This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Saturday Rave: A plum of Plum.

The world is awash with creative writing classes. I've attended several, usually as tutor, but once quite recently as a pupil. 

Well, I wanted to find out what I was supposed to have been doing all this time.

Creative writing classes can be both interesting and fun, but they don't provide what people need to become writers - what people really need - which is a stubborn ability to carry on, probably through years of neglect, and to keep on carrying on no matter how little notice people take.

And then, in the end, if you can manage to die, minimally published, starving, and broke, in a garret, you might even be awarded the status of genius. 

So anyway, creative writing classes. The very best of them you can get for free from your local library in the form of other people's, yes, creative writing. Sadly this does mean you'll have to work out the lessons the books teach you all by yourself, but, look, the creative thing does imply a bit of doing-it-yourself, doesn't it?

So have a look at this. It's from PG Wodehouse's Mulliner Nights

Then see if you can work out how he did it.

Everyone has his pet aversion. Some dislike slugs, others cockroaches. Egbert Mulliner disliked female novelists.

Yes, it's pure and absolute genius.

And PG Wodehouse, let me tell you, didn't even die in a garret.

Word To Use Today: Egbert. This name comes from the Old English ecg, which means sword, and beorht, which means bright.

Nowadays the impression given by the name is sadly less heroic.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Word To Use Today: garnet.

The garnets you see in jewellery are usually red:

File:WLA hmns Garnet and Diamond necklace.jpg
(necklace designed and created by Ernesto Moreira and to be seen at the Houston Museum of Natural Science)

 though they can be yellow or green:

photo by Arpingstone 

Garnets are classed as semi-precious (which doesn't imply they're less beautiful than precious jewels, it just means there's enough of them about to be useful. Garnet paper, for instance, has powdered garnet stuck onto it and is used as sandpaper, and garnets are also used to cut steel and to filter water).

There is another sort of garnet, which is a device for lifting cargo off ships, but that's a quite different word.

Possibly the most interesting thing about this word, though, is its derivation.

Word To Use Today: garnet. The loading-cargo word probably comes from the Dutch garnaat. The jewel word comes from the Old French grenat, red, from pome grenat, which means pomegranate, which comes from the Latin pōmum, apple, and grānātus, full of seeds.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Pigweed Delight: a rant.

The Prince of Wales, God bless him:

has opened the Forgotten Foods Network, a scheme run by Crops For The Future in Malaysia. It will study ancient food crops in the hope of improving yields in the face of climate change.

One such possible crop is Aztec pigweed.

Now, Aztec pigweed may be nutritious, tasty, resilient, and grow at a rate which makes bindweed look like a bonsai tree, but if there's one thing it needs, it's an agent.

I mean, Aztec pigweed? 

For a start, Aztecs are a) dead, and b) much too closely associated with human sacrifice; and then you have the weed bit - no one wants anything to do with weeds - and calling people pigs is going to get you precisely nowhere.

On the other hand, getting an agent costs you (at least) ten per cent, so here's a solution for free. Call the stuff by its other name, which is beautiful, mysterious, and romantic.

I mean, who could resist a steaming dish of amaranth?

Word To Use Today: amaranth. If you come across this word in poetry it will almost certainly mean flower that never fades. It comes from the Greek amarantos, unfading, from marainein, to fade.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: ablauts.

Why is a long thing lengthy, and not longthy?

Why do we sing songs and not song them? And, after we sang it, why is it sung?

Well, I don't know, to be honest, but that sort of a change of vowel in words that are related to each other is called an ablaut (it's a German word, so you say it AB-lowt).

You occasionally get the same sort of thing happening in English with plurals: goose and geese; mouse and mice; foot and feet.

Woman/women is another example, and in fact it's a double one: the man/men bit of the word changes, but so (invisibly) does the sound of the o.

Some ablauts are just a bit more subtle. In the words telegraph and telegraphy, for instance, both the second e and the a both change sound.

Ablauts are not only an English thing. The idea was first described by the fourth century BC Sanskrit grammarian Pānini. Much later in Europe, in the early 1700s, Lambert ten Kate wrote about them in a book about the similarities between German and Dutch.

German is a language that really enjoys its ablauts, so here, to finish, is the German word for burst in various tenses. 

It's splendid stuff for chanting.

Bersten, birst, berstet, barst, geborsten!

Nuts and Bolts: ablaut. This word was coined by Jacob Grimm (yes, the fairy tale man) in 1838. Ab means off in German, and laut means sound.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: a chauvinist.

Do people sometimes have different opinions from yours?

So, why is this? Do explain it to me. 

