This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

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.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Spot the Frippet: mitt.

It's an interesting word, mitt. Not the derivation, so much, which quite quickly runs into the sand (see below), nor its use as a short form of the word mitten.

(Still, while I'm here, there are, of course, oven mitts:

File:Baking glove.jpg
photo by Lymantria

and baseball mitts:

File:Baseball glove.png

and mitt is also a slang word for a boxing glove.)

No, to me the interesting mitt is the one which means a hand that causes mess, inconvenience, and possibly crime.

Here, get your grubby mitts off that clean washing!

(Though grubby mitts aren't necessarily actually grubby. They might just be naughty, as in: keep your grubby mitts away from that cake!)

Someone with a history of petty theft might have mitts: lock the drinks cupboard, Bob, or Uncle Bernard'll have his mitts on the ginger wine.

Mitt's meaning can be extended into metaphor, too: that scheme's got her mitts all over it. (That is, it shows signs of her self-interest.)

So: where can you spot your nearest mitt? In a kitchen, or on a sports field?

Or sprouting from your wrists?

If not, then whose hands do cause mess, inconvenience and crime?

It's not that difficult, is it?

File:Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau The Cunning Thief.jpg
painting by Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau

Spot the Frippet: mitt. This word is short for mitten, which comes from the Old French mitaine.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Sunday Rest: coiffure. Word Not To Use Today.

This word is fine if you're French, or speaking French (though do say it the French way. It shouldn't rhyme with manure).

File:Pierre-Auguste Renoir - La Coiffure.jpg
La Coiffure by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. PD-US

Otherwise, the word coiffure, meaning hairdo, can only really be used with enormous amounts of irony, probably heavily infused with camp.

Actually, that sounds quite fun. It's vital to use it only in the presence of those with a sense of humour, though. 

Still, if you fancy a bit of danger, and a challenge...

Word Not To Use Today: coiffure. This word is French, and is basically the same word as coif. The Latin cofea means helmet or cap. 

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

There's one huge problem with the novel Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady: it's nearly twice as long as War and Peace.

Actually, now I come to think about it, I can hardly imagine two more different books than Clarissa and War and Peace. W&P takes you across half of Europe and manages to be about...well, about bits of more or less everything that was happening (or not happening) to Russians in the time of the reign of the French Emperor Napoleon...and Clarissa is about the fate of one young lady. Yes, she's called Clarissa. In fact she's called Clarissa Harlowe, which turns out to be quite interesting.

The plot of Clarissa could be summarised in a few sentences - which, obviously, I'm not going to do - but it's a book that's haunted me for decades. Yes, Lovelace the protagonist is a poser who gets very dull and annoying at times, but, gosh, you don't half get involved with the characters.

Oh, and I'll tell you what: I'd say that Clarissa has the most searing death-scene (not, as it happens, of a main character) in the whole of literature.

And the book starts with a duel.

I mean, what more could anybody want?

Well, stronger arms to hold the flipping thing, for a start.

Words To Consider Today: Clarissa Harlowe. Clarissa comes from the Latin clarus, which means bright, clear or famous; Harlowe is originally a place name from the Old English hoer, a pile of rocks, and hlaw, a hill. 

Harlowe is also reminiscent of at least one unfortunate female epithet.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Words To Use Today: pteropod/sea butterfly.

Which do you like best pteropods or sea butterflies?

Which do you imagine you'd like most to see

Pteropod sounds scientific and has an exciting echo of pterodactyl (dactyl means finger, by the way); sea butterfly has a whimsical charm which some might consider veers towards the sickening.

Is the choice is between science and fantasy? Between danger and delicacy?

Here's a picture to help:

What do you think now?

Sea butterflies or pteropods mostly eat algae, and they range in size from a lentil to an orange. This doesn't sound too threatening until you discover that they trap the algae in a sticky web. 

Sea butterflies/pteropods live near the surface of the water of all the seas. The 'wings' (which are really, unromantically, a modified foot) flap to propel the thing along just like real wings.

Most pteropods/sea butterflies don't have a shell, and if they do it's very small and thin.

I'm afraid they're molluscs, like an octopuses or a slugs.

So, now what? Sea butterfly or pteropod?

Well, it might depend on who you are.

I'd imagine a male-female bias if I dared...

...but I don't.

Word To Use Today: sea butterfly/pteropod. The pod comes from the Greek pous, foot. Ptero- comes from the Greek pteron, wing or feather. The word butterfly is discussed HERE.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

To coin a phrase: a rant.

Good grief this is a mess.

To coin a phrase means to invent a new one - except, of course,  when it doesn't. Nowadays this is most of the time.

It's supposed to be an irony thing. People have started saying to coin a phrase when they're about to use a cliché. I think they're signalling that they know it's a cliché and that they wouldn't dream of using it except as an oh-so-sophisticated joke.

But look, the thing about jokes is that they need to be a) funny and b) surprising (unless, like a catch-phrase, they're conjuring up some memory of ancient joy). The ironic use of to coin a phrase isn't either of those things, and, anyway, employing a cliché to mock using a cliché is, frankly, nuts. 

It also (though this, obviously, is a matter of minor importance) irritates the heck out of me.

So just stop doing it, okay?

Phrase Not To Use Today: to coin a phrase. Just to make this phrase even murkier, a coiner can be someone who makes fake coins, though whether this has any relevance here, I don't know. The word coin comes from the Old French word for stamping die, from the Latin cuneus, wedge.