This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday 31 December 2020

Facing up to the crisis: a rant.

 There are some things you just have to face up to - and they're all horrible.

That's the point of the words facing up to. Our faces are our main way of finding out what's happening around us: if it's something nasty then our instinct is to turn our faces away so we can't see, or hear, or taste, or smell, it coming.

Facing up to something takes bravery and stoicism.

Still, the press loves a tragedy and a cataclysm, so I wasn't that surprised to see a headline in The Telegraph online screech:


Well, it made me laugh.

Mind you, so did a line on the same page talking about a salad crisis.

Word To Use Today: crisis. This is a Latin word meaning decision. Before that, the Greek word krinein meant to decide.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

Nuts and Bolts: acknowledgements.

 At (nearly) the end of a long long year, it seems a good time to turn to acknowledgements, which come, usually, at the end of a book.

Mostly, the acknowledgments are an opportunity to flatter the author's editor and agent (upon whom he depends for his income), to boast a little about famous friends, to establish the author's artistic credentials by hinting at the agony of composition (and his intellectual credentials by listing his sources) and to show off about his family and his own popularity by listing his many many world-wide friends.

This rather famous example was written by Brendan Pietsch, assistant professor of religious studies at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, in his book Dispensational Modernism, which was published in 2016 by the Oxford University Press.

I blame all of you. Writing this book has been an exercise in sustained suffering. The casual reader may, perhaps, exempt herself from excessive guilt, but for those of you who have played the larger role in prolonging my agonies with your encouragement and support, know who you are, and you owe me.

Masterly, I call that.

And I've published a lot of books with the Oxford University Press, so I should know.

Word To Use Today: acknowledgement. The Middle English aknowen means to confess or recognise.

Tuesday 29 December 2020

Thing To Be Today: loquacious.

To be loquacious isn't necessarily a good thing. In fact people who go on and on and on are usually pretty boring, but still, the word loquacious is such a lovely, luscious, and delicately luminous one, conjuring up as it does visions of pears dripping sweet juices into the tropical shadows...


Is that just me, then?

Ah well.

All right, perhaps we shouldn't be loquacious, because the basic rule of conversation is simple: 

t divided by N = D

where t is Time, N is the number of people involved in a conversation, and D is the ideal duration of speech of any individual in the group.

There are many good conversations which don't follow this rule. 

But the very best ones do.

Thing Not To Be Today: loquacious. This word comes from the Latin loquī, to speak.

Monday 28 December 2020

Spot The Frippet: a baddy.

 Today is Holy Innocents' Day, and it's got me thinking: those Wise Men who visited King Herod weren't actually that wise, were they?

Okay they spotted the star and decided it heralded the birth of a child who would wield great power in the world; but then they went and assumed that this child would have been born in the King's palace.

And then, having made this massive blunder, when the King went baby? What baby? Instead of saying, oh dear, whoops, we must have got our sums wrong and backing out nervously, they only went and told King Herod all about a child born locally who looked as if he was going to grow up and throw Herod off the throne.

I mean, hadn't those so-called Wise Men watched any spy films?

To be fair, though, it's not always so easy to spot a baddy. As Duncan tells us in Macbeth, there's no art to find the mind's construction in the face. It's true you can often tell if someone has spent his life being aggressive and nasty because of the way his wrinkles fall; but if they've gone through life causing misery and mayhem with a sunny heart then you're in trouble.

There are, however, several traditional ways to spot a baddy, including:

The white cat he's stroking.

A habit of saying and tomorrow the world!

A black hat (only if on a horse) (not the hat).

A smile that stops at the nostrils.

Too much cologne.

Shifty eyes too close together.

illustration by J.J.

But of course the only really reliable way of spotting a baddy is spotting him doing something, well, bad.

I hope you don't witness anything criminal, today, but it probably won't take you long to witness a bad driver, or bad mask-wearer. Or someone helping themselves from the biscuit tin.

Who's the baddest baddy you can spot today?

Spot the Frippet: baddy. The word bad...oh dear, I've only just looked this up, and I'm in trouble, here. It seems as though it's probably from the Old English bæddel, which means someone neither fully male nor female. 