Is it because the other people are stupid? Or because they are ignorant? Or evil?

Or could it be because you are yourself wrong?

Well, as this last is a vanishingly small possibility, let's assume that you are completely and utterly correct in all your opinions (in which case I should perhaps spell that you with a capital Y). How then do we account for the perverse beliefs of others?

Well, let's suppose we ask everyone in the world to tell us why they hold their opinion of, say, chocolate. We could then file these answers into correct, stupid, ignorant, and evil piles. Then we'd have to hope the proportions of the piles tell us something useful.

The first thing, obviously, is to decide which opinion is correct.

Hmm... know, this isn't going to be easy, is it? Unless, of course, you're sure that only your own opinion matters.

My Collins dictionary defines chauvinism as a smug irrational belief in the superiority of one's own race, party, sex etc

That sounds spot-on to me...

...but then what do I know?

Thing Not To Be Today: a chauvinist. The first chauvinist was Nicolas Chauvin of the Napoleonic wars, who was noted for his enthusiastic, unthinking, and loud patriotism. 

There are, sadly, two small problems: first, Chauvin didn't become famous until after Napoleon's downfall; and, second, no one's sure if he ever actually existed.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: cattle.

I don't have to go far from here to see some cattle. The nearest kind to where I live are usually ones like these:

File:Belted Galloway cow J1.jpg
Photo by Jamain

That beast is a Belted Galloway cow, but other cattle come in different shapes:

File:CSIRO ScienceImage 2643 A Brahman Bull.jpg
Polled Brahmin bull, photo by  CSIRO


File:Cow highland cattle.jpg
Highland cow, photo by Mahaba

 and sizes:

File:Dexter cow, Three Counties Show.jpg
Dexter cow, photo by David Merrett

though they're all usually of the genus Bos.

But what if you live in a cattle-free zone?

Well, passenger planes have a cattle class (though the airlines usually call it economy) and of course cattle dogs are to be found all over the place.


Oh, it's Australian. 

What does it mean? 

Catalogue, I'm afraid.

Yes, they are, aren't they: absolutely everywhere.

Spot the Frippet: cattle. This word comes from the Old Northern French catel, and is basically the same word as chattel, from the Latin capitāle, wealth.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Sunday Rest: mouthbrooder. Word Not To Use Today.

A mouthbrooder, despite appearances, isn't someone with a habitual enbittered pout, but a sort of fish (or, occasionally, frog) which carries its eggs and young around in its mouth.

Cyphotilapia frontosa. Photo by Matthew Miller. (Can you see the babies?)

Mind you, as you can see, that can often be the same thing.

Word To Use Today: pout. No one is sure where this word comes from, but the Danish word pude means pillow.

There are some species where the fathers take on the mouthbrooding, but it's usually the mothers.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

And death shall have no dominion by Dylan Thomas.

I haven't seen many remembrance poppies about this year. In fact, I haven't even had an opportunity to buy one.

I hope it isn't because of the idea that's being put about on social media that wearing a poppy implies an approval of, and support for, war. (It's hard to see how a symbol of the blood of soldiers can do that, but that's what people are saying).

Here's the beginning of a poem by Dylan Thomas. It was written in 1933, which we now know, sadly, was between-the-wars.

Does writing a poem about war show support for wars?

Well, what do you think?

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead men naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have star at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

The first and last lines come from St Paul's letter to the Romans.

The whole poem can be found HERE.

File:Poppies again 1 (5781248599).jpg
photo by Tony Hisgett

Word To Use Today: dominion. This word comes from the Latin dominium, ownership, from dominus, master.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Word To Use Today: dornick.

Most words, like our own dear queen, have fairly obvious relatives. 

A cupboard, for instance, plainly started off being a rather different piece of furniture, and it's not difficult to guess how its meaning evolved.

Some words, however, drop in from Mars: or, in this case, Belgium, which is, after all, very much the same thing.


Can you guess what it is? 

Even though a dornick is two quite separate things, almost certainly not.

The oldest dornick is a kind of heavy and very expensive damask cloth (damask is the sort of fabric that has patterns on it made by weaving in extra-shiny thread). Traditionally, dornick is used for curtains and vestments (especially the cloaks priests wear).

Something like this:

Gothic Chasuble & Stole - Gold 'Gothic' silk damask - Chasubles - Vestments

The other sort of dornick word you only find in the USA. 

This sort of dornick is as different as possible from the first one, because it means a small stone, pebble, or occasionally, coin. There used to be an expression as hard as dornick to describe a tough man:


The two sorts of dornicks are all alone - they aren't even relations of each other.

So perhaps we should adopt them.

