The Death's-head hawk moth doesn't wear the cutest jumper:
This blog is for everyone who uses words.
The ordinary-sized words are for everyone, but the big ones are especially for children.
Sunday 31 October 2021
Saturday 30 October 2021
Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1715 - 1816) was an appalling man: a gambler, a drinker, a womaniser, a vicious enemy - and at times a vicious friend, too.
He was also a dazzling wit and terrific political speech-maker who wrote one of the most successful, funniest plays in the English language.
How could anyone not hate him?
Here's a piece of a scene from A School for Scandal.
(As I said, Sheridan was a famous wit, which makes it extra interesting.)
SIR PETER. Madam, madam, I beg your pardon—there’s no stopping these good gentlemen's tongues. —But when I tell you, Mrs. Candour, that the lady they are abusing is a particular friend of mine, I hope you'll not take her part.
LADY SNEERWELL. Ha! ha! ha! Well said, Sir Peter! but you are a cruel creature, —too phlegmatic yourself for a jest, and too peevish to allow wit in others.
SIR PETER. Ah! madam, true wit is more nearly allied to good-nature than your ladyship is aware of.
LADY TEAZLE. True, Sir Peter: I believe they are so near akin that they can never be united.
SIR BENJAMIN. Or rather, madam, suppose them to be man and wife, because one seldom sees them together.
Sheridan famously never paid his debts (he said that would just encourage his creditors) and he died alone, having told his last, much ill-used, terrified friend that he was going to haunt her. So at the least we must say that he wasn't a hypocrite.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan was accorded the great honour of being buried in Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey.
He was a horrid man. But thanks for the plays.
Word To Use Today: scandal. This word comes from the Latin scandalum, a stumbling block, from the Greek skandalon, a trap.
Friday 29 October 2021
This word looks as if it comes from one of the languages of the far North. In fact it is northern, though not quite as northern as that.
A tokamak is a toroidal (doughnut-shaped) space:
Thursday 28 October 2021
Look, I'm all for recycling, I really am. I even bring plastic bottles home from holiday so they can go in the municipal recycling bin.
I would have said that there was no limit to my enthusiasm until I saw some words embossed on a plastic yogurt pot top:
FIFTY PER CENT RECYCLED PET
And I realised that things really can go too far.
Thing not to do today: recycle a PET. Luckily in this case PET does not refer to an animal you imagine to be your friend, but to polyethelene terephthalate, a commonly-used plastic. The stuff is reckoned to be fairly harmless to humans as long as it doesn't get hot, when it can leak antimony.
Sails are also made out of it.
Poly- means many; aithein means to burn or shine; -ene is a word-ending to do with stuff with hydrogen and carbon in it; tere comes from terebinthos, the turpentine tree, and phthalate comes from naphtha, which means wet.
All these words are Greek.
Wednesday 27 October 2021
Mantras have been used for thousands of years.
They sometimes use a real-world language, and sometimes a partial or invented one, and often a mixture of the two. The purpose of a mantra is to be a gateway to a new kind of perception. It might be to reveal something which can't be detected by the physical senses, or it might be to communicate with something which has no language (an animal, or a tree, or the sun, or some kind of god or devil). A mantra might be employed to cure an illness, spark love, make a task successful, cast a spell - or protect someone from a curse.
Some people might call this kind of thing magic, and a mantra, like magic, will often use words which only the initiated can understand. Secrecy is important. Even when a mantra uses the local language, meanings may well be ambiguous or deliberately misleading.
When Islam came to Malaya, for instance, mantras carried on being used, but with the conventional formulae bismillahirrohmanirrohim at the beginning, and lailahailallah at the end, to make them sound Islamic.
Mantras tend to use chanting, and they tend to use repetition, both of which encourage a withdrawal from the thought-patterns of everyday life. They can also make the mantras beautiful - strange and familiar at the same time.
Nowadays few of us have time for mantras, and still fewer of us believe they serve any purpose.
But they're treasures of the world, all the same.
Thing To Consider Today: mantras. This word comes from the Sanskrit man- which means to think.
