This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 30 April 2020

Apostrophe catastrophe: a rant.

This headline from the Telegraph newspaper online 23/04/2020:

Minister admits its 'dreadful' care workers are not tested for coronavirus.

Well, it just goes to show that punctuation does matter, doesn't it?


Not its. 


Word To Use Correctly Today: it's. This word is short for it is or it has.

If it means anything else, it's its.


Wednesday 29 April 2020

Nuts and Bolts: curtseys and bows.

Long, long ago (it seems) we used to embrace each other. We would even pretend to kiss while we were doing it. Then, briefly, as people became to be viewed largely as reservoirs of potentially fatal infection, we thought it might be cool to bump elbows; but unless we have four-metre long arms then now even this is out of fashion.

Now we wave and smile. Some of us are even beginning to bow, a bit - not a stop, arrange the legs, and lower ourselves gracefully bow, but a courteous inclination of the head to acknowledge those who go out of their way to avoid us.

The curtsy, though, I've yet to see. Still, perhaps when the summer's properly here and ladies bring out their skirts then even the curtsy might get a revival.

So what's all this lowering oneself (literally and figuratively) all about?

It's basically a matter of gravity. The guy (or stag, for that matter) on the top of the slope has the advantage in a fight. If you lower yourself artificially, as in a bow or a curtsy, you're acknowledging the other person's power.

File:T2C, Fred Barnard, Lucie meets Javis Lorry (I,4).jpeg
illustration by Fred Barnard

Long ago, people used to kneel to those in power but over the centuries the gesture has been abbreviated to the bow/curtsy (which was the same thing until a couple of hundred hundred years ago).

Nowadays the most we normally do in the West is to nod.

Still, the times aren't normal, so do feel free to bow or curtsy if you see me coming. 

I promise to curtsy back.

Thing To Do Today: bow/curtsy. The word bow comes from the Old English būgan. The Old Norse bjūgri means bent. The word curtsy is a shortened form of courtesy. In the 1200s the ancestor of this word was corteis, which means with courtly manners. The word court comes from the Latin cohors, cohort.

Tuesday 28 April 2020

Thing To Do Today: a jig.

Lots of us are stuck inside a lot the moment and in need of exercise.

It's true that we can run on the spot, climb the height of Mount Everest by going up a step-ladder, or follow some keep-fit regime - but it's all a bit joyless, all the same.

So how about dancing a jig? It doesn't take up much room, it's good aerobic exercise, it'll bring joy to those around you (well, it'll bring a smile to their faces, anyway, though that might well be derision) and you can do whatever steps you like.

Oh, and, like all forms of exercise, it's lovely when it stops.

This is an Irish jig:

And here's something a bit more gentle, an English jig called Mad Molly.

There's nothing wrong with being just a bit mad, after all.

Have fun!

Thing To Do Today: a jig. This origin of this word is mysterious, but the tool called a jig is called after the dance because of all the jerking about involved in its operation.

Monday 27 April 2020

Spot the Frippet: gnashers.

This is a time to be grateful for small mercies.

I hope your teeth are all right.

File:Laughing while playing.jpg
photo by Mepereshka

In our town toothpaste was one of the first things to disappear from the supermarket shelves, which was very odd. Luckily the supply was soon back, because no one is going to be wanting to visit a dentist.

Mind you, who does, even at the best of times? 

Anyway, let's hear it for a strong and efficient set of gnashers, whether stuck in the gums by Nature, metal screws, glue, or discreet adhesive pads.

File:Dog laughing 2.jpg
photo by Делфина

Where will you find the most teeth? In the mouth of a snail (up to 20,000, all stuck to its tongue). The strongest? In a limpet (harder than titanium). The longest? A narwhal's tusk.

And, while we're here, let's give a passing thought to those cartilaginous fish such as sharks, who are constructed in such a way that they can get toothache all over.

File:Great white shark Dyer Island.jpg
photo by Olga Ernst

So it's no wonder they've been known to get a bit tetchy from time to time.*

Spot the Frippet: gnashers. This word is probably a gift from Scandinavia (thanks, Scandinavia!). The Old Norse gnastan means a gnashing of teeth, and gnesta means to clatter.

*I can't find a reference to this 'fact' anywhere on line, but I know someone somewhere once told me it was true.

Sunday 26 April 2020

Sunday Rest: pongid. Word Not To Use Today.

A pongid is a great ape.