Word To Use Today: dornick. The cloth dornick is named after the Belgian town now called Tournai, where it was manufactured. The stone dornick probably comes from the Irish Gaelic dornōg, from dorn, which means hand.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Changing problems: a rant

Ah, the dear Académie Française! Always so passionate. 

Its members (they call themselves Les immortels, or The Immortals, which seems a strange sort of thing to do to me: but then I'm English) have the responsibility of guarding the purity of the French language (to speakers of the proudly mongrel English language also a strange idea) and the poor things are under constant attack from...well, the rest of the world, basically. Anyone who speaks anything other than perfect French.

But now, what horror! the French language is under attack by its own government. 

The civil service of President Macron is adopting gender-neutral forms. Now, these are certainly inclusive and respectful, but they are a) not standard French and b) the ones that have been chosen are very difficult to write on a computer.

The essential problem with French as it stands at the moment is that if you have a bunch of French people of both sexes (the official French language only recognises two sexes) then linguistically they're all treated as male. You might be describing a crowd of ninety nine women and one man, but you're supposed to call them your amis, which is the word for male friends (female friends are amies). In France, my family is anglais, even though three quarters of us are actually female and therefore anglaises.

So, in the name of equality (if not liberty and fraternity) a new way of describing mixed groups has been invented, the écriture 
inclusive, for use by the civil service and academia. 

What you have to do is put a dots in to show you're writing about both sexes. A group of mixed friends becomes ami·e·s, for instance.

(You see what that mid-point dot has done to the formatting of this post? Tut!)

I'm sure the person behind this idea is perfectly well-meaning, but, look, I don't have a floating dot on my keyboard. French keyboards don't usually have this facility, either. 

And, after all, if you must, why not write it ami.e.s?

The immortels - sorry, there are a few women among them, the immortel·le·s - are in despair, and talk of mortal danger to the language.

Well, it's their job to make a fuss about this sort of thing, so I suppose you can't blame them. 

And, honestly, why on earth didn't the revolutionaries come up with some system you can type?

Word To Use Today: chairman? Postman? Actress? Or else some alternative your conscience deems appropriate.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: nonce words.

A nonce word is one coined for a particular occasion.

For instance, if you ever needed to communicate an intense need for chocolate it would be possible to speak of suffering from chocodrawal symptoms.

If you needed to express your displeasure at someone else's infant - or, indeed, your own - getting into your private possessions or your conversation then perhaps toddlecreep would cover it.

The trouble with nonce words is, of course, that if they're actually any good then they'll be used again and again and soon stop being, well, nonce words, at all.

One other reason nonce words come into being is for use in language experiments.

So let's do one now: which of these creatures is a flooble?

File:Korea-Seoul-Blue insect-01.jpg
photo by Robert


File:Male Aedes Aegypti Mosquito (26418876982).jpg
photo by NIAID


Well, don't ask me: flooble is a nonce word. I just made it up.*

Words To Use Today: nonce word. This phrase comes from for the nonce, which is a mangling of the phrase for then anes, which in the 1100s meant for the once.

*But most people would probably say the first, all the same: rounded sounds tends to suggest a rounded body in most people's minds.


Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: a cheapskate.

It’s never nice to be called a cheapskate. Especially if it’s true.

But is it true? Are you careful, or are you mean? 

Or, to look at it the other way, are you generous, or are you profligate?

Do you serve drinks in thimbles?

Do you always cut the shrink wrap just slightly too small?

Do you buy the extra-cheap bread that's so full of holes you have to eat three times as much of it?

Are you, in short, prepared to embrace some degree of suffering - or inflict it on others - because the inconvenience is outweighed by the pleasure of saving insignificant amounts of money?


Oh you cheapskate!

Thing Not To Be Today: a cheapskate. Cheap comes from the Old English ceop, bargain or price, and is ultimately to do with the Latin caupo, innkeeper. Where skate came from less clear, but the best guess is that it's to do with the old Scots insult skate (the Scots are brilliant at insults) which still has an echo in the word blatherskite or blatherskate, who is a person who talks on and on without saying anything much to any purpose. 

The song Maggie Lauder uses it:

(blatherskate comes near the end of the first verse. Good tune, too, eh?)

 and this may be how the word skate in this sense got to America, where cheapskate seems to have been coined.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Spot the Frippet: something rufescent.

Are you a scientist or a poet?

Not sure?

Well, can you spot a rufescent sexual reproductive structure of a subfamily Rosoideae angiosperm? 

If you can, or want to, then you're a scientist.

