This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 15 May 2021

Saturday Rave: May from The Shepherd's Calendar by John Clare.

 This is, sadly, the last of The Word Den's regular visits to The Shepherd's Calendar. These posts weren't originally intended as a pandemic special; the idea for the series was sparked by my getting John Clare's book as a birthday present, which was in turn sparked by my discovering that I have family links to the Clares of Helpston in Lincolnshire (and also that some members of the family actually used to live in John Clare's cottage). 

But, serendipitously, Clare's verse couldn't have given us a better example of how to be happy at home.

Clare is overbrimming with the delights of May, and it's hard to pick just one passage to quote here. There's a whole catalogue of flowers, for instance, and the same of birds, each characterised carefully.

Perhaps, as this is The Word Den, we should leave Clare among his happy memories of childhood pleasures with his account of the writing lark.

The yellowhammer builds his nest

By banks where sun beams earliest rest

That dries the dew from off the grass

Shading it from all that pass

Save the rude boy wi ferret gaze

He finds its penciled eggs agen

All streaked wi lines as if a pen

By natures freakish hand was took

To scrawl them over like a book

& from these many mozzling marks

The schoolboy names them "writing larks"

Photo by Didier Descouens - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Word To Use Today: mozzling. To mozzle is Australian slang for to hamper or impede. My copy of the OED doesn't record it as an English word, but it makes sense in this context (as camouflage to fool predators) and my guess is that it came to Australia from Helpston, or somewhere close by.

Friday, 14 May 2021

Word To Use Today: weevil.

 The real reason for featuring this word on The Word Den is that it is related to the Old High German word wibil.

Well, it makes me smile.

Anyway, weevils are beetles with long snouts. You can often tell what they feed on by their name. The rice weevil feeds on rice, the maize weevil feeds on maize, the wheat weevil...well, you get the idea.

There are, however, thankfully, exceptions to this useful trend. 

The giraffe weevil:

By Frank Vassen - Flickr: Giraffe Weevil, Andasibe, Madagascar, CC BY 2.0,

feeds on the leaves of trees, but has a long neck (which, like a real giraffe, it uses for fighting); and the drugstore weevil, though it does feed on the kinds of dried herbs you can often find in a drugstore, isn't actually a weevil. It's just an ordinary beetle. It hasn't got the nose.

A weevil's schnozzle is actually more properly called a rostrum, and unlike most beetles, a weevil can use it to chew:

But I really don't want to think too much about that.

Word To Use Today: weevil. The Old English form of this word is wifel. The Old Norse word tordȳfill means dung beetle, and a weevil is basically a small beetle. Wee, meaning small, comes from the Old English wǣg, weight.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Small soldiers: a rant.

 Once upon a time there was a very small knight in very small shining armour. 

He was so small he couldn't ride a horse, so he used to ride a dog, instead.

Now, one day there was a great storm. The knight and his dog (who had been caught out in the nasty weather, which had given the poor dog a nasty cough and cold) were sitting by the fire in their great hall chewing on thigh bones of pigs (the pigs had been cooked, so they weren't complaining) when among the cracks of thunder and the howling of the wind they heard a knocking on the door, and the old  steward ushered in an old man dripping with rain and shivering with cold.

'We need your help, sir knight,' he gasped. 'A troll has come to the village and is destroying the houses one by one. When the last house has been destroyed he will find us all and he will eat us!'

Well, the knight was small, but he was very brave. 

'Saddle up my dog,' he said to the steward. 'I will rescue you all!'

But the steward shook his head.

'You must be mad,' he said. 'Look at the state of the poor animal. Why, I wouldn't put a knight out on a dog like this!'


Yes, sorry about that, but I was reminded of that story by the modern trend for leaving out the hyphen in the word week-night.



Word To Use Today: week. An Old English form of this word was wice. It's related to the Gothic word wikō, order.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Nuts and Bolts: irony punctuation.

 Irony punctuation is, yes, that's right, well done, punctuation which indicates irony.

Is it necessary?

No, or it would have caught on long ago.

There have, after all, been enough attempts at popularising a sign to flag up irony. In 1668 John Wilkins suggested an upside-down question mark; in 1841 the Belgian printer suggested a thing like an upward-pointing arrow; in 1899 the French poet Alcanter de Brahm's suggestion looked more or less like a mirror-image question mark. 