The term includes the gibbons and the great apes - basically, members of the family Pongidae.

File:Orangutan with infant.jpg
Orangutans. Photo by Brett Jordan

There are three things wrong with this word.

First, it is obsolete (because this group now doesn't quite fit in with our current ideas about evolution).

Second, it sounds rather rude (I've not been close enough to a gorilla to know if it pongs more than, say, a goat, but it seems unkind to mention it, even if it's true.).

Third, it doesn't include humans (and if the actions of any animal pong to high heaven then, well, we can't in fairness exclude humans from the list).

Still, I suppose we humans done a lot of good stuff, too. 

And, also to be fair, the good people don't obviously stink any worse than the bad'uns, do they.

Sunday Rest: pongid. This word, rather wonderfully, comes from the Kongo mpongo.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Saturday Rave: Armageddon.

For one reason and another my thoughts have been turning towards short-form writing, specifically the Eastern haiku and the Western one-liner.

A haiku is a poem of exquisite focus, form, beauty and brevity.

A one-liner is a joke that's written as one, um, one line.

This example seemed the right one for today:

So what if I don't know what Armageddon means? It's not the end of the world.

Well, it made me laugh.

Word To Use Today: Armageddon comes via Latin and Greek from the Hebrew har megiddōn, the mountainous Megiddo region of Palestine.

Friday 24 April 2020

Word To Use Today: realia.

In these times of home-schooling many of us are having to get the hang of a lot of technical stuff.

Luckily, though, even the most techno-phobic of us can turn to realia to enhance our learning.

So...what are realia, exactly?

Realia (you say it reeAYleea) are real objects, especially those used in teaching. Realia is one of those rare English plural words which has no singular form, so although two frogs are realia, one frog isn't. I suppose it would be an example of realia, though,

Librarians use the word to describe those irritating three-dimensional objects for which they're obliged to find a home, like a box of Shakespeare's dandruff, for instance, or Cervantes' bath hat, or Petrarch's first attempt at knitting, that sort of thing.

Sad to say, someone has now invented virtual realia. These are on-screen objects you can turn round as if they're in 3D.

I'm sure they're very interesting, but just typing virtual realia makes my head hurt.

Word To Use Today: realia. This word comes from America and was first known in 1894. It comes, obviously, from the word real. That word comes from the Old French réel, from the Latin rēs, which means thing.

Although there is no official singular form of this word (as far as I can discover) the word memorabilia has a rare singular form memorabile (MEMoraBILLee) so a singular form reale (reeAYllee) would at least be consistent, though admittedly a nuisance as far as pronunciation is concerned.

Thursday 23 April 2020

Peak panic: a rant.

We're all relying heavily on scientific advice at the moment. 

This is sensible. 

I do wish, though, that one of our top British experts hadn't recently referred to our reaching the peak of the plateau.

Still, if they can get the science right then I'll very willingly forgive them for not being able to speak English.

Word To Use Today: plateau. This word comes from French, from the Old French plat, which means flat. Before that the Greek word platus meant flat, too.

File:Lasithi Plateau 1.jpg
Lasithi Plateau with peaks behind. Photo by JennyLisitsa via Wikimedia Commons

Plateau is basically the same word as plate - even though, as you'll have noticed, plates are actually more valley-shaped than flat. 

This is a good thing because otherwise, obviously, you'd get soup in your lap.

Wednesday 22 April 2020

Nuts and Bolts: ad hominem.

An ad hominem attack is one where an argument is attacked by reference to the person advancing it.

An ad hominem attack says that a person shouldn't be believed because he or she is ignorant/ugly/stupid/the wrong shape/the wrong class/has the wrong politics etc etc.

There may be some grounds for dismissing an argument in this way. If I were to claim that the Albanian word for porridge is qull, then pointing out that I speak no Albanian does make it rather more unlikely that I'm right. But it's still logically nonsense (and as it happens the Albanian word for porridge is qull).

The only intelligent way to counter an argument is by proving that the argument is false. That means proving that at least one of the facts upon which the argument is based is false, or that the claimed relationship between these facts is false.

On the positive side, the presence of an ad hominem attack does at least make it easy to identify at least one person who really isn't very intelligent, doesn't it.

Idiot To Spot Today: one using an ad hominem attack. Ad hominem is Latin for against the man.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

Thing Not To Have Today: a poker face.

