Category Archives: word tasting notes


How is antimony even an element? Or the name for one? Of all the names on the periodic table, antimony has long seemed to me to be the one that most looked like it wandered into the wrong party.

And I don’t just mean because the chemical symbol for antimony, Sb, has nothing in common with the word. Ha! That’s run-of-the-mill. Gold is Au. Lead is Pb. Mercury is Hg. Antimony’s nextdoor neighbour, tin, is Sn. We all eventually learn that these come from the Latin names for the elements, which are often entirely different: aurum, plumbum, hydrargyrum, stannum. In the case of antimony it’s stibium. But, um, gold and lead and tin don’t look anything like Latin or Greek (mercury does, but then hydrargyrum is obviously running over from Greek). Antimony kind of… does? So why does it need another Latin name? Continue reading


A couple of days ago, Dr. Eugenia Cheng, @DrEugeniaCheng, who is always worth reading, tweeted something that really made me stop and look again:

Omg I occasionally click on the “recommended” articles on my firefox homepage despite my best intentions, and they are universally terrible. I have finally got up the ertia to work out how to stop them appearing.

Ertia! I was, needless to say, plussed. Gruntled, in fact, and entirely combobulated, though a bit chalant. Such a sensical and ept word – and quite feckful and ruly, too. You would expect it to be more inlandish. But it is just not in regular use. Continue reading


You may not like how this ends.

Bran is good for you, right? We make muffins with it. We make cereal with it. Some of us even eat it just as it is – and ready ourselves for a trip to the “throne.” It’s the part of the grain that keeps our system running! Regardless of your moral fibre, you will at least get your physical fibre – that grand old gut feeling – if you’ve got your bran.

But do you like it? Even if you like how it comes out in the end – which will depend entirely on your personal needs – do you like how it goes in? Do you find it flavourful? Or even pleasant? I mean, we’re eating seed husks here. Not all of us are game for that. Continue reading


Negative is a negative word. Right?

Are you positive? Continue reading


This is a word with a lot of get-up-and-go, but all of it has gotten up and gone. Behold a word that is simultaneously an annoyingly clumsy and cute new confection and so old and out of use that even the obelisk declaring its obsoleteness has a layer of dust on it. Thank heavens for historical dictionaries such as my perennial friend the Oxford English Dictionary, which still let me get there to it. Continue reading


Our idea of mothers is very much shaped by the way our own respective mothers were when we were young. My mother, in the 1970s when I was in my most formative years, was winsome, sanguine, sage, easily amused, gastronomically expert, mellifluous of voice, statuesque, and lissotrichous.

No, I did not know the word lissotrichous at the time. I may have been a boy genius and super annoying and all that but come on. Here, though, see her in the summer of 1976: Continue reading


It’s bad to be a birdbrain.

We know this. Birdbrain has been a term of abuse since at least the 1940s, bird-brained since at least the 1920s. Sure, some birds can fly halfway around the planet and find their way back. Others can spot a fish below the waves from hundreds of feet up and nail them in a dive. Small birds have brains that are fully 1/12 of their body weight (compared with 1/40 for humans). But – with mynah exceptions (ha ha) – birds are not known for being creative problem solvers.

Take this little one here (see it on the counter?). Continue reading