This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Saturday Rave: Rumpole, by John Mortimer.

There have always been plenty of admirable characters in fiction - the whole thing started off, after all, with the wrath of Achilles - but the lovable ones have always been in shorter supply.

The thing is, it's horribly easy to dislike someone for his (or her) virtues; it's not nearly as easy to cherish someone despite, or even because, of his (or her) vices. 

When it happens, it's a sign we've been entirely seduced. 

And Rumpole? 

He gets us both ways. 

Horace Rumpole started off in a TV series starring the actor Leo McKern, and later Rumpole's...can I call them adventures?..were transcribed by his creator, John Mortimer, into several books. I love the books, and I love Rumpole. He may be old, unclean, cigar-fumed, plump, unambitious, contrary - and unsuccessful, too, as the world judges it - but he is shrewd, brave, and, most of all, he has an understanding of, and love for, his fellow men that flows as wide as the Thames near whose banks he plies his slightly grubby trade, and wider than the woefully cheap claret in which he find consolation at the end of each doggedly determined day.

Rumpole spends his life defending petty criminals - who may have been convicted of dozens of crimes but who just might not have done this particular one - and annoying more or less everyone else, including the judges, his wife, and those colleagues of his whose social and professional ambitions aren't assisted by being associated with someone covered in cigar ash, and whose barrister's wig was bought decades ago from a retired Chief Justice of Tonga.

Rumpole of the Bailey.jpg
caricature of Leo McKern as Rumpole from the episode Rumpole and the Younger Generation.

Rumpole has his small vanities (the glories of the Penge Bungalow murder trail are never forgotten), but he is in just as frequent rueful contemplation of his inadequacies. He sees himself, as he sees everyone, whole; and the lowlier they are, the more he loves them.

And I'll tell you something: in Rumpole we have proof that an entirely illusionary character can make the world a better place. 

And Hallelujah for that.

Word To Use Today: defence. Rumpole only ever defends, never prosecutes, which is one reason for his lack of professional advancement. The word comes from the Latin dēfendere, to defend.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Word To Use Today: parapara.

The parapara is the stuff of nightmares

And who cures nightmares? 


The parapara, you see, catches birds. It's mostly found on the smaller islands of New Zealand - Three Kings Island, and Hen and Chickens Island, for example - but it's sold in Garden Centres and in this way its malign depredations have spread throughout the country.

It's not that the parapara dislikes birds - or, conversely, that it likes them (if only as a light snack) - but the parapara carries super-sticky seed pods (yes, that's right, it's a tree) for eight months of the year. The idea is that the seed pods will stick to visiting creatures (large sea birds, mostly, which are big enough to carry the pods) and that these creatures will take the seeds off and accidentally drop them somewhere else.

Where it all goes wrong is that the seed pods are stuck very strongly to the plant.

This can cause a horrifying chain of death. Insects visit the parapara and get stuck to the pods. A small bird sees a juicy bug, alights on it, and gets glued on, too - and then, like some dreadful parody of a fairy tale, a hawk will see the bird struggling, and...'s horrible, isn't it? Even the birds that manage to struggle free will have their feathers so gummed up that they are unable to fly and are likely to fall easy prey to a cat or a snake.

The good news is that few New Zealanders enjoy looking out of their windows to find their gardens adorned with the corpses of small pretty birds such as kingfishers or fantails:

File:New Zealand Fantail - New Zealand 24420679467).jpg
photo by Francesco Veronesi

 and so the parapara is becoming rare.

The other good news is that goats just yum them up.

So: should we rejoice in the parapara tree's demise? Or protect a few specimens?

Not easy, is it. 

Perhaps we should banish them to a few small islands populated by enormous sea birds.

Word To Use Today: parapara is a Māori word.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

The width of a window: a rant.

Computers have made writing easier in lots of ways - hitting the backspace key, for instance, is a thousand times quicker than rolling the paper part of the way out of the typewriter, putting a shield over the carbon paper, using a typewriter rubber on both copies, and then lining everything back up again - but computers are still full of traps, all the same.

There are those worrying little red squiggles that suggest a word is spelled wrongly (colour, realise, plough, maumet, and granodiorite all bring out the red squiggles); and then there's the lovely cupertino effect, where your phone turns a simple reference to the Pakistani political party Muttahida Quami, to something possibly more likely but really quite embarrassing:

The opposition blames the government and the pro-government Muttonhead Quail Movement (MQM), which runs Karachi, for the violence.

(That particular cupertino trick was played on the news agency Reuters.)

And then there's the width of windows. 

A title window for a Word Den post - or an email - only has so much space in it. Email title space varies according to the email provider, but it's usually about sixty characters. This means you have to be careful to be fairly brief so that the end of your title isn't cut-off. 

If you're reading your email on a phone you may have even less space.

I got an email the other day from the grocery chain Tesco's on-line arm, which trades as Tesco Direct.

