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.

File:Wildbunchlarge.jpg
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.






Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Thing To Be Today If It Rocks Your Boat: flamboyant.

Flamboyance was originally to do with flames, but not now.

Just think: you can wear head-to-foot flaming crimson velvet and still fade stodgily into the background (for an example, see a curtain or a row of theatre seats near you). You can wear an orange silk cravat and still be the most boring (if visually painful) person in the room.

No, flamboyance is to do with the joy of being watched, a confidence in being admired, a happy contempt for those who fail to appreciate the wonderfulness of you. It's expressed in a bold gaze, a raised eyebrow, an elegant turn of the wrist, a confident bray of welcome.

It's being happily certain that no one anywhere will get even close to stopping you being exactly what you want to be.

It sounds fun, doesn't it?

I don't know, though. On the whole, personally, I'm pretty sure I'd be much happier spending the evening at home with a good book.

Ah well.

Thing To Be Today If It Rocks Your Boat: flamboyant. This word is French for flaming, from flamboyer, to flame.

Having said all this, if you search for flamboyant on Wikimedia Commons, you'll find that most of the images are of trees.


Monday, 17 July 2017

Spot the Frippet: frock.

I don't see nearly as many frocks round here as I used to, which is a pity as they're always interesting.

No, no, they are. Even if you have no knowledge of fashion, even if you even think fabrics are beneath you (almost certainly true if you're sitting down) then ask yourself: why has that person chosen to wear that frock?


photo by  Glenn Francis

Is it a uniform (and if so, why is the uniform of that particular design)?

File:Mary Cassatt - Children in a Garden (The Nurse) - Google Art Project.jpg
painting by Mary Cassatt

Is it to protect the wearer from the elements (unlikely, if it's a frock)?

Is it to conform to standards of public decency (to some extent, almost certainly)?

Is it to proclaim membership of a group?

File:Christian Dior Dress.jpg
dress by Dior (well, who wears Dior?)

Is it to annoy/offend members of a group?

Is it to show off?

File:Betsey Johnson, Red Dress Collection 2007.jpg
Photo of designer Betsey Johnson by The Heart Truth

Is it to prevent people showing off?

File:Gymslip.jpg

Is it to attract admiration?

File:Rihanna AMA 2009 Red carpet.jpg
photo of Rihanna by Keith Hinkle

Is it to prevent attracting scorn?

Oh yes, there's a lot of interest in frocks.

For the entirely blokeish men among you there are frock coats, of course:

File:Frockovercoat 1903.jpg

 though these are seen more rarely nowadays than men wearing frocks

And in New Zealand there are frock tarts, which are what the rest of us would call costume designers for the large and small screen.

Go on, see if you can spot a frock

Extra points of you can spot a spotted one.

Spot the Frippet: frock. This word comes from the Old French froc and is related to the Old High German hroc, coat.




Sunday, 16 July 2017

Sunday Rest: coinsure.

Coinsure, I thought: coinsure? 

Is that some clever way of telling if coins are fake?

Perhaps a coinsure is a chute that confiscates coins of the wrong weight...or even an app for telling if the Queen looks a smidgen too grumpy, or if the unicorn on the pound coin has the wrong number of horns.

Or perhaps it's a way of stopping coins from being eaten by parking meters; or a belt-mounted device for storing coins so we are never without the means of buying a desperately needed bottle of water (because, as the whole world keeps telling us, feeling a bit thirsty is practically, like, lethal. Yeah, right).

Coinsure...you know, that's a really interesting idea. I'd better look it up.

Hang on...

...coinsure. Here it is.

Coinsure: to insure jointly with another.

Oh. Co-insure. I get it.

Well, that was a massive disappointment, wasn't it.

Word Not To Use Without A Hyphen Today: coinsure. The co- bit is Latin, and is short for com- meaning, in this case, together. Insure probably comes from the Middle English assuren, to assure, and before that from the Latin sēcūrus, to secure.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Saturday Rave: Twitter

Twitter was launched on July 15 2006.





