This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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



Saturday, 10 December 2016

Fame is a fickle food by Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was born on the 10th December, 1830. 

She died in 1886. 

Eighty nine years later, in 1955, someone finally decided it might be a good idea to publish her poems in an 'unimproved' version.

So there we have proof: the world was ever quite quite bonkers.

It's true that Emily Dickinson was never an obvious celeb. She was never fashionable, and she became more and more reclusive as she got older. She was also unmarried and female, which at the time* didn't make her an obvious source of genius.

But genius there was in plenty. To give you some idea, this poem is numbered 1659.

Fame is a fickle food

Fame is a fickle food
Upon a shifting plate
Whose table once a
Guest but not
The second time is set

Whose crumbs the crows inspect
And with ironic caw
Flap past it to the Farmer's Corn -
Men eat of it and die.

Word To Use Today: Emily. Emily comes from the Roman family name Aemilius, which means trying to equal or excel, from aemulus, which means rival.

*at the time: ha!


Friday, 9 December 2016

Word To Use Today: dimity.

I associate this word with mice in clean petticoats, but that's probably something to do with an early over-exposure to the works of Beatrix Potter (her little books were cheap enough to be Sunday School prizes, and at one time that was the main way I got hold of books).

Dimity is a beautiful word, prim-yet-energetic, and it's always been a favourite. You can hear it skipping as it goes. I suspect this is why, especially in Australia, it's been used as a girls' name.

Dimity is a strong cotton fabric, usually white (though it can have stripy patterns) with some thicker threads woven through it. Nowadays it's most usually used for upholstering beds or making curtains.

In former times dimity was used to make bustles, so my mice-in-petticoats idea isn't too far out:



Sadly for its wholesome image, a dimity also used to be a sort of almost-invisible upper garment worn by early and shy exponents of the strip-tease.

Which is still rather sweet, when you come to think about it.

Word To Use Today: dimity. This word comes from the Mediaeval Latin dimitum, from the Greek dimiton, from mitos, warp thread.




Thursday, 8 December 2016

A souvenir of the coronation: a rant.

Sometimes context is everything.

Tributes have been made after the sad death of Margaret Rhodes, cousin and life-long friend of Queen Elizabeth II and by all accounts a sparky and dependable person.

The Telegraph of 29/11/16 reported:

There was a lack of formality about the place [Mrs Rhodes' house] that Her Majesty seems to have liked. Mrs Rhodes had in her downstairs loo...the stool that she sat on when in attendance at the coronation in 1953.

Well, I suppose if you were going to keep it anywhere...

Word To Use Today: stool. The Old English version of this word was stōl, which has an ancient Greek relation (also like our dear Queen), stulos, which means pillar. The object in question is called a stool because some people in the world have a habit of sitting on something rather like one when Nature calls.



Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Nuts and Bolts: Parma.

How do things get their names?

Well, Maria Luisa of Parma, Princess of the Asturias:

File:Maria Luisa de Parma1.jpg
painting by Anton Raphael Mengs

came from a family which ruled the town in Northern Italy called Parma.

Parma cathedral:

File:Duomo di parma, controfacciata.JPG
photo by sailko

has, obviously, always been stituated in the place.

But what of other things called Parma?

Parma ham has to come from the Parma area (there's a law that says so), and Parma violets:

File:Favourite flowers of garden and greenhouse (Pl. 32) (7789059768).jpg

were first discovered in Italy (though the odd little violet-flavoured sweets called Parma Violets:



are British).

 But what about the Parma wallaby?

Parma wallaby crop2.jpg
photo by Benjamint444

You don't see many wallabies lolloping around Italy, do you.

And, for that matter, what about the cheese?

What, you haven't heard of Parma cheese? But you've heard of Parmesan, and a Parmesan is a native or inhabitant (or cheese) of Parma.

