This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 18 October 2021

Spot The Frippet: slug.

 Slug is an interesting word.

It starts with the animal:

Arion afer. Photo by Prashanthns

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:

shotgun cartridge, photo by Divingpetrel

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:

Chromodoris dianae. Photo by Bernard DUPONT

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

Sunday Rest: polydemic.

 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

Saturday Rave: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

 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

Word To Use Today: gaggle.

 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:

photo by AnemoneProjectors 

 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:

photo by D Severson

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

Hyp-hens again: a rant.

 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

Nuts and Bolts: unicode.

 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

Thing To Do Today: surge.

 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

Spot the Frippet: screw.

 There are screws everywhere, so where's the very nearest one to you?

photo by Ssawka

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:

illustration by Edward W Gough

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.

photo by Dusan Bicanski

Spot the Frippet: screw. This word appeared in English in the 1400s and comes from the French word escroe, from the Latin scr
ōfa, which means sow, almost certainly because a pig's curly tail is like the thread of a screw.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

Sunday Rest: Libtard. Word Not To Use Today.

 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

Saturday Rave: The Sweet Calm Sunshine of October by William Cullen Bryant

 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

The purple oak-leaf falls; the birchen bough

Drops its bright spoil like arrow-heads of gold.

And so, through all the years, he tells us something we all knew, but had never realised.

Word To Use Today: October. Octo is Latin for eight, and October was indeed the eighth month of the year until Augustus Caesar felt the need to have a month named after himself. Well, Julius Caesar already had hos own month, so why not? In this way the eighth month got bumped back to tenth.


Friday, 8 October 2021

Word To Use Today: polyadelphous.

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:

illustration by Pérez Morales

photo of Bombax ceiba flower by J.M.Garg

It's rather a waste of a good word.

Still, I suppose we could all plant a polyadelphous flower somewhere visible as a sign of brotherly solidarity.

It couldn't do any harm, could it?

Word To Use Today: polyadelphous. The Greek word polus means much or many.

Thursday, 7 October 2021

Headline Violence: a rant.

 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

Nuts and Bolts: more or less zero.

 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

Thing To Do Today: edulcorate something. 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

Spot the Frippet: a spear.

 Luckily, most of us no longer need to keep a spear in the umbrella rack by the front door for fear of attack:

illustration by Raphael

but there are other types of spear about.

Chewing gum often contains spearmint:

photo by Simon Eugster 

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: 

photo by US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

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:

illustration by Werner

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Sunday Rest: curry. Word Not To Use Today.

 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

Saturday Rave: Intimations of Immortality by William Wordsworth.

 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

Word To Use Today: fumet.

 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:

photo by Olag

Mind you, it might depend on who was coming to dinner.

photo by Mehmet Karatay

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.