A Tweet, at a maximum of 140 characters, is a terrific thing. The format focuses the mind of the writer, and wastes very little of the time of the reader. Everything is revealed very quickly - though I have to admit that the revelation, while a great shining and valuable thing, is not always to the advantage to the tweeter.

Twitter has helped organised protests, wars, revolutions, riots (for example in Iran, Gaza, Egypt and England, respectively). It's been banned in China, Iran, North Korea, Turkey, Venezuela and Egypt.

It's helped organise assistance for people caught up in bush fires, and provided a means of discussing the latest episode of a soap opera.

The Pope tweets, as do 124 other Heads of State (but the most followed person on Twitter is Katy Perry). 

Twitterbots tweet, too. They are robots pretending to be people. They never get bored or tired and are believed to be persuasive.

Twitter can be narcissistic, vicious, witty and hilarious. It provides news, gossip, information and some simply wonderful poetry.

Force for good or force for evil?

Both. Either. But a force.

Word To Use Today: one in a sentence which contains fewer than 140 characters. That means you can choose any of them. Even pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis fits. 


Friday, 14 July 2017

Word To Use Today: anchovy.

According to a djs surveyanchovies are the most hated food in Britain.

Poor anchovies. They're salty little things, sure enough, and the advice I was once given in a respectable newspaper to add an anchovy to the gravy of a steak pie proved sadly unreliable (it imbued only a faint suspicion of drains), but on the whole an anchovy seems an innocent enough thing.

Still, a survey can't be wrong. Can it.

The reason I'm thinking about anchovies is because I recently came across the anchovy pear, and after the gravy debacle I must say it gave me pause. Research proved at first only more confusing because the scientific name of the anchovy pear is Grias cauliflora, and a cauliflower is of course a vegetable and neither fruit nor fish. In fact, the anchovy pear is said to resemble in taste a mango. 

To make matters even worse, the tree on which the anchovy pear grows occurs in Jamaica and South America, whereas the anchovy itself is to be found off southern Europe, and even there very seldom up trees.

So how on earth has the anchovy pear got saddled with the name anchovy? I mean, it's not a fish, and it's not salty. A fruit doesn't have hundreds of very tiny bones. A fruit can't swim (though the anchovy pear can float). 

So is the name anchovy a failed attempt to pronounce some native word, or...

...ah. At last! I've found the answer. 

The name anchovy pear was given to the fruit in the 1700s because it was used a lot as an hors d'oeuvre, just as were anchovies.

Though presumably not on the same dish.

Word To Use Today: anchovy. Anchovies are small members of the herring family. The word comes from the Spanish anchova, perhaps from the Greek aphuē, small fish. Cauliflory is the habit of some plants to form flowers on their trunks or branches rather than on the ends of their twigs.




Thursday, 13 July 2017

Fulsome: another rant.

Look, can we just stop for a moment and contemplate the interesting fact that the people who rant loudest about a word being used in a new (or, as they usually put it, wrong) way are also those who like to inform us, with a satisfied smirk, that the word wrong comes from the Old English wrang, injustice.

This makes absolutely no sense at all, obviously, but, hey, it seems mean to spoil their fun.

Having said all that, sometimes it's sad to see a good word die, and although I'm largely resigned to the use of the word fulsome to mean enthusiastic instead of insincere (as when, entertainingly, the British Deputy Prime Minister in the House of Commons suggested that our Fire Service was owed fulsome praise), now we have a new horror. 

The actor Julian Rhind-Tutt, a man who claims to read Tolstoy and Dickens, has referred in a Radio Times interview to his plump, fulsome sofa with big curved arms and lots of padding.

I don't know what's more appalling: his use of the word fulsome in this context, or the fact that I know absolutely exactly what he means.

Word To Use Today: sofa. This word has changed its meaning, too. In the 1600s it described a dais upholstered as a seat. The word comes from the Arabic suffah.









Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Nuts and Bolts: sigla.

You know siglas?

No, you do, you really do, though a sigla might be for you an unknown known (a real category, though one missed out by Donald Rumsfeld in his famous speech).

A sigla is a list, with explanations, of all the symbols to be found in a book. If the compiler of the book has any sense it'll be at the beginning where people will find it before getting bewildered by squiggles like ß, Ɣ or ᵿ.