Finally, there are the apples. The name of the red varieties of apples called pearmain, of which the Worcester Pearmain is probably the best known: 

Worcester parmän.jpg

come from the Old French permain, a type of pear, and the best guess is that this word comes from the Latin Parmēnsis, of Parma.

So: what's your best guess about how the wallaby got its name, then? 

Nuts and Bolts: Parma.  The city's name is Etruscan, and the Romans borrowed its name for a round shield. 

Parma is the Australian Aboriginal name for this species of wallaby.





Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Thing Not To Be Today: awkward

Well, the thing is, what is an awk?

It's a word no longer heard much in polite - or any other - society, but it's been English since the 1400s. The latest reference to anyone using it in my OED is What we have hitherto spoken will seem to have less of auk in it, which is from N Fairfax's 1674 best-selling A treatise on the bulk and selvedge of the world wherein the greatness, littleness and lastingness of bodies is freely handled.

We've also sadly lost the words awkly (which could mean left-handed) and awkness.

They all mean things to do with wrong, perverse, irrational, inept - and, of course, awkward - and they're all words way overdue for a comeback as far as I'm concerned.


Thing Not To Be Today: awkward. The ward bit of this word is the same idea as is found in forwards, that is, in that direction. Awk probably comes from the Old Norse afug, which means turned the wrong way round.


Monday, 5 December 2016

Spot the Frippet: trivium.

Ah, the joy of trivia!

Oh, the joy of discovering that texting 555 means laugh out loud in Thailand but boohoo in China (the Thai for five is ha, but in China it's ).

Of knowing that cravats are named after Croatia.

Of where to wear a sautoir or a Windsor knot.

For what you'd use a Dudley fluter.

Or, perhaps the most satisfying piece of trivia of all, the difference between trivia and trivium.

Just gloriously, gloriously satisfying.

Spot the frippet: trivium. In Latin, trivia is the plural of trivium. In English, trivia can be either singular or plural and means unimportant details or facts, but trivium is something entirely different, for trivium is the lower three of the seven liberal arts, namely grammar, rhetoric and logic. (The rest are the quadrivium.) Trivium is the Latin for a junction of three roads (though it also means crossroads), and from there triviālis came to mean belonging to the common streets, and from there arose our English word trivia. 

While I'm here, cravat comes from the Serbo-Croat Hrvat, Croat, a garment worn by the Croat army in the Thirty Years War. A Windsor knot is made in a necktie, and a sautoir is a neck ornament, originally one where the centre formed an X or saltire.

File:09267 sautoir Droit humain.jpg
photo by G.Garitan




Sunday, 4 December 2016

Sunday Rest: septicidal.

Some words spring traps for the honestly ignorant (which is, let's face it, all of us who are honest). There's autarky, for instance, which is nothing, despite the sound of it, to do with the rule of auts.

Septicidal is a particularly mean example of this sort of a word because not only is the -icidal bit is really nothing to do with killing, but the sept- bit is nothing to do with either decay (as in septicaemia) or the number seven (as in September),* either.

Septicidal is also a word where consulting the dictionary definition is almost certain to involve another search to discover what on earth it's going on about. Here's the Collins definition:

adj Botany (of a dehiscence) characterised by splitting along the sides of the seed capsule.

...and then, to make things even worse, you discover that dehiscence isn't in the dictionary

Anyway, this is septicidal dehiscence:


By H. Zell - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10996361. 

That picture is of the plant Ledum palustre, or wild rosemary (though it's really a rhododendron).

Anyway, as it happens the septi- bit in septicidal comes from septum, which is a dividing partition in a living thing. The -cidal bit does come from the idea of killing, though nothing at all hurt, let alone killed.

Ah well. Accusing botanists of being over-dramatic is a novelty, at least.

Word Not To Use Today: septicidal. The -cidal bit comes from the Latin caedere to kill. Septum comes from saeptum, a wall, from saepīre, to enclose.

*Okay, September isn't a great example, is it? Errr...septet, perhaps (which is like a quartet, but nearly twice the size).