This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Saturday Rave: The Beguiling of Gylfi by Snorri Sturluson

What do you do if there is a new and powerful religion in the land, and you are afraid that the glories of the old (if false) one will be discarded and forgotten?

If no one makes a record of the old religion it will all be lost - but being the author of such an account is likely to make you very very unpopular.

The Icelander Snorri:

Snorre Sturluson-Christian Krohg.jpg
illustration by Christian Krohg

 (called Snorri Sturluson by those who feel uneasy about someone having a name with no surname or patronym attached) solved this problem, in the Iceland of the 1220s, by writing The Beguiling of Gylfi, or Gylfaginning, where the old lore is inserted into the story of a king who stumbles upon the hall of the old gods.

The format is odd - a section of prose followed by a few lines of verse. Admirers of Tolkien will hear the echoes of his work in it - and those who can't stand Tolkien can admire it just for what it is.

Surtr fares from the south / with switch-eating flame, --
On his sword shimmers / the sun of the War Gods;
The rock-crags crash / the fiends are reeling;
Heroes tread Hel-way; / Heaven is cloven.

The Beguiling of Gylfi forms part of Snorri's Younger Edda. It's 20,000 words long, and the reason it's called the Younger Edda is that there might have been an older one, which, very sadly, has been lost. 

Thank every heaven that Snorri saved this treasure for us all.

Word To Use Today: Edda. This word might be to do with the place in Iceland called Oddi; it could be something to do with the fact that edda means great-parent, and therefore suggests that the work holds the wisdom of the old; it could be because of the Latin edo, meaning I write, suggests poetic art.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Word To Use Today: ojama-shimasu.

As I come to the end of my second month of living with builders, plumbers, plasterers and electricians, I find myself wishing for an English equivalent of the Japanese ojama-shimasu.

It's a phrase that's said whenever a visitor enters someone else's house, and it means sorry to cause bother.

There's an idea behind the words of being modest, and aware that you're intruding, as well.

It's a conventional phrase in Japan, and it's used so often it probably doesn't always mean very much. But still, for someone like me watching as her house degenerate into a building site, it would give quite a lot of comfort.

Word To Use Today: ojama-shimasu. It's possible, of course, to say the same thing as ojama-shimasu in English, although it takes a lot longer and a lot of care. Still, if you are planning to wreck someone's house, it might be worth doing from time to time.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

Ta: a rant.

Twitter can be a truly great platform full of amazing and beautiful things, but may I just point out that the thank-you tweet is an idleness, an evasion, a scandal, and an abomination?

Thank you so very much to everybody for this kind opportunity to express my gratitude.

Word To Use Today: platform. This word comes from the French plateforme, from plat, flat, and forme, lay-out.

File:Bond Street tube Westbound Platform 1.jpg
Bond Street Tube Station, London, westbound platform. Photo by Oxyman

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: the largest possible capers.

This post isn't about the wildest leaps of dancers:

File:1953 Ballet Grand Pas - Jean-Paul Andreani au Foyer de la danse de l'Opera de Paris.jpg
Jean-Paul Andreani, photo by Christjeudi10  

No, the capers to which I refer are the buds of the Mediterranean bush Capparis spinoza, which we usually come across salted or pickled and used as a flavouring.

Illustration Capparis spinosa0.jpg
Illustration by Otto Wilhelm Thomé

The smaller the capers are the higher their quality is deemed to be, and so there needs to be a clear grading system.

So: do we have minuscule, minute, tiny, small, and medium?

No, the truth is much more lovely. We have non-pareil, surfines, capucines, capotes, fines, and grusas.

And just how gloriously bonkers is that?

Words To Use Today: one that describes a caper. Non-pareil means without equal; surfines means very fine; capucines and capotes are coats or cloaks with hoods; fines means fine; and grusas means dashed in Swedish (though I doubt very much that's relevant as the rest of the words have basically ended up French). My guess is that it's something to do with the French gross, meaning, well, gross. Gruesa is Spanish for bulky.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

Thing To Do Today: reel.

Cotton reels were invented about a decade after the invention of cotton thread, which was itself invented after Napoleon's 1806 Edict of Berlin banned countries in continental Europe from trading with Britain (which made silk and linen thread hard to obtain)

I don't know what people did during the decade they were waiting for the cotton reel to be invented, but the Edict certainly did wonders for innovation and the smuggling industry.

Anyway, reeling. The word started with the sort of reels that fishing line and film come on, and then migrated into meaning the sort of reeling people do when surprised, thumped, or drunk. The word then migrated in another direction to cover certain extraordinary folk dances which involved chasing each other round in circles (though squares and lines also have a major role to play). Here's a Scottish reel:

All in all, reeling presents an opportunity to those of more or less every lifestyle and preference. Whether contemplative fisherman, convivial party-goer, or all-too-convivial-trying-to-find-his-way-home-er.