Couldn't do without them, could we?

Word To Use Today (though probably not out loud because that might be showing off): sigla. Sigla is a word like agenda, that is, it's a Latin plural, so the word siglas, actually therefore a plural of a plural, shouldn't have a Latin-looking ae ending. The word sigla is the plural of the Latin siglum, which is a diminutive of signum, sign.



Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: scabrous.

Here's a satisfying word: scabrous.

It can mean scaly, or rough in a way that looks quite scaly. This is no surprise: you can hear the roughness of the scaly surface as you say the word.

Not many of us have scales (except, almost universally, on our eyes) but the word scabrous has acquired other, linked, meanings. It can mean indecent, as in a scabrous joke. Scabrous is a rather useful word in this context because it doesn't necessarily point an accusing finger in quite the same way as the words indecent or indelicate do.

The trouble starts if you use scabrous in its third meaning, which means difficult to solve. A scabrous problem presents the user with, well, a scabrous problem: is your problem merely a problem that's really hard to resolve? Or is your scabrous problem an indelicate one? 

Not that I can imagine an indelicate problem that isn't tricky to solve.

So there we are. Scabrous: lovely on the tongue, but liable to cause problems.

If you see what I mean.

File:Iberian worm lizard.jpg
Iberian Worm Lizard. Photo by Richard Avery

Thing Probably Not To Be Today: scabrous. This word comes from the Latin scaber, which means rough. 


Monday, 10 July 2017

Spot the Frippet: sage.

The fashion at the moment is to fry sage leaves in butter until crisp and then throw the results over something bland. Traditionally, though, a British person was most likely to come across sage inside a chicken as sage and onion stuffing.



There's also a cheese called Sage Derby

File:Sage derby cheese.jpg
photo by Jon Sullivan

And the only thing wrong with it as far as I'm concerned is that it tastes of sage. And looks like marble.

Ah well.

Sagebrush describes one of several sage-like plants which grow in North America and have a vaguely sage-like sort of smell.


photo by Peemus

Sage grouse live in the sage brush and perform their incredible mating displays there.

File:Greater Sage-Grouse (7094209181).jpg
photo by Pacific Southwest Region

This leaves us with the other sort of sage, which is a person revered for his or her wisdom, which isn't going to be an easy spot because we're not too good at reverence nowadays. 

Mind you, that might be because practically everyone is an idiot.

I suppose to find a sage you'd have to look out for someone whom age has mellowed rather than caused to become bitter and twisted; someone whose mind has been enlarged by experience rather than narrowed by disappointment; someone who has learned to extend a wide charity and understanding towards the whole world instead of being eaten up by frustration; someone who is still fascinated and charmed by life.

Well, good luck with that one.

Spot the frippet: sage. The plant word comes from the Old French saulge, from the Lain salvia, which means safe or in good health (it was used a lot in medicine). The wise-person word comes from the Latin sapere, to be aware.


Sunday, 9 July 2017

Sunday Rest: pouffe. Word Not To Use Today.

Pouffe, pouf, whatever.

File:Zafu2.jpg
Photo by Dontpanic 

Apart from the fact that the stupid things are heavy, too low, ugly in form, present a tripping hazard, are unsuitable for elderly aunts, and take up far too much space, how on earth can anyone say the words do have a seat on the pouffe without embarrassment?

Because I certainly can't.

Word Not To Use Today: pouffe or pouf. This word was borrowed in the 1800s from French. Pouf has also been used historically to describe various bits of padding,whether they support a lady's powdered hair or her ridiculous panniers of her skirts.


Illustration by Claude-Louis Desrais

Poor Marie-Antoinette's pouf was one of the reasons she was targeted during the French Revolution. Poor woman: executed for a pouf!


Saturday, 8 July 2017

Saturday Rave: The Dow Jones, and other numbers.

On 8 July 1032 the Dow Jones Industrial Index sank to 41.22, its lowest level of the Great Depression.

