This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 18 October 2021

Spot The Frippet: slug.

 Slug is an interesting word.

It starts with the animal:

Arion afer. Photo by Prashanthns

and then two different attributes of the animal diverge into different paths of meaning.

The first is the shape of the thing, which gives us a word for a bullet:

shotgun cartridge, photo by Divingpetrel

and also for small pieces of the lead type used for printing, and (in Canada) tokens for slot machines. It gives us the word which describes a small amount of powerfully alcoholic drink, too.

If you slug someone then you're hitting them with the force of a bullet (or perhaps a drink); but a person who's a slug isn't rushing round like Superman, and this is because the animal slug doesn't itself exactly frisk and scamper as it goes about its daily tasks. For this reason a human slug don't slug people, because a slug means lazy person. (A sluggard can hardly be bothered to get up because he's originally a slug abed.)

To end on something regally lovely, here's a sea slug:

Chromodoris dianae. Photo by Bernard DUPONT

I hope you spot your slug before you tread on it!

Spot the Frippet: slug. This word probably came from Scandinavia, and in English it first of all meant a slow person or animal.

Sunday, 17 October 2021

Sunday Rest: polydemic.

 Even though polydemic isn't an outbreak of several diseases simultaneously, The Word Den cannot recommend the use of this word.

It's likely to cause alarm and despondency.

Sunday Rest: polydemic. This word describes a plant or animal which exists in two or more separate regions of the world. It comes from the Greek polus, which means much, and endemic, which comes from the other Greek word endēmos, which means native.

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Saturday Rave: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

 Britain's leaving of the European Union has led to a lot of squabbling.

There's currently a flare-up over fishing rights. I don't know the truth of what's going on, but there are French fishermen, now banned from British waters, who claim passionately their right to work there. The British say that this is because the French fishermen can't prove their claim. The French call the British treacherous and have threatened to cut off electricity supplies to Jersey.

It's all rather amusing (as long as you don't live in Jersey).

The art of insult has long been practised in the French language. The chanson de geste were written (if they were written, not memorised or extemporised) from the 1100s onwards, and among these very long poems (over eighteen hundred verses in one case) are some wonderful duels of disparagement.

The Word Den's rave for today, though harking back to those chansons de geste, were written more recently. And by someone British, John Cleese. And for a film.

But the insults, spoken by in the film by a French guard (though acted by Cleese) are still exquisite.

“I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”

And that even got past the censor, too.

Word To Use Today: elderberry. Elderberries aren't any older than any other type of berry. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon word æld, which means fire, because the hollow stems were used like straws to encourage a flame to take hold and grow into a fire.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Word To Use Today: gaggle.

 It's worth saying this word just for the fun of it.

Gaggle gaggle gaggle gaggle...

While you do, notice how differently you hold your tongue when you say the first g of gaggle and the middle two.

It's the group term (the collective noun, if you like) for a small flock of geese:

photo by AnemoneProjectors 

 but you can't use it if the geese are flying, because then they're called a skein: 

or, if there are lots of geese (more than fifty? I don't know the precise upper number for a gaggle), either flying or on the ground, they're a flock:

photo by D Severson

The word gaggle can be applied to a small and disorganised group of people, too, and gaggle also means to make a gabbling or cackling sound. 

Just like saying gaggle gaggle gaggle gaggle, in fact.

Word To Use Today: gaggle. This word has German ancestry. It's an imitation of the sound that geese make when they're gossiping.

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Hyp-hens again: a rant.

 A hyp-hen is not a variety of chicken with a penchant for lumberjack shirts, but a badly placed hyphen.

The latest example I've come across is demandled - which, yes, strictly-speaking isn't a hyp-hen at all because in that case the necessary hyphen has been left out altogether, but it's the same kind of thing. Demand-led, please (though demandle is a lovely word, if obscure in meaning. Could it mean to cuddle a needy child? We could do with a word for that.).

Then there are mincep-


I came across that one the other day in a Trollope short story. You eat them at Christmas. Yes, mince-pies

Then, from an advertisement for a Men's-wear Catalogue:




Now, these mish-

aps are bound to occur because writers are all idiots. They're human, for one thing, and, for another, they tend to have their minds on other things than grammar.

