This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday 31 August 2021

Thing To Be Today: gusting.


Well, it's better than being disgusting, isn't it?

Thing To Be Today: gusting. All right, this isn't actually a word (unless it's to do with, not that kind of wind).

The word disgusting comes from the Old French desgouster, from gouster, to taste. The Latin dis- means apart, and gustāre means to taste.

Anyway, if gusting isn't a word then gusto, meaning with great enjoyment and energy, is a word. It comes from the same Latin source as the gust part of disgusting, but through Spanish, this time.

Monday 30 August 2021

Spot the Frippet: something dolabriform.

 This is another biologists' word, and it's bizarre, even for them.

It means in the shape of a hatchet or axe head.

There are plants with hairs that spit into two and look like tiny hatchets; there are plants which have axe-head-shaped bracts.

Here are some words of great wisdom from the introduction to the Angiosperm Phylogeny Website Version 14 Glossary (yes, I do read some odd things):

The most important thing to remember when using this (or any other) glossary is that just because some aspect of an organism is dignified by a sesquipedalian term, this by no means signifies that the term refers to an interesting part of "reality". As Hesse et al. (2009b: p. 27) noted "Nature itself neither needs categories nor has any knowledge of them" and "categories are artificial and always delimited by an individual or collective convention". Humans make and define botanical terms, and we use them to facilitate communication, although all too often they seem to be as much an impediment to our understanding as anything else.

As this is the case, I would suggest that today we just all go out and try to find, er, an axe:

photo by KingaNBM

Good hunting!

Spot the Frippet: something dolabriform. This word comes from the Latin dolābra, pickaxe.

Sunday 29 August 2021

Sunday Rest: doily. Word Not To Use Today.

 I used to treasure doilys when I was small. You could make fairy-dresses for your dolls out of the paper ones.

Mostly, though, paper doilys remind me of Church Teas and their smell of dry rot, damp carpets, and gentle, determined, despair.

The fabric ones, on the other hand, remind me of hopeless visits to decaying relatives:

You can also write this word doyley or doyly. 

Though, obviously, I wish you wouldn't.

Sunday Rest: doily. Mr Doily was a draper in London in the 1700s.

There are happier uses for doilys:

By Runner1928 - Own work (Runner1928) March 24, 2005, Wakefield, England.

and if I were queen, I'd probably like them more.

Saturday 28 August 2021

Saturday Rave: Trova à Maneira Antiga by Francisco de Sá de Miranda

 Francisco de Sá de Miranda 1481- 1558 had an easy life, for a poet. 

In fact, he seems to have had an easy life.

He was born in Portugal into a rich and well-connected family, spent his childhood by the River Mondego, followed this with university, and then had a stint at the royal court where he was notable for his poems, Then, for a change, he went to Italy to visit other poets, came back to court again, made friends with the king, bought an estate and retired to it with his wife, and lived to the age of seventy six.

 As far as I know no poems of Francisco de Sá de Miranda have been translated into English, but here's my (approximate, I'm afraid) attempt at a poem I've found. The verse form is called a trova, and the title means The Old Way.

Comigo me desavim,
sou posto em todo perigo;
não posso viver comigo
nem posso fugir de mim.
Que meio espero ou que fim
do vão trabalho que sigo,
pois que trago a mim comigo,
tamanho inimigo de mim?

My friend, I am in 
Every possible danger; 

I can't live with me, nor can 

I run away from myself. 


How can I have any hope? 

What will be the outcome of all my labour 

When I bring with me 

A life-sized enemy?


Personally, I know just how he feels.

Word To Use Today: enemy. This word comes from the Latin word inimīcus, hostile, which is itself from in- plus amīcus, which means friend.

Friday 27 August 2021

Word To Use Today: tacamahac.

 I can't claim that this word is a lot of use, but it's lovely to say:


(You say it TACKamaHACK.)

(You can also spell it with a K stuck on the end if you like.)

Tacamahac is the scented sap you get from several types of American tree which can be used to make ointments and incense.

These are the flowers of one of those trees, Calophyllum inophyllum.

photo by Forest and Kim Starr,

That tree is planted to help prevent coastal erosion, and it is also the source for tamanu oil, which is useful for massage, as a rub-on medicine, for burning in lamps, as waterproofing, and in cosmetics.

