This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Sunday Rest: ombudsman. Word Not To Use Today.

 Ombudsman is a heavy lurching kind of a word, and an ombudsman sounds as if he's going to be a lumpen, awkward kind of a person: the sort of man (other genders are available) whose suit should have gone to the dry-cleaners several months before.

His (ogaa) job is to negotiate in disputes between members of the public and officials, but the title alone is surely enough to drain any poor complainant of hope. 

Perhaps that's the point of it.

And, anyway, what is an ombud?

Sunday Rest: ombudsman. This word is Swedish (and the Swedes invented the job). It means representative, and it may well be a word of great elegance when spoken with a Swedish accent. 

The word comes from the Old Norse umboth, commission, and mathr, which means man.

Saturday, 24 July 2021

Saturday Rave: The Truth, by Oscar Wilde.

 Whenever I contemplate the tangle of feelings, passions and doubts that obscures the debates on trans issues, or racism, or populism, or anything else for that matter, I hear the words of Oscar Wilde:

The truth is rarely pure and never simple, he said, in The Importance of Being Earnest

To which I'd add and never finally revealed.

That speech in The Importance of Being Earnest goes on to say Modern life would be very tedious if it were either; but, I don't know, sometimes I feel as if a little tedium might be good for us so we can get a chance to clear our heads.

The speech concludes:

and modern literature an impossibility!

And if you count modern as any time since the invention of writing, then he is quite right.

That speech, by the way, is said by Algernon. In the play he gives every appearance of being an idiot. 

But he gets his girl, in the end.

Word To Use Today: truth. The Old English form of this word is triewth. A related word is the Old High German gitruiwida, which means fidelity.

 A photograph of the original production's Algernon can be seen HERE.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Compound noun To Use Today: flos ferri.

 Yes, all right, this compound noun has no relevance to everyday life, but it sounds lovely and its physical beauty has brought out the poetry in the souls of geologists (and before now you might not have been completely confident that there was any poetry in the soul of geologists).

This is an example of flos ferri:

photo by Zbynek Burival

You may think it looks like coral, and you wouldn't be alone because its other names include Aragonite coralloide and Stalagmites coralloides

Flos ferri is also called flowers of iron, which is a translation into English of the Latin flos ferri. The Germans call it Eisenblüte, iron blossom. But it's basically a rock. 

(The rock's chemical formula is CaCO3, so the chemists among you will spot at a glance that there's absolutely no iron in the stuff at all.)

Still, it's pretty, isn't it? 

Well, it is except when it looks like a scouring brush:

photo by Tiia Monto

Flos Ferri is a manifestation of the mineral called Aragonite, and Aragonite is found in many kinds of sea shells, so perhaps the resemblance to coral isn't coincidental. 

As far as I know flos ferri has no practical uses whatsoever, except to bring beauty into our lives, and to bring out the poetry in the souls of geologists.

But, you know, I really think that's achievement enough.

Compound Word To Use Today: flos ferri.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

The bedding-in process: a rant.

 My husband and I been married for forty-two years. It's been amusing enough. In fact, I'd recommend it.

The trials of marriage have been often rehearsed, but in TheTelegraph Online on the 9th July there was presented a whole new way of looking at the institution.

The first year of a marriage 

it said

is famously hard

(is it? I'll tell you something, the last year is jolly dodgy, as well)

 and, on top of the already complicated bedding-in process the universe has served you up...a panoply of hurdles.

My immediate reaction was to snort tea down my nose at the phrase bedding-in process.

And then I began trying to imagine being served up a panoply of hurdles, and my ears started to smoke.

Word To Use Today: panoply. A panoply is a complete or magnificent arrangement of something, or it can be the full armour of a warrior. The word comes from the Greek panoplia, full armour, from pan- all, and hopla, armour. Hopla is the plural of hoplon, which means tool.

This means, yes, that a Greek warrior in full armour was all tooled up.

Wednesday, 21 July 2021

Nuts and Bolts: TED talks.

 I never really thought that a TED talk involved an small automated stuffed bear. 

I wish it did, though.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and TED talks are free online lectures. Perhaps the most attractive thing about them is that they're a maximum of eighteen minutes long.

TED talks are produced by the TED Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation based in the USA, and many of the talks are given by really famous people you've actually heard of, like Bill Clinton and Elon Musk.

Are they any good? 

Well, try one and see.

Are they reliable? 

Probably, most of the time, but the point of the talks isn't so much to give definitive answers as to convey excitement and possibility. The aim is for the talks to be mostly true - or, at least, to present a reasonable and expert opinion.