We're all good for a quick reel.

Thing To Do Today: reel. All these words are connected. They started off with the Old English hrēol, which is related to the Old Norse hrǣlī, weaver's rod and the Greek krekein to weave.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Spot the Frippet: tiller.

A tiller is a lever used to steer a boat:

File:Miss March manning the tiller of the narrowboat 'HEATHER BELL' nas it carried flour from Worcester to Tipton during 1942. D7652.jpg
This photograph shows Miss March manning the tiller of the narrowboat HEATHER BELL as it carried flour from Worcester to Tipton in 1942.

but of course we mustn't forget the dancing Tiller Girls:

Tiller Girls, London Plaza 1928.

though they're no longer in existence (a revival is planned).

Luckily for those of us who live far from both very old-fashioned nightclubs and navigable water, a tiller is also both a grass shoot which comes up from the base of a stem, and another name for a young tree or sapling.

File:Rowan sapling in Gullmarsskogen.jpg
photo: W.carter

though the main question for you to answer is: which of these three meanings gives you most joy?

Spot the Frippet: tiller. The boat-steering word comes from the Anglo-French teiler, the beam of a loom, from the Latin tēlārium, from tēla, a web. The tree/grass word comes from the Old English teīgar, twig. The Tiller Girls were founded by a Mr John Tiller.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Sunday Rest: normcore. Word Not To Use Today.

I've come rather late to the word normcore, which is really sad, because if only I'd been a bit later I might have missed it altogether.

Normcore is now most usually used as a way of mocking old people. I think the idea might be that old folk are so hilariously unattractive they're asking for it. 

What young, beautiful and desirable people do in their mockery is to put on their grandparents' clothes (not literally, of course, or we'd have lots of aged people going around in a state of undress. This would benefit absolutely no one. I mean they put on their grandparents' style of clothes).

This, of course, involves a lot of beige and comfy elastic.

See? Utterly hilarious.

Of course it means these bright young things are forced to wear a permanently ironic expression and go everywhere at a haughty strut, just in case people failed to understand the joke.

But, hey, at least they got to wear some nice comfy flats for a change. So not all bad, hey.

File:Normcore example.jpg
photo by Rossco wm

Word Not To Use Today: normcore. Normcore is a mixture of normal and hardcore. The word appeared in the webcomic Templar Arizona before 2009. To start with the word implied the satisfaction to be obtained in being nothing special, but later it came to signify an ambition to dress so as not to be noticed. This was perhaps a reaction to the tyranny of the fashion world, but, as seen above, the fashion world soon managed to make being unfashionable in this way one of the most fashionable things on earth. 

Ah well.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Saturday Rave: The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes.

Alfred Noyes was born 137 years ago today. I shall be for ever grateful to Noyes for writing Daddy Fell Into The Pond, which was one of the works which opened my mind to the joy of poetry, but The Highwayman is probably Noyes' most famous work.

The whole text can be found HERE, but this is the beginning:

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees.
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas.
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding - 
Riding - riding - 
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.

It's such splendid stuff - I love the sound of the galloping of the highwayman's horse beneath the words - and the whole poem tells a proper story of love, madness, cruelty, heroism and some very nice clothes. Not only that, but it's quite short, and the ending, very neatly, is hinted at in the opening lines.

When Noyes was asked why the poem had become such a success, he said that at the time he wrote it (he was twenty four) he was still genuinely excited by love and adventure and heroism.

I'm much older than that, but surely no one could get to the end of The Highwayman unmoved - and while there are tales like The Highwayman we'll fight old age off yet.

Word To Use Today: torrent. This word comes, oddly, from the Latin torrēns, burning, from torrēre to burn.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Word To Use Today: gusset.

Is there a word that's more satisfying to say than gusset?

On the whole I think not.

A gusset is most commonly a piece of of fabric sewn between the seams of a garment to make it stronger or the right shape. Tights (pantyhose in some places, I understand)

File:Lena pantyhose 200x600.png
illustration by Znakezwamp

often boast of their reinforced gussets. These are the bits which sag down as you wear them and make moving at anything faster than a waddle close to impossible.

Builders use gussets, too. (Yes, even the ones who don't wear tights):

photo by TomerTW  The gusset plate is the bit stuck with rivets. According to Wikipedia they're used to connect truss members. The mind boggles.

Originally, of course (though you'll all know this) a gusset was a piece of mail (the stuff that's usually inaccurately called chain mail) fitted between plates of armour, or into the leather or cloth underclothes worn by knights.

Underwear made of leather and mail?

Good grief. And I thought it was bad enough having to wear tights.

Word To Use Today: gusset. This word  comes from the Old French gousset, a piece of mail. It's a diminutive of gousse, which means pod.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Where Adam stands: a rant.

