This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday 31 December 2021

Word To Use Today: stillicide.

 Well, stillicide must mean either making a huge amount of noise on a quiet day, or else breaking up some liquor-making equipment, yes?

Well, actually no. Neither of those.

This may be New Year's Eve, and a day when we are supposed to think about the death of the old year and the dawn of a new one - and admittedly a -cide ending is very often to do with killing someone or something - but, hey, there's enough misery around as it is.

Stillicide is a legal right or duty (and how refreshing, if unfashionable, to have those two concepts mentioned in the same sentence) to do with rainwater running off a roof.

photo by skitterphoto

I love this word. I gives me faith that I live among kind and civilised people, and that, on the whole, things will be all right.

rainy day in Nottingham. Photo by Alan Murray-Rust

Word To Use Today: stillicide. This word comes from the Latin stillicidium, from stilla, a drop, plus cadere, to fall.

Thursday 30 December 2021

Agreeable Opposites: a rant.

'It doesn't matter when they come,' said my daughter, 'as long as they're safe.'

To which, the statement being in the larger scheme of things true (it's all right for those who don't have to do the catering!) I answered Yes at precisely the same moment as my husband said No.

And were all three of us in perfect agreement.

I still hope that one day I'll really get the hang of this language stuff. 

But there's not much sign of it, so far. 

Word To Use Today: yes. The Old English form of this word was gēse, and before that it was iā sīe, which means let it be.

Wednesday 29 December 2021

Nuts and Bolts: Death Knells.

 Do not seek to know for whom the bell tolls, says John Donne. And goes on to say it tolls for thee.

illustration by William Henry Stone

Luckily, that is probably not actually physically true. (It is possible, though, because there are three occasions when traditionally the bell tolls: the first is the passing bell, when death is imminent; the second is the death knell to announce that death has occurred; and the third is the lych bell, at the funeral. (Lych means corpse.))

The death knell comes in various local forms. The best-known is probably the tailors: three tailors (strokes of the bell) for the death of a child; six for a woman; and nine for a man. That's

sometimes followed by a stroke for every day of the life lived. In the Basque country further information might be conveyed as to whether the deceased was a priest or a monk, and even his or her economic status. This is called the hil-kanpaiak.

Another way bells can mark a death is by putting a leather pad on one side of the clapper of the bell. This means that every other stroke of the bell has an unearthly, remote, echoing sound. 

Muffling both sides of the clapper happens only after the death of the sovereign.

Let's hope none of us hear that any time soon.

Word To Use Today: tailor. This word, when used to describe a death-knell, used to be teller, as in someone who counts. The Old English form was tellan, and the Old High German word zellen means tell or count.

Tuesday 28 December 2021

Thing To Be Today: still.

 Let's be still. Just for a minute.

Listen to the birds, or the traffic, or the silence.

Listen to your thoughts. Which way do they go? There will be slopes down which they tend to topple. Is that movement a helter-skelter?

helter skelter, Clacton, England. Photo by Rwendland

Or a water chute? Or an avalanche?

It's all right, you can change the landscape if you want. You just have to work out what's going on.

Be still.

Thing To Be Today: still. This word was stille in Old English and goes right back to the Sanskrit word sthānús, which means immobile.

Monday 27 December 2021

Spot the Frippet: a summit.

 You're probably in need of some exercise after all that food, so how about finding a summit and then climbing up to the top of it?

If you live on a great plain then it'll just be a longer walk or ride, that's all:

photo by Grutness. Kakanui Range

Or if you have an ambition then that will have a summit, and perhaps that's in sight. Or perhaps you'll find some way of reaching some summit of pleasure. Ahem. (Though it might just involve ice cream.)

A summit is a meeting of world leaders, but in the natural desire of small men for importance soon every meeting of the smallest town council will probably be called a summit. However, we're not quite there, yet, so it's off to the hills for me to feel the wind in my thick woolly bobble hat and to glory in the magnificent view of the...fog.

Well, it'll be lovely when I'm home again, anyway.

Spot the Frippet: summit. This word comes from the Old French somet, a little som, from the Latin summus, which means highest. It's basically the same word as sum.