I'm afraid there is nothing at all I can do about this.


Sunday 27 December 2020

Sunday Rest: turkey, Word Not To Use Today.

 Everyone has had enough of turkey by this time of year, and in Britain, where Christmas family get-togethers were cancelled long after the traditional huge turkey had been ordered and paid for, consuming it is in many households a task of of absolutely heroic proportions.

So...don't mention the turkey!

But, while we're here, why is turkey...well, a turkey? What I mean is, why is something bad, especially a bad play, a turkey?

There are a few possibilities. One is the habit of some impresarios of hiring a hall and a few out-of-work actors to put on a badly-rehearsed and no-copyright play at Thanksgiving in the USA, certain of a large Holiday audience. That gave people an association between turkey, the traditional Thanksgiving food, and bad plays.

There's also the story that the impresario Dion Boucicoult put on an unsuccessful show at Thanksgiving which he himself described as a turkey.

The other possibility is a sad reflection on the intelligence of the domesticated turkey, which is said to be so stupid that it has trouble even recognising its own food, and also has a habit of suffocating itself when panicked.

Mind you, this is a habit not unknown among people.

In any case, I hope your turkey is not a turkey. All turkeys aren't. Knocking down all the pins three times in a row at ten-pin bowling is called a turkey, perhaps from a turkey being offered as a prize for this feat of skill.

(And don't forget the freezer is your friend.)

Word Not To Use Today: turkey. This word started out as turkey cock, which described, obviously, the African guinea fowl. (They were imported to Europe through Turkey.) Describing the American bird as a turkey was a mistake.

Saturday 26 December 2020

Saturday Rave: Saint Stephen was a clerk

 This poem was written in the 1300s or 1400s. In it St Stephen is a servant of King Herod, who...but you can read the story yourself.

The story is actually all wrong, because according to the bible St Stephen was still living after the death of Jesus. It's still a good poem, though, and it's one especially for today, the Feast of St Stephen.

(Wode means mad, and brede meaning raving mad. Sooth is truth, and weede are clothes. Christus natus est means Christ is born.)

Saint Stephen was a clerk

In King Herod's hall,

And served him of bread and cloth

As every king befalle

Stephen out of kitchen came

With boar's head on hand,

He saw a star was fair and bright

Over Bethlehem stande

He cast down the boar's head

And went into the hall

I forsake thee, Herod

And thy werkes all.

I forsake thee, Herod

And thy werkes all,

There is a child in Bethlehem born

Is better than we all.

What aileth thee, Stephen?

What is thee befalle?

Lacketh thee either meat or drink

In King Herod's hall?

Lacketh me neither meat ne drink

In King Herod's hall

There is a child in Bethlehem born

Is better than we all.

What aileth thee, Stephen?

Art wode, or thou 'ginnst to brede?

Lacketh thou either gold or fee

Or any rich weede?

Lacketh me neither gold nor fee

Ne none rich weede

There is a child in Bethlehem born

Shall helpen us at our need

That is all so sooth, Stephen,

All so sooth, I'wys,

As this capon crowe shall

That li'th here in my dish.

That word was not so soon said,

That word in that hall

The capon crew Christus natus est

Among the lordes all.

Riseth up, my tormentors,

By two, and all by one

And leadeth Stephen out of this town,

And stoneth him with stones.

Tooken them Stephen

And stoned him in the way

And therefore is his even

On Christe's own day.

Word To Use Today: capon. A capon is a neutered cockerel. The Old English form of this word was capun and the Latin was cāpōfrom the Greek koptein, cut off.

Friday 25 December 2020

Word To Use Today: gloria!

 The Word Den is all about the joy of words, so how about this word, gloria, the longest word to be found in the English language?

Yes, yes, I know it's only got six letters, but at Christmas, in particular, it can take a heck of a long time to say:

Good fun to carol.

Mind you, perhaps we should be pronouncing it goria...

No L!


