Archive for ‘words on words’

April 29th, 2014

Losing Capital

by Karen Jeynes

The other day, whilst hoovering, my mind started to wander. It also started to ache, so I had some aspirin, and sat down to read a tabloid. There was a particularly moving story in it, so I reached for the kleenex, and then settled my nerves with a bowl of granola.

So how many brand names do you see in that paragraph? Hoover and Kleenex might be easiest to spot, they’re still fighting the fight against genericism. But aspirin, tabloid and granola have already lost the battle. In fact, Tabloid – the brand – is a form of tablet, nothing to do with a certain kind of newspaper. And these days, you can read tabloids on your tablet.

April 17th, 2014

Pronounced Limp

by Karen Jeynes

When Michael Hutchence died, I learned two things. I learned what autoerotic asphyxiation was, and, far more shockingly, I learned that this band I’d been reading about called “INXS” and this band I’d heard of called “In Excess” were in fact THE SAME BAND. I sat there, wondering with horror how many times I’d embarrassingly revealed my ignorance in public. And also how many times I’d pronounced INXS as “inks”.

April 4th, 2014

Love Letters 5: The One and Only

by Chris Hancock

To a cartographer, an isogram is “a line drawn on a map connecting points having the same numerical value of some variable”. A good example would be a “contour line” showing points with the same elevation above sea-level. Now, if that’s got your pulse racing, I suggest you head off to That Map Site (actually, don’t – it doesn’t exist). Nope – this is That Word Site and, if you’re reading this, you’re a wordnerd. And in that case you’ll be far more interested in another definition of isogram – “a word or phrase without a repeating letter”. Funnily enough, there’s another word, heterogram, defined in much the same way, so we could use that. But since heterogram isn’t a heterogram and isogram is an isogram, I think we have a clear winner. Isogram it is.

Of course, it would be easy for me to list many words and be able to say each word was an isogram. In fact, I just did – in the previous sentence, each word was an isogram. But obviously, if I’m going to keep you reading, I’ll have to do better than that.

Clearly, the longer a word is, the more interesting it is if it’s an isogram. I reckon the longest isogram that you might come across in everyday life would be the 14-letter ambidextrously (I did say “might”. It means, of an action or task, “done equally well with either hand”). To get anything longer than that, you’d be dipping into pretty esoteric stuff – the 15-letter dermatoglyphics (“the science dealing with the study of fingerprints”) or the 16-letter uncopyrightables. If you’re going to allow those, why not stretch to the 17-letter subdermatoglyphic (“relating to the area of skin directly below the fingerprint”)? Or just throw reason (and your dictionary) out of the window altogether and marvel at the fanciful 18-letter thumbscrew-japingly coined by uber-wordnerd Dmitri Borgmann for his book Language on Vacation. And speaking of vacations, the committed isogram-lover really should spend his holidays at Bricklehampton in the UK, or – better still – Gumpoldskirchen in Austria.

March 28th, 2014

Do you bite your thumb at me?

by Karen Jeynes

“How do you say ‘where are the rocket boosters’ on Superman’s home planet?” my son asked.

I shrugged*. He nodded reluctantly, raised both hands slightly in a “what can you do?” kind of a way, and zoomed off.

Only one sentence spoken, but a whole conversation. If a word is a unit of meaning, then how many words do we have that aren’t spoken at all? Thumbs up, a palm tilted from side to side in a so-so kind of way, a high five, a handshake, an A-OK sign, a middle finger, a peace sign – even those of us who don’t speak sign language have developed a repertoire of hand gestures to convey ideas and thoughts to others. And, like words, some of them have interesting “etymologies” of their own.

March 14th, 2014

Texan-German Cultural Exchange

by  Kathrin Verhoefe

It’s been too long since I updated you on my linguistic travels and travails, but I guess that’s what a whirlwind romance does. Yes, my Texan language coach is now most definitely my boyfriend. Now comes his first ordeal – a visit from my most terrifying father. (He’s a mensch, really, a darling, but I like to scare the Texan). And in preparation, I’ve been teaching him a little German.

German is known for being a lilting, romantic, soft, musical language. Oh wait, hang on, that’s French. German is known for being hard, guttural, and containing endlessly long and complicated words. So it’s only natural that the Texan was experiencing a little angst when we started. He seemed to consider the whole thing rather a schlepp. We kept delaying, until with a week to go, we needed a blitzkrieg operation. We sat in his kitsch kitchen, drinking ersatz coffee, and I tried to enthuse him.

“When my parents come here on their fahrt,” I begin, and he collapses into giggles. “It means JOURNEY,” I sigh. Another approach is clearly needed. “Listen, you like it when I say bratwurst, don’t you?” The giggles stop.

March 7th, 2014


by Karen Jeynes

Our recent celebration of our wordnerds and the 145 countries they’ve come from in the last month – yes, I’m still talking about it – got me thinking. All those country names: a vast collection of beautiful words, all conveying great meaning. Here is a fascinating strand of linguistics, toponomy, the study of place names. Country names carry the weight of identity, of politics, of geography, of history, of language. And yet, when you look at the words themselves, remarkable similarities emerge.