It will look quite like this:

File:Blush rose 1.jpg

If, on the other hand, when you see it you're only aware of spotting a blushing rose, then there's a brimming well of poetry in you.

(The photograph is of the lovely rose called Maiden's Blush, and was taken by Nadiatalent.)

Anyway, rufescent. It's basically a botanical term that means tinged with red or becoming red:

File:Ilex mitis - Cape Holly tree - berries detail 3.JPG
(these are the fruit of Ilex mitis, the Cape Holly Tree. Photo by Abu Shawka).

This is a rufescent prinea, photo by AriefrahmanThat's not an easy spot unless you're in the right part of India or South East Asia, but never mind: a human cheek reddened with exercise, fever, cold, heat, alcohol or embarrassment is quite rufescent enough for me.

Spot the Frippet: something rūfescent. This word comes from the Latin rufescere, to grow reddish, from rūfus, red or auburn.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Sunday Rest: catholic.

Today is England's Firework Day. Hurrah!

We let off the fireworks to celebrate the failure of the 1605 plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

So, now, tell me: what do you call a small bunch of people who get together in secret and plot to bomb public buildings?

That's right: terrorists.

Now, I'm very fond of bonfire night, but it's becoming increasingly frowned upon because people claim it celebrates the death of Catholics (and it's true both that the plotters were Catholics, and that they were most horribly tortured and executed).

But these plotters weren't just Catholics, or just men, or just humans, or just people with beards. 


The reason we're celebrating the day is because their terrorist plot failed.

Still, hey, it's probably best not to mention the Catholic thing, just in case, eh?

Word Not To Use Today: catholic. With a small c this word means wide-ranging, universal, liberal or broad-minded. It comes from the Latin catholicus, from Greek katholikos, universal, from katholou, in general, from kata- according to, and holos, whole.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Saturday Rave: Morph

People have long felt a need for a universal language. People have quite often tried to make up one from scratch (though computers are demanding new words at such a rate that they seem to be making quite a good job of making one up themselves).

But look, here's someone who's already done it:

(photo by Giles Farrington Flickr user giles 72)

He's called Morph, and he was created by Peter Lord and David Sproxton and a lot of other people (one of the modellers was Chris Entwistle).

This is Peter Lord with Morph:

Peter Lord making Morph June 2014.jpg
By The Rambling Man with assistance from Jane Ormes - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Morph speaks...well, it's been called gobbledegook, but Morph makes noises people can understand, so I don't see why that doesn't count as language.

Have a look at this very short film (it's just over a minute long) and see if you can understand him.

Morph's language would be quicker to learn than Esperanto , anyway, wouldn't it.

Word To Use Today: morph. This word comes from the Greek morphē, which means shape (and, by the way, shape is what my grandmother used to call blancmange. Coincidence, or what?).

Friday, 3 November 2017

Word To Use Today: flight.

I spent yesterday scraping up perished rubber left behind after taking up the ancient underlay on a flight of stairs.

It was more fun than it sounds, partly because flight is such a lovely word. Next time you are labouring to climb some stairs remember that you're doing the human equivalent of flying.

A group of birds also sometimes comes in a flight - it might be a flight of swifts, perhaps, wheeling and screaming:

File:Apus apus flock flying.jpg
photo by Keta

so do groups of aircraft and arrows (come in flights, I mean: they don't usually scream). A raceful of hurdles is a flight, and so is an aviary's flying space. A cricketer, when he bowls the ball in such a way to make it turn bafflingly in its course, gives it some flight.

All mysterious and very nearly magical things - and, now I come to think about it, all literally uplifting.

Have a good day!

Word To Use Today: flight. This word comes from the Old English flyght - which shows that it's been practically perfect for over a thousand years.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Plainly beautiful: a rant.

Look, it may have seemed funkily ironic to call your clothes label Acne, or Fat Face, or Sweaty Betty, or Weird Fish, but what you have to remember is that a) lots of people have no sense of humour whatsoever; b) what most people need when it comes to clothes is reassurance; and c) on the whole people are looking to draw attention away from their acne, fat face, body odour, and inability to master the being-normal thing.

Still, I suppose it's also true that the beautiful smug people won't worry; and that the rest of us tend to follow wistfully, if hopelessly, in their steps; and also that words stop having any meaning if they're used wrongly often enough.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that it seems to have worked out, after all.

Word To Use Today: acne. This skin condition is sometimes called, rather splendidly, acne vulgaris. It should really be called acme, because it comes from a misreading  by medical men in the 1800s of the Greek akmē, eruption of the skin.

Hey, I wonder if the clothes label is a misreading of acme?

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Nuts and Bolts: good heavens!

