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 July 2020

Words To Use Today: lollipop man.

To anyone not from Britain, the idea of a lollipop man is probably strange and rather sinister.

And I hate to tell you this, but in Britain there are lollipop ladies, too, as well as men: loads of them, all over the place.

You won't see them for most of the day, but you'll find them loitering around school gates when the children are arriving at and leaving school.

Why are they called lollipop mean and women? Because they each carry a massive brightly-coloured lollipop. It might even be taller than they are.

And what do the children think? Do they have the wit to scream and run?

Nope. They're as helpless as Hansel and Gretel at the witch's house. The lollipop men and women herd the poor things together, order them to stand still, and stand over them until...

File:Wightbus 5804 HW54 DCO and Cowes Baring Road Solent Middle School lollipop man 2.JPG
photo by Arriva436's safe to cross the road.

Word To Use Today: lollipop man. The word lollipop is rather puzzling. To loll means to dangle, especially to dangle the tongue, and pop means (in Britain, where the term lollipop seems to have originated) to go somewhere close by for some trivial reason, or to put something down lightly. What shall I do with the eggs? Just pop them on the table.

Then there are some who argue that the word is Romany. The Roma have long sold apples stuck on sticks, and loli phaba means red apple in Romany.

What we do know is that the word lollipop seems to have originated in the late 1700s, when it described a sort of sweetmeat consisting of sugar and treacle with a bit of flour and butter mixed in. This would have been soft, and not the sort of thing you would stick on a stick. Lollipops weren't stuck on sticks until the 1920s.

Thursday 30 July 2020

Pronouns: a rant.

Most people are male, some people are female.

Some people are neither.

Some people are both.

Some people change from one to the other.

There is currently a campaign to encourage people to state in their email signatures the pronouns with which they would wish to be referred.

Are they he or she, or they, or something else entirely?

Getting these wrong (it's called mis-gendering) can cause offence, and few of us wish to give offence. So let's take this as an example to ease further our interactions with other people. 

My new email signature (to avoid offence) should read:

She/her/hers. Female. Woman. Married to a man. English/British. White, as far as she's noticed. Not racist. Supporter of Millwall Football Club. In her sixties. Likes her garden to be a bit over-grown. Loves Jane Austen, doesn't love Dickens. Writer of children's books. Against the death sentence. Doesn't like much TV. Not into conspiracy theories. Not a creationist.

Well, that's a start. But then people still might say offensive things about grouse moors, rap, and Brexit.

Oh dear... looks as if I'm going to have to learn to cope with other people's ignorance and opinions, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: offence. This word comes from the Old French offendre to strike against, from the Latin offendere, from ob- against and fendere to strike.

Wednesday 29 July 2020

Nuts and Bolts: embolalia.

Embolalia is a posh name for all the words we say that aren't even pretending to mean anything.

They're sometimes called vocal fillers, but that makes them sound easy (which they are, but, hey, let's make the most of what abilities we have).

I could give you examples of embolalia but that would just be annoying. They're words like um or hmm; or sometimes they're words which can mean things, like like; or even phrases like you know. They're the words that are thrown in to keep things moving while our brains catch up.

This is not to say that such words are unnecessary to the trained tongue. If the reply to the question is this dress too young for me? is um, no, then everyone knows that the answer counts as a probable yes.

Given that this is the case, though, I'm not sure it's a true case of embolalia.

Thing To Watch Out For Today: embolalia. This word is made up of two Greek words. Embolos means something thrown in, and lalia means chat.

Tuesday 28 July 2020

Thing To Be Today: kind.

Being kind is hideously unfashionable, I know.

Anyone with any ambition (or sense of self-preservation) should be rigorous in his or her attitude to others. It doesn't matter what people mean, or what they believe, or if they're puzzled or ignorant, or even seeking enlightenment, the fashionably correct thing to do is to search for any small glimmer of wrong-thinking and then denounce the thinker as evil.

And then destroy him.

