This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday 31 August 2020

Spot the Frippet: constellation.

 There're aren't many things that can only be seen in the dark, but constellations are one of them.

Constellations are also examples of things you can see which doesn't actually exist - by which I don't mean that they're just lights twinkling in the celestial sphere which encloses the Earth (because that really doesn't exist) but that a constellation exists as a group of stars only if you view it from Earth: most of the stars in a constellation won't be connected in any other way.

The constellations people tend to know best by name are the signs of the zodiac, but if you live in the North or South of the world then they'll not always be very easy to see. 

The Great Bear (or Ursa Major, The Big Dipper, The Plough, Charles's Wain, or The Saucepan) is an obvious constellation in the Northern Hemisphere, as is The Southern Cross in the South. Orion, with his shining belt, can be seen all over the world at various times of the year.

If you're looking for something less obvious, then those in the South can look for a Phoenix:

File:Phoenix constellation map-fr.png

(yes, you have to use your imagination)

 and those in the North could look for the Canes Venatice, the hunting dogs (which are owned by the endearingly-named herdsman Boötes):

File:Canes Venatici Hevelius.jpg

Illustration by Johannes Hevelius

And those of us who are afraid of the dark can spot the other kind of cluster of stars by watching any film starring at least half a dozen people you've already seen in other films.

File:The Magnificent Seven cast publicity photo.jpg

Count them up before you watch!

Spot the Frippet: constellation. Con- is Latin for together, and stella means star.

Sunday 30 August 2020

Sunday Rest: Boomer. Word Not To Use Today.

 May I just point out that boom, as it the term baby-boom, refers to the number of babies born after the natural lull during the second world war, and not to the state of the economy?

I wish to make this clear because I myself am a baby-boomer and I can't say I noticed living off the fat of the land. Even the nostalgic glow of a distant childhood has done little to prettify a life lived without central heating, quilted coats, double-glazing, trainers, the internet, nice cheese, a telephone in the house, concerts, theatre, a car, a fridge, foreign holidays, aubergines, a university education, and pain relief at the dentist.

And before anyone starts whingeing, my husband and I had each to save a whole year's salary before we got together a deposit for half a house.

So can the self-pity and the contempt, okay?

OK Boomer, indeed.

Sunday Rest: boomer. This word might come from the Dutch word bommen, which is basically the sound made when someone booms. People who boom tend to be out-going and full of energy, and this seems to be how it came to be a word for a period of high activity.


Saturday 29 August 2020

Saturday Rave: The Cat by William Henry Davies.

 Write a poem, they tell you at school - and then they put up a list of five titles on the board from which to choose.

One of these titles is generally My Cat.

What do you write about? The soft fur, the warm body, the exclamation mark rear end, the velvety murderousness?

Here's an example from William Henry Davies. It's in my edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse

The Cat

Within the porch, across the way,

I see two naked eyes this night;

Two eyes that neither shut nor blink,

Searching my face with a green light.

But cats to me are strange, so strange -

I cannot sleep if one is near;

And though I'm sure I see those eyes

I'm not so sure a body's there!

You know, on reflection I think that with a bit of chin-scratching several of us might be able to do better. 

File:Cat scratching.jpg

photo by Vannie

Still, that's an inspiring thought.

Word To Use Today: cat. The Old English form of this word was catte and the Latin for was cattus. 

Friday 28 August 2020

Word To Use Today: escritoire.

 Lewis Carroll's mad Hatter famously asked Why is a raven like a writing desk?

He asked this question in Lewis Caroll's Alice in Wonderland, and Alice never found out the answer because there wasn't one. That was the point. Lewis Carroll was a mathematician, and he was fed up with the pointless logic-chopping popular among mathematicians at the time.

But since then, more or less everyone has tried to find an answer. Aldous Huxley might have come up with the best, providing a neat non-answer to the non-question: 

Because there is a 'b' in both and an 'n' in neither.

In fact poor old Lewis Carroll was besieged by so many letters of enquiry from fans that in the end he did come up with an answer to his riddle, which he put into the introduction of a new edition. I hope it stopped the enquiries, even though a misprint meant part of the joke didn't really work:

Because it can produce a few notes, tho they are very flat; and it is never put with the wrong end in front!

(The word never should have been written nevar...geddit?)

No, it's still not very good. Ah well.

An escritoire is a writing desk, of course, but the word escritoire is much more fun to say.

