"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."

Sunday, 31 May 2009


I came across the word tendentious in a book the other day. I thought it meant argumentative but that didn't quite fit the context so I looked it up.

Tendentious means trying to influence opinion; written or spoken with personal bias in order to promote a cause or support a viewpoint.

Some synonyms include provocative, opinionated, biased, partisan, subjective, argumentative, prejudiced, one-sided, questionable, doubtful, and partial.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

Off to a T

The expression 'Down to a tee', 'Down to a T' or 'Off to a T' means to the finest detail or to perfection; as in 'He could copy her accent off to a T."

The saying is said to have originated as a shortened form of "to a tittle", an expression in use in English by the early 17th century, with the meaning "to the smallest detail." The variation appears by the late 17th century.

The word "tittle" means a tiny shred; a tiny or scarcely detectable amount; or the dot on the letter i.

The word also oocurs in the phrase 'jot and tttle'. A jot being an iota; a point; the dot on the letter i; the smallest particle. The phrase 'jot and tittle' is therefore tautological and means to the smallest degree. It was first rceorded in English vin William Tindale's translation of the New Testament in 1526. It appears there in Matthew 5:18:
One iott or one tytle of the lawe shall not scape.


Friday, 29 May 2009


Tendentious means trying to influence opinion; written or spoken with personal bias in order to promote a cause or support a viewpoint.
Some synonyms include provocative, opinionated, biased, partisan, subjective, argumentative, prejudiced, one-sided, questionable, doubtful, and partial.

Thursday, 28 May 2009


There are some words which one comes across occasionally, usually when reading, of which one does not know the exact meaning but because the context makes it obvious what it is in broad terms ne doesn't bother looking it up. Such a word - for me - was chiffonier. I knew it was a piece of furniture but did not know what exactly.

However, when I looked up the definition I was left not much wiser - A chiffonier is either a side cabinet with or without a drawer and with one or more shelves above or a tall and narrow chest of drawers normally used for storing undergarments and lingerie. So it is a piece of furniture and it may or may not have shelves and drawers and it may or may not store undergarments. Mmmm. Didn't get me very far.

I decided to check images to see what they looked like.

Both these were described as chiffoniers so that didn't make me any wiser.

I sometimes wonder why I bother...

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

While or Whilst

It will not surprise Heather to know that a day or so before she made a comment about the word 'whilst' GB and I had been talking about it - and about the difference between 'while' and 'whilst'. In fact I had made a note - "While I think on, I shall do a note to myself that whilst I am at GB's I must check when it is appropriate to use while and when whilst is more suitable."

There are some circumstances in which GB and I find it natural to use 'while' and some where 'whilst' seems the appropriate word. But could we explain to ourselves what those circumstances were? No! So we turned to Eric Partridge's 'Usage and Abusage'. That didn't help.

It informed us that the 'st' forms of words like 'whilst' and 'amongst' are becoming outdated - partly because they are less easy to pronounce and partly because they are less euphonious (pleasant-sounding or agreeable to the ear). I don't agree with either statement.

I read a lengthy number of contributions about the subject on a website and whilst they were interesting they didn't really inform the debate. It seems that in North America the natural form is 'while' and the comment was also made that in the UK 'whilst' is only used by 'people of a certain age'. Thanks - I really needed to hear that on a day when my bones were creaking!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Rood or rude


A rood is a representation of the cross on which Jesus died and the term is usually used to refer to a cross erected at the entry to the chancel in a church. A rood screen is a common feature in late medieval parish church architecture. It is typically an ornate screen, constructed of wood, stone or, very occasionally, wrought iron.

Rude means impolite, crude, ill-mannered, tending towards the pornographic, lacking in refinement or socially incorrect.

In a blog posting the other day I showed these pictures. The carvings are to be found on the rood screen in the Cathedral at Dunblane. A rood screen is not normally rude as well!

Monday, 25 May 2009


Cowirl mentioned a potager in her posting the other day. What, I wondered, was a potager. The answer is a traditional kitchen garden; a seasonally used space separate from the rest of the residential garden; a kitchen garden usually taken to mean a formal, decorative kitchen garden.
So now I know!

This is the potager at the Chateau de Villandry near Tours.


Sunday, 24 May 2009


This is a new word to me - I came across it in relation to a website called protagonize.

Protagonism means advocacy; active support of an idea or cause etc.; especially the act of pleading or arguing for something.

Saturday, 23 May 2009


Insouciance is defined as carefreeness; the cheerful feeling you have when nothing is troubling you. The adjective - insouciant - meaning casual or marked by blithe unconcern - is just how I felt when I wrote this post...

Friday, 22 May 2009


To quiver is to shake with fast, tremulous movements; to flicker: to move back and forth very rapidly; to vibrate. So when your Victorian girl had her frisson she might have quivered as well!

As a noun it can not only mean a shaking but it is also a case for holding arrows.

Thursday, 21 May 2009


A frisson is a pleasurable sensation of surprise and shock.