Well, that's about the best we can get, isn't it.

Nuts and Bolts: TED talks. These were established in 1984 and have been available free on line since 1990. The talks started off being about technology, but now there are talks on science, culture, politics and humanitarian subjects.

The word design comes from the Latin dēsignāre, to mark out, from signum, which means a sign.

Tuesday, 20 July 2021

Thing To Do Today: scrimp.

 To scrimp is to be very sparing. It's making your pie with more crust than filling (and not that much crust); it's cutting your curtains so there's only just enough fabric for them to meet; it's having only two pairs of underpants; it's planting your seedlings in rolled-up newspaper; it's wearing your clothes until they're threadbare.

Scrimping used to be a sign of poverty or meanness. Now it's really rather fashionable and really very virtuous

It's still no fun, though.

Thing To Do Today: scrimp. This is a Scottish word, but no one is sure from where it came before that. There are various Scandinavian words that look as if they're related, though: the Swedish skrumpna, for example, means to shrink or shrivel.

Monday, 19 July 2021

Spot the Frippet: chain.

 Where's the nearest chain to you?

Will you spot it round someone's neck?

photo: Auckland Museum

In a fence?

photo by Micke

Attached to a padlock?

Or will you see just one link of it, as in a chain store?

Or perhaps you'll see something a chain in length, such as a cricket pitch (that's 20.12 m long).

photo by SovalValtos

It has been said (by Jean-Jacques Rousseau) that man is born free but that everywhere he is in chains.

What do yours look like? 

And are they comfortable?

Spot the Frippet: chain. The Old French form of this word was chaine. Before that the word is probably connected with the Latin word for chain, which is catena.

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Sunday Rest: grough. Word Not To Use Today.

 A grough is a natural channel or firm place in a peat moor:

photo by Lis Burke

How do you say it?

Does it rhyme with grow, cow, zoo, lough, or saw?


It's said gruff, as a matter of fact.

But how on earth anyone's supposed to know that I can't imagine.

Word Not To Use Today: grough. This is a new word - well, it's from the 1900s, anyway - so there's really no excuse for the impossible spelling. The word might come from an obsolete spelling of gruff in its obsolete meaning of a bit of rough terrain

But wherever it originated, the people who coined it were far too busy showing off to be a help to anybody.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Saturday Rave: Upon the Swallow by John Bunyan

What do you think when you see a swallow?

I saw one yesterday, swooping almost to the ground over a muddy farmyard puddle. I marvelled at the way it cut through the air, the grace and speed of it.

I wondered if the puddle had engendered insects, or attracted them, for the swallow to eat.

I wondered at the swallow's being alone, and wondered if it had a mate somewhere close sitting on a clutch of eggs.

My companion was a keen bird watcher. I'm sure he would have been noticing and thinking quite different things. About migration, perhaps.

John Bunyan is best known for writing The Pilgrim's Progress. That great work was about how a man can live his life according to his Christian faith.

When John Bunyan sees a swallow, he sees something quite different from me.

This pretty bird, O! how she flies and sings,
But could she do so if she had not wings?
Her wings bespeak my faith, her songs my peace;
When I believe and sing my doubtings cease.

And there's the central the miracle of Art for you.

Dancing Beauty With A Swallow, China

Word To Use Today: swallow. The Old English form of this word is swealwe.

Friday, 16 July 2021

Word To Use Today: prosit!

 Prosit is Latin, and, as such, I'm afraid that it isn't a lot of practical use.

Still, an echo of the word can be heard in the word prost, which is the word used when knocking back an alcoholic drink in German-speaking countries. The Latin word means may it be beneficial.

photo by Egien

They are strange things, when you think about them, these drinking-up words. Lots of them are ways of saying be healthy (the Spanish salud, the Welsh iechyd da, and the Russian za zdorovye, for example. I imagine it's because people feel they need an excuse for drinking alcohol: the immediate affects can be unfortunate, and the after-effects dire, so pretending the stuff is a kind of medicine probably soothes quite few consciences).


The English cheers! is nothing to do with health, just immediate happiness. (The word comes from the Latin cara, which means face, and before that from the Greek kara, which means head.)

The Scandinavians say skål! (a skål is a shared drinking bowl) though the Finns tend to say kippis, which comes from the German expression die Gläser kippen, or knock back the glasses.

The Turkish Şerefe! means To Honour!

China's word is ganbei which means dry cup (chin chin is originally Chinese, too, in the form ch'ing-ch'ing, though it's used in Italy and other European countries. It means please-please) and the Moldovan noroc means Luck!