Tuesday 26 October 2021
I try to be broad-minded, but I can't say I'd ever want to have cannibals as house-guests.*
Anyway, I hope you're not in a stew, either literally or figuratively, because if you are, you're in hot water.
I certainly hope you're not stewing in your own juices (that is, suffering from the consequences of your own actions).
Isn't it odd that the English language should be so determined that a nice warm bath should be a symbol of muddle and worry?
Still, I suppose it's a place where you get hot, if not exactly bothered.
Thing Not To Do Today: get in a stew. The word stew appeared in English in the 1300s, when it meant to have a steam bath. The word comes from the Old French estuver, to have a hot bath, but where it came from before that isn't entirely clear. The Latin extufare means to evaporate, from vapor, which means steam.
On the other hand the Old English stuf-bæþ means hot-air bath, so stew-type words have been around for a long time.
People have been stewing in their own juices since the 1650s.
*Though cannibalism isn't so bad if the joint has died of genuinely natural (and non-infectious) causes. But I'll still have the salad, all the same.
Monday 25 October 2021
Well that Spot the Frippet was easy, wasn't it?
Now how about seeing if you can find a thread made by something not human?
Spot the Frippet: thread. The Old English form of this word was thrǣd.
Sunday 24 October 2021
The origins of words can really matter, especially while they're still new.
Dilf is new.
It used to be capitalised: DILF. Now it usually isn't. That helps obscure its origin, but if you want to use it to mean an older attractive man who's got children then it should be borne in mind that dilf is an acronym for Dad I'd Like [To] errmm...something or other affectionate. Fondle, perhaps?
The origins of the word dilf may eventually fade into obscurity.
Let's hope so, anyway.
It'll still always be rather a horrid way of looking at someone, though.
Sunday Rest: dilf.
By the way, the word fondle comes from fonnen, to be foolish, from fonne, a fool.
Saturday 23 October 2021
Happy Birthday, world!
Yes, according to the Irish bishop James Ussher (1581 - 1656) it was on this day in 4004BC that God created the world.
Ussher worked this out from adding up the ages of the various generations of hereditary Jewish leaders and Kings in the Bible. He also assumed that the Creation happened at a solstice or equinox (because God, obviously, really loved the patterns revealed by Maths) and that it must have been Autumn (because there was ripe fruit in the Garden of Eden).
And what were the first words God said? The first words anyone said? Well, they're written down for us in the third verse of the Bible.
God said: let there be light.
When you think about it, that's what anyone who was trying to make something would say.
Word To Use Today: light. The Old English form of this word was lēoht.
Friday 22 October 2021
I called my daughters Helena and Rosalind. They were both Shakespearean and also, I thought, timeless and lovely names for a pair of remarkable women. Which is what they have become.
But, I don't know...
...if I had my choice again I'm not sure I could find a lovelier name for a girl anywhere than celery.
Thursday 21 October 2021
This is from a live feed in the Telegraph newspaper, 13/10/21. It's about some problems with a treaty between the European Union and Britain.
In London, it's been suggested that it [a suggested treaty change]...was a "dead cat" strategy to continue stirring the pot against Brussels.
Well, if they've got a dead cat in the pot they're in even an even worse stew than I thought.
Word To Use Today: cat. And Old English cat was called a catte; a Latin cat was a cattus.
A dead cat bounce was an expression coined in the 1980s to describe a share price which bounces up briefly during a period of sharp decline.
A dead cat bounce is now used in politics to describe a politician, or a policy, which generates a spark of interest during a similar fall from grace. The assumption in both cases is that the fall will resume.
Wednesday 20 October 2021
A logograph or logogram is a symbol which represents a chunk of a word, or a whole word or even a series of words.
They're most used in Eastern languages (Chinese, for example) but we in the West have a few: %, for example, means per cent, and 4 means four. Some Western shorthand systems use logograms, too, especially for common words.
The very first writing systems, such as cuneiform and heiroglyphs, tend to have logographic elements.
You may think that using arbitrary symbols to represent words is horribly complicated and impractical system, and you'd be right, and so all logographic systems have some kind of phonetic component. The same symbol might be used for syllables with the same consonants (pet and pit, for example), or you might have a symbol put in to turn a hat symbol into into a chat symbol. You might have a symbol which means domestic animal, and then add extra clues as to which kind of domestic animal it is.