I know that really this post should be about tamanu oil, rather than tacamahac, because people don't really use tacamahac much nowadays.

But it's just not half such fun to say.

Word To Use Today: tacamahac. This joyous word comes from the Nahuatl tecomahca. Nahuatl is a group of languages of Central Mexico which go right back to the seventh century and the Aztecs.

Thursday 26 August 2021

Virtue-signalling: a rant.

 You know that thing where some poor fool accidentally uses an unfortunate word on Twitter and a whole mob descends upon him, (or her, or whomever) to tear him (or her, or whomever) apart for being racist, sexist, transphobic, or otherwise revealing of some inner evil?

Yes, that is very often called virtue-signalling.

But consider: if virtue comes down to honesty and kindness (not that I'm saying that it's always easy to manage both at once) then I'm afraid that whatever the mob is signalling, it certainly isn't virtue.

Word To Consider Today: virtue. In the circumstances I find it particularly hilarious that this word comes from the Latin word vir, meaning man. The Latin word virtūs means manliness or courage.

Wednesday 25 August 2021

Nuts and Bolts: rhotacism.

 I think rhotacism may be getting rarer. There seem to be fewer adults about who can't pronounce the letter R, and those that do seem to be fairly advanced in age.

I don't know why this should be. Perhaps it's just that a young person displaying rhotacism doesn't get a job on the telly. 

Anyway, pronouncing the R sound successfully quite often takes five years for a child to master (and sometimes seven) and until then it's cute. After that, it can be a nuisance to anyone trying to communicate something about rhinos, for instance.

The odd thing about the word rhotacism is that it's the term for two opposite things (which makes it a contranym, hurray!), which must be rare for a word made up by linguists to use to talk about language. I mean, you would have thought that linguists would have got the hang of communicating things clearly, but the word rhotacism is used by them to mean both using the R sound less than is standard (or, sometimes, not at all), as in the case of someone who can't pronounce an R sound; and also using an R sound more.

The using-it-more meaning is actually quite sensible, because the word rhotacism comes from Greek word rhōtakizein, which comes from the Greek letter rho: 


 (a Greek rho is pretty much the same as our letter R (though confusingly it looks like a P when it's upper-case)). This using-the-R--sound-more meaning describes the tendency over a long period of time for sounds like z, or d or l or n in a language to change to an R sound. 

It follows that the using-the-R-sound-less meaning, the one where the sound R can't be pronounced at all, is really rather perverse.

But then I suppose that sense isn't that fashionable among academics at the moment.

Tuesday 24 August 2021

Thing Not To Be Today: overweening.

 Who'd want to be overweening?

Personally, I wouldn't even want to be weening.

Thing Not To Be Today: overweening. This word comes from the Old English wēnan, which means to imagine something. In the case of someone overweening what's being imagined is an (obvious) belief in one's own importance, intelligence, and entitlement. The related German word wähnen means to assume wrongly.

Monday 23 August 2021

Spot The Frippet: something strobilaceous.

 Nature is almost infinitely complex, and this means that science needs a lot of words.

One of them is strobilaceous.

Is this anything to do with strobe, as in lighting?

Yes, but the connection goes back a long way.

Something strobilaceous is cone-shaped (while I'm here, isn't it interesting that on the whole pine cones aren't?)

Something strobilaceous near you might look like this:

photograph of Strobilomyces stobilaceus by kent_ozment

or this:

photo by Filo gèn' 

or this:

I admit that it's going to be almost impossible actually to use the word strobilaceous without looking like a pompous idiot.

But you get the points just for thinking it, anyway.

Spot The Frippet: something strobilaceous. The Greek word strobilus means pine cone, and later it came to mean a plug of lint twisted into a cone-shape. This was presumably used for spinning, because strobos is the act of spinning. 

A strobe light makes people look as if they're moving oddly, and is connected to the action of whirling or spinning.

Sunday 22 August 2021

Sunday Rest: onliner. Word Not To Use Today.

 There is nothing wrong with the form, sound, appearance, or derivation of the word onliner.

It's quite a modern word, too: less than thirty-seven years old, certainly.

According to my 2010 Collins Dictionary onliner means a person who uses the internet regularly.

