This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 31 October 2020

Saturday Rave: This living hand, by John Keats.

 Just to prove that Halloween doesn't have to be all orange plastic and disease-inducing snacks:

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calm'd - see here it is - 

I hold it towards you.

John Keats, who is now acknowledged as one of the greatest poets in the English language, died in 1821 at the age of twenty four, largely unappreciated.

His birthday seems to have been on October 31st; but as far as I know all his haunting has been done, not through his hand, but through his pen.

Word To Use Today: grasp. This word comes from the Low German grapsen.

Friday 30 October 2020

Word To Use Today: wigwam.

 This is a wigwam:

Ojibwe wigwam. Painting by Paul Kane 1846

Please note the domed roof. They're also called wickiup, wetu (that's the Wampanoaq term) or wiigiiwaam (which is how you write it in the Ojibwe language). 

People tend to say wigwam in the North East of the USA and wickiup in the South West. 

People used to live in wigwams full-time, though nowadays they're only really used for ceremonial purposes and by people who like being solitary.

A wigwam is perhaps eight feet across, made with a frame of saplings lashed together. A wigwam will usually have a central hole for smoke to escape, and is covered with leaves or mats or hides. A wigwam might have grass beds inside, and are said to be snug even in snowy weather (though I find this hard to believe).

Best of all, when a wigwam gets a bit old and grubby and past repair, you can burn it and erect a new one in the same place, using the same holes to hold the poles steady, in about three days.

Obviously this system entirely does away with the concept of Spring Cleaning, which can only be A Good Thing.

(While I'm here: a tepee, strictly speaking, has straight sides and is more temporary, and possibly even portable; but the word wigwam is quite often used for both types of dwelling.)

Although wigwams aren't lived in, much, anymore, similar buildings called aqal are used by nomadic Somali people. In Britain, wigwams are sometimes constructed by New Age travellers. These tend to be covered in plastic tarpaulins, and called bender huts.

Word To Use Today: wigwam. This word comes from the Abnaki and Massachuset wīkwām, which means their abode.

Thursday 29 October 2020

Transparently obvious: a rant.

 Hey, what's with all this transparently obvious stuff people keep mentioning?

I mean, if it's transparent then obvious is the last thing it is.


(Sorry, couldn't find a picture that showed anything...)

Word To Use Sensibly Today: transparent. The Latin version of this word was transpārēre, to show through, from trans-, across, through, beyond, and pārēre, to appear.

Wednesday 28 October 2020

Nuts and Bolts: F ligatures.

 Have you ever noticed how some fonts miss out the dot over the letter i?

No, I don't expect you have (unless you read a language like Turkish, where the distinction between an i with a dot and one without is important).

But you'll have seen loads of i s (or ies, if you prefer) without dots, all the same.

They come after f s.

In the font used on The Word Den it doesn't happen - look - 


- see? the dot is there, though it's squashed up against the end of the hood of the f. But quite often the letters f and i together will be one joined letter with a slightly rounder end of the hood which forms the dot of the i.

Like this:

Font by Claude Garamond. The letters after the Qu are old-fashioned long esses.

Letters have been joined by ligatures almost as long as there has been writing. It makes writing quicker, and it makes printing with movable type quicker, too.

The f ligatures are especially interesting because they fell out of fashion when word-processing first started in the twentieth century because there was no typewriter key to make them, and the machines didn't have the processing power to think of putting them in automatically.

Now, however, computers have caught up, and we're getting them back again.

I know they are only really matters of beauty. But I'm very glad to see them, all the same.

Thing To Spot Today: one with an fl or an ff or an fi in it. If you're lucky you might be able to find it in a book printed before 1970 or so, and you can admire the ligature.

Tuesday 27 October 2020

Thing Not To Do Today: bound.

 Did you bound from your bed this morning with a cry of joy and enthusiasm?

You did?


How annoying that must have been for everyone else in your household.

Ah well.

There are four kinds of bound - the jumping kind, the tied-up kind, the direction kind (as in homeward bound) and the edges-of-an-area bound (as in beating the bounds, or boundary).