Sunday 26 December 2021

Sunday Rest: a word beginning with Z.

 Well, if you're here then you must have survived Christmas.

Well done!

Today is the Feast of Stephen...though when I say feast, that's in the sense of a religious day of observance. I mean, no one is going to want to eat anything after yesterday...except that we will eat, however bloated and hungover and zonked we are.

I've been looking for a Christmassy Word Not To Use Today, and I came across a website featuring a list of Christmas words beginning with a letter zed.

Well, I couldn't think of one off-hand - zealotry? - so I followed the link. The list said: zoom, zigzag, zest, zucchini and zesty.

These are all rather nice words, though none of them has any connection at all with Christmas. Absolutely zero. Zilch.

So avoiding words beginning with zed today is going to be quite easy.

Isn't it?

Sunday Rest: one beginning with zed. The word zoom is a 1900s imitation of the sound something makes as it zooms away. Zigzag comes from the German Zickzack, from Zacke, a sharp projection or point. Zest comes from the French zeste, in the meaning of the peel of a citrus fruit. Zucchini (which in England we call courgettes) comes from the Italian zucca, a gourd.

Saturday 25 December 2021

Saturday Rave: Every Star Shall Sing A Carol by Sydney Carter.

 The Story of the Nativity is a very beautiful thing even if, like me, you don't really believe it.

If you get a chance today to snatch a moment between trying to find a way to make the Brussels sprouts palatable (and drenching them in maple syrup is, frankly, an abomination) and breaking up fights between the two Aunties, then this carol by Sydney Carter will give you a glimpse of that long cool beauty.

Who can tell what other cradle?
High above the Milky Way;
Still may rock the King of Heaven,
On another Christmas day.

Joy and peace to everyone this Christmas.

Word To Use Today: sing. We've all been singing for millennia. This word was singan in Old English.

Friday 24 December 2021

Word To Use Today: chestnut.

 So, what's so chesty about chestnuts?

Absolutely nothing at all. Well, you can keep them in chests if you want to, but that's nothing to do with the name.

Most of us come across chestnuts in one form or other, and they're traditional to a Northern Christmas. There are the kind that grow on trees and you can eat; the kind that grows on trees and you can't eat, like horse chestnuts (although some people have said they can cure breathing difficulties in horses).

(By the way, a horse's chestnut is a callous on its leg:

photo by Zeppo 1

It's believed to be a vestigial toe.)

There are also chestnuts which don't grow on trees, such as the water chestnut. In Britain these are found exclusively in tins, but in the East they are the corms of a tall marsh grass.

The chestnuts we eat in Britain at Christmas are best fresh, but we have special old chestnuts, too, often found inside our Christmas crackers. This kind of chestnut is very old, groan-worthy joke. Ancient anecdotes can be called old chestnuts, too.

Wherever you are in the world, this kind of chestnut is surely a midwinter - or midsummer - tradition.

Word To Use Today: chestnut. This word used to be chesten, and before that chasteine, from the Old French chastain. Before that was the Latin castanea and the Greek kastaneia. The Greeks thought this name came about because the trees originated in either Castanea or Castana, but there's an Armenian word kask which suggests that the word came from that direction.

The old chestnut, meaning an old story or joke, might come from the 1816 American melodrama The Broken Sword by William Dimond, which contains this piece of dialogue:

Zavior: At the dawn of the fourth day's journey, I entered the wood of Collares, when, suddenly from the thick boughs of a cork-tree—

Pablo: [Jumping up.] A chesnut, Captain, a chesnut!

Zavior: Bah! you booby, I say, a cork.

Pablo: And I swear, a chesnut—Captain! this is the twenty-seventh time I have heard you relate this story, and you invariably said, a chesnut, till now.


The actor Joseph Jefferson claimed the actor and comedian William Warren, who played Pablo, popularised the expression.

Thursday 23 December 2021

Eve eve eve: a rant.

 Today is the eve of Christmas Eve.

Traditionally in England on Christmas Eve we eat a mince pie, hang up stockings, and open the last window on our Advent Calendar. 