Having spoken of unquiet souls yesterday at Halloween, it seems only polite to give a nod to All Saints Day and the good guys today. 

Now, the thing about saints is that they're variable. You get saints who were holy for a long time, like St Roch, who is said to have observed fasts even when breast-feeding; and then you get saints like St Alban, who led a heathen life and converted to Christianity only just in time to get martyred.

And then, of course, you get saints like St George, who is most famous for being unkind to endangered wildlife.

Now, if George was good (and presumably he was, to have earned the saint label), then presumably we can say that St Alban was better, but that St Roch was best.

But why not good, gooder, goodest?

Well, it seems to have been because people like to be tidy. The root of the word good is the Germanic word gath, which started off meaning to gather together (as, indeed, you might guess by the words gather and together). Once things were together then they became seen as pleasing, and then, later, good.

(Goods, meaning things able to be sold, comes from the same idea.)

Inconveniently, though, by the time the word good had started meaning, well, good, there were other words already in use that meant gooder and goodest. 

The root of these words was bat, which meant advantage (it's left a faint trail in our word boot, as in I got my phone for £20, with a £10 voucher to boot). Now, as I said, boot had been around long enough to have its own comparative, betara, and superlative, betest, and so there wasn't really much point in making up new comparative and superlative forms for good.

The really cool thing is that when a toddler, trying to form a superlative, says I like that one even betera, he's not only being irresistibly cute, but he's speaking Middle English.

But then all two-year-olds are geniuses, aren't they?

Word To Use Today: well, what's the best thing you've done today? That'll do.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Thing To Be Today: a ghost.

I've written all sorts of things in my time, but never as a ghost.

I'm not suggesting here I might have written some work of art consisting largely of the word oooohhh interspersed with the odd clank, rattle and howl (though it'd probably work as a rock and roll chorus) but that I might have written a book designed to be published under the name of some celebrity.

The chief reason for this is, admittedly, that I've never been asked.

Would I do it if I was asked? It wouldn't be an easy decision. Being a ghostwriter would get me more readers, and I'd like to think those readers would end up with a better book than if it had been written by an amateur.

But it would mean I was a ghost, and ghosts, by the amount of time they spend wailing from inside the walls of houses in need of some renovation, don't have a lot of fun.

In any case, I have no intention of dying today, and I'd hate to think that I am a ghost of my former self: so I think I shall have to make do with practising a ghost of a smile.

I'll just have to hope I don't look as punchably smug as the Mona Lisa while I do it.

File:Leonardo da Vinci - Mona Lisa.jpg

Thing To Be Today: a ghost. This word comes from the Old English gāst, and is related to the Sanskrit hēda, fury or anger.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: motley.

Motley's the only wear says Jacques, in As You Like It. (Yes, he's quoting someone else, but he claims he himself means it, too.)

As motley is the coloured uniform of a jester: 

File:Jester - Lancelot.JPG
Illustration by Tristan de léonois

then this is clearly not the case: motley is not the only wear:

File:Krechet space suit - Air and Space.jpg
photo by Craigboy

Still, anything multicoloured can be described as motley, and people do wear some interesting things, though all too often they scuttle around the winter streets in brown or black or some other depressing colour. 

Perhaps if we all wore motley everyone would be more cheerful.

If you are at a school where everyone is forced to wear the same boring colour, then motley can also describe anything made of various bits and pieces. A meal consisting of all-assorted elements Irish stew, sweetcorn and chips) might be motley fare; a home-made go-cart made of pallets and pram wheels will be a motley construct; any group of people will be a motley collection of individuals because we're all so very different. 

I mean, I have an independent mind, you are eccentric, and he -

...he hath strange places crammed
With observation, the which he vents
In mangled forms.

And as variety is the spice of life, I think we should cherish the fact.

Spot the Frippet: motley. This word appeared in the 1300s and might come from mot, which means speck.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Sunday Rest: metamathematics. Word Not To Use Today.

There's nothing wrong with this word, really - metamathematics consists, very neatly, of three trochaic feet,* with all the strong stresses beginning with an m and the weak ones with a t - so to be honest my only objection to the word is the deep terror the mere sight of it arouses.

And that's only because I used not to know what it meant.

Sunday Rest: metamathematics. No, it's all right, this isn't some arcane way of doing mathematics with mathematics; it's the study of the way that mathematical symbols work.


Meta- is Greek and it can mean more or less anything - with, after, between, etc - and mathematics comes from the Greek mathēma, a science, and is related to manthanein, to learn.

* A trochaic foot is made up of two syllables stressed DAH-da.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Saturday Rave: listening to Elvis.