For a long time I thought that a poker face was a long one, like a poker:

File:BLW Miniature fire tools.jpg
miniature fire tools set from the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Poker, obviously, on the right

 And a poker face usually is quite long, though the face is called after the card game:

File:Cassius Marcellus Coolidge - Poker Game (1894).png
painting by C M Coolidge

and not the implement for maintaining a fire.

The purpose of a poker face (that is, one that's deliberately expressionless) is to conceal the value of a player's hand of cards.

Now, people here in Britain tend not to go in for the expression of loud or grand passions, but perhaps the adoption of some simple expression of mild irritation - a faint twitch of half a lip, say, or a mild wrinkling of an eyelid - just might prevent misunderstanding, and in turn this might even steer us away from one or two disastrously explosions of pent-up rage.

 Though this, I'm afraid, might be asking too much of long-frozen British facial expressions.

So perhaps a better game for these crowded times just might be Snap.

Thing Not To Have Today: a poker face. The card game poker is possibly named after a similar French game called poque, but that would be quite surprising as the game itself originated in the United States of America. Another theory is that the word comes from the German pochen, to brag: a pochspiel is a bragging game.

Poker itself was invented in the 1820s, perhaps on Mississippi riverboats. The first poker face, however, wasn't described until half a century later.

Monday 20 April 2020

Spot the Frippet: tantalum.

Tantalum is a metal. It's hard, shiny, and looks like stainless steel:

Tantalum single crystal and 1cm3 cube.jpg
photo by Alchemist-hp (talk) ( 

Admittedly you probably won't be able to see any tantalum with your naked eyes anywhere near you, but there will be some near you in your dwelling place - or even in your hand - and you can deduce its existence.

How do I know? Because tantalum, though rare, is used in the electronic innards of more or less everything, including your mobile phone, your camera, your computer, your car, and that old VHS video player you haven't quite got round to throwing away yet.

You also get the stuff in nuclear reactors and missiles. 

So if you do get round to clearing out the loft...

Tantalum has a very high melting point, and it's really difficult to get it to react with acids, which means that it doesn't corrode. It's rare stuff, but, obviously, important.

But the real reason tantalum is featuring on The Word Den is because of it's name. 

What's so tantalising about it?


Spot the Frippet: tantalum. This word used to be tantalium. It's chemical abbreviation is Ta, and this means that its association with the lower halides feature Ta-Ta bonds. (I have very little idea what this means, but it's still cool.)

Tantalum is named after the Greek demi-god Tantalus.

Tantalus is most famous for being punished by being placed eternally in a river under a fruit tree, where the river receded from his hand if he ever tried to scoop up water to drink, and the fruit tree rose out of his reach if he ever tried to pluck a fruit to eat. 

The element Tantalum's habit of refusing to react with acids really is quite annoying, but to call it after Tantalus does seem to have been a bit of an over-reaction.

(Tantalus was really horrible, by the way: not only did he steal the gods' food, but he killed his own son Pelops and tried to feed him to the gods to find out if they'd notice. They did, devised a particularly nasty punishment for Tantalus, and put Pelops back together again.)

The name Tantalus, originally Talantatos, means who has much to bear, from talas, wretched.

But, hey, serve him right.

Sunday 19 April 2020

Sunday Rest: UGLI. Word Not To Use Today.

photo by  Dysmorodrepanis 

I thought that the word ugli, as in ugli fruit would come from some obscure native language where ugli means bountiful harvest, or fruit of the summer, or glory of a bull, or something. But, sadly, no.

I'd even got the name wrong, because it's not ugli, it's UGLI, which is a registered trademark of Cabel Hall Citrus Ltd. The word means, well, ugly, because the skin of the fruit tends to be wrinkled and blotched.

The UGLI fruit, or, to give it its nicer name, the Jamaican tangelo, is a naturally-occurring hybrid of a tangerine or an orange, and a grapefruit. It's usually a greenish-yellow colour, and tastes quite lemony.

The great mystery, of course, is why on earth Cabel Hall Citrus Ltd thought that UGLI was a good name for its product.

It's a lot of the reason why I've never eaten one myself, I can tell you.

Word Not To Use Today: UGLI. The alternative name tangelo is a mash-up of the words tangerine and pomelo, which is another word for the grapefruit. 

The grapefruit hangs on the tree in clusters like grapes, and the tangerine comes from Tangiers. Pomelo probably comes from the Dutch pompelmoes, perhaps from pompoen, big, and the Portuguese limāo, lemon.

