Tag Archives: Word of the week

Word of the Week, Idle

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So true!

As any cat owner will tell you. These creatures are the epitome of idleness. Mine sleep all day; wake for just long enough to eat and – if we’re lucky – empty their bowels in either the litter tray or the neighbour’s garden; then curl up and sleep again.

Idle is one of those words which divided moral opinion.

“The condition of perfection is idleness…”
-Oscar Wilde

“Purity of mind and idleness are incompatible…”
-Mahatma Gandhi

“Idleness is the only refuge of weak minds, and the holiday of fools”
-Lord Chesterfield

Idle demonstrates the living, evolving, mutating nature of language. I’m sure there must be a Darwinian theory of language development somewhere. It originated in Old English as idel and it is related to Old High German, Saxon and Dutch words ital, idal and idil respectively meaning “worthless, empty, vain”. This meaning persists to this day in phrases like “idle gossip”, “idle speculation”.

Around 1300 it acquired a secondary meaning – or a mutation if you like – to mean “lazy” and “unoccupied”. It is because of this mutation that the following cartoon works:

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The sound of the word is also lovely: the stretched and elongated initial /ɑɪ/ sound that lingers and rolls around our gaping mouth as we utter it; a long lazy sound like a summer’s Sunday afternoon. And somehow the remaining consonant sounds are swallowed up by the /ɑɪ/.

It is a yawn in the form of a word.

Of course, we shouldn’t mistake lack of movement with idleness. Whilst the body may be static, the mind may be traversing great cerebral plains, leaping over mental peaks and swimming intellectual oceans. At least, that is what I hope the beautiful Mrs P believes when I’m still on the sofa in my dressing gown at twelve tomorrow!

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Word Of The Week, cant

Cant.

That is all.

Such a tiny word. A monosyllable. Surely not enough to write anything about. Really?

Challenge accepted!

Let’s reflect first on the sounds of this word, such as they are. The opening “c” is a harsh /k/ clicking away in the back of the throat; the vowel is the short /æ/. It sounds like a cat coughing up a furball; or an old man choking on his false teeth. It is one of those combinations of sounds that just reeks of disdain; one of those sounds beloved by English teachers trying to drum the notion of alliteration for effect into students’ minds!

But this is odd. The origin of the word is the Old French chanter. Chanter. Which opens with such a soft /ʃ/ and long sensuous vowel /ɔː/. Such lengthy and soft sounds in a word has somehow mutated over time into to the harsh and spiky sounds of our cant.

And the meaning has mutated as much as the phonology. Chanter meant to sing; cant means an insincere and meaningless babble, often deriding one profession’s jargon based language.

The lawyer’s cant sounded incomprehensible to the ears of their clients, making as much sense as the squeaking of a badly oiled hinge.

The question then pops into my head: has the sound changed because of the altered meaning; or has the meaning varied in response to the increasing sharpness of its sound. Cause and effect? Egg and chicken? Is the Darwinian language of evolution apt to language? Pressure leading to mutation? I think so. Memes suggest so. Oh well it will serve!

Cant is what the Plain English Campaign would deride and mock. A jargon used to exclude people who don’t belong to your group. I suppose the difference between cant and jargon is that at times jargon can be what us (ex) lawyers might call terms of art and actually be vital for describing specific shades of meaning that are usually unnecessary.

… Hmmm I wonder what the Plain English Campaign would make of my blog…

… Consider yourselves invited, guys!

… Hurriedly spell checking post to ensure no offence has been caused by unexpected autocorrections!

Word of the Week: Corpulent

Corpulent.

Another way of calling someone fat without them realising? Although be careful with royalty: they are well versed in the slightly more obscure insults. Leigh Hunt was arrested, imprisoned and suffered all the usual fates that prisoners do for calling the Prince Regent “corpulent” in 1812. What offence would it come under, I wonder? Offences Against the Person? Treason? Abusive words?

Because this is the thing with this word, “corpulent”. Is it an insult? Really? Is it a synonym for fat or obese? Or is it something else?

Lets investigate its sound. /ˈkɔpjʊlənt/. Well, that initial /ˈkɔ/ sound is undeniably harsh. It is the echo of the raven’s “caw”: dissonant, aggressive, carrion somehow. It sticks in the back of the throat. A sound which is coughed or vomited out rather than exhaled. And the word is punctuated with the plosive /p/, coupled with grimacing, sneering, snarling /jʊ/. It is not a pleasant sound; wholly appropriate to anti-Royalist phlegm and invective.