The latest offers and more from Tesco's Dire

the title promised.

Ah well. I suppose that's honest, if nothing else.

Word To Use Today: dire. This word is to do with the Latin word dīrus, ominous or fearful.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Nuts and Bolts: National Anthems

It's not easy, writing a National Anthem. You're not going to please everybody, even if you have a top person writing the tune. Josef Haydn wrote the music Germany uses for its National Anthem (though Haydn actually wrote it for the Emperor of Austria), but the German Anthem is currently being attacked by feminists for going on about The Fatherland.

It could be worse: the Bulgarian anthemMila Ridieno, or My Motherland, is, oddly but consistently, identified by Siri, the Google Avatar, as Lius Fonzi and Daddy Yankee's Despacito.

The words for India's National Anthem were written by Rabindraneth Tagore, no less, but people still complained about the Indian National Anthem's performance at a cricket match last year because Amitabh Bachchan sang Tagore's words too slowly.

The Czech National Anthem is currently getting it in the neck for being too short and unpatriotic: but can it really be worse than the Greek National Anthem, which weighs in at a hundred and fifty eight verses? Or the British National Anthem, which actually calls, in a never-sung verse, for one part of the population, Scottish rebels, to be crushed?

Or how about the Netherland's National Anthem, which proclaims lifelong honour to the king of...well, can you guess?*

I suppose the purpose of a  National Anthem is that it brings people together in an expression of solidarity and support for their country; that it has a rousing and bracing effect.

So I'll leave you with a couple of lines from the National Anthem of the Congo:

And if we have to die
Does it really matter?

On the whole I think I'm happier bawling God Save Our Gracious Queen than that.

Word To Use Today: anthem. This word comes from the Old English anthemne, from the Latin antiphōna, which means sung.


Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Thing Not To Be Today: mardy.

Mardy probably still counts as a dialect word, but it's increasing its range and I expect most English people now recognise it, and probably understand it. 

This may be down to the lift it's got from the Arctic Monkeys' song Mardy Bum.

My dictionary says that the word mardy refers to a child, but, hey, either the dictionary is wrong, the usage has changed - or perhaps it's just that there's a lot of childish behaviour about.

The dictionary definition of mardy is spoilt and irritable, and that's pretty close if yours is a Yorkshire type of mardy; but if it's an East Midlands' mardy then it'll probably mean awkward, bad-tempered or terse.

Mardy may be combined with a less-than-complimentary noun such as cow, or, as in the Arctic Monkeys' song, bum

Sometimes mardy will be shortened to mard, especially in the powerful phrase he's got a mard on (in a bad mood).

Anyway, being sulky or whiny or mardy is not for us. 

Though pointing it out in others is pretty-much irresistible.

Thing Not To Be Today: mardy. This word comes from mar, from the Old English merran.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Spot The Frippet: dingo.

A dingo is the wild dog of Australia, Canis lupus dingo, (or perhaps, as some say, Canis dingo).

Dingo walking.jpg

The dingo been established in Australia for three and a half thousand years or so, and seems to be most closely related to the New Guinea Singing Dog (note the dingo's bushy tail). It eats more or less anything it can catch, including kangaroos and - very, very occasionally - people.

It may have been competition with the dingo that wiped out the thylacine on the Australian mainland.

Historically, some individual dingoes have lived in association with human dwellings, and some have been entirely wild. In the Australian Yarralin language the former are called walaku and the latter ngurakin.

Dingoes are getting rarer all over Australia because they breed readily with domestic dogs, and, this being the case (and also as most of us aren't currently living in the Australian bush) you may ask how on earth are we to be expected to spot a dingo?

Well, by making use of some splendidly vigorous Australian slang, that's how, for in Australia a dingo can be a cheat or a coward, or it can be someone acting in a cheating or cowardly way, or someone who drops out of something. To dingo on someone is to let them down.

Suddenly there are dingoes everywhere, aren't there?

It may even be a source of some private satisfaction to work out who the chief dingo is in your class, street, family or office.

Word To Use Today: dingo. This word comes from the Dharug language, which is native to the Sydney area of Australia.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Sunday Rest: edicule. Word Not To Use Today.

Strangely enough, edicule does not describe the natural contempt felt by the unschooled for the highly educated.

Instead it's a shrine. It may be situated inside a religious building, but it's not built as part of it.

This is the Ascension edicule on the Mount of Olives:

photo by en:user:adriatikus

And this is the Jesus Tomb edicule inside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre:

File:Crowd waiting to entre the edicule (4112100461).jpg
photo by Joe Goldberg from Seattle.

Now, this is all very well. These things exist, and so they need a name.

But a word describing the contempt of the uneducated for the highly schooled would be ever so much more useful.

Word Not To Use Today: edicule. This word comes from the Latin aecula. Aedēs means temple or shrine, and is related to the Greek aithēr, bright upper sky. The -cule bit is a Latin way of indicating something small.