Can one deduce anything about drinking culture in different countries from these words?

I don't know.

But do have fun trying.

Thursday, 15 July 2021

Flying Cars: a rant.

 You know all those futuristic gadgets we were supposed to be using by the year 2000? The food dispenser, the moon-village, the holo-deck?

No, they didn't, did they. 

Ah well.

But still, the flying car is here. Yes, really. You can see pictures of it HERE. The newly-invented AirCar flew from Nitra to Bratislava the other day (it can fly six hundred miles at 120 miles per hour) and after it landed at Bratislava airport its inventor, Professor Stefan Klein of the company Klein Vision, folded the vehicle's wings away neatly (it only takes three minutes) and drove right into the city.

The AirCar isn't licensed for commercial flight, yet, but that surely can't be long...

...except, hang on...

Michael Cole, the president of Hyundai's European operations, and a man who presumably knows the market, has just dashed my hopes. He says he expects flying cars will be widely available by the end of the decade, which is good news, but even then I'm afraid they aren't going to be a lot of use.

'There's some time,' he says, 'before we can really get this off the ground'.


Word To Use Today: ground. The Old English form of this word is grund and the Old High German form is grunt.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Nuts and Bolts: stripping.

 You didn't think that grammarians are interested in stripping, did you? But they are.

And there's a lot of it about.

The theory of stripping (when you're talking about language) can be complicated, but basically it's an extreme form of gapping, which is missing out a chunk of a sentence because you're already said that bit.

Mary smiles adoringly at babies, and Ann cats.

is saying that Mary smiles adoringly at babies and Ann smiles adoringly at cats. But all that's left of the last bit is a single word. That's stripping.

Would you like to eat, or dance?

Chloe can help Zoe put on her bridesmaid's dress, then Zoe Chloe. 

...which is a rather neat example of stripping while putting the clothes on.

Only grammarians could imagine something like that.

Word To Use Today: stripping. The word strip comes from the Old English bestriepan, which means to plunder.

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Thing To Be Today: indefatigable.

 Today is a day to take everything in your stride. To climb that hill with perfect ease, to jump that stream, write all those letters, tidy that bedroom, weed the patch, patch the strides, stride the track, track the treasure, treasure the people, people the garden, garden the weeds, weed the patch...

But what I want to know is, what's doing all that stuff with indefatigable energy got to do with being fat?

Thing To Be Today: indefatigable. If being defatigable is to do with not being fat, then being indefatigable must be to do with being fat, yes?

Disappointingly, nope. The central fat but of the word indefatigable comes, sadly, from the same root as fatigue, which is from the Latin word fatīgāre, which means to tire. Dēfatīgāre means not tiring, and the in- bit just means extra, as in inflame.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Spot The Frippet: garage.

 Well, this should be easy, but I thought we'd better spot garages while we can, before they go obsolete.

The domestic kind of garages are being converted to other purposes at a tremendous rate, partly because mostly they're too small to get a car inside (and, if they are big enough, they're not big enough to let you get out of the car once it is. Unless you fit through the sun roof) and the buying-petrol sort of garage will soon not have any customers needing petrol, which is bound to put a bit of a dampener on the business model.

photo by Johan Jönsson

But let's look on the bright side, perhaps we'll all still be swinging into garages to plug in our vehicles for a quick charge. Or perhaps we'll be swinging into garages to slot in a new hydrogen cartridge.

Or perhaps we'll decide not to bother to go anywhere, and just to send a text message. Who knows?

Still, I suppose even electric cars will break down, so mending-cars garages should survive. The fleet of ancient fossil fuel cars that people will hold onto as long as possible will certainly need lots of servicing.

I've hardly ever never seen an architecturally magnificent garage - or even a very well-built one, come to that. The buildings seem nearly as transitory as the vehicles they supply.

Here's a magnificent exception:

photo by David Eliff,_London,_UK_-_Diliff.jpg

Still, today is a day to appreciate them while they're still there.

Spot the Frippet: garage. Extra points for spotting a domestic garage with a car in it. The word garage is French. You can pronounce this word GARRidge or GARahj, but it's best not to be too French about it (gaRRAHje) if you're speaking English because it'll make you look a snob and an idiot (but of course it's fine if you're speaking French). The word comes from the French garer, to dock a ship, the Old French meaning of which is to protect. Before that it came from the Old High German warōn

Garage music has been defined by Wikipedia thus: a genre of electronic dance music which originated in England in the early to mid-1990s. The genre was most clearly inspired by garage house, but also incorporates elements from R&B, jungle, and dance-pop. It is defined by percussive, shuffled rhythms with syncopated hi-hats, cymbals and snares, and may include either 4/4 house kick patterns or more irregular "2.step" rhythms. Garage tracks also commonly feature 'chopped up' and time-stretched or pitch-shifted vocal samples complementing the underlying rhythmic structure at a tempo usually around 130 BPM.

