This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday 30 April 2022

Saturday Rave: Into my heart an air that kills by A E Housman.

 It has to be said that A E Housman didn't really have the knack of being a great poet. He did all the totally-overlooked-and-unappreciated thing, and he did suffer from unrequited love, but instead of living in a state of despair and increasing poverty, and then dying young, he got himself a job, self-published his scholarly work and his poems, and stayed good friends with the object of his affections.

To compound matters, he was then noticed and ended up being a professor at Cambridge, and recognised as both one of the greatest classical scholars ever, and as a hugely popular and respected poet.

To put the kibosh on things completely, he went and lived to be seventy-seven.

Here's the fortieth poem from his first, self-published collection, A Shropshire Lad (which he wasn't: he came from the outskirts of Birmingham and he was an rather un-laddish thirty-seven when the book was published. But never mind).

The poem is short, simple, beautiful, and has two famous quotes in it.

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

Word To Use Today: lost. This word comes from the Old English word losian, which meant to perish.

Friday 29 April 2022

Word To Use Today: Taliban.

 The Taliban are usually described as a fundamentalist Islamist army. They enforce many laws which most people in the West view with horror and revulsion. The usual presumption is that the laws are part of the fundamentalism - that is, that they arise from a decision to follow sacred Islamic texts literally and completely.

Having discovered the origin of the word Taliban, however, I'm having to think again.

Word To Use Today: Taliban. This word was coined in the 1900s and comes from the Arabic word tāliban, which means seekers.

Thursday 28 April 2022

A medium-sized cake: a rant.

 Nearly all the world uses the S.I. system of measurement, and the big exception is the USA, which uses various interesting systems. A rectangular cake tin, for example is measured in pounds (a pound weighs 454 grams). But a pound of what? It's not that the tin itself weighs a pound, or that any one of the ingredients you might put in it weighs a pound. No: it's (probably) that if you make a loaf of bread in the thing, the loaf that comes out will probably weigh about a pound.

Yes, madness, I know.

Still, if we want people to use our recipes we have to make them comprehensible, and nowadays even American recipes usually give S.I. system measurements as alternatives.

But then the other day I found this recipe. It's Italian, and calls for a cake tin 0.78 feet wide. I'm completely charmed, but completely puzzled. 0.78 of a foot is 9.35 inches - not, obviously, a standard tin size even in America - or 23.75 centimetres, also non-standard.

I can only imagine that Italians have their own way of measuring cake tins, and the recipe conversion was done from that. Is there some unit of measurement based on the length of Caesar's foot? Or on some tiny fraction of the distance from the toe to the heel of Italy?

I'd love to know.

In the meantime, I used a different recipe.

Word To Use Today: foot. The standardised foot measurement may have been the brainchild of Henry I of England, whose reign began in 1100. This would give him very big feet, though, so he was probably measured with some pointy boots on.

Wednesday 27 April 2022

Nuts and Bolts: telling the past.

 How do you convey that something has happened in the past?

Let us count the ways.

You can add extra words, like, for example, adding have to I have come.

If you're speaking English, the most natural way to signal the past might be to bung some letters on the end of a word (as in the -ed of the word bunged). But if, on the other hand, your language comes from sub-Saharan Africa, Meso-America, the Pacific North-West of America, or some parts of Papua New Guinea, then the obvious thing will be to bung some letters on the front.

Apart from the fact that it must make compiling a dictionary difficult, why not? 

If none of those options appeals then you can change the middle of a word. English does this sometimes, as in sing and sang. German does it rather more often. That kind of change doesn't make much logical sense, and they are a pain to learn, but they work fine once you know them.

If that doesn't suit you then you could always put some extra letters into the middle of a word, a wheeze that Tagalog sometimes employs when changing tenses.

If you speak a language where tone is important then you can signal the past by changing the tone of one of the vowel sounds.

You can even change a word completely, the way English changes go to went.

