This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Rankings: a rant.

If someone asked you to guess what number The Thirty-Nine Steps was on the Guardian newspaper's list of A Hundred Best Novels, what would you say?


All right, then.

Now suppose the other person asked you to guess again and gave you the clue higher!

Would you guess it was number seventy-five or number twenty-eight?

I keep on hoping that this language stuff will start making sense at some point.

But it never does.

Word To Use Today: rank. This word came to us from Old French, where it was spelled ranc. Before that it was a Germanic word. The Old High German hring means circle and may be something to do with it.

The answer, by the way, is forty-two.

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Nuts and Bolts: the three-letter rule.

 The first thing to say about the three-letter rule is that it isn't actually a rule.

On the plus side, it does involve words with three letters.

The basic idea is that in English most words that describe important ideas - things that you're supposed to notice - have at least three letters.

The third letter is sometimes unneeded - as in the word ebb or owe or axe (the last letter of axe is sometimes left out by people in America because Noah Webster thought it unnecessary, but mostly it's held its own). 

Sometimes this helps to distinguish a word from a much commoner one: bee and be for example.

There are many many exceptions to this rule. Some of these many exceptions are words borrowed from other languages, which sometimes retain their original form, even if that form contains only two letters. 

Om! hasn't yet been re-written omm! for instance.

So - the three-letter rule is not a rule. 

But all the same it does kind of make sense, doesn't it.

Word To Use Today: how about buy? Or by? The Old English form of by was bī. The Old English form of buy was bycgan, pronounced with a dg sound, as in budge.

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Thing Not To Be Today: negative.

 Do you listen to the news to discover what's not in it, so you can find out what happens to be going quite well?


We seem to have reached a point when good news is literally no news.

This means, of course, that the reporting of the bad news is unbalanced and untrustworthy, too.

I could make bitter comments about journalistic laziness and bias, but that wouldn't be in the spirit of this post.

Ah well. This has sharpened our critical faculties, anyway.

At least, we can only hope so.

Thing Not To Do Today: be negative. Fittingly, the word negative comes from the Latin word negāre, from nec, which means not, and aio, I say.

Monday, 17 January 2022

Spot the Frippet: a neighbour.

 Do you have good neighbours?

Will they water the plants while you're away, or happily take in parcels, or smilingly accept five pounds of surplus plums?

Or do you have the kind of neighbours who have loudspeakers in the garden, or park their cars across your drive, or plant a row of Leyland Cypresses on the South side of your garden? 

Or expect you to listen to their child's performances?

caricature by James Gillray

Or, are they people who, if they bump into you, want to talk for hours and hours and hours? Do they peep round the curtains as you walk along the street? Do you hear so much gossip from them that you can't help wondering what people are saying about you?

painting by John William Waterhouse

Neighbours can be a pain and a nuisance. 

The Bully of the Neighbourhood. Painting by John George Brown

But at least, if that is the case, there is some small satisfaction to be taken in knowing the derivation of the word.

Spot the Frippet: neighbour. This word was nēahbūr in Old English. Nēah comes from nigh, which means near, and the rest comes from gebūr, which means dweller and is basically the same word as boor, which is an ill-mannered, clumsy or insensitive person.

Sunday, 16 January 2022

Sunday Rest: global.

 Well, I mean, what does a non global pandemic look like?


Sunday Rest: global. The word globe is French, from the Latin word globus.

Saturday, 15 January 2022

Saturday Rave: Preface to Tartuffe by Moliere.

 Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (1622 - 1673), usually known by his stage name of Molière, is famous, honoured and respected throughout the world. As if this isn't unusual enough for anyone, he made a reasonable living as a writer (well, sometimes) and to make the whole thing close to incredible, he wrote comedy.

On the other hand, he was imprisoned for debt (for the rent due on a tennis court he was renting as a theatre) and he regularly drove various segments of French High Society crazy with outrage - which was a jolly dangerous business at the time.

Poor Molière died after he had a haemorrhage on stage while performing the title role in his own play Le Malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid). The King had to give special permission for his body to be buried on consecrated ground (that was against the law because poor Molière was an actor). Even then, the burial had to happen at night.

Here's a short quotation, not from one of his plays (because a writer's characters often insist on uttering all kinds of nonsense) but from the preface to one of his masterpieces, Tartuffe.

People do not mind being wicked, but they object to being made ridiculous.

And, you know something? All at once the English Channel seems three times as wide.

Ah well. Our two countries are joined in admiring Molière, at least.

Word To Use Today: ridiculous. This word comes from the Latin rīdiculōsus, from rīdēre, to laugh. 

Friday, 14 January 2022

Word To Use Today: cheetah.