But still, I can't help looking back to the Olden Days (by which I mean my Younger Days) when you could seek out all sorts of people, and listen to what they had to say, and be generous and understanding about it, and then learn a lot from working out why you agreed or disagreed with them.

Ah well. At least we can still help old ladies across the road...


...perhaps we'd better make that old men...

...actually, that would still be ageist, wouldn't it. As well as sexist.


Would it still be all right to put out some seed for the birds?

Thing To Be Today: kind. This is basically the same word as the kind of kind which means sort. It comes from the Old English gecynde which means natural or native.

Oh dear. Even that derivation is a bit dodgy, isn't it.

Monday 27 July 2020

Spot the Frippet: web.

Yes, spider's webs, of course:

2017.10.15.-03-Kirschgartshaeuser Schlaege Mannheim--Radnetz im Baum.jpg
photo by Andreas Eichler

but there are also caterpillar webs to spot if you look:

File:Eastern Tent Caterpillar (tent close).JPG
Eastern Tent caterpillars. Photo by J.R. Carmichael

and how about other sorts of webs, like these?

File:Duck's Foot Drawing.jpg
illustration by James Johonnot

or these:

File:Otter's Webbed Feet.jpg
photo by Thomas

or how about one of these? (the web is the space between the ribs):

photo of St Mary and All Saints, Fotheringhay, England, by HARTLEPOOLMARINA2014

In my neighbourhood when I was a kid almost every house had a copy of a book called The Endless Web, because nearly everyone worked at the paper factory and a big roll of paper for feeding into the machines was called a web.

The woven bit round the edge of a rug is called a web, too.

And if all else fails then how are you reading this? Via the World Wide Web, of course.

Well, that was easy, wasn't it.

Spot the Frippet: web This word was webb in Old English.

Sunday 26 July 2020

Sunday Rest: over-exaggerate. Word Not To Use Today.

I came across the word over-exaggerate the other day.

And, I mean, how do you do that, then?

Sunday Rest: over-exaggerate. This word has been around since about 1900 and has been used by some quite respectable people. 

I have to admit that an actor might need to exaggerate his facial expressions in a large auditorium, but need to avoid over-exaggerating them.

But on the whole I still think this word should have been strangled at birth.

The Latin word agger means heap. Exaggerāre means to magnify.

Saturday 25 July 2020

July: The Shepherd's Calendar by John Clare.

This lovely poem needs to be read in full, really, but it's more than four pages and there's not space here.

It describes a July day on the edge of the English Fens. It begins with the joyous busyness of the people setting out to get in the harvest, which is echoed by the insects at their feet. 

Then the poem sweeps away to the dreaming shepherd, sitting in the cool, or searching through the ruins of some ancient site for:

Some little thing of other days
Saved from the wreck of time - as beads
Or broken pots among the weeds
Of curious shapes - & many a stone
Of roman pavements thickly sown

And even here the tiny creatures of the earth:

Like visitors to a country fair
Some climbing up the rushes stem
A steeples height or more to them
With speed that sees no fear to drop
Till perched upon its spiry top
Where they awhile the view survey
Then prune their wings and fly away

The cattle are standing in the cool stream. The very breeze seems to be singing until:

Till noon burns with its blistering breath
Around & day dyes still as death...
The cricket on the banks is dumb
The very flies forget to hum

But then the sun begins to sink and the place stirs to a more languid activity. The milkmaid sings her ballads and the mower returns home to sit and watch his children play:

& all with quiet joys receive
The welcom of a summers eve

The strangest thing is that we all, all of us, live in a place quite as rich and lovely and full of marvels.

It's just that the rest of us just don't notice.

File:Sarcophagidae - Flesh fly - 11.jpg
photo by Toby Hudson

Word To Use Today: steeple. The Old English form of this word was stēpel. It's basically the same word as steep.

Friday 24 July 2020

Word To Use Today: antwackie.