Then there was Hervé Brazin, who used the Greek letter psi with a dot underneath it: 

In more modern times,Tom Driberg was all for italics that slope backwards.

Nowadays people will sometimes type




after a statement that's intended to be sarcastic, and there are those who have used 


in the same way.

Then there's the 


emoticon, which I rather like (but only because it reminds me of Worzel Gummidge); the combination 


the word kappa; the tilde; or even alternate upper and lower case lettering.

Wikipedia claims that some people are using a small picture of SpongeBob Squarepants dressed as a chicken for the same purpose. 

But that statement itself must surely be ironic.

Nuts and Bolts: irony marks. Are unnecessary. The word irony comes from the Latin word ironia, from the Greek eirōn, dissembler, from eirein, to speak.

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Thing To Do Today: show your mettle.

 The fashion nowadays is to cave in at the slightest difficulty and then moan piteously - or perhaps aggressively - that the world is against you and IT'S NOT FAIR!

This trend does have its advantages. I mean, how easy life is if everything is someone else's fault.

Oh, but I do feel nostalgic for the challenge; for the fight against the odds; the do-or-die; the can-do spirit; the forlorn hope.

The opportunity to show one's mettle.

What mettle actually is, though, I've never had much of a clue. Surely it can't be anything to do with, well, metal, can it? That would be silly.

Wouldn't it?

Thing To Do Today: show your mettle. It turns out that mettle is exactly the same word as metal. The two spellings only diverged in the 1700s. 

I suppose the idea is that metal is shining, strong and flexible, and jolly useful in a crisis.

(Though that does rather depend on what the crisis is. I can't help thinking that this expression was invented by a man.) 

Anyway, the word metal comes from the Latin word metallum, which means mine, or product of a mine, from the Greek word metallon.

Monday, 10 May 2021

Spot the Frippet: bank.

 There are three banks - three different words all sounding the same, that is. One's basically Italian, one's Scandinavian, and one's French.

One's a slope, one's a place to keep money, and one's a load of stuff arranged so you can see it easily.

Two are closely related.

Which do you think those are?

Answer later. 

Anyway, while these kind of bank:

High Street bank: HSBC, London, photo by Stanley Howe

are getting rarer as we all are obliged to move online; and these, too:

1965 Shelby Dash. Photo by Joe Mabel

 have been replaced with smart hard-to-read digital displays (again, there's progress for you), these:

Sloping verge of the A377, UK. Photo by David Brinicombe

are still everywhere, and are very good for sitting on and watching the world go by.

And according to Shakespeare, they're visited by fairies.

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight;
And there the snake throws her enamell’d skin,
Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in

Whether that is an inducement to linger must be an individual decision.

Take care!

Spot the Frippet: bank. The money word comes, probably, from the Italian banca, which means bench or money-exchanger's table. The arrangement word comes from the Old French banc, which also means bench (both these words have similar Germanic origins). The word meaning a slope is Scandinavian. The Old Icelandic word bakki means hill.

Sunday, 9 May 2021

Sunday Rest: shigella. Word Not To Use Today.

 I don't know how internationally famous Nigella Lawson is, but, for those who don't know, she's a British-Italian TV cook, and a spectacularly voluptuous and beautiful one, too:

As it happens, her dad is Nigel Lawson (now Baron Lawson of Blaby), who used to be Britain's top finance chief (or Chancellor of the Exchequer, to give him his proper job title). Nigella is named after him. 

Now, Nigella is a very unusual name indeed, and I don't know of anyone else who's had it (apart from the genus of plants which includes Love-in-the-Mist, of course). Nigella is an odd word, too, to an English-speaker, and so when one comes across the other odd word shigella, it's Nigella which tends to spring immediately to mind.

This is a bit unfortunate, really, as shigella is a bacterium which causes dystentary.

Ah well.

Sunday Rest: shigella. word Not To Use Today. This bacterium was named after K Shiga, 1870-1957, who discovered it.

Saturday, 8 May 2021

Saturday Rave: May and the Poets by James Henry Leigh Hunt

 I apologise to all of you who live in the Southern hemisphere. For you, dearest readers, the month of May must be a dreary time: Winter is approaching, and there's not even any sign of Christmas.

But still, I'm trying to keep our spirits up in difficult times, and the world is full of poets who have had a cheery crack at carolling the delights of May.