'I mean, all these celebrity shows. Celebrities? I wouldn't know them from Adam.'

As you will be aware, this has become a very common complaint.

Now, The Word Den is always pleased to be of help, so may I point out that Adam is the one in the apron made of sewn-together fig leaves? 

If he is wearing his apron slung low then a further clue (though this is a matter of some argument) may be that he possesses no belly button.

If your celebrity is female then there will probably be other differences, and for an explanation of these I recommend any standard text book on Human Biology.

Word To Use Today: Adam. According to the Bible, Adam was given his name by God, and He might have decided upon it because Adam is the Hebrew for to be red (the Almighty was perhaps anticipating Adam's embarrassment at his nakedness). Or the word Adam might come from the Akkadian adamu, meaning to make. God made Adam out of earth, which in Hebrew is adamah, so that might be part of the name's origins, too. Indeed, it might even be God's first pun.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: colometry.

Colometry is a thing both gloriously obscure and very simple.

It's the habit of some of the Early Christian Fathers (it seems that the Early Christian Mothers had no truck with it) of arranging their writing so each new phrase was on a new line. This made speaking it aloud both easier and more effective.

It's the difference between this sentence from Emmeline Pankhurst's address in Hartford, Connecticut, on November 13 1913:

I am not only here as a soldier temporarily absent from the field at battle; I am here - and that, I think, is the strangest part of my coming - I am here as a person who, according to the law courts of my country, it has been decided, is of no value to the community at all: and I am adjudged because of my life to be a dangerous person, under sentence of penal servitude in a convict prison. 

and this:

I am not only here as a soldier 
temporarily absent from the field at battle; 
I am here - 
and that, I think, is the strangest part of my coming - 
I am here as a person who, 
according to the law courts of my country, it has been decided, 
is of no value to the community at all: 
and I am adjudged 
because of my life 
to be a dangerous person, 
under sentence of penal servitude in a convict prison. 


Come to think about it, it might not be a bad thing if colometry were still in use today; you never know, our public figures might start making a bit more sense, then.

It's either that or give them lessons in punctuation.

Thing To Consider Today: colometry. This word comes from the Greek kōlon, limb or part of a sentence, and -metry, from the Greek metron, measure.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Thing To Do Today: yawn.

If the purpose of yawning is to get more air into your body (though that's only one theory about it) then why do we spend most of the time when yawning breathing out?

photo: By Daisuke Tashiro - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Well, don't ask me, I haven't a clue, but it's interesting how efficient that short gasp at the beginning of a yawn is. If you want to sing, or play a wind instrument, observe what you do at the beginning of a yawn, because that's the way to get lots of air in quickly and quietly for musical purposes.

No, no, that's all right. All part of the service.

Anyway, here's another question: why is yawning catching?

Again, no one knows (though one idea is that it's to keep a group of animals alert) but it's a widespread phenomenon. Even reptiles will sometimes yawn in imitation of a colleague. Birds sometimes do the same thing. You can even catch a yawn from a member of another species.

But why do we yawn? I mean, if we needed more oxygen then we could just breathe faster. 

Well, yawning might cool down the brain, or signal to your friends that it's time for sleep (or to stop talking about their holiday). On the other hand baboons yawn as a threat; guinea pigs yawn to be bossy; and penguins yawn when chatting up a potential mate. 

Snakes yawn to put their jaws back together after a meal.

So the real expert here, of course, is you. 

Why do you yawn?

Worth thinking about, isn't it?

Thing To Do Today: yawn. This word comes from the Old English gionian, and is related to the Old Norse jgā, gap.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Spot the Frippet: stencil.

Stencilled walls, furniture, and floors have got so screamingly out-of-date over the last thirty years that they're showing every sign of coming back again. This isn't surprising because stencilling has been going in and out of fashion more or less forever.

File:Stencil House, Interior.jpg
This is the Stencil House in Vermont, built 1804. Photo by Storylanding

Indeed, man's very first go at decorating might have involved a stencil:

The appropriately named Cueva de las Manos. The hand-shapes were made in about 7,300 BC. Photo by Mariano.

But where to find stencils now? 

Well, tattoos are often stencilled:

design by Módis Ágnes Vadszederke

as are graffiti:

photo by Victor Grigas

Or, if all else fails, try putting a key or some coins on a flat surface and blowing a little dust over it. 

You'll be part of a very long tradition.

Spot the Frippet: stencil. In the 1300s stanselen meant to decorate with bright colours. The word comes from the Old French estenceler, from estencele, a spark, from the Latin scintilla.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Sunday Rest: goosegog. Word Not To Use Today.

Well, if you can say or hear the word goosegog without wincing at its sugary picturesqueness then it's more than I can.