Afghanistan, for example, means land of the Afghanis. The same -stan found in Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and – although they’ve not yet visited us – Uzbekistan. Other countries with “land” in them are of course Iceland, Ireland, Finland, Poland, Thailand and the delightfully plural Netherlands. But Rwanda has those all beaten, simply meaning “land”, from the Kinyarwanda kwanda. Oh, and then there’s Ukraine, meaning, well, “land”, from the Slavic krajna. Vanuatu takes things a step further by meaning “our land”.

February 25th, 2014

Anatomy of a Wordnerd

When we began this site, we had only a vague notion of what a wordnerd was. A word lover, for sure, but more than that. Someone for whom learning facts and idiosyncrasies of words caused them to love them more and deeper. Someone who instantly felt a kinship with other linguaphiles.

And there was a time when we worried that we didn’t know you well enough. That we needed to find out more about you. And happily, you obliged. In the last two years, in over 6000 comments, you’ve given us flashes of insight into your lives. We’ve learned that you are teachers, librarians, students, doctors, chemists, retired construction workers, language students, professors, writers, musicians, scientists, parents, lovers – and I’m sure many other things besides.

February 21st, 2014

When Two Become One

by Chris Hancock

Oof! The reminder beep on my laptop roused me sharply from my reverie. And there was the notification text on screen, mocking me:

11am – That Word Site article: deadline approaching…

Yep – I knew I needed to come up with something – and fast. But I was lacking a subject to write about. And, to be honest, all I wanted to do was chillax, grab some brunch, then maybe watch a docusoap or do some boxercise. Wait a minute… “chillax”, “brunch”, “docusoap”, “boxercise”. They’re all portmanteau words! That gives me an idea. But whoa! Slow down, Chris. Chillax.

Okay, a portmanteau word is a combination of two (or more) words – and their definitions – into a single new word. The term portmanteau was coined by Lewis Carroll; other terms being “blend” or the wonderful “frankenword”. A portmanteau, incidentally, was the name of a type of suitcase that opened into two equal halves, so you can kind of see why Carroll chose it. Anyway, back to those words. To take two of them as examples, “chillax” is a combination of “chill” and “relax”; and “brunch” of “breakfast” and “lunch”. Got it? A great portmanteau succeeds either because it succinctly sums something up, or because it is so bad it’s good – you cringe, but you remember it.


February 14th, 2014

Rubbing at the Frolic Pad

by Karen Jeynes

I love my job. As a playwright, I get to do an enormous amount of research. Research which, to the untrained eye, might appear not dissimilar to “messing about on the internet”. I’m sure my search history baffles whichever poor NSA spook gets to sort through it. Recent forays have been made into how early motor car engines functioned, Russian approaches to choreography, whether or not pineapples might be useful in the fight against breast cancer, and histories of white supremacists.  Oh yes, and how many baked beans there are in a tin (It’s about 465).

But it was researching the slang of  the 1920s which pleased not only the playwright, but also the wordnerd in me. The world sought so desperately to reinvent itself after World War 1, it seems to have invented a new way of talking. In some phrases the hurt of the war echoed – a recently emptied beer bottle was a “dead soldier”, for example. But the majority of them were packed with the devil-may-care attitude which prevailed. If your table was lined with enough dead soldiers, you might become “spifflicated” and “make whoopee”. And if the title has you confused, a “frolic pad” is a nightclub, and rubbing, well, I’ll leave to your imagination.


February 7th, 2014

Name the Day IV – Frigg and Freya

by Chris Hancock


“Hello! I’m Frigg, or Frigga – it’s okay, I don’t mind which. Remember Odin? (I know… it’s been a long week). I’m his wife, and look after him when he’s not out on his eight-legged horse throwing his spear around. Men, huh? Of course, being a woman, I can multi-task. So, I can also see into the future (though I never speak of it, which seems pretty daft but nobody dares to pull me up on that). Throw in “Mother of All” and “Protector of Children” and you can see I’m kept pretty busy. One thing I must mention – people sometimes get me mixed up with that Freya. Let’s just say that, when it comes to the day-of-the-week ‘thing’, I’m – oh, heck… I can hear her chariot wheels. Here she comes now.”


“Hello! I’m Freya, or Freyja – it’s okay, I don’t mind which. Has Frigg been talking about me? I can do that perfectly well for myself, thank you. I ride around on this lovely cat-drawn chariot. Plus, I’m a goddess of love and beauty, and wear the sacred necklace Brisingamen. It was made for me by four dwarves, though I… ahem… had to ‘bestow favours’ on them in return. Look – erm – can we change the subject? I’m known as Queen of the Valkyries, and get first pick of those slain in battle, whom I bear to Valhalla. Oh yes, one other thing… did Frigg mention the day-of-the-week ‘thing’? Because I’m -”

“Hey Freya! We’re never going to decide this one way or the other. Let’s not fight about everything like the men do.”

“Okay, okay, Frigg. You’re right. We’ll do it the way we agreed. After three…”

Both: “One, two, three – and Friday is our day.”