It's a happy time because here we don't even have to worry about whether we've been good during the course of the year. Father Christmas always leaves us presents, anyway (personally, I think the American Santa is quite mean. And un-saintly, too. And theologically ignorant. Jesus, it is said, was born as a gift to the world, not just to the good people. And, in fact, the good people (if there have ever been any truly good people) didn't actually need Him).


There is a new trend for giving children Christmas Eve boxes full of gifts, thereby, one would imagine, spoiling the glorious anticipation of Christmas Day itself. 

Children nowadays cannot be asked to wait, apparently.

Now, if this is the case, then think of the poor little souls tonight. We surely can't let them wait a whole day for their Christmas Eve box: we need to give them some presents today, too.

We could call this a Christmas Eve Eve box.

But then - and I'm sure you have already seen the problem - we can't expect all those little children to wait...

Christmas Eve Eve Eve? Christmas Minus Seven? 

Advent Advent?

The lack of a neat grammatical form for this kind of thing is quite a nuisance, but perhaps this is inevitable given that we have so recently acquired the wisdom and kindness to introduce the Christmas Eve box. 

The odd thing is, though, that I'm not sure that the darling children are actually all that much happier.

Word To Use Today: eve. This is a version of the word even, which is short for evening. The Old English form was ǣfen.

Wednesday 22 December 2021

Nuts and Bolts: that holiday feeling.

 What if you want the food and the presents and the getting together and fun and games of Christmas, but don't believe in Christ, or, indeed, mass?

In 1997 the City of Birmingham (the English one) came up with Winterval to cover the council-run festivities of midwinter; and in the USA people seem to say Happy Holidays.

There's Season's Greetings, of course. Or you could go with Have a Good Brumalia! if you are talking to an Ancient Roman. (And there's a better idea for Birmingham, too (Brum is a local nickname for Birmingham.))

I've read that some Jewish people go for a mash-up of Christmas and Hannukah and use the horrid Happy Christmukkah. But this may be a foul slur.

Happy Soltice is scientifically accurate (and also pagan).

Merry Saturnalia (also Roman) would do if you intend to throw a really wild topsy-turvy party, or Happy Yule if all you want to do is sleep like a log.

Or there are other midwinter festivals. There's the Welsh Alban Arthan (a fairly recent festival invented by a forger, but hey...) The East Asian Dongzhi, the Slavic Korochun, the Buddhist Sanghamitta Day, the Zuni Shalako, the Iranian Yalda, and the Ancient Latvian Ziemassvetki.

So what to do? 

Well, in Antarctica they go with Midwinter Day. I think that this is particularly big of them because for them it's actually their midsummer. 

I can't see how anyone could object to that.

But still, I'm sure plenty will.

Word To Use Today: the trouble is, can we wish people Happy anything in case that is less than understanding and supportive of their mental health?

In the words of Rick Nelson, you can't please everybody so you gotta please yourself.

Happy Christmas!

Tuesday 21 December 2021

Thing To Do Today: wrap.

 What's the worst part of Christmas?

What's the best?

Answers will vary, but wrapping the presents will be near the top of many lists. 

What with cutting the paper just too small again, and what with getting the sticky tape twisted up on itself and then losing the end of the blasted stuff; what with searching fruitlessly through the curling left-overs of paper for a piece big enough to cover that paperback that Cousin Rodney might like (even though he actually never reads books) and what with wondering how many trees have been chopped down to make the paper (and feeling guilty because the shiny pattern might mean it's not recyclable (or feeling guilty because there's no shiny stuff on the paper and it looks cheap)); what with resenting being guilt-tripped into using string instead of tape (it all keeps coming undone!) and what with wondering how on earth you wrap a flipping rocking horse...

Ah well! 

At least the parcels will be lovely when they're all piled up under the tree.

Until the cat pees on them.

Thing To Do Today: wrap. This word is marked origin unknown in my dictionary, but there's a Proto-Indo-European root werp- which means to turn or wind (werp is a lovely word!), which might be something to do with it; or it might be related to the word lap (as in Formula 1).

