This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Friday, 26 May 2017

Word To Use Today: scuppet.

Scuppet is a deeply satisfying word which rhymes with puppet and muppet and so promises good things.

What's a scuppet

Well, sadly, nothing quite as much fun as a muppet or puppet. A scuppet is a shovel. It can be a hand-held iron one like this early American scuppet, which was used for digging fortifications, or there are speciality scuppets for shovelling hops. A hop scuppet is a bit like a tray on a pole, with the rectangular shovelling bit made of hessian, but any straight-sided shovel with the edges turned upwards can be a scuppet.

Even if you have no particular plans today for digging fortifications or moving heaps of hops, then the word scuppet can be used as a verb, and the great thing is that it makes the task sound easy and fun. You might scuppet some flour into a bowl, or some compost onto the garden, or some chips (you call them fries in America, I understand) onto a plate.

Best of all, if you're headed for the seaside, you could take a bucket and scuppet and build some castles on the sand.

File:Sand Castle.JPG
photo by Orkedshafika

Word To Use Today: scuppet. This word was scopette in Middle English, and probably means little scoop. Scoop comes from the Middle Dutch word schōpe.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Considerably richer than you: a rant.

Hey, I've been offered a new credit card. It's a really good one.

You see, it's a mastercard, which has to be good, right? I mean, obviously, it's a card for masters. 

And that's not all. 

This card, you see, it's not for your ordinary masters, oh no. It's designed for elite people - in fact for world elite people.

And it's not just for any old master of the world elite, either.

You see, this card I've been offered is actually a Premier World Elite Mastercard.

How about that?

Impressive, huh?

Yep, I thought so.



...perhaps I'll wait to be offered a Superior Premier World Elite No Riffraff Mastercard. 

Because suddenly this one's started seeming rather ordinary.

Though, to be honest, they really lost me at For an annual fee of £195...

Word To Use Today: elite. This word comes from the Old French eslit, chosen, from eslire, to choose, from the Latin ēligere to elect.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Nuts and Bolts: the making of the Koran.

After the dreadful events in Manchester, I thought I should write about the holy book of Islam, the Koran. 

Here's a quotation from the Koran: 

Those who follow the messenger, the Prophet who can neither read nor write, whom they will find described in the Torah and the Gospel (which are) with them  7:157.

So we can take it as established that the Prophet Muhammad could neither read nor write. This was quite usual for someone in Mecca in the 600s. There was, moreover, an established tradition at the time (as nowadays) of learning texts off by heart, so it would have been quite natural for the Archangel Gabriel to convey God's words verbally to Muhammad, as we have been told was the case.

The revelation of God's words didn't come to Muhammad all at once, but on various occasions, the first one happening in Mecca when Muhammad was forty years old. That was twenty two years before his death in the year 632 CE (CE stands for Common Era, but it's the same as AD). 

Of course the possibility of another message arriving from God meant that a complete Koran couldn't be compiled while the Prophet lived. So: where was the incomplete text of the Koran kept between Muhammad's first revelation and his death? It would have been in the memories of Muhammad and his followers, of course, but was the text written down, too? 

I was going to say that no one's sure, but it would be nearer the truth to say that plenty of people are sure, but no one has the sort of proof that convinces everyone else.

So there we are. The wise scholars disagree, and I, certainly, do not know.

It seems to me that this is a matter for humility...

...but then I remember the Manchester Arena and I wonder what act, what act in all the world, could be more full of terrible pride than the taking of a life?

Word To Use Today: Koran. This word comes from the Arabic qur'ān, which means reading, or book, and comes from qara'a, to read or recite.


This is the Basmala, a phrase that appears many times in the Koran. It means in the name of God, the Most Gracious, the most Merciful.

If only man were more like God.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Thing To Do Today: rewild somewhere.

To rewild an area is to encourage it to return to its natural state. In particular, it's associated with reintroducing wild animals such as wolves or beavers or lynx.

It is, obviously, controversial, especially if it puts people under threat of being flooded (beavers) or eaten (wolves and lynx (although, really, you're very very unlikely to get eaten by either unless you go and break your leg: and then, really, being eaten would just be a way of putting you out of your misery, wouldn't it?)).

Lynx lynx poing.jpg
Eurasian lynx by Bernard Landgraf (User:Baerni) - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In any case, anyone not trying to raise livestock is likely to find the idea of rewilding both romantic and virtuous, especially as it's almost certainly going to be happening a long way away.

The other advantage of rewilding, of course, is that it gives one the perfect excuse to put off mowing the lawn.