So here's James Henry Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who made that observation long before I did.


There is May in books forever;
May will part from Spenser never;
May's in Milton, May's in Prior,
May's in Chaucer, Thomson, Dyer;
May's in all the Italian books:--
She has old and modern nooks,
Where she sleeps with nymphs and elves,
In happy places they call shelves,
And will rise and dress your rooms
With a drapery thick with blooms.

Come, ye rains, then if ye will,
May's at home, and with me still;
But come rather, thou, good weather,
And find us in the fields together.


Word To Use Today: May. This word comes from French, and before that probably from the Roman goddess Maia, who's basically the same person as the Greek god Maia who was the eldest of the group of nymphs called the Pleiades. 

Here she is with her son Hermes:

Friday, 7 May 2021

Word To Use Today: scuttle.

 What's the connection between a scuttle as in a place to keep coal:

photo by Hustvedt

 the action of an alarmed crab:

 and the deliberate sinking of a ship?


...well, they just sound the same, really.

Still, it's a lovely crisp word, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: scuttle. The coal-container word (in some part of Britain you can carry plants in a scuttle, though personally I'd call that kind of shallow basket a trug) comes from the Old English scutel, a carving plate, from the Latin scutella, a little bowl. The running-away word probably comes from the word scud, with a bit of the word shuttle put in there as well to make it sound more, well, scuttle-like. The ship-sinking word comes from the Spanish escotilla, a small opening, from escote, an opening in a piece of cloth, from escotar, to cut out.

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Discrimination: a rant.

 You know, I can remember a time when discrimination was a good thing.

Word To Use Today: discrimination. This word comes from the Latin discrīmināre, to divide, from discrīmen, a separation, from discernere, to discern.

photo by Monica Georgescu

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Nuts and Bolts: apodosis and protasis

 No, no, come back! Apodosis and protasis do look like difficult words, but that's only because grammarians like sticking posh labels on stuff. You've been using apodosis and protasis all your life.

Well, nearly all your life.

If I give you an example you'll be able to understand apodosis and protasis without any trouble at all...

...and, guess what, I just did - though you almost certainly wouldn't have realised it. 

That sentence:

 If I give you an example you'll be able to understand apodosis and protasis without any trouble at all.

is made up of two basic chunks. The first chunk:

If I give you an example

tells you what needs to happen for the second chunk:

you'll be able to understand apodosis and protasis wihtout any trouble at all.

to come into effect.

The chunk-that-tells-you-what-has-to-happen is called the protasis and the chunk that tells you what-will-happen-then is the apodosis.

See? Simple.

Sometimes the protasis and apodosis come the other way round in a sentence, as in:

I'd give you a beer if the dog hadn't buried the bottle-opener.

but basically it's just the same thing.

Grammatical Structures To Preen Yourself On Being Able To Use Today: apodosis and protasis. Protasis is Greek for a proposal, from pro- before, and teinein to extend. Apodosis is Greek too, and means a returning or giving back. It comes from apodidonai, to give back.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: nonplussed.

 Here in Britain, I was completely nonplussed to discover the  widely-understood American meaning of the word nonplussed.

I'd make some suggestion about how we can resolve this ridiculous situation.

But I'm completely nonplussed.

Thing Not To Be Today: nonplussed. In Britain to be nonplussed is to be so taken aback (that is, surprised and confounded) by a situation that one can't act, or even speak.

The word comes from the Latin nōn plūs, which means no further, the idea being that nothing more can be said or done.

In the USA I understand that nonplussed is often used to mean completely unmoved, or poised in the face of a difficult situation. 

Merriam Webster still marks this meaning as mistaken, but we seem to have got to the stage where the poor word is more or less unusable.

Monday, 3 May 2021

Spot the Frippet: jack.

 Well, there are jacks all over the place, so this should be easy.

A jack-tar is a sailor, a jack-the-lad is an enterprising (though dodgy) person; every man jack is absolutely everybody. You can lift a car with a jack, or roast meat on one.

Jacks are in packs of cards and harpsichords:

illustration by Nojhan, English captions by 
Jeff Dahl

 and games of, well, jacks, as well as games of bowls. You find them in electrical circuits (they're the female half of a connection that acts as a kind of circuit-breaker).

They fly from the bows of ships:

photo by Gary Mihalko

and another kind of jack forms part of a sailing ship's rigging.

