This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday 30 June 2021

Nuts and Bolts: percontation marks.

 This is a percontation mark:

It was invented in 1580, or about then, by Henry Denham (though not named by him) and it signals...well, whatever you want it to signal. Basically, it means what I've just written isn't quite as straightforward as it might appear.

Yes, it's a kind of irony mark. 

You might say that if the percontation mark had been needed then we would already be using it, but perhaps its time has now come. We have a, which means that a lot of people are having to communicate in a second or third language.

A percontation mark could be the written equivalent of that astonishing habit Americans have of saying only joking after they've made a joke. (This is astonishing to an English person because in England practically everything anyone says is likely to be a joke. Even Good morning.)

Having spent most of my life trying to learn to write clearly and amusingly, I feel about the percontation mark the way a portraitist must feel about photographs. 

But I suppose they're better than emojis, #joke, or (!), anyway.

Thing To Consider Today: percontation marks. A percontation is a question which requires more than a yes or no answer. The Oxford dictionaries point the word's English origin to Henry Cockeram in the 1600s. In Latin percontāre means to enquire or interrogate. The word comes from contus, which means, most surprisingly, boat-pole. 

The unicode for the percontation mark is U+2E2E.

Now I just need to find out what unicode is...

Tuesday 29 June 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: otiose.

 Otiose is a word one comes across in Victorian novels and never really understands...

...or perhaps that's just me.

Anyway, I've looked it up, now, and otiose has two basic meanings: the commoner one is serving no useful purpose (this is usually to do with people speaking at great length without actually saying very much), but the word can also be used to mean lazy in a disinclined-to-do-anything kind of a way.

As a writer for children, and especially as a writer for people learning to read, I tend to construct my books on a value-per-word basis, but some degree of otiosity is essential to twenty-four hours news channels. It's all too often alive and thriving in Zoom meetings, too.

You know something? I could probably make a fortune with a Zoom-type system which cuts out after sixty minutes.

And an even greater one if it was half an hour.

Thing Not To Be Today: otiose. This word comes from the Latin ōtium, which means leisure.

Monday 28 June 2021

Spot the Frippet: tin.

 This is easier to spot in Britain, Canada and Australia than in the USA because in those places baked beans come in tins, not cans.

Mind you, a lot of what are called tins aren't actually made of tin - and those that are, have only a very thin coating of tin over a steel structure. But in those cases it's the tin you see.

tin of tea. Photo by Chameleon 

A tinny in Australia and New Zealand is a tin of beer (but this will probably be made of aluminium).

Wriggly tin isn't made of tin, either, being military slang for something most people call corrugated iron (although it's probably made of stainless steel).

photo by Oxyman

A tin whistle is probably made of steel, too.

Anyway, tin is a metal, greyish with a slight yellow tint. If you bend a bar of it, it 'cries' (that is, it makes a soft screaming or crackling noise).

You don't often come across things made of pure tin, but anything made of pewter or bronze (like some coins (tin is slang for money) and large bells) will have some tin in it. So has solder. 

You need tin in the mix to make the pipes of an organ:

organ at Saint-Germain l'Auxerroisin Paris. Photo by Gérard Janot 

and also to make superconducting magnets. Tin goes into toothpaste and pest killers. You get it in lithium batteries.

Oddly, in the light of tin's association with bells and whistles and pipe organs, someone with a tin ear has dubious taste in music. Someone tin-eared may also be someone who upsets people by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

The association with bad sounds goes even further, because something tinny makes an annoying sound lacking in resonance - and it will probably be cheap and badly-made, too.

Spot the Frippet: tin. This word has been around in English since before 1000 AD. Some people think it may go back to the Cornish word stean, Cornwall being the main source of tin in ancient times.

Sunday 27 June 2021

Sunday Rest: welfie. Word Not To Use Today.

 A welfie is much the same kind of thing as a selfie or a belfie, and may possibly be all three at once.

Such a triple -elfie, though, would involve taking a photograph of your own bottom while exercising.


...yes, that mght be possible, if not to be recommended on aesthetic, health, taste, or any other grounds.

Still, I suppose such an attempt might end up making some work for a chiropractor.

And even chiropractors have to eat.

