This blog is for everyone who uses words.

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

Sunday, 18 February 2018

Sunday Rest: phast. Word Not To Use Today.

A phast?

Well, what does it sound like?

Yes, that's right: but a fast from what, exactly?  

A phast is the act of avoiding looking at one's phone.

Now, the word phast has never been pretty, but it has for some time had a perfectly respectable meaning: PHAST is a computer-aided system designed to analyse virus-based elements within bacteria. 

But now, sadly, we have this new sort of phast - and, sounding as it does exactly like fast, it's one that doesn't give anyone any clue what it is that's not being consumed.

You know, I'm even wondering if it's worse than digital detox.

It's a close-run thing.

Sunday Rest: phast. The computer program is made up of letters from Phage Search Tool, a phage being a virus, or bits of a virus, that lives inside a bacterium. The other meaning is presumably a mixture of the words phone and fast


Saturday, 17 February 2018

Saturday Rave: Gustavo Adolpho Becquer.

Gustavo Adolpho Bécquer (1836 - 1870) is said to be the second most-read Spanish writer after Cervantes.

He was a poet, a playwright, and a teller of stories. He suffered greatly from unrequited love, had an unhappy marriage, and died young and in poverty, possibly from consumption.

He was also impossibly good-looking.

Portrait of Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, by his brother Valeriano (1862).jpg
portrait by his brother, Valeriano Bécquer

Naturally, with all those qualifications, what could he be but hugely and in every sense romantic?

Here's part of one of his poems to give some sense of the extraordinary rush of his creative spirit. It was translated into English by Mason Carnes.

Longings to weep and sudden
Flashes of joy; strange wishes,
Memories dim and misty

Of things that never were;

Nervous energy vainly
Striving to find an outlet;
A winged steed swift-speeding

Through space, unbridled, wild;

Madness that thrills and kindles
And raises high the spirit;
Of genius creative

Ebriety divine

Such is Inspiration.

Gigantic voice that orders
The brain's anarchic chaos
And hurls swift through the shadows
A thunderbolt of light;

Strong dazzling golden bridle
That curbs the flying courser -
The mind wild and ecstatic

And checks its mad career


I find it magnificent and strangely wonderful. 

Here's to Gustavo Adolpho Becquer.

Word To Use Today: courser. In this poem a courser is a swift horse. The word came to English in the 1200s from the Old French coursier, from cours, course.

Friday, 16 February 2018

Word To Use Today: pukka..

Here's a word that's come down in the world, and almost half-way round it, too.

Pukka is an Indian word that means properly done, or perfect.

But when the English language appropriated pukka, in the 1600s, it was used to mean genuine, or of good quality, or correct, or authentic. Until quite recently it was commonly used only by people who'd lived in British Colonial India, or their descendants, so it was most definitely a word of the ruling classes. 

And then at the turn of the millennium a cook called Jamie Oliver, in the guise of a chirpy East Londoner, started using the word pukka on TV and it rapidly lost whatever cachet it had, and became, briefly, a word used by hip people who were also pretending to be chirpy East Londoners.

All of which means I've never really been able to use the word pukka without wincing.

But, hey, it's a perfectly good word, and am I going to be allow myself to be embarrassed into avoiding it?



Couldn't I just say genuine? Or good-quality



All right, perhaps I'll try, then.


...I suppose anonymously, on a message-board, wouldn't count...?

Word To Use Today: pukka. This word comes from the Hindi pakkā, firm, from the Sanskrit pakva.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Know thyself: a rant.

The Oracle at Delphi was the most famous, and possibly the most infuriating, of all the oracles of Ancient Greece.

Still, I have to admit that the poor woman had a lot to put up with. She had to sit on a three-legged seat over a crack in the earth, from which the fumes of the decaying Python (he was killed by Apollo:

illustration by Virgil Solis) 

were said to come up and throw her into fits of inspiration. 

Mind you, the fumes might have originated from geothermal activity, which could quite easily have included enough ethylene and ethane to inspire anyone - or some people say she might have had some helpful herbs to chew. In any case, her inspired speech could only be understood by the priests of the oracle, who would come up with some neat verses which elegantly and carefully failed to answer any question asked of her.

