This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Nuts and Bolts: not in a flap.

Dr Jeanne Shinskey, from Royal Holloway College at the University of London, has been reading picture books.

Now, as a doctor, you'd have thought she'd have moved on from that sort of thing, but apparently she's been doing some research into what in the Book Trade are called novelties - in this case, books with flaps.

You know the sort of thing. 

Where is the dog? 

Is he under the blanket? 

[Lift the paper flap]

No, that's a tortoise eating a doughnut.

Anyway, Dr Shinskey has proved something that all parents probably knew, though probably without realising it.

If a book has flaps then the fun of finding out what's hidden underneath them distracts children from taking much notice of the words.

Dr Shinskey's experiment consisted of showing a flap-book about fruit to two groups of two-year-olds. In half of the books the flaps had been sealed, and it turned out that 68% of the group who read the books with sealed flaps could remember the name of an unfamiliar fruit that appeared in the text (it was a star fruit) when they'd finished the book, but only 30% of the children whose books had opening flaps remembered the star fruit's name.

Dr Shinskey says that flaps seem to enhance children's tendency 'to treat books as just another type of physical toy, rather than a tool for learning'.

I'm not sure how many people of any age see a book as a tool for learning, but I'll tell you something: the market for adult books with flaps is vanishingly small. 

Well,wouldn't want a with-flaps version of Middlemarch or the Oxford English Dictionary.

Would you?

Word To Use Today: flap. The word was first known in English in the 1300s and is probably a rather good imitation of the sound something makes when it's flapping.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Thing Not To Do Today: pharming.

The word pharming has been invented twice, each time as a bleak joke.

Pharming is based on farming, of course, though the reasons for the switch from an f to a ph at the beginning of the two sorts of pharming are entirely different from each other.

The first sort of pharming describes the raising of animals for use in the development of cosmetics or medicines.

The second sort of pharming involves directing someone from a legitimate computer site to a fraudulent one.

Both meanings are rather grim, aren't they, but I suppose they do give us some faint and sadly necessary sense of the infinitely varied cunning and wickedness of mankind.

Thing Not To Do Today: pharming. The word to do with raising animals comes from a mixture of farming and pharmaceuticals. It first appeared in the 1900s. The word to do with computer fraud was coined in the 2000s (computer slang quite often replaces and f with ph, as in phishing and phreaking). 

Monday, 26 September 2016

Spot the Frippet: pythoness.

Painting by Bronzino from An Allegory With Venus and Cupid

Pythons, the snakes that squeeze the life out of their dinners, we know. 

Pythonesque, which describes something zany, absurd, and hilarious, we also know.

But pythoness?

The first pythonesses lived in Ancient Greece, where they gave out baffling advice and predictions ('the smell has come to my nose of a hard shelled tortoise boiling and bubbling with a lamb's flesh in a bronze pot' for instance) but nowadays a pythoness is any female soothsayer or prophet. 

They're often mothers.

Don't you go out without a coat, you'll catch your death of cold.

Eat your greens up or you won't grow up to be a big strong boy.

You'll miss the bus!

But of course pythonesses can be found wherever there are ladies who speak.

That'll put hair on your chest.

She'll leave him and break his heart.

Brexit means Brexit and we are going to make a success of it.

My own prediction is that you'll spot one before you've finished reading this post.

Spot the Frippet: pythoness. This word arrived in English in the 1300s as phitinesse, from the Greek Python, which was a dragon killed by Apollo at Delphi. The snakes are called after the dragon, and Pythonesque is called after Monty Python's Flying Circus, a strange and hilarious BBC television programme first broadcast in 1969.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Sunday Rest: keypal. Word Not To Use Today.

At first sight this word looks as if it might be something interesting. Keypal...could that be some exotic Indian fabric? An Iranian porridge? An Indonesian flying squirrel?

Nope. Sorry.

I'm afraid this word describes an electronic relationship. It's a computer-age form of pen pal

Yes, ouch.

Why is the word keypal so depressing? Is it because of the failure of our old-fashioned pen pals, who are generally doomed to fade away because so little that's interesting is important enough to dignify with the use of an envelope, a trip to a postbox, the shoe leather of a postman, and the cost of a stamp?