They're to be found in tropical seas:

Crevalle jack. Photo by Kevin Lawver

And in the USA jack is money, which gets everywhere.

In fact, now I come t think about it, we really won't be able to avoid Spotting this Frippet.

Nice easy day for us all, then.

Spot the Frippet: jack. This word is short for Jenkin, which is a pet form of the name John. This Hebrew name means blessed by God.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Sunday Rest: Potus. Word Not To Use Today.

 I mean to cast no aspersions on any holder, past or present, of the high office of President Of The United States [of America], but the acronym Potus, with its echoes of both potation, and doofus, does no favours to any of them.

Mind you, until 1964 Britain's Minister of Defence bore the title First Lord of the Admiralty; and FLOTA conjures up things that are even worse.

Sunday Rest: doofus. This word appeared in the 1960s. It might be an alteration of goofus, which is to do with the word goof, or it might be from the Scots word doof, which means dolt. 

Sadly, no one knows from where the word goof came.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

My Mind To Me A Kingdom Is by Sir Edward Dyer or somebody

 My mind to me a kingdom is was published in 1588, so we know it was written before that, even if people are still arguing about who wrote it. 

Until fairly recently it was thought to be the work of Sir Edward Dyer, but now there are those who claim it for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (in which case it must have been dashed off in a spare moment snatched from writing the complete works of Shakespeare, sucking up to Queen Elizabeth I, and earling Oxford).

Still, whoever wrote it seems to have been a happy man - there was even a ballad version published of the poem, so if you'd wanted you could have sung your joy to the world. 

My mind to me a kingdom is;

Such perfect joy therein I find

That it excels all other bliss

Which God or nature hath assign'd.

Though much I want that most would have,

Yet still my mind forbids to crave.

No princely port, nor wealthy store,

No force to win a victory,

No wily wit to salve a sore,

No shape to win a loving eye;

To none of these I yield as thrall,

For why? my mind despise them all.

I see that plenty surfeit oft,

And hasty climbers soonest fall;

I see that such as are aloft

 Mishap doth threaten most of all.

These get with toil and keep with fear;

Such cares my mind can never bear.

I press to bear no haughty sway,

I wish no more than may suffice,

I do no more than well I may,

Look, what I want my mind supplies.

Lo ! thus I triumph like a king,

My mind content with anything.

I laugh not at another's loss,

Nor grudge not at another's gain;

No worldly waves my mind can toss;

 I brook that is another's bane.

I fear no foe, nor fawn on friend,

I loathe not life, nor dread mine end.

My wealth is health and perfect ease,

And conscience clear my chief defence;

I never seek by bribes to please,

Nor by desert to give offence.

Thus do I live, thus will I die,--

Would all did so as well as I!


Mind you, full of good sense as it is, the poet doesn't entirely escape the suspicion of being a bit of a smug git, does he.


Or perhaps even that is part of the fun.


Word To Use Today: surfeit. A surfeit is too much of something. It's said that King John died of a surfeit of lampreys and peaches.  The French surfaire means to overdo . The sur- bit means over, and the Latin facere means to do.

Friday, 30 April 2021

Word To Use Today: vulcanology.

 The blood group of Mr Spock, that most famous inhabitant of the planet Vulcan, is T negative. Sadly, this is nothing to do with vulcanology, which is the study of volcanoes.

(By the way, Mr Spock was originally supposed to come from the planet Mars, not the planet Vulcan, but there was a fear that mankind might get to Mars before Star Trek finished being broadcast - which is still possible. Mr Spock's Vulcan wasn't the planet Vulcan which was thought by the French mathematician Urban le Verrier to exist between Mercury and the sun:

illustration by E Jones and G W Newman

but another, equally non-existent one, which has been said to exist in the triple star system 40 Eridani.)

Anyway, vulcanology. It's usually spelled volcanology...

...but that post wouldn't have been nearly so much fun to write.

Word To Use Today: vulcanology. Vulcan was the Roman god of fire and metal-working and his activities were said to cause earthquakes and volcanic activities. The Latin word for lighting was fulmen, which might be something to do with the name Vulcan, but on the other hand there were loads of similarly-named gods all over the place in the ancient world, and the name could really have come from anywhere.

Thursday, 29 April 2021

Vote A rant.

