This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Saturday Rave: A plum of Plum.

The world is awash with creative writing classes. I've attended several, usually as tutor, but once quite recently as a pupil. 

Well, I wanted to find out what I was supposed to have been doing all this time.

Creative writing classes can be both interesting and fun, but they don't provide what people need to become writers - what people really need - which is a stubborn ability to carry on, probably through years of neglect, and to keep on carrying on no matter how little notice people take.

And then, in the end, if you can manage to die, minimally published, starving, and broke, in a garret, you might even be awarded the status of genius. 

So anyway, creative writing classes. The very best of them you can get for free from your local library in the form of other people's, yes, creative writing. Sadly this does mean you'll have to work out the lessons the books teach you all by yourself, but, look, the creative thing does imply a bit of doing-it-yourself, doesn't it?

So have a look at this. It's from PG Wodehouse's Mulliner Nights

Then see if you can work out how he did it.

Everyone has his pet aversion. Some dislike slugs, others cockroaches. Egbert Mulliner disliked female novelists.

Yes, it's pure and absolute genius.

And PG Wodehouse, let me tell you, didn't even die in a garret.

Word To Use Today: Egbert. This name comes from the Old English ecg, which means sword, and beorht, which means bright.

Nowadays the impression given by the name is sadly less heroic.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Word To Use Today: garnet.

The garnets you see in jewellery are usually red:

File:WLA hmns Garnet and Diamond necklace.jpg
(necklace designed and created by Ernesto Moreira and to be seen at the Houston Museum of Natural Science)

 though they can be yellow or green:

photo by Arpingstone 

Garnets are classed as semi-precious (which doesn't imply they're less beautiful than precious jewels, it just means there's enough of them about to be useful. Garnet paper, for instance, has powdered garnet stuck onto it and is used as sandpaper, and garnets are also used to cut steel and to filter water).

There is another sort of garnet, which is a device for lifting cargo off ships, but that's a quite different word.

Possibly the most interesting thing about this word, though, is its derivation.

Word To Use Today: garnet. The loading-cargo word probably comes from the Dutch garnaat. The jewel word comes from the Old French grenat, red, from pome grenat, which means pomegranate, which comes from the Latin pōmum, apple, and grānātus, full of seeds.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Pigweed Delight: a rant.

The Prince of Wales, God bless him:

has opened the Forgotten Foods Network, a scheme run by Crops For The Future in Malaysia. It will study ancient food crops in the hope of improving yields in the face of climate change.

One such possible crop is Aztec pigweed.

Now, Aztec pigweed may be nutritious, tasty, resilient, and grow at a rate which makes bindweed look like a bonsai tree, but if there's one thing it needs, it's an agent.

I mean, Aztec pigweed? 

For a start, Aztecs are a) dead, and b) much too closely associated with human sacrifice; and then you have the weed bit - no one wants anything to do with weeds - and calling people pigs is going to get you precisely nowhere.

On the other hand, getting an agent costs you (at least) ten per cent, so here's a solution for free. Call the stuff by its other name, which is beautiful, mysterious, and romantic.

I mean, who could resist a steaming dish of amaranth?

Word To Use Today: amaranth. If you come across this word in poetry it will almost certainly mean flower that never fades. It comes from the Greek amarantos, unfading, from marainein, to fade.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: ablauts.

Why is a long thing lengthy, and not longthy?

Why do we sing songs and not song them? And, after we sang it, why is it sung?

Well, I don't know, to be honest, but that sort of a change of vowel in words that are related to each other is called an ablaut (it's a German word, so you say it AB-lowt).

You occasionally get the same sort of thing happening in English with plurals: goose and geese; mouse and mice; foot and feet.

Woman/women is another example, and in fact it's a double one: the man/men bit of the word changes, but so (invisibly) does the sound of the o.

Some ablauts are just a bit more subtle. In the words telegraph and telegraphy, for instance, both the second e and the a both change sound.

Ablauts are not only an English thing. The idea was first described by the fourth century BC Sanskrit grammarian Pānini. Much later in Europe, in the early 1700s, Lambert ten Kate wrote about them in a book about the similarities between German and Dutch.

German is a language that really enjoys its ablauts, so here, to finish, is the German word for burst in various tenses. 

It's splendid stuff for chanting.

Bersten, birst, berstet, barst, geborsten!

Nuts and Bolts: ablaut. This word was coined by Jacob Grimm (yes, the fairy tale man) in 1838. Ab means off in German, and laut means sound.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: a chauvinist.

Do people sometimes have different opinions from yours?

So, why is this? Do explain it to me. 

Is it because the other people are stupid? Or because they are ignorant? Or evil?

Or could it be because you are yourself wrong?

Well, as this last is a vanishingly small possibility, let's assume that you are completely and utterly correct in all your opinions (in which case I should perhaps spell that you with a capital Y). How then do we account for the perverse beliefs of others?

Well, let's suppose we ask everyone in the world to tell us why they hold their opinion of, say, chocolate. We could then file these answers into correct, stupid, ignorant, and evil piles. Then we'd have to hope the proportions of the piles tell us something useful.

The first thing, obviously, is to decide which opinion is correct.

Hmm... know, this isn't going to be easy, is it? Unless, of course, you're sure that only your own opinion matters.

My Collins dictionary defines chauvinism as a smug irrational belief in the superiority of one's own race, party, sex etc

That sounds spot-on to me...

...but then what do I know?

Thing Not To Be Today: a chauvinist. The first chauvinist was Nicolas Chauvin of the Napoleonic wars, who was noted for his enthusiastic, unthinking, and loud patriotism. 

There are, sadly, two small problems: first, Chauvin didn't become famous until after Napoleon's downfall; and, second, no one's sure if he ever actually existed.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: cattle.

I don't have to go far from here to see some cattle. The nearest kind to where I live are usually ones like these:

File:Belted Galloway cow J1.jpg
Photo by Jamain

That beast is a Belted Galloway cow, but other cattle come in different shapes:

File:CSIRO ScienceImage 2643 A Brahman Bull.jpg
Polled Brahmin bull, photo by  CSIRO


File:Cow highland cattle.jpg
Highland cow, photo by Mahaba

 and sizes:

File:Dexter cow, Three Counties Show.jpg
Dexter cow, photo by David Merrett

though they're all usually of the genus Bos.

But what if you live in a cattle-free zone?

Well, passenger planes have a cattle class (though the airlines usually call it economy) and of course cattle dogs are to be found all over the place.


Oh, it's Australian. 

What does it mean? 

Catalogue, I'm afraid.

Yes, they are, aren't they: absolutely everywhere.

Spot the Frippet: cattle. This word comes from the Old Northern French catel, and is basically the same word as chattel, from the Latin capitāle, wealth.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Sunday Rest: mouthbrooder. Word Not To Use Today.

A mouthbrooder, despite appearances, isn't someone with a habitual enbittered pout, but a sort of fish (or, occasionally, frog) which carries its eggs and young around in its mouth.

Cyphotilapia frontosa. Photo by Matthew Miller. (Can you see the babies?)

Mind you, as you can see, that can often be the same thing.

Word To Use Today: pout. No one is sure where this word comes from, but the Danish word pude means pillow.

There are some species where the fathers take on the mouthbrooding, but it's usually the mothers.