Thing To Do Today: rewild somewhere. This word comes from wild, of course, the Old English form of which was wilde.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Spot the Frippet: verso

You might never have noticed it, but there are versos all over the place.

A verso can be the back of a sheet of printed paper; the left-hand pages of a book (these are also sometimes called reversos, and are the even-numbered ones);

File:Open Book B&W.jpg
photo by Creigpat

or the side of a coin without a big head on it (though, admittedly, this is more usually called the reverse):

File:Moneta del Regno d'Italia da 10 lire 'Biga' del 1927 - verso.jpg
Moneta del Regno d'Italia 10 lire 'Biga' photo by Franco aq

So, verso. Well, that was dead easy, wasn't it?

Spot the Frippet: verso. This word was made up in the 1800s from the Latin phrase versō foliō, which means the leaf having been turned, from the Latin vertere to turn (which also gives us the words vertebra and vertigo), plus folium, a leaf.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Sunday Rest: sloganeer. Word Not To Use Today.

We are bombarded and peppered with slogans, nagged and prodded by them. 

Elections, advertisements, campaigns...we stumble from recognition to boredom to exasperation to dull acceptance, until in the end the wretched things have wormed their way so deeply into our minds that their presence is longer consciously noted at all.

You and I could very easily come up with some examples, but personally I think we've suffered enough.

Who makes up these bite-sized bits of fatuity?

Why a sloganeer, of course.

Sloganeerslogan ear...

Ah well. There never was much chance of peace for our time, was there.

Sunday Rest: sloganeer. Slogan comes from the Gaelic sluagh-ghairm, a war cry, from sluagh, army, plus gairm, cry.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Saturday Rave: the legacy of Thomas Thorpe.

Who was Thomas Thorpe?

Well, the chances are that you've never read a word he wrote - as far as I know none of his words have survived - and some people regard him as a great villain.

On the other hand...

Thomas Thorpe was the son of an innkeeper. Born in 1569 in a small town north of London, he was apprenticed to a bookseller, and after his apprenticeship ended Thorpe became...well, something that hadn't really existed in Elizabethan England before, but which today we'd probably call a publisher. That is, he arranged for works to be printed and sold, while not being a printer or owning a bookshop himself.

No one knows how that worked as a commercial enterprise, but he seems to have stayed in business reasonably successfully all his life.

So why do some call him a villain?

Well, he published, and therefore saved for posterity, several of Christopher Marlowe's and Ben Jonson's plays, and, most famously, he also published Shakespeare's sonnets. 

And what was so villainous about that? 

The thing is, it's been claimed that the sonnets were published without Shakespeare's permission (though that wasn't Thorpe's general way of working: Jonson's play Sejanus His Fall is so carefully reproduced that it was almost certainly prepared for printing by Jonson personally). 

Mostly, nowadays, though, Thorpe is reckoned to be a man deserving of our gratitude. One thing's for sure: if he was a crook then he was a crook who had some popular and longstanding friends.

Thorpe may have dedicated Shakespeare's sonnets to the mysterious Mr W H, and decided on the order in which they were printed in the book. If he did, then all I can say is that he could presumably have dedicated them to someone a lot richer than Mr W H, and that the order of the sonnets seems to be about as logical anyone can get them.

So here's to Thomas Thorpe, publisher, and probably one of the good guys.

Thank you.

Word To Use Today: publisher. This word is to do with making things public. It comes from the Latin pūblicāre.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Word To Use Today: didgeridoo.

Where does the word didgeridoo come from?

Well, I didn't know, either, but if I'd had to guess I would have said it came from one of the native Australian languages. 

Surprisingly, however, this doesn't seem to be the case. There are, of course, many native Australian words that mean didgeridoo, it's just that none of them bear any resemblance to the word didgeridoo. Favourites of mine include Gunbarrk, lipirra and ngarrriralkpwina.

So who made up the word didgeridoo

There's more than one theory about that. One is that it's an imitation by an English-speaker of the sound a didgeridoo makes.

What do you think?

Personally, I think I'd have put more wow whirr and buzz sounds into an imitation of a didgeridoo - called it a buzzwerwhirrer, perhaps - but didgeridoo isn't an impossibly bad attempt.

On the whole, though, I prefer the rival explanation of the word didgeridoo's derivation. 

But that's mostly because it's just so utterly unexpected and bizarre.

Word To Use Today: didgeridoo. This word first appeared in print in 1908 in the Hamilton Spectator, and it was noted soon afterwards that the instrument produced just one sound, which was written down didjerry, didgerry, didjerry.  I can't deny this is quite convincing.