Most languages use a variety of all or some of these techniques. In fact, if you can think of a way to signal a tense change, then there's probably a language somewhere that uses that technique.

There are some ways of signalling the past you probably won't have thought of, too. In American sign language, for instance, to signal the past you sign finish at either the beginning or the end of a sentence while saying the word fish (a shortened form of finish).

And I say to myself, what a wonderful world...

Word To Use Today: any word that uses a slightly weird way of signalling the past.

Tuesday 26 April 2022

Thing Not To Do Today: make a horlicks of something.

 To make a complete horlicks of something is to make an utter mess of it. Well, it is in England, anyway.

So what is horlicks

Horlicks is a powder you add to hot milk to make a drink. It's quite sweet, something in the nature of Ovaltine, but it's cream in colour and doesn't contain chocolate. It was invented as a baby food in 1873 by two brothers, William and James Horlicks from Gloucestershire, England, who had moved to Chicago.

Horlicks didn't have much success as a baby food, but adults in Britain still drink it enthusiastically as a bedtime drink to help them sleep (and adults in India drink it even more enthusiastically at breakfast time). Although the USA didn't take to it so much, the explorer Richard Byrd named an Antarctic mountain range after the drink in gratitude for the the malty warmth it provided for him and his crew (and for the expedition sponsorship from the firm).

But what has this pale, bland, sweet milky drink got to do with an utter catastrophic mess?

Well, this:

Thing Not To Do Today: make a horlicks of something. The surname Horlicks comes from the Old English words har, grey, and locc, as in a lock of hair. The first Horlick probably had a streak of grey hair.

The connection with mess is in the sound of the word. It's just that the word sounds like bollix - and a similar, ruder, British word, too.

The Old English word beallucas means testicles.

Monday 25 April 2022

Spot the Frippet: mortar.

 Apart from the word, what's the connection between this:  

photo by Evan-Amos

and this: 

Croatian Army mortar, photo by Ex13

and this?

photo by Pawal Wozniak

and this?

(and, yes, there actually is one).

Worked it out, yet?

Oh, all right, Here it is, then:

Spot the Frippet: mortar. This word comes from the Latin word mortārium, a basin in which mortar is mixed. The early forms of the weapon kind of mortar was not much more than a bowl with explosives inside it. 

Some mortar words come via the French word mortier, which is the stuff you mix in a mortārium.  

A mortar board, as in the academic hat, is so named because it looks like the small board used by bricklayers to hold mortar as they work. Plasterers use them, too.

photo by Arpingstone

By the way, in a metal-producing mine, a mortar is place where you crush ore, and this has given us a dialect (English Midlands) word mortar, meaning to trample.

Sunday 24 April 2022

Sunday Rest: biromantic. Word Not To Use Today.

 The word biromantic does not describe someone who tells the future using a ballpoint pen (which word would probably come from biro, the name of one of the inventors of the writing implement, the Hungarian László Bíró, plus -mantic, meaning to do with prophesy, from the Greek word mantis, seer). 


Instead the word biromantic describes a person who is romantically attracted to people of two distinct gender identity groups.

I'm not sure how much such labels help people. But still, the idea seems harmless enough to me.

Sunday Rest: biromantic. Bi- comes from the Latin word bis, which means twice. Romantic comes from the French romantique, from romant, which used to mean a story. Before that it comes from the Old French romans, from the Latin Rōmānicus, which means Roman.

That's quite odd, because I'd never thought of the Romans as being at all romantic.

Saturday 23 April 2022

Saturday Rave: St George and the Dragon, a mummer play.

 Today is St George's Day.

And who was St George?

Nobody knows. Nobody is sure if he even existed. Perhaps parts of him did, but those, sadly, are not the parts that fought the dragon.

When I was at school, in what is now called Grade Six, I was the Princess of Egypt in a play starring St George. I didn't have much to say, but I did have a lovely crown to wear and I did get kissed by St George, who was played by Colin French (who was good at sport and one of the popular ones).

He also kindly rescued me from the dragon.