File:Escritoire desk (AM 2013.34.1-1).jpg

Do enjoy the lovely French throat-clearing noise at the end when you say it.

Word To Use Today: escritoire. In Mediaeval times a scriptōrium was a writing room in a monastery. The word comes from the Latin word scrībere. to write.


Thursday 27 August 2020

Full stop to full stops: a rant.

Rhiannon L Cosslett is a novelist and journalist for The Guardian newspaper. A little while ago she posted this on Twitter:

Older people – do you realise that ending a sentence with a full stop comes across as unfriendly to younger people?

Well, no, as an older person I hadn't known that. 

As if unfriendly weren't bad enough, a study at Binghamton University on 2015 asked 126 undergraduates about punctuation in text messages, and it turned out those which ended with a full stop were perceived to be less sincere.

Unfriendly and insincere. The word passive-aggressive has been used in this context, too. 

Wow. The power of a dot.

There are two reasons put forward to explain the problem. Firstly, a full stop is seen to be a bit down-beat for a cheerful message, and therefore a sign of insincerity. Secondly, a short text message has so little content that even the punctuation becomes extremely significant and has to bear a lot of meaning.

I can think of another couple of reasons, too. First, down the centuries people, and young people in particular, have always enjoyed a good wallow in self-pity and victimhood; and, second, they've always also enjoyed a good violent reaction to...almost anything. 

Still, I suppose that if people have the time and energy for extreme reactions to punctuation then there can't really be too much else wrong, can there, so this is good news, really.

Sorry: really!

Thing To Use Today When Addressing A Younger Person: patience. This word comes from the Old French, from the Latin patientia, endurance, from patī, to suffer.

(No, no, I know that it doesn't matter a bit what older people feel when they see a text message without a full stop...)

Wednesday 26 August 2020

Nuts and Bolts: grawlix.

 Grawlix sounds as if it ought to be some sort of Scandinavian mustard sauce. But it isn't. 

(The plural can be either grawlix, grawlixes or grawlices. The last "Ancient Greek" example is just for fun, because it's not any sort of Greek - but then the whole idea of a grawlix is more or less for fun, so why not.)

A grawlix is something written or drawn, especially in a comic-strip or graphic novel, to take the place of swearing. (Which presumably makes it a non-graphic graphic novel.)

A grawlix is often @#$%&! but it can also be some image expressing explosions or violence that's placed inside a speech bubble.

It's a useful device, and it could have a wider application. Shouting grawlix! when you stub your toe might be a real help.

It's worth trying, anyway.

Word To Use Today: grawlix. I hope you don't stub your toe, but this word might come in useful for shouting at the TV or Radio or some idiot who think he can drive a car. I don't know of any derivation, but the word seems to have been coined by the American cartoonist Mort Walker in 1964.

Tuesday 25 August 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: fearful.

 The word fearful has two meanings that are opposites of each other, which makes it a contranym. As if that isn't enough, it also has another meaning not really connected to either of the other two. That makes it very useful.

But whether fearful invokes fear in others (The fearful monster roared, and its hot breath enveloped me...) or describes being full of fear ourselves (...but I stood with my feet planted wide apart so no one could hear the fearful knocking of my knees...) or even whether fearful just means really really annoying (...and I told myself that if I got eaten at least that would cure my fearful fever) then we want to keep away from it.

I mean, we have the heroes of books to go through all that sort of thing for us, don't we.

File:Dewey Lake Monster 2017.jpg

illustration by The Terror Tales

Thing Not To Be Today: fearful. The Old English form of the word fear was fǣr,which is related to the Old Norse fār, hostility, and the Latin perīculum, danger. 

Monday 24 August 2020

Spot The Frippet: something orra.

 Orra is a Scots word which means odd or unmatched.

An orra man is an odd-job man.

There's something strangely sinister about a house where everything matches. Instead of presenting an honest glimpse of a life, or a portrait of a family, all the souls who live there are peeking out from behind a curtain of someone else's taste.

One can't help but wonder just what it is they're hiding.

Still, the rest of us will have no trouble finding unmatched things, whether it's a sock (the other one is probably in the washing machine) 


Very odd sock. Photo by Rion

or the last plate of the set Auntie bought us, or that perfectly good envelope that came with a birthday card, or that earring which used to be one of my favourites and you never know but the other might be caught up in something somewhere.

