"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."

Monday, 30 November 2009

The Flynn Effect

I'm not sure if this really counts for this blog but as it was a phrase I didn't understand I thought perhaps others might appreciate learning about it...

The Flynn effect is the rise of the average intelligence quotient (IQ) test scores over generations (IQ gains over time). The effect has also been reported for other cognitions such as semantic and episodic memory. The effect occurs in most parts of the world although at greatly varying rates.
The effect increase has been continuous and roughly linear from the earliest days of testing to the present. "Test scores are certainly going up all over the world, but whether intelligence itself has risen remains controversial," psychologist Ulric Neisser wrote in an article in 1997 in The American Scientist. Evidence from standardization samples (Dickens, Flynn; 2006), still show gains between 1972 and 2002.
The Flynn effect is named after James R. Flynn, who did much to document it and promote awareness of its implications. However, the first to coin the term was not Flynn himself but by Richard J. Herrnstein in "The Bell Curve".

Sunday, 29 November 2009


A ghetto (pronounced GETT-oh) was formerly the restricted quarter of many European cities in which Jews were required to live. The first city to have named such a quarter the ghetto was Venice under the Venetian Republic in the fourteenth century and word is Venetian in origin.

Perhaps the most famous ghetto was the Warsaw Ghetto established by the Germans in 1940. It held over half a million people over the next four years and it is estimated 100,000 died of disease and malnutrition and 300,000 were killed by the Nazis on the spot during uprisings or exported to concentration camps and killed there.

Nowadays ghetto refers to any segregated mode of living or working that results from bias or stereotyping; especially a poor densely populated city district occupied by a minority ethnic group linked together by economic hardship and social restrictions.

The history of the word ghetto is one of the most damning of all humanity.

Saturday, 28 November 2009


Pronounced SEG-way, to segue is to proceed without interruption in music or talk; the act of changing smoothly from one state or situation to another.

Friday, 27 November 2009


Procatalepsis is a figure of speech in which the speaker raises an objection to his own argument and then immediately answers it. By doing so, he hopes to strengthen his argument by dealing with possible counter-arguments before his audience can raise them.

Thursday, 26 November 2009



A misericord (sometimes named mercy seat like the Biblical object) is a small wooden shelf underneath folding seats in churches installed to provide some level of comfort for those standing during long periods of prayer.

Prayers in the early medieval church for the daily divine offices (Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline) were said standing with uplifted hands. Those who were old or infirm could use crutches or, as time went on, misericordia (literally "act of mercy"). Seating was constructed so that the seats could be turned up, the undersides being provided with a small shelf thus allowing a person a small level of comfort by leaning against it. Like most other medieval woodwork in churches, they were usually carved with skill and often show detailed scenes which belie their hidden position underneath the seats, specially in the choir stalls of the quire around the altar.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


I learned on Kate (aka Country Girl)'s blog the other day what bokeh means. I can't do better than quote her:-

"Bokeh is pronounced bow-kay or bow-keh and it refers to that lovely out-of-focus light and all the different shapes and colors you see in the background of photos taken with a digital camera. It is created by light and and the glass in your lens and distance and wind and focus. It's a Japanese term for the subjective aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photographic image."

Tuesday, 24 November 2009



A caret is a mark (^) used by an author or editor to indicate where something is to be inserted into a text.

When a similar mark appears above a letter it is termed a circumflex.

Monday, 23 November 2009


Cachexy (pronounced Catch-ecksy) is an archaic term which I came across in Dr Johnson’s dictionary. He described it as being “a general word to express a great variety of symptoms, most commonly it denotes such a distemperature of the humours, as hinders nutrition, and weakens the vital and animal functions, proceeding from weakness of the fibres, and an abuse of the non-naturals, and often from severe acute distempers.”
I think that means ‘ill’ !
“I wonder what would be the reaction if I told my fellow bloglings I was suffering from cachexy?”


Sunday, 22 November 2009


The proscenium is the part of a modern theatre stage between the curtain and the orchestra. A Proscenium theatre is a theatre space whose primary feature is a large frame or arch (called the proscenium arch even though it is frequently mistakenly called the prosecnium.) So the word proscenium is often misused by performers, even designers, who refer to the 'proscenium' when they actually mean the proscenium arch.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

A Word Imp is not Digitigrade

I have mentioned before - and will probably mention again - Word Imp a.k.a. Sharon in New Zealand who chooses an obscure dictionary word each day. She invites her readers to invent a wacky meaning and puts 3 invented meanings on the voting poll and lists the true meaning. There are no prizes, just lots of fun! Not only do I enjoy inventing meanings but I also enjoy seeing if I know the true one. I'm running at about 50% most of the time. One one occasion I embarassed myself when I don't know it and my invention turned out to be near the truth! Nowadays I avoid this by looking it up before oposting my invention.

Yesterday's word was digitigrade. I didn't know it. But being interested in natural history I should have done. A digitigrade mammal is one that walks on the toes with the posterior part of the foot raised - such as dogs and cats and horses.