Victorian novelists frequently found their heroines experiencing a frisson of delight when the hero did something bold like holding their arm.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009


A vagary is an unexpected and inexplicable change in something (in a situation or a person's behaviour, etc.); an erratic notion or action; an impulsive or illogical desire; a caprice. It tends to be used more in the plural - vagaries - than the singular. For example "the vagaries of the weather"; "his wealth fluctuates with the vagaries of the stock market"; "he has dealt with human vagaries for many years" .

Tuesday, 19 May 2009


Humongous / humungous is a (slang?) term meaning of a very large size. Nowadays I find it hard to differentiate between what is slang and what is not. Slang is defined as informal language consisting of words and expressions that are not considered appropriate for formal occasions; often vituperative or vulgar. There is nothing vituperative or vulgar about humungous and it seems to be creeping into our formal language so perhaps it isn't slang. Who decides? The answer, I suppose lies with the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary. If a word makes it into the OED it can be said to have arrived in the language and no longer be slang. I don't have an up-to-date OED so I'm not sure about humongous.

Monday, 18 May 2009

On tenterhooks

The expression to be on tenterhooks means to be in a state of supsense or apprehension.

It comes from the drying proces in the making of woollen cloth. After it had been woven, the cloth still contained dirt and oil from the fleece. It was cleaned in a fulling mill and then dried. The lengths of wet cloth were stretched on wooden frames or from beams to which they were fixed by tenterhooks. These frames, or tenters, were either left out in the fields or placed in a drying house which had open sides to allow the air through. To be on tenterhooks therefore meant being stretched out or in a state of anxious suspense.

These tenterhooks are in a roofbeam in the drying house at Cricklepit Mill, Exeter.

Sunday, 17 May 2009


I noticed that Google blogger was due to be subject to an outage the other day. The word's meaning is obvious - an interruption in service; a temporary suspension of operation (as of computers); the interval during which a scheduled service or resource is not available. What I began to wonder was how long have we actually been using the word outage. Not very long, I suspect. In the past it might have been referred to as a blackout, in respect of electricity, for example. Anyone who knows when outage came into the language is more than welcome to comment.

Saturday, 16 May 2009


I noticed the other day that the ginger beer bottle was labelled 'fiery'. It reminded me what a strange language English is. One would have expected the adjective from fire - of, or relating to fire - to be firey. But somewhere along the line of its evolution it has become fiery.

Fiery is defined as ardent: characterized by intense emotion; very intense; burning or glowing; inflammable or easily ignited; having the colour of fire; hot or inflamed; tempestuous or emotionally volatile; spirited or filled with emotion.

A fiery sunrise.

Friday, 15 May 2009


I am reading a book about Devon villages - it frequently mentions that there is a leat running through the village.

A leat (also lete or leet) is the name, common in the south and west of England, for a watercourse (natural, or more usually, artficial) or aqueduct, supplying water to a watermill or its mill pond. Leats may also deliver water for mineral washing and concentration, for irrigation, or to a dye or other industrial works.

This is a picture of the Devonport Leat crossing the River Meavy, courtesy of Michael A. Parle.

Thursday, 14 May 2009


A zarf is an ornamental metal cup-shaped holder for a hot coffee cup.

Although coffee was probably discovered in Ethiopia, it was in Turkey at around the 13th century that it became popular as a beverage. As with the serving of tea in China and Japan, the serving of coffee in Turkey was a complex, ritualised process. It was served in small cups without handles, which were placed in holders known as zarf (from the Arabic word, meaning saucer) to protect the cup and also the fingers of the drinker from the hot fluid. Cups were typically made of porcelain, but also of glass and wood, however since it was the holder that was more visible, it was typically more heavily ornamented.

A modern zarf is a little less impressive!

Wednesday, 13 May 2009


The verb to sequester means to be cloistered; providing privacy or seclusion; keep separate and secluded; keep away from others.

"He sequestered himself in his study to write his blog posting".

A house that Partner-who-loves-tea and I fancied, in its quiet sequestered spot.

It should be noted that despite some dictionaries saying sequestrate means the same thing as sequester it is rarely, if ever, used in that context. Adding the extra 'at' would be pointles. Sequestrate is used instead to mean to seize assets (as the UK government did with trade union funds in the 1980's),

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Chapel of Ease

I am reading a book about Devon villages and many of the churches are described, at some stage in their history, as chapels of ease.

A chapel of ease (sometimes 'chapel-of-ease') is a church building other than the main church (the parish church) of a parish.

A place of Christian worship, subordinate to or dependent on and distant from a parish church, provided for the convenience of parishioners who might not otherwise be able, by reason of distance, to attend divine service. Another use of such chapels was to provide ease to the church authorities, rather than to the parishioners, by providing a place in which to rusticate overly liberal clergymen without the scandal or strife of expelling them from communion with the wider church, and the consequent risk of them forming splinter sects.

Monday, 11 May 2009


GB asked me about the origin of the word hanker on his blog yesterday. I didn't know the answer but I shall share with you all what I discovered:-

The first known appearance of "hanker" dates back to about 1600 in England, and it has been used by the likes of Milton and Thackeray so it has a genuine pedigree.