(This Mycenian earring probably lost its partner in the 16th century BC, or soon afterwards. Still, this one is being kept at the Louvre just in case the other one turns up.)

Mind you, you could probably do without the glove whose pair was lost on that skiing holiday. And that single chopstick...but no. That might come in useful for getting the stones out of cherries.

Something orra can still be useful and stimulating.

Well, aren't you?

Spot the Frippet: something orra. Sadly, no one knows where this word comes from, except Scotland.

Sunday 23 August 2020

Sunday Rest: Karen. Word Not To Use Today.

As far as I understand it, a Karen is a not very well educated and not very intelligent white woman who is given to complaining.

I don't know of any term to describe a not very well educated and not very intelligent black, yellow, green, brown, red or blue woman who is given to complaining.

But if I did I wouldn't use those, either.

Word Not To Use Today: Karen. I don't know where this word originated, but Karen as a girls' name is a short form of Catherine that has been popular in Denmark since Mediaeval times.

Saturday 22 August 2020

Saturday Rave: I, by J W Curry.

 I think we may now have reached the natural end of this very-short-poem series. Basically, things are getting silly.

Still, here are two final examples.

Aram Saroyan produced a poem consisting of a four-legged letter m. I've no idea what he meant by it - if anything, it reminds me of a caterpillar wearing boots - but people have come up with some truly intricate and bizarre interpretations. Two of the most comprehensible are that it's about the alphabet being born (because it's an amalgamation of the letters n and m) and a variation of I'm.

Even shorter, and much easier, is J W Curry's poem, which consists of a letter i where the dot is a fingerprint.

It's arresting, and pretty, and it suggests various ideas about identity and individuality.

I really rather like it.

Word To Use Today. Um...oh dear, we're dealing in units even shorter than the words, now. Still, the one-word poem has been presented quite seriously by various poets, so I suggest we all write one of our own.

Here's mine:


The word lazy appeared in the 1500s, but so far no one's been able to summon up the energy to discover its derivation.

Friday 21 August 2020

Holster: Word To Use Today.

 When people think of holsters then they usually expect them to be holding guns: 

File:Glock 17 in Holster MOD 45154999.jpg

photo by Andrew Linnett from the British Ministry of Defence

but I keep my secateurs in mine: 

Secateur ouvert.jpg

photo by KoS 

and a climber might keep an axe in his or hers.

pick 1, head 2, adze 3, leash 4. leash stop 5, shaft with rubber grip 6, spike 7

photo by Lacen 

There are also, for those without pockets (women, usually) phone holsters.

The main reason this word is featuring on The Word Den, though, is because of its connection with the Old English word heolstor.

Word To Use Today: holster. This word comes from the Netherlands, and England pinched it in the 1600s when our two countries were spending far too much time firing missiles of various sizes at each other. It's connected to the Old Norse hulstr, sheath (as for a sword) and the Old English heolstor, which means, thrillingly, darkness.

Thursday 20 August 2020

Evolution: a rant.

From The Telegraph Newspaper Website, August 4th 2020:

New emperor penguin colonies discovered using satellites

Good heavens. 

Well, that puts paid to the expression bird brain, doesn't it.

Evolution, eh?

Word To Use Today: satellite. This word comes from the Latin satelles, which means an attendant. The fact that the word doesn't look that much like Latin might be because the word isn't, being probably of Etruscan origin.

Wednesday 19 August 2020

Nuts and Bolts: skunked terms.

 A skunked term is a word or phrase which is either in the process of changing its meaning (in which case the old folk will assume one meaning and the young ones another) or it's a word that's become controversial (not necessarily for any logical reason).

Fulsome is an well-known example of such a word. Does it mean insincere (which was the only thing it did mean in the mid-twentieth century) or does it mean enthusiastic and complete (probably its commonest meaning nowadays)?

The Word Den has already looked with mixed irritation and affection upon many of these meaning-shifting words, but one example not yet explored here is moot point, which to a middle-aged British person means an important issue at the heart of an argument, but which to an American will probably mean an issue of no, or only academic, importance.

( there's another interesting word!)

As for an example of a newly controversial word...and The Word Den is now stepping into dangerous territory...but it would be no surprise if describing someone as niggling is soon enough to call up a Twitter mob.

It's a fine bold label, is skunked term, but many words have changed their meaning over time, and most have largely lost their power to confuse.