Antwackie is a word of Northern England. In fact, it's a word of the City of Liverpool.

Liverpool slang often has Irish roots, because large numbers of Irish people came to settle in Liverpool in the 1800s, but antwackie or antwacky is relatively modern (1980s) and originated in the city itself.

Sadly, it has nothing to do with ants running round in eccentric and frantic loops.

This is antwacky:

File:Tie-dye hippie.jpg

and so is this:

File:Siemens C25 mobile phone.jpg
photo by Tors

Know what it means, yet?

Don't worry, you soon will.

Word To Use Today: antwackie. This word means out-of-date or old-fashioned. It comes from the word antique, with wackie stuck on the end for fun. Wacky describes eccentric objects, or the sort of behaviour you'd expect from someone who'd been whacked on the head. The word antique comes from the Latin ante, which means before.

Thursday 23 July 2020

Not so smart now, are you? A rant by Desiree Villena.

Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace for self-publishing authors; when she's not writing for them, she enjoys penning her own (not-too-purple) short stories and poetry.

Everyone wants to sound impressive at times. Whether you’re showing off your vocabulary as a flirtatious ploy or because you’re hoping to land a deal with an elite literary agent, it’s only natural to fluff up your feathers sometimes and strut around like you rule the roost.

But you know what makes you look like the biggest turkey of all? Trying to sound smarter than you really are.

Yes, it’s great to learn new words and expand your vocabulary — but let’s all make sure we’re actually learning them, not just using things we think sound “smart” without looking them up first, or after forgetting their original meaning! Those word-of-the-day calendars are futile without proper application, and even a long-remembered SAT word is all too easily misused many years after the fact.

Basically, from a misplaced “whom” to some overly-academic jargon that muddles your meaning, you’ll get your point across much better (and be a much more genial person to spend time with), if you use language and grammar you understand.

Remember the golden rule of children’s books: even simple words, used cleverly and well, can move people’s hearts. 

Word to use today: bloviate. But please only use it if you actually know what it means.

(Sally has now looked up the word bloviate so the rest of us needn't:

Bloviate is American English, first used in 1845 Ohio in the sense to talk aimlessly and boastingly. The word seems to be an expanded version of the word blow

The word soon began to mean using long words and ornate language inaccurately.)

Wednesday 22 July 2020

Nuts and Bolts: onymous.

You know how an- at the beginning of a word sometimes means not, as in anion (negatively-charged ion) and anoxaemia (lack of oxygen in the blood)?

Well, then, what do you think onymous means?

File:A Popular Schoolgirl - book cover - Project Gutenberg eText 18505.jpg

Word To Consider Today: onymous. All my books and published works are onymous, and I think that generally everyone else's should be.

But then, admittedly, I do live in a more or less free country.

Tuesday 21 July 2020

Thing Not To Feel Today: anticipointment.

Anticipointment is the feeling of eagerly waiting for an official announcement so that you can enjoy feeling appalled, crushed, and angry.

The Word Den suggests going out and doing something useful instead.

Thing Not To Feel Today: anticipointment. This is a mixture of the word anticipate, which comes from the Latin ante, before, and capere, to take, and the word disappointment. Things have rather come full-circle with this word, as in the 1300s disappoint meant to remove from office. 

The Old French apointier means to put into a good condition, from a point, to a point.

Monday 20 July 2020

Spot the Frippet: oof.

In PG Wodehouses's Jeeves and Wooster books there's a member of the Drones club called Alexander Charles "Oofy" Prosser.

Oofy Prosser about as dumb as the rest of them, but he does have exquisitely-tuned antennae for one thing.

You see, Oofy Prosser is a millionaire, and, this being his only truly distinguishing factor (apart from his pimples), he is thoroughly determined to carry on being absolutely filthy rich. He is a man, in fact, "in whose wallet moths nest and raise large families".

This means that long practice has made Oofy Prosser morbidly, famously, sensitive to anyone even thinking about wanting to borrow money.

