This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Thing Probably Not To Be Today: a stool-pigeon.

A stool pigeon can be three things: it can be an actual pigeon (live, stuffed, or even reproduction) designed to lure other pigeons towards it; a police informer; or, in the USA, a person working as a decoy for a criminal.

I should imagine that few of The Word Den's readers are actual pigeons (pigeons' reading skills are notoriously poor, though on the positive side pigeons yield to no one in their talent spotting small boats on the ocean), so we are left with the other two possibilities.

Being a police informer is morally rather difficult: basically, do two wrongs make a right? Is this sort of stool pigeon a double-dyed villain who can't even be loyal to his own disreputable comrades? Or is he a brave under-cover agent trying to save lives from the forces of darkness?

Luckily I'm far too cowardly for this to be a matter of urgent practical difficulty.

Fortunately the USA sort of stool pigeon presents no moral difficulties at all. He will be working for a criminal, so he is almost certainly both wicked and doomed.

And serves him jolly well right, too.

Thing Probably Not To Be Today: a stool pigeon. The bird meaning is the oldest, appearing in the early 1800s. The other meanings soon followed, though at first the luring-people meaning didn't necessarily imply any criminal intent. The derivation of the stool bit of stool-pigeon no one's quite sure about, but pigeon comes from the Old French pijon, young dove, from the Latin pīpīre, to chirp.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Spot the Frippet: kitsch.

The difficulty with spotting kitsch is that one man's kitsch is another man's objet d'art.

I mean, I'm sure that when my late mother-in-law bought me that china spoon rest in the shape of a pig, the one with the 'comic' verse painted on its tummy, she didn't mean to send every nerve in my body screaming with appalled gut-clenching horror. No, she was being generous and kind. (As a matter of fact I dropped it almost immediately, and completely by accident.)

It's much the same with my husband's fondness for Wade pottery
and the wooden rhino. Still, now we (a daughter and I) have explained carefully and kindly to the poor man that he has absolutely no taste at all, we manage very well.

But how to define kitsch? The Collins dictionary says tawdry, vulgarised or pretentious, and later it uses the word sentimental. I'm not sure about pretentious because so many pretentious things (modern art provides many examples) aren't kitsch at all. 

Kitsch, too, needn't be tawdry: some of it can be hugely well-crafted. I mean, all those shocking pink flamingo lamps don't manage to stand up by accident, you know.

Sentimental gets closer. Kitsch does invite affection (isn't that puppy vase sweet?).

But essentially kitsch is the stuff that's disharmonious. The stuff that fights everything else around it for noisy attention. The stuff with sharp elbows and a grin which might be either cheeky or leering.

You won't find any trouble spotting kitsch.

The mystery is that a professional artist and a professional craftsman brought themselves to bring the thing into existence.

Ah well. I suppose that explains the underlying viciousness of the stuff, doesn't it.

Spot the Frippet: kitsch. This word is German, and started off in the 1860s describing cheap and popular sketches sold in art markets.

Yes, no illustrations. It seemed kindest.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Sunday Rest: silicic. Word Not To Use Today.

Being sick is not generally reckoned to be a sign of intelligence (though the novelist in me is immediately wondering when it might be, and I've come up with three possibilities: the that-mushroom's-other-name-is-the-Angel-of-Death scenario; the Science-Fiction dinner party my-digestive-system-requires-that-everything-goes-through-twice idea; and the I've-somehow-ended-up-being-drunkenly-propositioned-by-the-wife-of-the-Mafia-boss thing).

Still, silicic (yes, the first c does have an s sound, though sadly most people stress the second i) just means to do with silicon.

I suppose, really, if we were tracking down blame for this ridiculous word, we'd have to point the finger at the person who named silicon, wouldn't we.

Word Not To Use Today: silicic. Silicic is named after silicon, which was discovered and named by Jöns Jakob Berzelius, from the Latin word for flint, silex, on the model of boron and carbon (flint is basically silicon oxide). Of course, being Swedish, Berzelius wouldn't have realised how unfortunate a word silicon actually is - and presumably his mate Humphry Davy didn't like to tell him.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Saturday Rave: For If Love Fled, If Love It Was by Leon de Greiff

There's a lot of love poetry around.