I suppose it would be just about possible with bound arms to bound over the bounds of a town while homeward bound, but that wouldn't make it a good thing.

In any case, the tied-up kind of bound is a part of the verb to bind, so that's cheating.

I suppose the jumping kind of bounding is all right if you're a young dog or a deer or something. Or possibly a small child newly released from a car or a buggy or a classroom. But for the rest of us...

...I don't know, though. It might make the world a livelier place. Think of old ladies bounding merrily to church, or the business-men bounding determinedly along to their offices in the city, or policemen bounding heavily along the streets.

Think of everyone bounding around supermarkets and cafes (you'd have to stick your cup to your tray, though).

I fear this isn't practical. But still, I can dream. Just one day a year, perhaps. October 27th: National Bounding Day.

It would make the world a happier place.

Thing To Do Today: bound. This word comes from the Middle French bondir, to rebound or resound or to echo, from the Old French bondir to jump, from the Latin bombus, a booming sound.  It's also connected to the word bomb.

Monday 26 October 2020

Spot the Frippet: echelon.

 This word is usually encountered in the phrase the upper echelons, meaning the people in charge, or the people who think they are in charge, or the people who fancy they should be in charge.

This may be anyone from a general to a politician to a bishop to a teacher to someone whose great-aunt's father was a baronet.

It's a useful phrase because you know anyone who uses it is best avoided immediately and forever.

Some of us will see people from these upper echelons daily, but luckily there are other things which come in echelons.

The echelon I'm mostly likely to see is one of these:

By Hamid Hajihusseini -, CC BY 3.0,

though the echelon I see will consist of Canada geese rather than the cranes in the photograph.

But in some places you may see this kind of an echelon:

photo: United States Air Force, Alaska

You sometimes get the same effect in an auditorium where everyone wants to get a good view of the stage...

...though you probably won't be seeing that this year.

Ah well. We'll hope for 2021 for that one, then.

Spot the Frippet: an echelon. This word comes from the French échelon, which is the rung of a ladder, from the Latin scala, which means ladder.

Sunday 25 October 2020

Sunday Rest: unsame. Word Not To Use Today

Unsame your ceiling!

urges the paint company Craig and Rose.

Unsame it?

You mean...change it?

Repaint it?

Renovate, update, transform, or restyle it?

It's fine to make up a new word if you need to sell something (not that Craig and Rose do need to make up a new word) but for heavens' sake make up one that makes your product sound attractive.


What do you think of our new kitchen?

Um, well, I suppose it's...unsame.

It's enough to make one's host spit in the soup.

I'll give you flipping unsame.

Word Not To Use Today: unsame. The word same goes right back through Old Norse sami and Greek homos to the Sanskrit sama.

Saturday 24 October 2020

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

 Why do people write stuff?

Milton said Fame is the spur - and one must assume that, for him, that it was. Dorothy L Sayers describes a need to capture a thought or feeling on paper. 

Money is important, naturally (even poets can't live on air); and there's also the satisfaction of making something; and the generous desire to share a story; and the need to know what's going to happen next; and a love for your characters.

There are other, personal motives, too, of course, like I'll show'em; and there's also the joy of exploration; but underpinning all this is (often) a need to work out the truth and then say it.

The inly pleased tho solitary boy

Journeying & muttering oer his dreams of joy

Haunting the hedges for the wilding fruit

Of sloe or black berry just as fancy's suit

The sticking groups in many a ragged set

Brushing the woods their harmless loads to get

& gipseys camps in some snug shelterd nook

Were old lanes like the pasture brook

Run crooked as they will by wood & dell

In such lone spots as these wild wood roamers dwell

On commons were no farmers claims appear

Nor tyrant justice rides to interfere

This is the truth: a solitary boy mutters (perhaps he is mentally ill); the people gathering sticks are ragged and poor; gypsies need shelter from the cold; the legal enclosure by farmers of land long available to help poor people survive is the act of a tyranny.