Saturday 18 April 2020

Saturday Rave: Here Isn't The News.

Exactly ninety years ago today the BBC announced on its evening bulletin that there was no news.

That story does bring forth a bit of a wistful sigh, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: news. It is said that this words stands for North East West and South - which of course it does, but that's a complete coincidence. The word news is the plural of the Middle English newes, which means, well, new. News is just stuff that's new.

Actually, as you will have noticed, the news is really an opportunity to encourage people to think about current events in a certain way. 

The reward for allowing ourselves to be so manipulated is quite often a funny story about a kitten. 

Cyber-kitten, presumably getting ready to pounce on a mouse (sorry). Photo by Tim Avatar Bartel

A depth of cynical manipulation to which The Word Den would naturally never, ever sink.


Friday 17 April 2020

Word To Use Today: hoyden.

Hoyden is what I call a fictional word, by which I mean a word which only exists in the pages of books.

Tush is one, and so are other old favourites such as redingote and sdeath.*

A hoyden is a wild energetic young lady of the kind also called a tomboy. A hoyden is not content to sit, clean and nicely dressed, and sew shirts for the poor, but is forever sneaking off to climb trees, have adventures with rough boys, or rescue small dragons.

To be a hoyden, in short, must be every right-thinking girl's ambition, and in these equal times the position must of course now be open to boys, too.

(HEALTH & SAFETY NOTICE: If you do come across a dragon, remember they can be very hot. Always use oven gloves. The person trying to make your dinner will probably be quite cross, but, hey, it's the sort of thing that hoydens do.)

NB: dragons cannot infect anyone with Covid-19, and are almost never seen within two metres of a human being. (And if they are, the humans generally have even more urgent things to worry about.)

Have fun!

Word To Use Today: hoyden. This word probably comes from the Middle Dutch heidijn, which means heathen.

*Tush is an exclamation of disapproval or contempt unknown in the real world for a couple of hundred years. A redingote is a riding coat, last worn when, well, people needed riding coats; and sdeath is a curse, short for God's death.

Thursday 16 April 2020

Popular Bats: a rant.

This is from a Wikipedia article on bats:

They [bats] are natural reservoirs of many pathogens, such as rabies; and since they are highly mobile, social, and long-lived, they can spread disease. In many cultures, bats are popularly associated with darkness, malevolence, witchcraft, vampires, and death.

I just shudder to think what they're unpopularly associated with, then.

File:Lesser short-nosed fruit bat (Cynopterus brachyotis).jpg
photo by a lesser short-nosed fruit bat by Anton Croos  at  Art of Photography

Word To Use Today: bat. This word probably comes from Scandinavia. The Old Norse word for bat, ledhrblaka, means literally leather-flapper.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Nuts and Bolts: semaphore.

Here's something useful in these times of social distancing:


This chart, below, is from marvellous Wikipedia, and shows the person who's sending the message (so if you want to send a message yourself then you have to do it in mirror image (or else stand with your back to the person to whom you're sending the message)).

All you need is two arms, and some other idiot who knows semaphore, and you're away.

If you're on land then the flags should be white and blue, and if you're on sea they should be read and yellow. But there's no need flags at all, of course, unless you're considerably more than two metres apart.

The signals which represent the roman alphabet don't have anything to do with the shape of the letters they represent, but the Japanese system of semaphore tends to mimic the shape of the Japanese characters. 

This is really cool, but does tend to require six arms (or three people).

Is semaphore still used in these times of the mobile phone? Well, it's still handy where there's no reception, as, for instance, in remote mountainous areas; or where phones aren't practical, as on a beach.

Is there anything more romantic than a love poem conveyed via semaphore?

Um, yes, probably. 

But still, it might be worth a try, don't you think?

Word To Use Today: semaphore. This word comes from the French, from the Greek sēma, signal, and -phore, which comes from the Greek pherein, to bear.

Tuesday 14 April 2020

Thing To Be Today: cheerful.

I know the fashion is for us all to wallow importantly in our own sorrows, and I also know that the sight of ourselves battling through our problems makes us feel like heroes.

On the other hand, bestowing a smile and a cheerful greeting on a friend, or a stranger, makes us just a little bit of a hero to someone else.

And, you know something? That might be worth even more.

