Category Archives: Definitions

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?

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”)?


habemas papam

I disagreed and argued with BBC News last night.

Mrs P was either unimpressed with my arguing with the television or disinterested by the content of my argument.

However, Pope Francis I was elected last night. As has been customary since (probably) the twelfth century, the announcement is made that

habemas papam

In full, it reads

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum:
Habemus Papam;
Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum,
Dominum [praenomen] Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem [nomen],
Qui sibi nomen imposuit [Papal Name].

Now, this is how the BBC translated the first line:

There is a Pope.



“Habemas Papam” translates as “We have a Pope”.

We have a Pope. We. First person plural subjective personal pronoun.


Encompassing both the cardinals (old, archaic, venerable) and the congregation (youthful, vibrant, excited and owning an inordinate number of iPads!)

How much more effective is that than just the objective and factual and inaccurate “There is a Pope”?! Sorry BBC, but please. It’s important!

I also wondered about the name he’s adopted: Pope Francis. It suggests a sensitivity to the poor and animals, echoing St Francis of Assisi. And also – as the first non-European Pope for 1,300 years – the deliberate choice of a name derived from France and Frenchman could be an attempt to reconcile the first and third world churches….

Or. He might just like the name.

Word Of The Week, Bear


Please bare with us while we undergo renovations

read the sign in the shop window. Imagine my disappointment when, entering the shop and slowly stripping off, no-one joined in!

And the police were called.

And cautions given.

Apparently, according to the judge, the sign should not have been read as either invitation, request or instruction

Not a true story!

But when the lovely Mrs P. asks how to spell “bear” as in “bear with me”, it is an image that flashes through my mind!

And it is a totally understandable confusion: bear is so strongly linked with its homonym of bear the animal, the ursidae in their Latin name


that it just doesn’t feel right to use it in other contexts.

And it’s use as a verb, transitive and intransitive, to mean to endure or to carry something is a tad archaic now. Even though the most fundamental and primal human experience of being born is the past participle of this verb, do we even refer to a pregnant woman as bearing a child? Even though I remember my grandmother complaining that my uncle had married a woman

past child-bearing age

it sounds rather Victorian and squeamish and euphemistic. Nowadays, don’t we just have children rather than bear them? The intransitive connotations of the word – suggesting to endure or to suffer hardships and trials – are also rather archaic in the contexts: are children a trauma to be borne with fortitude; or a blessing to be celebrated?

Perhaps women have a different attitude. I mean, as a guy, I accept that we have it easy!

And that this is dangerous territory!

Let us move to another use which still persists: particularly in America perhaps, the right to bear arms is a cherished right. But, once again, it is a right enshrined in the Second Amendment of The Constitution in 1791 and therefore has the power of history, and is used almost ritualistically, almost fetishistically, amongst some people. But once more I fear I may be treading on dangerous ground.

And it may say an awful lot about me that I’m more afraid of the wrath of pregnant women!

To have said that the word bear is a tad archaic is literally true: the word derives from the Middle English beren and Old English beran with kinship to the same word, beran in Old High German and, with the shift between the unvoiced /f/ phonemes to the voiced /b/ over time, the Latin ferre and Greek phérein.

It is therefore – fittingly with its universal and primal sense of our being born – an ancient word whose use goes back literally beyond the rise of English as a language.

Word Of The Week, Mote

A mote.

A mote plays havoc with my autocorrect here. If, my dear iPhone, I had meant ‘more’, ‘moat’, ‘mots’, ‘motte’ or ‘mite’, please be assured that I would have written that! I am a man with a brain; you are a piece of plastic connected to the Internet. Therefore in all things, I am right and you are wrong!!

But is it my phone’s fault that it does not recognise the word mote? Let us consider: my iPhone is 6 months old, give or take; the word we’re looking at is perhaps over a thousand years old. I will have trouble next week putting names to faces of classes I’ve not seen for six weeks, let alone a thousand years!

Because mote evolved – I was going to say coined but I’m assuming that evolved is a better word: the deliberate coining on neologisms to describe new inventions or concepts feels very modern and industrialised; evolution feels more traditional, natural and organic. But these are just feelings and my prejudices with absolutely no evidence – around 1000-1200 AD. It seems to have come from Old English into Middle English.

And it means a speck, a particle, a tiny thing. A nubbin. Which is a glorious word itself: nubbin.

Anyway, I am being distracted!

Back to mote.

Phonologically, it is pronounced to be a homophone for moat.

On an aside and returning to the frustrations of autocorrect functions: when writing homophone the iPhone autocorrects it to homophobe. What a sad indictment of the universe we live in that we might be more likely to be discussing the prejudiced and abhorrent world of homophobes before the world of language and phonology.

Anyway, digressing again Mr P!

Phonologically, we open with the long sensuous /m/ rolling around inside our mouths, our lips pressed together. This /m/ could last for as long as we wanted it to. We could savour it, linger over it, prolong it.

Until, that is the short vowel /əʊ/ and precise /t/ cut it off short.

It is almost as if the tiny precise /t/ phoneme is the speck, hidden in the vast and rolling world encapsulated by the /m/.

And the word mote has a poetic and lyrical depth to it for such a tiny word.

The word is used biblically to describe hypocrisy:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

This at least is the King James translation of Matthew 7:3. More recent translations have tended to go for speck, speck of sawdust or even the – in my opinion very ungainly – chip. I understand why: speck of sawdust has a more direct comparison with beam or – even more ungainly – plank. And these are translation of the Greek word Καρφος meaning splinter – which is itself a translation from the Hebrew. But mote is just so much more resonant!

And the second massively familiar quote is from Carl Sagan who describes our own planet – our green and pleasant land – our terraqueous globe – as

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Who says scientists can’t be lyrical?! What a beautiful phrase to encapsulate the beauty, preciousness, miraculousness and perhaps insignificance and fragility of our daily squabbles.


This is the photo taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 which inspired Sagan. Beneath is a more recent and spectacularly beautiful photo that shows again the mote on which we live, love, hope, dream and die.

This picture was found here and has been scaled for effect.