Friday, 20 November 2009



If you mention rotary in the UK people might think of the Rotary Club or a rotary engine or, if you are of a certain age, the old dial on a telephone. But in New England, apparently, a rotary is a traffic circle or what we in the UK call a roundabout.

Thursday, 19 November 2009


As a Proper Noun Abigail is a female name occurring in Biblical narratives from the Books of Samuel, and reflected in the Books of Chronicles.

As a Common Noun it was commonly used as a name for a lady's waiting maid in Vioctorian times.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Marquetry and Parquetry

Marquetry is a form of decorative veneering in which exotic and contrasting woods were cut and fitted together like a jigsaw to form intricate patterns which were then applied as panels of veneer. There were basically two types: arabesque or seaweed marquetry using box or holly with walnut, and floral marquetry using fruitwoods, burr-walnut, ivory, ebony, etc.

Lots of people know the term marquetry but mistakenly use it for geomteric inlays. These are actually parquetry which was most prevalent in late 17th century and early 18th century walnut veneered furniture.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Indian summer

Unlike here, where our November is simply grey and wet at the moment, Deedee in Massachusetts has been experiencing an Indian summer. That got her to wondering where the phrase came from and I have taken the liberty of quoting her here:-

"I did a little research and found that its true origins may be lost in time. But there are some things we do know. In most parts of the northern hemisphere, there is a name for the warm weather that follows the hard frost. In Bulgaria, for example, it is known as the “Gypsy summer” or sometimes, “Gypsy Christmas” presumably because it makes outdoor living more bearable for those wandering folk. In Germany it’s known as the “Web summer”, because a certain type of spider weaves webs on the grass and Hungarians know it as the “Crone’s summer”, which refers to the medieval association with Halloween and witchcraft.

The oldest written reference to the term Indian summer was apparently in a letter written by a Frenchman, St. John de Crevecouer, in 1778. He describes, “…an interval of calm and warmth which is called the Indian Summer; its characteristics are a tranquil atmosphere and general smokiness”, referring to the common occurrence of haze in the warm meadows. But where do Indians fit it to the picture? Although no one seems to know for certain, it is suspected that many native peoples here in the United States had a habit of setting fire to the grasslands during this time of year. The smoke mingled with the haze, allowing them to be better able to sneak up on their prey when hunting. Other sources contend that northern tribes saw the warmth of the dry winds as a gift from the gods of the southwest desert; a reprisal of summer, just before the winter.”

Thank you Deedee – that was fascinating.

I also learned from my old diary researches that in former times in England it was called 'Saint Martin's Summer', referring to St Martin’s Day, November 11th, when it was supposed to end. In British English "St. Martin's Summer" was the most widely used term until the American phrase Indian Summer became better known in the 20th century.


Monday, 16 November 2009


Ratafia is a sweet liqueur made from wine and brandy flavoured with plum or peach or apricot kernels and bitter almonds. In the Nineteenth Century it was considered an appropriate drink for young girls while the grown-ups drank brandy or wine.

Sunday, 15 November 2009


A lea is a pasture; a field covered with grass or herbage and suitable for grazing by livestock.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,

(Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray)

Lea is also a unit of length of thread or yarn. And LEA is an abbreviation for lower extremity amputation or amputee.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

When pigs fly

When pigs fly or Pigs will fly are phrases to indicate something is unlikely ever to happen.

"Pigs will fly before Craig will award a ten on Strictly!"

Friday, 13 November 2009


A scholium is a marginal note written by a scholiast (a commentator on ancient or classical literature) ; a note added to a text as an explanation, criticism or commentary; a note added to a proof as amplification.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Tilde (and friends)

When writing something on my Rambles blog I used the word tilde and it occurred to me that not everyone might know what a tilde was. So I thought I would define it here.

A tilde (pronounced Till-dee) is a diacritical mark (~) placed over the letter n in Spanish to indicate a palatal nasal sound or over a vowel in Portuguese to indicate nasalization. It is also used over the latter A in some languages. It is also sometimes known as a ‘swung dash’.

Once I had written that definition I thought – I wonder if everyone knows what a diacritic is. So I thought I’d add that definition:- A diacritic (also diacritical mark, diacritical point, diacritical sign) is an ancillary glyph added to a letter, or basic glyph.

So what is a glyph, I hear someone ask? A glyph is a fancy word for a shape. It is a component that makes up a typeface. For example, the dot on the letter "i" is a glyph, as is the vertical line, as are the serifs. (Serifs are little hooks on the ends of the font. The serifs usually help make the font more readable. .... )

Another definition said the tilde (~) is a grapheme with several uses.

In typography, a grapheme is the fundamental unit in written language. Graphemes include alphabetic letters, Chinese characters, numerical digits, punctuation marks, and all the individual symbols of any of the world's writing systems.

The tilde was originally written over some letters as a mark of abbreviation. It is used in dictionaries to indicate the omission of the entry word.   Apparently it is also used in online chat situations to denote sarcasm.

In summary, the tilde is the sorta squiggly dash character on a keyboard.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

As Happy as Larry

As happy as Larry simply means very happy.

