"That's a great deal to make one word mean," Alice said in a thoughtful tone. "When I make a word do a lot of work like that," said Humpty Dumpty, "I always pay it extra."

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Words for 2008

Here are my suggested top words and phrases for 2008:-

Credit-crunch – A credit crunch (also known as a credit squeeze) is a sudden reduction in the general availability of loans (or credit), or a sudden increase in the cost of obtaining loans from banks.

Bring on the Wall – Game shows, like reality shows, were ever increasing their popularity. The BBC “Hole in the Wall” – a game show brought over from Japan like many others – was extremely popular despite being aimed at audiences aged about five years old.

Keep dancing – the catchphrase of Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly, “Strictly Come Dancing” was a winner at this year's National Television Awards, scooping the award for Most Popular Talent Show, as voted for by the general public.

We want change – One of the catchphrases of Democratic candidate Barack Obama - the first African American to be voted President-elect of the USA.

Wackaloon – Wonderful description of Sarah Palin, Republican Vice-Presidential candidate.

Counter-terrorism - The day-to-day title of a Bill and later Act. A setback for Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministership, it avoided running aground by a mere 9 votes when the maximum period a suspect may be held without charge was extended from 28 to 42 days

Blogrolls – Blogs became increasingly popular and more people now added blogrolls - lists of links to other blogs or websites with related content.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008


"... looking for a (lost) watch and purse on Battersby pipewipes was very like looking for a needle in a bundle of hay." Samuel Butler – “The Way of All Flesh”

A couple of times Butler mentions pipewipes in this book. The context seems to suggest they are unmown land or something of that ilk but I have not been able to find a single definition that fits the bill. (Though I can give you lots of tips on where to buy cloths for cleaning your cannabis pipe!)

Does anyone know what pipewipes were????

And while we are on the subject of words I cannot trace the origin/meaning of - does anyone know what exactly the hob-nails were in hob-nail boots?

Monday, 29 December 2008


Reading Samuel Butler's “The Way of All Flesh” provided me with a number of new wrods included amongst which was sizar. "...Mr Clayton who was at that time senior tutor, and among the sizars of St John’s."

A sizar was a student of limited means, especially at the universities of Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, where they were charged lower fees. It was also applied to poor students who supported themselves by working in College, eg waiting on the Fellows, for which they received an allowance.

Sunday, 28 December 2008


When I was young the word gay was usually used to mean amusing, cheery, high spirited, bright and pleasant. Or it might have been used to mean showy such as a bird with gay plumage. Gradually the meaning of homosexual took hold and we would rarely describe someone as gay nowadays if we simply meant they were cheery and bright.

But I had not realised the word had yet another connotation in Victorian times until I read Samuel Butler’s “Way of All Flesh”:-
"...and it’s a horrid lie to say she is gay; not but what I like a gay woman, I do: I’d rather give a gay woman half-a-crown than stand a modest woman a pot o’ beer, but I don’t want to go associating with bad girls for all that.”

Gay girls were bad girls – that is, they were given to social pleasures often including dissipation.

Saturday, 27 December 2008


A Haiku is a three line poem consisting of seventeen syllables with five in line one, seven in line two and five in line three. Traditionally the Japanese Haiku should be about what you see immediately and should have a seasonal theme. They are a fascinating form to write and should be written down and then left as they were written to capture that immediacy..
5        Japanese Haiku
7     Has seven syllables in
5     It’s middle section

Friday, 26 December 2008


To cavil is to raise a trivial objection or quibble.
“...ready to accept without cavil whatever he was told by those who were in authority over him...”
Samuel Butler – “The Way of All Flesh”

Thursday, 25 December 2008


A palliasse was a mattress consisting of a thin pad filled with straw or sawdust.


No, this is not being ruled by people named Timothy!

Constitutional theory defines a timocracy as either:
1 a state where only property owners may participate in government;
2 a government where rulers are selected and perpetuated based on the degree of honor they hold relative to others in their society, peer group or class.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008


To exculpate is to acquit; to pronounce not guilty of criminal charges. Exculpation is therefore the act of freeing from guilt or blame; exoneration.