The Dow Jones was named after a couple of businessmen called Dow and...but you're ahead of me. The idea is that the Dow Jones looks at thirty very big US companies that give the public an opportunity to buy a share of the profits. If the company is making lots of money then naturally the price of a share of the profits will go up, and if it's doing badly then it will fall.

All these results are collected daily, massaged a bit, and then we end up with a sort of overall average for how well the US economy is doing.

Unfortunately it doesn't work quite as well as it sounds. For one thing people are always ignorant and often idiots: sometimes they'll pay silly prices for shares because no one has told them a company is failing, and sometimes people get frightened and sell their shares at silly prices for no real reason at all.

Sometimes people with money just decide that buying a share in a company will be better than keeping the money in, well, money, and that can affect things, too.

Still, there are similar systems in place all over the place. In Britain we have the ridiculously named FTSE (that's pronounced footsie) 100; France has the unfortunate-sounding CAC; Oman the MSM-30; Poland the WIG; Spanish the jumpy-sounding IBEX-35; and Romania the surely far-too-frank BET-10. On the other hand Argentina has the encouraging MARVEL, and Bulgaria the SOFIX. 

The USA has about eighty different indexes all together, but what of the original Dow Jones? 

At the time of writing it stands at 21,493.86.

Even an ibex would have trouble jumping that high.

Word To Use Today: index. This word is the Latin for pointer.


Friday, 7 July 2017

Word To Use Today: nosegay.

Yes, all right, this word meaning a small bunch of flowers is almost totally unusable, but it's still charming and adorable.

Nosegays used to be carried in the hand or else stuck on the head or bodice. 

Perhaps we could bring them back for bridesmaids or something.

Or even men.


photo by Runner1928. Wakefield Cathedral, Maundy Thursday 2005

Word To Use Today: nosegay. Go on, I dare you. This word comes from nose, meaning, well, nose, and gay, which means toy or ornament.


Thursday, 6 July 2017

Saying what you mean: a rant.

A professional writer probably feels the same way about emojis as Ingres felt about the photograph. It's a question of having spent decades getting the best you can at a skill, only for it to become instantly available to anyone.

A writer might have spent years and years of trying to acquire the skill to tell jokes or break hearts in print, or make those same hearts race with fear or excitement, and now all anyone has to do is copy in a picture of a grimacing yellow face.

Bitter? Me?

And now, to make things even worse, Prof Vyvyan Evans has published research which claims all sorts of benefits to using emojis, especially when communicating with men.

To a woman, for example, the phrase do whatever you like is quite likely to present a final opportunity to avoid a terrible quarrel. To a man it's quite likely, unfortunately, to appear to mean do whatever you like.

But if you bung an angry emoji in there:

File:Emoji u1f620.svg

then all is clear (except, of course, that the woman in this case may, at least subconsciously, be aiming at misleading the man into the terrible quarrel).

Prof Evans also tells us that emojis will help us with finding people to date, and talking about awkward subjects; and if we really do want to get a particular precise message through to people, and we're not that skilled at writing, then they well might.

The only trouble is that so often, sadly, disguising what we're saying is rather the point.

Word To Use Today: nothing. As in What's the matter? Nothing. This is a word that can mean everything, nothing, or anything in between. It comes from the Old English nathing, from nan, not one plus thing

Prof Vyvyan Evans's book is called How Smiley Faces, Love Hearts and Thumbs Up Are Changing The Way We Communicate.



Wednesday, 5 July 2017

Nuts and Bolts: danglers.

Danglers have an evil reputation, but it's mostly unfounded. It's true that they tend to scream horrible things about the standard of literacy and the intelligence of the perpetrator, but, hey, they very seldom cause any physical damage.

Avoiding danglers is mostly a question of thinking about what you're saying, and then saying what you mean. Or, if that's too difficult (and it can be) then using very short sentences does the trick. (I must here admit that this was my technique when writing my first published novel, Cold Tom. Several reviews remarked upon the stark concision of the style, too, so that worked nicely on more than one level.)

Anyway, what's a dangler? It's when you begin to describe something, but then you feel the need to use a comma and the sheer stress of it leads you to switch to describing something else.

Leaving the house...

okay, so next we're going to be told who or what was leaving the house, yes?

