This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 31 December 2019

Thing To Celebrate Today: hogmanay.

The fact that in England New Year's Day is a Public Holiday tells you quite a lot about the sort of parties people throw here on New Year's Eve. 

Why is it traditional to drink, and drink so much? (It would surely be cynical to make any connection between drinking and the courage required to face another year.) 

In any case,
the English are amateurs compared with the Scots, who have the very best New Year celebrations (they call the season Hogmanay except in Shetland, where it's called Yule). The celebrations in Scotland are so very fine that Scotland has two days off.

So why is Hogmanay such a big thing in Scotland?

Well, Scotland didn't celebrate Christmas very much at all for hundreds of years - right up until the 1950s, in fact. The church in Scotland thought Christmas much too Catholic, so it put a stop to it. This meant that all the midwinter festivities had to happen at New Year.

Scotland does celebrate Christmas, now, but, well, there's plenty of room in the week for two parties, isn't there? The Word Den thinks so, anyway. 

May your year be full of harmless pleasure and your evening full of hope.

Thing To Celebrate today: Hogmanay. Mary Queen of Scots may have brought this word back with her from France in 1561. There hoginane means gala day, and presents given at New Year were hoguignetes. There are other possibilities for the origin of the word: the Anglo-Saxon haleg monath means holy month, and there's a term hoggo-nott that was used in Scandinavia. But it's probably French.

Monday 30 December 2019

Spot the Frippet: something old.

Actually, don't just try to spot something old, see how old the oldest thing is that you can spot.

I mean, Grannie may seem old but she's probably a mere stripling compared to...


The oldest building in my town (as far as I know) was began in 1140. It's a church:

Hemel Hempstead - St Mary's Church - - 407742.jpgphoto by By Nigel Cox, CC BY-SA 2.0,

but there are plenty of places older than that, such as the Aula Palatina in Trier, Germany:

File:Trier - Aula Palatina.JPG

which was built in 310 AD.

Even if you live in a place where all the buildings are new, you will still be surrounded by some very old things. There are trees which are thousands of years old: the Llangernhyw Yew (Taxxus baccata) from, yes, Llangernhyw in North Wales, is about 4000 years old.

And then how about the Earth itself? Even Creationists think it's pretty old, and the scientists who have spent their whole lives carefully weighing the evidence put the Earth's age at about four and a half billion years. Which is quite a long time.

And how about the stars? The Milky Way star HE 1523-0901 is believed to be thirteen point two billion years old, and it's about the oldest thing you can see from Earth. You can get a good view if you're in the Southern Hemisphere and have a small telescope, but you can see it right up to Central European latitudes.

I don't know about you, but I'm suddenly feeling quite the spring chicken.

Spot the Frippet: something old. The word old comes from the Old English eald, and is related to the Latin word altus which means high.

Sunday 29 December 2019

Sunday Rest: Twixmas, Word Not To Use Today.

Well, if you can't see what's wrong with this one there's no hope for you.

Word Not To Use Today: Twixmas. Presumably the idea behind this word is that this period of the year is between (or betwixt if you want to be cringingly twee and archaic about it) Christmas and New Year. 

Yes, the fact that New Year doesn't end in -mas does make it even worse.

The word mass probably comes from the last words of the Catholic Latin mass, Ite, missa est, which means Go, it is the Dismissal. The Old English betwix probably has something to do with the Old High German zwiski, which means, charmingly, two each.

Saturday 28 December 2019

Saturday Rave: Holy Innocents by Christina Rossetti.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents. The Holy Innocents were the babies slaughtered by King Herod at the time of the first Christmas because he was afraid that one of the little ones might grow up to depose him.

Under the circumstances, this poem presumably isn't to be taken at face-value. But it can be.

I hope and trust that you live in a place where it can.

Sleep, little Baby, sleep;
The holy Angels love thee,
And guard they bed, and keep
A blessed watch above thee.
No spirit can come near thee:
Sleep, Sweet, devoid of fear
Where nothing need alarm thee,

The Love which does not sleep,
The eternal Arms surround thee:
The Shepherd of the sheep
In perfect love hath found thee.
Sleep through the holy night,
Christ-kept from snare and sorrow,
Until thou wake to light
And love and warmth tomorrow.


I hope very hard for a world where every child can be expected to wake to love and warmth and safety.

Word To Use Today: innocent. The Latin word innocentia means harmlessness, from nocēre to hurt.

Friday 27 December 2019

Word To Use Today: magi.

The magi are on their way. They won't actually arrive in Bethlehem until January 6th, so I'm not sure exactly where they are at this very moment: in a cheap motel somewhere, probably, or else camping under a camel.

There are often said to be three of the magi, but that's just because they brought three gifts. It's more likely (as they were men) that several of them won't have thought to buy anything, and that several of the others will have panicked at the last minute and got something from a garage. 

Still, you can never go wrong with a muesli bar, or an air-freshener in the shape of a cartoon character. Can you?

Mind you, as the magi are otherwise known as the Wise Men they are probably quite good at all the science stuff, so they may have worked out the final destination of the star and be planning on taking a cut-price cheapo flight at the last minute.

On the other hand, if they were that wise then they wouldn't have done the visiting-the-cruel-king-and-telling-him-that-his-reigning-days-were-numbered thing.

File:Ravenna Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo 3 Wise men.jpg
Basilica of Sant'Apollinaire Nuovo, Ravenna. Photo by Username.Ruge


...I bet you anything you like they're sleeping under a camel.

Word To Use Today: magi. This word comes from the Old Persian magus, a magician.

Thursday 26 December 2019

Too Much Information: a rant.

Look, I realise that Good King Wenceslas would have been eating brussels sprouts practically all of Christmas Day, with predictable results. But still, there's such a thing as too much information, and do we really need to be told about the state of his digestion when he went out to help the poor man gathering winter fuel? 

The rude wind's wild lament, indeed!

Mind you, it's the poor page I feel most sorry for, trudging along behind him.

Word To Use Today: wind. This word has remained unchanged in English for over a thousand years. The Latin form was ventus.

Wednesday 25 December 2019

Nuts and Bolts: Christmas cracker jokes.

For those of us in America and in other similarly exotic places, let's get one thing straight to start with: you can't eat a Christmas cracker.

 A Christmas cracker is a tube of decorated paper with a piece of card running through it coated with gunpowder (or something similar). When two people pull on the ends of the cracker it tears apart with a satisfying crack!

File:ChristmasCrackers 2.jpg
photo by Cgros841

One person will end up holding most of the cracker (they tend to tear at the crimped bits)  and that person has won the gifts inside. 

Traditionally, they are all utter rubbish.

There will be a tissue paper hat, a tiny gift (a plastic puzzle, or a pair of very blunt scissors, or a minuscule skittle set or something) and a joke.

The joke is important and must be read out to the assembled company. It should be in the form of a riddle, it should be the worst joke possible, and it's usually also  pun.

Some examples:

Why did Father Christmas score a goal at football? 

Because the ghost of Christmas passed.

What lies at the bottom of the sea and shakes? 

A nervous wreck.

How many letters are there in the Christmas alphabet? 

Twenty five. Noel!

The important thing to know is that you have to groan in pain at the joke. Then you can laugh: but you have to groan, first.

Here's some more examples for practise:

Why can't a bike stand up by itself? 

It's two-tyred.

Which side of a turkey has the most feathers? 

The outside.

What do you get when you cross a snowman with a vampire? 


In agony yet?

Well, that's all part of a traditional British Christmas.

Have fun!

Word To Use Today: pun. This word may comes from the Italian puntiglio, which means point of detail or word play.

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Thing Not To Do Today If You're Sensible: burst.

Christmas is coming: in fact, it's due tomorrow. Hurray!

The excitement is building up and up inside me and I can't wait...

...well, all right. I can wait. I know I can, because I did it last year. And the year before.

Still, at my age I'm going to have to be careful, or I might do myself a mischief and burst or something.

In fact we should probably all be taking extra care: reading a calming book, say (The House of Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne is, as far as I know, the slowest book ever written), or we could try a cooling diet of cold porridge and still water. Or we could take up meditation, or darning.

On the other hand we could eat, drink and be merry and hope for the best.

If you hear a distant explosion at some point in the evening, don't worry.

Someone's probably just gone out with a bang.

File:C4 explosion.jpg

Thing Not To Do Today If You're Sensible: burst. This word was berstan in Old English.

Monday 23 December 2019

Spot the Frippet: nutcracker.

The winter nut-eating tradition goes right back to Roman times, when nuts were associated with having lots of children. Later, the kernel, skin and shell of a nut was linked to the Holy Trinity or the body, blood and bones of Christ.

Even the traditional Christmas ballet is about nuts, and Tchaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker is a seasonal delight if you like that sort of thing:

File:Nutcracker ballet.jpg
Indiana University School of Music. Photo by Rdikeman

The toy-soldier sort of nutcracker that features in the ballet are around at Christmas in wooden form, too:

File:Nutcrackers soldiers Berlin 2006.jpg
Berlin. Photo by Strigo

Originally these nutcrackers had levers sticking out at the back which opened the soldiers' mouths to hold the nuts ready for cracking. In Germany the Christmas soldier nutcracker was supposed to keep the whole family from harm during the year.

For those for whom the prospect of Christmas induces an urge to head for the hills, then there are natural nutcrackers to be found - or, if not found, at least looked for:

File:Spotted Nutcracker.jpg
Spotted Nutcracker, photo by MurrayBHenson

File:Clark's Nutcracker - Nucifraga columbiana.jpg
Clark's Nutcracker, photo by Wing-Chi Poon

but there are nutcrackers of various sorts everywhere there are nuts, which is most places. Mice and squirrels may be small, but none of them need machines to crack the shells of nuts.

Which actually makes me feel rather weedy and useless.

Where are the nutcrackers?

Spot the Frippet: nutcracker. The word nut comes from the Old English hnutu. The word cracker comes from the Old English cracian and has relations going right back to the Sanskrit gárjati, he roars. 

Sunday 22 December 2019

Sunday Rest: eggnog. Word Not To Use Today.

Eggnog is a slimy and revolting drink traditionally imbibed at Christmas. It is made with eggs, milk, sugar, spices and some strong alcoholic spirit, usually brandy or rum:

File:Eggnog (19285744965).jpg
photo by City Foodsters

The main problem with the word eggnog is that it's almost impossible to say if you have a heavy cold.

And, as you'll no doubt be aware, the head-cold is quite as much part of a traditional Christmas as the glutinous alcoholic drink.

Sunday Rest: eggnog. Egg is an Old Norse word. Nog, in the 1600s, was a strong beer.

Saturday 21 December 2019

Saturday Rave: How the Fir Tree became the Christmas Tree

I've been looking for a Christmas story to light up the midwinter darkness. I came across this one HERE.

There's no indication of whose story it is (Hans Christian Andersen is mentioned on the page, but this story is nothing like the moralistic and miserable story he inflicted on us), but I think from the style that it must originally have been written in German.

Anyway, How the Fir Tree became a Christmas Tree is short, it's a proper story, it's moving, and it's nicely told, so here it is.


This is the story of how the fir tree became the Christmas tree.

At the time when the Christ Child was born all the people, the animals, and the trees, and plants were very happy. The Child was born to bring peace and happiness to the whole world. People came daily to see the little One, and they always brought gifts with them.

There were three trees standing near the crypt which saw the people, and they wished that they, too, might give presents to the Christ Child.

The Palm said: "I will choose my most beautiful leaf, and place it as a fan over the Child."

"And I," said the Olive, "will sprinkle sweet-smelling oil upon His head."

"What can I give to the Child?" asked the Fir, who stood near.

"You!" cried the others. "You have nothing to offer Him. Your needles would prick Him, and your tears are sticky."

So the poor little Fir tree was very unhappy, and it said: "Yes, you are right. I have nothing to offer the Christ Child."

Now, quite near the trees stood the Christmas Angel, who had heard all that the trees had said. The Angel was sorry for the Fir tree who was so lowly and without envy of the other trees. So, when it was dark, and the stars came out, he begged a few of the little stars to come down and rest upon the branches of the Fir tree. They did as the Christmas Angel asked, and the Fir tree shone suddenly with a beautiful light.

And, at that very moment, the Christ Child opened His eyes—for He had been asleep—and as the lovely light fell upon Him He smiled.

Every year people keep the dear Christmas Child's birthday by giving gifts to each other, and every year in remembrance of His first birthday, the Christmas Angel places in every house a fir tree, also. Covered with starry candles it shines for the children as the stars shone for the Christ Child. The Fir Tree was rewarded for its meekness, for no other tree is given to shine upon so many happy faces.

File:Tallinn Christmas tree 2016.jpg
The Talinn Christmas Tree. Photo by Guillaume Speurt


Word To Use Today: fir. The Old English form of this word was furh. It's related to many similar words in neighbouring languages, and also to the Latin quercus, which means, oddly, oak.

Friday 20 December 2019

Word To Use Today: phytosociology.

For those fed up with elaborately wordy theories about their lives concocted by People Who Know Best, I give you phytosociology.

Phytosociology is a sort of sociology, but it's rather different from the other sorts because it's the study of the origin, development, and inter-relationships of plant communities.

Sierra Madre. Photo by Perojevic

Mind you, I rather imagine that even in this case the plants know more about what they're doing than the phytosociologists.

Word To Use Today: phytosociology. Phuton is Greek for plant, from phuein, to make green. The Latin word socius means associate.

The word phytosociology was coined by the Polish phytosociologist Jósef Konrad Paczoski, 1864 - 1942, but the general idea was started by Humboldt. 

Or, come to think about it, countless generations of farmers and gardeners.

Thursday 19 December 2019

The Gentlemen of the Press: a rant.

Now the dust from Britain's General Election has settled (if it has: I'm writing this on Polling Day) we know, officially, who the villains are.

Yes, I'm afraid that to quite a large extent it's been the Gentlemen of the Press.

(And the Ladies, I must say, have sometimes been no better.)

So, gentlemen, here are some hints for the future: 

if you want someone to talk frankly and honestly then you have to make him believe he's among friends (though not necessarily approving ones) and not among enemies;

if you want him to stop speaking in slogans then put him in a comfortable chair, not behind a lectern. Lecterns are designed for slogans;

if you have made a habit of seizing on any small ambiguity or attempt at humour and making it into something of immense reputation-damaging importance then naturally no one will dare say anything new.


So, please, gentlemen, how about taking a step back and thinking about your purpose? You have a profession, and perhaps a vocation.
Because what many of you are doing a lot of the time is about as edifying and subtle as graffiti.

Word To Use Today: some honest ones. The word honest comes from the Latin word honōs, which means honour.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Nuts and Bolts: something luderick.

Oh dear.

A luderick is a coastal fish, Girella tricuspidata:

Girella tricuspidata.jpgPhoto by Richard Ling

And to think that I thought that luderick was a literary term meaning playful.

That's ludic, apparently.

Ah well!

Nuts and Bolts: luderick. The word ludic comes from the Latin word lūdus, game. Luderick comes from the Ganay (a native Australian language) ludarag


Tuesday 17 December 2019

Thing Not To Be Today: tall.

I'm quite tall. Five foot nine, to be precise, which is about 175 cm. I've been apologising for this all my life. My mother was assured when she adopted me that I'd be small and fair, and she was permanently outraged about this piece of false advertising.

And then recently I met some of my birth family, and even they kept saying, amazed, I can't believe how tall you are, because they were even smaller than my adoptive family. 

So I don't know how it happened, really.


But still, it's not so bad to be tall. You can reach things, obviously, though lampshades and low doorways are hazards. It means your nose is further away from your smelly socks. Your feet generally reach the floor when sitting down.

But I can't deny that small is cuter.

Ah well.

Thing Not To Be Today: tall. This is an odd word. It's first found in English in the 1300s, when it meant large, attractive and brave, but before that it was related to the Old English getæl, which means prompt (well, I suppose you do see a tall person coming sooner) or active. It's also related to the Old High German gizal, quick, and the Gothic untals, which means foolish or not docile.

In the 1500s tall went through a stage of meaning to do with height, though not necessarily actually tall. You still see this in the expression 100 cm tall - which, obviously, is not tall at all. 

Monday 16 December 2019

Spot the Frippet: tall oil.

But how on earth can you have oil that's tall?

I mean, the whole thing about oil is that it's...flat. Puddly. Spreading. You drop a cupful of oil and you won't be tripping over it, you'll be skidding across it. The whole purpose of oil is to get into every nook and cranny to make things slide about.

Still, despite this, there is such a thing as tall oil, and you've almost certainly got some not far from you.

Tall oil is the thick yellow-black (hang on, how can something be yellow-black? Still, that's what it says on Wikipedia) smelly liquid that you get left over when you're turning wood into wood-pulp.

Where will you find it? 

In glues (epoxy resin adhesives will have tall oil in them), rubber, ink. It's used in asphalt. It's a vegetarian and eco-friendly substitute for animal fats when you're making soap or candles, or, indeed, oils to be used as lubricants (oil-drilling rigs use it on the drill bits, but you probably aren't going to have any of those near you).

But does the stuff stand up straight? Is it, indeed, tall?

Nope, it's really runny.

So where does the tall bit comes from, then?

Well, Sweden, actually.

Spot the Frippet: tall oil. This word comes from the Swedish tallolja, which means pine oil. Tall means pine, and olja oil. The Greek elaia is connected, and means olive.

Jump to navigation Jump to sea

Sunday 15 December 2019

Sunday Rest: Eskimoan. Word Not To Use Today.

What sort of a moan?

An Eskimoan.

Despite appearances, an Eskimoan is not the sound made by a native of the frozen North after eating a whole walrus, but rather a name for one of the beautiful languages an Eskimo person might speak.

Eskimo-an. Geddit?

Though what idiot failed to see the moan in that word I cannot imagine.

Eskimoan is a new word. Before it came along we managed perfectly well with using the word Eskimo as an adjective: an Eskimo language, an Eskimo dwelling.

And there's no reason I can see why we shouldn't carry on like that.

Sunday Rest: Eskimoan. The word Eskimo comes from the Innu-aimun ayaškimew, which means a person who laces a snowshoe. 

There are various official sensitivities about the word, but there's nothing at all insulting about it and the use of Inuit as a substitute is sometimes wrong, Inuit being only one of the languages spoken by the people of the far North.

Saturday 14 December 2019

Saturday Rave: Song by Aphra Behn

There were a lot of aristocratic men of letters about in England in the 1600s - and there was also Aphra Behn, whose origins were so humble that no one is even sure what was her maiden name, or where she lived.

She was a supporter of the British royal family at a time (after the monarchy was restored in 1660) when it was easier and safer not to be too loud a supporter of anything. The King (Charles II) rewarded her support by employing her as a spy, sending her abroad until all her money ran out, and then neglecting to pay her a penny for her trouble. 

After that Aphra (whose husband had died after a brief marriage) took to writing plays. She wasn't the first woman to write plays in England, but she was one of the first, and she managed to make enough money and friends to survive.

As a side-line, in 1688 she wrote an abolitionist novel called Oroonoko, which was long before the English novel is generally believed to have been invented.

Aphra Behn died very soon after the Stuart Kings were banished from England. (This was, admittedly, artistically rather neat, but must have been a personal inconvenience.) Once she was gone she was quickly denigrated as both coarse and a woman, poor thing, but luckily for us she has been rediscovered in recent years.

Here's one of her poems. It's called Song.

O Love! that stronger art than wine,
Pleasing delusion, witchery divine,
Wont to be prized above all wealth,
Disease that has more joys than health;
Though we blaspheme thee in our pain,
And of thy tyranny complain,
We are all bettered by they reign.
What reason never can bestow
We to this useful passion owe;
Love wakes the dull from sluggish ease,
And learns a clown the art to please,
Humbles the vain, kindles the cold,
Makes misers free, and cowards bold;
’Tis he reforms the sot from drink,
And teaches airy fops to think.

When full brute appetite is fed,
And choked the glutton lies and dead,
Thou new spirits dost dispense
And ’finest the gross delights of sense:
Virtue’s unconquerable aid
That against Nature can persuade,
And makes a roving mind retire
Within the bounds of just desire;
Cheerer of age, youth’s kind unrest,
And half the heaven of the blest! 


It makes me hope that Aphra's brief marriage was not her only experience of love.

Word To Use Today: delusion. This word comes from the Latin dēlūdere to mock or play false, from lūdere to play.