However, the word didgeridoo just might come from the Irish Gaelic phrases dúdaire dubh or dúidire dúth, which might mean anything from native trumpeter to black long-necked person, eavesdropper, or chain smoker.

I think this may be a case where ignorance really is bliss.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Fancy London: a rant.

I'm having a bit of trouble with my eyes. They should improve in a couple of months - I'm having a series of small operations - but just at the moment I'm having to get by on the vision of rather less than one eye.

It makes crossing a busy road a bit scary, but mostly I'm fine, and I've actually found there are real compensations. The other week I was making my purblind way though central London, and opposite the British Museum I saw (but not very well) what seemed to be a typical tourist gift shop, full of Union Flags and teddy bears dressed as Yeomen of the Guard.

It's called Fancy That of London, and it's probably a very fine shop indeed.

I read its name as Fancy Tat.

I was still laughing when I turned the corner into Bedford Square.

Word To Use Today: tat. This word meaning tawdry items of little value seems to come from the word tatty, a chiefly British word meaning shabby or worn out. Tatty is probably related to the Old English tættec, a  tatter.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Nuts and Bolts: paralipsis.

Paralipsis is a lovely word, a moonlight-and-nightingales sound to be whispered to one's own true love as the shades deepen.

File:Albert Pinkham Ryder - The Lovers' Boat (c.1881).jpg
Painting "The Lovers' Boat" by Albert Pinkham Ryder

And if what you were whispering was 'never leave me, my darling, for I would be left in anguish and darkness, not to mention the fact that I'd delete you as the beneficiary of my pension scheme,' then, while not using the word paralipsis itself, you'd be using it as a figure of speech.

For paralipsis involves drawing attention to something while pretending it's not worth mentioning. It might be ushered in with the words it goes without saying, or leaving aside, or I refuse to discuss, or needless to say, or it is not my place to criticise, or, as above, not to mention.

The number of ways of saying it shows how common it is. It's crafty, too: I'm not going to call him an idiot

I won't bring up your infidelity because that's all water under the bridge.

I'm not even thinking about the cost.

Finally, obviously, there's no need to tell you that paralipsis is also sometimes called apophasis. 

Is there?

Thing to use today: paralipsis. This word is Latin and means neglect, from the Greek paraleipein, to leave aside. 

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Thing To Be Today: numerate.

For me, on the whole, maths was always a way of avoiding having to do arithmetic.

I don't know if that makes me adequately numerate or not, but I get by. I'd need a bit of notice to work out whether a crocodile swimming across a river with a current of 4 metres per second would catch the vole walking along the far bank towards his burrow, but then luckily I don't come across wild crocodiles much. 

Or, to be honest, ever.

Having said that, I do like equations, and a curly x I find a sweet little creature, rather like the vole mentioned above. 

photo by Peter Trimming

To the panic-stricken equation-phobic, can I just say: a) calm down; and b) you know that equals sign? The thing that looks like this:



well, all an equation is, is something with an equals sign in the middle. 

So 2 = 2 is an equation, and so is 1 + 2 = 3 

All right so far?

1 + 3 = ? is an equation, too, and it's one you can probably solve if you know what the equals sign and the question mark mean, which I'm sure you do.

(Yes, well done, the answer is 4.)

Right then, equation-phobics, here's the secret. 


That curly terrifying x you get in equations? It's just another way of writing a question mark. Honestly, that's all it is. And the y s and z s are the same. All just signs for a question mark.

So, can you solve this equation?

2 - 1 = x

Answer below.

Thing To Be Today: numerate. Because numerate people aren't necessarily the most creative on a literary level the word numerate has been made up by taking the Latin word for number, numerus, and making it more or less rhyme with literate. 

Well, it does the job, doesn't it.

Answer: 1.

See? You can do it!

Monday, 15 May 2017

Spot the Frippet: hog.

What's a hog?

Well, it depends where it is.

In Britain a hog is a domesticated male pig weighing over 102 kilograms (odd, those extra two kilograms, aren't they).

File:Pig 8907.JPG
photo by Steven Lek

In America a hog can be any sort of a pig at all - or a large and powerful motorbike

In Australia and New Zealand, and some rural parts of Britain, a hog is a sheep (yes, a sheep!) as long as it's under a year old and has not been sheared (a hogg, with two g s, however, is a sheep before its second shearing).

File:Sheep on Hogg Hill. - - 44677.jpg
I'm not sure whether these are hogs - or hoggs - but they're on Hogg Hill, England. Photo by Ronald G Nash

But of course everywhere, and very easily spotted, there are human hogs: greedy, selfish, and probably not too careful about their personal hygiene. 