For oof is money.

File:American Cash.JPG
photo: Revised by Reworked

You don't see as much oof about as we used to. Nowadays it's all plastic cards and typing numbers online.

But you must have a purse or a wallet or a pocket filled with jingling dosh somewhere.

File:Saving money.jpg

Find it, get it out, and admire it.

And then put it away again against a time when you're finally allowed to spend it in a shop.

Spot the Frippet: oof. This word comes from the lovely Yiddish word ooftisch, from the German auf den Tische, on the table, referring to gambling stakes.

If you have no cash around the place at all then just watch an old person sit down. 

I don't know why they always say oof when they do it. But they do.

Sunday 19 July 2020

Sunday Rest: cancel. Word Not To Use Today.

Many glorious events have been cancelled this year including, I should imagine, The Complete Works of Shakespeare (and ditto the works of every language's premier playwrights), all the symphonies of Beethoven, every choral piece ever written, Wimbledon, several Grand Prix, and football games and weddings beyond count.

So what do we do, among this blizzard of sorrow, loss, and cancellations

Why, invent a new and even nastier meaning of the word cancel, of course.

To cancel someone, nowadays, is to mount an online campaign to destroy that person's career, and to make all his or her friendships and relationships dangerous and impossible because...

...well, there is usually some reason given - the victim will have committed some sin against modern mores of one kind or other - but really it's for fun. 

Yes, this kind of campaign is fun if you're eaten up by envy, bitterness and cruelty: it makes small inadequate people feel good to have power over successful and brave people.

Still, unless we wish to appear envious, bitter, and cruel, the word cancel in this sense is probably best left well alone.

Sunday Rest: cancel. This word comes from the Old French canceller, from the Latin cancellāre, to cross out. Cancellī means lattice, so the idea is to cross it out really thoroughly.

Saturday 18 July 2020

Saturday Rave: sevenlings.

Who invents something? The person who first makes it, or the person who first gives it a name?

The sevenling is a poem of, yes, seven lines. The lines come in two groups of three, and then there's a final line that traditionally acts as a punch-line.

The first sevenling was probably written by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, but the form her poem took was named by Roddy Lumsden and used by him as a useful template for teaching and imitation.

Here's Anna Akhmatova's original poem:

He loved three things alone:
White peacocks, evensong,
Old maps of America.

He hated children crying,
Old raspberry jam with his tea,
And womanish hysteria.

And he married me.

Akhmatova in 1922 (Portrait by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin)

As one might expect from a woman who doesn't believe her husband loves her, things didn't go exactly smoothly.

Word To Use Today: sevenling. The word seven was seofan in Old English and goes right back to the Sanskrit word saptá. The word-ending -ling is Gothic.

Friday 17 July 2020

Word To Use Today: peltast.

In these times, when even British neighbourhood policemen:

File:Newport MMB 11 Clytha Road.jpg
photo by mattbuck 

are hung about with defensive equipment, The Word Den presents the word

A peltast is a lightly-armed foot soldier.

Photograph by Mike Peel (, CC BY-SA 4.0,

(Here's a line drawing to make that image a bit more comprehensible:

File:Tomb of Payava, east side peltasts.jpg
illustration by George Scharf)

Actually, I'm not sure I want to see our neighbourhood policeman going about wearing flower pot hats and little - or nothing - else.

But, in any case, I'm left not knowing if the concept of the peltast is an example of the good old days - or the bad ones.

Word To Use Today: peltast. This word arrived in English in the 1600s. It comes from the Latin peltasta, from the Greek peltastēs, a soldier carrying a pelta, which is a small leather shield.

Peltate, by the way, describes a leaf where the stalk emerges from the centre of the underside.

Thursday 16 July 2020

Like lost sheep: a rant.

The Book of Common Prayer was published in England in 1549 at a time when political and religious powers were involved in a mighty fight for supremacy. 

It was a time when torturing people in order to persuade them to change their religious beliefs slightly still seemed an entirely reasonable and useful thing to do.

