Sunday, 30 June 2013

Bilocation - Know Your Place

Clone Photo, Two men, The same man,
Edward Webb: Does he have the power of bilocation?
(Hint: No he doesn't)


Noun. Mid-17th century.
[from BI- + LOCATION.]

The fact or power of being in two places simultaneously.

I've done it. After years of serious and painstaking deliberation, I've decided on the superpower I want. It's not flight (too old), it's not super-strength (too vain) and it's not invisibility (too tempting). What I want is the power of bilocation, the ability to be in two places simultaneously. Once I've acquired this power, I will henceforth be known as Bilocation Boy, and my catchphrase will be "He's behind you." How cool would that be? Come on, admit it: you're impressed and just a teensy bit jealous because you didn't think of it first.

I didn't invent bilocation, of course: Catholic saints have been claiming that little trick for years. Apparently even Vladimir Lenin gave it a go, having been seen doing a spot of paperwork in his office while critically ill in bed. However, I could be the first to apply it to superheroism. Its applications would be enormous, even without the benefit of complementary superpowers (and if I know anything about superpowers, and I don't, they don't usually come in ones).

So, apart from the mundane advantage of being able to better manage the tricky work/life balance of a superhero (running the kids to school while diffusing a bomb elsewhere), it would also be a fantastic advantage in fights, allowing me to battle two enemies at once (in different places too), and also allowing me to bilocate behind the archvillain (hence my catchphrase). Lastly, it would prevent supervillains from catching me out with the old superhero dilemma: "Do I save the girl from the burning building, or do I diffuse the bomb and save the city?" Easy - I can do both and be home in time for Downton Abbey. The only downside to my powers of bilocation is that I would be easier to frame for some heinous crime (and villains like doing that), as I would have to provide the police with two alibis, which would be impossible if I wasn't bilocating at the time of the crime.

Cloned woman on the couch, watching TV, being lazy
It's also possible I'd use my powers of bilocation to be twice as lazy
(photo by Rafiq Sarlie)

Just on the off-chance that you're still reading and your attention hasn't bilocated off somewhere else, here is a sneak peak at the script for the upcoming Bilocation Boy movie I'm writing (I'm probably never going to get the power in real-life, am I?):

Bilocation Boy: The Script

Bilocation Boy (BB) is strapped to a table, a circular saw whirring between his feet, ready to slice him asunder. Enter Villainetta, Bilocation Boy's beautiful yet deadly archenemy and love interest. She approaches a console and puts her hand on the lever, ready to shift the saw along the table to kill Bilocation Boy.

I see you finally know your place, Bilocation Boy! Or should I say ... DIE-location Boy? Mwahahaha!

Bilocation Boy:
Ha! Did you not know that DI- is also a Greek prefix meaning two? So Dilocation Boy means pretty much the same thing as Bilocation Boy. Which reminds me: he's behind you!

Who's behind me??

Bilocation Boy:

As Villainetta turns around, the bilocated BB knocks her out with a single punch. He then releases himself from the table, and 'monolocates' over her, looking down at her disdainfully before suavely delivering his killer punchline.

Bilocation Boy:
Sorry I couldn't stay, Villainetta; seems like I was behind on a few things.
Now, your place or mine. Or ... both?

Cue rousing BB Theme Music and brightly coloured graphic before credits roll. 

Please note: if Lexicolatry suddenly goes quiet, it's probably because I'm busy making the film with JJ Abrams - I don't expect a hot script like this to hang around long before someone snaps it up. If you've ever bilocated, have the power of bilocation, or would like to invest in the Bilocation Boy movie, do please leave your comments below.

Update 1st July 2013

Bumblebee, Bibi Blog, Superhero, Superpower, Bilocation

I knew it was a hot script! Thanks to the inventiveness of Bibi from Bibi Blog, Bilocation Boy now has a sidekick, the pithily named Bilocation Bumblebee Bibi. Sadly, due to her penchant for monologuing, Bibi expects Bumblebee Bibi to come a cropper rather quickly (see the comments below). Still, four heads are better than two, and perhaps Bumblebee Bibi could also employ some of her bee-like powers in the fight against evil. Thank you, Bibi, for a very cool picture indeed! If you haven't seen Bibi's drawings before, do buzz over to her blog and have a gander. 

