This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 30 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: threnody.

 A threnody is an song, poem or speech of lamentation, especially one for the dead.

The plural can be threnodies or threnodes, in which case you'd say it THRENohDAYS.

The word is Greek, and that's no surprise because the Greeks were always killing each other and then making up songs about it. They may have invented the idea of civilisation, but they seem to have stopped short before they got as far as a police force.

Anyway, threnody. Threnodies started in ancient times and go right on through the ages to nowadays. Popular music is full of them. 

Well, there's no easier way to look Deep, Caring, Artistic, and Significant than producing a lament.

Personally, though, give me a good old limerick every time.

Thing Probably Not To Inflict On People Today: threnody. The Greek word was thrēnōidia, from thrēnos, wailing, dirge, and ōidē, ode or song.

Tuesday 29 September 2020

Thing Perhaps Not To Be Today: a tartar.

 Tartar can be a deposit on the teeth, or in wine, but obviously none of us can be either of those. 

No, the sort of tartar that's relevant here is a person who keeps very strictly to the rules and is ferocious enough to make everyone else stick to the rules, too.

In the Olden Days it was hospital matrons who were especially known for being tartars, which was probably a good thing for infection control if not much conducive to comfort. The word tartar tends to be used in a grudgingly admiring way: tartars are a nuisance to everyone, but they're effective at making everything run really properly.

They're in charge, and everyone knows it.

I can't say that tartars were ever in fashion, exactly, but they're definitely out of fashion, now. Giving people orders is out of fashion: nowadays we make tend to make suggestions laced with emotional blackmail.

Is that a kinder way to proceed? 

Or is it reasonable to be resentful that our emotions aren't completely our  own business?

Thing Perhaps Not To Be Today: a tartar. The original Tartars, or Tatars, were the followers of Genghis Khan. He was throwing his weight around in Europe in the Middle Ages. (Some of their descendants still live in the Tatar region of Russia, but I'm sure they're all charming.) The word came to English from the Old French Tartare (the Tartars are said to have tenderised their raw steak by putting it under their saddles and riding about on it all day, which gives us the name of the raw meat dish steak tartare), from the Latin Tartarus (a word connected with the Underworld), from the Persian Tātār.

Monday 28 September 2020

Spot the Frippet: vaccine.

 No, I'm afraid a vaccine for the wretched Covid-19 is still over the horizon - but still, it's good to know that there are a lot of very clever people out there looking for it. Keep it up, folks.

And at least the word vaccine has an interesting derivation.

portrait by Pikaluk

Spot the Frippet: vaccine. This word came into use in the late 1700s and comes from the Latin variolae vaccinae, literally smallpox of the cow, which is the disease more commonly called cowpox. Inquiry into the Variolae Vaccinae Known as the Cow Pox is the title of a 1798 medical treatise by Edward Jenner. The Latin vacca means cow.

It had long been observed that people who milked cows didn't get the often fatal and often disfiguring disease smallpox, which in the eighteenth century killed ten per cent of the population of England. 

Other people before Jenner had used the pus from cow pox victims to prevent smallpox, but what Jenner did which was new was to prove the vaccination worked.

Unfortunately, the way he did it was rather appalling. He vaccinated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with cow pox pus. Then, six weeks later, Jenner injected the poor boy with smallpox. 

The boy survived, fortunately. In fact he was injected with smallpox twenty more times. At least he was later given for free the lease of the house in which he lived with his wife and children. 

He doesn't seem to have borne a grudge, bless him, because he went to Jenner's funeral.

Jenner is feted as the man who has saved more human lives than any other person.

So that's good, isn't it.

Sunday 27 September 2020

Sunday Rest: oeillade. Word Not To Use Today.

 French is a beautiful language - ask anyone French - but it does contain vowel sounds unknown and unsayable by rather a large proportion of the population of the Earth.

The French word oeil provides an example. It means eye, and it's sort of pronounced er-ee, said very fast and without sounding the r. Yes, a bit like that. But there's not much chance of your saying it in a way that's not going either to amuse or horrify a French person.

