This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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



Friday, 26 February 2021

Word To Use Today: centimetre.

 Just in case there's anyone in the world who hasn't already heard this story:

Liam Thorp, the Political Editor of the Liverpool Express Newspaper, was surprised when he was called in for his Covid-19 vaccination. He's thirty-two years old, quite healthy, and his turn for a jab should have been a couple of months away.

Further investigation (he's a journalist, after all) revealed that on his medical notes his height had been entered as 6.2 centimetres instead of six feet two inches. 

This gave him a BMI* of about 28,000.

Mr Thorp's actual BMI is much lower than that, but he's thinking of going on a diet, anyway.

Word To Use Today: centimetre. Centum is Latin for a hundred. The Greek word metron means measure. Mita means measure in Sanskrit.

A metre was defined in 1793 as one ten-millionth of what the distance from the North Pole to the Equator would be if the Earth was a perfect sphere. They got that a bit wrong, so later the metre became defined as the length of a metre-long bar - and then after that the length of a different metre-long bar - and then later still as the length of a certain number of krypton-86 waves. 

Now it's defined as the distance travelled by light in a vacuum in one two hundred and ninety nine million seven hundred and ninety two thousand four hundred and fifty eighth of a second.

I think they should make that number a three hundred millionth of a second. 

I doubt it'd make much difference, most of the time.

*BMI = Body Mass Index. Ideally it's between about twenty and twenty five.



Thursday, 25 February 2021

The size of a battery: a rant.

 I've been wondering about putting up some solar panels.

You can install a system nowadays which includes a battery to provide electricity when the sun isn't shining (this is, after all,  Britain). This battery would typically go in the loft. 

But would it go in the loft, that's the thing? Our loft is no more than four feet high at its highest point, and it slopes steeply down from there. 

So how big is this battery?

Scroll down...scroll down...

Ah. Here we are.

The battery is the size of a fridge.

...

...but - but - but - but how big is a fridge, for heaven's sake?

If they'd said as big as a standard domestic washing machine then that would have conveyed some useful information.

Or, here's an original thought: how about using some generally understood system of comparison. Like, I don't know, centimetres?

Doh!

Wird To Use Today: fridge. (They're very nearly always called fridges in Britain, not refrigerators). The Latin word refrīgerāre means to make cold. Frīgus means cold.



Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Nuts and Bolts: commuovere.

 English has more words than any other language, but it's still full of holes.

We don't quite have a word for commuovere.

Commuovere means to induce intense emotional participation, arousing feelings of pity and pain and passion.

You can use it of a story that moves you to tears.

Angelica Kauffmann: Ariadne deserted by Theseus

I find there are more of those as I get older. 

Still, I suppose that's better than getting cynical.

Word To Consider Using Today: commuovere. It isn't a very British kind of thing, being moved to tears, and perhaps that's why we need to borrow a word for it. The word comes from the Latin commoveō, to move or affect.


Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Thing Not To Be Involved In Today: deception.

 Deception is a contranym - that is, a word that means both itself and the opposite thing, as well.

In the phrase your deception was simple, who is doing the deceiving? And who is being deceived?

Your assumption as to which way to interpret that phrase might just reveal something very deep about your personality: do you, basically, associate yourself with a victim or a perpetrator?

In fact I may have just solved the whole how-do-we-tell-who-is-evil? problem.

But, on the other hand, I probably haven't.

Thing Not To Be Involved In Today: deception. This word comes from the Old French deceivre, from the Latin dēcipere, to ensnare, from capere, to take.




Monday, 22 February 2021

Spot the Frippet: a moiety.

 Moiety is an old-fashioned kind of a word.

It can mean a half, especially a half of something that comes in two pieces.

So what comes in moieties?

Lentils, I suppose:


photo by Mx. Granger

Actually a moiety doesn't have to be one of two equal parts, and in fact it's more often the smaller of two portions.

So you could have the moiety of a cake:




The ownership of an estate is quite often divided so there's a moiety, too.

I suggest you watch the helpings at meal times today. 

It's really just a question of being fair. 

Well, or slim, I suppose. 