But nowadays, of course, we simply say person.

Sunday Rest: onliner. The word line comes from the Latin word līnea, which is a noun made from the word līneus, which means flaxen, from līnum, flax.

Saturday 21 August 2021

Saturday Rave: One day I wrote her name by Edmund Spenser

 It's August, and I want to be by the seaside.

That's not possible for me at the moment, but here's a poem that combines the shore with a very Elizabethan sentiment in a very Elizabethan sonnet, Amoretti LXXV by Edmund Spencer:

Here he is, looking rather self-conscious:

Spencer was an interesting character. He was born humbly, worked his way through college, got himself a job as secretary to a bishop, gave that up to join the English army which was at the time seeking to pacify Ireland (pacify being a considerable euphemism, I'm afraid), became close friends with Walter Raleigh, put himself in the way of some valuable land, put himself in the way of some more land, and then put himself in the way of Elizabeth, the young daughter of the Earl of Cork, to whom he dedicated a series of love sonnets, of which this is number seventy five:

One day I wrote her name upon the strand,

But came the waves and washed it away:

Again I wrote it with a second hand,

But came the tide, and made my pains his prey.

"Vain man," said she, "that dost in vain assay,

A mortal thing so to immortalize;

For I myself shall like to this decay,

And eke my name be wiped out likewise."

"Not so," (quod I) "let baser things devise

To die in dust, but you shall live by fame:

My verse your vertues rare shall eternize,

And in the heavens write your glorious name:

Where whenas death shall all the world subdue,

Our love shall live, and later life renew."

In 1598 Spencer's castle in Ireland was burned down by some unsurprisingly annoyed Irish, and Spencer moved back to London where he died, aged forty-six, according to the unreliable Ben Johnson for want of bread.

Spencer was right about his poems living on. His wife Elizabeth lived on, too, and married twice more, probably to better men, though not nearly such good poets.

Word To Use Today: virtue. Ironically in the circumstances, the word virtue comes from the Latin virtūs, which means manliness or courage, from vir, man.


Friday 20 August 2021

Word To Use Today: futtock.

 This is a word made for catastrophe.

Oh futtock!

It can also be extended grammatically if necessary:

It's a futtocking bull! Run!

Of course visitors to The Word Den are a precise and canny lot who wouldn't dream of using a word unless they understood it properly.

Still, in a moment they will.

Word To Use Today: futtockA futtock is part of a rib of a sailing ship:

(I found this illustration via Quora. Thanks to Sam Manning, too.)

There are also futtock shrouds:

The word futtock has been around in English since the 1200s, and may be a version of foot hook, and come to us from Old English or Dutch, but there are other possibilities. The -ock bit might be a diminutive ending (making futtock mean little foot), or the word might have come from Old Norse, where fett meant big and ek meant timber.

Thursday 19 August 2021

Oh, I say! a rant.

An accent chair is one in a design which makes it stand out from its surroundings.

chair by Gaetano Pesce, photo by Pava

I received a catalogue the other day which was offering an accent chair for sale. It comes in a range of seven colours, and it's upholstered in velvet, made in Britain, has scroll-shaped arms, and is made especially to suit every customer.

Could anyone resist so many tempting features? 

Well, such riches might be dazzling, so particular care must to be taken to arrange them on the page.

This advertisement was offering a British accent velvet scroll bespoke armchair.

I can only suppose the chair says Welcome, madam, I shall endeavor to provide complete satisfaction; or, alternatively: oi, stone the crows, mate! Who ate all the flipping pies? when you sit down.

If I liked accent chairs and scroll arms I'd be really quite tempted to find out.

Word To Use Today: accent. This word came from France, and before that from the Latin accentus, from cantus, which is a chant or song. The Latin word is a translation of the Greek word prosōidia, which can be either a song sung to music or the tone of a syllable.

Wednesday 18 August 2021

Nuts and Bolts: pseudepigrapha.

 Pseudepigrapha, as anyone with any Greek can tell from half a mile away (if they have a telescope) are some kind of dodgy writings.

And indeed they are.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with the written stuff itself, it's more that the writer is claiming to be someone else, usually someone with a lot more fame and authority who might be assumed to know what he or she/whatever was talking about.