Oeil is not an English word (well, oeil-de-boeuf, is in the dictionary - it's a round window (it means literally bull's eye) - but it's easily ignored) but oeillade is English. It means a suggestive glance, and if you're not trying to be too French about it you say it errYARD.

But still, the expression suggestive glance is freely available.

And it's much, much, easier to say and spell.

Sunday Rest oeillade. This is French. The Latin for eye is oculus.

Saturday 26 September 2020

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

 The Shepherd's Calendar has been such a boon and a joy this year, when so many of us have been cooped up fretfully at home. It's been a lesson in the wonder of local treasures.

Clare's editor may have felt the same need for tranquility, for he cut a lot of the beginning of September, perhaps because it's about a whole variety of dishonest acts. My guess is that it didn't fit in with the idea of the harmonious country village he thought was going to be popular with the reading public.

But there are thieves everywhere. 

'Old Goody'...

...from young chickens drives away

The circling kite that round them flies

Waiting the chance to steal the prize

Hogs try through gates the street to gain

& steal into the fields of grain

From night's full prison comes the duck

Waddling eager through the muck

Squeezing through the orchard pales

Where morning's bounty rarely fails

Eager gobbling as they pass

Dewworms through the padded grass

Where blushing apples round and red

Load down the boughs and pat the head

Of longing maid that hither goes

To hang on lines the drying clothes

Who views them oft with tempted eye

& steals one as she passes bye.

What a fool Clare's editor was to cut those lines. Why, it describes almost literally a paradise.

Or a new Garden of Eden, anyway.

Garden of Eden by Paul de Vos and Jan Wildens

I mean, what could be more thought-provoking on the subject of religious morality than that?

Oh. I see.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: dewworm. There aren't very many English words with a double w, so we must value carefully all we have. A dewworm is a common earthworm: so much lovelier a name, isn't it, than earthworm, and for such important and useful little animals, too.

Friday 25 September 2020

Skirmish: Word To Use Today.


Cavalry skirmish by Pieter Snayers

Battles involve pride and utmost force, which are neither of them safe things to trust to human hands. 

A skirmish, on the other hand, is a test of strength which results in a decision not to bother with a battle. This may be because it's obvious who's going to win (which saves loss of face - possibly physical as well as metaphorical - on the potentially losing side) or it may because it's decided that the argument isn't worth so much effort.

Sometimes a skirmish fails to develop into a battle because one of the contestants recognises the opponent's right to hold a different opinion. But this is very rare.

Especially, it seems, nowadays.

Oh dear.

Still, it's a delicious word to say: skirmish, skirmish, skirmish...

Word To Use Today: skirmish. This word doesn't look it, but it comes from Old French, from eskirmir. Before that it was Germanic and is related to the Old High German word skirmen, which means to defend.

Thursday 24 September 2020

Purely decorative: a rant.

 Walking (in my mask) along the High Street of my local town I saw a sign in a shop bearing a picture of a plastic camel.

Above the picture it said:

Ornamental Decorations

Well, they're the best kind.

Word To Use Today: ornamental. This word arrived in English in the 1300s. It comes from the Latin ornāmentum, from ornāre, to adorn.

Wednesday 23 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: paradeigma.

 A paradeigma is a short story told to provide an example of good behaviour.

There are lots of examples in classical literature (obviously, which is why the Greeks had to come up with a name for it). In the Bible, parables are examples of paradeigmata

But they're still used by people to this day.

You don't hear the Queen moaning about having to wear heels.

You never saw Jason Statham in a toupee, did you?

Jack the Giant Killer didn't let the fact that he was an idiot stop him exploring.

In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if paradeigmata aren't the essential foundation of all discourse.

So if anyone's looking for a subject for their PhD...

Nuts and Bolts: paradeigmata. This word means pattern or example in Greek. It comes from paradeiknumi, to exhibit or represent, from para, beside or beyond, and deiknumi, to show.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Thing To Do Today: marinate something.

 The idea of a marinade is that you slop something vaguely runny all over something more solid, and then you leave it for a while so that the something solid soaks up the runny stuff.