By Source, Fair use,

Yes, there are hogs all over the place: even if you're shipwrecked and haven't the food to make a hog of yourself then you may still have the sort of hog that's a brush for scraping a ship's bottom (the hog of the ship itself is the amount the ship's keel droops at the ends).

Lastly, a hog is a beam in a building that goes upwards in the middle, like a hog's back.

There: hog. Nice easy spot, I should think. And if it's not, I can only suggest laying your hands on a couple of doughnuts and a mirror.

Spot the Frippet: hog. This word is Celtic. The Old English form was hogg, and the Cornish is hoch.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Sunday Rest: divulge. Word Not To Use Today.

What do you divulge

Secrets, of course - but that's only if you're pompous and self-important and old and don't mind sounding as if you're suffering from a nasty attack of indigestion.

The amazing thing is that some people don't.

Word Not To Use Today: divulge. The truly horrid word comes from di- (the through meaning, not the two one) and the Latin vulgus, which means common people.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Julian of Norwich: Revelations of Divine Love. A rave.

Julian of Norwich's Revelations of Divine Love, written between the 1370s and the 1420s, is the first book we know of written by a woman in the English language.

That's reason enough to celebrate by itself.

We know very little indeed about Julian herself. We don't know if she was ever married, or whether she was a lay person or a nun. We don't even know if her name was Julian (though it wasn't an unusual name for women around that time) or whether she actually came from Norwich (though she probably did come from somewhere close).

We do know, however, a little about the beginnings of Revelations of Divine Love. When Julian was thirty she had a very serious illness, and during this illness she had what she believed to be a series of visions of Christ.

When she was recovered she wrote down these visions (this is The Short Text), of which only one fairly early copy remains.

Over the next forty five years or so Julian thought deeply about these visions, and eventually, over the course of many years, she wrote The Long Text (of which, again, only one early copy survives), which consists of a series of meditations upon her experience.

The church of SS Andrew and Mary - St Julian of Norwich - - 1547398.jpg

What does Julian have to say? Well, she lived in a time of plague, revolt, and famine, and yet she believed that God was both mother and father of us all; that sin is a way of guiding people to do the right thing; and that, in her most famous saying, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

And whether or not you believe any of it, that must be a shining example of faith, hope and charity.

Word To Use Today: divine. This word comes from the Latin dīvus, a god.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Word To Use Today: selachian.

You say this word si-LAKE-ee'n, so this is a word that can be thrown about as casually as a silk scarf.

Selachian describes the members of the Selachii, which sound as if they should be Ancient Greek star-nymphs but which are actually fish which have to make do with cartilage instead of bones: that is, sharks, skates, dogfish and rays.

I was going to make a joke about them living in seas, not lakes (selachian, geddit?) but I discover to my horror that there are fresh water sharks:

Bullshark Beqa Fiji 2007.jpg
bull shark, photo by Terry Goss

Speartooth shark melbourne.jpg
Speartooth shark, photo by Bill Harrison 

which means that I'm going to be counting my toes if I ever have to paddle across a river, I can tell you.

One last word on the subject of sharks: people killed by sharks every year, on average, fewer than ten; sharks killed by people every year, about a hundred million.

So there's an example of hideous ferocity, isn't it?

Word To Use Today: selachian. This word is Greek and comes from selakhē, a shark, and is related, rather wonderfully, to selas, brightness.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A blanket ban: a rant

According to a piece in The Telegraph online of 1st May 2017, the German parliament has voted to ban public officials wearing burkas while on duty.

File:Burqa Afghanistan 01.jpg

photo, North Afghanistan, by Steve Evans

The article goes on:

There have been widespread calls for a more general ban on wearing the burka in public, but legal experts say a blanket prohibition would be unconstitutional and would be struck down by the courts.

Well, it's not my place to criticise foreign governments, but I must say I'm surprised at that. 

I mean, if you were wearing a blanket you wouldn't be able to see anything.

Word To Use Today: blanket. This word comes from the French blancquette, from blanc, white, a word which originally came from some Germanic language or other. The Old English blanca, for instance, meant white horse.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Nuts and Bolts: couplets or distiches.

A couplet consists of two lines of verse. Traditionally, the two lines make sense all by themselves, and, also traditionally, they rhyme.

If they don't rhyme, then a couplet will have a blank line before and after it. Otherwise, obviously, you won't be able to tell the thing's a couplet.

A distich is basically the same thing as a couplet, but while rap, for instance, quite often uses couplets, describing a rap verse form as consisting of distiches will just make you look...odd.