A garage sale is a cheap opportunity for a person's neighbours to despise his, her or their (other pronouns are available) taste.

Sunday, 11 July 2021

Sunday Rest: methinks.

 In the great churning that is the English language, it is natural that most new words will be ugly. This doesn't matter much because a lot of new words are slang, and slang is largely a signifier of newness, and signs of newness, obviously, can't last long. The ugliness is soon swept away into cringing oblivion.

(This also means that old people will very often sound ridiculous using slang. Well, I must say that saves a lot of us a lot of bother.)

But there is the odd word which creeps into current language which doesn't even have the excuse of newness to recommend it. Such a one is methinks.

The purpose of using this word, I believe, is to signal intellectual profundity. All it actually signals is a blindness to the sensitivities of language so profound that the speaker can't even spot it in himself.

So, hey, I suppose even a word like methinks has its uses.

Sunday Rest: methinks. This word, Wikipedia tells me, is used at least a hundred and fifty times by Shakespeare. As two words - me thinks - its trail goes right back to Old English.

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Saturday Rave: From My Diary, July 1914 by Wildred Owen.

The month of May has loads of poems, and so does June. August brings the poetic joys of holidays and harvest.

But July poems?

Not so many. It's a rather exhausting month, July: it's basically June with the freshness taken off it.

Anyway, here's an example of a July poem. Well, it's a bit of verse, really - and not terribly good verse, at that. It was written by the very great poet Wilfred Owen in the month before the start of World War I.

If you're at all familiar with Wilfred Owen's war poetry then it's really interesting. 

If you know that Wilfred Owen was gay then it's interesting, too.

From My Diary, July 1914

Murmuring by miriads in the shimmering trees.
Wakening with wonder in the Pyrenees.
Cheerily chirping in the early day.
Singing of summer, scything thro' the hay.
Shaking the heavy dews from bloom and frond.

Bursting the surface of the ebony pond.
Of swimmers carving thro' the sparkling cold.
Gleaming with wetness to the morning gold.
A mead
Bordered about with warbling water brooks.
A maid
Laughing the love-laugh with me; proud of looks.

The heat
Throbbing between the upland and the peak.
Her heart
Quivering with passion to my pressed cheek.
Of floating flames across the mountain brow.
Of stillness; and a sighing of the bough.
Of leaflets in the gloom; soft petal-showers;
Expanding with the starr'd nocturnal flowers.

Word To Use Today: ebony. This word, which describes the very hard and black wood of a group of tropical trees, goes right back through Latin and Greek to an Egyptian word hbny. The trees grow further south than Egypt, though, in Africa, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.


Friday, 9 July 2021

Word To Use Today: mullock.

 Here's a word so vigorous and satisfying that many people over the centuries have seized upon it with glee.

The first dictionary entry for mullock defines the word as the waste material from a mine, and, hence, worthless material or rubbish. 

Then there are local uses of the word to mean a state of confusion, or a mess or a muddle. You've made a right mullock of that.

If you're in Australia or New Zealand - and, after all, many people are - then mullock is rock containing no gold, or rock that's had its gold extracted. Mullock can also mean worthless information, or nonsense, and to poke mullock at someone is to make fun of them.

Dictionaries, however, only reporting facts rather than making suggestions, overlook the word's potential for relieving the feelings.

So, next time you pick up a mug and the breakable coaster comes with it, I do believe that a useful response might be oh mullock!

It won't mend the coaster, but it'll be quite consoling, all the same.

Word To Use Today: mullock. The Old English word for dust was myl, and the Old Norse mylja means to crush.

Thursday, 8 July 2021

A dressing-down: a rant.

 The work suit has had its day, apparently. Shahidha Bari, professor at the London School of Fashion, says this is a good thing.

“Think of the implicit force in the words buttons, braces, zips, cuffs and ties,' she says. 'Even in its verb forms – the ‘collaring’ and ‘buttonholing’, for instance, that mean to entrap or corner – the language of the suit suppresses and restrains.”


photo of some terrifyingly forceful people by Harry Walker

...I'm not sure that the word button has much implicit force. For instance, a button-nose isn't scary, and some people are even said to be as cute as a button

The buttonhole (that is, the buttonhole in the lapel. You know, the one where there's no corresponding button to go into it) belongs to the formal jacket, though not necessarily to the suit. And other buttonholes get everywhere: even jeans have buttonholes.