A marinade was originally used for food, especially meat and fish, but nowadays it's not unknown for people to marinate themselves in sunscreen or moisturiser.

(I really don't think this lady is a cannibal.)

(It's got to be something that soaks in, or is supposed to soak in - you can't marinate yourself in water, or mud.)

Small children have a natural urge to try to marinate themselves in anything they can get their hands on, but this will only be tolerated happily by the most insanely besotted of parents.

I've just said that you can't marinate yourself in water. This is odd, because the word marinate looks very much as if it has some connection with the sea.

And it has, too.

Thing To Do Today: marinade something. This word came to English in the 1600s from France, and before that from the Spanish marinado, to pickle in brine. Before that it goes back to the Latin marīnus, from mare, which means sea.

Monday 21 September 2020

Spot the Frippet: marzipan.

 There are two types of marzipan that I know about.

There's the paste made of ground almonds, sugar and egg yolk (250g ground almonds, 125g of caster sugar, 125g icing sugar, one egg yolk. You just mix it all together):

You can make marzipan into sweets:

File:Marzipan (8311107161).jpg

photo by Aurelien Guichard

You can use it to make the balls on a simnel cake:

Decorated Simnel cake (14173161143).jpg

by James Petts from London.

And you can use it to separate the smooth royal icing from the crumbly bits of cake:

File:Slice of Christmas cake (16119184262).jpg

This is by James Petts, too.

Then there's the other kind of marzipan layer, which describes the middle-managers in a financial (or any other) institution. You know, the ones that stick things together okay, but who no one especially appreciates and that most people suspect are largely unnecessary, and who definitely don't add much pleasure to the process or polish to the final product. 

Well, you can at least see why it's called a marzipan layer, can't you.

Try not to get too annoyed spotting one near you.

Spot the Frippet: marzipan. This word came to English from German from the Italian marzapane. Before we had marzipan we had marchpane. It's the same stuff, but that word came from France. The word marzipan might be something to do with St Marcus.

There are a couple stories about the invention of marzipan, one is that it was first made in a bad harvest year in Italy when almonds were the only grain available, and there's also a lovely Estonian story about a pharmacist's apprentice called Mart. A city councillor got sick, and the pharmacist promised him a cure. But the pharmacist himself was ill and he was sneezing so much he kept blowing all his powders away, and so the task of making a cure fell to the apprentice Mart, who, knowing that he was going to have to taste the stuff himself to prove it wasn't poisonous, made sure it was delicious.

The mixture was therefore called Mart's bread (Mardileib in Estonian).

And they all lived happily ever after.

Sunday 20 September 2020

Sunday Rest: nife. Word Not To Use Today.

 One obvious reason why the word nife is unusable is that everyone will think you can't spell knife - and then they'll realise your sentence doesn't make sense and assume you've gone mad, as well.

But there are yet other reasons to eschew the word nife. For one, do you say it to rhyme with life, or mighty?

Even the dictionary isn't sure.

Then there's the fact that nife is a scientific term but doesn't look like a scientific term - and that it's made up of one Latin and one German word, and yet it looks like a simple English one.

If we're having to cope with complicated words like that, well, I think we should be getting the credit for it.

Sunday Rest: nife. Nife is the Earth's metallic core. It's named on the assumption that this core is made up of Nickel and Iron, which have  the chemical symbols Ni and Fe respectively.

Nickel is a sprite in German mythology, whose mischief is thought to be the reason no one could smelt copper from nickel ore. The Latin for iron was ferrum.

Saturday 19 September 2020

Saturday Rave: Long Time A Child, by Hartley Coleridge.

 Literature is littered with excellent writers who were brought up in houses that contained few books. But still they wrote.

Hartley Coleridge was the eldest son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. He was given access to some very fine libraries from the earliest age, he was taken to the very best cultural events, and kept company with the great poets of his time. He went to Oxford University.

But his alcoholism soon lost him the university job he was given after graduating, and after that he frittered away his life and his talents. Mind you, they were his life and his talents, so he was perfectly at liberty to do so. He never had any family to support.