Spot the Frippet: moiety. This word comes from the French moitié, from the Latin mediētās, middle.










Sunday, 21 February 2021

Sunday Rest: twindemic. Word Not To Use Today.

 I came across the word twindemic the other day. Yes, it was quite a shock.

A twindemic describes two epidemics happening simultaneously: as, for instance, 'flu and Covid-19.

I do not wish to think about that even as a possibility, but if it happened there'd be not much twinnish about it. 'Flu and Covid-19 are rather different diseases. 

Calling it a didemic would make more sense - if you know any Greek it would, anyway - except that in that case you'd also know about the derivation of the -demic bit and then the whole word falls to pieces anyway.

In any case, are we having a singletondemic at the moment? 

Of course not.

Bah!

Word Not To Use Today: twindemic. This word is a mash-up of twin and epidemic. Epidemic comes from the Greek epidēmis, which means among the people. the demia bit meaning people. The Old English form of twin is twinn

The Old Norse tvinnr means double, but that's still no excuse.


Saturday, 20 February 2021

The Shepherd's Calendar: February, by John Clare.

 February brings the first hope of Spring to John Clare's village in his Shepherd's Calendar

Spring is an easy topic for a poet because it's a time to make even the crustiest of us dream a little of warmth and sunshine and new life. Clare does show us the obvious things - the flowers and the sunshine.

But Clare sees marvels that other poets overlook:


Odd hive bees fancying winter oer

& dreaming in their combs of spring

Creeps on the slab beside their door

& strokes its legs upon its wing

While wild ones half asleep and humming

Round snowdrop bells a feeble note

& pigions coo of summer coming

Picking their feathers on the cote


I love that observation of the bee stroking its own wings. It brings the world vividly to life. 

But then to Clare all life, however humble, is bewitching:


Neath hedge & walls that screen the wind

The gnats for play will flock together

& een poor flyes odd hopes will find 

To venture in the mocking weather

From out their hidey holes again

Wi feeble pace they often creep

Along the sun warmed window pane

Like dreaming things that walk in sleep.


Does it take a madman to take delight in such creatures?

If so, then bring it on.

Bring it on.

Word To Use Today: fly. The Old English form of this word was flēoge. It's to do with flying.


Friday, 19 February 2021

Words To Consider Today: bella figura.

 Yes, bella figura is Italian, and, yes, it means (more or less) beautiful figure, but it's so much more than that.

It's the idea that it's not so much what you do, it's how you appear to be that matters. In Italy the idea of bella figura might extend to what you eat and when you eat it, or to how you wrap a gift, or to your latest social media photo.

It's all to do with keeping up appearances.

In Britain we have a famously scruffy Prime Minister, and traditionally the British rather distrust someone (especially a man) who is too well turned-out. But in Italy presentation is vital: to some extent the well-crafted promise is more important than actually carrying it out (I fear that this may be a sign of many decades or centuries of disappointment).

With bella figura, it is said, you can build a whole career without ever having to do anything.

And, I don't know, there are many worse things a person can achieve than nothing, aren't there?

Words To Consider Today: bella figura. Bella means beautiful in Latin. Figura comes from the Latin figūra, a shape, from fingere, to mould.


Thursday, 18 February 2021

First reversion: a rant.

 I've received this email from a solicitor (a solicitor is a variety of British lawyer).

Dear Sally,

 

Thank you for your email.

 

Please see attached herewith the amended bill.

 

I will revert to you in regard to settlement of the bill.

 

 Kind Regards


Well! Apart from the unnecessary and pompous use of the word herewith, what in the name of all that's holy does I will revert to you in regard to settlement of the bill mean? 


Just contemplating it as a sentence makes my head hurt.


As a matter of fact Google has come to the rescue. It means I shall write again with more information about the payment of this bill.


I wouldn't mind, so much, but I am paying hundreds of pounds an hour for this illiterate drivel.


Hwoof!


Word To Use Today: revert. I now see that this phrase is standard American, but it means absolutely nothing in British English. The word revert in Britain means return. The word comes from the Latin word revertere, to return. Vertere means turn.