The only bits of the script I remember went like this (I hope this is right, but it was was a long time ago):

PRINCESS: Oh my father, do not fear

But get thee hence and leave me here

If such a fate must me befall

I'd gladly die to save you all.

...which wasn't actually true, because, soon afterwards:

DRAGON (advancing threateningly): Oh sweet maiden fair and red

Lift aloft your pretty head

And you shall be my cockle bread!

...and he had to bellow the last line because naturally I was screaming the place down.

Anyway, luckily St George promptly came along and killed the dragon, who had to die with his head hanging backwards off the edge of the stage, and with his eyes horribly open. The dragon was played magnificently by a boy called Mark (was he Mark Rogers? That sounds right.). The director was our headmaster Mr Stuart Needham, and the school was Nash Mills C of E Primary School in Hertfordshire, England.

The kiss caused such a sensation that we had to do the whole play again.

I can't find the text of that play anywhere, but here's a section from another version of the story, The Christmas Play of St George and the Dragon, 1852, by William Sandys.

Here come I, St. George, from Britain did I spring,

I'll fight the Dragon bold, my wonders to begin.
I'll clip his wings, he shall not fly;
I'll cut him down, or else I die.

{Enter the Dragon.}


Who's he that seeks the Dragon's blood,
And calls so angry, and so loud?
That English dog, will he before me stand?
I'll cut him down with my courageous hand.
With my long teeth, and scurvy jaw,
Of such I'd break up half a score,
And stay my stomach, till I'd more.

{St. George and the Dragon fight: the latter is killed.}


Splendid stuff: hurrah for St George!

Word To Use Today: dragon. This word came to England form the Old French, and before that it was Latin, dracō, and before that it was Greek, drakōn. The Greek word drakos, meaning eye, is related.

Friday 22 April 2022

Word To Use Today: ploat.

 Ploat is word of Northeast England. It has two meanings, to beat or thrash, and to pluck the feathers of a bird.

painting by William Henry Hunt

I'm not sure how useful this word is, but it's a perfectly lovely one to say, and gives a professional pout in a selfie.


Try it and see.

Word To Use Today: ploat. This word comes from Flemish or Dutch, where ploten means to pluck the feather or fur.

Thursday 21 April 2022

Sensitive fat: a rant.

 British Health Authorities are worried about the fitness (and fatness) of the general population, and they have produced new advice for health professionals (there are now so many of them that doctors and nurses is longer an adequate description) to help them to help people to lose weight.

The latest idea is that a person's waist measurement should be no more than half his height.

The guidance urges these health professionals to be 'sensitive and positive' when bringing up the subject of waist measurements, and to ask permission before raising the matter.

But how can anyone ask permission to talk about something when they can't specify what it is? How to mention the (almost literal) elephant in the room?

I suppose the approach would have to be:

There is one other thing I really should mention, if I may...

which is clever, even if the slight sneakiness of it may cause resentment.

Still, it's only slightly sneaky...

The trouble is, elephants never forget.

Word To Use Today: elephant. The Greek word elephas means ivory.

Wednesday 20 April 2022

Nuts and Bolts: itacism.

 Last week we gazed in amazement at iotacism; now we move swiftly on to itacism.

Luckily it's not far to go because it's basically the same thing, and still to do with the pronunciation of Greek, ancient and modern.

Ancient Greek had a lot of vowel-sounds, but over time many of these began to be pronounced like the letter e in the English word pretty, or the i in ship. Nowadays the Greek vowels  ι, η, υ, ει, οι, and υι are all pronounced like the aforementioned i in ship, which is the sound originally spelled ι in Ancient Greek . (That letter is called iota.) 

That process of that happening is one meaning of the word iotacism, and itacism is what some scholars call this pronunciation after the shift had happened.

There are people who devote their lives to the study of this kind of thing. We give them a lot of respect, and sometimes even a salary. 

Well, there are many more dangerous obsessions, after all. 