 There are to be some elections in Britain next month. One of them is to elect the members of a new Scottish Parliament. (The Scottish Parliament has responsibility for things like Health and Education, but not UK-wide things like Defence.) 

Now, the SNP is the Scottish National Party, but are the Scottish Tories the SNP's friends and coalition partners, or their enemies? 

Can you tell from this headline in the Telegraph newspaper.?

Stop SNP 'wrecking' Covid recovery by voting for Scottish Tories, says Douglas Ross

To discover the answer to this question you really have to know that Douglas Ross is leader of the Scottish Tory (or Conservative) Party.

Yep, though you can't tell from that headline, te SNP and the Tories are deadly enemies. It's like watching a production of Macbeth at times. 

Though, admittedly, with fewer people tramping about carrying trees.

Word To Use Today: vote. The Latin word vōtum means a solemn promise, from vovēre, to vow.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Nuts and Bolts: the Swedish alphabet.

 Swedish has twenty-nine letters in its alphabet - that's the English twenty-six plus three more vowels, å ä and ö.

The three extras are placed at the end of the alphabet, after the z, and are regarded as completely separate letters from a and o.

This basically Roman alphabet came to Sweden with Christianity, but the old Swedish runes continued to be used into the 1700s, especially in the countryside. More or less everyone could read runes, but it took a long time for everyone to get round to learning to read the Roman script, so literacy actually got worse after the new alphabet was introduced.

In 1889 someone noticed that the letter Q wasn't a lot of use, and from 1900 it was replaced by the letter K in all contexts except proper names like Husqvarna and borrowed words like queer.

W and V were treated as the same letter, and V was generally preferred (except for some ancient families who were proud of their old W-spelled names). But then the World Wide Web came along, which made things trickier, and so from 2006 dictionaries have split up V word and W words into two sections. Before that they were all jumbled up together.

Z is rare, most old uses having been rather sensibly replaced with the letter S.

There's a sound in Swedish called the sj sound. It sounds (to me) a bit like hfwar, and it is said to be spelled in fifty different ways.

I shall not moan about English until at least tomorrow.

Word To Use Today: one of Swedish origin. Perhaps gauntlet, tungsten, or ombudsman. 

Allow yourself an extra biscuit if you can use them all in the same conversation.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

Thing To Do Today: shimmer.

 To shimmer is to glow faintly with a mysterious and beguiling light.

There are, as far as I can see, four ways to make oneself shimmer. Coat oneself in a powder that contains tiny reflective flakes:

photo by Vanessatevesti

 or one could wear a hi-vis jacket with a couple of layers of net curtain draped over it; find some moonlight to pose in; or shove a torch down your bra.

If you're trying to attract someone try the first or third; if you're trying to repel them then the second or last should, I think, be remarkably effective.

Thing To Do Today: shimmer. This word was scimerian in Old English. The word is related to the Low German schēmeren, which means to grow dark, and the Old Norse skimi, which means brightness.

Monday, 26 April 2021

Spot the Frippet: squab.

 Squab is a rather unlovely word; but they're useful things, squabs

The only one I knew about before today was the squab that's a young pigeon:

photo by Karthik Easvur

but apparently a squab can be any unfledged bird.

Squab is also a name for a short plump person:

illustration by Fred Barnard

as well as a well-stuffed cushion:

photo by Scrumshus

or any other short and fat thing:

Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

So, really, the puzzle with the word squab is how any of us have ever managed to get through a day without it.

Spot the Frippet: a squab. This word is probably of Germanic origin. There's a Swedish dialect word sqvabb that means flabby skin, and sqvabba is a fat woman (which is a bit odd, because you wouldn't expect a fat woman to have flabby skin). The German word Quabbe is a soft mass and the Norwegian kvabb is mud.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

Sunday Rest: devastated. Word Not To Use Today.

 There is nothing at all wrong with the word devastated, but what word are you going to use if something worse happens than your team losing a match?

Sunday Rest: devastated. This word comes from the Latin dēvāstare. Vāstare means to ravage, from vastus, which means waste, or empty. 

Mohave Desert, photo by Mr Johnson

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Saturday Rave: April from the Shepherd's Calendar by John Clare.

 The Word Den has noted before the many cuts the editor of The Shepherd's Calendar, John Taylor, made to John Clare's original text.