But that's not any kind of truth the grand people who are going to be buying The Shepherd's Calendar are going to want to hear, so it needs changing. 

Forward with the editorial pen! 

The solitary boy is now journeying in rapture o'er their dreams of joy (much more romantic); the ragged groups vanish (unattractive); gypsies now merry...o'er their raptures dwell; and no farmer ever arrives, sheltered by the Law, to banish poor folk from the land.

I don't know how John Clare felt about these editorial changes, but he carried on writing all his life, whether published or not.

A brave man, John Clare, and as honest as he was allowed to be.

Poor man.

Word To Use Today: tyranny. The very first tyrants in Ancient Greece were just the people in charge, but for some reason their reputation was very soon darkened. The Greek word for a tyrant was turannos.

Friday 23 October 2020

Word To Use Today: zucchetto.

 Once you know that the skull cap worn by various dignitaries of the Roman Catholic church (and colour-coded according to rank) is properly called a zucchetto, then I'm afraid it does make it slightly harder to take some important people entirely seriously.

Word To Use Today: zucchetto. This is basically the same word as zucchini (these are the vegetables we in Britain call courgettes). The word zucchetto comes from the Italian zucca, which means gourd or head, from the Latin cucutia, and probably before that from cucurbita.

photo by Chiswick Chap 

Thursday 22 October 2020

Omniscience: a rant.

 In some ways you have to blame the scientists.

We use the scientific method, they say, and that's the best and only certain way to discover the truth about the universe.

Now, in a way that's true (assuming there is such a thing as truth). But the statement above is still wrong.

It comes in the first two words: we use.

Scientific method takes you from a point of understanding A to a point of understanding B, and proves it by both logic and experiment. 

There's nothing wrong with that. You don't even have to be able to fit Point A onto other stuff you know. That doesn't necessarily make the science wrong, or not useful.

On the other hand, if you ask a scientist what will happen when you're dealing with an entirely new event - ooh, let's take as an example an outbreak of a new virus - then he or she will naturally not be sure of the way from any Point A to Point B, and so what he or she does isn't going to be science.

It'll just be the best-informed guess anyone can make, based on stuff that is science. In that case we aren't following science; we're following scientists.

And if everyone just recognised that, then perhaps we'd could all stop shouting at each other and get together to work out our best bet for survival.

Word To Contemplate Today: omniscience. Omni- means all or everywhere, from the Latin omnis, all. -science comes from the Latin scīre, to know.

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Nuts and Bolts: the Massachusetts ꝏ


This is the title page of The Whole Holy His-Bible God, both Old Testament and also New Testament. This turned by the servant-of-Christ, who is called John Eliot.

John Eliot wanted to convert the native people of Massachusetts to Christianity, and to do that he decided they should have a complete version of the bible in their own language - in particular in the Natick dialect of those people who lived around him. He didn't speak Natick, and in fact Natick had never been a written-down language, but he set to work and managed to translate the whole Bible in about fourteen years. He was even sensible enough to enlist the help of Cockenoe, John Sassamon, Job Nesuton, and James Printer, who did actually speak the Natick dialect of Massachusett.

One thing John Eliot did was to introduce a new letter, 

to reproduce the long oo sound of the word food, as opposed to the short oo of the word hook (although John Eliot seems to have used the two different ways of writing these sounds interchangeably).

Sadly, the Natick language is no longer spoken in America, but since the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project began in the year 2000 the double oo ligature: 

has been used, though turned on its side so it can be typed as a figure 8.

Yes, this story of dedication and eccentricity is completely useless information for almost all of us.

But it's a precious thing, all the same.

Thing To Wonder At Today: the Massachusetts 

Tuesday 20 October 2020

Thing To Be not Do Today: fast.

So, what's the connection between fasting, as in not eating for a period of time, and being fast, as in Usain Bolt?

Um...well...they're spelled the same way...the other links might be older than the English language itself.