The first known mention of wrapping paper was in 1715.

Monday 20 December 2021

Spot the Frippet: berries.

 A berry is (according to the dictionary) an indehiscent fruit with two or more seeds and a fleshy pericarp...

...but that includes grapes and watermelons, which aren't what any non-botanist would think of as berries at all.

But never mind the botanists, we all know a berry when we see one. They're usually more or less spherical, and often red, and the birds eat them in winter.

If they're on holly then they are a symbol of Christmas:

photo by Jürgen Howaldt

The holly bears a berry

As red as any blood

And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ

For to do poor sinners good.

Or so they say.

For such an old word, berry has curiously few other meanings. Coffee beans are called berries, sometimes, and so are the eggs of lobsters:

 and so are the layers of earth used to make a wychert wall (which are only made in a very small area of England) but that's really about it.

They're still everywhere, though. 

Have fun spotting them:

cranberry sauce: photo by 

 But do be careful which you eat.

deadly nightshade. Photo by Donald Macauley

Spot the Frippet: berry. This word was berie in Old English.

Sunday 19 December 2021

Sunday Rest: pophit.

 When I first came across the word pophit in a newspaper I thought it was a mistyping of either profit or prophet.

What is it? I'll give you a clue. I came across the word in an obituary of the rather wonderful Mike Nesmith:

At a Monkees convention in 1966

Yep, it was actually a pop-hit.

That punctuation stuff isn't just there to make people feel inadequate, you know. It's to make writing work.

Pophit, indeed!

Sunday Rest: pophit. Pop is short for popular, from the Latin populus, people. The word hit was hittan in Old English.

Hey, I do wish there were videos available of Anglo-Saxon dancing.

Saturday 18 December 2021

Saturday Rave: The More It Snows by Winnie the Pooh (and A A Milne).

 Poetry can be enjoyed - and even composed - by those of little brain.

The more it snows (Tiddely pom)
The more it goes  (Tiddely pom)
The more it goes  (Tiddely pom)
On snowing

And nobody knows  (Tiddely pom)
How cold my toes (Tiddely pom)
How cold my toes (Tiddely pom)
Are growing

I find that thought immensely comforting.

Word To Use Today: toe. This word was in Old English. It's said to be related to the Latin word digitus

I suppose that must be true, somehow.

Friday 17 December 2021

Word To Use Today: clavicle.

 Here's a lovely word: 


It means collar-bone:

illustration (and there's a cool video HERE) by Anamatography

*Creative writing tip: breaking a collar-bone is a very useful injury to give someone in a novel if you want them to be out of action for a while and in pain, but can't get them medical attention or want them to be in danger of dropping dead.

Yes, novelists are a rotten lot.

There are other clavi-beginning words, and most of them have nothing at all to do with the word clavicle (in fact I think I'll keep them for a Spot the Frippet) but one word that's clavicle's sister, as it were, is clavichord:

Grande Gigue played by Ryan Lane Whitney, composed by Johann Wilhelm Häßler

Which gives us something fast, sweet and cheerful to finish this post.

Word To Use Today: clavicle. This word comes from the Latin clāvicula, from clāvis, key.

Thursday 16 December 2021

Museums: a rant.

 This is quite an old story, but one I haven't until now got round to verifying. 

(If you find yourself checking that the date hasn't somehow jumped on to April 1st without your noticing it, then the ICOM (International Council of Museums) web page HERE is from where most of the quotations have been lifted.)

The first question is: what is a museum? 

The next question is: who decides what is a museum? 

The further question is: what do we call the people who decide what is a museum?

The next paragraph, below, answers the last two questions. But only read it if you're prepared to be driven mad.

Aiming to respond to the need for a democratic and open process of consultation to the National Committees, International Committees, Regional Alliances and Affiliated Organisations that constitute ICOM, the Standing Committee for the Museum Definition formulated a new methodology going forward. The design of this methodology is based on greater transparency, as well as the careful listening to all proposals. At this point, members of MDPP2 agreed that a change in the name would be advisable and it was requested to the ICOM leadership that the new name be ICOM Define: Standing Committee for the Museum Definition.