Pseudepigrapha go right back to, yes, Ancient Greece. There are texts around which are claimed to be by Orpheus (whom even Aristotle didn't believe had ever existed). 

If you want to refer to an author who claims to be Mick Smith, but isn't, then you can call him either pseudo-Mick Smith or just ps-Mick Smith.

There are two basic forms of pseudepigrapha; the ones where a man's followers are genuinely trying to carry on his influence by means of his beliefs and values; and the forgers hoping to use his fame for their own good.

Whether something or not is actually pseudepigraphical is a matter for endless argument, especially when it comes to religious texts. Even a lot of the letters of Paul are still pseudepigraphical battlegrounds.

The tradition of pseudepigrapha has carried on into modern times, with Robinson Crusoe pretending to be by, um, Robinson Crusoe, and The Lord of the Rings pretending to be a translation of a Middle-Earthish text.

Recently pseudepigrapha have a whole new flourishing existence on Twitter.

We've been treated to @realdonaldtrump (hang on, no, I think that was the real Donald Trump, even though the account contains some How do you tell?). Anyway, ps-Darth Vader and ps-Lord Voldemort certainly have Twitter accounts, which I think I can claim are less than authentic. 

And not everyone claiming to be Her Majesty The Queen is entirely reliable, either.

Irreverent? Dishonest? Or following in an ancient tradition?

Well, they're not exclusive, you know.

Nuts and Bolts: pseudepigrapha. The pseude- bit means false and epigraphein means to inscribe. The singular of this word is pseudepigraphon

Tuesday 17 August 2021

Thing To Be Today: stupendous.

 This, you may feel, is a big ask, but take heart: not only is word stupendous next to the word stupid in many dictionaries, but it comes from the same basic idea.


That makes it easier, doesn't it?

Thing To Be Today: stupendous. To be stupendous you have to be amazing, and the word comes from the Latin word stupēre, to be amazed. The word stupid comes from the word stupēre, too, but in that case the word took a detour, first via the Latin word stupidus, which means to be silly, and then via the French word stupide. The word arrived here in the 1500s, and people have been stupid ever since.

Monday 16 August 2021

Spot the Frippet: gaberdine. Or gabardine.

 A gabardine today is usually a raincoat:

As you can see, it's traditionally made of wool, tightly woven, water-proof (and fish-hook-proof) and very hard-wearing - though if you can find someone over the age of about, ooh, a hundred or so, then that person might refer to any raincoat as a gabardine.

It was Burberry (or Burberrys as it was then), and a particular Burberry called Thomas who borrowed the name gabardine from an ancient garment and applied it in 1879 to a type of cloth he'd invented and patented. This fabric was made of wool waterproofed with lanolin (which is the natural water-proofing of a sheep). His resultant advertising campaign was so successful that someone wearing gabardine (Roald Amundsen) was the first person to reach the South Pole.

The British explorers Ernest Shackleton and George Mallory wore gabardine, too, though poor Mallory wasn't such a good advertisement: his gabardine-clad corpse is yet to be discovered on the slopes of Mount Everest.

Where will you find gabardine nowadays? Well, any cloth raincoat can be called a gabardine, even one made of a synthetic fibre such as rayon; and the pockets of well-made suits are sometimes made of cotton gabardine, too.

To be honest, though, the real reason for this post is the word's cool origin.

Spot the Frippet: gabardine. This Old French gauvardine described a pilgrim's long coat. The word has also been associated with a coat worn by men, especially Jewish men, in the Middle Ages, and, later, with the protective smock worn by shepherds and agricultural labourers. 

The origin of the word is the German wallewart, which means pilgrimage.

Sunday 15 August 2021

Sunday Rest: food baby. Words Not To Use Today.

 It's wonderful to see an expectant, blooming mother, and to know how much joy awaits her (and also, let's face it, to know that the joyful bundle is going to be someone else's problem).

A pregnancy is a miracle of every science.* 

However, a paunch is not a miracle of any kind.

It is quite clear from where it came, and it involved doing nothing the slightest bit clever.

By ebru - Flickr, CC BY 2.0,

Patting it fondly and calling it a food baby is revolting, needy, and dishonest.

So please: stop it!

Sunday Rest: food baby. The Old English form of food was fōda. It's basically the same word as fodder.