Anyway, while fast, as in not eating, has hardly changed its meaning for a thousand years, fast, as in moving quickly, has sprouted in all sorts of interesting ways. If you think about it, a door that's fast is very difficult to get to move at all, let alone quickly; someone who is fast seeks constant pleasure, but they might not move very far - and probably not at any sort of speed - in order to find it; a colour that's fast is staying the same and not going anywhere; and neither is someone who's fast asleep. A fast talker is probably playing fast and loose and pulling a fast one; and at archery a cry of fast! means stop!

But as I say, the roots of all this mess started a long long time ago.

Thing To Be Or Do Today: fast. The modern word that gives some clue about this divergence of meaning is steadfast, because fast started off in Old English as fæst, which meant firmly fixed, enclosed, strong, a word which probably goes right back to the Sanskrit word pastyam, which means dwelling place. From the idea of a strong runner, fast came to mean quick (though this didn't happen until the mid 1550s); and from the idea of a strong will, or strong discipline came the idea of not eating.

Monday 19 October 2020

Spot the Frippet: enzyme.

 Okay you can't actually point to something and say Look! An enzyme! But then you can't point upwards and say Look! A sky! either, can you, but you still know it's there.

(I'm making the assumption that the sky hasn't fallen where you are, despite the constant predictions of the twenty-four-hour news media.)

Anyway, enzymes. You get them in biological washing powders and dish-washing stuff. They eat dirt if the dirt has come something alive, and you don't even need very hot water for it to work. They're used in meat tenderisers, too. They're wonderful things, enzymes, and that's even before you consider that they are keeping you alive.

Yes, you contain thousands of enzymes, and if even one of them is missing or a bit dodgy then it can cause really serious problems. You need enzymes to operate at every level. Every living cell in your body relies on them to send signals. They help your muscles contract and your gut digest food. Sometimes missing enzymes can be replaced: for instance, someone lactose intolerant can take some tablets containing the lactase enzyme and, hey presto!

Without enzymes there'd be no naturally-occurring alcohol. Fireflies wouldn't shine. Cows couldn't eat grass. There's be no cheese, biscuits, clear fruit juice - and your contact lenses would be really itchy and dirty.

Let's make today a day to appreciate them.

Illustration: crystal structure of bovine chymotripsin by 

Spot the Frippet: enzymes. This word was coined by Wilhelm Kühne. He got the word from the Greek enzumos, which means risen (as in bread).

Sunday 18 October 2020

Sunday Rest: nocturn. Word Not To Use Today.

 To be honest, I think it unlikely that many of us were even thinking of using the word nocturn today.

We might know that a nocturne (with an e) is a work of art giving some impression of the night (or it can be a ripply dream-like piano piece); and we might know that a noctule is a night-flying bat; and that something nocturnal is active at night; and, given all that, we can probably take a guess that the word nocturn is something to do with the night-time.

And we'd be quite wrong.

nocturn is any of the sections of the Roman Catholic church service called matins.

Yes, that's matins as in morning service. From the Latin mātūtīnus, which means of the morning. From Mātūta, goddess of the dawn.

Personally, I think that's just perverse.

Sunday Rest: nocturn. This word comes from the Latin word nox, which means night. (The service of matins can be very early indeed in some religious communities, but I'm afraid that's just transferring the essential difficulty elsewhere.)

Saturday 17 October 2020

Saturday Rave: Finch and Frog by Wilhelm Busch

 In search of something new, I put "German comic poet" into Google, and thus discovered Wilhelm Busch.

Wilhelm Busch had a rather typical poet's life - unhappy childhood - giving up respectable studies for the Arts - early writing ignored - illness - writing banned for attacking Authority - alcoholism - failed loves - failure to live independently - death.

Still, his death came at the age of seventy five, and he made some money, so he wasn't as tragic as all that.

Here's one of his comic poems. It must have been translated by an American, but I'm afraid I don't know who it was.

NB: it doesn't adhere to the English concept of pure comedy, which requires a happy ending.

The finch trills in the apple tree

His: Tirilee!