Word To Use Today: well, how about a word that has more than one pronunciation? Like garage, or grass, or tomato. 

Or even Kyiv.

Tuesday 19 April 2022

Thing To Do Today: recount something.

 When you recount something, are you checking its total, or are you telling a story?

Until recently, you would have been telling a story, but the modern fashion for dispensing with hyphens means that nowadays you could mean either.

This, rather oddly, follows the pattern of the word tale, which historically could mean either a story or a totalling-up. Or, indeed, both:

It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury

Signifying nothing.

(Poor old Macbeth.)

Still, we got over the tale/tale confusion, didn't we, so with any luck we'll soon find a way round the recount one.

The easiest way to do it would be to put the hyphen back.

Thing To Do Today: recount something. This word comes from the Old French reconter, to tell or relate. Conter is the ancestor of our word count (as in numbers) and comes from the Latin computāre, to calculate.

The word tale comes from the Old English talu, list, which makes the link between the two meanings of both words rather clearer.

Monday 18 April 2022

Spot the Frippet: grit.

 Grit is the stuff which causes friction.

Sometimes that's a good thing:

photo of sandpaper by Simon Eugster 

photo of gritting lorry by Sebastiandoe5

A grinding stone can be made of the kind of sandstone called grit, too:

millstone grit formation, photo by Ceri Thomas

Sometimes grit is a nuisance (though even then....): 

pearl in oyster, photo by Manfred Heyde

Sometimes it's even heroic, if the kind of grit you're talking about is courage or determination:

Mostly, luckily, the nearest we have to get to that is having to grit our teeth from time to time.

Hope today's grits are all the good kind:

(Though opinions differ widely and passionately about whether that stuff is a good kind.)

Spot the Frippet: grit. This word is grēot in Old English.

Sunday 17 April 2022

Sunday Rest: urochord.

 A urochord is nothing to do with either urine nor with entries for the Eurovision Song Contest.

So that's a relief.

My Collins Dictionary tells me, entirely correctly, that a urochord is the notochord of a larval tunicate, typically confined to the tail region.

...which gets me not much further forward. And further research reveals that Merriam-Webster is, if anything, even less helpful:

the notochord of an ascidian or tunicate, more conspicuous in the larva than in the adult and confined chiefly to the caudal region

which even manages to replace the simple word tail with the obscure caudal region.

Even more research revels that a notochord is a forerunner of a spine, and is found both in the most primitive of those creatures which have a nervous system based on a string-like structure, and in the embryos of higher vertebrates, from which the spine later develops. 

(A tunicate is a sea-creature, an example being the sea-squirt; an ascidian is the same kind of thing.)

The difference between a notochord and a urochord seems to be that a notochord goes up into the head, and a urochord doesn't.

But I'm not completely sure, even now, and I shall be leaving this word to the experts.

Sunday Rest: urochord. The uro- bit means tail, from the Greek oura. The -chord bit is from the Greek khordē, which means cord, as in string. 

Saturday 16 April 2022

Saturday Rave: In Memoriam [Easter 1915] by Edward Thomas.

 Dated 6 April 1915, this short poem is, so sadly, still relevant, and also still heart-breaking.

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.


Edward Thomas was killed in action soon after he arrived in France on Easter Monday, 9 April, 1917.

He left behind a wife and three children.

Word To Use Today: never. The Old English form of this word was nǣfre, from ne ‘not’ + ǣfre ‘ever’.

This poem has featured before on The Word Den, but I don't think that anything expresses this sense of sadness and waste better.

Friday 15 April 2022

Words To Use Today: non compos mentis.

 Non compos mentis means mad. Most people know that.

For non-Latinists the non and the mentis bits are guessable: that is, non means not and mentis will be something to do with mental.

The compos, as a child, I tended to associate with compost, but as it turns out there's very little connection between the two.