Saturday, 29 June 2013


Wave, Surge, Sea, Ocean, Swell, Crash, Lighthouse
Surge at Porthcawl
Photo by Ben Salter


Noun & verb. Mid-16th century.
[Old Norse bylgja (Swedish bölja, Danish bølge), from Germanic base related to that of BELLY noun.]

A1 noun. A great wave (or a stretch of water, especially the sea,
or transferred of flame, smoke, sound, moving bodies, etc.);
poetical (singular & in plural) the sea. M16

A2 noun obsolete. A swell on the sea. M16-E17

B verb intrans. Rise in billows; surge, swell; undulate. L16

Clouds billow, smoke billows, the salted sails of a storm-striped ship billow. The rotund form of this word is so perfect, so wonderfully evocative of its meaning, that even its initial B looks like the full, open sails of a magnificent galleon, or perhaps a rolling cumulus spreading lazily across a morning sky.

I never saw a moor
I never saw the sea
Yet know I how the heather looks
And what a billow be
(Emily Dickinson)

That billow originally referred to the sea is a surprise to many, more familiar as most are with its descriptive definitions, applied to fire, clouds, smoke and the like. Similarly, its connection to belly seems unlikely at first, but considering belly's origin of belig (bag) in Old English, derived as that it from a Germanic base meaning swell, or be inflated,  the connections start to become clear, and billow takes its place as one of the most seductively descriptive words in the English language.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Billingsgate - Carp from the Cussing Crowd

Swearing, Profanity, Market, Billingsgate Fish Market, Bad language, Coarse speech,
Tile art by the rather splendidly talented Paul Bommer


Noun. Spelt B- or b-. Mid-17th century.
[Billingsgate market, a fish-market in London noted for vituperative language.]

1 Scurrilous abuse, violent invective. M17
2 obsolete. A foul-mouthed person, a scold. M17-L18

Billingsgate Fish Market must be a very special place. Not only is it the UK's largest inland fish market, it's one of the oldest markets in the world, operating in various forms since 1400. Presently, it covers an area of 13 acres consisting of nearly 100 stands, 30 shops, 2 cafes, an ice-making plant, an 800 tonne freezer store and the Billingsgate Seafood Training School.

You might want to cover your ears, however - such is the notoriety of the industrial-strength language used by Billingsgate traders that Billingsgate has become a byword for profanity itself. Considering how boisterous London markets are generally, it must have really raised the bar to stand out from the cussing crowd. As for you, if you personally have a penchant for profanity, then you might rightly be called a Billingsgate. This blog is not the place for such obscenity, however, and seeing as I've valiantly resisted making any "talking pollocks" jokes, you can too. So there.

Catherine Chapman, Swearing, Cussing, Bad language,
Mr Roger Barton
"The King of Billingsgate"

(photograph by Catherine Chapman)
Of course, this is not to say that everyone that works at Billingsgate is a Billingsgate. Take Roger Barton, for example, whose one of several nicknames is "The King of Billingsgate". He's worked there as a fish-monger for over 50 years, with his passion for fish and infectious enthusiasm making him something of a celebrity between the stalls. However, seeing as he's also called "The Bastard of Billingsgate" (a name he apparently doesn't object to), it would probably be naive to think that his language is at all times creme de la menthe. Regardless, his charm and charisma are undeniable, and he's definitely on the people-I-want-to-meet list. Also, he shared his squid and chips with the photographer Catherine Chapman after she took his picture, and anyone that's willing to share their squid and chips is alright in my book. 

Right, all this rabbit o' fish 'as left me 'ank Marvin. Next time yer in London, do 'ave a butcher's at the ol' Billingsgate (covering yer King Lears if yer a sensitive soul), and see if you can't meet the ol' pitch and toss 'isself for a lovely bit of Lilian Gish. Avin' never been to Billingsgate, it's defo on me to-do list for the next time I'm in Blighty. Bally-ho!

Have you ever been to Billingsgate? Do you now want to go to Billingate? Do you regularly employ Billingsgate in your everyday speech? 

Do please tell us all about it.
 (without being a Billinsgate please)

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Billet-doux - The Art of Sweet Notes

Romance, Amour, Boyfriend, Girlfriend, Wife, Husband
Photo by Louise Denton


Noun. Now chiefly jocular. Plural billets-doux. Late 17th century.
[French, literally 'sweet note'.]