 Sometimes a cheetah looks like this:

photo by James Temple

Now, you may be thinking that cheetahs always look like that, because cheetahs, like leopards, can't change their spots (though occasionally cheetahs do occur with stripy backs like tabby cats, and some are even quite dark all over) but there's a Cheeta who looks like this:

Cheeta, character from Tarzan, played here by Jiggs the chimpanzee

(There are probably at least fifty reasons why the Tarzan stories can't be recommended nowadays. Some of them will be good ones, no doubt, but I still think that on the whole it's quite sad.)

Cheetahs are wonderful creatures that once roamed across Africa, the Middle East, India, and even into Europe. But then people came along and decided, erroneously, that it would be clever to shoot a few dozen of them, and that their women would look terrific draped in cheetah skins...

...gosh, that's another ape/cheetah link, isn't it?

...and now their range is much reduced and they are much rarer.

Anyway, cheetahs are big cats, but they have a slightly dog-shaped body and have non-retractable claws, which is dog-like, too. They can sprint extraordinarily fast. They hunt in the day time, mostly because the even bigger cats, hyenas and wolves tend to hunt at night and things can get a bit hairy if you go and swipe an antelope a leopard was planning to have for dinner.

Cheetahs are quite easy to tame:

By Collection gallery (2018-04-06): CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0,

and they can be trained to hunt. In the Middle East there was even a tradition of cheetahs having special seats fixed to the back of horse-saddles so they could ride.

But I don't suppose that would be allowed nowadays, either.

Word To Use Today: cheetah. This word comes from the Indian language Urdu, where it is cītā. Before that it comes from the Sanskrit chitra-ya, painted or variegated or adorned. Cheetahs have also sometimes been called the hunting leopard because they could be trained to hunt for man.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

A superiority complex: a rant.

 The University of Lake Superior has proscribed the use of the expression no worries.

As someone from the university has said in defence of this decision:

"If I'm not worried, I don't want anyone telling me not to worry. If I am upset, I want to discuss being upset."

Now, one small problem with this piece of, let's be charitable and refer to it as that the expression no worries is used to describe the state of mind of the speaker. It means I can resolve this problem easily.

It expresses sympathy and takes ownership of your pain. Or something. Whatever.

Anyway, the main problem with this story is that it's really, like, affected my mental health? Not only has it made me afraid that the hinges of the world are perilously close to dropping off, but, hello? Lake Superior University?

How can they just imply that the rest of the world is inferior?

Good grief. If I wasn't self-employed I think I'd have to take a week off to recover.

Word Not To Use Today: superior. This word comes from the Latin superus, placed above, from super, above.

Actually, while I'm here, I really can't see what's so Great about any of those flipping Lakes.

Wednesday, 12 January 2022

Nuts and Bolts: alphabet hacking.

When you want to purchase something on line, how do you choose which product to buy? It might not be the top item in the list provided by your search engine, but it'll probably be something you come across on the first pages or two.

This means that it's really important for a seller to be as near as possible to the top of the list.

Being top of a list has long been an advantage (there are still firms called Aardvark Plumbing) but nowadays not many people use physical directories. So how does a company get to the top of a search-engine list?

Well, computer systems (being logical) are quite easily fooled, and one way to do this is to start off your company name with a bit of punctuation. Or even with several bits of punctuation. 

This isn't illegal, though such tricksy tactics do tend to be used by firms that aren't a hundred per cent trustworthy. 

In the UK, the top-listed PCR test to buy on one search engine is from a company called !!! 0-100Travel 19. And their prices turn out to be rather higher than they at first appear.

This method of getting noticed is called alphabet hacking. The most interesting thing about it, I think, is that alphabet hacking involves deliberately not using letters of the alphabet.

Still, perhaps I should change my own name to !!Sally+Prue. Maybe that'd help book sales.

Nuts and Bolts: alphabet hacking. The word alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta.

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

Thing To Do Today: recover.

 I have a rotten sore throat.

So all I am going to do today is recover.

Thing To Do Today: recover. This word comes from the French recoverer from the Latin recuperāre. Capere means to gain or take.

Monday, 10 January 2022

Spot the Frippet: something claviform.

 You know about unicorns:

painting by Maerten de Vos

but how about clavicorns?

Clavicorns are a kind of beetle. Now, humans being what they are, ie not strictly logical, you might not like beetles nor want to look at them.

But all the same you probably feel quite fond of this one:

photo by Jon Sullivan

and that's a clavicorn beetles.

So what does clavi- mean?

The difficulty here is that half the English clavi- words have nothing to do with the beetle kind of clavi- words. Clavichords and clavicles come from the Latin word clāvis, which means key. Clavi- as in claviform comes from the Latin word clāva, which means club.