I don't know quite what Professor Bari would like men to wear to the office, but I'm afraid that whatever it is it is likely to have a zip and a collar. 

Braces are seldom worn nowadays, and suits don't have cuffs (I know they sometimes do in America, but we call them turn-ups here in England. Anyway, whatever you call them, they're out of date). 

The tie is so called, I would imagine, because it is...tied. I'll agree that ties are, and might sound, oppressive; but that's the opposite of forceful. 

There are several reasons why a man's formal work clothes are impractical, expensive, and uncomfortable, but I don't think the language of it's constituent parts has much to do with anything.

After all, a suit suits people, doesn't it.

The clue's in the name.

Word To Use Today: suit. This word comes from the Old French sieute, a set of things, from sivre, which means to follow.

Wednesday, 7 July 2021

Nuts and Bolts: pretonic.

 I don't know if a pretonic sounds more like a drink intended to take the edge off your thirst before you start on the gin, or some medicine to keep you in good condition.

It's certainly a more inviting name than vitamin tablet.

Rather sadly, a pretonic is neither of those pleasant and useful things, but a term to describe the bit of a word immediately before the syllable that's most heavily stressed.

The pretonic of the word pretonic is therefore pre, in the word conditioning con, and in the word abracadabra it's ca

On the other hand, the words pleasant and useful, having their stress on the first syllable, don't have a pretonic at all.

But I really don't think they're bothered.

Word To Use Today: one with a pretonic, perhaps. Pre- comes from the Latin word prae, before, and tonic is from the Greek tonos, which means tone.

Tuesday, 6 July 2021

Thing To Do Today: baffle someone.

 As Emma says, one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.

As Polonius says, to thine own self be true.

Now, just because Emma and Polonius are both rather foolish characters, it doesn't mean that they don't talk sense from time to time. This is a day to embrace your pleasures, however baffling they may be to others.

So: update your moth spread-sheet. Watch the football. Play your recorder. Make a paper flamingo. Take that car engine to pieces. Wear those stilettos. Swim in that river. Watch that soap. Eat some rotten fish (you're probably Swedish if you're doing this. It's called surströmming).

Knit a sock. Go train spotting.

And whatever you do, whatever funny looks you get, enjoy every moment.

Word To Use Today: baffle. This word is, well, baffling. It might come from the Scots dialect word bachlen, to condemn publicly; or it might come from the French bafouer, to disgrace or ridicule, or from the French word beffer, to mock or deceive.


Monday, 5 July 2021

Spot The Frippet: jeopardy.

 Today is a day to look for a little jeopardy to spice up our lives.

You could do it literally and add some pepper to your dessert:

photo by Glen MccClarty

or order a shirt in a pattern which might not suit you:

or leave your own umbrella at home:

New Orleans. Photo by Bart Everson

or watch an episode of something scary like, um, Scooby Doo.

Or wear your high heels.

Or go out without your phone. 

Or you could put an entirely arbitrary and unnecessary deadline on some task that's much better done in an un-rushed and careful way...

...and then film it for a popular TV show.

There are just three things to remember.

1. Don't do anything really stupid.

2. Thank your lucky stars that the real jeopardy is being experienced by other people.

3. See if you can think of some way to help them.

Spot the Frippet: jeopardy. This word comes from the French jeu parti, which means divided game (that's the kind of game you play, not a carved-up pleasant) and therefore an uncertain outcome. The word jeu comes from the Latin jocus, which is a joke or game, and parti comes from the Latin partīrī, divide.

Sunday, 4 July 2021

Word Not To Use Today: ophiuchusgender.

 If we can accept for the time being that gender defines what turns us on, then to understand this word we obviously need to know what or who Ophiuchus is.

Ophiuchus is a sign of the zodiac used in some systems of astrology. This means that Ophiuchus is a group of stars (or, rather, something which appears to be a group of stars if you view it from Earth) through which the sun appears to rise at a certain time of the year.

The zodiac group Cancer is said to resemble a crab, and Aquarius a lady carrying a jug of water.

Ophiuchus is said to look like a man ( perhaps the god Apollo, perhaps Aesculapius) wrestling with a snake.

It is very hard to believe that this was not originally a joke.

