This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Monday, 1 May 2017

Spot the Frippet: something psittacine.

Psittacine (you don't say the p) means to do with, or resembling, a parrot.

(Parrots here includes budgies, cockatoos and macaws etc.)

But what resembles a parrot apart from a parrot?

Disappointed British footballers are often said to be as sick as a parrot, so I suppose they're suffering from psittacine levels of nausea or chagrin.

Parrots are also famous for repeating themselves, and there are plenty of people around who exhibit psittacine levels of that.

Then parrots are said to mummify in death, and though I doubt if many of us have access to actual mummies, but you might find something similar to one hiding at the back of the vegetable rack.

And is that ear-splitting screech a real parrot, or is it coming from your local playground?

Of course parrots are celebrated, more happily, for their gorgeous colours. Look out for someone in scarlet:

File:Copan birds and wildlife-Scarlet Macaw (6995983203).jpg
scarlet macaw, photo by Murray Foubister

 electric blue:

File:Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) (27569556513).jpg
hyacinthine macaw, photo by Bernard DUPONT

lime green:

File:Thick-billed Parrot 2.jpg
thick-billed parrot, photo by Ltshears

or the sunniest yellow:

Neophema chrysogaster male - Melaleuca.jpg
orange-bellied parrot, photo by JJ Harrison (

And that's not even the only way a person can resemble a parrot:

File:Cool Mohawk - Flickr - Gexon.jpg
photo by Gexon

And that's not to mention noses...

Spot the Frippet: something psittacine. This word comes from the Latin psittacus, parrot.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Sunday Rest: skin. Word Not To Use Today.

'What an ugly word skin is,' says Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy L Sayer's book Have His Carcase.

He's right, you know.

Word Not To Use Today: skin. This word has been ugly for a long time. The Old English form was scinn and the Old Norse skinn.

File:Ivatan Old Woman.jpg
Eight five year old (and I think very beautiful) Ivatan (Filipino) woman. Photo by Anne Jimenes

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Ithaka by Constantine P Cavafy

Robert Louis Stevenson said 'to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour'

It's a bit grim when you see the whole quotation, isn't it?

Luckily Constantine P Cavafy, in his short poem Ithaka (or Ithaca, if you like: I know it rouses strong passions either way), has a richer take on the idea of travel.

You can read the whole text HERE (and I do recommend it) but here is one stanza, translated from the original Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

Hope the voyage is a long one,
May there be a summer morning when,
With what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.


Oh, the delicate glory of that shower of blessings! 

May they fall around you, too.

Word To Use Today: voyage. This word comes from the Old French veiage, from the Latin viāticum, food for travelling, from via, road.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Word To Use Today: spelk

Here's a fierce little word to give us comfort in adversity.


There's a fair bit of anger built into the word, which is just as it should be because a spelk is a splinter of wood.

Ow! I've got a spelk!

It's mostly used in Scotland and Northern England, but I'm sure no one will mind the rest of us borrowing it.

Word To Use Today: spelk. This word comes from the Old English spelc, which was a surgical splint.

If you're an astronaut then spelk also means pieces of reinforced plastic fabric too short to be any use.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

International World Day: a rant.

Did you know that March 25 was World Malaria Day?

World Malaria Day? 

But why on earth would anyone want a special day to celebrate malaria? Good grief, apart from anything else people will hardly have recovered from the World Tuberculosis Day parties on March 24.

Still, at least we have a good long break, then, before World Rabies Day on September 28.

For all these chances to celebrate we must give thanks to the United Nations, who have cast their official blessing on days throughout the year. 

For instance, March 23rd (gosh, that really is a busy week) is World Meterological Day, when I suppose our parties rain champagne and snow desiccated coconut; and if you fancy something more substantial than that then 16 October is World Food Day.

What? You want something to celebrate a higher plane of existence? Well, how about Nov 16, World Philosophy Day? Or Dec 11, World Mountain Day?

Or perhaps they're too up-in-the-air. Can I suggest Nov 19, then, World Toilet Day? That has to bring a flush of joy to all nations.

By this time you will of course be asking what about today? So, what are we celebrating today?

Well, the UN doesn't seem to know this, but April 27 is World Tapir Day.

And that is certainly something well worth celebrating.

File:Baby tapir.jpg
photo of a slightly grumpy baby tapir by frank wouters

Word To Use Today: I've already featured the word tapir on The Word Den, so how about malaria? It's from the Italian mala aria, which means bad air.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Nuts and Bolts stichometry.

'Have you got the scrolls?'

'No, it's just the way I walk.'

Ah, there's nothing like a good old joke - and, yes, all right, that was nothing like a good old joke.

Anyway, the thing is, how do you pay your scribe? By the page? By the line? 

By the line probably seems fairer because otherwise you'd get crafty scribes writing in big letters, or cutting down the size of the pages.

But you're still left with the problem of how long a line is. A scribe's view of the long verse-line called the alexandrine will presumably be: 

Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine

(that alexandrine is from Edmund Spencer's Fairie Queene) 

but the same scribe might fall upon a translated haiku with enthusiasm:

The wren
Earns his living

(the original haiku was by Kobayahsi Issa)

As a matter of fact the length of a standard line was worked out in Ancient Greek times, and the standard unit of line-length seems to have been based on those two long-term best-sellers, the Iliad and Odyssey. This meant a line could easily contain fifteen or more syllables, or about thirty five letters (which is even longer than your average alexandrine).

Poor scribes!

This counting-lines system is called stichometry.

However, stichometry didn't exist entirely to stitch up the scribes. It also served to tell you how long was the manuscript you were buying; to give you some idea where in a manuscript a particular feature was to be found; and to check that the scribes hadn't gone and left out the clue to the first murder.

Later we changed system and began to use page numbers, and later still, with the advent of ebooks, we switched to percentages.

But I'm still left feeling a bit sorry for those poor scribes.

Word To Use Today: stichometry. This word comes from the Greek stikhometria, from stikhos, a row or verse, which is related to steikhein, to walk.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: be graveolent.

As it happens, something graveolent is nothing to do with graves, nor with being serious.

Graveolent describes a plant that stinks to high heaven.

File:Anthemis cotula Habitus 2011-5-22 SierraMadrona.jpg
Anthemis cotula or Stinking Chamomile, photo by Javier martin

I suppose the word may give some of us a dignified way of declining an extra helping of broccoli...

Thing Not To Be Today: graveolent. This word was made up in the 1600s from the Latin words gravis, heavy, and olēre, to smell, presumably by someone who fancied himself too refined to refer to a good honest stink.