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.