A frog climbs slowly up to him

Up to the treetop's leafy rim

And puffs right up and croaks "Hallooo,

Ol' chum: see, I can do it too!"

And as the bird his song of spring

So sweetly to the world did sing,

The frog chimes in with sassy tones

And interjects his bassy drones.

The finch exclaims "Oh Joy, hurray!

I'll fly away!"

And springs into the azure sky.

"Hah!" crows the frog, "Well so kin I!"

He makes a most ungainly bound

And splats onto the bare hard ground.

He's pancake flat, and that's no joke:

He's croaked his very final croak.

If someone climbs laboriously

Into the branches of a tree

And thinks himself a bird to be

Wrong is he.


The veil between comedy and tragedy is sometimes translucent. 

Upon which side of it are you, after that poem?

Word To Use Today: finch. The Old English form of the word is finc. 

The American-English word fink is basically the same as finch, and originally referred to those free spirits who don't belong to organisations such as fraternities and trades unions.

The original German text of the poem can be found HERE.

Friday 16 October 2020

Word To Use Today: ossicle.

 An ossicle is a little bone. 

Nearly everyone has some ossicles in their middle ears:

illustration by Anatomist90. (These bones are called the hammer, anvil, and stirrup in English.)

An accessory ossicle isn't one you wear as an earring, but one which isn't found in a majority of people. The most famous example (though it isn't famous at all) is the fabella, which is a tiny bone that, when present, floats at the back of the knee joint. About ten to twenty percent of people have one.

I don't know if I have one, myself, but I wouldn't turn down an accessory ossicle if I had the chance, even if I couldn't wear it in my ear.

Word To Use Today: ossicle. Ossiculum is Latin for little bone. The Latin names for the hammer and anvil in the illustration above mean, er, hammer and anvil. The Latin name for the stirrup had to be made up because the Romans didn't know about stirrups. This word is stapes, and it's probably made up of the words stapia to stand, and pes, foot.


Thursday 15 October 2020

The Will and The Comma: a rant.

 I am currently an executrix of a Will.

The Will consists of six pages and no punctuation whatsoever. There aren't even any full stops at the ends of what I take to be sentences. 

There's rather a fashion for legal documents having no punctuation, apparently. The idea is that it makes the document less open to misinterpretation.

Yes, I know that's compete nonsense. The whole point of punctuation (sorry, no pun intended) is to make writing more precise. More focused. Less open to misinterpretation.

After all, one of the most famous examples used to justify careful punctuation is the legal document describing the tariffs to be charged on fruit, trees...or was it fruit trees..? You really have to be sure.

To be honest, though, I wouldn't mind about the punctuation much if the end result was precise and not open to misinterpretation. 

I wouldn't even mind so much if it was open to interpretation,

But what is anyone to make of this?

If the trusts of and concerning any share or shares in my residuary estate shall fail or determine such share or shares so failing or determining shall accrue proportionally and be added to the share or shares not so failing or determining

That's the whole of a clause, and it's like trying to catch smoke.

At least if there was some punctuation then, you never know, it just might have turned into smoke signals.

Word To Use Today: determine. This word comes from the Old French determiner, from the Latin dētermināre to set boundaries to, from termināre, to limit.

Wednesday 14 October 2020

Nuts and Bolts: the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.

 There's been a study done of activity in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex of the brain.

It was carried out by scientists at University College London and at Yale, and what the study did was to study thirty nine conversations between people of different social backgrounds to see what happened in their brains while they were talking, and in particular to study activity in their left dorsolateral prefrontal cortices.

The claim is that the results show that automatic activity in this part of the brain steers people towards modifying their accents to be nearer to those of their companions.

Professor Joy Hirsch, of UCL believes that this brain-activity system has developed to help people of different backgrounds get on well together.

Lead author Olivia Descorbeth, from Yale, has a similar take on the results of the study:

'Now we know...that humans have a neurobiology that helps us navigate social differences.'