Word To Use Today: gloria. Gloria in excelsis Deo is the first line of the song the angels sang when announcing the birth of Jesus Christ. It means Glory to God in the Highest.

Interestingly, this rather implies that there must have been at least one Latin scholar among the shepherds.

Thursday 24 December 2020

Christmas Eve Necessities: a rant.

 Advert seen online:

There is nothing more magical than the perfect Christmas Eve. And for that, there are a few very important necessities.

Necessities for Christmas Eve? Oh, heavens, I hope they're something I've got, because the shops will be closing soon. 

Well, I've got the aspirin, the sticky tape and the batteries - and the digestive biscuits that Aunt Ada has to have every day at three o'clock exactly.

I've looked out some stockings to put by the chimney place. 

I think the food's all here - I've made a few mince pies, and we can mull some wine if we fancy it. The turkey is nearly defrosted.

But I'm sure I must have forgotten something...

Oh no! Of course, I haven't got a carrot for Rudolf! Now I'll have to go out again, but first I'd better check that advertisement to see if there's anything else I've forgotten.

There is nothing more magical than the perfect Christmas Eve. 

And for that, there are a few very important necessities:

New PJ's (bonus points for family matching)

 Matching family pyjamas?

Well, I suppose they'd be nice if you're going for a concentration-camp vibe.

But necessity?


Actually, I think Rudolf can make do with a parsnip. It'll make a nice change for him.

Happy Christmas!

Word To Use Correctly Today: necessity. The Latin word necesse means unavoidable.

Wednesday 23 December 2020

Nuts and Bolts: The Magic of Father Christmas.

We all know that Father Christmas is very clever indeed, but have you ever considered just how many languages he has to be able to understand, to be able to find the addresses of all the children of the world?

(I expect he has Satnav, nowadays, but even so...)

Take the small district of Northern Finland called Inari. Now, Father Christmas lives at the North Pole, as we all know, but some of the elves will obviously commute from further afield (and the reindeer must obviously spend most of their time on solid, lichen-bearing ground). This makes it very likely that some of them come from Inari. It's therefore almost certain that Father Christmas will need a good working knowledge of the language of the area.

There are sign posts in Inari that are written in four languages: Finnish, Northern Saami, Inari Saami, and Skolt Saami. 

All these languages are official ones for the district, and all can be used in government documents.

Inari Saami has about four hundred speakers (up from about three hundred after a push to teach the language to small children: hurray!).

The idea of any place having four official languages makes my head spin (and Inari Saami, entertainingly but mind-bogglingly, has an abessive case, for denoting the absence of something) but Father Christmas must manage to understand them all, somehow - and all the other languages of the world, all the thousands of them.

I really think that may be even more magical than his making all those presents.

Thanks, Father Christmas - and  hyvää joulea, too.

Word To Use Today: The only word in Inari Saami I know is the one on that sign - mattaattaskuavdas (I can't make out all the accents properly, so I won't try put them in). As I said before, it means Education Centre. 

Hyvää joulea is Finnish and means Happy Christmas!

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Thing To Do Today: jingle.

 Jingle bells, jingle bells...'s a large claim, but I think that Jingle Bells might be the most annoying Christmas song of them all. Mind you, I'm probably scarred by far too many years of teaching recorder (on the descant recorder you can play the first seven notes of Jingle Bells literally within minutes of picking up the instrument up for the first time. To play them well, however, usually proves impossible.).

Still, actual jingling is a pleasant sound. There are even special orchestral Instruments that jingle:

photo by Žiga 

And if you don't have any small bells to hand then you can produce the same effect with a bunch of keys or the coins in your pocket.

A jingle is also a short piece of music, quite often a song, used in advertisements. 

Why not get out your key-ring and jingle along to a jingle?

You never know, it just might lure in an inquisitive reindeer.

Thing To Do Today: jingle. This word is probably an imitation of the sound of jingling. There's a similar Dutch word, jongelen.

Monday 21 December 2020

Spot The Frippet: wash.