It's plain enough from the mansions, the fans, the self-inflicted ill-health, the unhappiness, and the celebrity endorsements, that fame brings its own rewards, terrors, and opportunities.

So: what product will your choice of celebrity choose to endorse? Will he or she suggest you:

wear a watch like mine? 

Drink this coffee? 

Wear this perfume?

On this day in 1956 Elvis Presley received the polio vaccine on the Ed Sullivan show on USA National TV.

Dr Harold Fuerst, Elvis Presley, Dr Leona Baumgartner

In the next six months immunisation levels in the country went up from 0.6% (and that was after a public education campaign) to 80%.

It's not just the voice that matters, you know, but the song that it's singing.

Word To Use Today: Elvis. If Elvis has a Scandinavian origin then it may mean all-wise. On the other hand, if it's from the Germanic name Helewidis then it means wide (from wid) and healthy (heil).

Friday, 27 October 2017

Word To Use Today: homocentric.

It may be a convenience to visitors to The Word Den to know that the word homocentric means having the same centre, so means the same as concentric.

One might so describe, for instance, the orbits of the planets around the sun.

As this is the case, the description of a reception attended by a particularly handsome actor as homocentric reveals nothing about him except his charisma.

(That's Rupert Everett)

Word To Use Today: homocentric. Homo- means being the same, or being like; -centric means having a centre.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Superhuman help: a rant.

When, early in the millennium, I first started using an internet-enabled computer, there used to be a novelty paper clip which would pop up at inconvenient moments and say things like it looks like you want to write a letter...and then offer its help.

As this inspired no confidence whatsoever, this offer was always somewhat tersely declined.

The world saw off the blasted paper clip, hurrah, but the terrible beings which secretly inhabit the internet were not all destroyed, and they have grown back in a new and sinister form.

For now, my friends, they are invisible. 

This awful tale comes from Tanya Gold in the 18/10/17 Telegraph online(£).

I recently wrote an email of condolence to a widow; she wrote back to say she cried. Gmail suggested the automatic reply: 'Me too!'

Something deep in the darkness of cyberspace is expanding...

...and I'm horribly afraid that I can feel humanity retreating in its path.

Word To Use Today: sinister. The Latin word sinister means on the left-hand side, which was considered by fortune tellers to be unlucky.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: monophthongs.

A monophthing is a simple thing, and I'm featuring it here mostly because it's such a cherishably ridiculous word.


(You can have monophthongization, too. Good grief.)

A monophthong is a vowel sound that stays the same all the way through as you say it.

For example, a monophthong can be found in the middle of the word got. That o doesn't wander about, it's just a single sound. But the o in go, for instance, does change towards the end. To prove this, try saying the word go without moving your mouth or tongue and you'll see how clever you're usually being when you say it.

The o in go is a diphthong.

Languages change over time, and on the whole they tend to get simpler. One way this can happen is that diphthongs turn into monophthongs, a process called monophthongization.

Ridiculous, isn't it.

Word To Marvel At Today: monophthong. In Ancient Greek monos means single and phthongos means sound.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Thing To Be Today: raffish.

Raffish means careless or unconventional in dress, manners, or more or less anything else. 

Well, when I say that, it's not raffish to be careless about serious stuff like murder, because at the back of the use of the word raffish is a certain exasperated acknowledgment on behalf of the speaker of something close to envy.

Raffishness does come with a certain charm.

It's true that to be raffish involves embracing the vulgar and the tawdry, but a raffish man (it's usually a man) gives the annoying impression, as he strolls around in his scuffed shoes, that he's having far too much fun to bother with conventional details.

So there's the challenge: to have a day so filled with enjoyment that there's no time to attend to convention.

And, as a further, and much harder, challenge, to do it without losing any friends or making any enemies, too.

Thing To Be Today: raffish. This word comes from raff, which can mean either mean rubbish or rabble. The word might come from the Old French rafle, a snatching up.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: monstrosity.

It may be our duty to spread joy throughout the world, but, honestly, on a Monday morning sometimes the only satisfaction to be gained is by snarling at it.

A monstrosity is something obviously large and ugly - and not usually a person. A building, perhaps.

There's a sadly obvious monstrosity quite near me. It's called the KD Tower. It's 279 feet tall, and it's so hideous that I can't even find a public domain image of it.

What will be the most horrible monstrosity you see today? 

I do hope spotting it gives you some degree of surly satisfaction. A fleeting grimace of contempt is acceptable, I think - as long as you find something to admire quite soon afterwards.