(I know that some people who play the clavichord sound as if they're hitting it with clubs, but that's just a coincidence.)

Can you see what's club-shaped about a ladybird? The same thing applies to these insects:

photo by Tony Hisgett

Yep. The antennae.

There will be other claviform objects to spot if, like me, you're living somewhere where it'sthe middle of winter. The arum lily, quite often grown as a house-plant, has a claviform spadex (that's the thing sticking up in the middle):

photo by Alvesgaspar

There are claviform mushrooms, too. And, you never know, perhaps you have an actual club about the place.

On the whole, though, I hope not.

Spot the Frippet: something claviform. This word comes from the Latin clāva, which means club.

Some people use the word claviform to mean shaped like a key, but that's the kind of habit which just confuses people. 

Sunday, 9 January 2022

Sunday Rest: doom. Word Not To Use Today.

 People used to speak of not being able to see the wood for the trees, but now we half the time we can't see the truth for the great shouts of 


which erupt on all sides at the smallest sign of trouble.

But at least I've never seen the word Covidageddon, so I suppose that's something.

Word Not To Use Today: doom. The Old English form of this word was dōm, and it's related to the Old Norse word dōmr, judgement, the Gothic word dōms, sentence, the Greek word  thomos, crowd, and the Sanskrit word dhāman, custom. 

Saturday, 8 January 2022

Saturday Rave: Pu Suan Tzu by Dongpo.

 Su Shi (1037 – 1101) had the courtesy name of Zizhan, and the pen name of Dongpo. (As with other Chinese names, what we in English call a surname, in this case Su, comes first.)

The pen name was probably a good idea, as Su Shi tends to remind people nowadays of raw fish.

Su Shi was a politician from a family of government officials, a very bright boy who repeatedly got into trouble for not giving his support to the most powerful faction. 

He was banished twice.

Su Shi wrote poetry and prose. He wrote about the iron industry, about hydraulic engineering, about his travels, and about cookery.

I'll spare us the essay on the iron industry, but here's a short but exquisite poem, Pu Suan Tzu.

 A fragment moon hangs from the bare tung tree
The water clock runs out, all is still
Who sees the dim figure come and go alone
Misty, indistinct, the shadow of a lone wild goose?

Startled, she gets up, looks back
With longing no one sees
And will not settle on any of the cold branches
Along the chill and lonely beach


Word To Use Today: lonely. This word has come in being being because in the 1300s the word alone was wrongly imagined to be a lone. That wasn't the first time the word had been split up in a strange way, either, because in Old English it was al one - all one.

Friday, 7 January 2022

Word To Use Today: vaxxer.

 The word vaxxer is seen less often than anti-vaxxer, even though the figures show that most of us in the world are vaxxers.

I could go over the arguments, but as you know already I will note just one very common assertion: that one can't trust any facts that contradict one's beliefs.

photo by Pikaluk

In any case, the reason the word vaxxer is cool is, obviously, because it has a double X in it.

Surely no one could possibly argue with that.

Word To Use Today: vaxxer. This word comes from vaccine which comes from the Latin word vaccīnus, which means to do with cows (because the first vaccine used in English-speaking countries was made from blisters on cows...yes, isn't that just lovely. But then, to be fair, dying from smallpox isn't very lovely, either). 

Thursday, 6 January 2022

Gatherings: a rant.

 I myself lost lost track of the Covid regulations somewhere between numbers 221 and 223.

Can I drink at a bar as long as I sit down? Is it really illegal to go to work? Don't ask me! 

In England we have a slightly limp scandal brewing about government officials breaking the Covid rules on parties.  People are seriously asking whether a quiz via Zoom counts as a party if someone involved is wearing a Father Christmas hat. 

As no one knows the answer to this desperately stupid question (you can't catch anything via Zoom!) the trend is for everyone to have, not parties, but gatherings, instead.

Gathering...a word to describe a boil, a piece of cloth pulled tightly into wrinkles, or possibly a meeting of some dystopian religious society.

Well, no one's going to suspect anyone of indulging in one of those unless strictly necessary, are they?

But what a pity Covid only ever infects people who are trying to have fun.

Word To Use Today: gathering. The Old English form of this word was gadrian.

Wednesday, 5 January 2022

Nuts and Bolts: volta.

 A volta is a dance that involves a lot of energy:

Queen Elizabeth I of England dancing the volta with Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester

but if you're writing verse then it's a twist or turn in subject or meaning or point of view. It's when you're saying something like: the day is dull, dreary and dismal [volta] but I am dazzled with joy because of you.

You can have a volta in any kind of verse, but the term is usually used when you're talking about fairly rigid verse forms, notably the fourteen-line sonnet.