Anyway, there are those who believe that people born on the days when the sun is rising through the constellation Ophiuchus are ardent, and hungry for knowledge. People who call themselves ophiuchusgender might feel that this forms the basis of their choice of romantic partner, or they might be people who change their preferred choice of partner according to where the sun is rising, and so be ophiuchus-orientated only some of the time.

I'll make just one criticism of this word. When you say it, it sounds as if you're very drunk and trying to say officegender.

Well, nearly all of us have experienced that.

Word Not To Use Today: ophiuchusgender. The Greek word ophioukhos means holding a serpent. Orphis means serpent and ekhein means to hold or keep.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Saturday Rave: Before Summer Rain by Rainer Maria Rilke.

 Because it is high summer here in England, I have been thinking a lot about rain. A neighbour has asked me to water her plants while she is away on holiday, but I have been doing more draining than watering.

Ah well.

If you want a poem about rain, what better person could there be to wrote it than a man called Rainer? 

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 - 1926, was born in Prague. His father wanted him to be a soldier and his mother wanted him to be her dead daughter. He ended up a writer and poet.

Good for him.

Before Summer Rain

Suddenly, from all the green around you,
something - you don't know what - has disappeared;
you feel it creeping closer to the window,
in total silence. From the nearby wood

you hear the urgent whistling of a plover,
reminding you of someone's Saint Jerome:
so much solitude and passion come
from that one voice, whose fierce request the downpour

will grant. The walls, with their ancient portraits, glide
away from us, cautiously, as though
they weren't supposed to hear what we are saying.

And reflected on the faded tapestries now;
the chill, uncertain sunlight of those long
childhood hours when you were so afraid.


Word To Use Today: Jerome. St Jerome was a Christian scholar, born about the year 350 AD, whose most important achievement (apart from, perhaps, the saint thing) was writing the Vulgate translation of the Bible. What he has to do with rain I do not know, but I imagine the reference is to the power of his language.

Jerome means sacred name, from the words hieros, sacred, and onoma, name.

Friday, 2 July 2021

Word To Use Today: mulct.

 I mostly like this word because of the sound of it.



Is there another word in the English language which has the letter sequence lct in it? Probably, but I can't think of one.

Mulct sounds as if it should describe something soft and delicious. The rounded mulct of the ice cream shone enticingly in the sun. Or perhaps it should describe the sound of someone wading through melted chocolate.

But it doesn't.

In fact mulct is rather an odd word because it can mean to cheat or defraud someone (why do you defraud someone, and not merely fraud them? Must do some research) and it can also mean to fine them.

I suppose that in both cases you're taking money from someone against his or her or their will, but usually words have the goodie/baddie thing worked out quite rigidly.


It's a word which needs saying far more often.

And, as we all pay taxes, I'm rather surprised it isn't.

Word To Use Today: mulct. The Latin word multa means a fine.

Thursday, 1 July 2021

Logic: a rant.

 There being very little difference, from a language point of view, between the statements Vaccines make you sterile, Having two X chromosomes makes you a woman, and Carbohydrates make you fat, it strikes me that what the world needs now - and needs really quite desperately - is a thorough course in critical thinking and logic.

Word To Use Today: logic. This word comes from the Old French logique, from the Latin logica, from the Greek logicos which means to do with speech or reasoning.

A note in my Collins dictionary says that although the word logica is a neuter plural, it was used as a feminine singular in Mediaeval times. 

Ah well.

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

Nuts and Bolts: percontation marks.

 This is a percontation mark:

It was invented in 1580, or about then, by Henry Denham (though not named by him) and it signals...well, whatever you want it to signal. Basically, it means what I've just written isn't quite as straightforward as it might appear.

Yes, it's a kind of irony mark. 

You might say that if the percontation mark had been needed then we would already be using it, but perhaps its time has now come. We have a, which means that a lot of people are having to communicate in a second or third language.

A percontation mark could be the written equivalent of that astonishing habit Americans have of saying only joking after they've made a joke. (This is astonishing to an English person because in England practically everything anyone says is likely to be a joke. Even Good morning.)

Having spent most of my life trying to learn to write clearly and amusingly, I feel about the percontation mark the way a portraitist must feel about photographs. 

But I suppose they're better than emojis, #joke, or (!), anyway.

Thing To Consider Today: percontation marks. A percontation is a question which requires more than a yes or no answer. The Oxford dictionaries point the word's English origin to Henry Cockeram in the 1600s. In Latin percontāre means to enquire or interrogate. The word comes from contus, which means, most surprisingly, boat-pole. 

The unicode for the percontation mark is U+2E2E.

Now I just need to find out what unicode is...