The origin of "hanker" is a bit obscure, but most authorities have come to the conclusion that it arose as a form of the verb "to hang" and meant "to hang around, to loiter with expectation or longing." Thus, in this original sense, a lovesick swain might "hanker" in the vicinity of his beloved, hoping for an encounter (as in Thomas Hughes, 1859: "I used to hanker round the kitchen, or still-room, or wherever she might happen to be"). By the late 17th century, "hanker" had lost its "loitering" connotation and had settled on its modern meaning of "to long for or crave something."

Sunday, 10 May 2009


Quintessential means the ultimate; representing the perfect example of a class or quality; the essence of the essence.

Quintessentially means in a manner that is typical or characteristic of a thing's nature.

This is the 2009 Quintessential Barbie. It's one of the new Barbie dolls launched in celebration of Barbie's 50th Anniversary.

Saturday, 9 May 2009


Pyrrhic (pronounced PiR-ic) is an adjective used to refer to a victory that is achieved at great cost. The phrase is named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose army suffered irreplaceable casualties in defeating the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC and Asculum in 279 BC during the Pyrrhic War. Pyrrhus is the the subject of one of Plutarch's Parallel Lives.

Friday, 8 May 2009


Recce (pronounced "recky") is a word used in media production, derived from reconnaissance (by shortening) . When it appeared in an essay Richard wrote for his degree I was about to suggest it was a slang term but apparently it is “a pre-filming visit to a location to work out its suitability for shooting, including access to necessary facilities and assessment of any potential lighting or sound issues“.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Lunch (and things)

It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "What about lunch?"’ - Winnie the Pooh.

That sounds great until you start to analyse the words used for different meals in different places. In which case none of the words is 'easy'.

Lunch is a meal usually eaten at midday; it may be light or substantial.

Dinner is usually the main meal of the day and is usually served in the evening . It may also refer to a formal party of people assembled to have a meal together, particularly for a special occasion; a meal given to an animal; or a midday meal (in a context in which the lighter evening meal is called supper).

Supper is a light evening meal; served in early evening (if dinner is at midday) or served late in the evening at bedtime . A supper may also be a social gathering where a light evening meal is served; the evening meal in some dialects of English ; or simply food consumed before going to bed.

Tea is a light mid-afternoon meal of tea and sandwiches or cakes. Sometimes this is called afternoon tea to differentiate it from a main meal (dinner to some people) eaten in the early evening which is often called tea in some areas. "An Englishman would interrupt a war to have his afternoon tea”.

And then there is High Tea - a posh version of afternoon tea, served socially to groups of guests or commercially as a high-priced afternoon cuppa with a menu of gourmet foods.

So here are some typical meal routines:-

Breakfast; lunch; tea; supper.
Breakfast; lunch; afternoon tea; dinner; supper.
Breakfast; dinner; tea; supper.
And so on, ad infinitum....

Wednesday, 6 May 2009


Propinquity means proximity; the property of being close together.
in particular it refers to nearness in the sense of affiliation or kinship.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


Polemics is the practice of disputing or controverting religious, philosophical, or political matters. As such, a polemic text on a topic is often written specifically to dispute or refute a position or theory that is widely viewed to be beyond reproach. Sometimes the word is used more widely to mean a work in which the author takes a stand on a controversial subject, such as abortion or religion, without it necessarily being against the 'norm'.

"Classic examples of polemics include John Milton's Aeropagitica and Thomas Paine's The American Crisis."

Monday, 4 May 2009


Facetious and abstemious are unusual words becxause they contain all the vowels in the correct order, as does arsenious.

Arsenious is one of those words that sounds as though it should be used after the 9 pm watershed but actually it's quite innocuous. It simply means containing arsenic.

"Realgar, derived from the Arabic rahj al ghar (meaning powder of the mine), is arsenious - it was known in ancient times and was once used as a pigment."

Sunday, 3 May 2009


Potamophilous is an obsolete nonce word.

Obsolete means it is no longer used and a nonce word is one which was invented and used only once of a few times, never being intended to stick in the language. That's a real shame because I think it is a lovely word. It means river-loving.

It appeared in 1827 in the sentence "Rowed..in his public State barge, on the bosom of the Thames, in all the majesty and magnificence of a Fluviatile and Potamophilous Lord Mayor."

Let's have the word back into use please, after all, Hippopotamuses are potamophilous!

Saturday, 2 May 2009


A connotation is a meaning of a word or phrase that is suggested or implied, as opposed to a denotation, or literal meaning; the shade or tone of a word's meaning that the word suggests.

For example, a word such as brawny has a positive or favorable connotation; fat, however, has an unfavorable or negative connotation.

Friday, 1 May 2009


Hubris is excessive pride, presumption or arrogance or the flaw that leads to the downfall of a tragic hero.

"We dread a supreme sin called Hubris.... When Hubris takes a man or woman, that person has declared war on Fate, gods, man, and fights them all." Marguerite Steedman 'Refuge in Avalon'