But where are the steely and eagleeyed (yes, all right, eagle-eyed) copywriters?

Swept away in a wave of costcu-

tting, I fear. 

But don't we just miss them?

Word To Use Today: one with a hyphen. The word hyphen comes from the Greek word huphen, which means together, from hupo- which means under, plus heis, which means one.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Nuts and Bolts: unicode.

 Unicode is the International Standard for writing the world's languages on a computer screen.

It has its roots at the company Xerox in 1987, when Joe Becker, together with Lee Collins and Mark Davis from Apple, began to create a universal set of letters and characters. Later input came from, notably, Peter Fenwick and Dave Opstad.

At the moment there are 144,762 Unicode characters covering 159 scripts. Some of the languages that can be written are current, some historical. There are, in addition, many emojis and various formatting codes. 

The great thing about Unicode is that all the characters are compatible with each other, so multi-lingual texts are possible.

Unicode is maintained by the Unicode Consortium, which consists of computer big guys such as Adobe, Microsoft and Netflix, as well as various governments. However, the only political entity which is a full member with voting rights, is the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs of Oman.

The most recent scripts to be added to Unicode are Toto, Vithkuqi, Old Uyghur and Tangsa. Unicode also now has a way of representing the som currency symbol of Kyrgyzstan, and Znamenny musical notation.

The Word Den thinks that the whole world should really be jolly grateful.

Word To Use Today: well, anything you type on a computer probably relies on Unicode, but how about thanks? The Old English form of thanks is thancian.

Tuesday, 12 October 2021

Thing To Do Today: surge.

 Being measured is sensible, yes: but it's dull, dull, dull.

Let yourself experience a surge of joy (your favourite dance music might help):

 or go for a surge of creativity (even if you only find a new way of arranging your sock drawer).

Try for a surge of energy, or a surge of love.

Clouds, hills, stars and electricity surge, and don't we want to be like them? To reach beyond ourselves for a while?

And of all this fails then just catch up with The News

Irritation surges, too.

Thing To Do Today: surge. This word comes from the Latin surgere, to rise, from sub- which in this case means up from below, plus regere, to guide.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Spot the Frippet: screw.

 There are screws everywhere, so where's the very nearest one to you?

photo by Ssawka

My keyboard is probably held together with them, but I can't see one as I type, so the nearest screw I can see is...

...holding my desk-fan together. The physically nearest screws, though, are stopping my glasses falling apart. Some of us might even have screws in our teeth, or in our joints. 

Civilisation is held together with screws...

...which might be the reason why so much of the time things are screwed up.

A shot in billiards that has some backspin on it is a screw; a propeller can be called a screw; a prison guard can be called a screw (though not if one is listening).

A screw is a basic wage, and so is anything held in a twist of paper. It's a broken-down horse:

illustration by Edward W Gough

If you have a screw loose then you're bonkers; if you have your head screwed on the right way then you are likely to be successful.

And where did the word come from?

The most completely enchanting source you could possibly imagine.

photo by Dusan Bicanski

Spot the Frippet: screw. This word appeared in English in the 1400s and comes from the French word escroe, from the Latin scr
ōfa, which means sow, almost certainly because a pig's curly tail is like the thread of a screw.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

Sunday Rest: Libtard. Word Not To Use Today.

 This word originated in the USA, probably in 2004. No one is sure who first used it, but it was noted in online dictionaries in 2005.

Libtard is an insult used by rude right-wing people with closed minds to characterise those who display a left-wing belief.

As should be obvious to the meanest intelligence, insulting people isn't an intellectually valid way to convince anyone of anything.

It's quite a good way of both hurting people and starting a fight, though, if that's the kind of thing you enjoy.

Sunday Rest: libtard. This horrid word is made up of liberal and retard. The Latin word līberālis means of freedom (so it's by no means exclusively a characteristic of those of the Left). The word retard, meaning to slow down, comes from the Latin word tardāre, to make slow.

Retarded, in some parts of the world, means disabled, so it needs to be used with care.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

Saturday Rave: The Sweet Calm Sunshine of October by William Cullen Bryant

 William Cullen Bryant (1794 - 1878) was born in Massachusetts. His family were fairly hopeless poet material: his father was a doctor, and so neither poor enough to be romantic, nor rich enough to afford William the advantages of a university education.