Sunday Rest: welfie. A welfie is a photographic self-portrait taken while exercising (which means that welfie posters are smug, as well as boastful). 

The word is made up of the words well and selfie. The word well was wel in Old English, so it's been doing sterling service for over a thousand years.

Saturday 26 June 2021

Saturday Rave: Ode on Solitude by Alexander Pope.

 Alexander Pope was vastly unpopular among the gentlemen of the press, and very much loved by his friends.

His family was exiled from London because they were Catholic, and so the young Alexander had largely to teach himself the Greek and Latin that he loved. To add to his difficulties, he contracted tuberculosis of the spine at an early age. This disease left him a hunchback and only four feet six inches tall.

Pope is reckoned to have been the first person in England to have made a living as a writer of literature, and he was (I think) the greatest ever exponent of the heroic couplet. His satire is sharp, and often very funny.

Alexander Pope was no angel. He enjoyed a good feud, and he was well able to survive, and perhaps even relish, the resentment caused by his designating as dunces, in immortal verse, a large proportion of his fellow writers.

This being the case, his Ode to Solitude might come across as rather hypocritical.

But then he did always claim to have written it at the age of twelve.

For myself, I'm rather fond of Alexander Pope.

Happy the man, whose wish and care

   A few paternal acres bound,

Content to breathe his native air,

                            In his own ground.


Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,

   Whose flocks supply him with attire,

Whose trees in summer yield him shade,

                            In winter fire.


Blest, who can unconcernedly find

   Hours, days, and years slide soft away,

In health of body, peace of mind,

                            Quiet by day,


Sound sleep by night; study and ease,

   Together mixed; sweet recreation;

And innocence, which most does please,

                            With meditation.


Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;

   Thus unlamented let me die;

Steal from the world, and not a stone

                            Tell where I lie.

Word To Use Today: meditation. This word looks as if it's made up of different bits, but it's meant the same thing more or less for ever. The Latin meditārī means to reflect upon [something].

Friday 25 June 2021

Word To Use Today: plexor.

 Plexor sounds like a super-hero, but it's not.

A plexor is a small hammer with a rubber head. It's the thing with which the doctor hits you on the knee to check your reflexes.

photo by Sven Volkens

I've never wanted to be a doctor, but I suppose that is probably one fun bit.

Word To Use Today: plexor. This word comes from the Greek plēxis, a stroke, from plēssein, to strike.

The word plexor has got nothing to do with most other words with plex- in them, like complex, which comes from the Latin plectere, to plait, or complexion, which comes from more or less the same idea as complex, but has the idea of bodily characteristics (Latin complexiō) mixed up in it, too.

Thursday 24 June 2021

The Swamps of Amazon

 There's a new edition of one of my books being published soon. It's called Hand & Foot, and it's a story set in the 1790s in a small town in Southern England. Two girls, one rich, one poor, both finding a way to be themselves. It's aimed at readers of about ten years old.

Well, I looked it up on Amazon to see if it was available, yet, and it isn't (though the old (first) edition is still for sale if anyone out there is interested. It has some lovely illustrations by Alex Paterson). 

Amazon did, however, have some suggestions of similar books that might do instead.

Now, computer-generated book recommendations should work well: the Amazon computer has information on the star ratings of far more books than any human critic can.

So, what did the Amazon computer suggest as a substitute for my Georgian mid-grade story?

1. How To Be A Freelance Writer

2. Four adult colouring books (including one called Amazing Sea Life Vol 2)


3. Peter the Picky Polar Bear.

Ah well. 

As a part-time critic I suddenly feel almost competent.

Word To Use Today: recommendation. This word comes from the Latin word commendāre, which is a strong form of the word mandāre, to entrust.

I ought to say here that I've never bought any kind of a colouring book or anything about polar bears. 

And that I actually know how to be a freelance writer already.

Wednesday 23 June 2021

Nuts and Bolts: hyponymy and hypernymy.

 Hyponymy (yes, we're back to Greek again) is when a word describes one member of a larger group of things. For instance, a captain is one of a group of the people called soldiers; a teaspoon is one of a group of utensils called cutlery; a killer shark is one of a group of animals called fish.

The opposite of hyponymy is hypernymy. That's when a word describes a group with lots of different members. So, a pet describes many different kinds of animal; an evergreen describes many different...but you get the idea.

