This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday, 21 October 2016

Word To Use Today: clint, clinting, Clintonite.

I wrote about the word trump some time ago, so it seems only fair to feature the word Clinton, too.

The only trouble is that the source of the name Clinton seems to be either the river Glyme in Oxfordshire, England:

River Glyme, photo by Motacilla 

or the Middle Low German word glinde, which means an enclosure or fence. Neither has, as far as I can see, left any trace on conversational English (the ton bit comes from tun, the Old English word for settlement).

However, I can give you Clintonite:


which is a brittle mica with the chemical formula Ca(Mg,Al)3(Al3Si)O10(OH)2.  If Clintonite is any use for anything then I'm afraid I don't know what it is, but it's found in Orange County and is definitely not radioactive.

If Clintonite takes us nowhere very much, then there's always the word clint, which can be either a hard sticking-upwards rock, or a rough stone used in the sport of curling. Sometimes clint has been used as a verb in the place of the commoner words clinch, clink or clench, too.

Clinting is the making of a subdued sound. Thackeray describes horses' hooves in his poem Peg of Limavaddy as making a dismal clinting

I'm afraid I have to admit that none of this is tremendously inspiring... 

...but then...

Word To Use Today: one with clint in it. Clintonite was named in 1828 (or 1843, depending on whom you believe) after the American statesman De Witt Clinton (1769 - 1828). Clint comes from the Danish and Swedish klint, rock.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Two countries united by a common laughter: a rant.

People complain about Americanisms creeping into British English, because...oh, for the usual reasons. 

There is one good reason for regret, however, that no one seems to consider.

A friend phoned the other day from Gulfport, Florida. Although he's lived in America for several decades his accent has never moved further west than Yorkshire, and I think this is the reason I expect to understand him. This being the case, when he told us they were having an addition at home then naturally I understood that his living-at-home unmarried daughter was expecting a baby. 

I wasn't immediately sure exactly how much to celebrate.

As it transpired, however, congratulations and commiserations were both unnecessary. 

Apparently the addition was just an extra bathroom.

A universal language would deprive us of a lot of joy, you know.

Word To Use Today Just For Fun: addition. Or extension (though heaven knows what an extension is in the USA). Addition comes from the Latin addere to add, from ad, to, plus dere to put; extension is also Latin and comes from extendere to stretch out.

PS The said daughter may not have a baby on the way, but she does now have a job with benefits. Apparently in Florida this doesn't imply a job so lowly paid that the state is obliged to give her a top-up.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Evolution or Revolution?

'The moment an Englishman opens his mouth,' says Professor Higgins in GB Shaw's Pygmalion, 'another Englishman despises him.'

But despises him for what? 

Well, for having been born on the wrong side of town, or for having gone to the wrong school, most probably (though wrong in this context might mean absolutely anything).

Still, Shaw was writing a long time ago, and things are different, now. Nowadays, every time an Englishman opens his mouth another Englishman despises him for something quite different. 

And what's that? Well, for being the wrong age, most probably.

The thing is that English pronunciation is changing fast. Estuary English, which just a couple of decades ago was predicted to take over the whole country, is now spoken only by rather old people.* Young fashionable people now speak MLE, or Multicultural London English, which is heavily influenced by Black and Asian speech - and where London leads the country follows.** 

Dr Dominic Watt of the University of York has been studying these accent changes. He expects words to carry on becoming simpler and shorter and easier for non-native speakers to say. He thinks thick will become fick and this will become dis, and cute will become coot

Will it really happen? Perhaps. But I note something else reported by Dr Watt, which is that the dropped h (as in 'ouse of 'orror) of Estuary English is becoming rarer.

I also note that there are a lot of very small people running about the streets of London, and I'm pretty sure the last thing they'll want to do when they start growing up is to speak like their currently oh-so-hip parents.

And how will the now-small people speak? 

Well, I have no idea; but if tweed can make a comeback then I refuse to despair even of the subjunctive.

Word To Use Today If You Are Grown Up: one that isn't slang will probably be safest.

*The really old folk speak cockney - well, apart from the Queen and high-budget film villains they do, anyway.

** Or so Londoners tell us.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: wangle something.

Want to get a pay rise, an extra helping of pudding, or a discharge from the army?

Well, you're not likely to be able to get one through official channels, are you, and of course you don't want to be dishonest. I mean, you wouldn't dream of doing anything criminal or selfish, would you, and you're definitely not a cheat. 

As for doing someone down, well, it's just not in your nature.

And so you wangle it.