It is originally an Australian expression but has certainly been commonly used in the UK throughout my lifetime.

Its origins are alleged to lie with a noted boxer called Larry Foley (1847-1917). Foley was a successful pugilist who never lost a fight. He retired at 32 and collected a purse of £1,000 for his final fight. So, we can expect that he was known to be happy with his lot in the 1870s - just when the phrase is first cited.

The earliest printed reference currently known is from the New Zealand writer G. L. Meredith, dating from around 1875:

"We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats".

Alternatively, the word may actually relate to a larrikin, an Australian term for a particular type of ruffian who flourished in the 1880s and who were disposed to larking about. Larrikins had their own style of dress recognisable by its excessive neatness and severe colours.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009


An Oxonian is a member (or former member) of the University of Oxford, England. The term is derived from Oxonia, the Latin form of Oxenford or Oxford. The term could theoretically also refer to an inhabitant of the city of Oxford, but is less used in this context.

However, this was not the context in which the word cropped up in today’s crossword. The clue was ‘Person from a place of lost causes’. We were left with o-o-l-a- when we gave up. The answer was Oxonian and I subsequently discovered that Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) called Oxford University "Home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs, and unpopular names, and impossible loyalties! " referring in particular, one assumes, to Oxford's support for the ill-fated Charles I .

Monday, 9 November 2009


Egregious means exceptional; conspicuous; outstanding; most usually in a negative fashion; outrageously bad; reprehensible.

It is a most unusual word because its original meaning was exactly the opposite - “remarkably good, distinguished”. It comes from the Latin meaning towering above the flock.

Sunday, 8 November 2009


Pleonasm is using more words than necessary; redundancy in wording; the use of more words (or even word-parts) than necessary to express an idea clearly. A closely related concept is rhetorical tautology, in which essentially the same thing is said more than once in different words.

Saturday, 7 November 2009


Salamagundi means an assortment; a collection containing a variety of sorts of things. In particular it is a salad dish originating in the early 17th century England comprising cooked meats, seafood, vegetables, fruit, leaves, nuts and and flowers and dressed with oil, vinegar and spices usually arranged in rows around the plate.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Bisciones and Snakes in the Grass

A snake in the grass is someone you trusted who then let you down or turned on you.

I love quizzes like Eggheads - one learns a lot (and forgets ten times as much). One of the recent questions was "Which car manufacturer has a badge depicting a snake eating a man?" It gave three options - Maserati, Alfa Romeo and a manufacturer of which I had never heard. I thought I could picture the first two so I chose the latter. But, hey presto, it is Alfa Romeo.

The Alfa Romeo badge looks quite classy and heraldic but upon examination it does have a giant snake eating a man? Apparently the owners of Alfa Romeo - the Lombard Automobile Factory - wanted a logo that was associated with their home city of Milan, so they used symbols that Milan had used since the Crusades. The red cross is a typical Christian symbol of medieval heraldry and was used extensively throughout the Crusades. In those days seeing a load of chaps with red crosses painted on them didn’t mean “medic”, it meant: rampaging, sword-weilding nutters of dubious origin - run for your life.

The man in the serpent's mouth is even more controversial. It’s a symbol called a biscione (Italian for a large grass snake) - Yes, I've eventually got around the the word of the day. In a biscione the man in the image is the traditional Crusader's enemy, the Saracen or Moor (in other words a Muslim). So the whole serpent motif is all about the Christians Crusaders’ defeat of the 'infidels'.

Alfa obviously doesn’t like people to call attention to this but I find it fascinating and have to wonder how many rich Arabian Sheiks are innocently parading this symbol around the Middle East. I guess you could say anyone doing so was a snake in the grass.

Thursday, 5 November 2009



Hodgepodge means odds and ends; a motley assortment of things; a patchwork: a theory or argument made up of miscellaneous or incongruous ideas; a collection of miscellaneous things; a jumble.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009


Namaste (plural namastes) is a word of Sanskrit origin literally meaning 'I humbly bow to you'.

Namaste is the traditional greeting when saying the word namaste with folded hands and a slight bow in yoga; the pose associated with this word, usually with the flat hands held palms together, fingers up, in front of the heart and a slight bow.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


The word speculation means a guess; a message expressing an opinion based on incomplete evidence; a hypothesis that has been formed by speculating or conjecturing (usually with little hard evidence);and an investment that is very risky but could yield great profits.

Speculation was a also a mild but rather noisy domestic gambling game which appeared towards the end of the 18th century and disappeared about a hundred years later. Jane Austen mentioned it several times, notably in 'Mansfield Park'.

Monday, 2 November 2009


Jocund means light-hearted; gay (in its old-fashioned sense); jovial, exuberant; merry; in high spirits; exhibiting happiness. All in all, jocund sounds like a good place to be!

Sunday, 1 November 2009


Swart is an obsolete or poetic word meaning dark-skinned; naturally having skin of a dark colour; of a dark hue; moderately black; swarthy; tawny; gloomy; malignant.

Her bed it was the brown heath turf,
And her house was put of doors.
Her apples were swart blackberries...

John Keats - "Meg Merrilies"