Of course poems can be about anything at all, and they're more and more often about all sorts of unlikely things from motor cars to Jeremy Corbyn (and this is a fine and desirable state of affairs), but love poems are still being written to try to make sense of it all.

These love poems generally fall into two sorts: I am in love and I was in love. That's one thing that makes this poem by the Colombian writer León de Greiff extraordinary.

Here's the beginning. The translation is by Paul Archer.

For if love fled, if love it was
let love go and go with the grief,
and embrace life with a clear head and open arms,
and cry a little bit for what was...
For if love fled, if love it was...

The whole of this short poem can be found HERE.

A slippery thing, love, at times - but then if it wasn't then I suppose there wouldn't be nearly as many poems in the world.

And our love would be expressed in terms of x and y.

León de Greiff.jpg
León de Greiff

Word To Use Today: embrace. This word comes from the Old French brace, a pair of arms, from the Latin bracchia, arms.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Word To Use Today: henchman

You can't get really reliable henchmen anywhere these days.

Mind you, you never could. Your henchman is the guy who sorts out your problems, especially if what's required is a little light crime or violence. And a guy who's happy to turn to crime or violence...

..well, the good news is that that the henchmen are the reason why the good guys tend to win in the end: the baddies, you see, can't trust their mates.

The Wildbunch, with Butch Cassidy on the front right, and the Sundance Kid front left.

Still, the thing we all really want to know is, obviously, what is a hench?

That's an interesting question (by which I actually mean, in the usual way, an interesting answer) but first I ought to mention that my Collins dictionary defines a henchman as a faithful attendant or supporter and doesn't mention that henchmen only support baddies in their evil deeds. 

I have to say I've never known a veterinary surgeon, say, with a henchman, but perhaps it's possible. 

Mind you, he'd probably be poisoning the bunnies.

Word To Use Today: henchman. This word comes from the Old English hengest, which means stallion.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

A Room Without A View: a rant.

Every time we visit my aged father (yes, thank you, he's ninety six and still in fine form) we drive past a road called Marina View Terrace.

Now, I'm not saying Marina View Terrace is a bad name for a road. In fact, I'd say it's an extremely good name for a road.

But only, you know, if it has a view of a marina.

And is a terrace.

Word To Use Today: terrace. In Britain a road called a terrace traditionally contains a stretch of houses all stuck together in a row like these in Manchester, England:

Photo by Manchesterphotos

File:Bath Circus 3.JPG
These rather posh ones are also in England, in the city of Bath. Photo by Christophe.Finot

The word terrace comes from the Old French terrasse, from the Old Provencal terrassa, pile of earth, from terra, earth.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Nuts and Bolts: virelays.

Well, of course I know what a virelay is: it's some sort of a mediaeval song-type thing, isn't it?

It'll be the type of thing that knights and damsels danced about to, or sang at each other when they were happy, or dying of love, or something...

...oh, all right, I'll look it up if you want to know exactly...

The good news is that virelays (or virelais, if you like) went out of date around the end of the 1400s and they were only ever really popular in French, so ignorance of them isn't likely to have caused anyone born in the last five hundred years much damage.

They started off being sung, did virelays, but towards the end they were written purely as poetry. They usually had three verses with a chorus sung first and last and in between (though you call the choruses and verses refrains and stanzas if you're feeling fussy).

Anyway, you sing your chorus, then you sing a line of verse to a different tune, then another line of verse to the same tune as the line of verse you've just sung, then you sing the last line of verse to the tune of the chorus, and then you sing the chorus again.

If you're being particularly clever (and why not) then you'll do the whole thing, all three verses and choruses, using only a couple of different rhymes.

(Good grief, that sounds tricky, I'm suddenly rather glad the thing went out of fashion in the late 1400s.)

As I said, virelays are almost all in French, so it's surprising that the technical term for the first two lines of the verses is stollen, and for the last line the abgesang

But, hey, I suppose the French were too busy singing to stop to analyse why they were enjoying themselves so much.

Word To Use Today: virelay. The Old French form is virelai, which was a meaningless word used in choruses and is probably something to do with our word lay meaning a ballad. The German stollen means gallery as well as fruit cake; and abgesang is more or less the same thing as our swansong.