Here's the beginning of the General Confession (that is, the owning up to bad deeds) from the Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father,

we have erred, and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep.

And after that prayer comes the Absolution, the statement of forgiveness, which is said by the priest to the people:

Grant, we beseech thee, merciful Lord,

to thy faithful people pardon and peace,
that they may be cleansed from their sins,
and serve thee with a quiet mind


And, do you know something? 

It all sounds a heck of a lot more civilised than flipping Twitter.

Word To Use Today: pardon. This word comes from the Old French, from the Latin perdōnāre, to forgive freely. The per- bit makes a word stronger in meaning, and dōnāre means to grant.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Nuts and Bolts: lalochezia.

Lalochezia is a very new word that describes the pain-relief offered by swearing.

Most people will have personal experience of this, but it's always nice to have a posh Greek name to dignify us in our agony.

(No, it's been proved scientifically proved. Richard Stevens at Keele University is your man. Thanks, Mr Stevens.)

Thing We Realised Long Before The Scientists: lalochezia. This word, I should imagine, comes from the Greek lalos, speech or chatter, and -chezia comes, well, dyschezia is another word for constipation, so you can work this one out for yourself.

Tuesday 14 July 2020

Thing Not To Do Today: wobble.

Jelly on a plate,
Jelly on a plate
Wibble wobble, wibble wobble,
Jelly on a plate.

To which we can now add a new verse:

Geladas in the grass
Geladas in the grass,
Wobble wobble wobble wobble
Geladas in the grass.

A gelada:

photo by Hulivili

is a beast very like a baboon, but reckoned to be a different genus. They stay on the ground, mostly, and eat grass.

And the wobbling?

They are quite stately creatures, so no wobbling there, but the their noisy communication system is known as wobbling:

For those visitors to The Word Den who are not geladas, to wobble is probably not so good. It implies weakness, indecisiveness, and unreliability; if only Hamlet's ghost had said to his son Quit wobbling! then one feels the play would have been both shorter and happier.

But then if he had then perhaps the younger Hamlet would have thrown a wobbly (had a tantrum) which isn't a great look, either.

So be steadfast, but not obstinate.

It's not easy, but, hey, it's better than having a wobble.

Thing Not To Do Today: wobble. This word used to be wabble, and comes from the Low German wabblein.

Monday 13 July 2020

Spot the Frippet: tiffany.

We're all due a touch of luxury, I think.

Tiffany & Co deals in jewellery, and glass and such other frippery.

This is the Tiffany yellow diamond (which, however, has never been sold).

This is a Tiffany lamp:

photo by Fopseh from Wikimedia Commons

and here's a tea set:

File:Tea Set by Tiffany & Company.jpg
photo by Sean Pathasema, Birmingham Museum of Art

I don't actually like any of it much - but, hey, I doubt the company is really going to miss my custom.

Tiffany glass is the pearly glass also called favrile glass:

File:Bowl by Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1880-1900, blown Favrile glass - Portland Museum of Art - Portland, Maine - DSC04322.jpg
cup and saucer by Tiffany, photo by Daderot

Tiffany is also a sheer fine gauzy fabric. It's obviously not going to keep you very warm or decent, so that's for luxury, too.

A kind of cat called a tiffanie is spelled differently, but then a cat picture is just what people need on a Monday morning:

File:Tiffanie at cat show.jpg
photo by Heikki Siltala

So there we are.

All part of the service.

Spot the Frippet: tiffany. You may not have any genuine Tiffany products about the place, but the fake stuff is fairly common. Most of the products are named after the company, but the fabric is named after Twelfth Night, because that's when you'd wear a posh frock. The fabric name comes from the Old French tifanie, from the Church Latin theophania, which means epiphany, the church festival which coincides with Twelfth Night.

Sunday 12 July 2020

Sunday Rest: statue. Word Not To Use Today.

The word statue is ridiculous. It sounds like a sneeze.