But then I suppose that every skunk does, eventually, lose its smell.

Thing Probably Not To Use Today: a skunked term. This term was coined by the lexicographer Bryan A Garner in 2008.

Niggling comes from Scandinavia and is probably something to do with the word nygg, which means stingy. Moot is basically the same word as meeting. Fulsome started off meaning full, as in a stomach, then came to mean nauseated, then sickening and insincere, and now it's getting back to meaning full again.

The word skunk is a gift from Algonquian.

Tuesday 18 August 2020

Thing To Be Today (or not): impregnable.

 What does this word mean?

Is something impregnable something no one can enter, as in an impregnable castle? 

File:Krak des Chevaliers 01.jpg

Krak des Chevaliers, Syria, Photo by Bernard Gagnon

Or the same thing in a figurative sense, as in impregnable to flattery or bribery?

Or is it some animal which can be made pregnant?

pregnant lioness. Photo by Robin Hutton

Well, it's both, of course. This makes the word a contranym (a word that can mean itself or its own opposite).

I tell myself that one day I'll get the hang of this flipping English language...

...but there's not much sign of it so far.

Thing To Be (or not): impregnable. The word meaning not-able-to-enter dates from the 1400s and comes from the Old French imprenable, from prendre, to take. The word meaning able-to-become-pregnant dates from the 1600s and comes from the Latin praegnans, pregnant. The im- in the first case means not and in the second the im- means into, towards, or within.

Monday 17 August 2020

Spot the Frippet: spine.

 We're having a heat-wave in England as I write this, and so people's spines are more visible than usual. Well, not their actual spines, of course, but sometimes, on the not-too-fat people, the knobbly bumps where the skin stretches over the bone.

Most animals with spines are furry or scaly or feathery, so their spines aren't even as obvious as that. Still, if you happen to be frying a fish or roasting a chicken...

But there are other things that have spines. Books, for instance:

File:Library books.jpg

photo by User:Pouya sh

and leaves:

File:Emilia sonchifolia leaf on stem2 (14023826586).jpg

photo by Harry Rose

a porcupine's quill is called a spine:

File:African Porcupine (4145538286).jpg

photo by Eric Kilby

and so is the long summit of a hill:

File:Andes Spine, Peru (8641513667).jpg

The spine of the Andes in Peru. Photo by Rod Waddington

A spine is usually to do with holding things in place, so the word can be used in a lot of contexts. Even a novel may have a spine (and if it doesn't then that might be why it's uninteresting).

Today is perhaps a day to consider the structure of things.

Spot the Frippet: spine. This word comes from the Old French espine, from the Latin spīna, which means thorn or spine.

Sunday 16 August 2020

Sunday Rest: fartlek.


Well, a lek occurs when various male animals get together to show off their bodies and skills to a group of females in the hope of winning their favour. 

And, indeed, favours.

It's usually birds who are known for gathering in leks, especially grouse, but this behaviour can also be seen in Atlantic cod, marine iguanas, parrots, cattle, seals, wasps, and butterflies.

Luckily, everyone already knows what a fart is.

Yes, the mind is boggling.

Sadly, fartlek is really the same thing as interval training (that's where you exercise very hard for a while, then do something less taxing to get your breath back, then go back to the strenuous stuff again).

Still, whatever it means, it's brightened my day, anyway.

Sunday Rest: fartlek. This word is Swedish. In Swedish lek means play. The fart bit of the word is to do with speed.

Saturday 15 August 2020

Saturday Rave: Me by Muhammad Ali.

 In 1975 the great man (and also great boxer) Muhammad Ali was addressing a couple of thousand people at Harvard University. His speech basically said you've got an education, now use it to make the world a better place.

And were the scholars of Harvard content with the best advice they could possibly have had, from one of the twentieth century's most remarkable men?

No, they weren't.

Someone called for a poem.

Now, the problem is that this very short poem was spoken by Muhammad Ali, and not written down, so no one is exactly sure how it went.

It could have been:



which might express a sense of solidarity and communion with all mankind: no man is an island, as another great man once said.

On the other hand, some have said it should be written:



which in this case may express a delight in his own genius, or the simple relief of an uneducated man at having got out of Harvard unscathed.

Mind you, it would have been a brave man who threw anything.

Word To Use Today: we. The Old English form of this word was wē, but it goes right back to the Sanskrit vayam.