You can have logograms which are pictures of the thing they represent; you can have logograms which represent ideas (we in the West can use an arrow to mean up, for instance); you can combine ideas, so you might have a symbol for a person and a symbol for hill and have it mean tiredness; or you could have a symbol for the sound RING and add something to tell you whether it's a telephone or a wedding ring.
But it's not as simple as that, because there are many symbols that have changed their meaning over the centuries, in the same way that in English the word lord has a common root with the word loaf.
Pahlavi script was a really odd example. It was a phonetic alphabet, but the words were written phonetically in Aramaic but what you said out loud was the word of the same meaning in Persian. It was like having to write the English word window fenêtre.
It's all wonderful and fascinating, and if there were time and energy then I'd learn a logographic language.
For now, though, I'm just going to stop complaining about English spelling.
Word To Use Today: logogram. The Greek logos means word or speech, and the Greek gramma means letter.
Tuesday 19 October 2021
An Old Wives' Tale is a piece of 'wisdom' passed on by someone older than oneself that is not considered by the recipient to be true.
When I was a child, for instance, a heavy cold would be treated by putting the feet in a bowl of hot water to which mustard powder had been added.
Other examples of such lore include the advice that cramps occur if you swim less than two hours after a meal; shaving the head making your hair grow back curly; and keeping your coat on indoors will stop it keeping you warm when you go out again.
I was a awkward child - one of my first words was why - and I don't think that any of these dicta convinced me of anything except that my mother really wasn't very clever at all.
Never mind, I told myself, she'd left school at fourteen. Soon everyone would be much better educated, and then the rules of evidence would govern the beliefs of the whole world, and much less mustard would be wasted.
I suppose that just goes to prove that I wasn't very clever either.
Thing To Consider Today: Old Wives' Tales. The Old English form of this word was wīf. It comes from the Old Norse vīf, which might have something to do with vīfathr, which means veiled.
Well, to groce must mean to sell foodstuffs and household supplies, mustn't it? Like a grocer does...or used to do. Round here it's all supermarkets and delicatessens, nowadays.
I rather miss grocers, especially the way they'd put your purchases in a small brown paper bag and then, holding the bag by the top corners, whirl it round to scrunch the top closed. As a child I'd be hoping like mad they'd give themselves a bash on the nose, but they never did.
Well, in those days we had to make our own entertainment.
Thing To Remember That People Did Once: groce. All right, to groce isn't actually a word, but grocer comes from the Old French grossier, from gros, which means large, from the Latin grossus, which means thick.
Whether it's the grocer's slices of ham, or the man himself, who was large I do not know.
Monday 18 October 2021
Slug is an interesting word.
It starts with the animal:
and then two different attributes of the animal diverge into different paths of meaning.
The first is the shape of the thing, which gives us a word for a bullet:
and also for small pieces of the lead type used for printing, and (in Canada) tokens for slot machines. It gives us the word which describes a small amount of powerfully alcoholic drink, too.
If you slug someone then you're hitting them with the force of a bullet (or perhaps a drink); but a person who's a slug isn't rushing round like Superman, and this is because the animal slug doesn't itself exactly frisk and scamper as it goes about its daily tasks. For this reason a human slug don't slug people, because a slug means lazy person. (A sluggard can hardly be bothered to get up because he's originally a slug abed.)
To end on something regally lovely, here's a sea slug:
I hope you spot your slug before you tread on it!
Spot the Frippet: slug. This word probably came from Scandinavia, and in English it first of all meant a slow person or animal.
Sunday 17 October 2021
Even though polydemic isn't an outbreak of several diseases simultaneously, The Word Den cannot recommend the use of this word.
It's likely to cause alarm and despondency.
Sunday Rest: polydemic. This word describes a plant or animal which exists in two or more separate regions of the world. It comes from the Greek polus, which means much, and endemic, which comes from the other Greek word endēmos, which means native.
Saturday 16 October 2021
Britain's leaving of the European Union has led to a lot of squabbling.