File:Smiley face.jpg
image by Puffin 

Thing To Be Today: cheerful. This word appeared in English in the 1200s, when it meant a welcoming face. It comes from the French chere, from the Latin cara, face, and before that from the Greek kara, head.

Monday 13 April 2020

Spot the Frippet: something gibbous.

The moon is waning at the moment:

and it's waning gibbous, as in the illustration above. The word waning means that the moon is moving from being a full moon towards being a new moon (so the bright section of the moon, the bit you can see, is getting gradually smaller) and gibbous means that the bright bit is still more than half of a circle.

If you're in the Northern hemisphere, and you look at the moon, then if the bright bit of the moon is on the right-hand side of the disc then the moon is on its way to returning to being a full circle (waxing); and if the bright section is on the left then it's leaving its brightest phase behind behind (waning).

Mind you, if you're in the Southern Hemisphere then its the other way round. If the bright section is on the right then the brightest phase of the moon is retreating and if its on the left closer???

I expect you can think of something better. But I can't!

I can't think of anything much apart from the moon that is gibbous in shape, but if you can spot something spherical - like an orange, or a ball - and you have a torch or a table lamp, then if you go somewhere dark then you should be able to make your spherical thing appear gibbous.

As a side-effect, you'll have worked out how the moon appears to change shape, too.

If that's too complicated then you could try taking a big bite from a slice of cucumber; though unless you can see with your tongue then you're going to need a mirror to see the gibbous shape you've got inside your mouth.

Or, for the dainty, the same effect can be made with a pastry cutter.

There we are: an excuse to make biscuits!

Spot the Frippet: something gibbous. The word gibbous comes from the Latin gibba, which means hump.

Sunday 12 April 2020

Sunday Rest: oligomerous. Word Not To Use Today.

There are about eight point seven million different sorts of life-forms on the planet. 

Now, to describe all the bits of all these species obviously takes a lot of words, and I have long ago forgiven the biologists for coming up with such ghastly monstrosities as abdomen, urea and systole.

But still, I am mortal: there is a limit to my forgiveness, and with the word oligomerous I think the biologists may have passed it.

Oligomerous means being made up of a small number of parts. This means it would be a jolly useful word if you wanted to describe the motor of an electric car, say, or a recipe for use during a period of panic-buying.

Luckily, though, as far as I can tell, automotive engineers and writers of recipes don't know all that much about biology.

Or perhaps it's just that they, being artists, are people of greatly refined taste.

Word Not To Use Today: oligomerous. This word comes from the Greek word oligos, which means little, or few.

Saturday 11 April 2020

Saturday Rave: The Shepherd's Calendar by John Clare: April.

Of all the joyfully amazing things that have happened to me recently, one of the best has been discovering that I seem to be related (distantly, of course) to the English poet John Clare (1793 - 1864).

John Clare is famous for three things: being a peasant born into great poverty (he started work in the fields at the age of seven); being committed to a lunatic asylum; and being a very great poet of rural life.

The countryside was what he knew, and he treated the place and its people with affection, attention, and respect.

(And even nowadays it's not easy to find celebrated contemporary works of art which treat poor rural people with affection, attention, and respect.)

The Shepherd's Calendar is a series of poems in monthly chapters.
Here's a small section of April. I plan to feature a section from the relevant month as a treat for us all throughout the coming year.

Clare's April is a thing of joy. As a Romantic poet Clare looks back to childhood, but his love of this month is still buoyant in his soul.

I could quote any of this poem, but here's a small taste of it.

To see thee come all hearts rejoice
And warm with feelings strong
With thee all nature finds a voice
And hums a walking song
The lover views thy welcome hours
And thinks of summers come
And takes the maid thy early flowers
To tempt her steps from home.

Along each hedge and sprouting bush
The singing birds are blest
And linnet green and speckld thrush
Prepare their mossy nest
On the warm bed thy plain supplys
The young lambs find repose
And mid thy green hills basking lies
Like spots of lingering snows


Beauty and joy... 

Thanks, cousin.

Word To Use Today: linnet. A linnet is a small bird famous for its song. The name comes from the French linotte, and before that from the Latin linum, which means flax (because the bird eats flax seed).

File:Linnet - RSPB Fowlmere (7234356796).jpg
photo from RSPB Fowlmere by Tim Felce

No, they're not green, but what was called a green linnet in John Clare's Eastern England was what we now call a greenfinch: 

File:Greenfinch (carduelis chloris) m.jpg
photo by Charles J Sharp of