I can't see that knowing about hyponymy and hypernymy is any use at all.

But, hey. it can't do any harm, can it.

And it just might help get those hypo- and hyper- prefixes into our heads.

Words To Consider Today: hyponymy and hypernymy. Huper is the Greek for over, hupo is the Greek for under. Onoma is the Greek for name.

Actually, the easiest way to get the hypo- and hyper- things straight is to think of a hypodermic needle, which goes under the skin, and a hyperactive person, who is over-active.

Tuesday 22 June 2021

Thing Not To Do Today: oscitate.

 Osculate means to kiss, which we can't do very much at the moment what with social distancing and everything, but we can all oscitate.

Mind you, I hope that none of us will want to.

Thing Not To Do Today: oscitate. To oscitate is to yawn. This may be from weariness or boredom (which is why I'm keeping this post short).

I can only suggest taking an interest in everything you can.

photo of Scottish wild cat by Peter Trimming

The word oscitate comes from the Latin oscitare. Os means mouth, and citare is an extra-strong version of the word ciere, to move.

Monday 21 June 2021

Spot the Frippet: pig.

 Well, yes, there are these:

and these:

photo of a wild boar by Richard Bartz

but a dirty person is also a pig; and so is a mass of some metal such as iron or copper cast into a simple shape for ease of transportation:

By Mfields1 at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0,

In Britain, a task that's difficult or irksome is a pig (I hope that today won't bring you one of those), as is a salt container like this: 

Auckland Museum

Pigs are also often found in dining rooms. 

And not exclusively on the plates.

Spot the Frippet: pig. This word appeared as pigge in the 1200s. No one know where it came from before that, but the theory is that it's to do with the Old English picbrēd, which means acorn, which were used as food for pigs.

Pig iron is so called because when being cast the metal was often given the form of a long cylinder with smaller cylinders arranged at right angles down the sides, so they looked rather like a pig feeding its piglets.

Sunday 20 June 2021

Sunday Rest: miniseries. Word Not To Use Today.

Miniseries is not, as it might appear, some slightly obscure though lovely quarter of Paris or Tangiers, but a word that's lost its hyphen.


This lack of obvious identity may be why the recent production I May Destroy You was described as a miniseries even though it had twelve parts.

Sunday Rest: miniseries. The mini- bit of this word comes from Italian, from the Latin miniātūra, from mināre, to paint red. (The link is to the tiny illustrations in illustrated manuscripts.) The Latin word series means a row (as in thing arranged in a line), from serere, to link.

By the way, a mini-series shouldn't last longer than a date - so, four hours, tops. Mind you, to me mini-series conjures up images of eighties shoulder pads and makes me feel old, so I probably wouldn't watch one anyway unless it came guaranteed funny and good-natured. Which they never are.)

Saturday 19 June 2021

Chorus from Henry V by William Shakespeare

 O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend

The brightest heaven of invention


O, indeed! 

These lines form the introduction to Shakespeare's play Henry V. It explains to the audience what they have to to make the story work: how to find it amazing and overwhelming and glorious.

The wooden O that's mentioned in the full speech is The Globe Theatre, which was (and is, in its new version) built in the shape of a letter O, with the audience banked up round the stage. A casque is a helmet; gentles are ladies and gentlemen (a little flattery of the audience never did an actor any harm); and puissance is power.

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great account,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.


Gently to hear, kindly to judge...

Well, it'd be nice if we could recover that quaint old talent, would 't it?

Word To Use Today: casque. This comes to us through French from the Spanish casco. Amusingly, it's thought to be basically the same word as cask.

It's not just humans that wear them:

photo of a cassowary by Nevit Dilmen 

Friday 18 June 2021

Word To Use Today: conjury.

 The word conjury is, of course, a close relation of the word conjuring. Conjury, however, is much classier, more romantic - and more dangerous.

Conjuring is a clever and amusing trick; conjury is dangerous and serious and almost always used by those of ill intent.

Although conjury can just mean magic, it has a strong sense of changing the essence of things, and, especially, of summoning up unearthly powers.

photo by Sean McGrath

Today the word is rarely used because, mostly, the practice of conjury is now known as economics.