I can see why people want to pull down statues of nasty people, but if we pull down all the statues of people who've made a wrong decision, or have been fools, or have not understood the best way to do things, or have not understood how things really are, or have not been able to see into the future, then there'll be only one or two subjects left.

And even then ten to one people will be squabbling over what colour to paint them.

File:Rome Seated Zeus.jpg
statue of serial assaulter of women Zeus, National Museum,Warsaw

Sunday Rest: statue. This word comes from Old French from the Latin statua, from statuere, to set up. It's basically the same word as statute.

Saturday 11 July 2020

Saturday Rave: tanka

In Japan, long long ago (and we're talking the 700s AD, here) there were long poems and there were short poems. The long ones were called chōka, and the short ones were called tanka.

Over the years things evolved, although really not all that much, and the chōka faded away and the tanka flourished. 

Aristocrats began to hold short-poem parties, some featuring a team sport where two poems on a particular given topic were judged against each other (the winner gained points for his team), and some an affair where where everyone gathered round to read their own poems.

Tanka nowadays traditionally consist of five chunks, with the syllable count (not that what's counted is quite what an English person would call a syllable when the poem is in Japanese) 5,7,5,7,7. 

Also traditionally, tanka were exchanged between lovers. From the resurgence of the form from about 1900 onwards, though, the scope of the tanka widened. 

Here's a tanka by one of the first people to write as part of this movement, Ishikawa Takuboku.

On the white sand
Of the beach of a small island
In the Eastern Sea.
I, my face streaked with tears,
Am playing with a crab

Word To Use Today: island. The Old English word for island was īg, and later the land bit was added making the word mean, literally island land. The s was added in there as well because, well, the word isle had one, didn't it? 

(The word isle comes through French from the Latin word insula.)

Friday 10 July 2020

Word To Use Today: omphaloskepsis.

The omphalos is the navel, and omphaloskepsis is navel-gazing.

It's practised by those too deeply stupid to have noticed that the rest of the world is approximately ten thousand times more interesting than they are (and that's only counting the rest of the world that happens to be in view at the time).

Omphaloskepsis, sadly, leads to a great number of tantrums because the poor boobs practising it think they aren't getting the attention that is their due. Whereas they are: it's just that they really aren't deserving of much attention.

An omphalos can mark the centre of anything, but is especially the sacred cone-shaped stone at Delphi in Ancient Greece which was said to mark the centre of the world.

But, as it turned out, the world didn't even spin round Delphi.

It might be a plan for us all to make a point of noticing six more interesting things than ourselves before breakfast.

Or during breakfast, anyway.

Word To Use Today: omphaloskepsis. Omphalos is Greek for navel. Skopein means to watch.

Thursday 9 July 2020

Cultural Appropriation: a rant.

I would like to apologise for the cultural appropriation displayed in this blog.

Sadly, as the word apologise is basically Greek, and the words cultural and appropriation and display are basically Italian, I'm not sure how I can do it.

Word To Use Today: That's probably fairly universal. It's short for web log. The word web is Old English (as are the words I, would, like, to, for, the, in and this) and no one knows where the word log comes from.

Mind you, before these words were Old English they came from Germany and Scandinavia - and the word I might even ultimately have Hittite origins. So I really have to apologise for them, too. 

But I can't.

Wednesday 8 July 2020

Nuts and Bolts: the glamour of grammar.

Glamour and grammar

No, really, they're the same thing.

Well, in a way they are, anyway.

The word gramarye came into English in the 1300s from the French word gramaire, which meant stuff that learned people knew (so not things like how to fatten a pig, or build a house, or anything useful like that, but Latin and stuff).

In fact, over the years gramarye came to include all sorts of things that weren't known (or needed to be known) by nearly everybody, such as astrology and, um, magic; and of course if you're studying magic then what you're really after is magical power for yourself. This idea evolved in Scotland into the word glamour. If you cast a glamour over someone you weren't giving them a make-over, but enchanting them. 