Mental illness is baffling, and often sad, and we have never really known how to deal with it. The mentally ill have been viewed in various times and places as divinely inspired; devil-led; worthless; seers; stupid; dangerous; feeble; to be shunned; to be locked away; to be a source of entertainment; to be ignored; to be treated; to be understood.

Sometimes it's not even easy to know which is those is kindest, let alone best.

Still, non compos mentis...this take on the idea of mental illness, which arose in 1200s England, seems rather a good one, considering.

Words To Use Today: non compos mentis. In Latin this means not in control of one's own mind. Com means with, and potis means powerful or master, and mens means mind.

Originally, in law, non compos mentis described those who had become incapable. In this case guardians were appointed to manage their affairs until they recovered. Those born disabled were called natural fools, and their interests passed to the Crown. 

The other legal category of mentally disabled people was habitual drunkards, who received no legal help at all.

Thursday 14 April 2022

Approved News: a rant.

 The Russian news media are in a hundred per cent agreement about the progress of the special military operation in Ukraine. So, as everyone is in agreement, then there's no reason to question any of the facts.

Apparently, everything is going splendidly.

In a world of doubt and disagreement, all it took to establish that consensus was: 

a) getting rid of all protest marchers and banners (even blank ones) by means of arrests and violence; 

b) threatening people who disagree with the official narrative with up to fifteen years in prison; 

c) establishing systems for people to report their neighbours, colleagues and family to the authorities for expressing any private doubts; 

d) publicising those systems; 

e) shutting down all independent news outlets; 


f) banning unfriendly foreign news.


Good heavens. 

If the truth is so plain, and so consensual, it really makes you wonder why they bothered. 

Word To Use Today: consensus. Someone used this word in the 1500s to describe the way various parts of the body work together to create functioning systems, but the word didn't really catch on as a way to describe other kinds of agreement until the middle of the 1800s. Consensus is a Latin word which means agreement. Consentire means to feel together.

Wednesday 13 April 2022

Nuts and Bolts: etacism and iotacism.

 There's something glorious and cherishable about a really random and useless piece of information.

Etacism and iotacism are all to do with the pronunciation of Ancient Greek.

If you pronounce the letter eta:

as did the early modern scholar Erasmus (1466 - 1536), that is as the ea in the English word great, then that's etacism.

If you pronounce it to rhyme with the English word bee, as do modern Greeks and as did the early modern scholar Reuchlin (1455 - 1522) then that's iotacism.

I'm charmed, even though I can't honestly say that I care.

Word To Use Today: well, how about one which originally had the letter eta in it? And then you can yourself choose how to pronounce it. 

The word Penelope has two: in Greek it's written Πηνελόπη, and, rather gloriously, we tend to pronounce the first one another way entirely. 

Pēnē (πήνη) means weft (as in weaving) and ōps (ὤψ) means face.

Tuesday 12 April 2022

Thing Not To Be Today: plausible.

 The Russian government has long practised* plausible deniability. The idea is that if something can't be proved to be false, then other people are obliged, as a matter of good manners, to believe it.

Unfortunately for them, the saying the fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me has long ago come into force, and now no one is going to believe a word any Russian government official says, unless it can be proved to be true.

Still, it's a good word, plausible. It means apparently true, but the implication, or at least the suspicion, is that it's not. A plausible character is almost certainly a con-man.

The origin of the word plausible is much more respectable than such a person deserves.

Thing Not To Be Today: plausible. This word comes from the Latin plausibilis, worthy of applause, from plaudere, to applaud.

Still, I suppose we do applaud actors, don't we, and we all know what they're saying isn't true.

*That's how we spell it in England when it's a verb.

Monday 11 April 2022

Spot the Frippet: trellis.

 How to get some height in the garden without blocking out the sun - or your neighbours' sun, for that matter - or creating a dry patch where nothing will grow?

Stick up a bit of trellis, of course.

It can go on the walls:

Or you can use it to make a wall:

illustration by WAF

You can grow flowers:

wallpaper by William Morris and Philip Webb

Or food:

Or just screen the shed:

The question, though, is this:

Why does a trellis begin with tre-Basically, what's it got to do with three?