...the lamp post could be seen shining brightly.

Hey, but you can see what was meant.

Driving along the coastal road, the dolphins flung silver sprays of water into the air.

A point worth making is that there's nothing wrong with either of those sentences if that's what the writer meant. But it probably wasn't.

Six feet tall and built like a gorilla, she decided the truck driver might help her.

Covered with flowers, Fred was sure his entry would cause amazement.

Shining with slime, Holly watched the snail crawl over the pot.

Do danglers matter? 

Well, yes, sometimes. If Holly in the last example is in the middle of a horrific adventure then a snigger will destroy the carefully-wrought atmosphere. Some potential danglers, like hopefully, though, are used so commonly, though, that no one is going to notice them. Hopefully, the vicar will give us a short sermon.

To make the point again, people only end up in knots if they make fancy loops in their sentences.

And, hey, you can even on occasion establish some sort of a literary reputation by keeping things plain and simple.

Word To Use Today: dangler. Dangle is a Danish word which it seems we've borrowed. It is said to be imitative, which is a bit odd, though I think I can sort of see what they mean.







Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Thing To Be Today: démodé

I don't care if Breton stripes are the thing, I am not wearing them. They're smart and practical, and they look lovely on other people, but they make me feel as if I've leaned against a newly-painted fence. 

I'm not wearing any of those tops which look as if they've been attacked by sharks, either. I prefer my clothes to have as few holes in them as possible, which is why I keep my cashmere in a polythene bag.

And all those elasticated blouses designed to cling on round the upper arms? Forget it. The word is providing me with enough to worry about without having to stress about about my clothes falling down.

The six inch stilettos, though, are fine, as long as I'm happy to tower over everyone, don't mind being crippled with agony, and don't have to walk anywhere. Which I do, so I won't.

What else have we? The tropical prints are ridiculous in this English climate, the elephant prints suggest analogies which I am keen not to raise, and the A line dresses make even the models look ample.

So, yes, this year I am démodé.

Mind you, next year may bring us easy affordable wear-and-forget elegance, and then I'll be first in the queue.

Well, I will as long as it isn't orange, anyway.

Thing To Be Today: démodé. Of course if you're a slip of a young thing then fashion is especially for you (and I learnt to play the guitar when young entirely because I wanted one as a fashion accessory). Enjoy yourselves thoroughly!

This French word comes from dé, out of, and mode, style or fashion. The Latin modus means measure or manner.






Monday, 3 July 2017

Spot the Frippet: pilgrim.

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, says RL Stevenson, and travelling hopefully is what pilgrimage is all about.

A pilgrim will be hoping for a better view of his God - or one of his other heroes - and he will almost certainly also be hoping for a better view of himself, because of course you can't see much from the middle of a thicket.

So how do you spot a pilgrim?

Well, it used to be from the badges in his hat (they were the mediaeval equivalent of the got-the-T-shirt thing). Pilgrims also used traditionally to come with a staff and a broad flat hat.

upload.wikimedia.org wikipedia commons 1 1e Sant_Jaume_Pelegr%C3%AD,_Joan_Reixach,_esgl%C3%A9sia_parroquial_de_la_Pobla_de_Vallbona.JPG:
Sant Jaume Pelegri

But it's always been quite acceptable to wear your own clothes:

File:Chaucer-canterburytales-manoflaw.jpg
Man of law from the Canterbury Tales

So in that case how can we spot a pilgrim?

Well, they often come in coach-loads, and their destination might be a cathedral or a concert or a jam factory or a mountain or a sports stadium or a museum. The essential thing is that the object of the journey is spiritual enlargement.

Spiritual enlargement...well, there's a challenge and an opportunity for us all.

In times gone past pilgrims sometimes used to put pebbles in their shoes as a mortification. You can certainly do that if you like.

But I'd recommend taking them out again before you set out.

Spot the Frippet: pilgrim. This word comes from the Provençal pelegrin, from the Latin peregrīnus, foreign, from per, through, plus ager, which means field or land.



Sunday, 2 July 2017

Sunday Rest: middot. Word Not To Use Today.