Monday, 22 December 2008


"Staff on The Daily Telegraph had a wonderful expression to describe those prurient stories the paper used to report on page three about naughty vicars and the like; they were called “marmalade-droppers”, the idea being that the ghastly details would make Colonel Bufton-Tufton’s hand shake uncontrollably with outrage and excitement as he navigated the journey between plate and mouth, causing a dollop of Oxford Thick Cut to be deposited on the breakfast table." It’s a PC World by Edward Stourton

I have always loved the name Bufton-Tufton - I think it originated with Private Eye who used it to lampoon any Conservative MP, especially one from the shires, viewed to be particularly old- fashioned and bigoted.

Which in turn leads me to comment what a lovely word 'lampoon' is. Meaning a light, good-humored satire its origins are uncertain but may be from the French lampons, let us drink (from a common refrain in drinking songs),

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Be afraid, be very afraid

Ostensibly, a warning that something dangerous is imminent. In reality, this is usually said with comic intent. The thing being warned of is more likely to be mildly unwelcome than actually dangerous. For example, "That fierce librarian was asking about your overdue books - be afraid, be very afraid."

This phrase originated in the 1986 horror film The Fly.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

His name was mud

If you are told your name is mud you would assume that the origin of the phrase was something to do with soft, wet earth. In practice a second potential origin is claimed by some folk. When John Wilkes Booth shot the President of the United States Abraham Lincoln he broke his leg escaping.

He was treated by Dr Samuel Mudd. Mudd was a Maryland physician and he was later implicated and imprisoned for aiding and conspiring with Booth in the assassination. Hence, it was said of someone who was unpopular or the victim of defamatory charges “His name is Mudd.”

However, 'mud' in the sense of scandalous or defamatory charges goes back much earlier. There was an expression, 'the mud press,' to describe newspapers that besmirched people's reputations by throwing mud, as long ago as 1846. And the phrase itself first appeared in print in 1820, 45 years before Lincoln's assassination.

But the American explanation was fun while it lasted!

Friday, 19 December 2008


I always thought the word unkempt didn’t have a positive antonym but it seems I was wrong. “His features were good deal like those of Leonardo da Vinci; moreover he was kempt, looked in vigorous health, and was of a ruddy countenance.” Samuel Butler – “The Way of All Flesh”.

Kempt, as one would assume from its opposite, means neat and tidy; especially used of hair.

Thursday, 18 December 2008


In Italian, a beautiful lady; in English a deadly poison. A striking example of the similarity of the two languages.

Belladonna, the Deadly Nightshade or Atropa belladonna, was the Devil's favorite plant. It has purple bell-shaped flowers and poisonous black glossy berries. An alkaloid extracted from this plant, sometimes used medicinally, contains atropine and was used as eyedrops to widen the pupil and hence make women look more attractive.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008


In the broadest sense, a vicar (from the Latin vicarius) is a representative, anyone acting "in the person of" or agent for a superior (compare "vicarious" in the sense of "at second hand"). In this sense, the title is comparable to lieutenant, literally the "place-holder". Usually the title appears in a number of Christian ecclesiastical contexts, but in the Holy Roman Empire a local representative of the emperor, perhaps an archduke, might be styled "vicar".

A priest employed as a substitute for a parish rector or for a member of a religious house, monastic, cathedral or collegiate, which had appropriated the revenue for the position.

It was interpreted somewhat differently by the satirist Samuel Butler -
“...this is why the clergyman is so often called a vicar – he being the person whose vicarious goodness is to stand for that of those entrusted to his charge.” – “The Way of All Flesh”

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Sporting the Oak

A knock, as of a visitor and not a postman, was heard at my door. “Goodness gracious,” I exclaimed, “why didn’t we sport the oak?” Samuel Butler – “The Way of All Flesh”

"Sporting the oak" refers to the open or closed state of the outer door,
indicating the inhabitant's readiness to be disturbed.