Spot the Frippet: a monstrosity. This word comes from monster, of course, which comes from the Old French monstre, from the Latin monstrum, portent, from monēre, to warn.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Sunday Rest: sprinkletti. Word Not To Use Today.

Lakeland is a useful company that sells cooking and cleaning stuff.

Unfortunately it also sells sprinkletti (ouch!). These are tiny sugar Chrstmas-themed shapes such as berries and holly leaves. 

I don't fancy them myself, but, hey, there's no accounting for taste and they would be entirely acceptable if they hadn't been given such a sickening name.

As it is, I feel too nauseated to want to eat anything.

Word Not To Use Today: sprinkletti. Presumably this is confetti for sprinkling. The word sprinkle probably came from the Middle Dutch sprenkelen, and is related, delightfully, to our word spark. Confetti is Italian, the plural of confetto, which started off meaning a sweet or bonbon. 

It'd be very fussy to fault the derivation: but the word itself is hideous.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Saturday Rave: The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

I've written about The Hobbit before, long ago, but today is the eightieth anniversary of the book's publication (and writing about The Hobbit means I can avoid writing about HG Wells, whose birthday it is today, but whose personality irritates me).

Yes, The Hobbit is a relatively slight work, and I'm fairly sure it wouldn't be so well-known if it hadn't given rise to The Lord of the Rings, but it does some things very well indeed.

Here's one of them. I've spoken before of the power of not-very-good verse, and here's some to prove it.

Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old,
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.

It's that word pale that does it, and it does it, remarkably, even though gold isn't actually pale. I don't know how or why it works so powerfully, and I wish I did. It might be that it conjures up an image of something far away and mysterious; it might be because it makes the word enchanted seem even more piquant. It might even work because the first three lines are really not very good. As Tolkien says:

As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and a jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves.

I don't know about hobbits, but it works for me.

File:McLarty Treasure Replica.jpg

Word To Use Today: pale. This word comes from the Old French palle, from the Latin pallidus, pale, from pallēre, to look wan.

Friday, 20 October 2017

Furphy: Word To Use Today.

No, a furphy isn't a small hairy robot designed for amusing the children. If anyone's told you so then that, confusingly, is a furphy, for a furphy is a rumour or a fictitious story.

The Australians have cornered the use of the word furphy until now: but then why should the Ozzies have all the fun?

Word To Use Today: furphy. Furphy carts, used to transport water or sewage from the 1880s onwards (I do hope they were clearly labelled) were made at the Furphy family's foundry* in Shepparton, Victoria, Australia.

The twins in this photograph are Jill Mary Ellis and Barrie Cyril Ellis.

During the campaigns of Word War I these water carriers became popular as places for gossip, telling tall stories, and for promulgating rumours about troop movements.

Another theory about the word's origin is that the rumbling of an approaching furphy truck sounded like artillery fire, thus leading to unnecessary alarm.

*Try saying that quickly five times.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Making parliament angier: a rant.

Our British parliament is a very strange thing. The lower chamber is elected, which provides us with a range of eccentrics such as, I should imagine, is found wherever a country's constitution tips its hat towards democracy.

The upper chamber of the British parliament is even odder. It's called the House of Lords, and it does indeed consist entirely of titled people (though some of them are Ladies (knights and dames and baronets are lesser beings who aren't allowed in)). Ninety two of the members of the House of Lords are so-titled because they've inherited their titles from their ancestors; a few have their titles because of their jobs (ie they're senior clergyman in the Church of England or eminent judges); and the rest, the majority, have been appointed (for life) because they seemed to be wise and useful folk to have around (or because, naturally, they have some dirt on a current politician).

So in the Lords you'll find directors of charities, eminent politicians, captains of industry, academics, actors, and even journalists. The place is well-known for its elderly population, its great intelligence, and its courteous and well-reasoned debate.

(The elected house, the House of Commons, isn't well-known for any of these qualities.)

People have been trying for ages to think of less bonkers way of populating the upper house. Particularly dim-witted, I think, is one I saw in the Telegraph newspaper.

A better system would be to allow all knights and dames into The Upper House that would truly put a cross section of the population in there.

A cross section? 

Oh dear. 

I can't see how it's going to help if people start getting angry.

Word To Use Today: cross. This word comes from the Latin crux, which means cross.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: serious accents.

English doesn't use many diacritical marks (by which I mean the lines and wiggles placed around letters that we usually call accents). We see them in words like naïve and Noël, and in very obviously borrowed words like soupçon and fiancée, and that's about it.

And then there's poetry.