Middot? It sounds satisfyingly mediaeval, doesn't it - like some cunning pest which infects the beards of billy goats. Sadly, though, middot is just another name for interpunct.

If that doesn't help (and, let's face it, interpunct is an even more horrible word than middot) then they're also called centred dots (or bullet points if they're being used as, well, bullet points).

The middot started life showing the breaks●between●words●in●Latin●sentences. (It took over half a millennium to work out that a space works just as well.)

So there we are.  Middot. Not a bad word in itself, but sadly wrong for its job. The thing itself is jolly hard to make appear on screen, too. The online advice is to hold down the Alt key and type 0183, but it doesn't seem to work in Blogger. Or in Word, either, as far as I can see.

And even now, when I see the word middot, half the time I find myself imagining some cross between a midden and a divot.

And if there's one place not to build a golf course...

Word Not To Use Today: middot. Mid goes right back to the Gothic midjis, and dot comes, rather horribly, from the Old English dott, the head of a boil. Before that it's to do with the Old High German tutta, nipple.

Middot is also Hebrew for measurements, and refers to the description of the second temple in Jerusalem in the Talmud.


Saturday, 1 July 2017

Saturday Rave: William Henry Drummond

William Henry Drummond was an Irishman, but he lived most of his life as a doctor in the French-speaking part of Canada. As he says in the introduction to his first book of poems:

I have felt that they [the English-speaking public] have had little opportunity of becoming acquainted with the habitant [French Canadians], therefore I have endeavored to paint a few types, and it doing this, it has seemed to me that I could best attain the object in view by having my friends tell their own tales in their own way, as they would relate them to English-speaking auditors not conversant with the French tongue.

So, Drummond's not trying to summon up poetic language; he's not trying to be vivid; he's not trying to present a novel or complex moral viewpoint; he's not trying to be original; he's not trying to be elegant. And, sadly, I have to say that as far as I'm concerned he succeeds brilliantly in all this. 

What he is trying to do, though, is present an affectionate, popular and respectful portrait of French-Canadians (especially the country folk) to an English-Canadian audience.

In this he was very successful indeed, too. Good for him!

Here's the beginning of William Henry Drummond's poem The Wreck of the Julie Plante. You can find the whole thing HERE.

On wan dark night on Lac St. Pierre,
De win' she blow, blow, blow,
An' de crew of de wood scow "Julie Plante"
Got scar't an' run below-
For de win' she blow lak hurricane,
Bimeby* she blow some more,
An' de scow bus' up on Lac St. Pierre
Wan arpent** from de shore.

*Bimeby: by and by.

** Arpent. An arpent is apparently a French measure somewhere between between five sixths of an acre and about an acre and a quarter - though as an acre is a unit of area, this still makes no sense at all.

Anyway, hurray for Canada Day, and also for William Henry Drummond and the many many good reasons there are for writing verse.

Word To Use Today: scow. This word comes from the Dutch schouw, and before that from the Saxon skalden, to push(a boat) into the sea.



Friday, 30 June 2017

Word To Use Today: menispermaceous.

Sadly, this glorious word describes a family of plants, the Menispermaceae.

There are about four hundred and forty species of menispermaceous plants to be found in temperate, sub-tropical, tropical and desert regions. They provide the poison-dart substance curare, and from curare we get Tubocurarine, which is used to relax muscles during surgery. Other menispermaceous plants are used for stomach problems including dystentery, and as a yellow fabric dye.

Jateorhiza palmata - Köhler–s Medizinal-Pflanzen-080.jpg
Jateorhiza palmata from Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen 1887.

Ah well...

...it's still good for a snigger, though, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: menispermaceous. This word comes from the Greek mēnē, moon, and sperma, seed.


Thursday, 29 June 2017

Lunatic Luxury: a rant.

Do you call the field you've just covered with houses by its fine and ancient name of Boggy Bottom? Or do you recast it slightly as Moor Valley?

What if you're setting up a hotel in what used to be a prison? Do you have your own private joke and call it Malmaison,* as is the hotel situated in the old Oxford jail; or do you go all sarcastic like the owners of The Liberty Hotel in Boston, which used to be the Charles Street Jail? Or do you air-brush the past completely, as does the Four Seasons Hotel in Istambul? Or do you make no bones about its history, like the Hotel Jail, Luzern, or the Karosta Prison in Latvia?