I'm still really annoyed.




Wednesday, 17 February 2021

Nuts and Bolts: lexifers.

 What happens when people in a place speak several different languages?

Well, nowadays people might well all be able to speak English to each other, but there are other ways of solving the problem. 

One is to take one of the languages, probably the language of the dominant group (though not necessarily the biggest group in terms of numbers) and use bits of vocabulary from the other languages stuck into some approximation of that. Quite soon you end up with a rather awkward means of communication called a pidgin - and then later, with a new generation of speakers, it will blossom into a new and supple language called a Creole.

The lexifer is the base language that has all the new vocabulary (and probably some grammar, too) inserted into it.

You can sometimes tell how far along this process has gone, and the what the lexifer is, by the name of the language. Malay Creole Portuguese tells you, firstly the place it's spoken (Malaysia); and then that it's developed into a proper language, a creole; and, lastly, that the lexifer is Portuguese. 

French Guianese Creole has a French lexifer and it's spoken in French Guiana - though as far as I can see there's nothing (except history) to tell you it isn't the other way round.

Singapore English is usually called Singlish, which isn't easy, either.

Still, lexifer is a brilliant word for Scrabble, anyway...

...or it would be, if it was a valid word. Which it's not.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: lexifer. The Latin word lexicon means vocabulary list.




Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: thersitical.

 To be thersitical is to be like Thersites (you say that therSIteez).

Who?

Thersites was the ugliest member of the Greek army during the Trojan war. He was also evil-tongued (though what he said was sometimes what everyone else was thinking but had too much sense to say out loud).

That ugliness and being horrible should go together is no surprise: a lot of ugliness is nastiness glinting through.

But times have changed since the Trojan war, and with the advent of the internet it is possible for everyone to be beautiful - online, at least - and yet it's still the easiest thing in the world to be evil-tongued.

Perhaps we should remember the fate of Thersites, who was killed by Achilles after Thersites mutilated the corpse of a hero.

And it's really quite hard not to say that it served him right.

Thing Not To Be Today: thersitical. This word comes from the name of the Greek soldier Thersites. Homer implies he was a common man, but another source who mentions him says he was a prince. 

Both can be equally foul, so I can't see that it matters, much.



Monday, 15 February 2021

Spot the Frippet: tab.

 What's a tab? Well, it depends where you are.

In America a tab may be an invoice, especially for drinks or food (sadly, not an easy spot for some of us at the moment). In England it might be the badge on the collar of a staff officer:

British General Montgomery. WWII


In Scotland or Northern Ireland, it might be a cigarette (yuk):

photo by bachmont

If you're up in the air then it might be found on an aeroplane:



But everywhere a tab is a small flap of fabric or paper or plastic that might be to mark a place in a paper file, as part of a label (perhaps a security label on a food jar, or else a device to stop a battery working in a new electric product) or perhaps a small piece of fabric displaying to the world the size of your dress or the shop from which you bought it.

Today is a day to appreciate such small but useful things.

Spot the Frippet: tab. This word appeared in English in the 1600s, but no one is really sure from where it came. There was an earlier English word tab which meant strap or string, and there's a Norwegian local word tave, which means rag or piece of cloth, and those might be relations of our own word.

The word tab can also be short of tablet.


Sunday, 14 February 2021

Sunday Rest: hubbykins.

 Happy Valentine's Day!

Look, I'm sure I'd love you really very much if I, um, knew you, so have a gloriously happy day, okay?

Just one thing.

If there is someone around for whom you feel romantic affection (or someone for whom it is necessary to pretend you do) then terms such as hubbykins, wifypops, cuddlebun, sugarsqueeze etc etc, are only for the use of consenting couples in private, okay?

Thank you.

Word Not To Use Today: you know the kind of thing. So please don't.



Saturday, 13 February 2021

Saturday Rave: Just William's Luck by Richmal Crompton.

 People often ask where I get my ideas from.

Answer: absolutely everywhere. In fact, quite often this question inspires writers to invent a murder mystery involving someone who asks too many questions.