Still, there's always the version goosegob, which is merely disgusting, and therefore a huge improvement.

Look, just say gooseberry, fool!

photo by Uwe Hermann

Word Not To Use Today: goosegog. This is a word for those who feel obliged to be interesting but have only a rudimentary sense of humour. The goose bit is a mystery: it might come from a group of Germanic words (kraus is one of them) meaning curly or crisp, and before that bent or crooked; or it might be just that people decided to call the thing after a goose for no good reason at all. It's irritating to an etymologist, but happens rather a lot. The gog bit is a form of gob, from the Old French gobe, lump, from gober, to gulp down.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Saturday Rave: An old silent pond, by Basho.

I'm still having a reaction to reading some very long books, so how about a haiku?

Haiku were originally intended to act as an introduction to a longer (and often collaborative) poem, perhaps a tanka or a renga. Later, they began to be valued on as works of art in their own right.

The most famous and revered master of the haiku was probably Matsuo Bashō (1644 - 1694).

Bashō may sound like one of the more obscure Marx brothers, but he's renowned for his incisive delicacy, and in Japan he has even been made a saint.

Here's an example of his work:

 An old silent pond...
A frog jumps into the pond,
splash! Silence again.

* * *

It's enough, isn't it?

Words To Use Today: some carefully-placed ones, perhaps.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Word To Use Today: cordwainer.

A hay wain carries hay:

John Constable The Hay Wain.jpg
Painting by John Constable, of course. (Not that you can see any actual hay, but then that's probably because this isn't actually a hay wain at all, but is probably a wood wain or farm cart. A hay wain would need higher sides to stop the hay falling off.)

and wainscot is wooden panelling on the interior walls of a house:

File:Hohensalzburg Castle 42.jpg
Hohensaltzburg Castle, photo by Gryffindor

so what does a cordwainer do?

Now if you think these analogies are going to turn out to be a load of old cobblers, then you are quite right - though you are possibly wrong about cobblers.

A cordwainer is a shoemaker, or a worker in the sort of very fine leather for which Cordóba is famous; a cobbler, originally, tended to mend (not necessarily make) shoes.

I don't know why that piece of information is so vastly satisfying: but it is, isn't it.

Word To Use Today: the word wain comes from the Old English wægn; wainscot comes from the Middle Low German wagenschot, perhaps from wagen, wagon + schot, planking, related to the German Scheit, piece of wood. Cordwainer is what's left of the word Cordóba once the English had stopped mangling it.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The power of words: a rant.

Words are powerful. The mere act of saying something creates a sort of shadow of truth, however unlikely it is.

Mr Putin, for instance, is a master of creating shadows of truth (and then running away and, presumably, giggling). 

And as for written-down words, they have even more authority than spoken ones (which is presumably why writers are sometimes called authors). That's why there are rules about the claims you can make in advertisements. 

Still, if there's a really good product out there, information about it can still be published. 

Here's a piece from the Kaleidoscope catalogue about the fabric of a pair of jeans.

Emana is a polyamide yarn with bio-active minerals incorporated in the polymer matrix which are said to absorb the waves emitted by the human body and send them back in the form of "Far Infrared Rays". The result is a unique formula which is believed to reduce the appearance of cellulite, reduce muscle fatigue and increase skin elasticity, thus delivering smoother younger looking skin.


...actually, even written-down words aren't that powerful, are they?

Word To Use Today: jeans. This word comes from jean, which is the fabric of which jeans are made. Jean has been around since the 1500s and is short for jean fustian, from Gene, Genoa.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Nuts and Bolts: a guide to bird song.

The voice of the herring gull, according to experts Lars Svensson and Peter J Grant, who wrote the excellent Collins Bird Guide, is 'a strident kyow, repeated and loud when used as an alarm. In anxiety a distinctive gag-ag-ag. Familiar exalted 'laughing' display call is a loud deep and clanging aau...kyyau-kya-kya-kya-kya-kya kya...kyau.'

Now, I call that a simply heroic attempt. Look at the careful hyphenation; look at the use of a bold font; look at the use of the word exalted (a seagull! Exalted!). I am genuinely filled with awe and admiration.

Here is a recording of a herring gull call:

...and I'm afraid I have to say that, for all the skill and dedication of Svensson and Grant, the description isn't actually very effectively...descriptive, is it?

Though it's most definitely not the writers' fault.

Let's have a look at the entry for the House Sparrow.

A great variety of simple chirping or chattering sounds, varied in details according to situation and mood. During courtship, long series of well-spaced monosyllabic chirps slightly varied throughout, e.g. chilp chev chilp chelp chü irritation, typical rattling cher'r'r'r'r'r.

And here is the real thing:

Now, I'm pretty certain that no one on Earth could have done that description better - but it does show the sad limits of the alphabet, doesn't it.