Friday 14 August 2020

Word To Use Today: pomiculture.

 The Australians call the British Poms or Pommies. The contempt embedded in the word is reasonably friendly and so, as far as I know, no one minds.

What the Australians think of pomiculture I'm not sure. 

I have to admit that the British do have various bits of culture about the place, but mostly we try to pretend they aren't there. Sometimes we pretend that the stuff isn't actually culture by giving it a silly name (like the concert series called The Proms, for instance (yes, all right, Pom Proms); or by letting our artists starve in desperate poverty (children's writers); or by putting it in a big house miles from the nearest railway station/town/road (opera).

Mind you, having said all that, some Australians will know that pomiculture is actually to do with growing fruit.

File:Jack fruit tree 01.jpg

photo of a jack fruit tree by Biju Karakkonam

But then they lose out on some fun.

Word To Use Today: pomiculture. Pōmum is the Latin for apple or fruit, and culture comes from the other Latin word cultūra, a cultivating, from colere, to till.

Pom meaning British person may derive from pomegranate (because British people in Australia tend to suffer from sunburn, or because it's rhyming slang for immigrant) or it just may be from an acronym: Prisoner Of Mother England. Other explanations for the word's origin involve the British pom-pom gun and the nickname of Portsmouth, Pompey, which was for a long time the chief port of the Royal Navy. But nobody's sure.

Thursday 13 August 2020

Just Mates: a rant.

 Headline from the often rant-worthy Telegraph Newspaper online, 12 August 2020:

The Moment Kamala Harris Turned On Joe Biden


...that doesn't seem a terribly good reason for choosing someone to be Vice-President, to be honest. But I suppose it's good they're friendly.

Still, it puts the mate in running-mate, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: mate. This word came into English in the 1300s from then Middle Low German. It's related to the Old English gemetta, table guest, from mete, meat.

Wednesday 12 August 2020

Nuts and Bolts: antilogy.

The Word Den was thinking about the word antilog the other day, and next to it in the dictionary I happened upon the word antilogy. 

(And after antilogy comes antimacassar, which just goes to show how random even a language which is largely made up of bits of other words stuck together can be.)

The usually reliable Wikipedia speaks of an antilogy being an alternative term for a contranym (a word which means both itself and its own opposite (like the word dust, which can mean to put dust onto something, or to take it off)) but an antilogy is more often a contradiction in terms - that is, a phrase which contradicts itself, like independent colony, visible darkness, or delicious root beer.

(Yes, they are also called oxymorons, but it's usually kinder to call them antilogies, people being extremely sensitive to being associated in any way with the word moron.)

There. Antilogy.

So now we're all educated ignoramuses, aren't we?

Word To Use Today: antilogy. The Greek form of this word was antilogia. The English language pinched it in the 1600s.

Tuesday 11 August 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: an angashore.

The Irish love to talk - or so I've found whenever I've visited Ireland. One of the best comedy acts I've ever witnessed was on a long journey by taxi via the major traffic jams of Dublin.

Yes, on the whole the Irish enjoy their talk, and there's many a phrase, constructed with care and delivered with charm, to be savoured. I think they must take a chip off the Blarney Stone every so often, powder it finely, and put it in the water supply.

Anyway, all this is a preamble to presenting the Irish word angashore. An angashore is a miserable person given to complaining.

Now, there's nothing wrong with complaining - a bit of lively and outraged exasperation enlivens any gathering of friends - but the misery, quite frankly, we can largely do without. Everyone knows that the urge to let loose in that way is a mixture of egotism and sadism, anyway.

A problem shared may be a problem halved.

But a problem forgotten about is...


Thing Not To Be Today: an angashore. In Irish Gaelic this word is spelled ainniseoir. You say it (in English) ANGishor, the ANG as in fang, that is without a hard g.

Monday 10 August 2020

Spot the Frippet: pedal.

Where's the nearest pedal to you?

On a bike?

File:Bicycle diagram-en.svg
illustration by Al2

On a car?

File:Car pedals 20180814.jpg
photo by Santeri Viinamäki

On an organ (or a harp, or a drum kit)?

photo by Saberhagen

I thought that mine, rather sadly, was on one of these:

File:Brabantia Pedal Bin Decor Bayon 1972.JPG
photo by MrMattAnderson

But I realise now it's actually on one of these:

File:Piano pedals.jpg
photo by Arjun

And  how about the pedals on a pedalo?