In a Petrarchan sonnet, where you have a rhyming scheme that presents you with a chunk of eight lines followed by six more, the volta will happen at the beginning of those last six lines. In a Shakespearean sonnet, which has three groups of four lines followed by a final two, the volta will probably occur at the beginning of that last two-line couplet.

Here's an example of one of Shakespeare's sonnets (Shakespeare wrote, um, Shakespearean sonnets):

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see'st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire,
Consum'd with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceiv'st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.


Word To Use Today: volta. This word comes from Italian, from the Latin volvere, to turn

Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Thing To Do Today: pretermit.

 To pretermit is to overlook or to ignore something deliberately.

When the English Admiral Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye so he could not see a signal from his commanding officer, that was what he was doing.

In a court of law, details deliberately ignored are pretermitted; if a series of events, such as lectures, are abandoned for a while they also are pretermitted.

Few of us have command of a court of law, a series of lectures, or even the smallest ship, but every email inbox is constantly clogged with offers that are much too good to trust. As we delete them unread, we pretermit them.

Whenever we decide not to bother to make the extra-special pastry for the pie, the one that requires four egg yolks and a variety of flour only available from a farmers' market in the capital city on alternate Thursdays, we pretermit that part of the recipe.

Whenever we decline to answer a phone, or we decide that life's too short to read the safety instructions, or click the acceptance of the Terms & Conditions without actually reading them, we're in pretermiting territory.

It's a great word: not only does it add dignity to laziness, but it has a cool noun associated with it: pretermission.

Enjoy each deed of pretermission today.

Thing To Do Today: pretermit. This word comes from the Latin praetermittere from preter- beyond or exceeding, and mittere to send or release.

Monday, 3 January 2022

Spot the Frippet: something figuline.

 If you have had a drink today, especially a hot one, then you've probably already seen something figuline

photo by Laurel F

The same if you've been to the loo, or had a wash.

photo by Anonimous

If you've looked out of the windows at the houses then you probably have, too (though not definitely).

photo of Welshpool by Dace Croker

So - can you guess what figuline means?

We live in a figuline world, though we don't often notice it, for figuline means of, or looking like, clay. The word covers any article made of clay, too.

Not only does that include the mug that contains my tea, but the walls and roof of my house.

It's wonderful to think that you can use the same stuff to make a house and a teapot.

teapot by John Bartlam, 1760s

The stuff is all over the soles of my boots, too, which isn't quite so wonderful - except that lots of the food I eat is grown in figuline soil. The valleys here are deep in it.

Magic, isn't it? Magic, all round.

Spot the Frippet: something figuline, This word comes from the Latin word figulus, a potter, from fingere, to mould.

Sunday, 2 January 2022

Sunday Rest: sistroid.

 This word, sistroid, sounds unpleasant, painful, and possibly something nasty to do with having a sister, like having your nail varnish or boyfriend stolen.

In fact, the word sistroid describes a shape. Imagine two overlapping circles, as in a Venn diagram:

image by Bin im Garten 

The overlapping bit is sistroid. You can get sistroid areas with other curved shapes - any two curved lines that cross each other might enclose an area that can be described as sistroid.

Heaven only knows why anyone would, though.

Sunday Rest: sistroid. This word has a cool origin, being named after the sistrum, which is a musical instrument. Well, if you can call it musical: it's an Ancient Egyptian rattle: 

Nefertari holding a sistrum

The word seiein means to shake in Greek. The word sistroid is to do with the shape of the rattle.

Saturday, 1 January 2022

Saturday Rave: The Old Year by John Clare.

 Is this is a day for looking forward, or for looking back?

Looking forward, most would say, but, I don't know....if we don't value the year just gone, will we appreciate, and make the most of, the year yet to come?

It might change your view of what is to come.

The Old Year's gone away
To nothingness and night:
We cannot find him all the day
Nor hear him in the night:
He left no footstep, mark or place
In either shade or sun:
The last year he'd a neighbour's face,
In this he's known by none.

All nothing everywhere:
Mists we on mornings see
Have more of substance when they're here
And more of form than he.
He was a friend by every fire,
In every cot and hall--
A guest to every heart's desire,
And now he's nought at all.

Old papers thrown away,
 Old garments cast aside,
The talk of yesterday,
Are things identified;
But time once torn away
No voices can recall:
The eve of New Year's Day
Left the Old Year lost to all.

Let's hope 2022 leaves dancing footsteps, and shimmering shadows, and fulfilled desires.

Happy New Year!

Word To Use Today: substance. This word comes from the Latin substantia, which means essence, from substare, to stand firm or to be present.from sub-, which can mean anything to do with being under or smaller or less important, and stare, which means to stand.