A related word, grimoire, is a manual for invoking demons (but, hey, with a family like yours who needs to invoke demons?).

Grammar is now to do with the way words are arranged so they mean things, but the connection between written-down words and magic goes right back to the very beginning. 

I wonder, was there always a feeling among the wider populace that the stuff learned people learned wasn't really very useful? Is this why learned people were keen to make an association between writing and supernatural power? 

Was it basically some kind of compensation for an inferiority complex? 

Or, at least, to get themselves a bit of respect?

History would make a bit more sense if that was the case, wouldn't it.

Nuts and Bolts: grammar/glamour. The Greek word gramma means letter, as in a letter of the alphabet.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: a gooseberry.

In Britain, a gooseberry is an unwanted person who tags along with a romantically involved couple.

Yes, that's right: three's a crowd.

But I didn't know that gooseberry bushes were actually illegal in the USA for about fifty years from 1911 (they supported a pathogen which affected timber, apparently, though now trees have been bred to be resistant to the disease) and gooseberries still aren't all that commonly eaten.

photo by Pavel Leman

To be honest, they're not usually all that nice unless they're mixed with plenty of sugar. Cream helps, too.

But why are they called gooseberries, and what's that got to do with upsetting lovers?

Well, no one knows what they've got to do with geese. There are a whole load of theories, but the most likely thing seems to be that they're called after the birds and, um, berries, though what geese have to do with it no one's got a clue.

As for the poor lovers, the word started off in the 1800s describing someone who acted as a chaperone. The idea seems to have been that this person would hang around in order to keep things respectable, but that they'd go off to pick gooseberries from the hedgerows so as to allow the lovers time to be completely absorbed with each other. (Another, similar, term was picking daisies.)

Those days of scrupulous manners have long since past, of course, and so now such a person is just a nuisance.

Thing Not To Be Today: a gooseberry. Gooseberries are green, sharp, and their bushes are prickly, which are also things not to be. The French call them groseille à maquereau, mackerel berries, because a gooseberry sauce is good to eat with mackerel. Long ago if you called someone a gooseberry you were calling him a fool, because of the cream and gooseberry dessert called a gooseberry fool. 

The word goose was gōs in Old English, and the word berry was berie.

Monday 6 July 2020

Spot the Frippet: fiddle-faddle.

Fiddle-faddle describes nonsense, or trivial things.

It can also describe a great fuss made over something essentially trivial.

It's not hard to spot fiddle-faddle, though, I must admit, dangerous to point it out in public at the moment.

Still, a great deal of satisfaction can be gained from the private use of the word.

And, after all, to distinguish the fiddle-faddle from the truly important is the best way there is of stopping ourselves going quite as mad as the rest of them.

Spot the Frippet: fiddle-faddle. This word first appeared in the 1500s. It's a playful version of the word fiddle in the sense time-wasting. 

The Old English form of this word was fithele, and before that it's probably something to do with the Latin word vītulāre, to celebrate.

Sunday 5 July 2020

Sunday Rest: Covid. Word Not To Use Today.

Covid is short for COrona VIrus Disease.

The 19 in Covid-19 is the date (2019) that the blasted thing emerged from its bat cave.

You know something? A year ago I would have guessed that Covid was some video conferencing system like Zoom.

Still, I suppose the sharing idea is still there...


Word Not To Use Today: Covid. There isn't really very much wrong with the word Covid, but, gosh, we are all fed up with it, aren't we?

Saturday 4 July 2020

Saturday Rave: the American Sentence.

As some of us are opening up our lives and economies, others of us are closing them down, so this series of short-form poetry still seems relevant.

So what is an American Sentence?

The idea came from Allen Ginsberg. He felt that the haiku didn't work all that well as an English form (though actually many, many examples prove him wrong) and so he proposed making poems where the only rule was that the thing had to have seventeen syllables in total.