There have been various fashions for using couplets. Chaucer's Canterbury Tales featured them:

This carpenter hadde newe a wyf
Which that he lovede moore than his lyf

(that's from The Miller's Tale) and Shakespeare liked to use them, especially as a sort of summing up, both in his sonnets:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

and scenes from his plays:

The time is out of joint, O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!

(those are from Sonnet III and Hamlet)

Then there came Dryden and Pope, who were perfectly happy to write whole books full of the things. In Pope's case they are works of the sharpest possible wit:

'Yet Chloe sure was formed without a spot'-
Nature in her then erred not, but forgot.
With every pleasing, every prudent part,
Say, what can Chloe want?'- She wants a heart.


After that fashion started branching out a bit, but the couplet has never died altogether. Browning ends Apparent Failure:

That what began best, can't end worst,
Nor what God blessed once, prove accurst.

Which is interesting but wrong; and a couplet ends Dylan Thomas's Do not go gentle into that good night:

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

In fact couplets are still all over the shop:

You'll wonder where the yellow went
When you brush your teeth with Steradent.

Oh dear, I've just realised that there's only one way to end this post, and that's with a couplet:

The poet soars, he tramps through bogs
But on and on the couplet jogs.

Well, you can't say I don't show willing, can you.

Word To Use Today: couplet. The word couplet comes from couple, which comes from the Old French word meaning a pair. Before that it comes from the Latin cōpula, which means bond.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: bamboozle someone.

A fine upright person like you wouldn't want to cheat, mislead or confuse someone, but how about bamboozling them?

It sounds much more justifiable and lovable, doesn't it, even though it means the same thing.

I don't know if this is because the word bamboozle itself sounds so silly, or because bamboozle seems to be a mixture of cartoon violence - bam! - and what sounds like a harmlessly small drink (fancy a boozle, vicar?) or because no one makes a career out of bamboozling people. Your master criminal will cheat, con and lie, yes, (and your small-time crook will do the same, only less effectively) but a bamboozler is, basically, sniggering.

The problem is, how do we make sure we're not being more clever than good-natured? How can we be sure to bamboozle with grace? It's all a bit, well, bamboozling.

I think today I'll be bamboozled instead.

That's no effort at all.

Thing Probably Not To Do Today: bamboozle someone. This word appeared in the 1700s, no one is sure from where, but at the time there was a bit of a fashion for making up silly words, for example fustiluggs (clumsy fat person), shabberoon (tramp) and whippersnapper (child).

Monday, 8 May 2017

Spot the Frippet: emperor.

They were never very thick on the ground, were emperors, and nowadays the only human emperor officially still in place is Emperor Akihito of Japan.

Good health and long life to him!

But, even so, I went hunting for emperors the other day. I took with me a small piece of rubber tubing tied up in a bit of netting. 

(It was all right, no one saw me.)

Sadly, I failed to attract an emperor, even though (according to the seller) the tube contained the perfume of a female emperor, a scent to send a male emperor moth:

Hyalophora columbia f.JPG
By Lavaltrois - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

crazy with desire.

Ah well, there are other emperors. If you're in Antartica (though you almost certainly aren't) there's the emperor penguin:

File:Emperor Penguins (11240321653).jpg
photo by Christopher Michel

There are many different types of emperor butterflies:

File:CSIRO ScienceImage 2807 Tailed Emperor Butterfly.jpg
photo by Entomology, CSIRO

and there is an emperor angelfish:

File:Emperor angelfish, Pomacanthus imperator.jpg
photo by Brian Gratwicke

an emperor bream:

photo of yellow striped emperor by Richard Ling 

and (brrr!) and emperor scorpion:

File:Female Emperor Scorpion.jpg

photo by Rosa Pineda

If all these are difficult, or impossible (as they are for me) then there's an emperor piano concerto by Beethoven (it isn't dedicated to an emperor or anything, the title was a marketing ploy devised by his publisher) an emperor string quartet by Haydn (one bit of which is based on the tune Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, or God Save Emperor Franz:

 and there's also an Emperor Norwegian black metal band.

Which would you like to spot most?

Spot the Frippet: emperor. This word comes from the Latin imperātor, commander-in-chief, from imperāre, to command, from parāre, to make ready.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Sunday Rest: ptochocracy. Word Not To Us Today.

Ptochocracy is hard to say (tockOCKcrassee), hard to spell, and very hard to find in the dictionary.

But still, as it means government by the poor, the chances of any of us having to use it are very small indeed.

Wird Not To Use Today: ptochocracy. This word is Greek, and comes from ptochos, poor, plus kratos, power.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Saturday Rave: the penny black.

On 6th May 1840 the first postage stamp as we know it today (more or less) was put into use. (They were sold from the beginning of the month, but you couldn't use them before the sixth.)