*Well, possibly not astronomy.

Saturday 14 August 2021

Saturday Rave: Change by Letitia Elizabeth Landon

 Letitia Elizabeth Landon (1802 - 1838) was most famous as L.E.L. She earned her (and her family's) income by writing poetry, selling stationery, and inventing a new kind of book which consisted of a kind of creative writing based on works of art.

Society at the time wasn't quite sure what to make of a commercially adequate young female poet, and false rumours soon began to swirl about her many lovers and the children she had borne. Landon broke off an engagement to one man (he had questioned her virtue) and then (the story went) she married another man, sailed with him to Africa, and was within two months poisoned with prussic acid by his African common-law wife.

That story, as all the others, was false. Landon had a heart-condition for which prussic acid was prescribed, and she almost certainly died of that heart condition, poor woman. (The common-law wife did exist, but she had moved away before Landon arrived on the Cape Coast.)

Here's an example of L.E.L.'s poetry. 

It's got things to say, and it's also a good story, so you can see why it was popular.


And this is what is left of youth! . . .

There were two boys, who were bred up together,

Shared the same bed, and fed at the same board;

Each tried the other’s sport, from their first chase,

Young hunters of the butterfly and bee,

To when they followed the fleet hare, and tried

The swiftness of the bird. They lay beside

The silver trout stream, watching as the sun

Played on the bubbles: shared each in the store

Of either’s garden: and together read

Of him, the master of the desert isle,

Till a low hut, a gun, and a canoe,

Bounded their wishes. Or if ever came

A thought of future days, ’twas but to say

That they would share each other’s lot, and do

Wonders, no doubt. But this was vain: they parted

With promises of long remembrance, words

Whose kindness was the heart’s, and those warm tears,

Hidden like shame by the young eyes which shed them,

But which are thought upon in after-years

As what we would give worlds to shed once more.


They met again, — but different from themselves,

At least what each remembered of themselves:

The one proud as a soldier of his rank,

And of his many battles: and the other

Proud of his Indian wealth, and of the skill

And toil which gathered it; each with a brow

And heart alike darkened by years and care.

They met with cold words, and yet colder looks:

Each was changed in himself, and yet each thought

The other only changed, himself the same.

And coldness bred dislike, and rivalry

Came like the pestilence o’er some sweet thoughts

That lingered yet, healthy and beautiful,

Amid dark and unkindly ones. And they,

Whose boyhood had not known one jarring word,

Were strangers in their age: if their eyes met,

’Twas but to look contempt, and when they spoke,

Their speech was wormwood! . . .

. . . And this, this is life!


Letitia Elizabeth Landon worked to raise money for her brother to go to Oxford University. 

He afterwards repaid her by spreading false rumours about her marriage and death.

Poor L.E.L.

Word To Use Today: pestilence. The Latin word pestilens means unwholesome, and pestis means plague.


Friday 13 August 2021

Word To Consider Today: nonomole.

 The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said, "Bother!" and "O blow!" and also "Hang spring-cleaning!" and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, "Up we go! Up we go!" till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

That is, of course, the wonderful opening paragraph of The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. It has nothing at all to do with the word nonomole, but the word reminded me of The Wind in the Willows, which is, let's face it, recommendation enough.

The mole of a nonomole isn't a furry creature at all, of that I'm sure, though the research I've done into the word tends to suggest that nonomole is actually a rare form (or possibly just a recurring misprint) for nanomole, which is a thousand-millionth of a mole, which would be considerably less than the tip of a whisker.

But what, in that case, is the nonomole kind of a mole?

Well, it's the basic way chemists measure stuff. To be precise, it's a number of particles of one particular kind of thing, which may be an atom, molecule, ion, or electron.

The number of particles in a mole is 6.02214076 x (10 to the 23).

Or, in layman's terms, lots. Even a nonomole is lots.

Moles are apparently useful for all kinds of things, but the one I understand is that you can use them to describe the concentrations of stuff in a liquid. 

I don't know how much salt there is in the liquid in which you tin tuna, for instance, but it should be possible to work this out.

Not if you're me, though.

Thank heavens for chemists. 

(And children's novelists like Kenneth Grahame, too.)

Word To Consider Today: nonomole. Mole in this word is short for molecule, from the Latin mōlēs, which means mass. 