Here's the last published verse of April. This verse wasn't cut, it was inserted: and whoever wrote it, it wasn't John Clare:

Though at her birth the northern gale

Come with its withering sigh;

And hopeful blossoms, turning pale,

Upon her bosom die;

Ere April seeks another place,

And ends her reign in this,

She leaves us with as fair a face

As e're gave birth to bliss!

Competent, isn't it? Sums up the whole month in a nice obvious way.

Meanwhile, here's a (cut) verse from earlier in the poem by John Clare himself:

Young things of tender life again

Enjoys thy sunny hours

& gosslings waddle o'er the plain

As yellow as its flowers

Or swim the pond in wild delight

To catch the water flye

W[h]ere hissing geese in ceaseless spite

Make children scamper bye.

photo (of a Canada Goose gosling, which John Clare is unlikely to have seen on his village pond) by Mike's Birds

I mean, aren't hopeful blossoms just so much more poetic than goslings, for heaven's sake?


Word To Use Today: gosling. Goose - geese - gosling. Oh, how I do love the English language! The word gosling comes from the Old Norse gæslingr, and both words are of course related to the word goose, a word which goes all the way back to the Sanskrit hainsas.

Friday, 23 April 2021

Word To Use Today: squirrel.

 This choice of word is a bit mean, quite honestly, because squirrel is a really hard word to say if your native tongue (are we allowed to call them that any more?) is French, for instance. (Other hard-to-pronounce words, according to a survey on Reddit, involve the words sixth, rural, isthmus and choir).

But, hey, squirrels are cute:

photo of a red squirrel, Sciurus vulgaris, by Peter Trimming

...well, they are as long as they're not in your garden digging up the tulip bulbs (which they can't be, because all the squirrels in the world are currently wreaking havoc in mine).*

The other sort of squirrel is human, and then the word describes someone who hoards things - not in a massive, about-to-be-buried-by-a-mountain-of newspaper way, but more in the sense of keeping things like sweet-wrappers just in case, um, you want to make a picture using sweet-wrappers...or wrap some sweets.

The bushy-tailed type of squirrels usually squirrel nuts, but that's actually completely sensible behaviour. Unlike digging up bulbs you don't even eat.

Still, the derivation of the word is beautiful.

Word To Use Today: squirrel. This word comes from the Old French esquireul, from the Latin sciūrus, from the Greek skiouros, from skia, shadow plus oura, tail.

*Though, to be fair, it might have been the blasted badgers, instead. 

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Getting the blues: a rant.

 Harvey Tweats and Tom Whitehurst are a pair of enterprising teenagers from Staffordshire in England. They have set up a company breeding rare amphibians and reptiles with the aim of reintroducing them into the countryside.

I'll let The Telegraph newspaper take up the account of what happened when the young men tried a new method inducing moor frogs, aka Rana avalis, to breed.

They created a breeding enclosure in a plasterer's bath, and played sounds of males mating so they felt like they were surrounded by rivals, and turned bright blue.

I'm naturally full of admiration for the dedication, empathy, and scientific rigor displayed by these two young men; they are apparently the first people ever to persuade the moor frog to turn fully blue in captivity.

But I do hope the colour faded before Harvey and Tom had to go back to college.

photo credit: CC BY-SA 3.0,

Word To Use Today: blue. Yes, this word does come from the French word bleu. It's really a Germanic word, though, and way back it is connected as well to the Latin word flāvus which means, of course, yellow.

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Scrabble words: Nuts and Bolts

 Most of us who play Scrabble use a dog-eared old dictionary to settle disputes about the validity of words like zydeco or qui, but for the people who play in serious tournaments there's an official list of allowable words.

It's a long long list, but the most skillful players will know all the possible three-letter words, at least, off by heart (even if they don't know their meanings. But then, if you think about it, you don't have to know the meanings of the words to play Scrabble).

Anyway, this list has just got shorter by about four hundred words, and the problem here isn't the three-letter words, but the four-letter ones. I don't know exactly how many words have been lost because Mattel, the owners of the rights to Scrabble in most of the world (though not North America) isn't providing a list. Research suggests, however, that many of the banned words are unflattering ones to do with racial attributes. Ray Adler, who's in charge of this stuff, says he wants to make Scrabble 'more culturally relevant'.

Relevant...interesting use of that word...

Three matters arising from this decision: does pretending that nasty words don't exist make the feelings behind those words disappear, or does it encourage the nastiness to thrive unchallenged?

