This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 11 April 2021

Sunday Rest: psychophily. Word Not To Use Today.

 There's a strong literary tradition of women falling under the spell of truly terrible men. There's Catherine and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights; Mr and Mrs Grimethorpe in Clouds of Witness (whoops, that's two couples from the Yorkshire Moors, I'd better think of someone from somewhere else); and Billy Sykes and Nancy from Oliver Twist.

Are these all, as you'd expect, examples of psychophily?


Sunday Rest: psychophily. This word describes the process of a plant being pollinated by a butterfly. The psycho- but comes from the Greek word psukhē, spirit or breath, and the -phily bit comes from the other Greek word philos, loving.

The symbol of the goddess Psyche (a girl who was supposed to marry a terrible man (but didn't)) is a pair of butterfly wings.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

Saturday Rave: Sonnet 98: From you I have been absent in the Spring, by William Shakespeare

 This sonnet has been dismissed for being simple, and it's true that apart from the reference to Saturn (a traditionally gloomy God) there's nothing here to confuse anyone. It has a single message: it may be lovely out there, but I can't enjoy it if you're not with me.

In some ways this is the perfect poem for our time - except that over the last year most of us seem to have realised that we are made of sterner stuff than this. And there's Zoom, too, of course.

Still, even the receipt of a poem can be extremely cheering, can't it?

From you have I been absent in the Spring,

When proud pied April dress'd in all his trim

Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing,

That Saturn laugh'd and leap'd with him.

Yet nor the lays of birds nor the sweet smell

Of different flowers in odour and in hue

Could make me any Summer's story tell.

Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew;

Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,

Nor praise the deep vermilion of the rose;

They were but sweet, but figures of delight,

Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.

Yet seem'd it Winter still, and, you away,

As with your shadow I with these did play.

But then things don't have to be complicated, do they? And the line Nor praise the deep vermilion of the rose has to be one of the most sumptuous in the whole language.

Word To Use Today: vermilion. This word comes from the Old French vermeillon, from the Latin vermiculus, which describes both insects of the genus Kermes and the red dye which comes from them. Vermiculus means little worm.

Well, the whole thing was lovely until then, wasn't it?

Friday, 9 April 2021

Word To Use Today: treacle.

 Treacle is delicious, but is it bad for you?

It's basically sugar, after all, whether it's black:

By Badagnani - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

or gold:

photo by Ivan Trpkov

(Yes, some people call this golden version golden syrup, but round here it's treacle - and, after all, everyone makes treacle puddings of the stuff!)

So is it potentially deadly?

Not necessarily. In fact, on occasion it can be life-saving.

Word To Use Today: treacle. Apart from the sweet sticky stuff, treacle also means antidote for poison. The Old French form of the word is triacle, and the Latin form is thēriaca, which has the antidote meaning.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Vaccine news: a rant.

 There's a large electronic noticeboard on the main road into town. It's one where the letters are made out of dots, rather like the ones on motorways:

The motorway signs usually say things like:

queue after jcn 16

but this one said:

over book vaccines given 

(I think it probably referred to my home county of Hertfordshire in England.)

over book vaccines given  ?

What did this mean? Had there been some unfortunate mix-up somewhere?

It wasn't until I'd been round the next roundabout that I realised that instead of the book, I should have read 600K.

Abbreviation To Use Today: k. In the SI system of units, kilo- denotes a thousand (as in kilogram, which is aa thousand grams) and sometimes k is used in a number instead of writing 000. 600 000 = 600K. Kilo- comes from the Greek khilioi, a thousand.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Nuts and Bolts: zero.

 The story of the number zero is old and interesting and important, but this post is about the zero that's to do with language.

Zero is actually a really easy idea: a zero feature is one that's usually, or often, or could be, used - but isn't.

One word that's is optional a lot of the time is that. So, you can write (or say) she said she'd be honest with me, without bothering with the that of she'd said that she'd be honest with me. That's a zero that-clause.

But grammatical zero isn't always so, well, grammatical. Someone might say You ready? Instead of Are you ready? for instance, and this kind of thing is often a feature of a dialect. British people go to hospital; people in the USA go to the hospital. Some other dialects won't bother much, for instance, with plural forms: give me three banana. (You can also count the plural s missing at the end of a word like moose as a zero feature, in the same way.)

And what's the plural form of the English indefinite article, otherwise known as a (as in a cow)? 

That really is zero.

There are also zero aspects of language that change the meaning of a sentence. I like horses in the countryside means something different from I like the horses in the countryside.

Altogether, it's amazing what an absence can do.

So [you] enjoy omitting words, now, okay?

Nuts and Bolts: zero. This word came to English in the 1600s from Italian, from the Latin zephirum, from  Arabic sifr, empty.

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: zorb.

 Zorbing is the action of travelling downhill inside a large air-cusioned hollow ball.

photo by Reptonix

Now, as Jane Austen so wisely remarks, one half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.

I try to be broad-minded, but I can't help being a bit glad that half the world, at least, does not indulge in the past-time of zorbing.