How did he feel, himself, about all the opportunities he didn't take? 

Well, he wrote a sonnet to explain just that.


Long time a child, and still a child, when years

Had painted manhood on my cheek, was I, - 

For yet I lived like one not born to die;

A thriftless prodigal of smiles and tears,

No hope I needed, and I knew no fears.

But sleep, though sweet, is only sleep, and waking

I waked to sleep no more, at once o'ertaking

The vanguard of my age, with all arrears

Of duty on my back. Nor child, nor man,

Nor youth, nor sage, I find my head is grey

For I have lost the race I never ran:

A rathe December blights my lagging May;

And I am still a child, though I be old,

Time is my debtor for my years untold.


For I have lost the race I never ran...

...poor Hartley Coleridge died at the age of fifty two, supported at the last by an inheritance from his dead parents.

Word To Use Today: rathe. This means ripening early, or blooming early. The word in Old English was hrathe.

Friday 18 September 2020

Word To Use Today: nonage.

 Whereas a nonagenarian is a person who has reached the age of at least ninety, nonage describes someone who is legally too young to do something like marrying, or driving a car, or entering into a contract.

You say the word NOHnidge.

I don't know if the difference between the two meanings is annoying, or just completely charming.

But then a lot of things are like that.

Word To Use Today: nonage. The non- in nonagenarian comes from the Latin nōnāginta, which means ninety. The non- in nonage comes from the Latin nōn, which means not. Nonage came to English from the Old French nonaage. Age comes from the Latin aevum, which means age, but also lifetime or an eternity or just a long time, as in Dark Ages.

Thursday 17 September 2020

Life in The Old Dog: a rant.

 The election campaigns continue for the post of President of the USA. The candidates clearly have quite different personalities, but neither of them is in the first flush of youth, and it's only to be expected that this will be used as a weapon.

Let's face it, everything possible is going to be used as a weapon.

As this is the case, in a way I wasn't surprised to see this headline in the Telegraph newspaper online:

The Moment Kamala Harris Turned On Joe Biden

As I said, I can see why Mr Biden's followers wish him to appear youthful and vigorous in appetite. 

Though I'm not sure what that's got to do with being a good president, all the same.

Words To Use Today: turn on. Attack, or cause to feel physical yearning? 

Another lovely contranym! 

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: lipography

 A lipogram (as opposed to lipography) is a piece of writing where one or more letters or other symbols has been deliberately left out.

A whole novel, for example, has been written without the use of the letter E. It's called Gadsby, came out in 1939, and is by Ernest Vincent Wright. No, I don't know why he wrote it. I don't honestly know why anyone would want to read it, either. It must be ingenious, though.

Anyway, lipography is something different, because that's where a letter or syllable is left out by accident.

We will all regularly come across (and sometimes provide ourselves) examples of lipography

My ant gave me a scar for my birthday.

I've a novelist's eye for an elegant stye.

He sang happily as he tiled the field.

Still, now we can attach a posh word to it, can't we.

Thing To Spot Today: lipography. This word is Ancient Geek. It comes from the word leipein, to omit, and graphein, which is to do with writing.

Tuesday 15 September 2020

Thing To Do Today: manducate.

 Manducating doesn't involve getting information into the head of an adult male human.

If it did, I wouldn't be advising people to do it: adult male humans, as they may have informed you, know more or less everything already.

No, to manducate means to eat. To chew, especially. Food, glorious food, dissolving into sweet juices in your mouth: toffee, crackling, rye bread, fennel, steak, pizza...

...the more you manducate it, the longer you get to enjoy it.

File:Juan de Flandes - The Marriage Feast at Cana - WGA12055.jpg

The Marriage Feast at Canaan by Juan de Flandes. (It's not just wine that's run short, is it. No wonder everyone looks so miserable!)

File:Georg Flegel - Still Life - A Prosperous Past.jpg

That's better! This picture's by Georg Flegel.

Bon appetit!