Some words get ruder as time goes on, while others become polite. If you ban a rude word that describes a feature displayed by a group of people, have you lost a means to express your admiration for that feature?

And is there anything more likely to encourage the use of a word than banning it?

Double points for any rude word, anyone? 

Or how about half points?

Hmm...but you'd need an official list for those, too, wouldn't you, or there'd be quarrels about what's rude enough to count!

Words To Consider Today: high-scoring ones at Scrabble. In theory, the highest possible scoring word is oxyphenbutazone. That's a phenylbutazone derivative, C19H20N2O3, and a kind of medicine. First used in 1959.

Zydeco is a type of Cajun music and qui, a legal term, is Latin for who or which.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Thing To Be Today: colloquial.

 JRR Tolkein said that cellar-door was the loveliest word in the English language, but I think there's an argument to be made for colloquial.

Colloquial...a lovely ripple of a word.

Colloquial means to do with conversation, but there's usually an implication of informal speech - a colloquial expression is the kind of thing you might say, but that you'd not write down in an official document. 

In other words, it's the kind of language more or less everyone uses more or less all the time.

There are thousands of examples - not on your nelly is one that The Word Den investigated recently. 

Colloquial language is different from slang or non-standard language, though very nearly everyone's speech includes expressions that are all of these. 

To be colloquial is to speak without necessarily having worked out very much about the end of your sentence. At times it will involve being perhaps not strictly logical - and perhaps not strictly grammatical, too.

Importantly, it involves not caring in the slightest.

To be colloquial is to be relaxed about the language you use. To feel that the form of it isn't the most important part of the message.

And usually, of course, that's quite right.

Thing To Be Today: colloquial. This word comes from the Latin word colloqium, conversation, from com- together plus loquī to speak.

Monday, 19 April 2021

Spot the Frippet: something imaginal.

 Despite appearances, something imaginal isn't usually imaginary.

It's true that imaginal can mean to do with an image, and images are in some ways not entirely real, but usually imaginal means to do with an imago.

An imago is the adult form of an insect - one that's emerged from an earlier, often very different form.

Butterflies are an obvious and well-known example, but an adolescent dragonfly looks a bit like this:

photo by Totodu74

and an adolescent ladybird looks a little like this:

and every transformation into an imago is as close to miraculous as anything I expect to see:

photo by Charles J Sharp,

photo by Jon Sullivan

One last kind of imago is imaginary to some extent: it's the idealised image held by a child when it thinks of one of its parents; an image which sometimes doesn't fade even with adulthood.

Mostly, though, these imaginal images are as transient as, well, butterflies.

photo by KimonBerlin

Spot the Frippet: something imaginal. The word imāgō is the Latin for likeness. 

Which is strange, because it's rather the point that it isn't.


Sunday, 18 April 2021

Sunday Rest: exaggerative. Word Not To Use Today.

 If the world truly has a need for the word exaggerative then I do not know what it is, and I just wish that people would forget about the blasted thing.

Sunday Rest: exaggerative. This word first appeared in 1797, but very nearly all the millions of English-speakers who have lived since then have shunned it entirely, thus demonstrating the good taste of the general populace, and providing us with an example which we would all do well to follow.

The word came from France, and before that from the Latin word exaggerāre, to magnify, from aggerāre, to heap, from agger, heap.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

Saturday Rave: The Critical Review 1813. The Battle of Bannockburn, Anon.

 The Word Den has one particular guilty pleasure: it just loves a one-star review.

Ooh, the sheer delight of a storming take-down. Well, it's a delight as long as it's not my work that's the subject of the review, obviously. Or a friend's. Or someone I admire. Or someone not very successful. Or someone who's down in the dumps...

Anyway, the star system wasn't operating in 1813, when this review of Bannockburn, a poem, In Four Books was published (the book itself came out in 1810). 

But the review...

...well, it starts like this:

THIS is an extraordinary poem, a very extraordinary poem indeed, and for once we Critics, who are seldom known to plead incapacity, confess ourselves wholly unable to appreciate its merits.


The review goes on to marvel at the lines:

retreating paces three,

With terror struck, kneeled on his knee.