Thursday 12 August 2021

Friends: a rant.

 You can chose your friends, the saying goes, but you can't chose your family.

The trouble is that a lot of the time we can't choose our friends, either - and sometimes it can take really quite an effort to dodge them.

This has got even harder, lately, because now companies have got matey. They want us to join their on-line communities. They want to give us their views on our ideal weight, and then spring-clean our morals.

Listen to me: if you're a grocer then all I want from you is food and household goods. My mental health and spirituality (if any) are, quite frankly, none of your business. Just hand over the flipping onions!

The National Trust is a UK-based charity which looks after some good bits of countryside and many historic sites. That's what I want it to do. I don't want to be friends with it, and I don't believe that The National Trust has the slightest interest in being friends with me. 

As evidence, I present a letter I got in the post earlier in the year. It says:

 Welcome to your new National Trust car sticker.

It makes me feel less than respected, let alone valued and loved.

Word To Use Today: trust. This word comes from the Old Norse traust. The Old High German word trost means solace.

Wednesday 11 August 2021

Nuts and Bolts: freeze peach.

 I've always felt sorry for obsolete craftsmen.  

I mean, what happened to the super-skilled flint-arrow man when bronze came in?

How did the wheelwrights feel about tyres?

What about the writers who have spent their whole lives learning to type exactly what they mean, only to find everybody's text sprouting a measles of emojis?

Still, emojis are interesting, moving as they are from a straightforward representation of a feeling:

 to something more subtle.

I hesitate to describe this new emoji technique as punning because it doesn't contain words, but the idea is the same.

So, what does this mean?

(the fruit is a funny colour, but it's supposed to be a peach).

Do you know? 

If you don't, can you guess? 

A clue: the top emoji is supposed to represent the idea freeze.

Freeze peach.


Yes, that's right: free speech.

We've had stuff like

cat call,

French kiss, and

bomb shell

for some time, but freeze peach is to me a new layer of sophistication. Will it develop and grow into something wonderful?

I'm really interested to see.

Thing To Use Today If You Like: an emoji. This word has nothing to do with the word emotion. It was coined in Japan in the 1990s and comes from the Japanese e- which means picture, and moji, which means letter or character.


Tuesday 10 August 2021

Thing To Have Today: scruples.

 'I do have scruples.'

'I'm sorry to hear that. Is it painful?'

Where are the gags of yesteryear? Sometimes I find myself longing for the days when comedy was simple and happy and...

...well, funny.


To have scruples is to have small but persistent doubts about the morality of a course of action.

As with Music Hall-style comedy, scruples have been washed away in a great modern flood. With Music Hall the deluge was made up of cinema and then TV (with their lack of a real-life audience to give performers instant, painful proof if they did things wrong); and with scruples it is social media. 

Or asocial media, as it should perhaps be called.

The thing about scruples is that they involve working out a moral position which isn't the prevailing or obvious option - and, yes, the word death-wish does come to mind.

The Word Den, as a responsible organ, cannot recommend scruples as a safe means of expression.

But it has a deep nostalgia and respect for them, all the same.

Thing To Have Today: scruples. This word comes from the Latin scrūpulus, a small weight, from scrūpus, a rough stone.

a two-scruple apothecary's weight (2.6 grams), from before 1900, The Royal Institution of Cornwall

Monday 9 August 2021

Spot the Frippet: buff.

 Buff is a soft undyed kind of leather used for polishing things. That's how the word started out, anyway.

It then spread its wings a bit and came to describe anything light brown or yellowish brown (because that's the colour of the leather).

If you live in the country you might see a Buff Orpington:

photo by Smudger94

but if you're like me the nearest buff thing to you will be an envelope:

Ah well.

A buff can also be a polishing pad, but to be in the buff means you're naked, and to be buff (or well buff) describes a body honed to beauty by exercise:

scene from an Ancient Greek amphora

I didn't find much of interest in the Olympics, myself: but if there was anything, it was that.

Spot the Frippet: buff. Buff leather comes from cattle, elk or buffalo, and it's this last animal which has given the stuff it's name.  The Old Italian name for this animal was bufalo, and the Latin was būfalus.

this animal is a European buffalo, usually known nowadays as a bison. Photo: Talks Presenters 09 (talk) at Wikimedia Commons

Sunday 8 August 2021

Sunday Rest: propagule.