As you may have noticed, there have been a lot of those. 

But, as it happens, the novel Just William's Luck did have an unusual inspiration. It was originally a 1947 feature film written and directed by Val Guest, and it pleased the creator of the William books, Richmal Crompton, so much that she wrote it up as a novel, the only full-length novel in the whole William series.

The result is really brilliant. The focus is on the grown ups quite as much as William and the Outlaws, and they prove to be easily as much fun as the boys (not to mention Elizabeth Violet Bott). There are some glorious set-pieces: the two warring couples sitting at neighbouring tables at a restaurant is a scene of great technical beauty and exquisite joy. 

In fact Richmal Crompton takes such assured and glorious control of the extra space a novel provides that I wish she'd written more novels. Perhaps she did. I must do some research and let you know.

So if you want something to cheer you up, then Just William's Luck is very well worth a try.

Word To Use Today: luck. This word came into English from Middle Dutch luc in the 1400s. 

By the way, the book Just William's Luck has its own Wikipedia entry; but I think the person who wrote it must have read some other book. Never mind.



Friday, 12 February 2021

Word To Use Today: pamplemousse.

 We can't travel anywhere much at the moment, but we can still catch a flavour of the world through its many thousands of languages.

So I here recommend the French word pamplemousse

Now, we all know what a mousse is - but few of us will know the word pample, and that's because it doesn't exist. A pamplemousse isn't a mousse, in any case.

A pamplemousse is a grapefruit (which is a fruit, but it is nothing at all like a grape (though it hangs in bunches a bit like grapes)).

photo by Lipsio

You say this word PARMp'lMOOSS. 

I guarantee that so calling it will make eating any grapefruit a quite gloriously sensual experience.

Well, it's worth a try, anyway.

Word To Use Today: pamplemousse. Some people say this word comes from the Dutch pompel, big, and limoes, lemon, but it probably comes from the Tamil  பம்பரமாசு, pamparamasu. The word started off meaning pomelo, and then came to be used for the grapefruit, Citrus paradisi - a name which interesting in itself (marketing?).  



Thursday, 11 February 2021

Cross-arty: a rant.

 From the Telegraph online, 29th January 2012.

This week a cross-arty group of MPs [Members of Parliament] launched a campaign to boost the take-up of the vaccine among BAME groups.

Well, it's a good cause, certainly, and of course important people like MPs do tend to have access to the higher pleasures of life, both in sport and also in arty pursuits such as operas and concerts and exhibitions.

I also know, of course, that people in power are either in a struggle for even more power, or else clinging to the precipice of their high position while trying not to lose what power they have. This means that an awful lot of their energy is wasted attacking competitors, or smooching possible allies.

But I really do wish that just for a moment they would all stop being cross.

Word To Use Today: cross. The Old English form of this word was cros. It seems to have come from the Latin crux through the Old Irish word cross. All these words mean cross, as in the shape - which involves, of course, lines going in different directions.

(Yes, I do know that report really meant cross-party, not actually cross-arty But you can learn a lot from misprints.)



Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Nuts and Bolts: knocking copy.

 This tends to be called comparative advertising in America, but here in Britain it's called knocking copy.

Knocking copy is an advertisement which compares its product favourably with another brand. This other brand might in the past have been called BRAND X, but nowadays is more likely to be named a (or the) leading brand.

Contains twenty per cent fewer calories than the leading brand. That kind of thing.

Eight out of ten owners said their cats preferred it is a more subtle and oblique example.

Adverts are hedged around with laws and regulations, nowadays, and firms have to be very careful with their knocking copy. 

It's rather a shame. Life would be livelier if advertisements said things like: 

Drink BONGO: because BINGO tastes like cat sick.

Ah well.

Word To Use Today: knock. The Old English form of this word was cnocian. The Old Norse knoka means to hit.



Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: portentous.

 Okay, so portentous means pompous or self-important, right?

Right.

Well, in that case, what's that got to do with portents?