 There are a lot of different types of wash: the sort that's a layer of thin paint that sometimes goes down at the beginning of a painting or drawing and often forms the sky:

feudal remains by Victor Hugo

Then there's The Wash that's a shallow area of sea off the East Coast of England (and if you've ever been told that King John lost the crown jewels in the wash, then that's The Wash they're talking about. It only took me a couple of decades to realise that). 

And there's the wash that's the action of the sea on the shore:

photo by Uwe Jelthing

 and there are car washes, and of course the wash you probably had this morning.

But it's nearly Christmas, and I'm particularly interested in the wash that's also a crown.

Where's that?

At the top of a chimney. The wash/crown is the rim that goes around the top of the chimney stack.

photo by Jon Sullivan

They're important because they make a ledge for Father Christmas to sit on before he slithers down the chimney.

Well, I can't think what else they're for, anyway.

Spot the Frippet: wash. The Old English form of this word is wæscan. It's related to the word water.

Sunday 20 December 2020

Sunday Rest: change. Word Not To Use Today.

 Look, I'm sure that having roasted pineapple stuffed with North African spices and squirrel steaks would make a change for Christmas lunch. And I'm sure that serving your sprouts roasted with reindeer bacon and sliced clementines would look very pretty.

But you can do that any day of the year (if you really must). This is Christmas. It's neither a time for either spending all day in the kitchen nor for change.

Christmas is about having a completely traditional meal (whatever that is where you are) and no one doing any more work than they have to.

It won't entirely put an end to all the squabbling, resentment, and indigestion, but it'll probably help.

Word Not To Use Today: change. This word comes from the Old French changier, from the Latin cambīre, to exchange or barter.

Saturday 19 December 2020

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

 Getting and spending we lay waste our powers, said Wordsworth.

But what if you're too poor either to get or spend

John Clare knew.

...& singers too a merry throng

At early morn with simple skill

Yet imitate the angels song

& chant their christmas ditty still

& mid the storm that dies & swells

By fits - in hummings softly steals

The music of the village bells

Ringing round their merry peals.


Christmas in John Clare's village is full of joy and love and celebration and art. Lots and lots of art. There are Morris dancers, a harlequin, carols, 

The clown-turnd-kings for penny praise

Storm wi the actors strut & swell

And there is plenty, too, plenty and warmth, just like summer:

While snows the window panes bedim

The fire curls up the sunny charm

Where creaming oer the pitchers rim

The flowering ale is set to warm

Mirth full of joy as summer bees

Sits there its pleasures ti impart

While children tween their parents knees

Sing scraps of carrols oer by heart

They made William Wordsworth Poet Laureate, and they locked John Clare up in an asylum.

I honour them both. 

But I love John Clare.

Word To Use Today: merry. In Old England this word was merige and it meant agreeable.

Friday 18 December 2020

Word To Use Today: jackpot.

 Three questions arise with this word: who is Jack, why is he in a pot, and why should anyone want to hit it, anyway?

It has an interesting history, does the word jackpot, because originally a jackpot was a Bad Thing...Well, it was if you were a criminal, anyway, because in criminal slang a jackpot was an arrest, or some other kind of bad trouble.

The good-fortune type of jackpot involves the kind of jack you find on playing cards.

Our current meaning of the word jackpot became came into being as a term for a large pay-out on an arcade slot machine, but before that it was a term from the card game of draw-poker. 

This is the only explanation of the term I've been able to find, and I don't understand it at all. Even my poker-playing friends don't really understand it, but here it is, anyway:

The regular Draw-Poker game is usually varied by occasional Jack-Pots, which are played once in so many deals, or when all have refused to play, or when the player deals who holds the buck, a marker placed in the pool with every jack-pot. In a jack-pot each player puts up an equal stake and receives a hand. The pot must then be opened by a player holding a hand of the value of a pair of knaves (jacks) or better. If no player holds so valuable a hand the deal passes and each player adds a small sum to the pot or pool. When the pot is opened the opener does so by putting up any sum he chooses, within the limit, and his companions must pay in the same amount or "drop." They also possess the right to raise the opener. The new cards called for are then dealt and the opener starts the betting, the play proceeding as in the regular game. 