Anyway, one of the oracle's most famous utterances was know thyself, and I thought of an experiment to see how well we do.

In a minute I want you to sit up straight and clasp your hands loosely on your lap. Keep your eyes on the screen. Try to feel calm and lovely.

Here's a photo to help:

File:Water Calm (5628778500).jpg
photo by D Sharon Pruitt


Now: how well do you actually know the back of your hand?

Thought not!

Word To Use Today: oracle. The Latin ōrāre means to request. The Greeks called the oracle at Delphi by the name of Pythia, and her utterances krēsmoi.

Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Nuts and Bolts: a most important saints' day.

Today, February 14, of course, commemorates the saint...

...well, who do you think?...

...yes, it's St Cyril and St Methodius!

Let's hear it for the guys!


(What? No, no, St Valentine is just a made-up thing. Probably something to do with birds pairing up at this time of year and the sale of pink velvet. Sorry.)

Anyway, St Cyril and St Methodius;

painting by Zohari Zograf

were missionaries, and they were the first people to write down the Bible down in Old Church Slavonic. They did this some time between their arrival in Moravia (that's mostly part of the Czech Republic, now) and the expulsion of their students, so that's between 863 and 885 AD. Old Church Slavonic had quite a lot of sounds not represented in the Latin alphabet, so to do this it's said they invented the glagolitic alphabet, the present-day version of which we call, yes, cyrillic. It's used most famously in Russia and Ukraine.

The only slight problem is that Cyril wasn't called Cyril at the time. He took on that name when he became a monk, shortly before his death on 14 February 869. Until then he was called by his birth name of Constantine. (And Methodius, for that matter, was originally called Michael, but hey...)

The Glagolitic alphabet proved to be jolly good at writing down Old Church Slavonic, and was used in Croatia right up to the 1800s.

SS Cyril and Methodius have, moreover, absolutely nothing to do with roses or pink velvet... 

...though I suppose you could possibly wear a long grey beard in their honour.

Word To Use Today: glagolitic is a bit pf a gargle, but never mind. It comes from the Old Church Slavonic glagol which means utterance.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Thing To Do Today: transmogrify.

'Oh, to be a cat!' my daughter exclaimed, struggling to recover fully from 'flu and regarding with envy her own splendid feline. Jasper has temporarily given up his habit of stalking small furry things in the fields to lie on top of the wood burner, deigning to descend more or less only for meals.

It occurs to me that if my daughter were really to become a cat she'd have to transmogrify (not that I'd dare term her magnificent midnight-black Jasper a moggy:

File:Black cat on Fluffy.jpg
photo by Scott (this isn't really Jasper)

...but the thought amused me).

To transmogrify means to change shape, particularly into a grotesque or bizarre one. So now I'm wondering what I'd like to be myself.

Grotesque or bizarre...

...perhaps a rather small golden dragon, exquisitely enchanting hatchling, in a country entirely bereft of murderous saints.

File:Gent Belfort.JPG
Ghent belfy. Photo by Wernervc

Well, at least I'd be warm!

Thing To Do Today: transmogrify. This word first appeared in the 1600s, but from where it came is a mysterious as the process itself. It might be a mixture of transmigrate and modify; but I suspect magicians, myself.

Monday, 12 February 2018

Spot the Frippet: something manky.

No, not something manly; something manky.

Something manky (at least here in South East England) will be a bit dirty, a bit worn, a bit disgusting. The sort of object you don't want to touch or have in the house.

You know that suitcase covered in mildew in the loft? It's gone all manky.

You know that café where the ketchup is crusted darkly round the top of the bottle, and the glasses are opalescent with limescale and the ghosts of old orders?

You know that shop where the paint is peeling off the door, and the advertisements stuck in the window have long faded to illegibility?

You know the stuff down the back of the sofa?

And the floor under the washing machine?

All a bit manky, probably.

The dictionary says that things that are worthless, rotten, or in bad taste are manky, too - but that's not the case round here.

Well, in that case manky would describe more or less everything, wouldn't it.

Spot the Frippet: something manky. This word came to England via Polari from Italy. The Italian mancare means to be lacking.