Despite the name, an American Sentence doesn't have to have only one sentence, and the haiku line syllable-count (five, seven, five) isn't important, either. (The syllable count rule is actually a bit more complicated in the haiku's native Japanese, but never mind.)

The poem is written as a single line. You might say this means it can't be a poem, and I wouldn't like to have to argue with you. The subject of an American Sentence often includes a month or a date or a location.

Not convinced? Then how about this? It's by Allen Ginsberg himself:

That grey-haired man in business suit and black turtleneck thinks he's still young.

Well, it does all the poetry-stuff for me.

Word To Use Today: turtle. This word comes from the French tortue, and before that from the Latin tartaracha (or something similar) short for bestia tartarucha, which means beast of hell.

It got its name from its habit of rolling about in mud, and being short. 

A turtle in Britain is exclusively the kind that swims: the dry-land kind are called tortoises.

Friday 3 July 2020

Word To Use Today: smellfungus.

There's nothing wrong, usually, with the smell of fungus, and in fact people will pay a small fortune to have the smell of fungus wafted over their dinners in the form of truffles. 

(You usually don't get enough of the stuff to get much more than a smell. Still, mustn't grumble.)

However a smellfungus, or a smelfungus would grumble. He would grumble constantly, however generous the shavings of truffles were. He would grumble at the weather, he would carp at the menu, and he would find frank fault with every word his companions uttered.

Yes, he does sound like a journalist, and enchantingly, that was more or less what the very first smellfungus was, because the prototype was the novelist Tobias Smollett in his guise as a travel writer. In 1766 he wrote a book called Travels through France and Italy, and it was such a catalogue of groans and moans and complaints that when Laurence Sterne was writing A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy a couple of years later he put in a character who found fault with everything. Kindly, instead of calling him Smollett or Smallwitt (which must have been a temptation) he called him Smelfungus.

The word is, obviously, a great gift to the world, and so the next time you're stuck with someone hypercritical then just think smellfungus to yourself. 

It's almost sure to make you feel better.

Word To Use Today: smellfungus. I hope you won't need it, but the plural of smellfungus is smellfungi. Fungus is Latin for mushroom. 

The word smell turned up in English in the 1100s, but no one is sure from where it came.

But then that's often the way with smells.

Thursday 2 July 2020

Good news is no news: a rant.

Look, I know they say that good news is no news, but they're wrong, okay?

Have a ten thousand pound bonus!

Mother and child both well!

We've won the cup!

See? None of those is bad news, but it's something to shout about* all the same.

But the media will look on the gloomiest side. It's become a habit with them. I've long told myself that they can twist any story into an outrage or a tragedy, but this headline, in the Telegraph newspaper on line on 18/06/2020, took the biscuit:

Doctors warn of organ shortage as lockdown cuts fatal accidents and violent crime

Still, it was one of the few items in the week's news that actually made me laugh.

Word To Use Today: crime. The Latin word crīmen means accusation, verdict or crime...which makes me glad I'm not likely to be up in front of an Ancient Roman court.

*Well, except that shouting in public is now illegal in England, I think, because it tends to spread germs. Ah well!

Wednesday 1 July 2020

Nuts and Bolts: anaphora.

It's always flattering to be told that we've been doing really complicated grammar all our lives, so here I present the word anaphora.

Anaphora is when you refer to something that's been mentioned previously, but by using a different word.

You might say Clare bakes bread, and she does it every morning. It's a simple enough sentence, but the words she, does, and it are all examples of anaphora.

There. Aren't we clever.

Anaphora has another meaning, too. If someone says something like:

You may think that the defendant is unreliable; you may think that he is dishonest; you may think he is for those reasons guilty; but that last is not an inference that can be drawn.

The repetition of you may think at the beginning of the clauses is also called anaphora.

That sort of thing is mostly only for show-offs, though.

Thing To Use Today: anaphora. This word comes from the Greek word for repetition. ana- can mean, more or less anything, and pherein means to bear.