That's from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. I have the complete set, and they're brilliant for standing on when decorating the stairs

I honestly don't know why anyone should want to hit the jackpot; but I suppose it's just like hitting the road, something you do with understandable enthusiasm.

Word To Use Today: jackpot. A jack was originally just a word for a man. The word started off as jakke in the 1500s, which was short for Jankin, which was short for Jack (except, of course, longer). The word pot was pott in Old English, and might, entertainingly, come form the Latin pōtus, which means drink.

Thursday 17 December 2020

The New Black: a rant.

 Undergraduates were always revolting. 

This picture shows the battle of St Scholastica's Day, which took place in Oxford in 1355. It was a battle between students at the university and the citizens of the town. It started in a pub, escalated into a battle with bows and arrows, and scores of people were killed.

This puts into context a minor kerfuffle at the University of Manchester, where some of the students are asking for the words blackmail, black sheep, black list and black market to be banned because these expressions for nasty things might make people think that all black things are nasty.

None of these words has anything to do with the shade of anyone's skin, obviously, but the use of these words may have some effect. I doubt it, though.

Still, I suppose it's better that the revolting students are squabbling about words rather than setting out to murder people.

Perhaps we have made some progress, after all.

Words To Use Today: black belt, blackberry, blackbird, blackboard, black bottom, black cohash, black currant, black diamond, blacking, blackjack, black japan, black lead, black pudding, blackstrap molasses, black tie, blackwood. All nice things!

The word black was blæc in Old English. It's related to the Old Saxon blak, which means ink, and also the Old High German blakra, which means to blink.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Nuts and Bolts: palilalia.

 It's a lovely word, palilalia. It could be a flower, the sort that is white, waxy, scented, and opens on warm moonlit nights; or it could be the romantically ailing heroine of a Greek myth.


...or the title of a seventeenth century love poem.

Sadly, palilalia is none of those things. Palilalia is a language problem which forces the sufferer to repeat a word or phrase. It's like a stutter, but the repeated word or phrase will have more than one syllable.

It's sometimes part of Tourette's syndrome, and sometimes caused by a stroke. The repeated word or phrase will often be said louder and louder and faster and faster until in the end the sentence can go on to its end.

Palilalia rarely occurs when singing or reading out loud.

It must be a horrible condition to have; but I'm glad to think that people afflicted with palilalia can still sing.

Word To Think About Today: palilalia. The Greek word palin means again, and lalein means to babble or speak.

Tuesday 15 December 2020

Thing To Do Today: kittle someone's fancy.

 Where have you been all the day, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?

Where have you been all the day my Billy Boy?

I've been walking in the lane with my darling Nancy Jane

And my Nancy kittled my fancy. Oh my darling Billy Boy.

There are other versions of this song, but this is the one that was around when I was young. It was obvious what kittle meant, even though I've never come across the word in any other context. 

At least, I thought it was obvious until I looked it up in a dictionary.

Kittle, my Collins dictionary tells me, is a Scottish word which can mean annoyingly unpredictable. Or, alternatively, it can mean troublesome or puzzling (to someone).

Neither of these meanings makes sense in the verse above, but luckily there's a third meaning which is to tickle. 

Well, I thought I had the word kittle sorted out, then, until I had a look at, which tells me that, as well as tickle, kittle means either to agitate or stir, as with a spoon, or to excite or rouse a person, especially with flattery or strong words.

On the other hand the adjectival form kittler means ticklish, fidgety, or requiring skill or caution, or precarious.

I'm now rather less ignorant, but much more confused.

I can only suggest we all indulge in a bit of unexpected and dangerous flattery, possibly including a little light tickling, while stirring a cup of tea. 

That should cover it.

Thing To Do Today: kittle someone's fancy. The Old English form of this word was kitelung.The Old Norse kitla means tickle.

Monday 14 December 2020

Spot the Frippet: string.

 Brown paper packages tired up with string...

...although actually it's sticky tape, usually, nowadays, isn't it. 

Ah well.

