This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday, 24 February 2017

Zingiberaceous: Word To Use Today.

I rather suspect this post may be a waste of time: I mean, how could anyone resist using the word zingiberaceous?

Could there possibly be a more magical word? Is there anywhere a word more likely to conjure up cascades of diamonds, singing carrots, sarcastic unicorns, or castles made entirely of strawberry mousse?

The answer to that question, is, plainly, no.


(The g sounds like the j in joyful.)

If there are those among you who do not believe in magic then I feel sorry for you, but all the same you will probably like to know that the official use of the word zingiberaceous is to describe something to do with plants of the ginger family. 

These include the plants which give us turmeric and cardamom: and, obviously, ginger.

Now, even the least imaginative of us can't deny the culinary magic added to even the humblest of ingredients by ginger, turmeric and cardamom.

Fancy a curry?

That would be absolutely zingiberaceous!

image from McCormick and Company

Word To Use Today: zingiberaceous. This word comes from the Latin for ginger, which is zingiber.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

A bone of contention: a rant.

Last Friday, at the fishmonger section of my Tesco supermarket, I saw a sign:


File:Pangasius meat.jpg
photo by Brücke-Osteuropa

My head still hurts, a bit.

Word To Use Today: fillet. This word means - well, it means lots of things, but as far as fish is concerned it describes a portion that's been boned.*

Word To Use Today: The word fillet comes from the Old French filet, from fil, thread, from the Latin fīlum.

*I realise to my delight that the word boned is a contranym, that is, a word that means both itself and its own opposite. A boned fish had had the bones taken out, but a boned corset has had bones put in.

Possibly the writer of that notice was wearing a corset... 

...mind you, the nice person behind the fish counter was quite generously built, so I doubt it was him.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Nuts and Bolts: sui generis.

Sui generis is Latin and means of its own kind: basically, in a class of its own, or unique.

You say it soo-I jenneriss.

It has various meanings in philosophy and biology etc, but as far as language goes it describes a work which doesn't fit into any particular genre.

These are rare, almost impossible to get published, and must annoy librarians very much indeed.

The other problem with them, of course, is that if they're successful then they end up starting their own genre and then ten-to-one in half a dozen years they're eclipsed by their offspring.

Ah well.

Phrase To Consider Today: sui generis. You know you've got one of these when someone describes it as seminal and then you realise it's never really produced any offspring. Like James Joyce's Ulysses, perhaps.

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: livid.

I stood, my heart pounding, as the door opened to reveal the massive staggering figure of the steward. The livid spots on his seamed cheeks bespoke a horror which chilled me, as though death itself, emanating from the doomed figure, had wrapped me in its clammy embrace...

...hey, you know something? I get paid good money not to write stuff like that.

It's rather a pity, really.

Anyway, livid. Mostly when we're livid we're absolutely furious, and it's true that sometimes we do need to be. Mostly, though, even when the really annoying things happen, like people not putting their shoes on the shoe rack, or people stirring their cup of coffee wrong (the spoon has to scrape along the bottom of the mug!) they aren't quite worth being livid about when an exasperated snarl is quite as effective.

But what about those livid cheeks (see above?). The steward is dying, not angry (though, fair enough, I don't suppose he's actually all that pleased about it.) What does livid mean here?

Well, people usually go red with anger, but livid here usually means either grey, or the bluish colour of a bruise. A livid sky will probably be an ugly orange-and-purple. But livid can occasionally mean flushed red (which gives us the connection with anger) or, on the other hand, deathly pale.

The great thing is that, when we read the passage above and didn't quite know what livid meant, well, we're in good company - because neither does anyone else.

Thing Not To Be Today: livid. This word comes from the Latin līvēre, to be black and blue, or to be envious or spiteful. 

Monday, 20 February 2017

Spot the Frippet: lug.

A lug is a projecting thing that fits into a slot. The idea is to keep a door closed, or to stop something falling apart.

Battery compartments usually work on this sort of a system, and they are more or less everywhere. Try the back of a clock.

If you're a sea fisherman then you might use a lug (short for lugworm) as bait. These creatures live under the sand doing not very much and are apparently very tasty. If you're a fish.

File:Lugworm cast.jpg
Signs of lugs: photo from wikipedia uploaded by  Nveitch

Here's an actual lug:

File:Wattwurm alt.jpg
photo by M.Buschmann

lug is also a large basket for fruit or vegetables, or a square sail hoisted on a yard:

File:Lug Sail.png
illustration from Yosemite~commonswiki 

But easiest for most of us to spot is a good Northern British lug, which is an ear (or a stupid man - but this, of course, much more difficult to spot...possibly.). The derived word lug'ole (ear hole) is widely used throughout Britain.

Monday is not a day for verbs, but lug as a verb, meaning to carry effortfully, has given us luggage, which is, rather sweetly, a mixture of baggage and lug.

Spot the Frippet: lug. The verb to lug might be something to do with the Norwegian lugge, which means to pull by the hair (honestly, those Vikings!). The sail might come from the Middle English lugge, pole, or, like most of the other meanings, be to do with the Middle English lugge, meaning ear. 

Where the worm sort of a lug got his or her name is, sadly, still a mystery.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Sunday Rest: mediatise. Word Not To Use Today.

No one, surely, would call mediatise a pretty word, but one has to admit that it's useful to have a verb to describe the way a product or idea can be promulgated hither and, as they say, yon.

Unfortunately the word mediatise isn't anything to do with either the media or promulgating things. It means to annex another state while allowing its former ruler to retain his title and some degree of authority.

This is yet another reason why I'd be jolly glad if the wretched word just bit the flipping dust.

Word Not To Use Today: mediatise. This word comes from the French médiatiser, from the Latin mediāre, to be in the middle.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Saturday Rave: Steptoe & Son.

Alan Simpson died earlier this month at the age of eighty seven. He was with his friend Ray Galton a writer of comedy, of which the most celebrated examples are probably Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son.

Steptoe and Son finished in 1974, but it's still remembered (certainly by me) with affection and awe. It wasn't the most hilarious comedy, nor the most ground-breaking technically, and it certainly wasn't the most varied. It was usually set in one room of a disgusting house attached to a rag-and-bone yard, and the two main characters, father and son rag-and-bone men Albert and Harold Steptoe, were mostly all you got (the series started out as a one-off play for a series called Comedy Playhouse: when the other plays in the series ran over budget, Galton and Simpson needed to write something cheap).

Steptoe and Son is full of bitterness and disappointment and poverty and thwarted hopes and revenge. Both main characters are crazily cobbled-together collections of flaws - one foolishly snobbish, one whiningly manipulative - and they should have been thoroughly dull and unlikable, but the magnificent actors (Wilfrid Brambell and Harry H Corbett) and the precision writing meant the audience couldn't help but care deeply for these two filthy, resentful, unhappy but never-quite-defeated failures.

Here's a shortish clip from YouTube. The large cast makes it not really typical of Steptoe, but it's wonderful, all the same.

Plus ça change...

Thanks, Galton and Simpson, and bless you both.

Word To Use Today: comedy. This word comes from the Greek kōmōidia, from kōmos, village, and aeidein, to sing.