A love-letter.

Who can't remember writing their first billet-doux? I was 15, and it was for a girl in my school that I had fallen madly in love with. I sat for hours in my bedroom, agonising over clumsy words and awkward sentiments, phrasing and rephrasing both my feelings for her and the reasons I suddenly needed to express them. I can remember virtually nothing of what I wrote in that letter except the final line which summed up everything I wanted to say:

"I think you're beautiful."

The following day, I set off for school, my billet-doux hidden safely in my bag and a knot the size of a bowling ball in my stomach. During lunch, I sneaked into the school office and surreptitiously slipped the nondescript envelope into her form's register. It was my plan that her form tutor would simply hand her the letter without question during afternoon registration. It was a plan that worked.

In an age of emails, text messages and social media, I can't help but think that the billet-doux is a dying art. Unlike today, when I might have sent my inamorata a text message, the communication then was not instantly received, nor could it be instantly replied to. Instead, an agonising wait ensued, during which time I knew neither her reaction nor whether it had even been received.

Of course, this all relates to a childish infatuation during my teen years. However, it's this triviality that makes the term billet-doux fitting, for although it's defined as a 'love-letter', it does rank below a love-letter both in terms of depth and artistry. That's not to disparage the value of billets-doux; their effect can be profound, even in an established relationship. Who doesn't still cherish getting a 'sweet note' from their boyfriend or girlfriend, wife or husband? Who doesn't cherish writing one? And if you haven't written a billet-doux in a while, put down your mobile phone, log out of Facebook and pick up a pen: nothing will ever compare to seeing an expression of someone's love from their own hand.

Oh, and if you're wondering what happened with my teenage inamorata, she did reply a couple of days later with a scrap of paper torn from an exercise book; those words I do remember: "Eddie: seems like you've been winding me up. Thanks a bunch." Evidently she thought I was playing a prank. Ah well.

Someone who clearly got more billets-doux than I ever did
Photo by Mario Leko

Can you remember your first billet-doux, written or received? Do you still write billets-doux? Are you composing one right now?

Am I wrong in fearing for this art as email and texts are a superior form of romantic communication?

Do please share and comment below.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013


Billabong, Creek, River, Crocodiles, Kakadu National Park Billabong, Northern Territory, Australia
A billabong at the Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory, Australia
(photos by Alberto Otero Garcia)


Noun. Australian. Mid-19th century.
[Aboriginal Billibang Bell River, from billa water, bang channel dry except after rain.]

A branch of a river, forming a blind channel, backwater, or stagnant pool.

In Australia, sometimes a river or creek will change course. When it does, a body of water might get left behind, a body that is no longer flowing but stagnant; this, ladies and gentlemen, is a billabong. True, it's probably not going to be a particularly useful word for everyday conversation, but it is a singularly charming and quintessentially Australian word. Therefore, I like it: billabong.

Creek, Crocodile, River, Outback, Wild
"Kakadu-du-du, push pineapple, shake a tree ..."

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Bill (The Old)

The Old Bill, British, Bobby, Big Ben, Cop, Copper, Vintage
A Metropolitan Police Constable from the Cannon Row Station, circa 1960
(photo courtesy of John Holley and Alpha Delta Plus)


Noun. Slang. Mid-20th century.
[Diminutive of male forename William.]

The police; a police officer. Also Old Bill.

The Old Bill, meaning the police, is one of the most quintessentially British examples of slang in the dictionary. Its origins, however, are a complete mystery, despite there being numerous theories as to where it might have come from (the website of the Metropolitan Police even contains an article detailing thirteen of the most common suggestions).

What's particularly pleasing about The Bill, however, is its romantic and bygone connotation - the legendary British bobby on the beat, unarmed and respected, friendly yet authoritative. Other slang terms, such as cops and the newer, rather anatopistic feds, have lost this old world romance. But then perhaps I'm just old-fashioned - it still catches me by surprise every time I go through a British airport and see police patrolling with guns, so unused am I to seeing armed officers in Britain. As the UK moves further and deeper into being a surveillance state and the threat of terrorism and extremism looms ever large, perhaps the Old Bill is becoming not just an anachronism linguistically, but an anachronistic style of policing. If that's the case, it's a very sad state of affairs indeed.