“In my Oxford days, to "sport the/one's oak" meant to close the (outer) door of one's set of rooms in college as a sign that one was engaged and did not want to be disturbed. To bang on a fellow student's door when the "oak was sported" would have been regarded as a gross solecism. The expression "to sport the oak" is attested as far back as the eighteenth century (see OED).” F.W.Langley - Hull University

Monday, 15 December 2008


A crotchet is the name of a musical note, often worth one beat or pulse.

What I didn’t know until I read “The Way of All Flesh” was that it also meant a whimsical fancy, a peculiar notion held by an individual in opposition to popular opinion.
...he inflicted them on his old friends, week by week becoming more entête with himself and his own crotchets. - Samuel Butler

Another definition for a crotchet is a hook: a sharp curve or crook; a shape resembling a hook or a small tool or hooklike implement.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Hortus siccus

From the Latin meaning dry (or dried) garden - a collection of specimens of plants, dried and preserved, and arranged systematically; an herbarium.

He has also taken to collecting a hortus siccus, and through the interest of his father was once mentioned in the Saturday Magazine as having been the first to find a plant, whose name I have forgotten, in the neighbourhood of Battersby. This number of the Saturday Magazine has been bound in red morocco and is kept upon the drawing-room table.” Samuel Butler – “The Way of All Flesh”

Friday, 12 December 2008

Nerve fart

Brain fart is described as being when your train of thought goes off at tangent or you cannot remember something which should be obvious. It is also used for when someone does not perform an action that obviously should have been done, especially when you are under pressure and must think quickly.

So I have invented the concept of nerve fart for my neurological disorder. Apart from my nerves dying my sensory and motor nerves also do weird things and go off at a tangent.

For example, sometimes I fail to register pain when I pick up something hot and only the smell of burning flesh alerts me that there may be a problem somewhere. On the other hand, I get pains from things that are not there – indeed, just half an hour ago I felt as though I had a drawing pin sticking in my heel. Even more weird is getting toothache – I haven’t had any teeth for years now but I still occasionally get toothache. How unfair is that. Oh well, it’s just nerve fart.

Thursday, 11 December 2008


Bacn (pronounced bacon) is the term given to electronic messages which have been subscribed to and are therefore not unsolicited but are often unread by the recipient for a long period of time, if at all. Bacn has been described as "email you want but not right now."

Bacn differs from spam in that the emails are not unsolicited: the recipient has somehow signed up to receive it. Bacn is also not necessarily sent in bulk. Bacn derives its name from the idea that it is "better than spam, but not as good as a personal email".

I have a way of dealing with my bacn. I send it straight to a separate frying pan, I mean folder. Because I use Outlook I can create rules which allow me to send e-mails from a particular sender or with a particular word in the title to its own folder. That way I don’t clog up my inbox but when I want an e-mail with some good quotations I can go to my ‘Daily Quotes’ folder. The same applies to mail from Photojojo and the like.

In other words, I like bacn, but I don’t want it for breakfast every day!

Did you know there are various other meat related e-mail terms. Spam (from the Monty Python sketch) is all too well known but were you aware there is Ham – legitimate e-mail messages which are real, as is the meat. Then there is Meatloaf which is unsolicited mail from one person which is then forwarded to a large number of individuals. And now we also have FakinBacn which is Spam disguised as bacn.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008


d from Quincy, Massachusetts, runs a daily blog on which he posts a word game involving Word Verification words and what they might mean. It's a sort of 'create your own sniglets'. One of the latest ones was “biscaree”. I suggested -
bisceree (noun) The crumbs from a biscuit. Usually used to describe the debris of an attempt to eat a very crumbly biscuit while balancing a cup of tea on your knee in posh company.

He smiled self-consciously as he tried to hide the biscaree spilling from his lap onto the Persian rug.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008


Exegesis is the process or act of interpreting (Biblical) texts. Or, more generally, the art of close reading and thorough researching the original meaning of a text in order to interpret it. We often do this for poetry, but for fiction it works as well to tease out the effect of certain words or phrases, uses of repetition, references to earlier events in the text or hints about what is to come.