There's a line which struck me from Cullen's Wikipedia entry. 

the strain of dealing with unsophisticated neighbors pushed him to trade his unrewarding profession [he was a lawyer]for New York and the promise of a literary career.

The mind boggles.

Anyway, once in New York Cullen did well. He became editor of the New York Evening Post. 

But he still had time to stop and look at things.

The sweet calm sunshine of October, now

Warms the low spot; upon its grassy mold

The purple oak-leaf falls; the birchen bough

Drops its bright spoil like arrow-heads of gold.

And so, through all the years, he tells us something we all knew, but had never realised.

Word To Use Today: October. Octo is Latin for eight, and October was indeed the eighth month of the year until Augustus Caesar felt the need to have a month named after himself. Well, Julius Caesar already had hos own month, so why not? In this way the eighth month got bumped back to tenth.


Friday, 8 October 2021

Word To Use Today: polyadelphous.

As anyone who knows any Greek (or who lives in Philadelphia, or has been to the Adelphi theatre in London, or who eats cream cheese) must know, adelphos means brother; and anyone who has been to a polyclinic or knows a polyglot or has seen a polygon must know that poly- means many.

So, polyaldelphous means having many brothers, right?

Well, it should do, but those flipping botanists have got at it and now it describes a flower where the stalks of the stamens are fused together near the base:

illustration by Pérez Morales

photo of Bombax ceiba flower by J.M.Garg

It's rather a waste of a good word.

Still, I suppose we could all plant a polyadelphous flower somewhere visible as a sign of brotherly solidarity.

It couldn't do any harm, could it?

Word To Use Today: polyadelphous. The Greek word polus means much or many.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Headline Violence: a rant.

 A recent headline on AOL:

Police urged to prioritise violence against women

Well, there's no doubt that people have some odd and wicked beliefs. 

But, all the same, I really don't think that anyone in any official capacity did recommend violence against women.

So things, you know, could be worse.

Word To Use Today: violence. This word comes from the Latin violentus, which means violent, but it came to us through the word violentia, which means impetuosity. The Latin word vīs means strength.

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Nuts and Bolts: more or less zero.

 The Word Den was musing on the word dox last week, and that brought the word doxy into view.

What a language English is, where the word doxy can mean either belief (particularly about something religious) or a mistress (and sometimes a paid one).

Luckily the number of people who'd use the word doxy in either sense is small (the mistress meaning of the word is obsolete); and the number of people who'd use both words must be more or less zero...

...not that you can have less than zero people...

or should that be fewer?

Oh good grief. Why is this language stuff so difficult??

Word To Use Today: doxy. The religious-belief word comes from the suffix -doxy, as in orthodoxy. This must have been quite a daring act of word-formation for a theologian (orthos means correct, and doxa means a belief). 

The word doxy meaning mistress probably comes from the Middle Flemish docke, which means doll.

Tuesday, 5 October 2021

Thing To Do Today: edulcorate something. sounds like being forced to learn dull things, like a list of the Roman Emperors as low as Severus (not that the Roman Emperors are dull, far from it. I doubt that any of them was half as respectable as our own dear Queen. But learning lists is always dull).

Anyway, as it happens edulcorate is nothing to do with education, and little to do with dullness.

To edulcorate something, if you're a chemist, is to wash it in order to dissolve away impurities.

If you're not a chemist - or if you're a chemist on holiday - then to edulcorate something is to sweeten it.

So now, next time we meet a very pompous person, we can ask him if he habitually edulcorates his tea.

Go on: I dare you!

Thing To Do Today: edulcorate something. This word comes from the Latin word dulcor, which means sweetness.

Monday, 4 October 2021

Spot the Frippet: a spear.

 Luckily, most of us no longer need to keep a spear in the umbrella rack by the front door for fear of attack:

illustration by Raphael

but there are other types of spear about.

Chewing gum often contains spearmint:

photo by Simon Eugster 

and we all have to keep a sharp eye out for spear-phishing, where someone tries to con you out of money by pretending to be someone you know.

Meet someone from your dad's side of the family? That's the spear side. 