File:Pedalo IMG 2877.JPG
photo by Rama

Or on a pedal steel guitar?

File:Fender 1000 pedal steel.jpg
photo by Zhyla, instrument by Fender

For those in whom engineering causes less than a sense of wonder, there are these pedal pushers:

File:Pedal pushers in SoHo.jpg
photo by Beyond My Ken

So with any luck we've all got something interesting to spot.

I do my best.

Spot the Frippet: pedal. This word comes from the Latin word pēs, foot.

Sunday 9 August 2020

Sunday Rest: antilog. Word Not To Use Today.

An antilog, despite appearances, isn't somewhere you discover too late is a disastrous place to have a picnic.

But if it were, I think I'd be rather fond of the word.

Sunday Rest: antilog. An antilog is not a log containing an ants' nest, but a mathematical term.

Because 10 x 10 x 10 (that is, three tens multiplied together) is a thousand, it means that the logarithm base 10 of a thousand is 3.

The antilog is the same thing the other way round: a thousand is the antilog of 3 to base ten.

Luckily for most of us this doesn't matter.

Anti- is Greek. The word logarithm (the long, seldom used, form of antilog is antilogarithm) was coined by John Napier (who could well have discovered them) from the Greek words logos, ratio or reckoning, and arithmos, number.

Saturday 8 August 2020

Saturday Rave: The Eagle, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

The most effective punches, I am told, don't travel very far. It's sometimes the same with writing.

(It does help if you're a poet of genius, of course.)

Alfred, Lord Tennyson...he didn't have a real middle name as far as I know, the Lord bit was a title he was pestered into accepting by the novelist Benjamin Disraeli, who was moonlighting as Prime Minister of Britain at the time...was born the son of a country clergyman just rich enough to have summer holidays in Skegness (which really isn't very rich at all). His father died when Alfred was at university at Cambridge, so Alfred had to leave without taking his degree. He had many years of struggling, but in the end he became poet laureate and very famous (and could only visit his house on the Isle of Wight in the winter because he kept being bothered by tourists).

Here's a very short, very clever, poem. It hangs around for ages doing nothing - and then it pounces.

There's much to admire, but how clever it is that at the start the reader is placed below the eagle, in the position of its prey.

As a poem, it's quite simply a knock-out.

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring'd with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
The watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Word To Use Today: eagle. This word comes from the Old French aigle, from the Old Provençal aigla, from the Latin aquila, a word which might have something to do with aquilus, which means dark. 

Friday 7 August 2020

Word To Use Today: semibold.

Semibold describes a typeface between medium and, yes, bold, but it's a lovely word which deserves to be used more widely. 

Semibold is painting your living room wall in a shade that doesn't involve the word white.

Semibold is trying the dish on the menu marked with a chilli.

Semibold is ordering the dress that might be a bit low at the back.

Semibold is taking the path that looks as if it might be a shortcut as long as it doesn't lead through the swamp.

Semibold is being the first on the dance floor.


Perhaps most of us should live our lives at semibold.

As for me, if I ever write a book about a slightly useless knight in shining armour, then I think I have his name.

Word To Use Today: semibold

Semibold type looks like this:

File:Lato typeface weights.svg

illustration by Stiegenaufgang

Semi- is Latin for half; bold comes from the Old English beald and is related to various Old Norse words including ballr, dangerous.

Thursday 6 August 2020

Taxing tax: a rant.

Fill in your tax form online, it said. It's quicker and easier.

Well, I'm not a complete fool: I ignored them for a decade or so, but then this year I decided the poor Government has enough to do and so I did decide to move online.

How long does the paper form take to fill in? 

About forty five minutes, including finding a stamp.

Online form?

Well, I started two weeks ago and spent four hours on it yesterday alone.

Still, it's all done, now. And, on the plus side, I've kept some tax-form people in jobs. But, good grief...

If you ask a question which begins If you were born before 1935...

then you can't require a YES/NO answer.

That's not tax law, that's logic. 

Or, as it used to be known, sense.


And I bet these tax-people get paid ten times more than children's writers do.

Ah well.

At least my job makes people happy.

Word To Use Today: tax. This word comes from the Old French taxer, and before that from the Latin tangere, to touch.

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Nuts and Bolts: the FFF System.