There's currently a flare-up over fishing rights. I don't know the truth of what's going on, but there are French fishermen, now banned from British waters, who claim passionately their right to work there. The British say that this is because the French fishermen can't prove their claim. The French call the British treacherous and have threatened to cut off electricity supplies to Jersey.
It's all rather amusing (as long as you don't live in Jersey).
The art of insult has long been practised in the French language. The chanson de geste were written (if they were written, not memorised or extemporised) from the 1100s onwards, and among these very long poems (over eighteen hundred verses in one case) are some wonderful duels of disparagement.
The Word Den's rave for today, though harking back to those chansons de geste, were written more recently. And by someone British, John Cleese. And for a film.
But the insults, spoken by in the film by a French guard (though acted by Cleese) are still exquisite.
“I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper. I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.”
And that even got past the censor, too.
Word To Use Today: elderberry. Elderberries aren't any older than any other type of berry. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon word æld, which means fire, because the hollow stems were used like straws to encourage a flame to take hold and grow into a fire.
Friday 15 October 2021
It's worth saying this word just for the fun of it.
Gaggle gaggle gaggle gaggle...
While you do, notice how differently you hold your tongue when you say the first g of gaggle and the middle two.
It's the group term (the collective noun, if you like) for a small flock of geese:
but you can't use it if the geese are flying, because then they're called a skein:
or, if there are lots of geese (more than fifty? I don't know the precise upper number for a gaggle), either flying or on the ground, they're a flock:
The word gaggle can be applied to a small and disorganised group of people, too, and gaggle also means to make a gabbling or cackling sound.
Just like saying gaggle gaggle gaggle gaggle, in fact.
Word To Use Today: gaggle. This word has German ancestry. It's an imitation of the sound that geese make when they're gossiping.
Thursday 14 October 2021
A hyp-hen is not a variety of chicken with a penchant for lumberjack shirts, but a badly placed hyphen.
The latest example I've come across is demandled - which, yes, strictly-speaking isn't a hyp-hen at all because in that case the necessary hyphen has been left out altogether, but it's the same kind of thing. Demand-led, please (though demandle is a lovely word, if obscure in meaning. Could it mean to cuddle a needy child? We could do with a word for that.).
Then there are mincep-
I came across that one the other day in a Trollope short story. You eat them at Christmas. Yes, mince-pies.
Then, from an advertisement for a Men's-wear Catalogue:
Now, these mish-
aps are bound to occur because writers are all idiots. They're human, for one thing, and, for another, they tend to have their minds on other things than grammar.
But where are the steely and eagleeyed (yes, all right, eagle-eyed) copywriters?
Swept away in a wave of costcu-
tting, I fear.
But don't we just miss them?
Word To Use Today: one with a hyphen. The word hyphen comes from the Greek word huphen, which means together, from hupo- which means under, plus heis, which means one.
Wednesday 13 October 2021
Unicode is the International Standard for writing the world's languages on a computer screen.
It has its roots at the company Xerox in 1987, when Joe Becker, together with Lee Collins and Mark Davis from Apple, began to create a universal set of letters and characters. Later input came from, notably, Peter Fenwick and Dave Opstad.
At the moment there are 144,762 Unicode characters covering 159 scripts. Some of the languages that can be written are current, some historical. There are, in addition, many emojis and various formatting codes.
The great thing about Unicode is that all the characters are compatible with each other, so multi-lingual texts are possible.
Unicode is maintained by the Unicode Consortium, which consists of computer big guys such as Adobe, Microsoft and Netflix, as well as various governments. However, the only political entity which is a full member with voting rights, is the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs of Oman.
The most recent scripts to be added to Unicode are Toto, Vithkuqi, Old Uyghur and Tangsa. Unicode also now has a way of representing the som currency symbol of Kyrgyzstan, and Znamenny musical notation.
The Word Den thinks that the whole world should really be jolly grateful.
Word To Use Today: well, anything you type on a computer probably relies on Unicode, but how about thanks? The Old English form of thanks is thancian.
Tuesday 12 October 2021
Being measured is sensible, yes: but it's dull, dull, dull.
Let yourself experience a surge of joy (your favourite dance music might help):
or go for a surge of creativity (even if you only find a new way of arranging your sock drawer).