But still, many thing come in strings. Fairy lights (or perhaps they should be angel lights at Christmas). 

photo by Sardaka

Beads come on them. People sometimes let off a string of curses (often described as colourful, which is odd, when you come to think about it). Some green beans have strings that needed to be cut away before cooking:

photo by Simon Thomas

 and meat, too, can be stringy. Violins and guitars have strings

illustrations by Lardyfatboy, Wayne Rogers, Rama, Martin Moller, Gringer, Musik-och teatermuseet and others

and bags are sometimes made entirely of them. 

There are neckties made out of string. The skirting board that goes up the side of a staircase is a stringboard.

It is said by some very clever people that the whole universe is made up of very tiny strings, strings so small in fact that if one of them was the height of a man then an atom at the same scale would be the size of a galaxy. 

Yes, that's small. 

Still, to make up for their lack of bulk they are said to live in a frankly incomprehensible number of dimensions.

Most relationships come with strings attached. These are invisible, but still quite easily spotted.

There are in fact so many strings everywhere that I'm beginning to wonder at our ability to walk about without strangling ourselves.

But, luckily, mostly we do.

Spot the Frippet: string. This word was streng in Old English. Interestingly, it's connected to the word strong.

Sunday 13 December 2020

Sunday Rest: bantz. Word Not To Use Today

 Bantz is short for banter. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that bantz is playfully teasing or mocking remarks exchanged with another person or a group.

It's largely a male thing, and bantz is basically a means of establishing status. It's a bit like a cock crowing: it shows confidence in its own power without actually having to engage in battle.

(Non-male people* strive for status, too, but it's not generally often done by insulting people to their faces.)

Anyway, bantz. Some people will relish this kind of battle, some won't. Calling it bantz makes the fight sound cool and fun: the implication is that only someone inadequate wouldn't delight in it. Bantz comes perilously close to being a cover for aggression and bullying, and legitimising unkindness. 

Still, if that's what you need I can see the word is useful.

Word Not To Use Today: bantz. This word emerged in the early twenty-first century and is short for banter. The word banter appeared in the 1600s, but from where it came no one is sure.

*There's a blog post in the necessity for using a phrase like that. But I'm not sure I dare write it.

Saturday 12 December 2020

Saturday Rave: the wisdom of Gustave Flaubert.

 I was going to wax lyrical about Flaubert's style - it's what most people do, and he did spend years writing each of his novels, labouring to find mots justes to make up each perfectly accurate and harmonious sentence - but then I came across this photograph of the man and a new question began to obsess me: 

how on earth did he eat soup?

This may seem a frivolous question, but, really, how can you expect a man to write stuff worth reading if he can't cope with the practical essentials of life?

Flaubert himself recommended a dull steady life to allow room for imagining spectacular fiction, but there have been plenty of writers with highly irregular lives who have managed to whack out reams of thrilling tales. Anyway, Flaubert actually didn't really write all that much, dying as he did in his fifties and being a particularly painstaking writer. What he did write, though, has been a great influence on the modern novel: there are even those who claim Flaubert is the foundation of it.

Flaubert said I believe that if one always looked at the skies, one would end up with wings, whereas I think you'd be more likely to get run over by a truck; he also spoke of the in expressible charm of the abyss, which I have never experienced, myself.

But he worked hard for a long time and he produced Madame Bovary. He said the art of writing is the art of discovering what you think (which can be true, though I'm not sure it's an art) and he also said that anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough, which is a piece of great wisdom.

He never married or had children. He said he didn't want to burden anyone with existence; but, I don't know, perhaps it really does all come down to soup in the end. Soup was one of the causes of Madame Bovary's troubles:

...she was becoming more irritated with taking soup he made a gurgling noise with every mouthful; and, as he was getting fatter, the puffed-out cheeks seemed to push the eyes, always small, up to the temples.

What a perfect description of the way a relationship fails. 

But whether Life imitated Art in this case, or the other way round, I cannot say.

Word To Use Today: soup. This word is simple perfection. It is soupe in Old French, suppa in Latin and soppa in Old Norse. It is also, of course, the sound of a tentative slurp at something that might prove to be much too hot.