There are lots of plants called spear-something, such as spear-grass and spearwort, and any small, tender part of a plant can be called a spear, especially if it's broccoli or asparagus.

A spear-fish is also sometimes called a marlin: 

photo by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

not many of us will be coming across one of those, but it does, strangely enough, bring us back neatly to the roots of the word.

Spot the Frippet: spear. The broccoli word is different from the others, and is probably a variant of the word spire. The other words come from the Old English spere. The Greek sparos meant gilthead, which, like a marlin, is a kind of fish:

illustration by Werner

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Sunday Rest: curry. Word Not To Use Today.

 Apparently white people mustn't use the word curry.

The food blogger Chaheti Bansal thinks they shouldn't, anyway. The food of India, as she rightly says, is complex and wonderful, and she feels that using the word curry - not itself an Indian term - to describe any kind of spiced stew is disrespectful both to the sub-continent and to the cuisine. Foreigners should, she believes, learn the proper names of the different dishes.

I'm afraid that the problem is even worse than that, because round here in England the word curry is used for more or less any spicy Asian food. There's the katsu curry, for instance, which is based on the cuisine of Japan. A Panang curry is from Thailand.

On the other hand, it's not as if anyone walks into an Indian Restaurant, sits down, and says bring me curry! We're all aware that there are many different dishes from which to choose.

Still, if it makes Chaheti Bansal happy I'll stop using the word.

Well, I will if she's listening, anyway.

Sunday Rest: curry. My Collins dictionary says that this word came in the 1500s from the Tamil word kari, which means sauce or relish.

Saturday, 2 October 2021

Saturday Rave: Intimations of Immortality by William Wordsworth.

 Youth isn't all it's cracked up to be. The long hours of school work required under threat of punishment for no remuneration aren't great, for a start (how is that not slavery?), but there are good things about being young, all the same.

Mind you, you're unlikely to appreciate them fully at the time, but hey...

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth


Personally, I think that Wordsworth should have spent more time with children. 

He might have recovered his ability for delight, then.

Word To Use Today: apparel. This word comes from the Latin appariculare, to clothe. It's basically the same word as apparatus.

Friday, 1 October 2021

Word To Use Today: fumet.

 Despite appearances, this word isn't all that French, and so you don't say it fooMAY.

Neither do either of its English meanings have anything to do with smoking...

...well, hardly anything.

The first kind of fumet (you say it FYOO-m't) describes a reduced juice (doesn't reduced juice sound tangily delicious?) made from cooking fish or mushrooms for too long. You use it to flavour sauces. You can also cook down meat to make a fumet, too, but cooks tend to call that a fond.

The second kind of fumet could be used the same way, but I really wouldn't recommend it because that kind of a fumet consists of the droppings of a deer:

photo by Olag

Mind you, it might depend on who was coming to dinner.

photo by Mehmet Karatay

Word To Use Today: fumet. The cooking word comes from French and means aroma; the droppings word comes from the Latin fimāre, to spread dung upon, from fimus, which means dung.

Thursday, 30 September 2021

The last ditch: a rant.

 The eruption of the Cumbre Vieja volcano on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands is a horrible thing and The Word Den very much hopes that the damage it causes is limited and transitory.

The Word Den feels every sympathy for the poor residents of Todoque, in particular, which has lost many houses and the tower of its church, and The Word Den fervently wishes that a Telegraph journalist hadn't described the frantic digging of a channel to try to direct the flow of lava away from the town as a last-ditch attempt.

Word To Use Today: ditch. This word was dīc in Old English, and is related to the word dyke.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Nuts and Bolts: dox.

 To dox is to search for information about someone on the internet and then publish it, usually with malicious intent.

In the Good Old Days the word doxastic was to do with belief and the logic of belief, and a doxographer was someone who collected the opinions and theories of Greek philosophers.

These words are probably not completely safe to use, now.

Ah well. That's really not going to affect many of us, is it?

Word To Consider Today: dox. This is a shortened form of the word document, which comes from the Latin documentum, a lesson. The other dox words come from the Greek doxa, an opinion.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Thing Not To Have Today: embonpoint.

 You say this, if you should wish to, in the French way. There's a recording of how to do that HERE.