Thing Not To Be Today: portentous. The first meaning of portentous in my Collins dictionary is of momentous or ominous significance, which is very clearly something to do with portents (portents are omens). The next meaning is, basically, awe-inspiring or miraculous, and again you can see the connection with portents. The third meaning is self-important or pompous - and there I lose the thread a bit.

Still, prophets aren't exactly known for their laid-back charm and ready wit, are they? 

illustration by Gustave Doré

So the word portentous probably serves them right.



Monday, 8 February 2021

Spot The Frippet: knitting.

 What are you wearing? Of what is it made? And how has it been made?

You may have plastic or rubber soles on your leather or plastic or textile shoes, and you may have woven trousers or a woven shirt or a woven dress or jacket, but the chances are that your socks, if you're wearing any, will be knitted. And so will your jumper, scarf, gloves, and woolly hat.

Icelandic sweater. Photo by Freimut Bahlo 

They were probably knitted by machine, but they're still knitted.

What's the difference between woven and knitted fabric? Well, basically woven things are made with lengths of thread (or something similar), um, woven through each other:

photo by Rajesh dangi 


and knitting consists of interlinked loops:

photo by Pschemp


This makes knitted fabric much stretchier. It also means that you can make fabric with just a single piece of thread and a couple of sticks:

double knitting by Elisabeth Augusta. (Double refers to the thickness of the thread.)

instead of needing a loom (which is basically a frame upon which to tie the longways threads).

Today is a day to look closely at all the fabric you see. 

And to admire the loops.

painting by Li Mei-shu.

Spot the Frippet: knitting. This word comes from the Old English cnyttan, to tie in. It's related to the word knot.


By the way, in the USA jumpers are knit. In Britain they are knitted.




Sunday, 7 February 2021

Sunday Rest: eudaimonia. Word Not To Use Today.

 Eudaimonia is a horrible word - it has a moan in the middle, for one thing - and, to make matters even worse, it's a word which means something beautiful.

The idea was made up by Aristotle, so it's been around usefully for a long time.

Eudaimonia means...well, it means eudaimonia, but people have translated the word as happiness, or well-being, or flourishing. It's the process of living your life so that you can give expression to the very best parts of yourself, the parts which make you and the world both better and happy.

But, sadly, the word is still a mixture of eu, demons, and moans.

And so I can't recommend it.

Sunday Rest: eudaimonia. The eu bit means good, and the daimon bit means spirit. In Greek, obviously.

The same idea is present in the daemons of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials novels.





Saturday, 6 February 2021

Saturday Rave: Knock Knock jokes.

 Knock knock!

Who's there?

Boo.

Boo who?

Well, there's no need to cry.


But there is a need to cry, because this last week has been, apparently, Peak Bleak Week, and the news that knock-knock jokes are going out of fashion can only have added to the misery.

Still, someone has carried out a survey into them (why? Who paid for it??) and so the world still has some pleasingly bonkers things going on.

The survey was carried out by Perspectus Global, who have found that even old people (that is, the over-fifties) feel that knock-knock jokes are out of fashion. Seventy-five per cent of people don't even find them funny.

Knock Knock!

Who's there?

Little Old Lady,

Little Old Lady who?

I didn't know you could yodel.


David Arnold of Prospectus said 'The classic knock, knock joke is part of our national heritage. However funny or unfunny they may be, they still have the ability to put a much-needed smile on our faces'.

...though I don't know how, if they aren't funny. 

For some reason his comment reminds of this one:

Knock Knock!

Who's there?

Cash.

Cash who?

No thanks, I'm allergic to nuts.


Ah well. Please yourselves...

Word To Use Today: knock. The Old English form of this word is cnocian. The Old Norse word knoka means to hit.



Friday, 5 February 2021

Word To Use Today: brouhaha.

 A brouhaha is a word you literally can't say without laughing.

So it's just what we need for times like these.

Word To Use Today: brouhaha. This word means commotion of fuss. It came to English from French, which is surprising as French doesn't really pronounce the letter H. The claim is that it represents the sound of a devil disguised as a clergyman, which is food for thought in itself. 

In any case, it's certainly an imitation of the sound of a confused fuss. 