Friday 11 December 2020

Word To Use Today: ptochocracy.

 I'd never heard of ptochocracy until quite recently, and the chances are that you haven't, either.

What do you think it means? The -cracy bit obviously means it's going to be the rule of some person or group or other. Meritocracy, for instance, is the rule by the cleverest (more or less), and a theocracy is ruled by God (though He usually relies upon interpreters).

So, we come to ptochocracy. Now, what's a really unlikely group of people, or person, to have in charge of a country?

Does ptocho- imply...ooh, I don't know...hamsters?

No, it's something less likely than that.

Soldiers? Actors? 


You're not going to guess, are you?

Word To Use Today: ptochocracy. This word comes from the Greek ptochos, which means poor, plus -cracy, which comes from the other Greek word kratos, power. Ptochocracy is rule by the poor.

Thursday 10 December 2020

Experience: a rant.

 What I want to know is, what in heaven's name is unlived experience???

Word To Use In A Sane and Logical Fashion Today: experience. This word comes from the Latin word experientia, from experīrī, to prove. 

It's related to the other Latin word perīculum, which means peril. So experience is stuff that comes from being in peril.

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Nuts and Bolts: sophomoric stuff.

 We don't really have sophomores in Britain, but in the USA they're students in their second year of either High School or University.

This term has given rise to the idea of a sophomore argument, which is one that's presented in a conceited and confident way but reveals itself to be ignorant and immature. 

Then there's sophomore humour, which might be in dubious taste, or might just be silly (which means there's nothing actually wrong with sophomore humour), and sophomore work, which often describes the second published work of a creative artist.

Sadly, there often is quite a lot wrong with these.

Term To Consider Today: sophomoric. This word emerged in the 1600s. The American Webster dictionary suggests it's a combination of the Greek words sophos, wise, and mōros, foolish; but Collins suggests it comes from sophumer, from sophum, from sophisma, which is a clever trick, from sophizesthai, to use clever deceit.


Tuesday 8 December 2020

Thing To Decide If You Are Today: cursorial.

 Many of us are, or have been, in lock-down of various kinds this year. Some people have loved it, some people have hated it, some people have lost fortunes and some people have made them.

And some have taken up jogging.

(This is former president of the USA Jimmy Carter. He's probably been jogging for ages, but it's curiously difficult to find a free-to-use photograph of someone jogging who doesn't look like an athlete.)

Anyway, I've become quite a connoisseur of joggers. I especially like the slow joggers - that is, the ones who progress at less than a normal walking pace. There's a lady I occasionally encounter who goes out with a man whom I assume to be her personal trainer. The trainer strolls, and she jogs along in an unbalanced plodding of painful limbs.

But that's only one style of unhappy jogger: there are the hand-flailers who subconsciously, I think, keep hoping they'll be able to hail a taxi; the dogged, desperate-looking people in black who run along narrow roads in the hope, one can only assume, that they'll get run over; and the people in fluorescent yellow who must be so afraid of being run over you'd think they'd exercise somewhere safer.

And then, of course, there are the athletes who are rugged and/or beautiful and are born to run.

I'm not one of those athletes. Everything about running is for me awkward and uncomfortable. So I walk. I get places slightly more slowly, but at least I'm not sweaty or offensively virtuous.

No. I'm not cursorial, me.

Thing To Decide If You Are Today: cursorial. Cursorial is a zoological term meaning adapted for running. The Latin word currere means to run. 

Monday 7 December 2020

Spot the Frippet: dial.

 There aren't as many dials around as there used to be.

Telephones don't usually have them:

photo by Takkk

 and neither do radios:

photo by Nite_Owl

But there are still dials to be found. My (newish) microwave has a dial, for instance, and kitchen scales sometimes do, and so do some other beautiful old machines:

photo by Sterilgutassistentin

 and so, of course, does my watch:

photo by suebun (this is not my watch)

If you're a Londoner then there will also be fewer dials about the place than usual, but you should still be able to spot approximately half of one quite easily behind the masks, because dial is a London word for a face. 