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: otiose.

 Otiose is a word one comes across in Victorian novels and never really understands...

...or perhaps that's just me.

Anyway, I've looked it up, now, and otiose has two basic meanings: the commoner one is serving no useful purpose (this is usually to do with people speaking at great length without actually saying very much), but the word can also be used to mean lazy in a disinclined-to-do-anything kind of a way.

As a writer for children, and especially as a writer for people learning to read, I tend to construct my books on a value-per-word basis, but some degree of otiosity is essential to twenty-four hours news channels. It's all too often alive and thriving in Zoom meetings, too.

You know something? I could probably make a fortune with a Zoom-type system which cuts out after sixty minutes.

And an even greater one if it was half an hour.

Thing Not To Be Today: otiose. This word comes from the Latin ōtium, which means leisure.

Monday, 28 June 2021

Spot the Frippet: tin.

 This is easier to spot in Britain, Canada and Australia than in the USA because in those places baked beans come in tins, not cans.

Mind you, a lot of what are called tins aren't actually made of tin - and those that are, have only a very thin coating of tin over a steel structure. But in those cases it's the tin you see.

tin of tea. Photo by Chameleon 

A tinny in Australia and New Zealand is a tin of beer (but this will probably be made of aluminium).

Wriggly tin isn't made of tin, either, being military slang for something most people call corrugated iron (although it's probably made of stainless steel).

photo by Oxyman

A tin whistle is probably made of steel, too.

Anyway, tin is a metal, greyish with a slight yellow tint. If you bend a bar of it, it 'cries' (that is, it makes a soft screaming or crackling noise).

You don't often come across things made of pure tin, but anything made of pewter or bronze (like some coins (tin is slang for money) and large bells) will have some tin in it. So has solder. 

You need tin in the mix to make the pipes of an organ:

organ at Saint-Germain l'Auxerroisin Paris. Photo by Gérard Janot 

and also to make superconducting magnets. Tin goes into toothpaste and pest killers. You get it in lithium batteries.

Oddly, in the light of tin's association with bells and whistles and pipe organs, someone with a tin ear has dubious taste in music. Someone tin-eared may also be someone who upsets people by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

The association with bad sounds goes even further, because something tinny makes an annoying sound lacking in resonance - and it will probably be cheap and badly-made, too.

Spot the Frippet: tin. This word has been around in English since before 1000 AD. Some people think it may go back to the Cornish word stean, Cornwall being the main source of tin in ancient times.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

Sunday Rest: welfie. Word Not To Use Today.

 A welfie is much the same kind of thing as a selfie or a belfie, and may possibly be all three at once.

Such a triple -elfie, though, would involve taking a photograph of your own bottom while exercising.


...yes, that mght be possible, if not to be recommended on aesthetic, health, taste, or any other grounds.

Still, I suppose such an attempt might end up making some work for a chiropractor.

And even chiropractors have to eat.

Sunday Rest: welfie. A welfie is a photographic self-portrait taken while exercising (which means that welfie posters are smug, as well as boastful). 

The word is made up of the words well and selfie. The word well was wel in Old English, so it's been doing sterling service for over a thousand years.

Saturday, 26 June 2021

Saturday Rave: Ode on Solitude by Alexander Pope.

 Alexander Pope was vastly unpopular among the gentlemen of the press, and very much loved by his friends.

His family was exiled from London because they were Catholic, and so the young Alexander had largely to teach himself the Greek and Latin that he loved. To add to his difficulties, he contracted tuberculosis of the spine at an early age. This disease left him a hunchback and only four feet six inches tall.

Pope is reckoned to have been the first person in England to have made a living as a writer of literature, and he was (I think) the greatest ever exponent of the heroic couplet. His satire is sharp, and often very funny.

Alexander Pope was no angel. He enjoyed a good feud, and he was well able to survive, and perhaps even relish, the resentment caused by his designating as dunces, in immortal verse, a large proportion of his fellow writers.

This being the case, his Ode to Solitude might come across as rather hypocritical.

But then he did always claim to have written it at the age of twelve.

For myself, I'm rather fond of Alexander Pope.

Happy the man, whose wish and care

   A few paternal acres bound,

Content to breathe his native air,

                            In his own ground.


Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,

   Whose flocks supply him with attire,

Whose trees in summer yield him shade,

                            In winter fire.


Blest, who can unconcernedly find

   Hours, days, and years slide soft away,

In health of body, peace of mind,

                            Quiet by day,


Sound sleep by night; study and ease,

   Together mixed; sweet recreation;

And innocence, which most does please,

                            With meditation.


Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;

   Thus unlamented let me die;

Steal from the world, and not a stone

                            Tell where I lie.

Word To Use Today: meditation. This word looks as if it's made up of different bits, but it's meant the same thing more or less for ever. The Latin meditārī means to reflect upon [something].

Friday, 25 June 2021

Word To Use Today: plexor.

 Plexor sounds like a super-hero, but it's not.

A plexor is a small hammer with a rubber head. It's the thing with which the doctor hits you on the knee to check your reflexes.

photo by Sven Volkens

I've never wanted to be a doctor, but I suppose that is probably one fun bit.

Word To Use Today: plexor. This word comes from the Greek plēxis, a stroke, from plēssein, to strike.

The word plexor has got nothing to do with most other words with plex- in them, like complex, which comes from the Latin plectere, to plait, or complexion, which comes from more or less the same idea as complex, but has the idea of bodily characteristics (Latin complexiō) mixed up in it, too.

Thursday, 24 June 2021

The Swamps of Amazon

 There's a new edition of one of my books being published soon. It's called Hand & Foot, and it's a story set in the 1790s in a small town in Southern England. Two girls, one rich, one poor, both finding a way to be themselves. It's aimed at readers of about ten years old.

Well, I looked it up on Amazon to see if it was available, yet, and it isn't (though the old (first) edition is still for sale if anyone out there is interested. It has some lovely illustrations by Alex Paterson). 

Amazon did, however, have some suggestions of similar books that might do instead.

Now, computer-generated book recommendations should work well: the Amazon computer has information on the star ratings of far more books than any human critic can.

So, what did the Amazon computer suggest as a substitute for my Georgian mid-grade story?

1. How To Be A Freelance Writer

2. Four adult colouring books (including one called Amazing Sea Life Vol 2)


3. Peter the Picky Polar Bear.

Ah well. 

As a part-time critic I suddenly feel almost competent.

Word To Use Today: recommendation. This word comes from the Latin word commendāre, which is a strong form of the word mandāre, to entrust.

I ought to say here that I've never bought any kind of a colouring book or anything about polar bears. 

And that I actually know how to be a freelance writer already.

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Nuts and Bolts: hyponymy and hypernymy.

 Hyponymy (yes, we're back to Greek again) is when a word describes one member of a larger group of things. For instance, a captain is one of a group of the people called soldiers; a teaspoon is one of a group of utensils called cutlery; a killer shark is one of a group of animals called fish.

The opposite of hyponymy is hypernymy. That's when a word describes a group with lots of different members. So, a pet describes many different kinds of animal; an evergreen describes many different...but you get the idea.

I can't see that knowing about hyponymy and hypernymy is any use at all.

But, hey. it can't do any harm, can it.

And it just might help get those hypo- and hyper- prefixes into our heads.

Words To Consider Today: hyponymy and hypernymy. Huper is the Greek for over, hupo is the Greek for under. Onoma is the Greek for name.

Actually, the easiest way to get the hypo- and hyper- things straight is to think of a hypodermic needle, which goes under the skin, and a hyperactive person, who is over-active.

Tuesday, 22 June 2021

Thing Not To Do Today: oscitate.

 Osculate means to kiss, which we can't do very much at the moment what with social distancing and everything, but we can all oscitate.

Mind you, I hope that none of us will want to.

Thing Not To Do Today: oscitate. To oscitate is to yawn. This may be from weariness or boredom (which is why I'm keeping this post short).

I can only suggest taking an interest in everything you can.

photo of Scottish wild cat by Peter Trimming

The word oscitate comes from the Latin oscitare. Os means mouth, and citare is an extra-strong version of the word ciere, to move.

Monday, 21 June 2021

Spot the Frippet: pig.

 Well, yes, there are these:

and these:

photo of a wild boar by Richard Bartz

but a dirty person is also a pig; and so is a mass of some metal such as iron or copper cast into a simple shape for ease of transportation:

By Mfields1 at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

In Britain, a task that's difficult or irksome is a pig (I hope that today won't bring you one of those), as is a salt container like this: 

Auckland Museum

Pigs are also often found in dining rooms. 

And not exclusively on the plates.

Spot the Frippet: pig. This word appeared as pigge in the 1200s. No one know where it came from before that, but the theory is that it's to do with the Old English picbrēd, which means acorn, which were used as food for pigs.

Pig iron is so called because when being cast the metal was often given the form of a long cylinder with smaller cylinders arranged at right angles down the sides, so they looked rather like a pig feeding its piglets.