Em bon point as I've said, is French - Middle French, to be precise. It means in good condition, but it really describes someone who's plump.

Worse than that, it describes someone who's plump and smug with it.

Some say that it usually refers to the bosom, but as far as most authorities are concerned it's assumed to refer to the paunch or the general outline.

Thing Not To Have Today: embonpoint. It's fine to be plump, but not to be smug. 

And for an English-speaker to be smug in French is just terrible.

Monday, 27 September 2021

Spot the Frippet: a heart.

 Human hearts are best hidden away - as are most animal ones - but you might spot someone with their heart on their sleeve, I suppose.

Otherwise, we're probably going to be looking out for vegetable hearts: (sorry, images aren't loading onto blogger this afternoon. Please imagine a lettuce heart, which is the pale inside bit the slugs haven't yet eaten).

Now please imagine a cabbage heart, which is similar.

But the very centre of many things is known as its heart. The kitchen might be the heart of the home; the main shopping centre is probably the heart of the town or village (or perhaps that's the Post Office or church).

Of course the heart-shape design:


 can be seen everywhere, despite not looking very much like an actual heart. There's speculation that this heart shape is a representation of the seed of the Roman plant silphium, now extinct, but which may have been something like fennel or asafoetida. It was immensely valuable, and used as an aphrodisiac.

In fact, it was so valuable that I can't help wondering if it might have worked, too.

Perhaps it's a good thing it's extinct.

Spot the Frippet: a heart. This word was heorte in Old English. The Greek form of this word was kardia, from which we get words like cardiology.

Sunday, 26 September 2021

Sunday Rest: AUKUS. Word Not To Use Today.

 AUKUS is an acronym based on the words Australia, United Kingdom and United States. It's a new defence alliance covering some aspects of defence in those three countries (and covering other stuff, too, but if I told you about that then I'm afraid I'd have to kill you).

It's quite a harsh sound AUKUS, but the main reason not to use this word today is that the formation of the alliance has upset poor M Macron, the president of France, quite terribly. He thought they were all friends together, and then it turned out that the others had formed a gang and they'd left him out.

Ah well. 

Never mind, eh?

Sunday Rest: AUKUS. As I've said, AUKUS is quite a harsh sound (and also might be triggering to people who've been previously attacked by auks) but then USUKA was probably deemed to be too feminine, and UKAUS hides the USA's involvement, which would, of course, never do.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Saturday Rave: In September by Edward Dowden.

 Edward Dowden (1843-1913) was Irish, is best known for his commentaries on Shakespeare, and wrote some poetry.

That's all I know about him, but here's a poem of his which describes better than any other poem I know the joy, tempered always by the winter-warning of the ever-earlier darkness, of the September countryside.

Spring scarce had greener fields to show than these
Of mid September; through the still warm noon
The rivulets ripple forth a gladder tune
Than ever in the summer; from the trees
Dusk-green, and murmuring inward melodies,
No leaf drops yet; only our evenings swoon
In pallid skies more suddenly, and the moon
Finds motionless white mists out on the leas.

Autumn Landscape, September, by Lucas van Valkenborch

Word To Use Today: lea. This is a useful word in poetry, having just one syllable and a very common rhyme-sound. It means meadow or field, or anywhere sown with grass. The Old English form of the word was lēah.

Friday, 24 September 2021

Word To Use Today: hipparch.

 A hipparch is, sadly, neither an arch designed by an achingly trendy architect, nor a system of government by horses.

As anyone who's read Gulliver's Travels will know (the whole book, I mean, not just the bit featuring the giants and the little people (I think we're probably allowed to say little people in this context)) rule by horses might be a rather benign and marvellous thing:

Gulliver Taking His Final Leave of the Land of the Houyhnhnms by Sawrey Gilpin

but, as I said, the horses weren't hipparchs, because a hipparch was a commander of cavalry in Ancient Greece:

There were never a lot of hipparchs - cavalry numbers were small because keeping horses was expensive, and also because without much in the way of a saddle and nothing in the way of stirrups, they couldn't actually do much fighting without falling off their horses.

Still, fighting horsemen could throw spears and draw bows, and get places quickly, all following their hipparch.