The word might come originally from the Hebrew barukh babba, which means blessed be the one who comes, from Psalm 118.

And now, as a bonus, you know what Barack means, too.

Thursday, 4 February 2021

Exactly: a rant.

 Many, perhaps most, words are a bit fluffy at the edges. Jane Austen writes of the never of conversation, which means not very often. Nobody in everyday speech assumes that never means, well, never

There are many examples of this kind of thing. There's nobody in the last sentence of the previous paragraph, for instance; a phrase like we always watch The News is similar.

This is usually fine. It adds colour and nuance to our means of communication.

But some words are hard-edged and exact - and exact is one of them.

From The Telegraph online 16/01/21:

According to the ONS [Office for National Statistics (it's a British thing)], at April's peak [of the first wave of coronavirus] 4,834 people died at home - exactly double the usual figure of 2,400.

Exactly double?

Exactly??

This is bad enough as an example of sloppy thinking; but when you're writing about people, and people who have died, then such casualness shades into horror.

Word To Use Today: exact. The Latin word exactus means driven out; exigō means to claim as due, or to measure by a standard, or to test.



Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Nuts and Bolts: agent nouns.

 An agent noun is one which lurks behind adverbs and then springs out and shoots down enemy participles...

illustration by Setreset


...oh all right: it isn't really. That would make grammar cool, and everyone knows it's not - well, not in that way, anyway.

(Though on the plus side, grammar does drive people to the heights of fury and viciousness, so you can't say it's dull.)

Anyway, an agent noun is a word where (in English) the ending -or or -er (usually) has been tacked on to turn an action into the person doing that action.

Teacher is an action noun. So is baker and dancer and blender. But not grocer or butcher.

Today I'm a learner.

Words To Use Today: an agent noun. (By the way, the word grocer comes from the Old French grossier, from gros, which means large; and the word butcher comes from the Old French bouchier and is probably related to the Welsh word bwch, which means billy goat.)



Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Thing To Be Today: bullish.

 I don't see so many bulls around, nowadays, but I'm always thrilled when I do. They're so completely magnificent and awe-inspiring, so full of power and pride and potential for attack.

photo of a Charolais bull by akial

What bulls aren't, though, oddly, is bullish. Well, they are if by bullish you mean like a bull, but bullish usually means energetically optimistic. 

Bulls seldom really look cheerful.

So I'm not exactly sure why there's an association between bulls and bullishness, but I suppose it's because bulls are pretty-much unstoppable. 

A bull market is one where the value of shares is going up.

Bull in the City of London. Photo by Alankitassigments

(A downwards-trending market is a bear market.)

Anyway, how can we summon up a bit of bullish spirit? For myself, I shall order some plants for the garden and start writing a new book. You might start a business, or buy a new dress, or book a holiday.

To be bullish must always be an act of faith, and seldom more so than at the moment.

But, after all, what's to lose?

Charge!

Thing to Be Today: bullish. the Old English form of bull was bula.



Monday, 1 February 2021

Spot The Frippet: bulb.

 It's mid-winter in England, and as I write this we have snow. Still, there are catkins on the trees outside by window, and the first flowers are emerging.

There are snowdrops and crocuses and even the odd daffodil (a very odd daffodil, which is probably wishing it hadn't been so keen).

People will walk past the house and say I see your bulbs are coming up (or they would if we weren't in the middle of a global pandemic) but of course this is quite wrong. The bulbs aren't coming up, the bulbs stay firmly below ground unless the silly squirrels dig them up and eat them - and crocuses, as the botanists among you have been shouting at the screen for ages, aren't bulbs at all, but corms.

photo by someone who calls himself Meneerke bloem

Still, if you're feeling pedantic, there are other bulbs to spot. Onions are bulbs, and you might see a bulb on a thermometer or a turkey-baster. 

Or even, just possibly, a car horn:


photo by Medvedev

And there are even commoner bulbs than those.

Mind you, a lot of light bulbs aren't always really bulbs, either, are they?

photo by Secretlondon 


Spot the Frippet: bulb. This word comes from the Greek bolbos, which means onion.

photo by darwin Bell