Thing To Do Today: manducate. This word comes from the Latin word mandūcāre, to chew. It's not the sort of word you can use out loud without appearing to show off, but it can still give a certain amount of quiet internal satisfaction.

Monday 14 September 2020

Spot the Frippet: mansion.

Some of the new flats being built in the cities of the Far East are the size of a parking space. I suppose they must be cozy, and they are by all accounts ingeniously designed, but they can't have the visual impact of a mansion.  

File:Bletchley Park Mansion.jpg

Bletchley Park, England, photo by DeFacto

A mansion would be too big for me, personally - how could one find excuses to put off self-invited guests? - but what fun it is to imagine what they're like inside:

File:The Haunted House Das Geisterhaus (5360049608).jpg

The Haunted House (Die Geisterhaus) photo by Harald Hoyer

 and what fun, too, to be scornful of some of the architecture:

photo by Stilfehler - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Come to think about it, I lived in mansion, once. Well, in one room of it. It was Tudor, with a Georgian wing. There were holes in the floor of my room covered up by the ancient lino, so that when I got out of bed in the mornings I would sink down three inches towards the ground floor. The bathroom was freezing, too. 

But still, it's fun to look.

File:Burwell house.JPG

The Burwell House, Minnesota. Photo by Ashwin Asokan

Isn't it!

File:Hope End Mansion 1873.jpg

This mansion was called, believe it or not, Hope End.

Spot the Frippet: mansion, This word comes from the Old French from the Latin word mansio, which means a remaining, from mansus, which means dwelling, from manēre, to stay.

Sunday 13 September 2020

Sunday Rest: algorithm. Word Not To Say With A Sneer Today.

 The schools have mostly been shut here in Britain since March (though they've opened, now). As a consequence of this, public exams didn't take place.

This meant that some other method had to be used to assess the children's abilities.

There were several sensible ways of doing this, but what was decided upon was to use data from various sources to get a likely result. This led to some children getting lower grades than they expected or wanted or needed or deserved, and this in turn led to a huge outcry and a hasty retraction. 

In the end teacher's assessments were used to award grades. This very conveniently showed that this year's children are much much cleverer than any other year's have ever been.


The way grades were originally calculated was by an algorithm, and such was the outrage at the results that now you hardly hear the word algorithm being spoken without a sneer. It's as if an algorithm were some kind of evil spell. Actually, I think lots of people do think an algorithm is an evil spell. But it's not.

An algorithm is a set of mathematical rules designed to be applied to data. For example, if you wanted to know how many feet the children in all the classes of a school have you might say: take the number of children in each class and multiply by two.

It's not perfect, but it'll generally give you more or less the right answer.

If you said take the number of children in each class and multiply by a hundred then it won't give you anything like the right answer. But it's not because algorithms don't work, it's because that one is rubbish.

Yes, thank you, I feel better, now.

Please do feel free to sneer at the sneerers.

Sunday Rest: algorithm. Word Not To Say With A Sneer. This word used to be algorism, but it got changed to algorithm because, well, arithmetic has got a th in it. The word algorithm started off as al-Khwarizmi, who was the scholar who introduced the Hindu system of numbers to the Muslim world, which system later came to the West and is the one we use now.

Saturday 12 September 2020

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

 Yes, sorry, I am a bit late posting this account of Autumn. I got carried away with Very Short Poems and found myself in September before I knew it.

Ah well.

John Clare and Thomas Hardy were both poets of Man-in-Nature, and if they were alive today then...well, they might both be estate agents for all I know, but they'd both have been brilliant film-directors. Hardy quite often gives us a panning shot that swoops in to a close-up; and for an establishing sequence there's no one anywhere to beat Clare anywhere.

Here's the beginning of August:

Harvest approaches with its busy day

The wheat tan brown & barley bleaches grey

In yellow garb the oat land intervenes

& tawny glooms the valley thronged with beans.

Silent the village grows - wood wandering dreams

Seem not so lonely as its quiet seems

Doors are shut up as on a winters day

& and not a child about them lies at play

The dust that winnows neath the breezes feet

Is all that stirs about the silent street

Fancy might think that desert spreading fear

Had whispered terrors into quiets ear



I think that Clare's August film might have turned out to be a Western...