As a matter of interest, the 2007 (and current) definition of a museum is:

A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.

I don't know if a definitive new definition has yet been reached, but one proposal has been quoted in the press:

Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people.

Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world, aiming to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality and planetary wellbeing.


After that I can only recommend an over-the-counter headache pill and a quiet lie-down.

Word To Use Today. A nice short simple one, please. Like clarity. That word comes form the Latin clārus, which means clear.


Wednesday 15 December 2021

Nuts and Bolts: sigmacism.

 (This is different from astigmatism, which is a fault of the eye which distorts the vision.)

Sigmacism is to do with the non-standard use of the s sound.

It may involve using it more often than most people do (this is often associated with poorly-fitting false teeth and/or drunkenness) or less than most people do (when it tends to be called a lisp).

The great heroine of sigmacism is Violet Elizabeth Bott in Richmal Crompton's William books:

illustration by Thomas Henry

who famously threatens to thcream and thcream until I'm thick. 

If you are presently feeling superior about your own crystalline pronunciation then I suggest you try saying six thick thistle sticks a few times at speed.

Not always so easy, is it?

Word To Use Today: sigmacism. The Greek letter sigma Ʃ is pronounced like the Roman letter S.

Tuesday 14 December 2021

Thing To Do Today: negotiate.

 The base-line is that slices of cake should all be the same size. 

If they're not, then there has to be a reason: the larger slice goes to the winner, or the visitor, or the hardest-working.

This belief in fairness runs deep into our consciousness and deeply through our language. A lord (who gets his own way) earns his privilege (the word lord means loaf-giver).

So we negotiate all the time: be a good boy, and you can have some ice cream. 

We even negotiate with ourselves: I'll do an hour's revision and then I'll watch TV.

We even, Heaven help us, negotiate with God: if you'll let her get better I'll give up gambling.

It can get very odd indeed.

But it's better than trying to get your own way by using a machete, after all.

Thing To Do Today: negotiate. The Latin word negōtīāre means to do business, from nec, not, and ōtium, leisure.

Monday 13 December 2021

Spot the Frippet: something hoary.

 Something hoary is covered in frost - or perhaps it just looks as if it's covered in frost - or perhaps it just looks as if it's old enough to look as if it's covered in frost.

Complicated, isn't it?

Let's start with some hoar frost:

photo by Jim Hammer

so beautiful!

And then here are some things which look as if they are covered in frost:

hoary marmot, photo by Steven Pavlov

hoary bat, photo by Paul Cryan, USA

There are hoary people, too:

lady from Laos. Photo by Basile Morin

Sometimes things can be hoary just because they're old. Like jokes, for instance. This is a joke from a writing box full of odds and ends I bought when I was a teenager. It's about the Prime Minister of the day.

What happened when the Duke of Wellington put his watch in the sea?

It got wet.

No, it's all right. 

I'll go away, now...

Spot the Frippet: something hoary. The Old English form of this word was hār. The related Old Slavonic word sêmeans grey.

Sunday 12 December 2021

Sunday Rest: Xi and Nu. Words Not To Use Today.

This bug that's going round... 

 To start with, new variants of the virus were called by the name of the place where they were first found. The first one was called Kent, but that just led to a lot of blaming of the people of Kent (it's in England, by the way) and so the World Health Organisation had a cunning wheeze and it said, I know, we'll call the new variants after the letters of the Greek alphabet and then, not only will it mean no one in particular can be blamed, but we'll also be able to tell how old each variant is. 

Well, everyone thought this was an excellent idea, and, as luckily no one thought of blaming the Greeks, everyone was happy.

But variants came along quite fast and we got through the Greek alphabet at quite a lick. Suddenly we were on Mu. This meant that the next variant was set to be called Nu, and everyone realised that would be silly because it would be a Nu new variant, and no one could stand up and announce that with a straight face. 

 Never mind, said someone, we'll skip Nu and go on to Xi, instead, that's next in the alphabet. 

But then someone remembered President Xi of China, who had long been both particularly interested in the World Health Organisation, and extremely keen on his own reputation bearing no possible spot or stain. 

