This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday, 23 June 2017

Word To Use Today: halcyon.

Halcyon days are calm and quiet ones, especially those around the winter solstice (and of course it's presently the winter solstice just as much as the summer one). For the rest of us, any period of peace and happiness can be called halcyon.

Other things can be halcyon, too, if they're peaceful, gentle, calm, or happy and carefree.

Well, it'd be nice, wouldn't it.

The first halcyon was a Greek demi-goddess called Alcyone. She was blissfully married to Ceyx, but in their besotted love for each other they would sometimes call each other by the names of the King and Queen of the gods, Zeus and Hera. Zeus wasn't flattered by this (he was notoriously grumpy) and one day when Ceyx was out fishing Zeus struck Ceyx's boat with a thunderbolt. 

When Alcyone heard the news of Ceyx's loss she despairingly flung herself into the sea, but the gods in their compassion turned both Alcyone and Ceyx into halcyon birds so they could continue to live together. The gods also gave Alcyone and Ceyx the power to charm the seas to calmness during the time of year that they made their nest on the water (presumably this was so they didn't either lose their eggs or get seasick). 

It's a beautiful story. Even better, there's a real-life halcyon:

File:Halcyon malimbica.jpg

It's otherwise known as the blue-breasted kingfisher, or Halcyon malimbica. (Photo by tj. haslam.)

Word To Use Today: halcyon. Halcyon comes from alkuōn, the Greek word for kingfisher. The kingfisher just might be called after Alcyone, but probably isn't.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Ten million pounds of...grubs? A rant.

Rolls-Royce has made a ten million pound car.

It's probably very nice, although the fact that it's only got two seats would put me off buying it. Its glass roof, also, though glamorous, can't be kind to a bald patch (not that I have a bald patch, but I'm thinking of those who can afford to spend ten million pounds sterling on a car).

Anyway, what have Rolls-Royce called this paragon among cars?

The Sweptail.

The what?

Honestly, ten million quid, and the car sounds like something small and scaly that infests the area under your bath.

Well, I wouldn't have the thing for a tenth of the cost, I can tell you.

Not even if I could afford it.

Word To Use Today: Sweptail. Apparently the back of the car has a back-end that goes downwards in a rather elegant curve, so it's basically sweep + tail.

They'd have done better making the most of that glass roof and calling it the Skyroller, wouldn't they?

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Nuts and Bolts: order of honorifics.

Honorifics are the bits of someone's name which indicate position or qualification. If you're the Head of the Anglican Church, for instance, then you're the Most Reverend and Right Honorable The Lord Archbishop of Canterbury - and a major qualification for the job must be the ability to sit through that lot without giggling.

Customs vary widely - and wildly - throughout the world. In Britain only a medical doctor (who probably isn't actually a real doctor, i.e. someone with a PhD, at all) will get away with styling himself Doctor Smith in his everyday life, but in Germany to be able to call yourself Doktor Doktor Schmidt (because you have two PhDs) is pretty cool.

The rules everywhere are endless and complicated. In terms of letters after your name, academic honours will probably come last, with the order in which you obtained them reversed: Phd BA, for example. If you're a Knight of the Garter, have been awarded the Order of the British Empire, are a Member of Parliament, and a doctor of philospohy, then you'd be Sir John Smith KG OBE MP PhD.

(Unless, obviously, your name was Joe Brown.)

If you've won military medals then they have their own special order of importance, as Private Henry Tandy VC DCM MM shows (though the very best thing about Private Tandy is that he didn't die winning them, but lived to be eighty six. Good for him). 

But the winner for a whole alphabet soup of honorifics might be someone with no academic or religious qualifications, no medals for bravery, and no inherited titles.

How about the Right Honourable Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener, KG, KP, GCB, OM, GCSI, GCMG, GCIE, PC?

Horatio Herbert Kitchener.jpg

Did well, didn't he?

Word To Use Today: honour. This word comes from the Old French onor, from the Latin honor, which means esteem.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: cheesed off.

Apparently it's only the British who get cheesed off: so what, exactly, for The Word Den's non-British readers, does being cheesed off mean? 

It means to be fed-up, bored, or angry, but not quite fed-up, bored, or angry enough to go on a rampage with a wet mop. It's more the sort of feeling that needs to be relieved by a long whingeing rumble of a moan.

It's how you feel when you have two essays to write; when it's raining again; when he leaves the apple core on the coaster for you to clear up for the third night running; when the fox keeps on pooing on the lawn; when yet again the supermarket has moved all the tinned tomatoes.