Word To Use Today (though I can't imagine why you should need to) hipparch. Hippos is the Greek for horse. -arch comes from the Greek arkhein, to rule.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

A dreadful warning: a rant.

 And so Covid-19 goes on its way...

The subject of today's rant is a minor matter compared with the blasted bug's ravages, but if we humans can't control a semi-alive entity a two-millionth the size of a man - and perhaps especially because we can't control a semi-alive entity only a two-millionth the size of a man - we need to keep a tight rein on the things we can control, such as the meaning of what we're saying.

This is a headline from The Telegraph newspaper on 3rd September 2021:

Allowing mass infection of schoolchildren would be 'reckless' Gavin Williamson warned

So who did the warning? Did Gavin Williamson warn everyone else? Or did someone warn Gavin Williamson?

Gavin Williamson was Britain's Minister for Education (he's just been sacked) and, given that the press's instinct is always to attack politicians, I think we can guess the answer to that question.

But really there should be no room for doubt.

Word To Use Today: warn. This word was wearnian in Old English Given that we've had about a thousand years to practise* using the thing, you'd have thought we'd have got the hang of it by now.

*No, that's how we spell the word practise in Britain when it's a verb. Well, all right, most people don't - but, according to the dictionary and all pedants, they should!

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Nuts and Bolts: international cheating.

 I'm still thinking about the word defraud. The word is Anglo-French, which means it came into English after England was invaded by the Normans in 1066.

But we don't just defraud people in England; we also swindle, cheat, deceive, dupe and double-cross them.

Where have all those words come from?

Well, the word swindle arrived in the 1700s from the German Schwindler, from the Old High German swintan, to disappear. Cheat is short for escheat (now a term for a legal way of being able to take someone else's land). Escheat originated in the 1300s, and comes from the Old French eschete, from escheoir, to fall to the lot of, from the Latin cadere, to fall. Deceive comes from the Old French deceivre, from the Latin capere, to take. Dupe also comes from the Old French, from de huppe, which means [of] a hoopoe:

 from the Latin upupa, because of the bird's reputation for great stupidity. Double-cross....well, the double bit comes from the Old French, from the Latin duplus, which means two-fold (as does the word duplicity), and cross comes from Old Irish, from the Latin crux, which means cross.

As you'll have noticed, not one of these words originates in England.

Does this mean that the English are a fine honest bunch?

Or that they're the most cunning people of all?

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

Thing To Attempt Today: cakeism.

 The campaign for Britain to leave the EU was full of bitterness, hatred, anguish, misleading statements, cheating - and food.

Even now there are dark warnings of a sausage war in Northern Ireland, and during the negotiations Britain was accused by the EU negotiators of both cherry-picking (wanting to commit only to the profitable bits of a deal) and cakeism.

I like the sound of cakeism. It comes from the idea that you can't have your cake and eat it (because of course if you've eaten it then you no longer have it).

Cakeism is wanting to have your cake even after you've eaten it. In the case of Brexit the accusation was that Britain wanted to be free of EU rules while maintaining the benefits of being in the EU.

What we actually ended up with was a great big slab of fudge..., hey, things could have been worse.

Thing To Attempt Today: cakeism. The word cake came into English from Old Norse in the 1400s.

This means that the things King Alfred burnt weren't cakes at all. (In the original story they're loaves of bread.)

Monday, 20 September 2021

Spot the Frippet: something sulcate.

 Something sulcate is marked with long parallel grooves.

That might be a ploughed field:

SA Mathieson / Ploughed field near Kingstanding Farm / CC BY-SA 2.0

or a column:

Pompeii, Italy Photo by Jebulon

or a sea shell:

photo by H. Zell

or a tortoise shell:

African spurred tortoise, Las Vegas Zoo

Stems are sometimes sulcate, too (look at an old tomato plant stem, for instance).

Or,  you never know, perhaps you yourself are pretty groovy...

...well, it's a nicer way of putting it than wrinkly, isn't it.

Spot the Frippet: something sulcate. The Latin word sulcus means a furrow.

Sunday, 19 September 2021

Sunday Rest: blastocyst. Word Not To Use Today.

 Heavens, this word is frightening. It sounds like something that grows inside you and then explodes, with fatal consequences.

illustration: Togo Picture Gallery, Database Center for Life Science

The fact that a blastocyst is actually a tiny sphere of cells that's one of the very earliest stages in the development of a baby might even make it worse.