Monday, 24 June 2013


Bilious, Bile, Island of Blood, Tabletop gaming, Geeks, Nerds,
A unit of Skaven poison mortar bombers with balls of rather fetching bilious bile
Photo by Tobias Bomm


Adjective. Mid-16th century.
[Latin biliosus, from bilis BILE noun.]

1 obsolete. Biliary. M16-L17

2 figurative. Choleric, peevish, ill-tempered. M16

3 Affected by, liable to, or arising from excess or derangement of the bile;
loosely nauseated, nauseous. M17

Also: biliously adverb M19   biliousness noun E19

Having recently covered the words bile and bilge, it's interesting that two readers used the word bilious in their comments. In both cases, it was used in the sense of "peevish and ill-tempered" which, for me, is a completely unfamiliar definition; bilious has always meant nauseated or nauseating in my mind.

This is particularly delightful to a lexicolator like me as bilious is already one of those precious words for which I specifically remember when and where I first heard it: I was about 12 years old, standing with my Dad in the Oxford branch of the Games Workshop, sucking in the spicy aroma of unwashed teenage boys. It was during my fleeting interest in tabletop gaming, a phase that fortunately petered out before it forever ruined my chances of attracting a member of the opposite sex. Dad was suspiciously examining a small pot of modelling paint with a raised eyebrow (he had come in with me - this was not his scene at all). He handed the pot to me and I saw that it was called "Bilious Green". I had never heard of the word, so I asked him what it meant. "Bilious," he said, "means nauseated, feeling sick, which is how I'm starting to feel in here. Shall we go?"

And that's it: bilious has ever since conjured the memory of my father turning up his nose (literally) at the tabletop gaming world, together with the lingering, all-pervasive fragrance of adolescent body odour, a memory quite befitting the nauseous definition. Now, of course, I've just learnt its other meaning - that of "choleric, peevish and ill-tempered" - and, while it has no corresponding olfactory memory to accompany it, I do think bilious has just entered a very special category of words for which I have two defining memory moments, all thanks to the readers of Lexicolatry. Cheers!

Sunday, 23 June 2013


Bilge, Addle, Muddy, Water, Dirty, Ship, Nautical, Mire, Filthy
"Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink."
(photo by Richard Casey)


Noun & verb. Also billage obsolete. Late 15th century.
[Probably variant of bulge.]

A1 noun The nearly hoizontal part of a ship's bottom; the lowest internal portion of the hull. L15

A2 noun The belly or widest part of the circumference of a barrel of similar vessel. E16

A3 noun In full bilge-water. The filth, stale water, etc., which collects inside the bilge of a ship. E17

A3b noun Nonsense, rubbish, rot. slang. L19

B1 verb trans. Stave in the bilge of (a ship). M16

B2 verb intrans. Spring a leak in the bilge. E18

B3 verb intrans. Bulge, swell out. E19

Also: bilgy adjective L19

If you've ever been told you're talking bilge (as I have), you know that it wasn't a compliment. Bilge-water is the repugnant liquid that slops about in the bilge of a ship, a heady mix of stale water, filth, urine, chemicals and any other number of undesirable substances that might have washed down from above. It would be a pretty dire place to work (far better to be driving a-poop), and circumstances on a ship would be truly dire if one were ever forced to drink the bilge-water.

Navy, Nautical, Bilge, Compartments, Decks

Saturday, 22 June 2013


Anger, Bile, Furious, Humorism, Humours, Derangement, Peevish
"My homoeopath is charging me how much? Without any empirical evidence? Rawrrrgh!"
Photo by Shawn Chin


Noun. Mid-16th century.
[French, from Latin bilis.]

1a A bitter yellow, brown or green fluid secreted by the liver, stored in the gall bladder,
and passed into the duodenum to assist in the digestion of fats;
formerly regarded as one of the four humours of the body (compare with choler). M16

1b Excess or derangement of the bile. E19

2 figurative. Anger, peevishness. M19

Do you have a tendency to be angry? Or peevish? Are you angry and peevish right now? If so, then it's more than likely your humours are out of kilter and you'd probably benefit from a good letting to restore balance and harmony.