Yes, it takes a bit of time to get cheesed off, but all the same it seems that some people actually enjoy it - and some people (comedians, journalists, politicians) make a career out of it.

The trouble is that the approach of the habitually cheesed off is likely to make people run screaming. 

So, on the whole, a slightly amused equanimity might be a better attitude to cultivate.

Thing Not To Be Today: cheesed off. This word doesn't seem to be anything to do with the food product but perhaps with the verb to cheese which means to stop (as in cheese it!) or, in prison slang, to grovel.

Mind you, the connection with those last two meanings isn't that obvious, is it. 


Eric Partridge's guess is that this sort of cheese is the same word as cease, which comes from the Latin cēdere, to yield.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Spot the Frippet: hemelytron.

When my husband finished spotting all the butterflies round here he began to look for something else to study (because, as he now says with a certain degree of happy contempt, a butterfly is just a moth that's afraid of the dark).

Of course there are wonders everywhere, and among them are hemelytra, which you will find on bugs (that's true bugs I'm talking about, not just any random unidentified tiny animal). The hemelytron is the thing's forewing. You'll find the joined-on end of the wing is thickened like the brightly-coloured forewing of a ladybird (that's the same as a ladybug in some parts of the world) but the free end is thin and membranous like a bee's wing.

Here are a pair of hemelytra:

Eichen-Schmuckwanze Rhabdomiris striatellus 2.jpg
Photo by Richard Bartz of a Striped Oak Bug in Munich, Germany. CC BY-SA 2.5,

Beautiful, aren't they?

And what a world, where even a bug is designed as well as that.

Spot the Frippet: hemelytron. This word comes from the Latin hemielytron, from hemi- which means half, plus the Greek word elutron, which means a covering. 

By the way, a ladybird or beetle's forewing (the coloured bit you can see when it is at rest) is an elytron, because the whole forewing is stiffened, not just half of it (so it's hemelyton without the hemi-, see?). 

As that is the case, I think it's arguable that you can chalk yourself up four hemelytra if you see a ladybird...well, you can as you're not fussy and long as no one's looking, anyway.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Sunday Rest: faucet. Word Not To Use Today.

American English is a bold and vigorous thing, and mostly I'm happy to welcome its many innovations into my own British version of the language. If anyone decided to standardise the spelling of the two dialects it wouldn't bother me much at all (though I would be a little sad if I had to write standardize)*.

It would be useful to have a word to describe a person of British heritage, too. (Brit hasn't really caught on, here.)

So on the whole I don't mind if people want to alphabetize something instead of putting it into alphabetical order; I don't mind if people want to do Math instead of Maths.


That word faucet. Force-it.

It's not as pretty as our English word tap, is it?

File:Big Tap wp.jpg
The Big Tap in Cowes, Victoria, Australia. Photo by Bilby

Word Not To Use Today: faucet. This word comes from the Old French fausset, from the Provençal falcet, from falsar, to bore.

*Even though it's recommended in the Oxford English style book already.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

Saturday Rave: Out Back by Henry Lawson.

The poet Henry Lawson had a romantic life, if romantic is taken, as it so often is, to mean the same as doomed.

Henry Lawson was born during the Australian Gold Rush in 1867, the product of a very unhappy marriage. By the age of fourteen he was completely deaf. He worked in the building trade, for various unsuccessful newspapers, and with various grasping publishers, and he was always poor. His own marriage deteriorated to the extent that his wife had him imprisoned for not paying maintenance for his children. He became alcoholic and depressed, and died in the single room that was his home in 1922.

He was then given a state funeral, his portrait was put on a bank note, and a statue was erected to him.

All in all, reality wasn't something Lawson could ignore, and he's best known for his unflinching look at life in the outback of Australia.

Here's the beginning of his poem about just that.

The old year went, and the new returned, in the withering weeks of drought,
The cheque was spent that the shearer earned,
and the sheds were all cut out;
The publican's words were short and few,
and the publican's looks were black - 
And the time had come, as the shearer knew, to carry his swag Out Back

Henry Lawson is famous for being a realist. But all the same, I should imagine that there were times when the poor man wouldn't have minded being a romantic at all.

Word To Use Today: cheque. (They're called checks in America.) This word means a money-order in Britain and America, and wages in Australia and New Zealand. It's the same word as check, meaning to make sure, and comes from the Middle English chek.

You'll find the whole of Henry Lawson's poem HERE.