Spot the Frippet: trellis. This word comes from the Old French treliz, which was a kind of fabric with a very open weave. Before that it came from the Latin trilīcius, which means woven with three threads, from tre- plus līcium, which means thread. 

Sunday 10 April 2022

Sunday Rest: treason. Word Not To Use Today.

 The Soviet Union was a wonderful place to live (or so we were told). The fact that the place had a system to stop people leaving always seemed a bit of a give-away, though.

In Russia at the moment, a person can be arrested, detained, and fined for spreading information they've seen online about the situation in Ukraine, or repeating accounts they've heard from people who have been there.

Such behaviour is, apparently, treasonous; but to anyone with half a brain surely that, too, is a bit of a give-away.

Sunday Rest: treason. This word comes from the Old French traïson, from the Latin trāditiō, a handing-over. It's related to the word tradition, which is surprising. 

Though possibly not if you live in Russia.

Saturday 9 April 2022

Saturday Rave: Prologue to Ruslan and Ludmilla

 This is head-spinningly wonderful.

It's by Aleksandr Pushkin (1799 - 1837) and it's from the Prologue to Ruslan and Ludmilla.

This long poem tells a story of enchantment, young lovers, kidnap - and a siege of Kyiv.

It's hard to remember, sometimes, but things that are Russian are not always bad.

The story ends happily ever after.

There’s a green oak by the bay,

on the oak a chain of gold:

a learned cat, night and day,

walks round on that chain of old:

to the right – it spins a song,

to the left – a tale of wrong.

Marvels there: the wood-sprite rides,

in the leaves a mermaid hides:

on deep paths of mystery

unknown creatures leave their spoor:

huts on hen’s legs you can see,

with no window and no door.

Wood and valley vision-brimming:

there at dawn the waves come washing

over sands and silent shore,

and thirty noble knights appear

one by one, from waters clear,

attended there by their tutor:

a king’s son passing by

takes a fierce king prisoner:

a wizard carries through the sky

a knight, past all the people there,

over forests, seas they fly:

a princess in a prison pines,

whom a brown wolf serves with pride:

A mortar, Baba Yaga inside,

takes that old witch for a ride.

King Kaschey grows ill with gold.

It’s Russia! – Russian scents unfold!

And I was there and I drank mead,

I saw the green oak by the sea,

I sat there while the learned cat

told its stories – here’s one that

I remember, and I’ll unfurl,

a story now for all the world…


illustration from the first 1820 edition

Word To Use Today: vision. It's rather wonderful when the words for seeing real things and those not of our world are the same. A seer, for instance, sees things that others can't. 

The word vision comes from the Latin word vidēre, to see.

Friday 8 April 2022

Word To Use Today: clan.

 We tend to think of Celtic people when we think about clans. The Scots, in particular, make a big thing of them, which in the Scots case is based partly on one's ancestors, and partly one's name.

There's quite an industry built up round this idea, from holidays to competitive games to the patterns seen on kilts and plaids. And teddy-bears' waistcoats. And paperweights and wallpaper and more or less everything else.

There are ancient friendships among the clans, and ancient enmities, but at present these seem to engender more fun (if of a steely kind) than bloodshed, phew.

But, for all that, more or less everyone, however non-Scots, belongs to a clan because clan can also mean an extended family (or perhaps a not-very-extended family of there are lots of you). 

In either case a clan, whether based around a Highland Chief, or a great-grandfather, or even a shared interest in a rugby football team, will be a source of much bickering, support, resentment, love, work, and friendship.

So just a concentration of humanity, really.

Word To Use Today: clan. This word comes from the Scottish Gaelic clann, which means family or descendants (interesting that it's descendants, and not ancestors) from the Latin word planta, which means, endearingly, sprout.

Thursday 7 April 2022

Exasperated: a rant.

 It must be very annoying for Vladimir Putin to find that the arms of the people of Ukraine have not in fact been open to welcome the invading Russian forces, but rather pointed firmly in their direction.