Word To Use Today: conjury. The Old French conjurer means to plot. The Latin conjūrāre means to form a conspiracy. Jūrāre means to swear.

Thursday 17 June 2021

A Taste of the Orient: a rant.

 A slightly tacky catalogue arrived recently. It was advertising (as nowadays most catalogues do) medical devices, hideous duvet covers, droppable ornaments, and ways to clutter up the garden.

On page twenty (yes, thank you, I do quite enjoy looking through this kind of thing) was a solar-powered lantern. It casts, the text under the illustration informs us, a Turkish-inspired shadow.

The claim is the lantern will provide some Mediterranean mood. And it might. It might even give your garden A Taste of the Orient.

But I doubt, as the text claims, that even if you licked the thing it'd give you A Taste of Turkey.

Still, it could be worse. 

It could have claimed to give you A Taste of Greece.

Word To Use Today: Turkey. The bird is named after the country because guinea fowl (then called turkey cocks) used to be sent through Turkey on their way to Europe. The American bird turkey, being also edible, was later given the same name.

The country of Turkey is the land of the Turks. Turk has been used to describe various different people from various places in the world (rather as has the word Indian) but the country, Türkiye Cumhuriyeti, officially claimed the name in 1923.

Wednesday 16 June 2021

Nuts and Bolts: paralipomena.

 Yes, more Greek.

Paralipomena describes bits of a text that have been left out of the main body of a work and then put in later in a separate chunk. This may be because they're believed to be a bit dodgy (I don't mean dodgy in the sense that they're encouraging people to do deeply unwise or unpleasant things, but in the sense that they're believed to be later additions, so they don't have the authority they appear to have) or because they aren't so much a stand-alone work of art, but more of a commentary on another part of the work. 

The latter is the case with the biblical books of Chronicles, which are the most famous example of paralipomena

Mind you, being a kind of commentary on some of the rest, they were also, obviously, written later than the bits of the bible upon which they comment.

Nuts and Bolts: paralipomena. The Greek word paraleipomena comes from para- on one side, and leipein, to leave.

Tuesday 15 June 2021

Thing To Be Today: saltatorial.

 Grasshoppers are saltatorial.

And so, to a lesser degree, are you.

You share this attribute with kangaroos, goats, frogs, spiders, fleas, and dolphins.

Do you know what it is?

Yes, you're adapted for jumping.

(Actually, why are grasshoppers called grasshoppers and not grassjumpers? I mean, have you ever seen one hop?)

Sand and soil is also saltatorial (or so the geologists say) when it is washed about by water or blown about by the wind. 

Biologists also use the word saltatorial to describe a species of animal that's suddenly changed its appearance due to genetic changes. This used to be an alternative to Darwin's theory of gradual changes (and gave rise to the rather lovely idea of the hopeful monster) but it's mostly discredited now, even though occasional examples of large changes happening in a single generation have been observed in some plants, a centipede, and some moths.

Anyway, today's a day to jump - with joy, with any luck - but extra credit if it's to get away from a spider or a kangaroo.

illustration by Adolph Friedlander

Thing To Be Today: saltatorial. This word comes from the Latin word saltātor, which means a dancer.

Monday 14 June 2021

Sopt the Frippet: something vernicose.

 Leaves can be vernicose.

No, not vermicose, which would presumably imply they'd been chewed at by worms; vernicose.

These leaves are an example:

Angelica pachicarpa. Photo by Devra

Vernicose means shiny.

Petals can be vernicose, too:

buttercups. Photo by Carine06

and so can the bark of trees:

Yellow birch bark. Photo by Joseph O'Brien

But the botanical word vernicose can describe anything very shiny. Poets sometimes have used the word to describe other very shiny things, too. 

So today is a day to look out for gloriously shining hair, or a richly polished table. Or a ladybird.

What can you see now that's shining?

Spot the Frippet: something vernicose. This word is basically the same word as varnish. The Old English form of that word is vernisch, and it goes back to the Latin veronix and to the Greek berenikē. Some say that this word is named after the town Berenice, where varnish derived from pine tree sap is first said to have been made. But most people who have an opinion about this disagree. 

Sunday 13 June 2021

Sunday Rest: belfie. Word Not To Use Today.

 A belfie is a photographic self-portrait featuring the buttocks.