Mind you, YouTube is fabulous.

Word To Use Today: errr...something in either Herring Gull or House Sparrow? Chelp!

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Thing To Indulge In Today: persiflage.

The Word Den is largely an exercise in persiflage, and for all us seekers after knowledge the obvious question is, of course, who?

Who was this Percy, whose frivolous banter and inoffensive teasing caused a whole style of speech and writing to be so-named?

Was he one of the Dukes of Northumberland (who are all called Percy)? Surely not, for if baronets are known for being untrustworthy then dukes are a positive byword for grimness (together with an unhealthy fascination with wood worm and spreadsheets).

So in that case could the Percy in question be that utter fop the Scarlet Pimpernel, aka Sir Percy Blakeney? He's much more likely, light comedy and a bit of joshing being just what you need when you're trying to distract the sans-culottes from the beautiful marchioness hiding under your load of firewood; but sadly Sir Percy Blakeney didn't come to the public's attention until 1905, when persiflage was well-established throughout the English-speaking world.

Famous Percys being, unfortunately, rather thin on the ground, the only other one who springs to mind is Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Very Romantic Poet. 

Well, he's known for many playful tricks, including the desertion of his wife and the abduction of more than one very young lady - how their families must have laughed! - but Percy Shelley for some reason decided to work his stratagems by stealth, and not by fast-talking gaiety and charm.

So where does that leave us? 

Well, with a page of persiflage, that's what. Frivolity and teasing.

Oh, but I do wish there'd been a real Percy, though.

Thing To Indulge In Today: persiflage. This word comes from the French persifler, to tease, from per, which is an intensive, plus siffler to whistle, from the Latin sībilāre.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Spot the Frippet: something apiculate.

No, this is easy. All you have to do is find some leaves, have a good look at them, and see if you can find one with a sharply pointed tip. 

That leaf is apiculate.

File:Fall beech leaves in sun.jpg
photo of beech leaves by Dcrjsr

To be apiculate the leaf must be quite fat in the middle, so pine needles don't count.

File:Hazel sawfly caterpillars.JPG
photo by MEBeton (yes, all right, but that hazel leaf was apiculate before it was nibbled by those annoying Hazel sawfly lavae, okay?)

If you are uninterested in greenery, and see nothing in the countryside so wonderful as yourself, then (as your colossal brain will no doubt have already informed you) all you have to do is take out that sharpened pencil which you keep ready to note down each gem of your shining genius, and admire the point.

Whether you are actually cleverer than a leaf, though, which can turn carbon dioxide into fuel, and replenish the atmosphere with oxygen (as well as often being beautiful and shady, and sometimes deliciously edible) I'm not entirely sure.

Let alone a sharp one.

Word To Use Today: apiculate. This word comes from the Latin apiculātus, from apiculus, a short point. It's connected to the word apex.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Sunday Rest: detritivore. Word Not To Use Today

A detritivore eats, yes, detritus.


The word detritivore's use is usually restricted to those useful animals which tidy away all the various droppings of the rest of us, such a millipedes:

File:Millipede mating.JPG
photo by Muhammad Mahdi Karim

(these are being particularly loving, ahhhh...)


File:Purple emperor (Apatura iris) female.jpg
photo by Charlesjsharp Sharp Photography, sharpphotography

(if you want to lure a Purple Emperor butterfly like this closer then what you really need is a nice fresh bit of dog poo. Yum!)

or crabs:

File:Fiddler Crab - Australia.jpg
photo by Denise Chan

(that's a fiddler crab).

As I say, we owe these creatures a huge debt of gratitude, and calling them detritivores is, I think, rather unkind. (There're also called detritiphages, but that's even worse.) I think we should call them housekeepers or cleaners or something that shows some gratitude and respect.

Ah well. I suppose in many instances we can always fall back on teenager, can't we.

Word Not To Use Today: detritivore. This word comes from the French détritus, from the Latin dētritus, a rubbing away. The -vore bit is from the Latin vorāre to swallow up. 

Saturday, 2 September 2017

Saturday Rave: Bazonka by Spike Milligan

We've tackled a couple of heavyweights recently, but now it's back-to school/work time and so we can stop thinking so hard. 

Here's something short and sweet and cheerful - and, as it happens, it makes a Word Den post all by itself, too (thanks, Spike).

It begins like this:

Say Bazonka every day
That's what my grandma used to say
It keeps at bay the Asian Flu'
And both your elbows free from glue
So say Bazonka every day 
(That's what my grandma used to say)

The rest of the poem can be found HERE. (It's very short.)

Word To Use Today: well, Bazonka. obviously. This word was used by Spike Milligan's grandma, apparently, but heaven knows where she got it from because no one else does.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Word To Use Today: bartizan.