It's also the case that war is a muddled affair, largely consisting of groups of people wondering where they are, and what they're supposed to be doing - and why - and lobbing off lethal fire in the vague direction of another group of equally bewildered and unhappy people.

This is summed up nicely in this report by Robert Clark in the Telegraph newspaper, which says:

It’s important to note too that Russia has never even exercised this many troops before under a unified command; further logistical and command problems already exposed will be further exasperated.

All the same, though, I think that last word should have been exacerbated.

Word To Use Today: exacerbate. This word came to English in the 1600s from the Latin word exacerbāre, to irritate, from acerbus, butter. The word exasperate also arrived in the 1600s from Latin - from exasperāre, to roughen, from asper, rough.  

A man and a bench and a dog: a rant.

 'Isn't it wonderful?' I said. 'We're walking along this beautiful valley on this beautiful day, and there isn't another soul in sight.'

My husband, who is exact, immediately lifted his binoculars and had a good look round.

'There's a man with a dog on a bench,' he said.

And of course there was, though that was a long way away.

But tell me: who was on the bench? The man? The dog? Or both?

As it's impossible to tell from my husband's statement, I must let you out of your suspense: the man was on the bench, and the dog was sitting on the grass at the man's feet.

But how can anyone convey that information in one simple yet elegant statement?

There's a man on a bench with a dog.

No, that doesn't work.

There's a man with a dog sitting on a bench.

Nope. If anything, that makes things worse.

There's a dog with a man sitting on a bench...

Sometimes, you know, I do wish that I could speak English.

photo by Britchi Mirela

Word To Use Today: bench. This word was benc in Old English. The word has a connection with the word bank in both its financial* and arranged-in-lines meaning.

*The first financial banks had their money was arranged on benches.

Wednesday 6 April 2022

Nuts and Bolts: the privative.

 The privative? Oh, that's something you know already.

It's just some letters added to a word to reverse its meaning.

In English, the extra bit usually goes on the front of a word, and the commonest forms are in- (as in the word inoperable), a- (as in the word asocial) or un- (unsayable).

On the other hand -less also does the same thing, but goes on the rear end of a word (hopeless).

A privative a- usually has an n added before a vowel, as in analphabetic (which means not in alphabetic order). This is partly to make the word easier to say, and partly because in-, un- and a- all originally, long ago when all the Indo-European languages were the same, were the same sound, a kind of vowelish n sound, as you still hear at the end of the word rotten.

Sometimes a privative doesn't work quite as expected. The word invaluable means very valuable, for instance, and not having-no-value. This is because the word valuable has changed from its old meaning of able-to-be-given-a-value to a new meaning of priceless (which is a similarly awkward privative). So invaluable did start off meaning the opposite of valuable, but now we're in the silly situation of valuable and invaluable meaning almost the same thing.

Sometimes what looks like a privative is something quite different. Someone who is infatuated, for example, is more likely to be fatuous than the opposite.

But, as I've already said, you knew all this. 

Still, it's fun, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: a privative. This'll be easy now you're no longer uninformed.

Tuesday 5 April 2022

Thing Not To Be Today: gruelling.

 If you go on and on and on then people may begin to find being with you quite gruelling.

Still, they'll probably let you know.

The really interesting thing, of course, is what has being gruelling got to do with gruel?

Is the severely taxing or patience-testing experience that's described as gruelling like trudging through porridge, or gruel?

Well, yes, it is. But sadly that seems to be a coincidence.

illustration by George Cruikshank

Thing Not To Be Today: gruelling. This word popped up in the 1800s and comes from the now-forgotten word gruel, which meant to exhaust or punish. 

Gruel meaning thin porridge has been an English word since the 1300s. It came from Old French, and before than it was a Germanic word. Pleasingly, it has a relation in the word grout, which comes from the Old English word grot, meaning fragment.

Monday 4 April 2022

Spot the Frippet: mirador.