It looked like this (only smaller).

The lady in the image is Queen Victoria, the place was Britain, and the man who did all the administration and arrangements was Rowland Hill.

Who invented the idea of the stamp is hotly contested (some of these stamp collectors are men of high passions, you know) but William Dockwra and Robert Murray established a pre-paid London penny post in 1680 where proof of payment came in the form of a design hand-stamped on the letter or package. It looked like this:

This seems to be why a stamp is called a stamp.

Other inventors of the idea of the postage stamp include the Slovenian Lovenc Košir and the Scot James Chalmers - but it was Rowland Hill who got all the paperwork and persuasion and admin done and finally got the idea adopted.

The new (outside London) pre-payment system was a great advantage to the people delivering the letter: first, payment was guaranteed; and, second, the sender had an incentive to restrict the size and weight of the item to be sent. 

In fact it meant that letters became so easy and cheap to send that even quite poor people could keep in touch: and so my grandfather, in about 1910, could send a postcard to his sweetheart, my grandmother, which simply said see you tonight.

Word To Use Today: stamp. The Old English word was stampe, which referred of course to the foot sort of stamping.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Word To Use Today: puckerood.

What does puckerood mean?

Well, what do you think?

It sounds like what happens when someone's puckered up for a kiss only to be fobbed off with a twitched eyebrow, a frosty Good Morning! and a brisk handshake (and now I come to think about it we really need a word for that) but sadly puckerood means to be absolutely shattered, or to be ruined.

It's a New Zealand word, but the Kiwis are a generous lot and I'm sure they wouldn't mind the rest of us borrowing it.

Perhaps we could even use it as an excuse not to kiss people.

File:Sunbathe, deck chair, shadow Fortepan 11607.jpg
photo: Foto fortepan ID 15607, Wein Sarolta

Word To Use Today: puckerood. This word comes from the Māori pakaru to shatter.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Being fruity: a rant

I was looking for somewhere to visit over the Easter weekend when I came across an intriguing event on

Conexion [sic] & Waltham Cross.

Learn to connect with yourself, and embrace your pears. Disconnect your mind, an let you go. Listen to your body, your senses, your feelings. Learn to improve your relations...

Well, most of my relations could do with a bit of improving, so I made a bee-line for the fruit bowl and had a go at embracing some pears.  

I think I must have been doing it wrong, though, because none of my family show any signs of becoming less eccentric. 

Ah well. 

I probably needed to go to the event.

Word To Use Today: pear. The Old English word for pear was pere, and before that the Latin was pirum.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Nuts and Bolts: words beginning with vr.

When you think how many people's very first word is vroom! it's surprising that English has so few words using the sound vr.

There's vraisemblance, which we've borrowed from French, but generally we say verisimilitude instead, a word less huskily elegant than vraisemblance and more...silly. But, hey, there's the English for you.

Then we have some words borrowed from Africaans: vrot, meaning rotten or putrid; vrou, a woman or wife; and vrystater, a native of the Free State. Sadly, though, those are all really pronounced fr, not vr.

There are some words of now-no-longer-used Middle English: Vryday (Friday) vram (from) vreo (free); and there are some obscure dialect words: vraic (seaweed, as in wrack), vreend, friend, and vrocht (work); but they're too similar to our current versions to be useful. 

That leaves us with just two words: vriester, which means a girl (or did, once, in about 1650) and vril, which is more interesting.

Vril is a mysterious electromagnetic substance invented by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in his 1870 best-seller The Coming Race. The coming race in question, the Vril-ya, have supernatural powers derived from vril.

If this seems about as obscure as the other vr words, then I direct you to Bovril:

File:Bovril 250g.jpg
photo from GFDL

 This is a tarry substance popular in Britain. It is very much like yeast-extract (though made from beef). The Bo- bit implies that it's to do with bovine animals (Latin bos, ox) and the vril lays claim to supernatural powers.

How the makers manage to get away with it I just can't think.

Word To Use Today: one with a vr in it. Vraisemblance is to do with the French vrai, which means true. Vrou is basically the same word as Frau. Vriester comes from the Dutch vrijen, to woo. But, really, the only words that are usable of all these are Bovril and vroom.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Thing To Do Today: yabber.

You know the idea that animals develop similar features if they have to make a living from the same sort of environment?

Kangaroos and deer, for instance, have quite similar grass-nibbling heads even though they're not even forty-fifth cousins.

Well, words can be a bit like that, and yabber is a rather lovely example.

Yabber is a fabulous Australian word which means talk, or, as we've been saying in English since the 1400s, jabber

Yabber can be used either to describe the action of having a yabber, or the talk itself.