Except, except...what about all the occasions where people use their accents to accentuate their social differences? The higher-class telephone voice, for example? Or the careful correction of non-standard pronunciation in a reply?

I can't help but wonder if this study looked at people who were already disposed to cooperate with one another.

What does seem to be the case, out here in the real world, is that changing one's accent to suit one's audience is generally reckoned to be a sign of insincerity.

Is something happening in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex when we aren't trying to fit in? Or somewhere else in the brain?

I think we need to know.

Word To Use Today: cortex. This word is Latin and means bark (presumably as in tree) or outer layer.

Tuesday 13 October 2020

Thing To Be Today: tousled.

 A sweet disorder in the dress, 

Kindles in clothes a wantonness...

says the poet Robert Herrick (1591 - 1674).

I was going to write about this sweet disorder, about tousled charm, but now I've suddenly realised that Herrick said it all centuries ago, and much better than I can.

His poem is called Delight in Disorder

A sweet disorder in the dress

Kindles in clothes a wantonness;

A lawn about the shoulders thrown

Into a fine distraction;

An erring lace, which here and there

Enthrals the crimson stomacher;

A cuff neglectful, and therby

Ribands to flow confusedly;

A winning wave, deserving note,

In the tempestuous petticoat;

A careless shoe-string, in whose tie

I see a wild civility;

Do more bewitch me, than when art

Is too precise in every part.

Herrick was caught up in the English Civil War. He fought for the King and against the Puritan Parliament, so his poem may be saying things about politics as well as clothes and ladies.

I hope you get a chance to feel the wind in your hair.

Thing to Be Today: tousled. The first syllable of this word rhymes with how. The word comes from the Low German tūsen, to shake, from the Old High German zirzūsōn, to tear to pieces.

Monday 12 October 2020

Spot The Frippet: island.

 An island is an area of land surrounded by water - unless it's a really big area of land, in which case it's a continent (though there isn't actually a continent which doesn't consist of islands as well as the main, um, continent. Sometimes definitions just make things complicated, don't they?).

Anyway, there are islands all over the place. 

Bedarra Island. Photo by Banfield1 

I live on the island of Great Britain, so spotting one is dead easy for me, but if I went outside I'd find islands of mud emerging from puddles, and larger ones sitting in the middle of lakes and rivers.

Less romantically, traffic islands keep vehicles in their correct places.

Even inside, a sponge pudding might form an island in the middle of a bowl of custard, or for that matter a custard pudding might form an island in the middle of a plate of caramel: 

or your knees might form islands in your bath.

But then we have oases, which are quite often called islands in the desert, even though in that case they are areas of water surrounded by land

The essential thing about islands, it would seem, isn't so much the water as the isolation. You can see this in the expression island universe, which is another word for a galaxy:

Illustration by Nick Risinger

 or in island of tranquility, which is an area of peace in a noisy space.

Hey, and perhaps The Word Den has made one of those for some of us already.

That's quite cool.

Spot the Frippet: island. The Old English form of this word was igland, ig meaning, um, island. The s in the word appeared because the word isle has one and everyone got a bit confused.

Sunday 11 October 2020

Sunday Rest: amygdaline. Word Not To Use Today.

 Honestly, it makes things difficult enough that bovine describes something to do with cattle, and murine something to do with mice; but at least bōs is Latin for ox, and mūs is the Latin for mouse, so all you have to do is get yourself acquainted with a language current in Rome a couple of thousand years ago and you can quite easily work out what it all means. But amygdaline?

Well, amygdala is the Latin for almonds, so what does amygdaline describe?

Yes, that's right, it's something to do with the...



Word Not To Use Today: amygdaline. Look, just don't use it, okay?

Saturday 10 October 2020

Saturday Rave: Arnold I, II, III and IV of Bentheim-Tecklenburg-Steinfurt-Limburg (and Lord of Rheda)

Arnold of Bentheim-Tecklenburg-Steinfurt-Limburg (and Lord of Rheda) had, as you can see, a terrific name, and that's what The Word Den is celebrating today, his 466th birthday.