Yes, it's laughable nonsense, but humorism was mainstream medical theory for 2,000 years, stemming all the way back to the Greeks and practiced until the 19th century when someone actually opened up a human body and said: "Hang on a minute! This is all complete and utter hogwash!" In a nutshell, the theory of humorism dictates that the body's balance of four principle fluids (or humours, being blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) determines whether or not you're fit and well or, in fact, a bit of a sick git. Specific humours prompt specific symptoms and too much bile can cause, well, too much bile (figuratively speaking).

Of course, we can't be too mocking of the Greeks and subsequent generations of unfunny humorists, as millions today still swear by auras, chakras, energy fields and a plethora of other hocus-pocus hooey in favour of medicine that is backed by empirical evidence. This makes a lot of people quite angry; it makes me angry; so damn angry that I just want to lob a ... uh-oh ... this sounds like a classic case of my bile being deranged. Off to the letter I go.

In the meantime, I've diagnosed the two men in this video as both suffering from dangerously deranged bile, exacerbated by tapering testosterone and erumpent egos. While it's nothing a good session of blood-letting won't remedy, I don't believe a professional referral is necessary as they will likely be eager to self-remedy each other back at the station (although they can still expect an outrageous invoice from me for my diagnosis).

Is your bile misaligned? Is humorism actually true? Has a good old-fashioned blood-letting cured you of skepticism? Do please leave your comments below.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Bildungsroman - A Novel Youth

"I Live in Kashmir"
A portrait of a teenager by Ebtesam Ahmed


Noun. Plural bildungsromane. Early 20th century.
[German, from Bildung education + Roman novel.]

A novel dealing with one person's formative years or spiritual education.

From The Catcher in the Rye to The Hunger Games, Jane Eyre to Harry Potter, bildungroman is an expansive and enduringly popular genre, one that is certain to have touched every lover of literature. Its popularity is hardly surprising: a childhood is something we all have to experience, something we all have to get through and build on; therefore the bildungsroman, a charting of one character's journey from boy to man, from girl to woman, is something that resonates deep within all of us.

And the resonation is deep. As someone that was blessed with a remarkably happy and stable childhood, I still experienced times of profound personal tragedy and sadness. These were defining moments, such as the death of my younger brothers when I was 11, an event that marked a transition from an innocent and carefree childhood into a darker and less predictable world, a time that still haunts my dreams and stalks my memories, even after 20 years. And there was the breakup at 20 with the first person I truly loved; a ubiquitous rite of passage perhaps, but one of crippling pain and emotional torment, a time that attacked my very value as a person, my identity and my sense of self-worth.

These and many other things make up my own personal bildungsroman, as do yours for you. And this wonderful genre, this deeply moving body of literature, can help us to understand and make sense of these turbulent years, not only during youth, but also after, in adulthood, as we continue to reflect and develop and come to terms with the history that formed us. And the wonderful thing? While there are always difficulties and trials that threaten our hero, bildungsroman is generally an optimistic genre, one that revels in not just survival but a thriving in the face of adversity. While there is invariably pause for reflection and nostalgia, as there is on the recollection of any childhood, a buldungsroman is a story of hope, development and triumph.

Do you have any particularly beloved examples of bildungsroman, perhaps ones that helped you through your childhood? Was your childhood a veritable bildungsroman in itself? Do please share and comment in the box below.

Thursday, 20 June 2013


Shackles, Slave trade, Restraint, Prisoner


Noun plural. Mid-16th century.
[Origin unknown.]

Historical An iron bar with sliding shackles for confining the ankles of prisoners.

The soft and friendly sounding bilboes (always used in the plural) is a word that utterly belies its true nature: an instrument of restraint, punishment, control and humiliation, used in England and America during the colonial and revolutionary periods on prisoners, criminals and slaves. They have been recovered from wrecked slave ships, including the Henrietta Marie which sank in 1700 on its return to England from delivering slaves to Jamaica. 80 sets of bilboes were recovered, which are thought to have been used to bind 160 slaves together, one set for two people.