The worst thing about this word is that it might give people ideas - and, sadly, they're all going to be really really bad ones.

Sunday Rest: belfie. The b is for bottom or buttocks or bum, and the rest rhymes with selfie, which is a shortened form of self-portrait. 

The Old English form of self is seolf.

photo of the Belgian Federal Parliament building by KoS

I don't know why this comes up as the first image on a Wikimedia Commons image search, but it was a considerable relief. 

Saturday 12 June 2021

Saturday Rave: Willingness, by Chairil Anwar

 Chairil Anwar was brought up in Medan, in North Sumatra, and his work is credited with helping to establish Indonesian as the official language of his country. Most of his writing life was spent under Japanese occupation during the Second Word War, so his poems were liable to censorship.


He died in 1949 at the age of twenty seven.

This poem is, I think, a simple, and rather lovely thing.


If you like I'll take you back
With all my heart.

I'm still alone.

I know you're not what you were,

Like a flower pulled into parts.
Don't crawl! Stare at me bravely.

If you like I'll take you back

For myself, but
I won't share even with a mirror.

Word To Use Today: mirror. The Old French mirer means to look. Before that, the Latin mīrārī means to wonder at.

Friday 11 June 2021

Word To Use Today: gastrocnemius.

 The main point of learning Latin, or so our Latin teacher used to tell us, was to be able to spot the origin of English words and thence guess their meaning. 

Now, gastrocnemius is a Greek word at root; but, working on the same principle, what does it mean?

Well, as you probably already know, the gastro- bit means stomach; and as it happens the -cnemius bit means leg.

So. A stomach-leg. Or possibly a leg-stomach. 

Any ideas?

If you have, then you probably have a career as a science-fiction writer.

If not, then you can blame the Ancient Greeks. I mean, what did the Ancient Greeks ever do for us?

Well, apart from democracy, the alarm clock, the Olympics, juries, geometry...

Word To Use Today: gastrocnemius. The gastrocnemius muscle is in the calf, and is used especially for running and jumping.

illustration by Johannes Sobotta

The word comes from the Greek words gastēr, stomach, and knēmē, which means leg. The idea is that the calf of the leg bulges like a well-filled stomach.

Mind you, as the speaker of a language which calls this part of the anatomy by a word meaning young cow, I'm really in no position to throw stones.

Thursday 10 June 2021

The End of Latin: a rant.

 Look, it's true that Latin nouns (a noun is a word which describes an object, like a table or a law or an idiot) behave oddly (to an English speaker) when they arrive in groups. 

Servus = servant; servi = more than one servant.

Obviously it would be much easier if the Roman's had made the more-than-one-servant word servuses, but they didn't. It was probably something to do with the fact that the Romans were completely ignorant of the grammar of the English language - and that was probably because when they were around the English language hadn't actually been invented, yet.


Now, people naturally like to show off their knowledge, and so if a word looks like a Latin noun they will often give it a Latin-like ending if the thing suddenly pops up in a group.

But just because a word looks like a Latin noun, it doesn't mean that it is one.

Ignoramus, for instance, is not a Latin noun.

And the people who use the form ignorami are actually ignoramuses.

Word To Use Today: ignoramuses. This word is legal Latin for we have no knowledge of, from the Latin ignōrāre, to be ignorant of. It's use in English began with the character of an ignorant lawyer in George Ruggle's 1615 smash-hit play Ignoramus.

If only the play had had two ignoramuses!

Wednesday 9 June 2021

Nuts and Bolts: country codes.

 Codes ISO 3166-1 are an internationally recognised way to describe countries. 

(ISO stands for the International Organisation for Standardization. Yes, I know, I know. But it just does, okay?).

There are three ISO 3166-1 systems, a two-letter, a three-letter and a three-number one.

The two-letter codes are most widely used (nearly always for internet domain names, for instance), but the three letter code has the advantage of giving people more of a clue which country the code represents (ALB is easier to guess than just AL, for instance. Yes, it's Albania). The three-number code, used by the United Nations Statistical Organisation, is useful because numbers are recognisable even in places which don't use the Roman alphabet.

Here are ten two-letter country codes. Which country do they represent?











Answers ** below.

And if you got any of those right, you can preen yourself.

