Category Archives: Shades of Meaning

Sex Drugs and … vocabulary?

Having just found this article on Facebook, I now feel slightly ashamed of my dog-eared and well thumbed thesaurus….

Apparently, learning new words activates the same parts of the the brain as sex and drugs do.

Well, well.

Who knew?



Shades of Meaning: Lay and Lie


There are so many times when I have had to explain that these are actually different words with different meanings and different morphologies.

Obviously, there is a shared etymology here from Middle English leyen and Old English lecgan but, in the eight hundred years since the thirteenth century, this single root has diverged. To lay is transitive and requires an object to have been put down; to lie is intransitive and has no need for an object.

And, it goes without saying that the homophonous (and also intransitive) verb to lie meaning to deceive and dissemble is from a different root altogether: the Old English lēogan. Phonologically equivalent but etymologically and semantically totally distinct.

Who says the English language is easy?

Ghul and Ghoul

I had started reading The Golem and the Djinni as an end of year treat to myself and so far absolutely loving it! Only two chapters in but loving both the Golem and the Djinni! A few rather Frankensteinesque moments I. The creation of the female golem. Brilliant!

But the Djinni reminds us that he is only one of many djinn creatures including the ifrit (familiar to any player of Final Fantasy and star of a rather tender body-exchange gay sexual encounter in Gaiman’s American Gods)

20131231-104057.jpg and the ghul.

I was intrigued. I had never heard if a ghul save for Batman’s Ra’s al-Ghul. The book describes the ghul as

loathsome and flesh-eating

which did wonder whether there was a connection between the ghul and ghouls beyond mere phonological similarity.

And there is: ghouls which have somehow always struck me as a particularly British and somewhat archaic synonym for ghost is actually a bastardised image of an Arabian shape-shifting desert demon.

Who knew?

Well, the writers at DCC Comics presumably!


The God Particle?


This is, apparently, according to the power of Google image search, something to do with the Higgs Boson particle. I have no idea. Is it what the particle looks like? How it works? How it was discovered? Who knows?

But the Higgs Boson – and the CERN Large Hadron Collider – is something that captured our imagination. I remember Year 8s terrified that a black hole would be created and we’d all be sucked into it; Dan Brown used it to create the threat in Angels and Demons; I’ve read quite an academic and esoteric – by which I mean I only understood 48% of it – treatise in which the Dust of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was compared to the Higgs Boson.

As much as anything, this fear and angst, in my humblest of uneducated opinions – derives from the nickname The God Particle. Could a nickname be more inflammatory? Could science threaten the church in any more obvious way?

And so it was that I genuinely snorted outloud in my car yesterday hearing Radio 4’s Thought For The Day. This is not a common reaction to the sanctified Radio 4’s flagship spiritual reflection. But, according to the Reverend Dr Michael Banner, Leon Lederman was writing a book about the search for the Higgs Boson and was so frustrated by it elusivity that he gave it the title “The God-damned Particle” but his publisher removed the “damned”.

The God-Damned Particle.

A minor piece of censorship that appears to me to have sparked the world’s imagination along very unexpected tangents!

Weasel Words: regularly

Imagine the scene as I drive to work through the rolling countryside of Dorset, through the winding villages of Abbotsbury, the sea heavily to my right and Radio 4 in the background.

“Half of Britons eat porridge regularly,” intone the dulcet tones of John Humphreys or some other lark-minded presenter.


Half of Britons? Regularly?

Sounds like a brilliant news item! Porridge is a fantastic food: economical, tasty and healthy full of slow-release carbohydrates – and a smell which takes me back to my granny’s farmhouse kitchen when I was six. I’m not that keen on the taste I have to say but a divine, comforting smell! Like a thick and heavy woollen jumper!

But really? Half of the country? Regularly?

John Humphrys, or which ever presenter it was, seems also to have questioned the language. What did regularly mean? Apparently, something in the region of ten times a year, less than once a month.

“Regularly” is one of those weasel words which can mean anything you want it to. After all, Santa arrives regularly, albeit once a year! But for a breakfast for which there is an opportunity to take it 365 times a year, I don’t think 10 times classes as regularly: that’s 2.7% of the opportunities available (not including the opportunities to take porridge at other times of the day!). At least Santa arrives on 100% of the available opportunities (even the naughty list receive coal from him and, with energy prices as they are, are probably quids-in!)

So where does its weasliness come from? Etymologically, “regularly” never denoted frequency: from the Latin regula and regularis meaning rules and guidance, the word “regular” actually referred to those who lived according to religious rules in contrast to the secular life.

“Regular” and the adverbial form “regularly”, therefore, have meant, since the fifteenth century, “according to order and at the appropriate time”.

I’m not sure when the idea of frequency has been accepted as part of the meaning of “regular” but it appears to have attached itself to the word almost as an addendum: to occur according to an ordered routine (and reasonably often).

And so it is that a weasel word is born! Want to suggest that something rare is common? Use the word “regularly”! Want to interpret your statistics positively? Use the word “regularly”!

Anyway, for porridge enthusiasts, the Daily Mail also ran the same article here.


Word of The Week: Shuffle

I was deeply disappointed – though hardly surprised – to see that Michael Gove wasn’t re-shuffled in the Political game of Happy Families. Mr Bun the Baker, Mr Field the Farmer and Mr Gove the … Gaffer? The Game Player? The Garbageman? Considering his grip on power and rumours of his being Leader-in-Waiting – one can only hope in a party in Opposition – I suppose we couldn’t expect anything more!

Anyway, complaining about Gove and the Omnishambles which his time in the Department For Education has become was not the point if this blog post. It would feel more at home elsewhere!

No. What I wondered was the aptness of the term “shuffle” itself.

It’s connotations conjure up two images: one of a weak an enfeebled old man in carpet slippers bowed over a walking stick; and a card shark in a a dimly lit backstreet gambling den. Neither of which – I don’t think – Messrs Cameron, Clegg or Milliband intended.

It is such an odd word to use for the purpose!

By definition, it suggests that the selection of ministers is random, like shuffling cards. Looking at some ministers and appointments (Norman Baker to the Home Office?) one might be tempted to agree: where are ministers being given the experience of the areas they now govern? How can you go from the Northern Ireland Office to Work and Pensions without years of training?

For a complete list of those moved, raised and shifted, The Spectator has a good list here.

Milliband’s shuffle has been more of a cull of Blairites!

Cameron’s was an attempt to rebrand the party as anything other than white, posh and male!

Anything except shuffling! Perhaps more “shoving” (which might be an etymological origin of the word “shuffle”)?