What if you want to persuade someone that they should buy a house in a former Lunatic Asylum? Well, surely nowadays we're so open-minded and inclusive that if anything this will be a positive selling point?

The famous Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum, fondly referenced by such great men as PG Wodehouse and CS Lewis (and the setting for Will Self's interesting Umbrella) has, I see, reinvented itself. It's now called the Princess Park Manor. 

I looked at the prices. A two-bedroomed flat outside London for £790,000? You'd have to be mad to pay that much to live...

...ah. 

Word To Use Today: hatch. This word comes from the Old English hæcc and is related to the Dutch hek, gate.

*Yes, I know about the Hotel Chain and the Empress Josephine, etc. But it still means bad house, and it's still funny.


Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Nuts and Bolts: Gothenburg's colon.

The city of Gothenburg in Sweden has many delights (just follow that link if you don't believe me) but we shouldn't really be calling it Gothenburg.

For one thing Gothenburg sounds, well, Gothic, whereas in fact the city wasn't successfully founded until King Gustavus Adolphus came along in 1621, which was long after the Goths:

File:Goth-p1020646.jpg
photo by Rama

oh, no, sorry, not that sort of a Goth. This sort:




had stopped being a force in any land. 

It is the case, though, that the city of Gothenburg is in Gothia, the ancient land of the Goths, and it does stand on the Göta älv, or Gothia River. There's long been a fortress, or borg, there too.

In fact, although the Swedish form of the city's name is Göteborg, the French formal form is Gothembourg, and the Iberian form is the rather dashing Gotemburgo, basically if you say Gothenburg everyone everywhere knows what you're talking about, and this has been the case for so long that even Göteborg University has changed its name to University of Gothenburg in many international contexts. 

But Göteborg is a modern city, and in 2009 the people in charge decided they'd better come up with a wheeze to show they've moved on a bit from the Ancient Goths. They wanted to do something about the dots over the o in Göteborg at the same time: these dots were felt to be a bit of a nuisance, a bit formal, a bit old-fashioned, a bit insular, a bit hard to type; and so the good people of Göteborg came up with a nice new spelling of the town's name: Go:teborg.

Do you see what they've done there?

Personally, I like it. I'd never have thought that it was possible to make a colon cool, but the good people of Go:teborg really seem to have done it.

And good, I say, for them.

Thing To Use Today: a colon. This word comes from the Greek kōlon, which means limb (a colon started off meaning a whole passage, not just a punctuation mark).




Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Thing To Dream About Doing Today: fewtering.

If a fewtrer is a worker in felt, and a fewterer is a keeper of greyhounds, what does the verb to fewter mean?

Well, it can mean two things, though sadly neither of them is anything to do with greyhounds. To fewter can mean to pack together (presumably because you make felt by squashing wool into a mat) and it also means to put a lance into its rest. The inside of a lance-rest, you see, is lined with felt.

Yes, yes, I know, that's of absolutely no use whatsoever to more or less everybody.

But then the useless information is so often the best.

Isn't it.

File:Knights jousting, lance tips broken on shields.jpg
photo by Pseudopanax 2013, Harcourt ParkUpper Hutt*

Thing To Dream About Doing Today: fewter. This word comes from the Old French feutre, filter or felt, from the Latin filtrum, filter. 

The word fewterer is, sadly, nothing to do with any of this. The word comes from the Latin vertragum, greyhound.

*No, I can see a lance rest, either. Still, you get the general idea.

Monday, 26 June 2017

Spot the Frippet: damsel.

Coleridge, in an opium-enhanced vision, famously saw a damsel with a dulcimer. I'm prepared to accept that dulcimers are difficult to spot nowadays:

File:Appalachian dulcimer.JPG
Appalachian dulcimer, photo by Eihpossophie

but what about damsels?

A damsel is an out-of-date word for a young unmarried female or (to use another very old-fashioned word) maiden. The basic feeling behind the word is that a damsel is delicately beautiful, mysterious, and to be cherished.