The grandfather of a young American blogger whose blog I visited the other day has been taken into hospital with heart problems. There were concerns that her Abuelita would not be able to look after him when he came out of hospital. The blogger is part Mexican and Abuelita is the Spanish word for "grandma" (literally translated as "little grandmother"). The male is Abuelito. I love those names – so much better than boring old Grandma and Grandpa.

Abuelita is also the name of a famous brand of chocolate tablets made by Nestlé and used to make Mexican-style hot chocolate.

In the meantime, learning about words apart, I hope Abuelito improves.

Monday, 8 December 2008


smeg - A fun, little, futuristic curse word created by Grant Naylor in ‘Red Dwarf’ that can be used in a variety of colourful ways (usually by Lister – played by Craig Charles in the television series). I love the word.

“Rimmer, you are a smeghead! “
“Because we haven't budged a smegging inch! “
“What the smeg is going on? “
“Oh smeg, not again! “
“Rimmer, smeg off! “

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Take down a peg

To 'take down a peg (or two)' is to lower someone's high opinion of themselves. Ever wondered where it comes from?

Various quantities and qualities have been measured by the use of pegs. It has been suggested that the pegs in question here were those used to regulate the amount of drink taken from a barrel, or those that controlled the hoisting of the colours of ships. However, the most logical sounding one to me is the pegs in a tankard.

This 18th century tankard had pegs and the idea was that you drank from one peg to another and then passed the tankard on. If you took more than your fair share you were taking your fellow drinker down a peg or two.

(The reason the tankard had a lid was to stop the press gang drugging your drink and carrying you off to sea.)

Saturday, 6 December 2008


There cannot be many people who use a computer who don’t know what Google is – the largest search engine in the world (and provider of this blog space). But what is a googol?

A googol is the large number ten to the power one hundred or the digit 1 followed by one hundred zeros (in decimal representation). The term was coined in 1938 by Milton Sirotta (1929–1980), nephew of American mathematician Edward Kasner. Kasner popularized the concept in his book “Mathematics and the Imagination” (1940).

You need a lot more lemmings than this to make a googol!

Friday, 5 December 2008


papilionaceous (adj.) Having a bilaterally symmetrical corolla somewhat resembling a butterfly, characteristic of most plants of the pea family. (Papilio is a genus in the swallowtail butterfly family, Papilionidae.)

Thursday, 4 December 2008


Have you ever seen someone that you're sure you recognise but whose face you just can't seem to place? It's a common enough occurrence, but for some people, problems with recognising faces are a part of their daily lives. They have a condition called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, which makes them incredibly bad at recognising faces, despite their normal eyesight, memory, intelligence, and ability to recognise other objects. For more about prosopagnosia see Not Exactly Rocket Science.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008


A meme consists of any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that gets transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture, and ethnicity.

It is becoming quite a commonly used word on blogs to indicate an idea, project, statement or even a question that is posted by one blog and responded to by other blogs.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008


Visiting the glossary of chabad.org to look up the word ‘prat’ I noticed a superb word a little further down the page – “Pshat: the plain meaning of a scriptural passage”.

I can think of all sorts of alternative definitions for Pshat the primary meaning of which should surely be as an interjection meaning “Rubbish! Rot! Drivel!”

Monday, 1 December 2008


For once I have chosen a foreign word – the lovely French word Bisous. It means kisses.
Le bisou - masculine noun - meaning a kiss.
Faire un bisou à quelqu'un - to give someone a kiss (on the cheek);
faire un petit bisou à quelqu'un - to give someone a (little) peck on the cheek ;
"Bisous" (kisses) is quite a normal way to end a letter between two friends (most commonly when it's a girl writing)
Also "gros bisous, Simon" - "love and kisses, Simon";
"gros bisous de ta mère" - "love and kisses from your mother"