So they skipped another letter and used omicron, instead. 

 Omicron is the name of a doctor in Trollope's Barchester Chronicles, but luckily he's fictional, so isn't complaining. 


 Sunday Rest: Nu and Xi. These are both letters of the Greek Alphabet. We have Pi to look forward to, next.

Saturday 11 December 2021

Saturday Rave: The Young Seamstress by Heo Nanseolheon, translated by David R. McCann


Heo Nanseolheon was was born much too early (1563) and died much too soon (1589) to have much of a career as a poet. Even so, she left us over two hundred wonderful poems in Chinese verse (hanshi).

She was lucky in having two poet brothers who recognised her talent at a very early age and fostered it. Sadly, her elder brother was exiled for his political beliefs, and, even more sadly, Heo Nanseolheon was unhappily married to a civil servant who deserted her for long periods of time.

Heo Nanseolheon seems to have an isolated and lonely life, but she left us such beauty. Here is a poem which is to be found in Early Korean Literature: Selections and Introductions by David R McCann New York: Columbia UP, 2000.



The Young Seamstress

How can this worn face appeal?
Working at embroidery, then returning to work at the weaving
from behind a gate where there is little or nothing and long without heat
The matchmaker won't let anyone know of one so meek.
All night without rest weaving the hempen cloth,
the loom going clack-clack, clack-clack, a chilly sound.
Weave one roll on the loom, and wonder
for whose house, whose daughter will it be a
Scissors in hand, cut the cloth in pieces;
and though the night is cold, all ten fingers are straight.
I make clothes for others going to be married,
while year after year, it is I who must sleep alone.

—Translated by David R. McCann

Word To Use Today: dowry. This word comes from the Anglo-French douarie, from the Latin dōtārium, from the Latin dōs, which means gift. 

Friday 10 December 2021

Word To Use Today: mandrel.

 No, not a mandrill:

photo by Robert Young

a mandrel:

photos by Mauro Cateb

Those are jewellery mandrels, the first lot used for forming the shape of rings etc, and the one in the second photograph used for designing necklaces.

Mandrels can also form part of a lathe:

this is a Swiss clockmaker's mandrel lathe. I'm a bit hazy about which part is the actual mandrel, but it seems to be the part that holds things in place so they can be turned.

In Britain, a mandrel is also a miner's pick.

I love the word mandrel because it sounds old. I love to think of all the mandrels wielded by craftsmen and labourers over the centuries who have made the world in which we live.

Much honour and gratitude to them all.

Word To Use Today: mandrel. There's a French word mandrin, which means lathe, and this word may be something to do with that.

The word mandrill comes from, um, man, plus drill, which is a West African word for a large monkey. 

Thursday 9 December 2021

Trigger-warning: a rant.

 Just when I thought that the world couldn't get any sillier, Aberdeen University has added a trigger-warning to Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped to warn its students that the book contains 'depictions of kidnapping'.

Well, we'd never have guessed.

Word To Use Today: kidnap. Nap is an obsolete word for to steal, an echo of which is still heard in the word nab. Kid is a Scandinavian word that's related to the Shetlands word kidi, which means lamb.

Wednesday 8 December 2021

Nuts and Bolts: Gesta Romanorum.

The Gesta Romanorum is a thirteenth-century version of an after-dinner speech anecdote book.

There are admittedly a few differences. The Gesta Romanorum are mostly in Latin (a bit of which still goes down very well in speeches, though it makes for a poor punchline) and instead of being aimed at well-oiled business-men, or self-congratulatory charity administrators, the Gesta Romanorum was aimed (officially, at least) at preachers.

The Gesta Romanorum tends to expound a moral, too.

I can't say the Gesta Romanorum are much read today, but the anecdotes therein (which might have originated in England or France or Germany) were snaffled up by Chaucer (in The Man of Lawe's Tale), and Shakespeare (King Lear), and Boccaccio, among others. 

Cordelia being tragic, by Sir John Gilbert

It was a best-seller in its time, and is available in translation still - which is more than most of those after-dinner anecdote books are going to be in eight years, let alone eight hundred.