Yes, all right, this is a fairly useless word, but it reminds me The Simpsons so I like it anyway. Think of it as a challenge.

A bartizan, for those to whom the word is new, is a small turret projecting from a wall, parapet or tower.

You know the sort of thing:

File:Chambers 1908 Bartisan.png

How to use it?

The kitchen resembled a particularly well-appointed morgue, with utensils for dismemberment contained in small buckets which hung from rails like bartizans from a mediaeval curtain wall.


Well, I told you it was a challenge, didn't I?

Word To Use Today: bartizan. This word is a version of bertisene, which is itself a mistake because what people were trying to say was bretising. it comes from bretasce, parapet and might come from the Latin Brīto, a Briton.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

A proper apology: a rant.

Look, when I need to look at a webpage and all that comes up on display is that stupid buffering circle swooping round and dismally round then I deserve a proper apology.

Something like this:

We regret that this webpage has proved impossible to load. We apologise for the slow-running of our service and for any inconvenience caused. 

Please click RELOAD, or revisit this webpage at some other time. Thank you.

See? Straightforward and dignified. 

What does no good at all is coming up with a square sad face above a sign that says:

 Aw Snap!

(Aw Snap? What language is that, for heaven's sake?)

followed by:

Something went wrong with displaying this webpage

which, guess what, we already knew.

Good grief. I mean, how many deaths from enraged apoplexy do these people want on their consciences?

Word To Use Today: apologise. This word comes from the Old French apologie, from the Greek apologia, a verbal defence, from apo- away from, or off, plus logos, speech.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: company names.

I used to have a publisher (perhaps I still do, though I don't think they've paid me anything for a while) called Beijing Dick and Sun Glory Children Reading Advisor Incorporated.

The name still delights me, especially as my other publishers tend to have boring names like Oxford, Pearson, or Collins.

But is it a good name?

The advice the business media company Forbes gives on its website is to keep a company name short, pronounceable, relevant and/or memorably clever. Good old Beijing Dick doesn't fulfill many of these criteria (though it is pronounceable) but it does have considerable charm, which goes for something (though not, sadly, for selling books, see above).

But the proof of the pudding, as so often, must be in the eating, so what are the names of the five biggest companies in the world? 

We have Walmart (which doesn't, as far as I know, sell walls); State Grid (power supplies); Sinopec Group (petrol refining); China National Petroleum(more petrol refining); Toyota (motor vehicles (this one is named after its founder)).

Throw in a few other successful companies such as Amazon and Apple, and you can see that only the being pronounceable rule seems to count for much. 

But now there is a new rule. China has just banned companies from having long or strange names. It's thought this ruling was triggered by a Chinese company called (deep breath):

There is a Group of Young People with Dreams Who Believe They Can Make the Wonders of Life Under the Leadership of Uncle Nui Internet Technology Co Ltd.

On the whole I don't think the Chinese need have bothered. I mean, how long is that company going to last?

Not very long under that name, I fear.

Word To Use Today: a favourite company name. Lego, perhaps, which is short for the Danish leg godt, which means play well.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Thing To Do Today: spruce yourself up.

A model, as seen on a catwalk, is a Work of Art. He has been primped, plucked, pumped, polished, primed and posed to be as perfectly pretty as a picture.

File:Ny Nordisk Mode, Catwalk.jpg
photo by Benjamin Suomela

His body is a thing of such splendour that it takes on a haze of grandeur even if wearing an unironed T shirt and an ancient pair of jeans.

File:Male Model John Quinlan 4.jpg
John Quinlan, photo by Sandra Kimball

But on you?

Look, it's the difference between Tracey Emin's unmade bed and your own: it's fine for everyday when no one much is looking, but not for when you show people round.

And anyway, putting on a less stinky T shirt wouldn't do any harm, would it.

Thing To Do Today: spruce yourself up. The first item of spruce clothing was a jerkin made from spruce leather:

Picture of jerkin.jpg

which was reckoned dead smart in the late 1500s. The leather, like the timber of the spruce tree, came from Prussia, which gave us the word spruce.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: camel.

Ah, yes, you may know what a camel is, but did you know that a camelopard (they say) looked like this? 

 Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

And did you know that the hairs on a camel hair brush come from the tail of this creature?

File:Eastern Grey Squirrel.jpg
photo by

(Though they sometimes come from an ox or a pony.)

But that's to take nothing away from the beautiful camel itself:

photo: By Garrondo - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Those one-humped camels in the picture are dromedaries, and the two species of camels with two humps are called Bactrian camels. The second species of these, the Wild Bactrian camels found China and Mongolia is, sadly, extremely rare.

Although camels are usually associated with dry places (and, I'm afraid, bad-temper) there's another sort of camel that's found in water. This camel is either a fender tied to a boat to stop it knocking against a wharf, or a larger buoyant version of more or less the same thing attached to a boat to make it float higher in the water.

