This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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



Friday, 20 October 2017

Furphy: Word To Use Today.

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

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

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


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

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

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

*Try saying that quickly five times.



Thursday, 19 October 2017

Making parliament angier: a rant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A cross section? 

Oh dear. 

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

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





Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Nuts and Bolts: serious accents.

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

And then there's poetry.

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

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

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

The song from Shakespeare's play Cymbeline that begins 

Fear no more the heat o' the sun 

ends 

Quiet consummation have,
And renownèd be thy grave!

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

Well, this:

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

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

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

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





Are you funky today?

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

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

By tobacco, actually.

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

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


Monday, 16 October 2017

Spot the Frippet: something fungous.

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

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

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

 File:FIdget Spinner.png
photo by BlueAvocado

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

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

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


Sunday, 15 October 2017

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

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

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

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

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




Saturday, 14 October 2017

Saturday Rave: Robert Raikes' Big Idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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