Nuts and Bolts: the Gesta Romanorum. This means Deeds of the Romans, which is a bit confusing as not all the stories are about, um, the Romans.

Ah well, never mind.

Tuesday 7 December 2021

Thing To Do Today: jest.

 The French president M Macron has complained that the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, is not un homme sérieux, a serious man. 

M Macron seems to think that this a bad thing, but to the British being serious has very few attractions.

Anyway, jesting is interesting.

Why do people suddenly start making neighing noises and falling over when they are surprised by a movement or expression? 

Why does a sudden twist in a path of meaning give us such a rush of pleasure?

What's the point of jesting?

Well, happy people don't usually bother about starting wars, for one thing. 

If someone is funny then it shows they're creative, and almost certainly clever, for another. 

Jests very often rely on illuminating the grain of truth somewhere in an often murky mix, for a third.

Jesting may not be fashionable among the intellectuals of Paris (though M Macron did once liken himself to the god Jupiter, which still makes me laugh) but perhaps we'd be better off with more or it.

To be Jupiter, after all, as M Macron must know, is to be jovial.

Thing To Do Today: jest. The Latin word gesta means deeds, and gerere is to carry out something (but not in a coal scuttle-type way).

Monday 6 December 2021

Spot the Frippet: ink.

 We're just surrounded by this stuff. Just about every physical page you see will have some kind of ink on it, making a dark trickle of connection and knowledge down the millennia. Even though so much of what we see in now online, we still spend twenty billion dollars a year on good old ink.

The first ink was free, and probably made of soot. The Ancient Egyptians were using it in about 2600 BC, and the Chinese have been using more sophisticated glue-bound inks for a few millennia.

Ming Dynasty Moon Goddess

In mediaeval Europe, ink involved oak galls (the homes of insect larva):

photo by Franco Folini

 and wine.

woodcut by Albrecht Durer

Ink is an easy spot - and an easy blot, too - and there are other inky things around. the inkberry is a kind of American holly with black berries; a shaggy inkhorn is a European mushroom.

In Australia an inky smudge is a judge.

Today is a day to appreciate the joys of ink.

Spot the Frippet: ink. This word comes from the Old French encre, from the Greek enkauston, a purplish ink, from enkaiein, to burn in.

Sunday 5 December 2021

Sunday Rest: Yoon. Word Not To Use Today.

 A Yoon is someone who opposes Scotland becoming a country independent of England and Wales and Northern Ireland. 

There are, obviously, arguments for and against Scottish independence (in the referendum seven years ago fifty-five per cent of Scottish voters were against independence) but calling your opponents by silly names isn't going to win them round, so it's really best avoided.

It is good for convincing yourself you're superior to those who think differently from you, though.

Sunday Rest: Yoon. Yoon is short for Unionist (that is, someone who supports the United Kingdom). The word union comes from the Latin ūnīo, oneness, from ūnus, which means one.

Saturday 4 December 2021

Saturday Rave: Gee, Officer Krupke. Words by Stephen Songheim.

 Today is the five hundred and twenty eighth anniversary of Christopher Columbus first spotting Puerto Rico.

His sponsors were hoping the voyage would bring them wealth and spices, but, as with all human activity, the sight of that first mountain peak caused a spring to ping inside the great pin-ball machine of the universe, and by the time it had finished ricocheting around off a guy called William who was trying to scratch a living writing plays in Elizabethan London, and then back to America to knock together the son of a Ukrainian Jewish couple and the son of a New York Jewish dress-maker and designer (Leonard loved music and Stephen loved musicals) it was 1957 and we reaped the rewards in the glorious West Side Story.

This is the opening of the 1957 stage version of the song Gee Officer Krupke.

Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand:
It's just our bringin' upke
That gets us out of hand.
Our mothers all are junkies,
Our fathers all are drunks.

Golly Moses, natcherly we're punks!

Gee, Officer Krupke, we're very upset;
We never had the love that ev'ry child oughta get.
We ain't no delinquents,
We're misunderstood.
Deep down inside us there is good!