Sunday Rest: blastocyst. The blasto- bit comes from the Greek blastos, which means bud. Cyst comes from the Greek word kustis, which means pouch or bladder.

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Saturday Rave: A Short Song of Congratulation by Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson is not well known nowadays as a poet, but as a celebrity and a man of wit: eccentric, unclean, blunt, learned, fascinating and extraordinary.

But Johnson was a poet. Not only that, but he was born poor, into an unhappy home, was ill all his life, and was never financially secure: so his stuff surely must be worth a look.

Here's...but the clue is in the title.

A Short Song of Congratulations

LONG-EXPECTED one and twenty
Ling'ring year at last has flown,
Pomp and pleasure, pride and plenty
Great Sir John, are all your own.

Loosen'd from the minor's tether,
Free to mortgage or to sell,
Wild as wind, and light as feather
Bid the slaves of thrift farewell.

Call the Bettys, Kates, and Jenneys
Ev'ry name that laughs at care,
Lavish of your Grandsire's guineas,
Show the spirit of an heir.

All that prey on vice and folly
Joy to see their quarry fly,
Here the gamester light and jolly
There the lender grave and sly.

Wealth, Sir John, was made to wander,
Let it wander as it will;
See the jocky, see the pander,
Bid them come, and take their fill.

When the bonny blade carouses,
Pockets full, and spirits high,
What are acres? What are houses?
Only dirt, or wet or dry.

If the Guardian or the Mother
Tell the woes of willful waste,
Scorn their counsel and their pother,
You can hang or drown at last.


The centuries go on, but people don't change, do they?

Word To Use Today: blade. In this sense, a blade is a dashing and swaggering young man. It's the same word as the kind of blade as a knife has, and the Old English form of it was blæd. The word is connected to the Latin folium, which means leaf.


Friday, 17 September 2021

Word To Use Today: conk.

 A conk is a nose, and has been since the early 1800s.

It's probably so-called after the sea shell called a conch:

conch shell. Photo by cheesy42

There's not that much resemblance, I know, but the shells are used as trumpets, which might be a clue to how the word got attached to the nose.

Conk meaning nose is not a word to be used in formal circumstances, and neither is conk meaning to hit someone (probably on the head, and quite possibly on the nose).

Conking out is a similarly informal expression meaning to stop working. This may be a happy thing: if someone conks out on the sofa then they've gone to sleep; but if an engine conks out then that's going to be annoying, especially if the engine in question is keeping a plane in the air (the term was used a lot in this sense in World War I). This meaning of the word conk seems to have originated among pioneer motor-cyclists a few years before WWI, and was probably an imitation of the sound of a stalling engine. 

When the engine starts to "conk conk conk" retard the spark a trifle, or give more throttle if an increase in speed is permissable. Motorcycle Illustrated 1911.

The hairstyle called the conk was worn by men with naturally frizzy hair in the mid twentieth century, and it relied on the chemical congolene as a straightening agent. Congolene was homemade, extremely corrosive, and made of lye (sodium hydroxide made from wood ash) mixed quite often with potatoes and eggs.

A final, again apparently random meaning of conk is that it's the fruiting body of a bracket fungus - that is, the visible bit of a fungus that sticks out of a tree trunk. I can't find any origin for this word - it's not in the OED - so it's probably recent.

It's a vastly satisfying word, anyway. I wonder what it's going to mean next?

Thursday, 16 September 2021

Eternal Source of Light Divine: a rant.

 It's the Christmas Catalogue season again, and our letterboxes are slithering with stuff that you wouldn't want to give to your worst enemy - but that for your exceptionally annoying brother-in-law are absolutely ideal.

Owl Barn Gifts raises money for the Suffolk Owl Sanctuary. Its catalogue is full of wonders: why by page three alone we have been offered a giant robin hand warmer ("cosy armchair accessory").

It was the item at the bottom of that page which really caught my imagination, though: an Eternal Fire Lantern.

Think of that. Eternal fire. A solution to Global Warming at last!

I read on eagerly.