There seems to be some confusion regarding the origin of the word bilboes, with some references definitely stating it's a corruption of Bilbao in Spain (the supposed city of origin), some suggesting this as a possible origin, and the Oxford English Dictionary stating categorically that it's a word of unknown origin. It's possible such confusion arises from the similar sounding word bilbo (plural bilbos or bilboes), a type of sword that does originate in Bilbao. Regardless, the word bilboes (as a restraint) evidently predates the Spanish production, and thus it would seem that the OED is right on this one - it's a word whose origins are something of a mystery, even if its cruel use and application is not.

Shackles, Restraints, Slave trade, Prisoners, Criminals
"The Coalition in the Bilboes or the Sufferings of the Blue and Buff, for Going Out of Their Proper Track"
by an unknown artist, displayed at the National Portrait Gallery, London

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Bikini - A Brief History

Swimwear, Bikini, Beach, Sun, Sunglasses, Style, Fashion
This is a bikini
(photo by Vincent Boiteau)


Noun. Mid-20th century.
[Bikini, an atoll in the Marshall Islands, where an atomic bomb test was carried out in 1946.]

A scanty two-piece beach garment worn by women and girls.

Oh don't be so cynical! I know you're thinking that I've only chosen to (scantily) cover bikini so that I can display photos of beautiful bikini-clad women, but that's not (entirely) true. With utmost integrity, I've chosen to write about bikini because it's a jolly interesting word with a jolly interesting history. So there.

For one thing, I had always been under the presumption that the word bikini was bi- something, formed as it is by two constituent parts, but no: it's actually named after the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, famous for its use as a test site for atomic bombs. Its "inventor" Louis Réard named it le bikini because he expected his salaciously saucy swimwear to cause a positively atomic sensation, as so it did on its release in 1946. In fact, the bikini was considered so scandalously scanty that Réard couldn't initially find any model willing to wear it. Micheline Benardini, a 19-year-old nude dancer in Paris, eventually obliged and it proved such a hit that she received over 50,000 fan letters.

Swimwear, Bikini, Invention, Model, Shoot, Black and white, First
Micheline Bernardini: The girl that dared
It should be pointed out that Réard is the bikini's modern inventor - it's been around in various forms for a lot longer than that. Both Greek and Roman women are depicted in bikinis (or bikini-like garments), including the goddess Venus which gives the bikini a whole new celestial dimension. In fact, if Raquel Welch's historical drama One Million Years B.C is to be believed, then the bikini is very, very old indeed.

Poster, Film, Fur, Bikini, Swimwear, Iconic
Raquel Welch and her fur bikini sneer at Réard's "invention" of 1946

In modern times, the bikini has spawned numerous varients, including the monokini, trikini, microkini, tankini and the mankini. Despite these, the basic premise has remained the same and the bikini remains resolutely popular. Having tirelessly trawled through hundreds of photos of bikini-clad women washing cars, playing volleyball, rolling about in the sand and dancing on bars, I can only conclude that part of the bikini's popularity (and endurance) is its utility: is any other garment so wonderfully versatile? Oh, and sunbathing. You do see it worn by women sunbathing too.

Right. That's it. That was hard work. All those pictures! Do I need one more? I think I do. Here's one more - just to be sure.  

No, it's not gratuitous. Another bikini picture was definitely needed to complete the post. Definitely. This one is by Jason Navarrete. It's rather good too.
Do please share this post, and of course all comments are very welcome. 

Tuesday, 18 June 2013


Bijou, Bijoux, Jewellery, Jewel, Amber, Gem, Gemstone, Trinket


Foreign. Noun (plural bijoux) & adjective. Mid-17th century.
[French from Breton bizoù finger-ring, from biz finger.]

A noun. A jewel, a trinket. M17

B adjective. Small and elegant. M19

Also: bijouterie noun jewellery, trinkets, etc. E19

For such a small, delicate, nay bijou word, bijou certainly is a lot of things. It's a cocktail (gin, vermouth and chartreuse), a classic car in the Citroën Bijou, an actress in Bijou Phillips, a rather obscure Cape Verdean footballer named (obviously) Bijou, and also a retired poodle Beanie Baby (again named Bijou). Oh, it's also a song by Queen and a type of vial used in laboratories. Lastly, for those that like Tintin trivia (and who doesn't?), the French title of The Castafiore Emerald is 'Les Bijoux de la Castafiore'. What a charmingly promiscuous little fellow bijou is; I rather like him and his seductively soft pronunciation.

