This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Thing Not To Do Today: mop.

Even those of us who would feel happiest surrounded by layers of history - the coffee slopped onto the table after tripping over Grandma, the spatter of blood stains after the wrestling match trying to open the sardine tin, the fine all-over dust laid down the day the vacuum cleaner got whooping cough - can hardly avoid the occasional bit of mopping, whether it's the tears of a child or the ketchup on a tie.

If, however, your child is permanently contented, and you cunningly wear a ketchup-coloured tie, then to mop also means to pull a sad face.

photo by DodosD

That sort of mopping won't do anyone much good, though, will it?

Thing Not To Do Today: mop. The cleaning word comes from the lovely English word mappel, from the Latin mappa, which means napkin. The sad-face word appeared in the 1500s and might come from the Dutch moppen, to pour. Also possibly relevant is the fact that the Dutch word mop means pug (as in dog).

Monday, 19 March 2018

Spot the Frippet: ear.

It always surprises me that when two spies meet to exchange secrets in the middle of a field of wheat they never notice they're surrounded by millions of ears.

File:Ears of Wheat just before harvesting - - 1440344.jpg
photo by Chris Reynolds

Yeah, okay, okay...sorry...

It's easy enough to spot an ear - or, at least, the outside flap of the ear, which is designed to funnel the sound into the ear hole - but some ears are harder to spot than others. 

A cricket's ears are on its front legs; a grasshopper's ear:

File:Grasshopper 2.JPG
Eastern Lubber Grasshopper. Photo by Ryan Wood

 is on the side of its abdomen; a spider doesn't have any ears at all.

An owl's ears may seem easy to spot in comparison:

Asio otus -Battlefield Falconry Centre, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England-8a.jpg
long-eared owl, photo by angusleonard 

 but don't be fooled because those aren't really ears at all, but tufts of feathers for display purposes. (Owls' ears are actually very interesting. In many nocturnal species one ear is placed quite a lot higher than the other, which helps the owls with locating the squeak of a juicy bit of dinner; and although owls don't have officially have any outer ears at all, their flat faces act in the same way:

File:Female Barn Owl 2 (6942362843).jpg
Barn Owl, photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham UK

funnelling sound into their ear holes. Owls can even alter the shape of their faces to tune in the sound).

Of other remarkable ears, otters have valves in their ears so they can water-proof them:

File:Sea-otter-morro-bay 13.jpg
"Mike" Michael L. Baird [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

And some bats:

File:Northern long eared bat (15357713259).jpg
Northern long-eared bat. Photo by Keith Shannon/USFWS

 can dislocate their ear drums so they doesn't have to listen to the sound of their own screaming.

Whichever sort of ear you see today, I invite you to admire...perhaps not its beauty, if the ear belongs to a human; but at the very least its totally amazing design.

Spot the Frippet: ear. The hearing word comes from the Latin auris. The corn word comes from the Latin acus, chaff, from the Greek akros, pointed.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Sunday Rest: dysprosium. Word Not To Use Today.

Strangely enough, dysprosium isn't an annoying tendency to burst into very bad verse, but a chemical element.

Word Not To Use Today: dysprosium. This word comes from the Greek dusprositos, difficult to get near, with -ium added on to make it look more like the name of an element.

Dysprosium is a metal, Atomic Number 66, symbol Dy. It's used in lasers and nuclear control rods.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Saturday Rave: The Siege of Belgrade by Alaric Alexander Watts.

The Siege of Belgrade is...well, quite honestly it's a truly terrible poem, but it's terrible in such a flamboyantly bonkers way that somehow I can't help being quite fond of the poor thing.

Anyway, as you can see, it must have been ever so hard to write.

Poor Alaric Alexander Watts!