So you can get camels on (very) dry land, in the sea - and you get them in the air, too. This is the World War 1 plane called the Sopwith Camel:

RAF Sopwith Camel.jpg

The hump-shaped metal casing designed to protect its machine guns gave the plane its (unofficial) name.

If you're somewhere where there are no boats or camels (which would be a sad thing) then camel is also light sandy sort of a colour. 

This means that, sadly, a camel coat isn't fancy dress, or an item of clothing with some eccentric padding, but a winter garment entirely unsuitable for wearing in muddy conditions.

Spot the Frippet: camel. This word is Old English and goes right back to the Greek kamēlos, the Hebrew or Phoenician gāmāl, and is related to the Arabic jamal.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Sunday Rest: sprue. Word Not To Use Today.

Once written, a book goes first of all to its editor. With any luck the editor will say at once how much she loves the book, but add that there are just a couple of minor things she's slightly unsure about...and basically by means of flattery and reassurance she'll persuade the poor idiot writer to agree to every change she wants.

Well, that's more or less how it works, anyway.

Anyway, once the polite haggling is finished, the book will be published, and then it might be translated and published elsewhere in the world. Now, what the foreign editor/translator does with the manuscript the non-polyglot writer won't be able to discover very easily unless it's in a language very close to English.

The most obvious of these languages is American.

They like things explained, I've found, do the Americans. A simple reference to someone taking biscuits into an office, for instance, is enough to give a US editor the vapours. But we eat doughnuts! she'll say: People will be confused! 

In this instance, as I recall, we compromised on milk.

A lot of the time, of course, a writer doesn't have the time or skill to read through foreign editions, but there was one US edition which swiped me round the face as soon as I saw it. Not only had some editor simplified nearly every sentence (which, as they'd made an exceptionally good job of it, I didn't actually mind very much) but they'd had the insufferable gall to change my name. I write under the name SALLY PRUE. The name on the cover said S PRUE.

Apart from the cheek and illegality of this, sprue is a horrid word. It can mean a particularly smelly form of chronic diarrhoea; it can mean an inferior type of asparagus; or (more respectably) it can mean the channel through which you fill up a mould.

So what did I do about being called S PRUE? Got very cross, of course, both as a champion of equal rights (because it seemed to me that the publisher was trying to conceal the fact that I was female) and as someone who lives by their name. 

It had no effect whatsoever: but it made me feel better.

Word Not To Use Today: sprue. No one knows where the mould or the asparagus words come from, but the diarrhoea word, charmingly, is related to the Middle Low German sprüwe, which means tumour.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Saturday Rave: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Inspired by the hilarious example of so many of our great minds, as revealed in the Sunday newspaper literary columns, my holiday raves have been some of the heaviest, most serious and generally least suitable holiday reads imaginable. 

Last week it was Clarissa, and now it's War and Peace.

It took me half a century to get round to reading War and Peace. Well, I did read the first paragraph several times but it's frankly quite dreadful, and so I put the book aside. 

The trouble is that so many of our great minds (see above), urged to name the best novel they've ever read, have had an inconvenient habit of saying War and Peace, so the dreadful suspicion was always lurking in my mind that the book was a transcendent masterpiece, and that I was missing out on a profoundly mind-altering and moving experience.

So, recently, with a new translation by Anthony Briggs before me (which I trusted would improve that awkward first paragraph) and a very useful list of characters to refer to, I took the plunge.

So here are a few things I didn't know about War and Peace until I actually got round to reading it.

War and Peace has short chapters, many of only two or three pages. This is a great help in making the reader feel he's making progress.

There's a lot more Peace than War.

War and Peace is not a novel. For one thing it's got great chunks of reflections on the theories of history and war in it, and for another the book has also got a lot of actual history in it, too. (If you're saying, well that doesn't necessarily stop it being a novel, then you're right, but Leo Tolstoy himself said that the book isn't a novel, and he should know. 'War and Peace,' he went on, 'is what the author wanted to and could express in the form in which it was expressed'.)

Tolstoy was a great admirer of the works of Anthony Trollope and started off meaning to take Trollope as a model for writing of the book. This may account for some of Tolstoy's addresses directly to the reader, and the completely random hunting scene.

About two per cent of the Tolstoy's final version of War and Peace wasn't in Russian, but in French.

War and Peace is longer than it used to be. The first full-book version missed out many of Tolstoy's philosophical musings (and it was all in Russian).

War and Peace is shorter than it used to be. The Russian alphabet was reformed in 1918 and several useless letters were removed. This made the book about eleven pages shorter.

Tolstoy didn't think War and Peace was much good. 'People love me for my trifles - War and Peace and so on - that they think are important', he said.