Spot the Frippet: dial. The first sort of a dial was one of these:

photo by liz west

The word comes from the Old French dyal, and before that probably from the Latin dialis, which means daily. It's also probably something to do with a very ancient word, older than Latin and Greek, which means to shine. The Latin phrase rota dialis, daily wheel, may have suggested the word in the first place.


Sunday 6 December 2020

Sunday Rest: ovenable. Word Not To Use Today.

 I think this ghastly word must describe food that can be cooked in an oven.

I've tried to do some research on the subject, but even Google flinches when faced with this monstrosity, lamely suggesting I'd rather be told about the word amenable.

And, what's more, Google is right., however, tells me that this horrid word can also describe packaging that can be placed in an oven (especially a microwave oven) without either exploding, catching fire, or lacing the contents with rivulets of molten metal.

Though, given the quality of packaged food designed to be cooked in a microwave, the molten metal garnish might even be an improvement.

I admit that it is quicker to write ovenable than can be cooked in an oven, but speed isn't everything.

Unless you're eating a microwave ready-meal it isn't, anyway.

Word To Use Today: oven. The Old English form of this word was ofen


Saturday 5 December 2020

Saturday Rave: talking about cows.

 My first language is English, and English is the language used in this video:

I can't understand a word of it, but it has a certain hypnotic and musical beauty.

I can see that it'd be all-too-easy to nod along to the beat...

...and then discover you'd accidentally bought a cow.

And how you'd get one of those home on the bus I do not know.

Word To Use Today: auctioneer. The Latin auctiō means an increasing. Augēre means to increase.

Friday 4 December 2020

Word To Use Today: spice.

 I love the names of spices: cinnamon, cardamom, caraway, nutmeg, mace, ginger...

...actually, the last three words aren't really that beautiful; I think I must be getting the words mixed up with the scent and idea of cake.   

But anyway, the word spice itself is really interesting.

Word To Use Today: spice. This word came into English in the 1200s from France (of course: in 1200 the English were exclusively* eating turnips). The Old French word was espice, which came from the Latin word speciēs, which means kind (as in sort).

photo by 

At the same time, the word also had a flavour (sorry) of the Latin word spīcea (or a word something like it) which means fragrant herb. That word comes from spīceus, which means having spiky leaves. (Spica means ear of corn.)

*Well, not exclusively... 

Thursday 3 December 2020

A knee-jerk reaction: a rant

 Several veteran soccer players have been diagnosed with dementia, and people are wondering if the condition is the result of brain-injury caused by heading the ball.

Footballs weren't waterproof when these men were playing, and when the balls were wet (more or less always in Britain) they were extremely heavy. They've often been described as being like rocks. 

The debate is whether to ban heading in soccer altogether, whether to ban it only in young people's games, or whether the new light waterproof ball is unlikely to cause brain damage and for this reason heading the ball shouldn't be banned at all.

Strong passions have been roused, and a letter has appeared in The Telegraph newspaper describing the imposition of any ban as a knee-jerk reaction.

Well, it would be, would it.

Word To Use Today: knee. The Old English form of this word was cnēow. The Latin form was genu.

Wednesday 2 December 2020

Nuts and Bolts: suprasegmentals.

 The first question with suprasegmentals is: what on earth is a segment when you're talking about language?

That's easy. A segment is a vowel or consonant. Those are both single speech sounds that are the same from beginning to end. They're almost always very short.

Something suprasegmental is something which carries on over more than one segment. The study of suprasegmentals can cover all sorts of stuff, from the way the word mob takes longer to say than the mob at the beginning of the word mobster, to the way people speak higher and softer when speaking to babies.

Suprasegmentals can involve pitch and tone and volume, and questions and exclamations. They help us distinguish between night rate and nitrate. They are the difference between the degree of warmth of welcome embedded in the hundred different ways of saying hello.

Today is a day to admire your own command of suprasegmentals - and to marvel at the way that so many of them work in every language on Earth.

Thing To Notice Today: suprasegmentals. Suprā- is basically Latin and means above; segmentum is also Latin, and comes from secāre, to cut.