And, at the end, the review does what every review should do, which is to sum up the various qualities of the subject ('gibberish, hobbled, singularly original') in a few neat sentences:

But now to be serious, we will no longer detain our readers with an account of a book which nothing, we conceive, but uneducated vulgarity could have produced; it is as contemptible a performance as we have ever witnessed in our critical capacity, nor would we, after it had laid in the grave for nearly two years, have roused it for a moment from its place of rest, but as a lesson to those buzzing flies who teaze some popular author, as the author in question does Walter Scott, by a professed imitation of a style the beauties of which they cannot comprehend, the defects of which they cannot avoid.

Ouch again!

Still... is quite satisfying, all the same.

illustration by James William Edmund Doyle

Word To Use Today: critic. The word comes from the Latin criticus, and before that from the Greek kritēs, a judge.

Friday, 16 April 2021

Word To Use Today: nelly.

 I don't know what happened to nelly. 

To be honest, I was never even sure who (or what) nelly was. When I was a child, and spending even more time than I do nowadays wondering what the heck was going on, the answer to a question like Is it all right to come into the house in my wellies? Might be Not on your nelly, I've just scrubbed the floor!

It meant certainly not, that was clear enough, but otherwise the expression was entirely opaque.

The expression is (or has been) used in Australia, too.

I know now that the expression was originally not on your nelly duff, which is rhyming slang for puff. 

Not on your puff means not on your life (life here being equated with breathing or puffing). PG Wodehouse uses puff in this way in The Code of the Woosters: 'Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?'

This, sadly, still doesn't tell us who Nelly Duff was, but nelly has long been established as a term for a fool, and something that's duff is something that's useless or broken; and so there would never have been very much expected of a Nelly Duff, poor girl.

Still, she's famous, now; which is a fact to encourage us all.

Word To Use Today: nelly. This used to be used commonly as a short form of Helen. Rather strangely, given the associations of nelly, the name Helen might come either from the Greek elane, torch or Selene, moon. But in either case it's something bright.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

HRH the Duke of Edinburgh: a rant.

 Prince Philip, who has died recently at the age of ninety-nine, was a magnificent man. He was very intelligent and brave and energetic and handsome. His death is a great loss to the world.

Prince Philip was also known both as a man of ready humour, and as a man not to suffer fools gladly; and so what he would have made of a certain national newspaper offering up-to-the-minute news on his passing under the heading LIVE UPDATES we cannot know.

But personally, I think he'd have laughed.

Word To Use Today: duke. This word comes from the French duc from the Latin dux, leader.

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Nuts and Bolts: Herve-Bazin's punctuation.

 Jean-Pierre Hervé-Bazin (1911 - 1996) was a writer (and French, obviously). He invented an almost completely phonetic way of spelling the French language (which is actually a sensible idea: if you think English spelling is bizarre...) and as part of this system he invented six new punctuation marks or points d'intonation.

These weren't actually anything much to do with intonation, more to do with clarity. This one, for instance:

makes the shape of a heart (more or less) and implies love. There were also symbols for acclamation, authority, doubt, conviction and irony.

Sadly, in that time of typewriters and lead type new punctuation marks were never going to catch on.

Still, now we have emojis:

illustration by Google -, Apache License 2.0,

 so the principle has a life, even if the symbol itself didn't.

Thing To Use Today: a question mark? The word question comes from the Latin word quaerere, to seek.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: snarky.

 Snarky is such a brilliant word. It's not been around that long (1906, originally, but it faded away and then re-emerged in the very late 1900s. There was also a slightly older snarky (1866) which meant to snort).

The reason this word is brilliant is that it's so obvious what it means. The sn- beginning suggests it as a cousin in meaning to sneer and snipe and snarl; the -narky bit reminds us of the word nark meaning annoying or quarrelsome; and altogether there never was a word that suggested more plainly a cobbled together version of sarcastic and nasty.

There are sources online which confirm this sarcastic + nasty derivation, too.

Strictly speaking they're probably wrong, but hey...

Thing Not To Be Today: snarky. This word comes originally from snark, to find fault or to nag. There are similar words in Low German and Frisian. When the word re-emerged in 1997 it meant hostile, knowing and contemptuous. 

I suspect that this new snarky really is a combination of sarcastic and nasty/nark, and that this is an example of convergent evolution. But I can't imagine how anyone could prove it.

The creature in the Hunting of the Snark (Lewis Caroll, 1876) is entirely unconnected - unless it put the sound of the word into people's minds as an inspiration.

Anyway, let's not be snarky. Let's be kind, eh?