Yabber and jabber. Is the similarity a coincidence? Well, I doubt it, though the words don't seem to be any more related than deer and kangaroos.

But still, the thing is, do we want to yabber? Isn't it a bore when someone starts yabbering on?

Well, sometimes. But in a word of computers I'm beginning to think of it as more and more of a luxury, and so personally I find I'm all for it.

Yabba dabba doo!

Thing To Do Today: yabber. The chances are that this word comes from the Australian native Wuywurung language, in which yaba means to speak.

Monday, 1 May 2017

Spot the Frippet: something psittacine.

Psittacine (you don't say the p) means to do with, or resembling, a parrot.

(Parrots here includes budgies, cockatoos and macaws etc.)

But what resembles a parrot apart from a parrot?

Disappointed British footballers are often said to be as sick as a parrot, so I suppose they're suffering from psittacine levels of nausea or chagrin.

Parrots are famous for repeating themselves, and there are plenty of people around who exhibit psittacine levels of that.

Parrots are also said to mummify in death, and though I doubt if many of us have access to actual mummies, you might find something similar to one hiding at the back of the vegetable rack.

And is that ear-splitting screech a real parrot, or is it coming from your local playground?

Of course parrots are celebrated, more happily, for their gorgeous colours. Look out for someone in scarlet:

File:Copan birds and wildlife-Scarlet Macaw (6995983203).jpg
scarlet macaw, photo by Murray Foubister

 electric blue:

File:Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus) (27569556513).jpg
hyacinthine macaw, photo by Bernard DUPONT

lime green:

File:Thick-billed Parrot 2.jpg
thick-billed parrot, photo by Ltshears

or the sunniest yellow:

Neophema chrysogaster male - Melaleuca.jpg
orange-bellied parrot, photo by JJ Harrison (

And that's not even the only way a person can resemble a parrot:

File:Cool Mohawk - Flickr - Gexon.jpg
photo by Gexon

And that's not to mention noses...

Spot the Frippet: something psittacine. This word comes from the Latin psittacus, parrot.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Sunday Rest: skin. Word Not To Use Today.

'What an ugly word skin is,' says Lord Peter Wimsey, in Dorothy L Sayer's book Have His Carcase.

He's right, you know.

Word Not To Use Today: skin. This word has been ugly for a long time. The Old English form was scinn and the Old Norse skinn.

File:Ivatan Old Woman.jpg
Eight five year old (and I think very beautiful) Ivatan (Filipino) woman. Photo by Anne Jimenes

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Ithaka by Constantine P Cavafy

Robert Louis Stevenson said 'to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labour'

It's a bit grim when you see the whole quotation, isn't it?

Luckily Constantine P Cavafy, in his short poem Ithaka (or Ithaca, if you like: I know it rouses strong passions either way), has a richer take on the idea of travel.

You can read the whole text HERE (and I do recommend it) but here is one stanza, translated from the original Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.

Hope the voyage is a long one,
May there be a summer morning when,
With what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.


Oh, the delicate glory of that shower of blessings! 

May they fall around you, too.

Word To Use Today: voyage. This word comes from the Old French veiage, from the Latin viāticum, food for travelling, from via, road.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Word To Use Today: spelk

Here's a fierce little word to give us comfort in adversity.


There's a fair bit of anger built into the word, which is just as it should be because a spelk is a splinter of wood.

Ow! I've got a spelk!

It's mostly used in Scotland and Northern England, but I'm sure no one will mind the rest of us borrowing it.

Word To Use Today: spelk. This word comes from the Old English spelc, which was a surgical splint.

If you're an astronaut then spelk also means pieces of reinforced plastic fabric too short to be any use.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

International World Day: a rant.

Did you know that March 25 was World Malaria Day?

World Malaria Day? 

But why on earth would anyone want a special day to celebrate malaria? Good grief, apart from anything else people will hardly have recovered from the World Tuberculosis Day parties on March 24.

Still, at least we have a good long break, then, before World Rabies Day on September 28.

For all these chances to celebrate we must give thanks to the United Nations, who have cast their official blessing on days throughout the year. 

For instance, March 23rd (gosh, that really is a busy week) is World Meterological Day, when I suppose our parties rain champagne and snow desiccated coconut; and if you fancy something more substantial than that then 16 October is World Food Day.

What? You want something to celebrate a higher plane of existence? Well, how about Nov 16, World Philosophy Day? Or Dec 11, World Mountain Day?

Or perhaps they're too up-in-the-air. Can I suggest Nov 19, then, World Toilet Day? That has to bring a flush of joy to all nations.