 I dislike words which have gule in them. The sound is too like ghoul.

Gules, for instance, means bright red but sounds (sorry) like mud-coloured vomit. 

The word propagule is used by botanists (who do, I must admit, need a lot of words) and it means one of those bits of a plant which can be detached and then grown into a new plant.

Yes, those are often called seeds. But they can be cuttings, too, or anything else which can grow into a new plant.

If you call them propagules (or, even worse, the alternative form propagula) then I fear that people will be afraid to go out into the garden.

Mind you, the word progagule is also used to describe expelled viruses and bacteria. 

So perhaps we should be afraid.

Sunday Rest: propagule. The propag- bit comes from propagate, which comes from the Latin word propāgāre, which means to take cuttings of plants, from pagere, to fatten. The -ule bit comes from the Latin -ulus, which is what the Romans stuck onto the back end of a word to make a thing sound smaller.

Saturday 7 August 2021

The Old English Rune Poem: a rave.

 I'm fed up with The News, so here's something old.

The title of this poem is confusing because Old English wasn't written in runes - and neither is this poem.

However, it's about runes: and each verse is about one rune in particular.

There are many different theories about the origin of runes, but they seem to have been the written language of Europe before Christianity arrived. They were probably derived from an ancient Italian form of writing - perhaps one older than Classical Latin. 

Runes were certainly seen as sinful by many Christian organisations for a long time.

Here is the first verse of the Old English Rune Poem. This verse is about the rune called fehu, which means cattle or wealth.

Feoh byth frofur fira gehwylcum

sceal deah manna gehwylc

miclun hyt daelan

gif he wile for drihte domes hleotan.

Money is a comfort to every man

but he must share it freely

if he wishes to be judged well

in the sight of the lord.

It doesn't sound all that Christian, does it?

Word To Use Today: money. This word comes form the Old French moneie, from the Latin monēta, coinage, named after the Temple of the goddess Juno Monēta, which was used as a place to coin money in Roman times.

Friday 6 August 2021

Word To Use Today: yotta.

 Okay, yotta isn't actually a word, it's a prefix (that is, a letter or group of letters stuck onto the front of a word to change its meaning).

Yotta- is, literally, the greatest prefix in the world - and that's official, because it's a number thing, like kilo- (which means a thousand times) or giga- (a billion) or tera- (a trillion).

Now, you may smirk wisely and say, ah, but it begins with a Y, so the prefix beginning with a Z will be even bigger once someone's invented it.

But there you'd be wrong, because the one beginning with a z, zetta, is a thousand times smaller than yotta- (and the other one beginning with a z, zepto, is as much smaller than one than as a zetta is greater than it).

These scientists, eh? Either they don't know their alphabet, or they just don't have logical minds.

Anyway, yotta-. It's big. I mean, really big. You thought the observable universe was big? It's less than a yottakilometre across.

The mass of the Earth is a bit less than six yottakilograms.

If you want to write down the number associated with yotta- then you need a figure one followed by twenty-four zeros. Or, if you like, you can just use the symbol Y.

There are yottabytes in computing, but the best unit has to be the yottawatt

Yes, the yottawatt.

The output of the sun is 385 yottawatts.

Could anyone possibly resist spreading this news immediately?

I don't think I can.

Prefix To Use Today: yotta-. This comes from a word for eight. That's because this number, written a different way, is a thousand to the power of eight. The Italian word for eight is otto and the Greek is okto.

Yotta- became an SI unit prefix in 1991.

Yocto- implies a number as much smaller than one as yotto- is greater than it.

Thursday 5 August 2021

The Latest Thing: a rant.

 I recently read a piece in a national newspaper where a brand new kind of medical operation was described as cutting-edge surgery.

Well, it would be, wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: surgery. This word is Old French, and before that it came from the Greek word kheirurgia, from kheir, which means hand, and ergon, which means work.

engraving by George Bickham, image from The Wellcome Trust

I think they must have used knives, too, though.


Wednesday 4 August 2021

Nuts and Bolts: locative.

 The locative case is, yes, to do with location.