Of course I know that nowadays young ladies are strong and independently-minded and equal to absolutely everything and all that, but, I don't know...perhaps it might be a nice to remember from time to time that they're also lovely and to be valued. Possibly even protected, sometimes.

If you cannot spot a damsel (for political reasons, perhaps?) then how about a damsel bug

File:Grey Damsel Bug - Himacerus major (15398326551).jpg
photo of a grey damsel bug by Line Sabroe

They're relations of the bedbugs, but they eat other insects instead of people. Which is sort of a good thing, I suppose, if you're human.

A damselfly is a type of small dragonfly which tends to rest with its winds folded across its back.

File:Common blue damselfly (Enallagma cyathigerum) male lateral.jpg
photo of a Common Blue Damselfly by Charlesjsharp of  Sharp Photography, sharpphotography

Or there are damselfish, which are very beautiful, though I must admit unlikely to be spotted swimming along a High Street near you.

File:Cocoa damselfish.jpg
photo of a Cocoa* Damselfish from USGS

Still, who needs them when you have so many of the human kind around?

File:The Damsel of the Sanct Grael or Holy Grail.jpg
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Damsel of the Sanct Grael.

Spot the Frippet: damsel. This word comes from the Old French desmoisele, from the Latin domina, mistress. 

*I think this is the cocoa damselfish, so called because the bit that's blue in this photograph is sometimes brown.


Sunday, 25 June 2017

Sunday Rest: hyponasty. Word Not To Use Today.

If only the word hyponasty really did describe someone with such an irresistible desire to do evil that he went about proclaiming no one can stop me now! before falling, complete with fluffy white cat, into an elephant trap he'd dug for someone else earlier then hyponasty might be one of my favourite words.

Sadly, it describes the process where a plant grows extra cells on its undersides, making its stems etc turn upwards.

Pity.

Word Not To Use Today: hyponasty. The word-beginning hypo- comes from the Greek hupo, under. The word-ending -nasty comes from the Greek nastos, pressed down.

This derivation makes no sense to me at all.


Saturday, 24 June 2017

Saturday Rave: Elizabeth's poets.

There was quite a fuss when Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne. 

Well, of course there was, but the occasion had a special significance - or people thought it might - because we had, not just a new queen, but a new Queen Elizabeth. The first one, you see, had proved extremely interesting.

File:Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait') by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger.jpg
portrait by Marcus Geeraerts the Younger

And, sure enough, the new one is, too, if in rather different ways:

File:Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip visiting NASA, May 8, 2007.jpg
photo by NASA?Paul E Alers

God bless her.

Anyway, among the many splendours of the Court of the first Elizabeth were a whole bunch of politicians who relied upon the queen for their power. And what sort of a man did Queen Elizabeth want to reward and encourage? Well, being good-looking and amusing helped.

So: how do you amuse a queen?

You sing, you dance, and you write poetry.

The courtier poets included the Earl of Oxford (the one who, it has been said, wrote Shakespeare's plays (cleverly, several of them postumously)); Edward Dyer; John Harington; Philip Sidney (the your need is greater than mine one); Walter Raleigh; Fulke Greville; Robert Sidney; and the Earl of Essex. 

So when the new Queen Elizabeth came to the throne, hopes were raised of a new generation of dancing,singing, poet politicians.

On the whole, it didn't happen, and looking round at our current crop of world politicians I can only say, with utmost fervour, thank God for that.

Fulke Greville's literary life lasted nearly fifty years, and he ended up as Chancellor of the Exchequer (the man in charge of the money). Here's the end of his Chorus Sacerdotum.

If Nature did not take delight in blood,
She could have made more easy ways to good.
We that are bound by laws, and by promotion,
With pomp of holy sacrifice and rites,
To teach belief in good and still devotion,
To preach of Heaven's wonders and delights:
Yet when each of us at his own heart looks,
He finds the God there, far unlike his books.

Word To Use Today: pomp. The word comes from the Old French pompe, from Latin pompa, procession. It's related to the Greek pompein, to send.




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?