By this time you will of course be asking what about today? So, what are we celebrating today?

Well, the UN doesn't seem to know this, but April 27 is World Tapir Day.

And that is certainly something well worth celebrating.

File:Baby tapir.jpg
photo of a slightly grumpy baby tapir by frank wouters

Word To Use Today: I've already featured the word tapir on The Word Den, so how about malaria? It's from the Italian mala aria, which means bad air.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Nuts and Bolts stichometry.

'Have you got the scrolls?'

'No, it's just the way I walk.'

Ah, there's nothing like a good old joke - and, yes, all right, that was nothing like a good old joke.

Anyway, the thing is, how do you pay your scribe? By the page? By the line? 

By the line probably seems fairer because otherwise you'd get crafty scribes writing in big letters, or cutting down the size of the pages.

But you're still left with the problem of how long a line is. A scribe's view of the long verse-line called the alexandrine will presumably be: 

Most lothsom, filthie, foule, and full of vile disdaine

(that alexandrine is from Edmund Spencer's Fairie Queene) 

but the same scribe might fall upon a translated haiku with enthusiasm:

The wren
Earns his living

(the original haiku was by Kobayahsi Issa)

As a matter of fact the length of a standard line was worked out in Ancient Greek times, and the standard unit of line-length seems to have been based on those two long-term best-sellers, the Iliad and Odyssey. This meant a line could easily contain fifteen or more syllables, or about thirty five letters (which is even longer than your average alexandrine).

Poor scribes!

This counting-lines system is called stichometry.

However, stichometry didn't exist entirely to stitch up the scribes. It also served to tell you how long was the manuscript you were buying; to give you some idea where in a manuscript a particular feature was to be found; and to check that the scribes hadn't gone and left out the clue to the first murder.

Later we changed system and began to use page numbers, and later still, with the advent of ebooks, we switched to percentages.

But I'm still left feeling a bit sorry for those poor scribes.

Word To Use Today: stichometry. This word comes from the Greek stikhometria, from stikhos, a row or verse, which is related to steikhein, to walk.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Thing Not To Be Today: be graveolent.

As it happens, something graveolent is nothing to do with graves, nor with being serious.

Graveolent describes a plant that stinks to high heaven.

File:Anthemis cotula Habitus 2011-5-22 SierraMadrona.jpg
Anthemis cotula or Stinking Chamomile, photo by Javier martin

I suppose the word may give some of us a dignified way of declining an extra helping of broccoli...

Thing Not To Be Today: graveolent. This word was made up in the 1600s from the Latin words gravis, heavy, and olēre, to smell, presumably by someone who fancied himself too refined to refer to a good honest stink.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Spot the Frippet: sequin.

Here's something entirely frivolous.

Sequins are the small shiny discs sewn onto clothes or, well, anything that you want to make shinier, really. 

They seem to have been used since 2500 BC in India, and I wouldn't be surprised if shiny fish scales were used before that to give joy to the world.

Is it possible to have enough of them?

File:Pink Sequins Fabric-6871045279.jpg
photo by Sherrie Thai

well, possibly, I suppose, if you're designing uniforms for policemen; but on the whole if you're young and care-free then the more the merrier:

Where else could this be? A beautiful Sambista bedecked in Brazil's traditional green and yellow celebrates two of Brazil's great passions—soccer (futbol) and Carnival. Photograph by Nicolas de Camaret, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-2.0
photo by Nicholas de Caramet

or for the oldies, how about these:

File:Moroccan babouche, burgundy leather with silver sequins, 20th century - Bata Shoe Museum - DSC00131.JPG
photo by Daderot

Let it shine!

Spot the Frippet: sequin. Sequins are named after a Venetian coin, officially called the ducat but nicknamed the zecchino. When the coin stopped being minted in the early 1800s the name was transferred to the decorations. 

Before that, the word comes from the Arabic sikkah, die for striking coins.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Sunday Rest: prepubescent. Word Not To Use Today

So, a child is born, fresh into the world and trailing clouds of glory: 

File:Sleeping baby with arm extended.jpg
photo by PinkStock Photos D Sharon Pruitt

Then, gradually, magically, he grows from innocence and fragility into beauty and intelligence: 

File:Happy child.jpg
photo by امید رستمی نیا

File:Nice sweet children playing in sand.jpg
photo by Hillebrand Steve, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

By Andrew Butko, CC BY-SA 3.0,

And how do some people (basically those with no more wit in their souls than a poached egg) describe him?


It's enough to make you weep, you know.

Word Not To Use today: prepubescent. This word comes from the Latin pūbēscere to reach manhood, from pūber, adult.