And as we look at the word we discern the corpse within the corpulent body: the poor victim of this erudite insult is a dead man walking a rotting carcass of a man swaddled in multitudinous layers of fat and grease! We hear “corpulent” and we understand “morbidly obese”. But again is this fair?

It is undeniable that corpse and corpulent share a root, the Latin corpus. But to my untutored and non-latinate mind, corpus means simply body, our physical, corporeal form. Frail or healthy, male or female, young or old, living or dead, Platonic prison or sensual garden. Just “body”. And -ulentus means nothing more than “full of” or “replete”. Our corpulent gentleman may therefore resemble a powerhouse of a man, a man of complete and powerful body. Could we describe an athlete, a wrestler, a dancer as being fully invested in their bodies and therefore “corpulent”?

Alas, only in my mind. It seems that we poor limited Britons have limited the word to just “fat”. Which still doesn’t exclude the wrestler from its application!

Word of the Week: banal

Okay, so posting two words of the week within two days does display both my utter disregard for the rules of mathematics and time keeping and also my awareness of my own limitations: I figured a word a day would be far too much for my limited brain; a word a week was a manageable minimum!

Anyway, let’s take a step away from such banal topics as myself and onto the word itself: banal.

Banal.

What a word!

How utterly and unashamedly judgemental does one have to be to use the word banal to describe anyone else’s opinion, work, writing, appearance or existence. And just to be clear, I have no objection to being judgemental!

From the initial plosive /b/ with which this word is spat out at the poor unsuspecting victim, months of disappointment and despair behind it; to the shift from the initial short /æ/ to the long, sneering, corner-of-lip-raised /a:/ it is a word that encapsulates all that is supercilious, contemptuous and haughty. It is pronounced to rhyme with snarl which is the most appropriate facial expression to be adopted whilst using it.

Banal words function as a feeble phenomena that fall into their own mental bogs of meaning.
Robert Smithson

In science, all facts, no matter how trivial or banal, enjoy democratic equality.
Mary McCarthy

The etymology of the word is equally unfortunate. It derives from Old French “ban” which was used to describe those things which were open and accessible to the general populace, more specifically ovens and mills according to the world wide web, as well as compulsory military service. I can imagine that there was a potential for its meaning to become widened into a word that suggested something like “democratic” or “universal” in the same way that Catholic does. Unfortunately, it came instead to mean “common” and “trite” and “valueless”, the lowest common denominator of moral or intellectual or cultural experience. It is a word that conjures up the questionable joys of a somewhat legendary television show that (I am informed) offers the opportunity for viewers to watch in realtime and at any time the inanities of the frequently undereducated and overinflated egos that populate a mythical and guarded House from which they are not permitted to leave until voted out. It is currently showing on BBC Parliament Channel.

Word of the Week: viscera

Viscera… One of those wonderful words that sounds so much better than the things it describes.

I love the brevity of the initial /Ī/ vowel and the final short vowels that almost seem to elide together around the /r/, ending the words in a gentle exhalation, a sigh, a breath. And then the length of the /s/ in the middle that seems to linger and lurk around the whole word, writhing like a snake… or like the coils of the intestine.

Which leads us to the meaning of this beautiful word: all the guts and spleen and liver and gall bladder and bladder-bladder and pancreas and bloody wriggling boiling organs that keeps these frail human bodies working. There is something very physical, honest and brutal about the images that this word conjures up.

I am epileptic and both photosensitive and audiogenic. When I hear loud, rhythmic, heavy beats in music it can generate such a strong urge to run that visceral is the only word to describe it: it is deep wrenching panicked urgent need to flee deep in my gut.

The word itself derives from Latin viscus which is pluralised to viscera meaning the internal organ(s) of a body. The adjectival form visceral is such a great word to describe those things that affect us physically in art, cinema and watching the latest Twilight film, Breaking Dawn, for example, after the initial 90 minutes of utter tedium, I found viscerally repulsive in the birthing scene; the lovely Mrs P had an identical reaction to Alien vs Predator; visceral is a wonderful word for my students to use in analysing Wilfrid Owen’s poetry redolent with a personal response to literature and words.