Arnold of Bentheim-Tecklenburg-Steinfurt-Limburg was born in Germany in 1554 and died in 1606.

In between, what he mostly did was inherit or otherwise acquire titles and lands. He also founded some schools.

Arnold was actually Arnold II in Steinfurt. In Limburg he was the first Arnold, so he didn't really have a number. In Bentheim and Tecklenburg he was Arnold IV.

But, for some reason I don't really understand, overall people seem to have taken a rough average and he seems to be known mostly as Arnold III.

Still, he seems to have been a peaceful man. 

And everyone needs a hobby, after all.

Word To Use Today: Arnold. The German roots of the arn bit means eagle and the wald bit means power or brightness.

Not entirely sure about the brightness, but Arnold I II III and IV must have quite liked power. 

Or importance, at least.

Friday 9 October 2020

Word To Use Today: triphibious.

 Yes, that's right: something triphibious is something which can exist on water, on land, and in the air.

It's usually used of military vehicles:

but, hey, we're triphibious, too, when you come to think about it.

photo by Mark Sebastian

photo by Affebook 

photo by Chris Brown

That made me feel rather special...

...until I remembered ducks.

photo by Paula M Wolter

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: triphibious. The tri- bit comes from Latin, and before that from the Greek treis, three. The -phibious part of the word is a bit of a car-crash. It comes from amphibious, of course, which is Greek for double life, where amphi- means on both sides, or at both ends, and bios means life.

Thursday 8 October 2020

Expert Grammarians: a rant.

Do you remember the WORD paperclip?

It was a hideous thing which used to pop up whenever one wrote Dear Someone on WORDA bubble would appear in which would be written the words it looks like you want to write a letter. And then it would offer to help with grammar and spelling etc.

Well, if that was the standard of its written grammar (it looks like you want...) then, no, one didn't want its help. And actually most people must have felt the same way, for the paperclip vanished long ago from WORD.

WORD, as I wrote last week, is still trying to muscle in on matters of style, but nowadays there is pressure from other sources, too.

This popped up as a comment on this blog a little while ago: 

The blog has a few minor grammatical errors which can be corrected by the expert professionals offering affordable Assignment help. Visit ******* and know more about the ways the professionals can leverage your grades. Feel free to contact... 

What's wrong with that

Let me count the ways.

The blog should, I think, be this blog. The phrase by the expert professionals shouldn't contain the word the. (Can these people speak English?) Assignment should not have a capital letter; and know more about the ways should be to discover more about the ways. As for leverage your grades a) this is a blog: it isn't graded; and, b) leverage your grades should, as far as I can see, be spelled cheat.

Yes, there probably are minor grammatical errors in this blog. One can hardly write a simple declarative sentence without someone picking holes in it, and, anyway, I'm human and am bound to make mistakes.

But, you know what? 

Suddenly I feel quite nostalgic for the paperclip.

Word To Use Today: any you like, even if they contain what some people will dismiss as minor grammatical errors, as long as they make proper sense.

Wednesday 7 October 2020

Nuts and Bolts: The Hyphen War.

It will be no surprise to anyone to know that The Hyphen War wasn't actually a war, and that according to the belligerents it wasn't even over a hyphen.

To make things even more difficult, we have to tell the tale of the Hyphen War in three languages: English (because this is The Word Den) Czech, and Slovak.

The whole battle was over what to call the new country of, it was the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic until the USSR broke up in 1989.

To begin with, the government just dropped the word Socialist from the name, but that didn't satisfy the Slovak people, who felt they were being portrayed as subservient to the Czech people because slovak didn't have a capital letter. The Slovaks demanded a hyphen: Czecho-Slovak. The suggestion from the government was Republic of Czecho-Slovakia - but the Czechs didn't like this because it was under that name that Hitler had taken over the country during the Second World War.

The next suggestion was Czechoslovak Federative Republic, showing that both countries were of equal status. As well as this, the name was spelled without a hyphen in Czech, but with one (but no capital letter) in Slovak.