This freestanding coal fire lantern will make any room feel welcoming and festive this winter season. Its bright LED powered flame will light up any corner of your home and its vintage brushed effect style will add a touch of class, too. Size 11 x 8.2 x 3.9"...


...Requires 3 x AAA batteries (not included).

Ah well!

Word To Use Today: eternal. This word comes from the Latin aeternus, from aevum, age.

Wednesday, 15 September 2021

Nuts and Bolts: de- words.

 I've been wondering for some time: why defraud? Why don't we simply fraud people?

Whatever the reason, we've certainly been defrauding people for a long time. The word comes from the Anglo-French defrauder, from the Latin defraudare, from - plus fraus, which means fraud.

That - means away, or out of, in Latin, and there are many English words when a de- at the beginning of a word still means more or less the same thing - words like defrost, defrock, dehydrate - but then there are many more words where the de- at the beginning of a word means something rather different. De- in the words decompose and delegitimise means to reverse; and then there are instances where de- can make a word more intense, as in the word devote; or there's the word detest, where the de- turns the rest of the word into something horrible.

The word defraud, which started me thinking about this, is one of the making-it-more-intense ones.

I still can't honestly say I understand exactly why we don't fraud people. But I shall happily devote myself to them, all the same.

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

Thing To Do Today, But Only In A Good Way: embowel something.

 Look, there's endearingly quirky, and then there's perverse.

To embowel something is to bury it deeply. It might be treasure in the ground, or it might be your house keys in your handbag.

On the other hand, embowel can mean exactly the same as disembowel.



Sometimes I don't know about what the makers of the English language were thinking.

Thing To Do Today, But Only In A Good Way: embowel. The em- bit comes from Latin (it's basically the same as in- but used in this form before b, m, and p). The word bowel comes from the Old French bouel, from the Latin botellus, a little sausage, from botulus, sausage.

Yes, it's where the word botulism comes from. 

Worrying, isn't it?

Monday, 13 September 2021

Spot the Frippet: arabesque.

 Arabesques are important in Islamic art, but they aren't confined to it. They didn't originate in Islamic culture, either:

Roman arabesque (on lower panel) c 27 AD. Photo by Andy Hay

drawing by Etienne de Lavallee-Poussin c1785

An arabesque is an interweaving pattern made of leaves and stems:

photo by Jan Smith from Brisbane, Australia - Umayyad Mosque, Damascus: Detail.

In Islam, which tends to prefer its Art not to include images of people or animals, the arabesque is sometimes used as a focus for contemplation. The underlining geometry of the design echoes the structure of creation (a square might suggest earth, air, fire and water, for instance) and the tangling plants the idea of creation itself.

In the West I'm afraid we just tend to think that's nice wallpaper.

pattern by William Morris

Ah well!

Spot the Frippet: arabesque. This word comes from the Italian arabesco, which means in the Arab style.

You get arabesques in ballet, too:

Olga Preobrajenska. Photo from ​English Wikipedia user Mrlopez2681, CC BY-SA 3.0,

so you could always make your own arabesque in front of a mirror.

But do watch how you go.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Sunday Rest: jab. Word Not To Use Today.

 I don't mind the word jab, myself, not even when it's used to mean a medical injection.

However, someone in my family objects to it because it sounds violent; and another family member objects to it because it reminds her of the word jam, with its association with red things and mess, and therefore with wounds.

It's quite possible that I just have a really weird family, but I present this information to all friends in The Word Den so we can be sensitive if we feel like it.

Sunday Rest: jab. This is a surprisingly new word to the English of England, first appearing in the 1800s. It is a Scottish form of the word job, in this sense a word used since the 1500s to describe the pecking of birds, and later for any similar action, such as a boxer's punch.

Saturday, 11 September 2021

Saturday Rave: A Message From Allah.

 From the Quran 7: 1561:

وَرَحْمَتِي وَسِعَتْ كُلَّ شَيْءٍ 

My mercy embraces all things

Just something to bear in mind, there, folks.

Thing To Show Today: mercy. This word comes from Old French, from the Latin word mercēs, which means wages or recompense or price, from merx, which means goods.

While we're here, another quotation. 

Quran 16:23: 

Indeed, He does not like the proud.

You know, it all sounds like a recipe for peace and happiness to me.