Try for a surge of energy, or a surge of love.
Clouds, hills, stars and electricity surge, and don't we want to be like them? To reach beyond ourselves for a while?
And of all this fails then just catch up with The News.
Irritation surges, too.
Thing To Do Today: surge. This word comes from the Latin surgere, to rise, from sub- which in this case means up from below, plus regere, to guide.
Monday 11 October 2021
There are screws everywhere, so where's the very nearest one to you?
My keyboard is probably held together with them, but I can't see one as I type, so the nearest screw I can see is...
...holding my desk-fan together. The physically nearest screws, though, are stopping my glasses falling apart. Some of us might even have screws in our teeth, or in our joints.
Civilisation is held together with screws...
...which might be the reason why so much of the time things are screwed up.
A shot in billiards that has some backspin on it is a screw; a propeller can be called a screw; a prison guard can be called a screw (though not if one is listening).
A screw is a basic wage, and so is anything held in a twist of paper. It's a broken-down horse:
If you have a screw loose then you're bonkers; if you have your head screwed on the right way then you are likely to be successful.
And where did the word come from?
The most completely enchanting source you could possibly imagine.
Spot the Frippet: screw. This word appeared in English in the 1400s and comes from the French word escroe, from the Latin scrōfa, which means sow, almost certainly because a pig's curly tail is like the thread of a screw.
Sunday 10 October 2021
This word originated in the USA, probably in 2004. No one is sure who first used it, but it was noted in online dictionaries in 2005.
Libtard is an insult used by rude right-wing people with closed minds to characterise those who display a left-wing belief.
As should be obvious to the meanest intelligence, insulting people isn't an intellectually valid way to convince anyone of anything.
It's quite a good way of both hurting people and starting a fight, though, if that's the kind of thing you enjoy.
Sunday Rest: libtard. This horrid word is made up of liberal and retard. The Latin word līberālis means of freedom (so it's by no means exclusively a characteristic of those of the Left). The word retard, meaning to slow down, comes from the Latin word tardāre, to make slow.
Retarded, in some parts of the world, means disabled, so it needs to be used with care.
Saturday 9 October 2021
William Cullen Bryant (1794 - 1878) was born in Massachusetts. His family were fairly hopeless poet material: his father was a doctor, and so neither poor enough to be romantic, nor rich enough to afford William the advantages of a university education.
There's a line which struck me from Cullen's Wikipedia entry.
the strain of dealing with unsophisticated neighbors pushed him to trade his unrewarding profession [he was a lawyer]for New York and the promise of a literary career.
The mind boggles.
Anyway, once in New York Cullen did well. He became editor of the New York Evening Post.
But he still had time to stop and look at things.
The sweet calm sunshine of October, now
Warms the low spot; upon its grassy mold
Friday 8 October 2021
As anyone who knows any Greek (or who lives in Philadelphia, or has been to the Adelphi theatre in London, or who eats cream cheese) must know, adelphos means brother; and anyone who has been to a polyclinic or knows a polyglot or has seen a polygon must know that poly- means many.
So, polyaldelphous means having many brothers, right?
Well, it should do, but those flipping botanists have got at it and now it describes a flower where the stalks of the stamens are fused together near the base:
Thursday 7 October 2021
A recent headline on AOL:
Police urged to prioritise violence against women
Well, there's no doubt that people have some odd and wicked beliefs.
But, all the same, I really don't think that anyone in any official capacity did recommend violence against women.
So things, you know, could be worse.
Word To Use Today: violence. This word comes from the Latin violentus, which means violent, but it came to us through the word violentia, which means impetuosity. The Latin word vīs means strength.
Wednesday 6 October 2021
The Word Den was musing on the word dox last week, and that brought the word doxy into view.
What a language English is, where the word doxy can mean either belief (particularly about something religious) or a mistress (and sometimes a paid one).
Luckily the number of people who'd use the word doxy in either sense is small (the mistress meaning of the word is obsolete); and the number of people who'd use both words must be more or less zero...
...not that you can have less than zero people...
or should that be fewer?
Oh good grief. Why is this language stuff so difficult??