There is good!

There is good, there is good,
There is untapped good.
Like inside, the worst of us is good.


Half way through writing this post the news broke that Stephen Sondheim had died. 

He is gone from the world, but the pin-balls he fired into motion will bring us wisdom and delight for centuries to come.

Rest in Peace.

 Word To Use Today: officer. The Latin word officium means service or duty, from opus, work, and facere, to do.

Friday 3 December 2021

Words To Consider Today: amateur/dilettante.

 An amateur doesn't get paid for, and a dilettante doesn't put much time or effort into, a chosen activity.

Or - to look at it another way - an amateur does what he does for love rather than for profit, and a dilettante does what he does purely for fun.

Does being paid mean the worker is more highly skilled? 

What kind of value does profit add?

Does doing something all the time mean it's done better than something done only fleetingly?

painting by Jan Vermeer

I leave it to yourself to determine.

Words To Consider Today: amateur/dilettante. The word dilettante comes from the Italian dilettare, to delight, from the Latin dēlectāre. The word amateur comes from French from the Latin word amāre, to love.

Thursday 2 December 2021

One Man's Meat: a rant.

 This isn't so much a rant as an exasperated sigh from long ago. Well, from 1977.

It takes the form of an introductory note from the novel One Man's Meat by Colin Watson.

It was necessary for the plot of this book to invent the names of a couple of processed dog foods and to ascribe to their supposed manufacturers titles which would neither duplicate nor suggest those of any real firms. The most diligent inquiries ere made. They led rapidly to two discoveries: first, that the pet food industry dwarfs in size and complexity some of the biggest enterprises in the field of human nutrition; second, that no word in the English language (nor, indeed, out of it) can safely be discounted as a potential brand name, however tenuous its canine connections.

Having regard for the difficulties and hazards presented by this situation, and in pursuance of my aim to avoid causing moral, aesthetic, patriotic, religious or commercial distress to any one of the several thousand patentees, proprietors and distributors of food-stuffs for domestic animals, I hereby solemnly declare that all such substances and their manufacturers mentioned in this book are purely imaginary and have nothing to do with the real and beautiful world in which we live.

In particular, I affirm that the imaginary product Woof! referred to in this book is in no way connected with or intended to resemble the actual product which is an expanded complete dog food manufactured and marketed by BP Nutrition (UK) Limited, under that name.


I know the feeling!

Oh, but what a beautiful writer Colin Watson was.

And how grateful I am to write in the age of the Internet!

Word To Use Today: diligent. This word comes from the Latin dīligentia, care or attentiveness.

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Nuts and Bolts: soubriquets.

 (You can write this word sobriquet if you like.)

A soubriquet is an assumed name, or nickname, that is also in some way descriptive.

Harpo is a soubriquet; Zeppo isn't; Groucho might be. 

The Swan of Avon isn't a soubriquet, either (and why Shakespeare is named after a creature which is famously silent I do not know and cannot imagine).

The English king Henry VIII was called Old Coppernose, which probably counts as a soubriquet even though Henry VIII didn't have a copper nose. Henry VIII put loads of copper into England's coins to make them cheaper to make, so Old Coppernose describes the king's economics, though not his looks.

Soubriquets have been around more or less forever. The Roman emperor Caligula's name was actually Gaius. Caligula means little boots, and he was called that because, when he was a child and still cute, Caligula did indeed strut around in boots just like his soldier dad's.

Soubriquets are found all over the world. One of Mohammed's companions was called Abu Hurairah, Father of Cats, because he was always accompanied by a cat; Mohandas Gandhi is known as Mahatma, which means great-souled; the present president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa is known, much less affectionately, as The Crocodile.

Still, perhaps even that beats the soubriquet of the poor Viking Eystein.

He was known as Eystein Foul-Fart.

Nuts and Bolts: soubriquets. People are still arguing about the origin of this word. Some say it comes from the two French words sot, foolish and the Italian bricco, knave. Some say that it comes from soubsbriquet, a chuck under the chin.

I can't say that either explanation makes much sense to me.