Word To Use Today: winnow. The Old English form of this word was windwian. It means both to blow, and to separate the grain from the tiny bits of dry leaf that surrounds it. Clever.

Friday 11 September 2020

Word To Use Today: manes.

 You might see manes (MAYNZ) in a herd:

File:Wildlife (Horses in France).jpg

photo by Fitindia

or a pride:

File:Lion d'Afrique.jpg

photo by Clément Bardot

but on the other hand if you say the word MARnis or MARnayz then you'll only see them somewhere haunted, because they are the ghosts of dead people (who were sometimes, in Roman times, minor gods).

But on the other hand (if you have three hands) and you say the word MARNeez then you're talking about the Persian prophet usually called Mani who founded Manichaeism.

Sometimes I wonder if writing as a system is all it's cracked up to be.

Word To Use Today: manes. The animal hair word was manu in Old English. The ghost-word comes from Latin and probably means the good ones, from mānus, good. 

Thursday 10 September 2020

The trouble with goats: a rant.

I had an email from Boots the Chemist the other day. The title window said:

Need a hand rebooting your goats?

I must admit I was somewhat taken aback. I have no goats. Not only that, but I had no idea they needed to be provided with footwear on a regular basis.

Then I read it again, and found that it actually said:

Need a hand rebooting your goals?

Well, I suppose I do have goals. 

But on the whole the headline made more sense the first time.

Word To Use Today: goal. This word might be connected with the Middle English word gol, which means boundary. There's an Old English word gǣlan, too, which means to hinder or impede, which might have something to do with it.

Wednesday 9 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: Chewbacca defense.

 I must begin by saying that Chewbacca did nothing wrong. 

The term Chewbacca defense is, as you'll be able to tell from the spelling, an American one. It originates in a 1998 episode of the cartoon series South Park, where the defense attorney deliberately tries to confuse the jury by focusing his argument on an irrelevant circumstance. In this case, it's why Chewbacca would want to live on Endor with the much smaller Ewoks. The defense attorney says that this does not make sense, and for this reason the jury must acquit the defendant.

What's Chewbacca got to do with it? Not a lot.

This episode of South Park was satirising the trial of OJ Simpson. A glove had been found at the scene of the murder which may have been dropped by the murderer. The glove didn't fit OJ Simpson, and therefore, the defense attorney argued, OJ Simpson couldn't be the murderer. The punch-line was 'If it doesn't fit, you must acquit'.

Most matters of logical argument were dissected several centuries or millennia ago and tend to have names in learned tongues, so it's rather sweet to have this one named by a cartoon show after a character in a Sci-Fi film series.

Well, it's either sweet or completely appalling.

And what happened in the trial of OJ Simpson? 

Well, no jury could possibly fall for such a trick.

Could it?

Word To Use Today: Chewbacca. Although Chewbacca sounds like chew tobacco, and even though in French the character was originally named Chiktaba because it sounded more like the French tabac à mâcher, or chewing tobacco, in fact the name derives from sobaka, which is the Russian word for dog. (George Lucas had a very hairy upright dog who inspired the character of Chewbacca.)

Tuesday 8 September 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: frayed.

 Are your nerves frayed? Have they been worn by friction until they're bare and vulnerable like the threads of a pair of ancient jeans (or a brand new pair, if you're into high fashion).

It's a horrible thought.

Still, what to do about it?

Some people turn to drugs of various kinds; some to exercise; some to religion. Some knit, some read, some have long hot baths. Some fish, some watch birds. Some paint pictures, some paint ceilings. Some raise dahlias, some raise pigeons. Some chat, some retreat into silence.

The principle seems to be to find a space where you fit without any bits of you rubbing on the edges.

I'm off to a (fictional) land populated by dragons.

Where's the place where you can stretch tall?

Thing Not To Be Today: frayed. This word came to England in the 1300s from the French frayer, to rub, from the Latin fricāre.