Well, that idea lasted about a month. Next up was The Czech and Slovak Federative Republic. This still caused problems, though, because, as all the words in the county's name (except and) were capitalised then this took away the prestige of the capitalisation of Slovak.

Not only this, but although the Slovaks were demanding a hyphen (spojovnik in both Czech and Slovak) the Czechs insisted on calling it a dash (pomička). 

By 1992 there were so many other irreconcilable differences between the Czechs and the Slovaks that they decided to split the country into two in a process known as the Velvet Divorce.

And, mostly, they now seem to be living happily apart.


Nuts and Bolts: The Hyphen War was called Pomičková válka in Czech and Pomičková vojna in Slovak.  

Pomičková means, in both languages, not hyphen, but dash.

Tuesday 6 October 2020

Thing Not To Be Today: thrawn.

 This is a word of Scotland and Northern England.

It has two meanings - well, two and a half, really - because can mean crooked/twisted, or stubborn, or perverse.

Because to be stubborn and to be perverse aren't entirely the same thing. It is possible to be stubborn about some useful endeavor, like writing a book or training a dog. To be perverse, the book would have to be a memoir of cutting your toenails; or you'd have to be stubbornly trying to train earwigs.

The difference between crookedness and perversity is pretty shaded, too, but they're both to do with not going at things straight.

It's interesting that the same word can do service, in the North of Britain, for all three.

I wonder if anyone's done a Venn Diagram of the use of the word?

Thing Not To Be Today: thrawn. This is a variation on the word thrown, from the Old English thrāwan, to twist about or to throw.

Monday 5 October 2020

Spot the Frippet: toorie/tourie.

 A toorie is a tassel or a bobble, originally on a bonnet.

No, not that sort of a bonnet:

nor that one:

this sort of a bonnet, a Balmoral bonnet:

photo by SMcCandlish

You'd probably have to be a Scot to wear a Balmoral bonnet, but toories on other hats are to be seen everywhere:

photo by GT1976 

But just what is the point of a tourieI rather doubt it's to make the wearer appear taller, more handsome, richer, or more intelligent.

In fact, it's mostly just for fun, isn't it. To bring a little light-heartedness into the life of the wearer and all who encounter him or her.

At the moment, when governments round the world are busy sending out decrees to try to keep us all safe and solvent, it'd be perfectly easy for them to slip in a law making the wearing of touries compulsory. That might be rather cheering.

Or perhaps they could pass a law to make mandatory to wear a large red tourie in the centre of every mask. 

That'd definitely make the world a more cheerful place.

I wonder if I have any red wool anywhere?

Spot the Frippet: a tourie/toorie. This word is Scottish and appeared in the 1800s. It comes from the Scots toor, which means tower. Tower comes from the Latin word turris.

Sunday 4 October 2020

Sunday Rest: oligomerous. Word Not To Use Today.

 Oligomerous is a term used in biology.

Now, I can see why there have to be a lot of terms used in biology. I mean, just something like a leaf is impossibly complicated (and if you object to the word impossibly in that context then read up on the connection between photosynthesis and quantum theory and you'll see what I mean).

But even so, why are so many biological words so long? Oligomerous (a horrible lumpy sort of a word) means having few parts. But what's wrong with, er, having few parts? Or simple in structure

Is it because all the long words mean that non-biologists can't understand it? Is it the biologists' version of abracadabra?

Pruning at least some of the long words can be done. English Law,for instance, has shed quite a lot of its technical language, especially the stuff that was in Latin. It's a pity, in a way, but the idea was that ordinary people should be able to understand the system of justice under which they live.

Perhaps the biologists (and other scientists) should consider letting a bit more daylight in, too.

I mean, of what are they afraid?

photo by Rabe!

Word Not To Use Today: oligomerous. It would be possible to extend the use of this word and say something like the electric car motor, being oligomerous, is likely to need much less servicing than the internal combustion engine...but that would, obviously, lose you all your friends.

Oligos means little or few in Greek.