"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."

Friday, 23 January 2015


   Most students of English are familiar with the "i before e, except after c" mnemonic  rule of thumb.   If one is unsure whether a word is spelled with the sequence ei or ie, the rhyme suggests that the correct order is ie unless the preceding letter is c, in which case it is ei. For example:

    ie in believe, fierce, collie, die, friend
    ei after c in deceive, ceiling, receipt, ceilidh

Edward Carney calls it "this supreme, and for many people solitary, spelling rule".   However, the short form quoted above (without qualifications concerning pronounciation) has many common exceptions; for example:

    ie after c: species, science, sufficient
    ei not preceded by c: seize, weird, vein, their, foreign, feisty

For some reason there is only one exception that I have trouble with - 'weird', an adjective meaning strikingly odd or unusual, especially in an unsettling way; strange.

So here is a tip to help you remember how to spell it.  'We are weird' - we is the beginning of weird.  Or perhaps all you need to know is that weird is a weird word!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014


A noun (pronounced zeriscape), a xeriscape is a garden or landscape created in a style that requires little or no irrigation or other maintenance, used in arid regions.   "It has become trendy to replace water-thirsty gardens with xeriscapes"

As a verb, to xeriscape means to cultivate (an area) as a xeriscape.

Now there's a useful word when you need something starting with an 'x'.  (Though my spell-checker doesn't recognise it!).

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Polysemous homonyms

 Polysemy  is the capacity for a sign (e.g., a word, phrase, etc.) or signs to have multiple related meanings.  Polysemes are usually regarded as distinct from homonyns, in which the multiple meanings of a word may be unconnected or unrelated.  The state of being a homonym is called homonymy. Polysemous is the adjective from polysemy and means ‘having multiple meanings’.   Its earliest documented use was in 1884.

In linguistics, a homonym is, in the strict sense, one of a group of words that share the same spelling and pronunciation but may have different meanings. Thus homonyms are simultaneously homographs (words that share the same spelling, regardless of their pronunciation) and homophones (words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of their spelling).

Examples of homonyms are stalk (part of a plant) and stalk (follow/harass a person), and left (past tense of leave) and left (opposite of right).

A distinction is sometimes made between "true" homonyms, which are unrelated in origin, such as skate (glide on ice) and skate (the fish), and polysemous homonyms, or polysemes, which have a shared origin, such as mouth (of a river) and mouth (of an animal).

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Pumpkin Positive

There are a  number of ‘medical’ terms for patients believed to be somewhat intellectually challenged.   Some are well known like LOBNH (Lights On But Nobody Home); some less so like CNS-QNS (Central Nervous System - Quantity Not Sufficient).  But one reader of this blog recently referred me to the delightful term "pumpkin positive".    This refers to the implication that a penlight shone into the patient's mouth would encounter a brain so small that the whole head would light up.  That had to go on this blog!


Monday, 26 May 2014


Wabble is a lovely version of a wobble - the action or an act of wobbling; an unsteady rocking motion or movement. 

(P.S. Wabble is also a free online multi-player word game.)

Sunday, 25 May 2014


   A witling is (or rather 'was' since, regrettably, the term is no longer used) a person who fancies himself a wit, but isn't.  This term for an utterer of light or feeble witticisms was first used in 1693.  Please may we bring it back into use? 

(According to the spellchecker I have invented the word 'utterer'.  It seems to me to be quite an acceptable word for one who utters!)

Thursday, 15 May 2014

More about Shanks' Pony

   When I wrote the last post I had forgotten this postcard which was lurking in my collection.
This was a Second World War British poster by Jan Lewitt and George Him, published in 1943.  Note that the spelling was different.  They used Shanks' Pony rather then Shanks's Pony.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Shanks's Mare, Shanks’s Nag or Shanks's Pony

   These terms are used to refer to using one's own legs and the action of walking as a means of conveyance.  "He went by Shanks's Pony" is often used as being a slightly derogatory way of saying he had no better means of conveyance.

The origins of the saying are obscure but it is believed to be Scottish, the earliest known reference being to shanks’s nag in 1774.  That was said to refer to the use of the shank, that part of the human leg between the knee and the ankle. 

One popular theory cites "shank's mare" as deriving from a horse-drawn lawn mower, manufactured by Shanks & Co. Ltd. (founded 1853) which required that the human operator walk behind the device to guide the horse. However, delightful though that idea is, references to the phrase in Scottish literature pre-date the existence of the Shanks lawn mower.

Sunday, 27 April 2014


Set (noun) 
The word set has a number of definitions but here is one of its lesser known meanings. 
A set is a block made of stone, such as granite, used to provide a durable road surface.  Unlike cobbles, which are rounded, sets are straight edged and flat.

 Sets in Falkner Street, Liverpool.

Monday, 14 April 2014



Alexithymia is the inability to describe emotions verbally.  To put it more technically - Alexithymia is a personality construct characterized by the inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating. Furthermore, individuals suffering from alexithymia also have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathic and ineffective emotional responding. Alexithymia is prevalent in approximately 10% of the general population and is known to be comorbid with a number of psychiatric conditions.