Archive for the ‘Words’ Category


The Welsh Rugby Union's 'three feathers' logo, left, and a stylised fleur-de-lis symbol

Somewhere, somewhen, someone told me the Prince of Wales feathers and the fleur-de-lis were the same thing. They aren’t, but I am exploring the idea to look for any connections.

I wonder if (more…)

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The orb webs of Araneus diadematus in a city garden in early autumn

I always thought the word gossamer just meant spider silk. But now I know where the word comes from, I see it specifically refers to the fine threads that blow and glitter on the breeze on sunny days at this autumn time of year.

The Middle English word was gossomer, perhaps from “goose summer”, a time of year when (more…)

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The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 - a painting completed by Philipp Jakob Loutherbourg the Younger in 1796...

Well, I’ve “done” English words from Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Celtic, Scandinavian and Indian roots, so now it’s the turn of Spanish…

According to that old favourite book of mine, The English Language – Grammar, History, Literature by Professor Meiklejohn, printed in 1905, “The words we have received from the Spanish language are not numerous, but they are important”.

How wrong could he be! In 2011 modern English abounds with Spanish-based words, many of them, admittedly, coming to us through American English – largely through Hollywood movies, especially westerns.

But (more…)

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Fuchsia in a container in my garden - the variety is called Lambada

As you walk around a garden, you are surrounded by living memorials to people long dead. Mahonia and Camellia in winter, Forsythia and Magnolia in spring, Buddleia and Escallonia in summer, Dahlia and Fuchsia in autumn – all are named after people.

No wonder the Latin names of plants are so varied and sometimes difficult to pronounce – I’m thinking Kniphofia here (named after Kniphof), Fuchsia (named after Fuchs), and Choisya (named after Choisy)… I’ve only just realised that last one, and now I’ll never spell it wrongly as “Choysia” again. That’s the thing – I’m a stickler for spelling and knowing where names come from helps.

When botanists started giving Latin names to plants and ran out of folk names or descriptive names to Latinise, they turned to their friends (more…)

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Snake's head fritillaries - including the white form, painted by Rachel McNaughton

It always annoyed me that a fritillary could be both a flower and a butterfly, but now I know where the name came from I feel much easier about it…

This week I took a picture of our often forgotten snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) in the garden.

Every year it’s the same. I almost pull it out because I think it’s just some self-seeded grass – in all honesty I would have, if it hadn’t been slightly out of my reach on a raised bed.


Snake's head fritillary in the garden this week...

Then suddenly it’s in flower, so delicate, its purple pattern so chequered. Clever, that. Although it looks better en masse in grass, as it is in Oxford’s Magdalen Meadows…


Fritillaries in great number at Magdalen Meadows, Oxford, pictured by Alison Ryde

Then there is the butterfly – in fact a whole bunch of fritillaries, in the family known as Nymphalidae, which includes nymphalids and browns as well as the fritillaries.


Marsh fritillary (Eurodryas aurinia) photographed by Brian Stone

You can tell the fritillaries because they have a chequered pattern and that’s the connection between flower and butterfly – (more…)

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The bluebottle (Calliphora vomitoria) is a buzzing nuisance in summer - this picture is by JJ Harrison

Lately I have been “running around like a blue-arsed fly”, a lovely phrase I picked up from my parents during my childhood.

I don’t think there is any doubt about it, the saying must surely come from the buzzing behaviour of the bluebottle, an annoying fly (Calliphora vomitoria) found in many parts of the world.

It’s very much a fly of hot summer weather and rotting food, rubbish and excrement. Even its stop-start buzzing is annoying. Which is all a shame, as it has a pretty metallic blue colour. Here’s a lovely website all about iridescence, featuring the bluebottle and other lustrous marvels.


The bluebottle has a lustrous behind...

Why do we call it a bluebottle? My dictionary has no idea. Although I suspect it may come from the old word bot or bott, meaning the larva (maggot) of a botfly, which infests the skin of various mammals, producing warbles (painful, hard swellings). This particularly affects the stomachs of horses or the noses of sheep.

Bott probably comes from the Scots Gaelic word boiteag, which means a maggot. The word maggot itself may come from a Middle English word maddok/mathek from Old Norse mathkr, all meaning “maggot” and related to that other word mawkish, meaning “maggoty”.

My memories of the bluebottle come from the days before fridges, when we kept food in a larder or metal-meshed meat-safe. Our constant fear was maggots from bluebottles. We had roast shoulder of lamb (a cheap, fatty cut) for Sunday dinner (in the middle of the day, we didn’t call it lunch).

The leftover meat was placed on a high shelf and many was the time it was retrieved only to find the white fat moving with cream-coloured maggots. A bit offputting!

But flies are not the only bluebottles. In Britain bluebottle is also a name for the common cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) – not that I would ever have called it that. Another nickname I wouldn’t have used is “bachelor’s button”. Pretty flower, anyway.


Bluebottle is also a name for the common cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) - this picture is by Adrian198cm

Then there are the policemen… (more…)

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Sequinned party dresses from Anna Sui

I have loved shiny things all my life. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman – I imagine it might be an evolutionary advantage to be attracted to bright shiny berries for food.

Sequins are glorious things, making me go Ooh and Aaah and put on a silly star-struck expression.


A dolphin painted in sequins...

Here I am (more…)

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Although this is called Frost, I think it looks more like black ice - excellent, anyway. It's by Jenny Leigh...


Cats like to feel they are cool - but maybe not so cool when walking on ice - art by Cypherx

The weather theme in Britain this weekend has been black ice caused after a recent snowfall, thaw, and then freezing fog.

So I thought I would look at the sometimes sexy imagery of “black ice” in art and design.

In reality, black ice is nasty stuff – it’s a thin, unexpected and usually invisible coating of ice on roads and paths. And it doesn’t take much rain, drizzle or even just fog to coat a surface enough to cause this hazard.

I wonder if (more…)

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This rather handsome young Jack Frost by ArmadaRyu obviously doesn't feel the cold...

We have now had a couple of light frosts this autumn, and there’s an “Arctic blast” on the way this week, so I thought I would look into the words frost, hoar and rime, which I always thought meant the same thing, but apparently not…


Frost on a car windscreen a few days ago...

According to my Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1980), frost means: a state of freezing; temperature at or below the freezing point of water. It comes from (more…)

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Cat and Jack o' Lantern by Robb Mommaerts


This is a swede lantern just like I used to make - click on the image to go to a Scottish 'tumshie lantern' article...

Halloween is drawing near so I thought I would look at pumpkin lanterns – and the swede lanterns I am more familiar with from my Welsh childhood. A swede? You may also know it as a Swedish turnip, yellow turnip or rutabaga.

Here in the UK there is a long tradition of making lanterns from turnips, mangelwurzels and swedes for harvest time in general, but it was the Americans who started to call them Jack o’ lanterns in 1837 and to associate them with Halloween, in 1866. Thanks Wikipedia for telling me all that.

American traditions have taken over in the UK now, not only by replacing root vegetables with jolly pumpkins, but also (more…)

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