It would have made my walk up Ivinghoe Beacon yesterday rather less peaceful and scenic.

And would probably have flattened rather a lot of sheep.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: zorbing. This word comes from orb, meaning sphere, with a z put on the front to make it look crazy and exciting. In this it succeeds admirably. The Latin word orbis means circle or disc.

Monday, 5 April 2021

Spot the Frippet: trefoil.

 Four-leaved clovers are supposed to be lucky, but the three-leaved varieties are very beautiful, too:

birds-foot trefoil, photo by lawn weeds

There are lots of different plants with trefoil leaves, many of them members of the pea family, so I suppose that if there was no other way to spot a trefoil then you could always plant a pea.

Or look out for a Girl Guide:

one of the symbols of the Girly part of the Scouting Movement

This is another trefoil symbol, but of something even more dangerous than a Girl Guide:

warning sign of a radiation source

There was a fashion for trefoil windows in the 1800s:

or if you're stuck, why not draw your own?

drawing by AnonMoos

Actually, now I come to think about it, three is a lucky number, so who needs four leaved clovers?

Let's hope three is lucky for you.

Spot the Frippet: trefoil. This word comes from the French trifoil, from the Latin trifolium, three-leaved herb, from tri, which means three, and folium, leaf.

Sunday, 4 April 2021

Sunday Rest: technoking.

Elon Musk's Twitter account features a one-word description: technoking.

Now, I have no more chance of understanding the engineering behind Elon Musk's inventions than I have of having a picnic on Mars. 

But still, what is technoking, exactly?

And can I, myself, technoke?

Sunday Rest: technoking. Techno- comes from the Greek tekhnē, which means skill. The word king was cyning in Old English and is, entertainingly, related to the Danish word konge.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Saturday Rave: Prologue from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.

 Many of us are locked down at the moment, but Spring has been filling people with a yearning to make journeys for...ever. Perhaps there's some ancient link to when our ancestors were birds. Or reindeer. Or butterflies. Or humpback whales...

This verse doesn't go as far back as that, but it's about the oldest substantial piece of work in a language that's more or less Modern English. It was written by Geoffrey Chaucer, whom I suppose you would call a senior civil servant, in about 1400. It's wonderful: funny and sad, and full of vivid characters.

Here's the very beginning. I've updated the language slightly to make it a bit easier for those whose first language isn't English.

And for those whose first language is!

When April with his showers sweet

The drought of March has pierced to the root

And every vein has soaked up every shower

As brings forth blossoming the flower

When Zephirus with his sweet breath

Has sprouted every field and heath

With tender crops, and the young sun

Rises halfway through the starry ram

And little birds make melody

That sleep all night with open eye

(As Nature tells them at her college)

Then folk they long to go on pilgrimage.

I can't go far, today, but my pilgrimage will show me many impossibly wonderful things.

And so will yours. 

If you can but see them.

Word To Use Today: pilgrimage. The word pilgrim comes from the Provençal pelegrin, from the Latin peregrīnus, foreign, from per, through, and ager field or land. It's basically the same word as peregrine.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Word To Consider Today: zoophilism.

 Zoophilia, zoophilism and zoophilous.

Similar words with similar antecedents - but very different meanings.

Let's start with zoophilia, which is the very intimate association of human and non-human animals. Apart from any other concerns (and there are obviously several) this is one way global pandemics can begin (though almost certainly not this one). Really not recommended.

You can't be zoophilous, unless you're a plant, because it means pollinated by animals. 

photo of a Rufous hummingbird by Dean E Biggins

You can take part in the process, though, if you have a paintbrush or cotton bud and want to raise a particular plant that isn't going to be pollinated any other way - like a date palm, for instance (because it's cheaper than giving up space to growing male date palms) or vanilla (because you're growing them in a place where the natural pollinators don't exist) or a new variety of tomato (so you get exactly the mix of old varieties that you want).

That sort of activity is, admittedly, a minority sport, but zoophilism can be confidently recommended. Zoophilism is a tendency to become emotionally attached to non-human animals. Nearly all of us have some experience of that, and it brings great comfort and joy to many.

photo by Nicolas Suzor

Rusty, photographed by Christina Telep


Word To Consider Today: zoophilism. All these words comes from the Greek words zōion, animal, and philos, loving.  

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Craftpersonship: a rant.

 I see that a titled gentleman has taken up a position in American company which aims to facilitate craftpersonship.

This makes me wonder two things:

First, what on earth might craftpersonship be when it's at home?

And, second, is it inevitable that I will gradually lose any ability I presently have to communicate clearly with other people?

Word To Consider With Bafflement, Fear and Loathing Today: craftpersonship. The word craft comes from the Old English cræft, skill or strength, and is related to the Old Norse kraptr, power. The word person comes from the Latin word persona, which means actor's mask, or a character in a play. The ending -ship comes from the Old English -scipe, and here probably implies skill. So craftpersonship might mean the skill of being a skilled person.

And what that might imply I really haven't a clue.

PS: No, I only wish this were an April Fool!