 Although a mirador sounds like something attached to a wardrobe:

 it isn't.

It's one of these:

photo by IDS photos, Devon

or these:

Juliet's house, Verona. Photo by Elliott Brown

or these:

Just so we all know.

Sopt the Frippet: mirador. The Spanish word mirar means to look. El Mirador, which means the lookout, or the viewpoint, is a pre-Columbian Maya settlement in Guatemala,

Sunday 3 April 2022

Sunday Rest: daycation.

 We already have the word staycation, which started off meaning a holiday taken at home, but now also seems to mean a holiday taken in one's home country.

That word was fairly horrible, but it's been useful, nonetheless, especially when it had just the one meaning, and people could tell what you were talking about.

But now we have daycation, which is not useful at all. It's a day-trip. Or a day out. Both these expressions are easier to spell, and read - and shorter, too.

Anyway, a trip, or an outing, can be fun, interesting, and a delightful break in the routine.

But a vacation?

Just ask the person who has to pack up the car.

photo by Hoebele

Word Not To Use To Day: daycation. The Latin word vacātiō means freedom. Vacāre means to be empty. The Old English word daeg describes the hours of daylight.

Saturday 2 April 2022

Saturday Rave: Rain by Robert Louis Stevenson.

 What makes a great poem?

Well, whatever it is, I'm fairly sure this poem doesn't have it. In fact, if it hadn't been for the fact that I had a strong need to rebel against the whole of my adoptive family, who despised all poetry (and fiction, for that matter) then Robert Louis Steveson's A Child's Garden of Verse (the book was originally published as A Child's Garden of Verses and Underwoods, whatever that means, but the title was truncated in my copy) might have been enough put me off poetry for life.

The illustrations were bland and childish, and, worst of all, you read the things but they got you nowhere: there was no plot. 

Still, April in England (like all other English months) is famous for its rain, so here is Stevenson's poem. 

Perhaps it's a work of genius and I just can't see it.

THE RAIN is raining all around,


It falls on field and tree,


It rains on the umbrellas here,


And on the ships at sea.


I genuinely love poetry nowadays. 

Well, some of it.

Word To Use Today: rain. This word was regn in Old English.

Friday 1 April 2022

Word To Use Today: venom.

 Venom is excreted by animals with the aim of poisoning other animals.

A snake's venom will often flow down through a grooved tooth that's been specially folded down into biting position. This venom will often be used to kill food, but the fact that a snake is known to be venomous means that predators - like humans - do tend to leave the reptiles alone.

On the other hand, it also means that humans, being essentially unobservant, are inclined to kill all snakes, even the non-venomous ones, if they can do so safely. Just in case.

Insect venom is sometimes mouth-delivered in much the same way, but a scorpion's sting is in its tail, and a centipede's venom is delivered through a modified leg. A caterpillar's venom might be delivered through a bristle, and a wasp's venom, delivered from its rear end, actually has a smell that attracts other wasps to come and join the attack. On the other hand, there are ants which rub their venom on themselves to cure their own diseases.

About the most deadly venom is excreted by the box jellyfish, Malo kingi. The beast is about the size of a fingernail. 

(Good grief, I might never go in the sea again. And, I mean, there are loads of venomous fish, too. Eerk!)

A toad's venom is most likely to be excreted through its skin. Sometimes this venom will kill an attacker, but sometimes it just tastes absolutely disgusting, or causes non-life-threatening but very unpleasant symptoms which will quickly make a predator think better of eating it - and afterwards think better of trying to eat any other toad, as well. 

Some salamanders, when under threat - and this is really James Bond - extrude venom-tipped ribs.

But, you know something? The most interesting thing about venom, as far as I'm concerned, is the word's derivation.

Word To Use Today: venom. This word comes from the Old French venim, from the Latin word venēnum, which means poison or love potion and is related to the word Venus, who is the goddess of love.

(Yes, I know it's April Ist, but this is all really true!)