and ruder things) - and there's no doubt that virago is certainly insulting, meaning as it does a loud and violently ill-tempered woman.

But still, when you look at the word's origin..., perhaps it might be possible, after all. 

After all, it's not only women it's insulting.

Sunday Rest: virago. This word has been around in English for about a thousand years. Before that it came from Latin, where it meant a manlike young woman, from the word vir, man.

I think that makes it a dual-sex insult...

..not that I'm saying there are only two sexes...

...I think I'd better keep quiet, now.

Saturday 16 November 2019

Saturday Rave: Iceland by Jonas Hallgrimsson.

Jónas Hallgrimsson (1807-1845), the son of an Icelandic curate, discovered in himself a great interest for the history and natural history of his native country. 

He lived for much of his adult life in Denmark, but he returned home regularly, and wrote for the pro-independence magazine Fjölnir, which he had helped to found.

He was a poet, too, rather a romantic one (there was unrequited love in his past which would have helped with the wistful-longing side of things). He wrote about the Icelandic natural world movingly and beautifully, and experimented with forms new to Icelandic literature.

Here's an example of his verse:


Charming and fair is the land,
and snow-white the peaks of the jokuls.
Cloudless and blue is the sky,
the ocean is shimmering bright,
But high on the lava fields, where 
still Osar river is flowing
Down into Altmanna gorge
Althing no longer is held,
Now Snorri's booth serves as a sheepfold,
the ling upon Logberg the sacred
Is blue with berries every year,
for children's and ravens' delight.
Oh, ye juvenile host
and full-grown manhood of Iceland!
Thus is our forefathers' fame
forgotten and dormant withal.

(translated by Gudmund J Gislason)

Since 1996 November 16, Jónas's birthday, has been recognised as the national Day of the Icelandic Language, and today the Jónas Hallgrimsson Award will be given for outstanding contribution to the Icelandic.

Word To Use Today: icicle, perhaps, as a the word jokul means glacier and is basically the same word as our word icicle.

Friday 15 November 2019

Word To Use Today: lavabo.

What's the connection between Psalm 26 and a wash basin?


Word To Use Today: lavabo. This is the ordinary French word for a wash basin, but it is used in English, too, though more often than not (which is still not very often) in the phrases lavabo towel or lavabo basin

Dorothy L Sayers used the word lavabo to mean downstairs loo, but that was a while ago.

Lavabo is rather more commonly used to describe the part of the Roman Catholic Mass where the priest washes his hands. In a convent or monastery a lavabo might be a washing trough, but it's the same idea.

And the psalm?

Psalm 26 verse 6 begins (New King James version) I will wash my hands in innocence, and it describes one of the religious rites of the ancient Jewish Temple. In Latin that's Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas... 

Obviously saying the whole line would have been a bit of a mouthful, so people must have decided to stop after lavabo, which means I shall wash.

Thursday 14 November 2019

Woman's stuff: a rant.

A survey has claimed...

...sorry, have you lost the will to live, yet?

I know, let's start with who paid for the research (Kelloggs, and especially their diet cornflake brand Special K) and the survey's sample size (2,000).

I can't find any information on peer-reviewing, or on who conducted the survey, or by what means, so let's get on to what the survey was aiming to show. It was that women feel belittled by certain words.

The survey has produced a list of twenty words that it claims that women would like to see banned (though in fact, if you read the actual results which disclose what percentage of the respondents wants each word banned, you'll find that it's done nothing of the kind).

The words which a majority of women who took part on the survey really would like to see banned are hormonal (68%) drama queen (56%) bitchy (53%) and high maintenance (51%).

Hysterical comes next at 50 per cent, so that's a maybe.

I don't know how the survey was conducted - whether the words were suggested to the respondents, or whether the words were volunteered by the respondents themselves (unlikely, given the results, but I don't know). Whichever it was, of equal interest are the words which nearly everyone, even out of this sample of women who agreed to answer a survey linked to a diet cereal about discrimination against women, don't mind.

They are difficult (21% objecting) sexy (20%) aggressive (10%) sassy (16%) and feisty (14%).

I volunteer this information as a public service. 

My own opinion is that using the words in the second list rather than those in the first might well save a lot of people a lot of grief.

Well, it has to be worth a try, anyway.

Word Not To Use Today: hormonal. This word comes from the Greek word horman to stir up or urge on, from hormē impulse or assault.

It might also be worth bearing in mind that testosterone is a hormone

Wednesday 13 November 2019

Nuts and Bolts: melic.

Melic poetry is the carefully-structured Greek verse of the seventh and sixth century BC.

Yes, it is rather a minority interest, but luckily the word has extended its meaning to mean to do with song, or intended to be sung (especially when you're talking about poetry).

Melic is a rather beautiful word, and we still have melic poetry all round us.

One of my longest-term favourites is this one:


What's yours?

Word To Use Today: melic. This word was first used in English in 1699. It comes from the Greek word melikos, from melos, which means song.

Tuesday 12 November 2019

Thing To Do Today, Possibly: fiddle.

You can be on the fiddle, which involves minor stealing by dodging your way through administrative systems; you can play fiddle, which will involve a violin and a folk tune:

File:Fiddlin Bill Henseley, Mountain Fiddler, Asheville, North Carolina by Ben Shahn, 1937 LOC 290626613.jpg
Fiddlin' Bill Henseley. Photo by Bill Shahn

 and you can fiddle about, which means being busy doing nothing very much, especially if it involves struggling with something small.

Some connections to playing folk music are easy to see - such as having a face as long as a fiddle:

File:Britannica Fiddle Minnesinger.png
Minnesinger, 1200s, Mannesse Manuscript

and it's easy to see the link between violin playing and working with something small or fundamentally not life-threatening.

As for the committing-fraud sort of fiddling, there are theories linking the word to the Emperor Nero (who is said to have fiddled while Rome burned) and also with the sort of fiddle which is the rim of a sailor's plate. Sadly, though, sailor's plates have never had rims called fiddles (though their work surfaces have had) and Nero neither had a fiddle nor stooped to indulging in petty crime (he was a man for an grand evil gesture).

What we do know about financial fiddling is that it started in America in the second half of the 1800s, and that from the beginning it had the dual meanings of swindling and attending closely to small non-essentials.

A man trying to steal small amounts of money is likely to be doing a lot of attending closely to apparently small non-essentials, and this, I suggest, is how fiddling the accounts probably began as an expression.

Thing To Do Today Possibly: fiddle. This word comes from the Old English fithele, probably from the Latin vītulārī, to celebrate: