This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 31 January 2020

Word To Use Today: meringue.

It's a day of great historical significance today, when Britain leaves the European Union, so I thought I'd write about meringues.

No, there's no connection at all as far as I know..

If you spelled the word meringue as it's pronounced, m'rang, then you'd think it was a word of central Africa.

It's actually French.

(If you complain about English spelling, then French spelling is, I find, approximately eight times more baffling (though extremely logical and elegant etc etc, says she, hurriedly).)

Anyway, meringue is wonderful stuff, originally made of egg white and fine sugar beaten until it's a froth of air bubbles:

File:Homemade meringues (16961016019).jpg
photo by Ruth Hartnup

but now quite likely to be made of the water from a tin of chick peas (no, it really works), or of netting and tulle:

File:Debbie Reynolds as a bride, 1960.jpg
Debbie Reynolds. Photo by Larry Barbier

Although the word meringue is French, méringue is something different. A méringue is a dance based on the European contredanse and influenced by Afro-Caribbean traditions from Hispaniola. It's the national dance of Haiti, and involves being very light on the feet:

(NB: it's different from the dance called a merengue.)

Sweetness and dance. 

What a pity it sounds like something so much heavier.

Word To Use Today: meringue. Claims have been made that meringues were invented in the Swiss town of Meiringen - but then they would say that, wouldn't they. 

The word first appeared in French at the end of the 1600s, though under the name of pets, or white biskit bread, they were made in England (and elsewhere) much earlier.

No one is sure where the word comes from, but the dance is named after the pudding.

Thursday 30 January 2020

Peace with all nations: a rant.

Look, I truly believe that language is pretty much the most important talent humans possess, and I truly believe that, as Francis Bacon tells us, reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man. 

Exactness - precision - is vital in writing if you want people to have some chance of working out what on earth you're going on about.

But all the same, making a fuss about the lack of an Oxford comma on a new coin (even one commemorating an event which you deplore)* on the day of the seventy fifth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz does, I fear, tend to show a certain self-centredness and insensitivity.

Though actually I think the criticism was probably mostly made in blind anger.

Word To Use Today: peace. This word comes from the French pais, from the Latin pāx.

*The coin in question is a British 50p piece commemorating Britain's leaving of the European Union, which will happen, for good or ill (probably some of both) tomorrow. The legend on the back of the coin says peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations. Some people believe that there should be a comma after prosperity and before and because it's the penultimate item in a list. This piece of punctuation is called the Oxford (though some say it should be the Harvard) comma. 

Mostly, though, in my experience, most publishers (as well as the rest of us) aren't that bothered either way as long as the meaning is clear.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

Nuts and Bolts: paradeigma

A paradeigma (the plural, not that you're likely to need it, is paradeigmata) is a very short story told as an example of good behaviour.

In Greek times the stories tended to be about the Gods (it's rather hard to be offended when you're being compared with a God, whereas a story beginning when your Uncle Algie started out as a barrow unlikely to be very flattering). 

Nowadays, paradeigmata are quite likely to involve weight-loss and celebrity.

It's not nearly as romantic, exciting, and life-threatening as the travails of the Gods tended to be, but that's not necessarily a bad sign.

Word To Consider Today: paradeigma. This word is Greek, of course, and means pattern, example or sample.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: shilpit.

The Scots have given us many fine and vigorous words, and shilpit is a cherishable example.

You can hear the contempt of it in the sound.

Shilpit means weak, puny, pinched or starved. If it's liquor that's shilpit then it's poor thin stuff; if it's a person they'll be unhealthily pale with sickness (and perhaps trembling, too, though the tremor may be down to cowardice); if it's an ear of corn that's shilpit then it'll be empty and thin.

Shilpit milk (especially in Shetland) will be sour, and someone's shilpit manner of speaking will be tart.

I don't aspire to being shilpit in any of its meanings, but I do wish I were a Scot so I could use the word.

Thing Not To Be Today: shilpit. The first record of this word seems to have been in 1802. Most dictionaries don't have any idea of the origin of them word, but the online Dictionary of the Scots Language references the Old Scots word schilpitness, which means feebleness, and speaks of its being a variant of shirpit, from shirp, a word meaning shrivelled.

Monday 27 January 2020

Spot The Frippet: zest.

The zest of a citrus fruit is the outside thin brightly-coloured layer.

Zest is full of intense flavour, sometimes pleasant (orange):

File:Zesting an orange.jpg
photo by Dvortygirl

 and sometimes not seen as quite so universally moreish (lime):

These are kaffir limes. Photo by David Monniaux
It's all pretty strong-tasting.

The intensity of zest's flavour has given us the word for the capacity to relish life, the universe, and more or less everything.

To be keen as mustard, in fact.

I hope you find a bit of zest for something today.

Spot the Frippet: zest. This word comes from the French zeste, the peel of a citrus fruit used as a flavouring. Wiki suggests that before that it comes from the Greek sgizo, meaning to split or cleave, but other dictionaries aren't convinced about this.

Zest, relish, can tell we love our grub!

Sunday 26 January 2020

Sunday Rest: Ewok. Word Not To Use Today.

I've been fond of  Ewoks for many years:

File:SWCA - Ewok cosplay (17202322341).jpg
photo by William Tung

but they do sound inconveniently like electrical devices for creating stir-fries, don't they.

Sunday Rest: Ewok. This species of mammaloid hunter-gatherer from the moon Endor was first described by George Lucas in his Star Wars series of films. The name was based on the Native American tribe, the Miwok, which has for a long time lived in the Redwood Forest which was used as a background for filming.

Saturday 25 January 2020

Saturday Rave: Der Holle Rache by Emanuel Schikeneder.

It's jolly nippy here in England, and so here's something to warm us up.

Now, if you know just one operatic aria, it's...well, it's probably not this one, but something soulful and lush from about a hundred years later. 

Still, never mind.

This aria is sung by the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute, which has words by Emanuel Schikaneder and music by some guy called Wolfgang Mozart. 

To set the scene...well, let's just say that the Queen of the Night's husband has caused a lot of trouble by leaving his Temple, and also custody of their daughter Pamina, to his mate Sarastro. 

Was this a good move?

Judge yourself by the lyrics. The Queen of the Night is singing to her daughter.

Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen,
Tod und Verzweiflung flammet um mich her!
Fühlt nicht durch dich Sarastro
So bist du meine Tochter nimmermehr.
Verstossen sei auf ewig,
Verlassen sei auf ewig,
Zertrümmert sei'n auf ewig
Alle Bande der Natur
Wenn nicht durch dich!
Sarastro wird erblassen!
Hört, Rachegötter,
Hört der Mutter Schwur!

Or, in English:

The vengeance of Hell boils in my heart:
Death and despair flame about me!
If Sarastro does not through you feel
The pain of death,
Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever;
Abandoned may you be forever.
Destroyed be forever
All the bonds of nature
If not through you
Sarastro becomes pale!
Hear, Gods of Revenge,
Hear a mother's oath!


Hmm... can see where Pamina's husband was coming from, can't you.

Word To Use Today: vengeance. This word comes from the Old French venger, to avenge, from the Latin vindicāre, to punish. Vindex means claimant.

Friday 24 January 2020

Word To Use Today: secretary.

We don't have many secretaries about nowadays, what with computers and feminism and everything, but to be a secretary was once reckoned a respectable position for a young lady with a pretty smile and an efficient, if not off-puttingly innovative, brain.

Secretaries took dictation, typed - and flattered and organised their bosses.

It had never occurred to me before that what they also did - or should have done - was to keep secrets.

But, really, the clue was in the name.

Word To Use Today: secretary. This word comes from the Latin sēcrētārius, from sēcrētum, which means something hidden, from sēcernere to sift, from sē- apart, from cernere to distinguish. 

Secretary birds, on the other hand, are notoriously bad at keeping secrets.

They do look rather as if they have a bunch of quill pens stuck behind the ears they haven't got, though, don't they.

photo © Ben Lunsford

Thursday 23 January 2020

Mr Mansplaining: a rant.

The Mr Men and Little Miss books are bright and funny and gentle and inoffensively brilliant. 

They were written and drawn for many years by the late Roger Hargreaves, but nowadays they're produced by his son Adam.

(I think that's rather lovely.)

Hey, but hang on - did I say inoffensively? Ha! As if that's possible, nowadays.

There have been rumblings for quite some time about the Little Misses' being nominatively characterised by stereotypically female traits like bossiness and naughtiness (though there's now a Little Miss Inventor and a Little Miss Brainy (and there's long been a Mr Silly and a Mr Greedy, too, so it's all tosh)).

But the latest outrage has been sparked by a piece of dialogue between Mr Clever and Little Miss Curious. They're at the Forth Bridge, and Little Miss Curious asks, completely reasonably (and perhaps bearing in mind the history of that other Scottish bridge, which crosses the Tay) What happened to the first, second, and third bridges?

Now, that's a good joke: but PhD student Shelby Judge has taken umbrage because she believes this is an example of antiquated gender roles and sexist iconography. 

'It's meant to be a funny joke, but then it's always at the expense of women,' she says. ''s the very definition of micro-aggression.'

Well, what I want to know is this.

If Little Miss Curious wanted to know about the bridge, was she wrong to ask?

And, once she'd asked, was it wrong for Mr Clever to answer?

Or should he have patted her on her question-mark shaped hair and told her not to bother her pretty little head about it?

Word To Use Today: curious. This word comes from the Latin cūriōsus, taking pains over something, from cūra, which means care.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Nuts and Bolts: the coulomb.

The SI System - the Système Internationale of measurement, used, as its name suggests, throughout the world - has been designed to be easy. No fourteen-pounds-to-a-stone, but a thousand grams to a kilogram; no 1,760-yards-to-a-mile, but a thousand metres to a kilometre; and a litre of water has a mass of 1 kilogram, pretty much, whereas a pint of water weighs a pound and a quarter.


A coulomb is the SI unit of electrical charge. It is the charge transported by a constant current of one ampere in one second.

Unfortunately this means that a faraday (the unit of charge of one mole of electrons) has a value of about 96,487 coulombs, and in terms of the Avogadro constant (you can find an entry about it on Wikipedia if you're interested) one coulomb equals approximately 1.036 x 10 to the minus five mol x NA elementary charges.

Now, as far as I understand it, this is partly caused by Nature being jolly awkward; but I do wonder if the SI system really should have embraced a method of measurement where a second is an 86,400th of a day.

Mind you, the idea of a day is pretty whoozy and non-scientific, isn't it?

Word To Use Today: coulomb. The coulomb is named after the French scientist Charles-Augustin de Coulomb.

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Thing To Be Today, Perhaps: tractable.

Is it a good thing to be tractable, that is to be easily persuaded?

Well, it depends who your friends are.

Sadly this means
that the responsibility for your actions is entirely in your own hands.

Ah well!

Thing To Be Today, Perhaps: tractable. The word tract meaning a stretch of land, a short morally persuasive pamphlet, an old steam-powered heavy vehicle:

File:Princess Tammy an 1895 Peerless Steam Engine (9438347034).jpg
photo of a very fine traction engine by Ian Kirk.

 as well as to be easily persuaded, all come from basically the same roots, which are the Latin words tractāre, to handle, and trahere to pull.

Monday 20 January 2020

Spot the Frippet: tsantsa.

Among the Shuar group of the Jivaro people of Ecuador, a tsantsa is the shrunken head of an enemy kept as a trophy.

On the whole, I rather hope you don't have one to hand. Still, it might be therapeutic to make one - to draw a face of an enemy on an eggshell, perhaps, for display and/or target practice purposes.

But just whose head would it be?

Word To Use Today: tsantsa This word comes from the Ecuadorian Shuar language. How tsantsa qualifies as an English word I'm not sure, but it's rather a nice thing to have available.

Sunday 19 January 2020

Sunday Rest: tuan. Word Not To Use Today.

Tuan is a very lovely word which could easily be slipped into a piece of Science Fiction as the name of the heroic leader of the Resistance against the Evil Regime.

(Science Fiction doesn't have much of a taste for the cuddly, does it. Though there are, of course, Ewoks.)

The trouble with the word tuan is that, while in Malay tuan is a word used as a sign of respect, in Australia it's something much too much like a flying rat:

Lithograph by John Gould FRS

To make things even worse, the poor male tuan die as a result of the stress caused by breeding, so that none of them live beyond the age of one year.

And, r
eally, the possibilities for misunderstanding are simply terrifying.

Word Not To Use Today: tuan. This word used in Malaysia is, predictably, Malay. The animal word comes from a native Australasian language of Western Victoria.

Saturday 18 January 2020

Saturday Rave: Roget's Thesaurus.

Peter Mark Roget (1779 - 1869) was an extraordinary man. He was a distinguished doctor who investigated the effect of the water supply on disease, and in his spare time he invented a new type of slide-rule (that, for the young ones among us, is a sort of calculating device) and also worked on the theory of the persistence of vision. He even claimed to have invented the Phenakistoscope.  

What Roget is mostly remembered for, though, is his Thesaurus. He suffered from mental problems all his life, and from childhood found making lists a useful coping mechanism. His Thesaurus emerged from that.

Here's an entry from his original work, and, as it was original, here's the entry on nonimitation:

Nonimitation. - no imitation; originality; creativeness, invention, creation.
Adj. unimitated [0bs3], uncopied [obs3]; unmatched, unparalleled; inimitable &c. 13; unique, original; creative, inventive, untranslated; exceptional, rare, sui generis uncommon [Lat], unexampled.

Some of it is a bit muddled, and the punctuation seems rather random; but still, Roget's great work must have helped many creative people from going mad just trying to think of another word for original.

Word To Use Today: thesaurus. (Not theAsaurus, by the way. That's probably some sort of a dinosaur). This word is the Greek for treasure.

Friday 17 January 2020

Word To Use Today: nudnik

This isn't an elegant word but, oh, it is one we need.

A nudnik is someone who habitually leaves unjustifiably bad reviews on websites.

(You say it to rhyme with bud weak.)

To some people this seems harmless fun (and how glad I am not to live inside a mind like that) but it destroys businesses and livelihoods.

A nudnik is made more powerful by the star system of reviewing. In my own experience, apart from the sort of one star book review which says I loved everything about this book, it is the best story I have ever read, which is just annoying (though still damaging) there will be the one star review which says this book is rubbish because it isn't about guinea pigs and I only like books about guinea pigs; the one star review of the same book which says this stupid book is boring because it's about guinea pigs; and the one star review which says I suppose this book may be all right for children, but I am much too clever for it.

And there we are: a whole year's work and investment by writer, illustrator and publisher, down the drain. Perhaps a whole career, too.

And nudniks are just as damaging for plumbers and taxi firms, of course.

I understand that attempts are being made to create computer systems which will decline reviews (and, importantly, business) from nudniks.

The world will be a happier and more reliable place once they have.

Word To Use Today: nudnik. This word is Yiddish for a boring nag  (though of course in this context they're worse than that). It comes from the Russian nudyĭ, which means tedious.

Thursday 16 January 2020

Fully respecting my wishes: a rant.

I gave a donation to the Salvation Army recently. They do a good job, it seems to me, especially at Christmas; and I like to hear their brass band playing.

I got a real proper thank-you letter, which I wasn't expecting. As the Post Script to the letter said:

We have noted your request that you'd prefer not to hear from The Salvation Army by post. I fully understand and we will respect your wish.

Well, that demonstrates a whole new meaning of the phrase we will respect your wishes

But never mind, I still think it's a good cause.

I do wish, though, that they hadn't spent some of the money I sent them on sending that letter.

Word To Use Today: respect. This word comes from the Latin rēspicere. to look back or pay attention to, from specere, to look.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

Nuts and Bolts: System Not-So-International.

The SI in the SI system of measurement stands for Système International. It's obviously a good thing to use an international system in our multi-national world, and the fact that on the whole the SI system is fitted together on a scientific basis makes measuring things as straightforward as it can be.

Now, if there's one place were you need a proper international system it is, of course, on aeroplanes, which can waft from one country to another in a matter of minutes. And so what system do aeroplanes use?

Well, vertical distance is measured in feet, speed in knots, visibility in metres, distance in miles, time in minutes, direction in degrees, and fuel in litres.

(A knot, by the way, is a nautical mile per hour, equal to (about) 1.15078 miles per hour or 0.514 metres per second.)

Ah well. 

At least everyone speaks English...

Well, more or less, anyway.

Nuts and Bolts: systems. The word system comes from the Greek syn-, which means together, and histanai, which means to cause to stand.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

Thing To Be Today: ravenous.

Have you finished the Christmas cake yet? We ourselves still have an unopened panettone, two Christmas puddings, two tubs of brandy butter, some nuts, various bits of chocolate, some cheese,  and some crystallised ginger.

Oh, and an apple.

The trouble is that after the Christmas and New Year festivities I'm not sure I'll ever be hungry again.

Still, I could probably fancy a nice plateful of something plain, like mashed potato or cabbage.

Anyone got a recipe including brandy butter and cabbage?


Well, keep it to yourself, do.

Thing To Be Today: ravenous. this word comes from the Old French ravineux from the Latin rapina, which means plunder, from rapere to seize. It's basically the same word as ravish.

Ravens are often ravenous, but these two words are unconnected. The bird word comes from the Old Norse hrafn.

Monday 13 January 2020

Spot the Frippet: rattle.

Well, I hope your nearest rattle isn't one of these:

photo by Razimantv

nor one located somewhere under the bonnet of your car (unless it's somewhere in the boot - though it only starts up when you're going at over seventy, when it's really not practical to have a look for it).

File:Old demolition derby racer - 1955 Chevrolet 150 (2321024737).jpg
photo by dave_7

This is a Rattle worth hearing:

but even if that's not your thing then one of these can't be far away:

File:A baby sits in a chair chewing a rattle. Engraving by A&E. V Wellcome V0039341.jpg

The other sort of rattle is caused by the rattling of a tongue, that is someone who talks and talks and talks about nothing very important.

But everyone has long practice at spotting those so they can take evasive action.

Spot the Frippet: rattle. This is an imitative word. It's basically German.

Sunday 12 January 2020

Sunday Rest: tantivy. Word Not To Use Today.

Now tantivy is a really dangerous word.

It means at full speed. The trouble with it is that it's traditionally used by huntsmen, especially those hunting foxes on horseback.

File:Fox Hunting - Henry Alken.png
Illustration by Henry Thomas Alken

This activity is now (rather controversially) illegal in Britain. People can still pretend to hunt, but they aren't allowed to pester any animals: instead they set the hounds to follow a synthetic scent, which provides a more reliable, and much safer, source of entertainment.

People still mourn the old ways, though, so perhaps the anticipation and danger were important.

(The foxes are now shot.)

Anyway, as far as I know tantivy may still be shouted when galloping after a scent-trail, but yelling it in any other setting is likely to get you scragged by any vegans or animal activists that might be lurking about the place.

They can be quite an aggressive bunch, the animal activists.

But still, if you feel a great need to shout tantivy at least you'll know they won't eat you.

Word Not To Use Today: tantivy. This word is probably an imitation of the rhythm of a galloping horse.

Saturday 11 January 2020

Saturday Rave: Wang Chongyang.

Wang Chongyang was born in China in 1113 AD. He had a traditional upper class upbringing and was planning on starting a civil war when he happened to meet three immortal beings in a pub. As a result of this meeting he became a philosopher and mystic, instead.

If only things always happened that way.

Wang Chongyang lived a holy life after that mysterious encounter, three years of it in a tomb he'd made for himself, and four years in a hut he called the 'Complete Perfection' hut.

Wang Chongyang devoted his life to Taoism. Luckily for us he wrote down his discoveries, sometimes in the form of poetry. Here is one of his poems.

I can't say that the beauty of the language really shines through in this translation, but the longing for a better sort of life does.


Resolutely yearn for the Tao 
and retain nothing that binds and enwraps you.
Isolate your body, and sleep in solitude.
When stillness arises within the stillness you will attain wonders.
When calmness arrives within the calmness you shall certainly unite with the mysterious.
Now you can act as you will, and know what it is to be tranquil and content.
The inborn saint passes the days in refreshing coolness.
Stop wishing for divine immortality; stop speaking of it.
Let yourself sit in the white lotus flower.



Word To Use Today: Tao. Tao encompasses, firstly, ideas about the goodness of the universe in which all things exist and happen; secondly, the rational basis of human conduct; and, thirdly, the relationship between life and eternal truth. 

The word means path in Chinese.

Friday 10 January 2020

Word To Use Today: riffle.

The hills where I live are veined with shallow chalk streams. There aren't very many chalk streams in the world (which isn't surprising as chalk doesn't hold water) but it's only quite recently that they've been embraced as habitats worth preserving.

River Gade

There are two such streams within a couple of miles of my house (and sometimes a third, which appears sporadically to foretell war (it's accurate, too, though admittedly it's not very often Britain isn't joining in war with someone or other)).

Anyway, these chalk streams, which have often been straightened and dredged to tidy them up, are now being returned to their natural meandering ways, with berms (ledges along the sides of a deepish central channel) brash (logs and branches put into the water to provide shelter for wildlife) and riffles.

Ah yes, riffles. They're shallow bits in the stream where the water gets broken into rough ripples.

The same word also gives you the troughs called riffles which are used in the extraction of mercury and gold. They have groves along the bottom for catching the specks of gold and mercury washed from the earth. One of these groves is called a riffle, too.

Then there's the riffle sound that cards make when you shuffle them; and the riffle you perform when you skim your way through the pages of a book.

Running water, gold, mercury, cards, books...

Was there ever a word for so many magical things?

Do let us know if there is.

Word To Use Today: riffle. This word is probably a form of ruffle with a bit of ripple mixed in for good measure. Ruffle comes from the Middle English ruffelen, and ripple from more or less the same root.

Thursday 9 January 2020

Wise Old Owls: a rant.

Honestly, owls!

They put out all this endless publicity about being old and wise, but they only say one thing and they can't even get the grammar of that right.

To-whit to-who?

Don't they know it should be to-whit to-whom???

Word To Use Today: owl. The Old English form of this word is ūle.

To be fair, it's only the Tawny Owl who says to-whit to-who, and it's only the male Tawny Owl which says the to-who bit.

File:Tawny Owl Lincolnshire.jpg
photo by Joe Pell

The grammar of all other owls is, as far as I know, unexceptionable.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Nuts and Bolts: tercets.

A tercet is a three-line verse.
For those of you who rant and curse
When faced with rhymes, they could be worse.

Mind you, if you're reading a villanelle you'll be faced with five tercets in a row followed by a four-line verse (a quatrain) which makes nineteen lines, which is even longer than a sonnet.

(Speaking of which, tercets are quite often hidden cunningly inside in longer verses, and some sonnets end with a couple of them.)

The most famous and celebrated tercets are those of Dante, who wrote a whole book full of them. He used a particular rhyme scheme called terza rima, where the rhymes of the first tercet go ABA, then the next BCB, and so on. It works brilliantly in Italian, but is surprisingly difficult to translate into English. 

The other problem with terza rima is that the link between the verses means that it never really reaches an ending, so usually you have to have a single line to finish things off.

Still, tercet is a lovely, elegant little word, and I personally could easily cope with more of them.

Nuts and Bolts: tercet. This word comes from the Italian terzetto, which means little third.

Tuesday 7 January 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: weaselly.

Weasels are famous for their cunning and viciousness.

They're still quite cute, though:

File:Least Weasel (3766818218).jpg

Least weasel. Photo credit: Bering Land Bridge National Preserve. #

People whose appearance is described as weaselly, however, are not cute at all, but scrawny and furtive. This is most unfair on sleek, quick and brave weasels.

Weasel words are another piece of slander on the poor creatures, for weasel words are not cunning at all: if they were, then no one would know they were weasel words. Avoiding a question to disguise some horrible truth might be called weaselly, but no actual weasel would dream of acting in such a way.

It's straight for the jugular with a weasel.

Weasels never make promises, either, so they never even try to weasel out of anything.

This leaves us with a problem: is it better to be straightforwardly aggressive and selfish, like a weasel, or is it better to pretend weaselishly to be civilised and kind?

Well, I don't know. 

But I know what a weasel would say.

Thing Not To Be Today: weaselly. Weasels have a reputation for cunning because it is said they can suck the contents of an egg without breaking the shell. (That's not true, either.) The word weasel comes from the Old English weosule.

Monday 6 January 2020

Spot the Frippet: cobwebs.

Today is Twelfth Night (unless you think Twelfth Night was yesterday, which some people do). Twelfth Night is the day the Christmas decorations come down and you find all the cobwebs.

Don't worry too much about destroying cobwebs because if you can see them then so can the flies, and this means they aren't going to be much good to the spider. (Some people distinguish between a spider web, which is all but invisible, and a cobweb, which is dusty and abandoned.)

Cobweb covered in frost. Photo by By Yintan at English Wikipedia, CC BY 4.0,

The best and dustiest cobwebs are to be found in haunted houses. I can only account for this by supposing that the ghosts are such a nuisance that even the spiders have moved out.

Where else might you spot a cobweb? Sometimes the forehead of a zebra or horse has marks on it that are called cobwebbing, and there's a Cobweb Bridge in Sheffield, England:

File:Spider Bridge, Sheffield - - 725508.jpg
photo by Stephen McKay / Cobweb Bridge, Sheffield / CC BY-SA 2.0

That other Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, features a character called Cobweb, but you're not likely to find that play being performed at this time of year unless you're in the Southern hemisphere.

Whatever sort of cobweb you spot, a cobweb made by a spider is a wonderful thing. They've been around for at least a hundred million years (to put that into perspective, Homo sapiens is nowhere even near its millionth birthday). To start with the webs were made to protect spiders' eggs and bodies, but then they became used for hunting. Some spiders can produced eight sorts of silk - safety-line silk, a sticky fly-catching silk, and a soft fly-wrapping silk, for instance.

Cobweb silk is strong and stretchy, and the webs come in spirals, tunnels, tubes, tangles and sheets. People are still trying to work out how to make cobweb silk artificially because it'd be great for making bullet-proof vests and replacement tendons.

And how does a spider manage to weave a cobweb right across a passageway so that you get it wrapped round your face every time you go out to the bins? It produces a line with a sticky end and then lets the breeze waft it about until it sticks on something (the spider can tell when it's stuck because the line will vibrate in a new way). Then the spider will stroll along the line with a stronger piece of silk, and carry on from there.

It's a miracle of construction - and a frippet worth looking out for before you walk into it, too.

Spot the Frippet: cobweb. coppe is the Old English for spider. Webb is the Old English form of web.

Cobwebbing occurs in dun horses when there are rings or stripes of a slightly darker colour than the coat , they are found on the horse’s fo...

See the cobwebbing?