Wangle...such a silly, undignified sort of a word. There couldn't possibly be any harm in it. No, wangling something is just a bit of mischief, a chance to display your charm, cleverness, man-of-the-world knowledge of human nature, and powers of persuasion.

Isn't it.

Well, isn't it?

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: wangle something. This word was originally 1800s printers' slang, and even now wangle sometimes implies some entirely innocent piece of cleverness. One might wangle it so you can make a dress from a slightly smaller than recommended piece of fabric, for instance. The origin of the word isn't clear, but it may be a blend of waggle and wankle, a word which has mysteriously gone out of fashion but which means wavering. It comes from the Old English wancol.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Spot the Frippet: turmeric.


 doesn't grow round here in England (it needs tropical heat and lots of rain. Not that the rain is a problem) but I keep powdered turmeric rhizomes (they're underground stems) in my spice box.

Ground turmeric is one of the main things that give a curry its colour, so it's quite easy to spot.

Even if you don't eat curry, then you know the yellow colour of mustard? Well, that's probably turmeric, too (mustard yellow naturally fades quite quickly). You can also find turmeric in ice cream, orange juice, cheese, margarine and even, in winter, butter.

Have you seen the saffron robes of Buddhist or Hindu monks? 

File:Abbot of Watkungtaphao in Phu Soidao Waterfall.jpg
This monk is from Thailand.

Yes, they're probably dyed with turmeric as it's many times cheaper than saffron.

Turmeric is associated with the sun and happiness, and so it's a feature of many religious ceremonies and celebrations. In Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh a necklace made with a dried turmeric rhizome even acts as the equivalent of a wedding ring.

Turmeric is recommended for clearing up spots (though you would surely end up covered in yellow blotches) and is claimed as a cure for diabetes and Alzheimer's Disease.

Good stuff, then?

Well, the people who gave it its name certainly seem to have thought so.

Spot the Frippet: turmeric. People are still arguing about the origin of this word, but the consensus seems to be that it comes from the Old French terre merite, from the Latin terra merita, meritorious earth.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Sunday Rest: prusik. Word Not To Use Today.

It's bad enough being called Prue, but as for prusik...

...I don't know, though. Dr Prusik saw his name used as both a noun and a verb, so he must have had some affection for the horrible thing. Either that, or he really wanted to be famous.

A prusik is a sort of knot that locks under pressure. 


It's most often used, as above, to make a loop in a cord that you attach to a rope, though the term prusik is used in mountaineering circles for more or less anything that can grab a rope.

To prusik is to climb a rope using prusik loops.

Prusik knots apparently have all sorts of advantages over other types of rope-grabbers, and they are also useful, it is said, for extemporising a pair of handcuffs. They are a hazard on ropes with a very low melting point, though, and they don't work at all on frozen wet ropes.

I would suggest, when it's wet and freezing (and, actually, even when it isn't) visiting a nice tea shop, instead.

Word Not To Use Today: prusik. The prusik hitch is named after the man who may have invented the knot, Dr Karl Prusik. The first mention of the word was in 1931.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Saturday Rave: Fortran.

On this day sixty years ago the new language Fortran was revealed to an appreciative audience for the first time.

It's still being used all over the world today.

So, who are these, er, Forts? Have we been invaded by aliens or something?

Well, yes, in a way. Fortran is one of the very first languages for talking to computers. Now, may I say here that although I've read the whole of the Wikipedia article about Fortran I still haven't got much idea how it works, but Cecil E Leith called Fortran the 'mother tongue of scientific computing' so it must be important. Fortran is particularly good for getting computers to do sums, I understand, and especially those to do with astronomy, weather prediction and things like computational fluid dynamics, which (though this is almost certainly wrong) I assume is something to do with the way some tea pots always drip no matter what you do.

Fortran was developed by IBM, and soon took over from hand-coding because it was about twenty times quicker. One of the developers, John Backus, claims he began to develop it because he didn't like writing programs.

The end of the Wikipedia Fortran article has a section entitled Humor, and as I aim to keep things as light as possible in The Word Den, this is one of the jokes therein:

In Fortran 77 (Fortran has had many versions) variable names beginning with the letters I-N has a default type of integer, while variables starting with any other letters defaulted to the real, although programmers could override the defaults with an explicit declaration. This led to the joke: 'In Fortran GOD is REAL (unless declared INTEGER).

I'm tremendously full of admiration and gratitude for the people who speak Fortran and use it for the public good, but, oh, I'm so glad I gave up working with computers and started writing novels.

Word To Use Today: Fortran is short for Formula Translation.