An Austrian army, awfully arrayed,
Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.
Cossack commanders cannonading come,
Dealing destruction's devastating doom.
Every endeavor engineers essay,
For fame, for fortune fighting - furious fray!
Generals 'gainst generals grapple - gracious God!
How honors Heaven heroic hardihood!
Infuriate, indiscriminate in ill,
Kindred kill kinsmen, kinsmen kindred kill.
Labour low levels longest, lofiest lines;
Men march 'mid mounds, 'mid moles, ' mid murderous mines;
Now noxious, noisy numbers nothing, naught
Of outward obstacles, opposing ought;
Poor patriots, partly purchased, partly pressed,
Quite quaking, quickly "Quarter! Quarter!" quest.
Reason returns, religious right redounds,
Saves sinking soldiers, softens signiors sage.
Truce to thee, Turkey! Triumph to thy train,
Unwise, unjust, unmerciful Ukraine!
Vanish vain victory! vanish, victory vain!
Why wish we warfare? Wherefore welcome were
Xerxes, Ximenes, Xanthus, Xavier?
Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell!
Zeus', Zarpater's, Zoroaster's zeal,
Attracting all, arms against acts appeal!

There are several versions of this poem, one with a J line in it (the letters I and J counted as one letter until relatively recently) which means the poem ends with a Z line (Zealously zanie's zealously zeal's zest). Some of the lines in various versions are very different: I've come across one Y line that goes Yet yassy's youth, ye yield your youthful yest.

Whatever yest is.

Personally, though, I feel that if I ever find an opportunity to bellow Yield, yield, ye youths! ye yeomen, yield your yell! then my life will not have been entirely in vain.

*IMPORTANT: note to all The Word Den's non-English speakers. Very little of it makes any sense!

Word To Use Today: alliteration. This word comes from the Latin alliterātiō, from litera, letter.

It's unfair on Ukraine, though, sadly.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Word To Use Today: sennit.

What's the connection between a Pacific gourd and your head? 

No, no, it's all right, don't go off in a huff. I'll explain.

Sennit is flat plaited stringy stuff: 

File:Container from New Caledonia made from a gourd and sennit (coconut-husk fibre).jpg
container from New Caledonia made from a gourd wrapped with coconut-husk sennit. Photo by Derrick Coetzee

That plaiting is both clever and beautiful, isn't it. And if you think that's cool, then have a look at this:

Fijian coconut-husk sennit is called magimagi and is used to hold buildings together. Photo by Vcox.

Sometimes sennit is used on ships, but more commonly round these parts it's made of straw or grass or palm leaves and sewn round in a long coil to make hats:


And so sennit ends up wrapped round your head just as it does on that New Caledonian gourd in the picture above.

Well, what other similarity could there possibly have been?

Word To Use Today: sennit. This word appeared in English in the 1600s, but no one knows where it came from.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Power of Positive Thinking: a rant.

Whatever idiot decided to call a unit of our local hospital Frailty should be sacked.

They might as well have written Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here above the door.


Word Not To Use Today: frailty. This word comes from the Latin fragilis, fragile.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Nuts and Bolts: the scullion with the scallion in the scullery.

I love the intricate links between words. They illuminate whole histories of ideas and culture and thought.

On the other hand when I consider that a scullion is a person employed in a scullery to prepare vegetables, and that those vegetables are likely to include scallions...


...and then when I consider that these words have no shared history at all...

...well, quite honestly I come close to despairing of ever making sense of anything.

Words To Use Today: scullery/scullion/scallion. A scullery:

File:Back scullery (4869152647).jpg
Canadian scullery. Photo by Andrea_44

is a room adjoining a kitchen where washing up is done and vegetables are prepared. A scullion:

File:Wenceslas Hollar - A pack of knaves - A Mere Scullion.jpg
illustration by Wenceslaus Hollar

is a servant employed to do rough kitchen work who might well be asked to prepare scallions, which are small onions. The word scullery comes from the Old French escuele, a bowl, from the Latin scutra, a tray; scullion comes from the Old French escouillon, cleaning cloth, from the Latin scōpa, broom; scallions are called after the port of Ascalon.