Monday 7 September 2020

Spot the Frippet: Frippet.

 Oh dear, I seem to have mistakenly posted today's post last week.

Ah well. Perhaps it's time to come back to the very first Spot the Frippet, which was, um, a frippet.

A frippet, in case you've never wondered, is a flamboyant or frivolous young woman. Some say she has to be pretty to be a frippet, but then the young are almost always beautiful.

File:11 women and a little girl lined up for bathing beauty contest.png

Yes: great fun to spot!

Spot the Frippet: a frippet. This word sounds like something from the 1700s: lawksamercy what a malapert frippet! but it's actually a twentieth century word. No one knows where it came from, but I would guess that the word frippery can't be too distant a relation.

Sunday 6 September 2020

Sunday Rest: techy.

 Sometimes, through no fault of their own, words need to fade away. It's sad, but their presence is just causing too much confusion.

Such a word is techy when it means irritable. Luckily we can write it tetchy, and then the problem of confusing it with the word techy which means someone with technical knowledge disappears.

For those feeling sorry for the first techy, which was, after all, here first, I can only suggest a compromise where the technical techies move exclusively to the alternative spelling techie.

That must be fair to all parties.

There is probably someone out there wondering why on earth I imagine that a word might have feelings to hurt - and I must admit that I am, too - but still, I feel less worried, now.

It's just a slight pity that if the person on the Technical Help phone line proves to be a bit irritable we can't call him a techy techy, that's all.

Sunday Rest: techy. The bad-tempered techy comes from tetch, which used to mean defect. The Old French tache means spot.. The Greek word tekhnē means art or skill.

Saturday 5 September 2020

Saturday Rave: No One by Diana Wynne Jones.

This short story appears in a collection called Warlock at the Wheel and other stories.

No One is set in the year 2084, and our eponymous hero is a robot whose task is to look after the child Edward, the young son of Mrs Barbara Scantion MP. No One is well-meaning, but unfortunately all the machines in the house, also fully equipped with what we presently call AI, are out to get him.

This exchange with the washing machine is still making me laugh after thirty years. No One is trying to unload the washing, which the washing machine has plaited together.

'What is this? I put in seven pairs of socks. I see fifteen socks in this twist, and five of them are odd ones. How is this done?'

'Us clothes washers have always done that,' said the machine. 'It takes real skill.'

This is a story full of jokes and crammed with creative energy. Highly recommended.

Word To Use Today: sock. In Old English socc meant a light shoe. The Greek word was sukkhos.

Friday 4 September 2020

Word To Use Today: fecula.

 I love the way words accumulate meanings. They're rolling stones but as they go along they actually do gather moss, to the extent that sometimes when you come across one it's like being greeted by a man who hasn't shaved since before lock-down, and you're left wondering who he is.

The word fecula started off in Roman times describing the crust you sometimes get on the bottom of a very old, very expensive, bottle of wine. 

From there - and here the rolling stone must have hit something which made it divert unexpectedly, though what it was I do not know, perhaps a tortoise, possibly the foot of some reflective poet - it came to mean the kind of starch you can get from crushing plants such as potatoes.

And from there, bafflingly, it took another swerve, possibly caused by an impact with the cauldron of some newt-searching witch, and it came to mean poo, and particularly insect poo.

As I say, I'm not sure how it happened, but it's put me right off paying several hundred pounds for a bottle of wine, I can tell you. 

Word To Use Today: fecula. This word is Latin, and comes from faex, which means sediment.

Spot the Frippet: neb.

 This is a Scots or Northern English word. It can mean peak, as in a hill or a cap:

Nanda Devi at dusk. Photo: By Sumod K Mohan - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

File:Metropolitan Police peaked cap front.jpg

photo by Canley

or the beak or a bird:

File:Hawfinch with a blue beak.jpg

photo of a hawfinch by Andreas Overland

or the snout of an animal:

l:File:Tapir anta.JPG

tapir, photo by Piotr29109s

or the nose of a person:

File:Cyrano de Bergerac02.jpg

or, in fact, a projecting part of more or less anything.