Word To Use Today: doxy. The religious-belief word comes from the suffix -doxy, as in orthodoxy. This must have been quite a daring act of word-formation for a theologian (orthos means correct, and doxa means a belief).
The word doxy meaning mistress probably comes from the Middle Flemish docke, which means doll.
Tuesday 5 October 2021
Edulcorate...it sounds like being forced to learn dull things, like a list of the Roman Emperors as low as Severus (not that the Roman Emperors are dull, far from it. I doubt that any of them was half as respectable as our own dear Queen. But learning lists is always dull).
Anyway, as it happens edulcorate is nothing to do with education, and little to do with dullness.
To edulcorate something, if you're a chemist, is to wash it in order to dissolve away impurities.
If you're not a chemist - or if you're a chemist on holiday - then to edulcorate something is to sweeten it.
So now, next time we meet a very pompous person, we can ask him if he habitually edulcorates his tea.
Go on: I dare you!
Thing To Do Today: edulcorate something. This word comes from the Latin word dulcor, which means sweetness.
Monday 4 October 2021
Luckily, most of us no longer need to keep a spear in the umbrella rack by the front door for fear of attack:
but there are other types of spear about.
Chewing gum often contains spearmint:
and we all have to keep a sharp eye out for spear-phishing, where someone tries to con you out of money by pretending to be someone you know.
Meet someone from your dad's side of the family? That's the spear side.
There are lots of plants called spear-something, such as spear-grass and spearwort, and any small, tender part of a plant can be called a spear, especially if it's broccoli or asparagus.
A spear-fish is also sometimes called a marlin:
not many of us will be coming across one of those, but it does, strangely enough, bring us back neatly to the roots of the word.
Spot the Frippet: spear. The broccoli word is different from the others, and is probably a variant of the word spire. The other words come from the Old English spere. The Greek sparos meant gilthead, which, like a marlin, is a kind of fish:
Sunday 3 October 2021
Apparently white people mustn't use the word curry.
The food blogger Chaheti Bansal thinks they shouldn't, anyway. The food of India, as she rightly says, is complex and wonderful, and she feels that using the word curry - not itself an Indian term - to describe any kind of spiced stew is disrespectful both to the sub-continent and to the cuisine. Foreigners should, she believes, learn the proper names of the different dishes.
I'm afraid that the problem is even worse than that, because round here in England the word curry is used for more or less any spicy Asian food. There's the katsu curry, for instance, which is based on the cuisine of Japan. A Panang curry is from Thailand.
On the other hand, it's not as if anyone walks into an Indian Restaurant, sits down, and says bring me curry! We're all aware that there are many different dishes from which to choose.
Still, if it makes Chaheti Bansal happy I'll stop using the word.
Well, I will if she's listening, anyway.
Sunday Rest: curry. My Collins dictionary says that this word came in the 1500s from the Tamil word kari, which means sauce or relish.
Saturday 2 October 2021
Youth isn't all it's cracked up to be. The long hours of school work required under threat of punishment for no remuneration aren't great, for a start (how is that not slavery?), but there are good things about being young, all the same.
Mind you, you're unlikely to appreciate them fully at the time, but hey...There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe'er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth
Personally, I think that Wordsworth should have spent more time with children.
He might have recovered his ability for delight, then.
Word To Use Today: apparel. This word comes from the Latin appariculare, to clothe. It's basically the same word as apparatus.
Friday 1 October 2021
Despite appearances, this word isn't all that French, and so you don't say it fooMAY.
Neither do either of its English meanings have anything to do with smoking...
...well, hardly anything.
The first kind of fumet (you say it FYOO-m't) describes a reduced juice (doesn't reduced juice sound tangily delicious?) made from cooking fish or mushrooms for too long. You use it to flavour sauces. You can also cook down meat to make a fumet, too, but cooks tend to call that a fond.
The second kind of fumet could be used the same way, but I really wouldn't recommend it because that kind of a fumet consists of the droppings of a deer:
Mind you, it might depend on who was coming to dinner.
Word To Use Today: fumet. The cooking word comes from French and means aroma; the droppings word comes from the Latin fimāre, to spread dung upon, from fimus, which means dung.