Word To Consider Today: Algeria. Other forms of the name are: in Arabic الجزائر‎, or al-Jazāʾir; in Algerian Arabic الدزاير‎ or al-dzāyīr (and there's the DZ of the country code). There are also a few different names in Berber languages, of which ⵍⴻⵣⴰⵢⴻⵔ is in an interesting alphabet. In French, Algeria is called Algérie.

The name Algeria comes from the city of Algiers, which comes from the Arabic al-Jazāʾir  which means The Islands.

**Algeria, American Samoa, Benin, Chad, Croatia, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Switzerland, Ukraine, Micronesia, respectively.

Tuesday 8 June 2021

Thing Not To Do Today: get in a tizzy.

 Stay calm.

You may have smashed a honey jar while minding next-door's toddler and been so busy separating the mess and the child that you've neglected the frying pan and set off every smoke alarm in the house, but approach the situation with a clear and logical mind...

...oh well, all right: sometimes the headless-chicken routine is as good a response as anything.

I can only advise keeping a wooden spoon to hand so you can reach the fire alarm off-switch. That, and keeping your honey in a plastic bottle.

There's not much you can do about the toddler, though. They get everywhere.

DEEEEP breathhhhh...

Thing Not To Do Today: get in a tizzy. This is an 1800s expression of mysterious origin. Some claim it as 1930s American, and speak of the word tizzy meaning sixpenny piece, or Tizzy, a character in a 1930s cartoon. I just note that tizzy sounds very like the word dizzy - and that testa is the Italian for head.

Sometimes tizzy is shortened to tizz, or lengthened to tiz-woz. It's a reaction to a minor but complex problem. No one gets in a tizzy in tragic circumstances, but they might if they were trying simultaneously to answer a query on the phone and plait someone's hair in the middle of writing a shopping list.

Monday 7 June 2021

Spot the Frippet: broom.

 I wonder if witches use their broomsticks to sweep their houses, or whether they have vacuum cleaners just like everyone else?

photo by Asurnipal

Actually, now I'm thinking about it, I wonder how a flying broom is powered? You never know, witches might know the secret to combating global warming.

Hey, and if brooms fly by magic, rather than by some kind of fuel, then you could probably get a vacuum cleaner to fly, too. A vaccuum cleaner would be much more comfortable to sit on than a broom...

...though I suppose you'd have to be careful not to get the lead caught up in a tree.

Anyway. Brooms. Much cheaper and longer-lasting and more versatile than the most high-tech of vacuum-cleaners. And more soothing to operate, too.

There are quite a few plants called broom. They come from the group called the Genisteae, which you can find more or less all over the world. Lupins, gorse, and laburnum are included in the group, as well, of course, as broom:

French broom (found in California, apparently). Photo by Calibas

They tend to have long spiky bits that you can use to make, well, brooms.

Spot the Frippet: broom. The Old English form of this word was brōm, which is basically the same word as bramble and comes from a Proto-Indo-European word bherem- which means something like to project, or a point. The word started off meaning the prickly shrub, and took over from besom as the word for a sweeping implement in the 1400s.

Sunday 6 June 2021

Sunday Rest: manoeuvre. Word Not To Use Today.

 This word begins with man- but quite frankly I couldn't care less about that.

The middle syllable sounds like a cow in labour, but I don't care much about that, either.

To be honest, my main difficulty with this word is the spelling.

I know it's different in America. But it's still horrible.

Sunday Rest: manoeuvre. Or maneuver, if that's acceptable where you are at the moment. This word is French, of course, but it came to England in the 1400s so you'd have thought people would have had time to tidy the thing up a bit. The Latin word manopera means manual work, from manū operāre, to work with the hands.

Saturday 5 June 2021

Saturday Rave: The Cloud by Alexandr Pushkin

 Alexandr Pushkin is Russian literature's founding poet, and he is  generally reckoned by Russians to be their greatest poet, too.

Now, what kind of poems would you expect from a Russian poet who lived from 1799 to 1837, thus dying young (as a result of a duel with his wife's alleged lover) in a time of revolution and therefore being just about as Romantic as it is possible to be?

Well, probably not a hopeful one like this:

The last cloud of a scattered a tempest,

You fly alone in azure, the prettiest thing.