The book is famously about Napoleon's march on Moscow in 1812, but the original title of the book was The Year 1805.

It took Tolstoy a year to write the first scene.


Now, the thing is, is War and Peace any good? Well, so many people say it's a masterpiece that I suppose it must be. But personally, I'm afraid I couldn't honestly recommend it.

I mean, that first paragraph...

Word To Use Today: peace. This word comes from the Latin pāx.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Word To Use Today: chrematistic.

Here's a beautifully crisp word: chrematistic.

Chrematistic means to do with money, but it's not the sort of respectable money you get by earning a living. No, the chrematistic stuff is the extra money that goes on the top of a thing's intrinsic worth to make up its price. 

In other words it's the profit which doesn't (some say) profit anyone but the person raking in the dosh.

Chrematistic is also to do with levels of interest, exchange rates, and middle-men. It's the money which grows without obviously doing anything useful on the way. It's been frowned upon by Aristotle, Plato, St Thomas Aquinas, Luther and Karl Marx...

...but, hey, that lot came up with all sorts of weird stuff, didn't they? I mean, Aristotle thought that eels don't reproduce, and Luther thought that a lay person who preached in church should be put to death.

And chrematistic is such a lovely word...

...still, we don't have to approve to use it, do we?

Word To Use Today: chrematistic. This word comes from the Greek khrēmatizein to make money, from khrēma, money.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

An explosion of..something or other.

I saw a headline in an online newspaper the other day:

The UK's digital economy. It's about to explode

it said.

I wish I'd read the article, now, because I still don't know whether that's a good thing or not.

In the Guardian headline of 14 April 2015:

 'Timebomb' UK economy will explode after election 

it's a bad thing. But in the Washington Post of 28 June 2017: 

The app economy is about to explode 

it's a jolly good one.

Ah well. I can't find that headline on Google, so I suppose I'll never know.

Still, I haven't heard any loud bangs, recently, so I expect it's all rot, anyway.

Word To Use Carefully Today: explode. This word comes from the Latin explōdere, to drive off by clapping or hissing [an actor on the stage], from plaudere, to clap.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Nuts and Bolts: phonation.

Phonation is to do with how (and if) your vocal chords vibrate when you say a sound or a word.

Try putting a finger on your Adam's apple (your vocal chords are inside it) and saying a long deep ooooh. Then try whispering it.

See? No vibration if you whisper.

But of course it's not as simple as that. In the English sound b, for instance, the vocal chords start vibrating part of the way through saying it. The sound p isn't voiced (ie the vocal chords don't start vibrating) until after it's finished.

An s in English may be voiced (bugs) or not (butts).

But English is simplicity itself compared with some other languages. The Mexican language Mazatec uses, as well as our voiceless and voiced phonation, breathy, slack, stiff, and creaky ones. In the Bor dialect of Dinka, spoken in South Sudan, whether you say a word in an ordinary-voiced, breathy, harsh, or yawning phonation might make it mean diarrhoea, go ahead, scorpions or to swallow - which could, obviously, be a matter of life or death: or, possibly even worse, really serious embarrassment.

It's all rather wonderful, isn't it?

Thing To Consider Today: phonation. This word comes from the Greek phōnē, voice, of course.

Special thanks today to Wikipedia for knowing all this stuff.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Thing To Be Today: suspicious.

Some years ago a late-running train meant that I found myself stranded at a railway station on the North Yorkshire Moors. It was winter, it was getting dark, I had an hour to wait for my connection, and the station environs made Wuthering Heights look like something directed by Cecil B DeMille.

There was in fact just one person within screaming distance, a young woman sitting on the only bench on the platform. 

It wasn't until after I'd taken a seat myself that I discovered she was muttering - and not just muttering, but groaning and moaning and giving out mad chuckles and yelps that echoed round the deserted station and would, quite frankly, have made Nelly Dean herself look askance.

Now, I like to be friendly, and in these circumstances I was keen, as you may imagine, to avoid causing offence. But what to do? Move off and hide behind a lamp post and risk being thought stand-offish? Or stay where I was and hope my presence wouldn't cause this lady further agitation?

My mind was made up by a change in my companion. She suddenly sat bolt upright, turned towards me, fixed me with wild pale eyes, and said, very loudly and clearly: "SUSPICIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES!" 

Then she went back to muttering again.

I went and found a lamp post.


It used to be the case that only dodgy circumstances made us suspicious, but now we are always being offered chances to help Nigerian princes with their finances, and or to be helped by the Microsoft technical department, I'm afraid that suspicion is a daily requirement of existence.

I don't let it sour my existence.

I do, however, do my best to avoid deserted railway stations.

Thing To Be Today: suspicious. This word comes from the Latin suspicere, to mistrust.