Very early English poetry will sometimes be printed with a dot over some of the e s, like this: ė, to show that they are to be pronounced as separate syllables. In Praise of Mary, by that stalwart of verse Anthologies Anonymous, begins:

Of one that is so fair and bright
Velut maris stella,
Brighter than the dayės
Parens et puella,
I cry to thee; thou see to me!
Lady, pray thy son for me,
Tam pia,
That I motė come to thee,

In later stuff, the mechanism changes from a dot to the sort of mark called a grave. It looks like this: è, and even in prose it's occasionally used to show that the difference between a man who's agèd (age-ed) and something merely aged, like wine.

The song from Shakespeare's play Cymbeline that begins 

Fear no more the heat o' the sun 


Quiet consummation have,
And renownèd be thy grave!

Which makes us wonder, of course, what's so grave about a grave accent?

Well, this:

Nuts and Bolts: grave (as in accent). This word is nothing to do with the burying kind of grave, but it is to do with the solemn kind. This grave comes from Old French, from the Latin gravis, related to Greek barus, which means heavy. 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: funky.

Ooh, ooh, ooh, as has been often remarked, the funky gibbon.

Are you funky today?

In the USA funky is quite likely to mean evil-smelling, so I hope you're not funky in that way, but here in Britain funky will probably mean new-styled, brash, and endearingly eccentric.

Of course sometimes funky means to do with funk music. It's all connected, you know.

By tobacco, actually.

Time to look out one of my sillier hats, I think.

Thing To Be Today But Only In A Good Way: funky. Funk was used in 1600s America to describe tobacco smoke. (The same word was used to mean to smoke tobacco, too.) Funk came from the Old French funkier, meaning to smoke, and eventually this gave rise to the idea of funky music: dirty, soulful, or earthy stuff like the early blues, and therefore something impossibly cool.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: something fungous.

Fungous can mean the same as fungal, that is derived from, or caused by, a fungus (and those can be things as various as the smell of dry rot, mushroom ketchup, St Vitus' Dance, or the holes in bread). But it has another meaning.

Something fungous appears suddenly, spreads itself all over the place, and then disappears.

So that's practically all TV talent contest winners, then; and to those we can add most youth slang, and, I should imagine, fidget spinners:

 File:FIdget Spinner.png
photo by BlueAvocado

(Fidget spinners? Well, they...sit on your finger and spin. They are said, though without, as far as I can see, any evidence whatsoever, to aid concentration. 

There are videos of fidget spinners in action on YouTube, if you're interested, but I'm afraid I lost the will to live before I got round to choosing one to upload.)

Spot the Frippet: something fungous. This word comes from fungus, which is the Latin for mushroom. It's probably something to do with the Greek spongos, sponge.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Sunday Rest: slush fund. Word Not To Use Today.

It may be a convenience to The Word Den's gloriously international audience to know that, although in most places a slush fund is a secret account containing money designed for corrupt purposes, in US ships a slush fund holds money made from the sale of kitchen waste.

Though this is, obviously, a distinction with very little difference.

File:Pig in a bucket.jpg
photo by Ben Salter

Sunday Rest: slush fund. Slush is related to the Danish slus, sleet and the Norwegian slusk, slops. The word fund comes from the Latin fundus, which can mean either the bottom, or a piece of land.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Saturday Rave: Robert Raikes' Big Idea.

I had no choice but to go to Sunday School. My dad was the Superintendent, you see, so there was no escape. 

I didn't mind too much, on the whole, though being suddenly appointed teacher of the infant class one day when another teacher didn't turn up was a bit alarming. Especially as I was only ten years old at the time.

Sunday School, by my  time, was purely a vehicle for religious instruction and observance, as it largely seems to have been in 1769 when the first Sunday School was started by Hannah Ball in the English town of High Wycombe. 

But that changed rather when the newspaper publisher Robert Raikes got involved in organising Sunday classes for children. In the course of his charitable work he'd seen a lot of poor children incarcerated as criminals, and he believed strongly that education was the best route out of the very great poverty that made crime so difficult to avoid. 

He supported his Sunday School financially himself to begin with (Sunday was the only day when the children weren't at work) and used his own newspaper for publicity purposes. He started the first school in 1780, and by 1831, despite lots of sneering from the already well-educated and opposition from people who were worried about Sabbath-breaking and other forms of undesirable worship, the Sunday Schools were bringing literacy to a quarter of the children in England.

Think of that: a quarter of all the children in England, educated by volunteers.

Soon after that, in 1833, the British Parliament began the process of taking on the burden of providing education for children. 

It was a sign that Robert Raikes' heroic campaign had been won.

Word To Use Today: school. This word comes from the Old English scōl, from the Greek skholē, leisure spent in the pursuit of knowledge.