Of course email leaps gloriously over all those objections. An email can say Thanks! or Ant invasion! or I've just put the washing out and now it's tipping down! (and of course one can do the serious stuff, too). Online relationships with friends and relatives can be quite as important and engrossing as those we have with the people we meet.

Virtual or not, they're genuine relationships. 

So why should anyone dream of diminishing precious email friends by terming them keypals?

Word Not To Use Today: keypal. This word was made up in the 1990s. Luckily, it's never really caught on.

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Saturday Rave: Misleading Cases/Uncommon Law by A P Herbert.

Why write fiction?

Well, for money, of course, but perhaps in your own case it might be that fame is the spur. Or you might want to work something out in your head, or you might hope it'll be fun, or you might want to tell the world what a genius you are - or perhaps you want to change the world.

The lawyer, writer, and Member of Parliament Sir Alan Herbert was I'm sure very glad to receive some money for his writing, but he was also out to change the world - and he wanted to have some fun while he was about it. And what gave him (and his readers) a great deal of amusement were the more obscure peculiarities of English Law.

His Misleading Cases, which first appeared as a series in Punch magazine, were explorations of some of the more amazing aspects of the Law, in which Herbert's protagonist Albert Haddock (or, as Haddock insists on appearing in one story about the iniquities of Copyright Law, Haddock, Haddock, Haddock, Haddock, Haddock & Co) appears before Mr Justice Swallow to argue his case.

What laws apply if a car collides with a boat? In law, are snails domestic animals or wild and ferocious beasts?

Among all the fun there are serious points to be made. A P Herbert was genuine in his desire to reform the law (though I shouldn't imagine he was too bothered about snails). He was an important campaigner for new laws on divorce (though his own, apparently very happy, marriage lasted fifty six years) and his Misleading Cases sometimes had pointed things to say about, for instance, defamation, liquor licensing, or the use of the police as agents provocateurs.

Delightfully, AP Herbert's Misleading Cases were several times mistaken for genuine cases by legal experts with no sense of humour; and, even more delightfully, because the stories are firmly based on real law, they have even sometimes been quoted in judicial decisions.

A great hero, A P Herbert, and his stories (and his more serious novels) are terrifically entertaining reads, too.

Word To Use Today: law. This word comes from the Old English lagu, from a Scandinavian word. The Icelandic lög means things laid down.

Friday, 23 September 2016

Word To Use Today: kibble.

Kibble is actually two words - or three if you count a linked verb-and-noun twice - and I can't think why we don't use it more often.

I mean, wouldn't you feel happier for saying the word kibble? You know you want to.


See? Happiness and satisfaction in a twitch of the tongue and a pout of the lips.


A kibble can either be a bucket used in a well or mine for hoisting things, or (especially in America) it can mean pellets used as pet food. 

Okay, I admit you might not come across either of those sorts of kibble very often, but kibbled wheat or rye can be found in some of the chewier types of bread, and kibbled onions are those dried onion pieces sold in tubs to people who don't really like the taste of onion.

Luckily we also have the verb kibble, which means to grind into small pieces, so anyone who uses a pepper mill, or cooks with whole spices, or makes real coffee, is having a jolly good kibble

Sometimes happiness can be found in the smallest things, can't it.


Word To Use Today: kibble. The bucket word comes from the German Kübel from the Latin cuppa, which means cup. Sadly, the origins of the pellet sort of kibble is a mystery.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Technicolors: a rant.

Look, if you want to sell something - a pair of boots or a sofa, say - and you plan to sell it by means of a catalogue, advertisement or website - then it's no good describing its colour as forest, mango, vole, cherry, or trout.

Sunrise will not relay enough information.

Neither will flame, calypso, festival or pony.

I mean, is forest green or brown? Is cherry red, or something nearer cerise (see what I did, there?)? 

Mango - is that yellow or green?

Is that pony a bay or a chestnut?

And, oh, good grief, and that's not a rainbow trout, is it?

Please, please, we can't be sure half the time from the pictures, so just tack a simple green onto the end of forest and we'll know where we are. 

Sunset orange. Festival red. Pony brown.

You never know, I might even buy something, then.

photo by Ken Hammond/USDA

Word To Use Today: trout. This satisfying word comes from the Old English trūht, from the Latin tructa, from the Greek troktēs, which means sharp-toothed fish.