Alone you bring in woeful shade,

Alone you sadden a day that should be glad.


Not long ago you stormed the skies. Mighty,

And entwined with potent lightning,

You were the womb of divine thunder,

And quenched with rain the thirsty earth.


Enough, now: vanish! You cannot last forever.

The earth is refreshed and the tempest has fled,

And now the wind, fondling the leaves of the trees

With pleasure, is banishing you from the blissful sky.  

Word To Use Today: tempest. This word comes through French from the Latin tempestās, storm, from tempus, which means time.

Friday 4 June 2021

Word To Use Today: scuttlebutt.

 Well, we all know about the word scuttle, and we also know what a butt is, so...

...hmm...actually, I think this approach might be going to lead us in the wrong direction...

Let's start again.

One of the meanings of the word scuttle is to sink a ship, and the scuttle of scuttlebutt is indeed a nautical term. It's nothing to do with making holes in the bottom of a ship so it sinks, though, because on a ship a scuttle can also mean a hatch, or its cover, and in scuttlebutt it means the place where the cask of drinking water is kept - or, nowadays, it'll probably be a drinking fountain (actually, nowadays, it'll probably be fenced off with hazard warning tape).

Yes, a scuttlebutt is an old form of water-cooler.

And both, pleasingly, are known as fountains not only of water, but of gossip.

Word To Use Today: scuttlebutt. Here the word butt meaning large cask is nothing to do with the word butt meaning least, there is a connection but it's coincidental. Butt meaning backside is related to the Old English butuc meaning end or ridge, but butt meaning cask comes from the Old French botte, goes back to the Latin buttis, cask, and before that perhaps it's something to do with the Greek word butīne, which means chamber pot.

The word scuttle in this sense comes from the Old Spanish escotilla, a small opening, from escote, an opening in a piece of cloth.

Thursday 3 June 2021

As reliable as a Kalashnikov: a rant.

 Look, when one uses the formulae:

 x is like y


as x as y

then the whole point is that x does have to be quite like y. Otherwise, as I would have thought fairly obviously, the whole conceit falls to pieces.

A few years ago I read of legs like golfing umbrellas, and I am still trying to work out in which way legs might be like golfing umbrellas. Were they striped? Did they not bend at the knee? I just don't know.

Anyway, as I expect you know, these types of constructions are called similes, and the similarity between the words simile and similar is not coincidental.

Vladimir Putin is not a professional writer, but he does seem to have come up with a completely original way of messing up a simile. He's been trying to encourage the use of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine, which people worry might do them harm.

He described it as reliable as a Kalashnikov.

That may not have done much for the uptake of the Sputnik vaccine, but it gave me a laugh.

Word To Use Today: Putin. In Russian, put means way or road. So Putin means man of the road.

Kalashnikovs are believed to have killed more than a million people.

Wednesday 2 June 2021

Nuts and Bolts: antimetabole.

 Here's another long Greek word that turns out to mean something really simple.

Antimetabole is when you repeat a phrase, but swap around two of the most important words in it.

I know what I like, and I like what I know

is an example of antimetabole (and also, of course, of the very deepest possible stupidity).

It's not necessary to know about antimetabole in order to use it. Did Snoop Dog know he was using antimetabole when he used the lyrics I've got my mind on my money and my money on my mind? Did Shakespeare know when he wrote Fair is foul and foul is fair?

I'm pretty sure that my late mother-in-law didn't know she was using antimetabole when she used to say I like cheese but cheese don't like me.

It was still a clear and effective expression of her predicament, though.

Nuts and Bolts: antimetabole. This word is Greek, from anti- against, or opposite and metabolē, turning about or change.

Tuesday 1 June 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: curt.

 The word curt, describing someone who speaks in a rather rude and also brief kind of a way, is, unsurprisingly, linked to the Latin word curtus, which means cut short or mutilated.

The interesting thing is that the first synonym for the word curt in my Collins dictionary is blunt.

Thing Not To Be Today: curt. Or, indeed, blunt. 

(Yes, I know, so many people are idiots: but they're never going to improve unless you explain things nicely, are they?

Mind you, if you get it wrong and end up being patronising then that's not going to help anyone, either.)

photo from the Korean Culture and Information Service at