How do you measure things?

If you're in Britain then you'll use Imperial Measurements for some things (distance travelled in a car will be in miles, the height of a person will probably be in feet and inches) and SI units for many other things (recipes are now usually exclusively in grams and litres).

But there are many other systems in use around the world. A recipe from the USA will use measurements like cups and sticks (butter comes in sticks). Distances over the sea, measured in nautical miles, will depend on the length of an arc subtended by a degree of...something or other. I sort of understand it, but it would take too long to write it down. 

Astronomy's distances are measured by the distance travelled by a particle of light in an Earth year (and how long, now I come to think about it, is an Earth year? Is it always the same?). 

And what about the FFF system of units?

I love this system. It's basically throwing up one's hands in despair and acknowledging that, as all systems of measurements are awkward, then we might as well be silly about it.

The FFF system depends on the Fathom, the Firkin, and the Fortnight. A fathom is usually used to measure depth of water, and is a bit less than two metres; a firkin is a barrel, and its size will depend upon how big it is, but in the FFF system its contents weigh 90 pounds, or about 41 kilograms; and a fortnight, or two weeks, is in Britain the standard unit of summer holidays (no, not really).

Is the FFF system used, except as a joke?

Well, some computer systems use micro-fortnights (a micro-fortnight is very roughly a second or so) in places where it doesn't really matter; and the expression furlongs per fortnight, or firkins per fortnight, is used as an expression to mean any obscure unit.

Ah well. 

I suppose these scientists and computer programmers don't get an awful lot of fun.

Word To Use Today: fortnight. This is a term still commonly used in Britain to mean two weeks. It has nothing to do with computer games. The word comes from the Old English fēowertīene, fourteen days.

Tuesday 4 August 2020

Thing To Be Today: bewildered.

What happens when you get lost in the wilderness?

You become bewildered, of course.

The origin of the word bewilder is...well, bewildering, quite frankly, but be- means to surround completely, and wilder means to lead, or be led, astray, probably into the wilds.

(A wilderness, by the way, is a place of wild beasts: the word comes from Old English wildēor, wild beast. (Dēor, beast, and gave us the word deer:

photo by ForestWander (terrifying, isn't it?)))

The crucial two points to note: firstly, everyone in a wilderness is bewildered; and, secondly, everywhere is a wilderness.

So, if you feel pretty confident you know what's going on, then you're missing something.

Probably rather a lot, actually.

Thing To Be Today: bewildered. How about trying to think of something you definitely know? 

Monday 3 August 2020

Spot the Frippet: something viatical.

Viatical means to do with roads and journeys, and it also describes plants that grow by a roadside.

What will you find?

It'll often be plants that thrive in an atmosphere a little warmer than the surrounding countryside, and in soil a little less fertile (because the verges are very often made up of the stuff that was dug out to make the road). Quite often the plants will be wanderers, their seeds brought along the road in the slipstream of lorries, or perhaps unintentionally planted by picnickers.

What will you find?

Whatever it is, it'll be an immigrant, or at least a survivor, and worthy of study and respect.

Though not, necessarily, nurturing.

File:Roadside verge near Alderton - - 1382104.jpg
photo by Trish Steel

Spot the Frippet: something viatical. The Latin word viāticus means belonging to a journey.

A viatical settlement happens when a company buys the life-insurance of a terminally ill person.

Sunday 2 August 2020

Sunday Rest: maskne. Word Not To Use Today.

What is maskne?

Apparently it's an attack of facial spots caused by having to wear a mask.

I can see what they've done, there.

But, oh, I do so wish they hadn't.

Sunday Rest: maskne. Mask comes from the Italian maschera, and quite a long time before that from the Arabic maskharah, clown, from sakhira, mockery.

The Greek word akmē means, well, acne (or summit). The swap from the m to the n was originally a mistake

Saturday 1 August 2020

Staurday Rave: Lines on the Antiquity of Microbes by Strickland Gillilan.

There are many poems which ramble gloriously through the English language, but at the moment I'm more interested in the short stuff.

Strickland Gillilan's poem was composed in the early 1900s, and is also known by the alternative title Fleas.

I might as well quote it in full:


It's compact, it scans, it rhymes, it's funny, and it provides much matter for reflection.

Great stuff.

Word To Use Today: flea. The Old English form of this word was flēah: so presumably Edward the Confessor had them, too.