A neb is so easy to spot that perhaps we should be trying to spot someone wearing a peaked hat pulled down over his or her nose standing on the top of a hill.

With a dog:

photo by Eugene0126jp

Spot the Frippet: neb. This word comes from the Old English nebb and is related to the German word Schnabel.

Thursday 3 September 2020

Slavery: a rant.

 Someone in Authority (people are blaming each other, so we don't know exactly who) has banned the singing of the songs Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the annual series of London concerts known as The Proms.

The reason given is that someone (again, the blame is being passed around) objected to the connection between the songs and slavery.

Land of Hope and Glory begins: 

Land of hope and glory

Mother of the free.

and I would have thought that the word free explicitly ruled out slavery. 

And you know what? That's because it does.

Rule Britannia! is a song from an opera by Thomas Arne. The opera is about King Alfred, aka Alfred the Great, and his leading of the fight against some invading Danes. This song does mention slavery because the chorus goes Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves! Britons never never never shall be slaves!

One verse goes:

To thee belongs the rural reign,

Thy cities shall with commerce shine;

All thine shall be the subject main,

And every shore it circles, thine.

But, as anyone can see, saying that every shore that's circled by the subject main (that is, Britannia's sea) shall be Britannia's just means no one's going to invade us successfully.

Which seems fair enough.

Still, I can understand the uneasiness about the singing of these two songs. Rule Britannia! does include the word slave; and Land of Hope and Glory does express the hope that the Land of the Free might become wider and mightier (though which land this might be isn't specified, except that it's the land of the free, which means...but I've already said this). Unfortunately there are, clearly, people of such low levels of intelligence that just the inclusion of a word makes them think that a work must be expressing an opinion in its favour (but also the opposite, as in the case of Land of Hope and Glory).

The worrying thing is that such utter dunderheads should be in a position of any influence at all.

Word To Sing Today: free. The Old English form of this word is frēo, and it has ancestors going right back to the Sanskrit priya, which means dear.

UPDATE September 2nd: the BBC has relented: Rule Britannia! and Land of Hope and Glory will be sung, after all. Alleluya!

Wednesday 2 September 2020

Nuts and Bolts: code-switching.

 Here's a fashionable idea.

Code-switching is what happens when people change their accents or their vocabulary in order to fit in with their company.

There are those who claim that feeling obliged to code-switch, or gaining an advantage if they do, is a sign of oppression.

Sometimes, of course, they're quite right: but the slope from its-being-a-courtesy-to-others-to-imitate-their-ways to being-forced-to-reject-your-own-culture is a long and slippery one.

Even so, there are some universal principles that probably apply. Deliberately not fitting in with a group may be a sign that you aren't going to be an easy person to have as a friend, relation, or colleague - especially if it means that other people have to make a special effort to understand you.

As for the oppression of being obliged to code-switch, well, as a novelist I'd say that we code-switch to some extent with every single individual we meet. We even code-switch with the same person at different times of day: sentences spoken before breakfast are likely to be shorter, and simpler, to the extent where they may not even be sentences at all.

Notice how often you code-switch today. 

And then see how oppressed you feel each time, on a scale, perhaps, of one to ten.

It won't solve anything, but it might be interesting.

Thing To Notice Today: code-switching. The word code comes from the Latin word cōdex, which means tree trunk, wooden block, or book.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Thing To Be Today: miffed.

 In a world where people are totally devastated by small things - a missed penalty at football, or the use of a non-fashionable word - I rather long for the Olden Days, when we just tended to be miffed.

Those were the days when a disappointment engendered a snort, an expletive, a small tantrum,  a frown, or an angry word. And then people over it.

I realise this makes me a heartless brute. 

Except...I don't's possible that people might be happier if their usual reaction is to be miffed (that is, transiently annoyed) than if they are totally devastated.

It might be worth trying, anyway, the next time something doesn't go quite your way.  

Thing To Be Today: miffed. This word appeared in the 1600s says my Collins dictionary (though other sources put its origin in the early 1800s). It's not certain where the word came from, but it might be close in sound to a snort.