There are languages in the world where you can add a few letters to a word and turn its meaning from ship, for example, to on the ship; or from city to in the city. That kind of thing.

However, most languages have invented other, more convenient ways of expressing this idea (in English we use the words at, by, in and on) and so the locative is now obsolete in most parts of the world, and used only occasionally in some others.

Even Latin, which loves both precision and changing the ends of words, had junked the locative by classical times.

However, the Finnish language still uses the locative for a few stock phrases, and it's still part of Hungarian, where it has a special use when speaking of certain cities. The locative is still to be found in some Slavic languages, too, but mostly there it's used with a preposition (a word like at, by, in and on) which rather takes away the point.

Several First Nation American languages are keeping the locative alive, but in most places it's been found to be unnecessary, and so its use has faded away.

I'm grateful that some people are keeping the locative case going. 

But I'm even more glad I don't have to be one of them.

Thing To Consider Today: the locative case. This word comes from locate, from the Latin word locāre, which means to place.

Missing words: a rant.

 Telegraph May 31st

Keep your coal

SIR – My great-uncle Morgan was a coal man. When he couldn’t get a reply at one household he opened the unlocked kitchen door (Letters, May 29) and found a note propped up against a teapot: “Coal-man, empty sacks under kitchen table.”

Apparently the occupiers were not best pleased when he followed their instructions to the letter.

Andre Baker
Wellington, Somerset


Tuesday 3 August 2021

Thing To Be Today If Possible: septicidal.

 You may think that being septicidal involves killing things in groups of seven (the Latin septem, as I'm sure you know, meaning seven, and the Latin suffix -cidal usually being to do with killing things, the Latin -cīda meaning cutter or killer). 

But if septicidal did mean that, then of course The Word Den, an entity of impeccable probity, would not be recommending it.

On the other hand you may be fairly confident that being septicidal is really to do with preventing infection, as in the Greek word sēptos, which means decayed and, when spotted in an English word (antiseptic, for instance) is often to do with germs.

But in both cases you'd be misled, because septicidal is actually a botanical term and it means splitting along the partitions of a seed capsule.

A little learning is a dangerous thing.

But it's the most any of us ever have.

Thing Probably Impossible To Be Today: septicidal. The septi- bit of the word in this case is to do with the Latin word septum, which is a medical term for a division between two cavities or two pieces of tissue. Saeptum in Latin means wall. 

The -cidal bit means cutter, as above.

Monday 2 August 2021

Spot the Frippet: a crimp.

 A crimp used to be someone who cheated people into joining the Navy.

That hasn't happened for a long time, luckily. Not in England, anyway.

The more usual kind of a crimp, where things are pinched together to join them, or possibly just to make them wriggly is probably unrelated.

Where will you find your crimp? On a head?

On a pie? 

On a sheep?

Lincoln longwool sheep. Photo by Jane Cooper Orkney

Or a tin?

photo by Rainer Zenz

The word crimp has other meanings, too. If you're crimping a piece of fish then you're not pinching it together, but opening it up by slashing the skin to make it crisp when cooked. If you're making shoes, then the bending of the leather is crimping it. If you're bending a piece of metal to make a cylinder, then that process is crimping, too.

It's really enough to make you wonder where the word originated.

Spot the Frippet: crimp. The Old English form of this word was crympan and means bent. It's related to the Old Norse kreppa, which means to contract, and the Old Swedish crumb, which means crooked.

No one is sure where the Navy word comes from, but that kind of a crimp sounds pretty crooked, too.

Sunday 1 August 2021

Sunday Rest: tome. Word Not To Use Today.

 There's something direful about the word tome.

It's like the tolling of a bell announcing a death. Like the word tomb.


If you know what the word tome means (and many people nowadays don't) then the idea of a large heavy book isn't exactly one to fill a person with joy, either.

photo by Yuyudevil

If you know what the word tome means and you come across yet another foolish person using the word as a simple synonym for book then that's really annoying, as well.

I saw someone refer to home-decorating tomes the other day, and you could see by the photographs that they they could each be lifted with a single hand. 

It's quite simple, really. If you can do that, then it's not one.

Sunday Rest: tome. This word is French, and before that it came from the Latin tomus, a section of a larger work, from the Greek tomos, slice, from temnein, to cut.