Monday, 17 June 2013


Placard, Sign, Protester, Silly, Bigot, Bigotry, Freedom of speech, Rights
Is this man a bigot? Or just someone with a different opinion? Hmm.


Noun. Late 17th century.
[French, of unknown origin; partly through French bigoterie.]

Obstinate and unreasonable adherence to a religious or other opinion;
narrow-minded intolerance; an instance of this. 

"The mind of the bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract."
Oliver Wendell Holmes Snr.

Bigotry: there can be few uglier words in English than this. It's misshapen ungainliness of form and clumsy disjointed phonemes well match the ramshackle and ill-informed mind of the bigot. Bigotry tries to stand tall as a word, puffed out in the barrel-chested B and sweeping G, but it diminishes quickly, sloping away like the bigot himself to reveal a character that's pathetic, miserable and above all frightened. 

The problem with bigotry is that it provokes such righteous indignation, such heaving revulsion, that it's nigh on impossible to retain any sense of objectivity when it's encountered. Far worse, a liberal and egalitarian mind will suffer the onset of this revulsion at the mere whiff of bigotry, at the mere suspicion of it, and therein lies the problem: once one has mentally labelled a person a bigot, even a potential bigot, there is an automatic shutting off to any argument that's put forward. Any concession or common ground is rejected outright for fear that we might be betraying our higher morality, somehow sharing in their bigotry.

Such a reaction is understandable. Bigotry thrives on profoundly emotive and divisive human issues: racism, politics, religion, to name but a few. Opposite opinions in these spheres might not just be unpalatable to us but downright loathsome. However, liberally tossing out the slur 'bigot' with little or no engagement is narrow-minded, counter-productive and, ironically, rather bigoted in itself. Whatever bigotry is, it certainly is not someone that merely has a different, even radically different, opinion to us, nor is it someone that is different to us.

That's not to say, of course, that there aren't bigots and there isn't bigotry. It exists, and it should be countered wherever it is found with the cold light of reason and objectivity. Slurs, insults and name-calling are the refuge of bigotry; reasoned discussion and debate is its enemy. Ultimately, if we find someone that resolutely fits that ugly definition - intractably obstinate and unreasonable, showing narrow-minded intolerance, someone that's not interested in reason or truth or evidence - we can at least refuse to be drawn down with the bigot into his bigoted ways, into the language of fear-mongering, intolerance and sweeping generalisations. Bigotry is an ugly word and an infectious mindset, a path along which one must fight not to be drawn.

A member of the English Defense League gets a chance to explains his concerns

Please do leave any comments below. 

Sunday, 16 June 2013


Biggen, Embiggen, Cromulent, Neologism, Perfectly Cromulent Word, The Simpsons, Lisa the Iconoclast
"A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man."
Jebediah Springfield


Verb transitive & intransitive. Obsolete exluding dialectical. Mid-17th century.
[from BIG + -EN.]

Make or become big; increase.

It's funny when you hear a word, snort with derision because it doesn't sound like a real word, and then find out that it is a real word and you are, in fact, a bit of a numpty. It goes the other way too: I was at a party once and I asked a girl from the Caribbean if she had acclimatised to the English weather. "Have I what?" she snorted (it was definitely a snort). "Have I acclimatised? That's not a real word." Bizarrely, another girl standing within earshot interjected. "It is," she said with an exasperated roll of the eyes. "Yeah. Ed's weird like that." At that point I decided to go and find some other people to talk to, ones that didn't think the use of real worlds was weird (my apologies - it would seem I've been waiting many years to get this one of my chest).

So what's this all got to do with biggen? Well, like acclimatise (apparently), biggen just doesn't sound like a real word. Use it at your own risk, as it's bound to prompt derisory sneers and glances. It's similar to the quote from The Simpsons: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Jebediah Springfield apparently spoke these words and they were adopted as Springfield's town motto. Although a neologism written specifically for that episode (Lisa the Iconoclast), embiggen has since slipped into somewhat common (if jocular) usage, although it isn't yet recognised by the OED. Therefore, it might even be the case that, on your use of the word biggen, you might be corrected with: "Umm ... actually I believe you mean embiggen."

Interestingly, there is a phenomenon in which one tries to invent a neologism, or accidentally trips over a word and muddles it up (as in a spoonerism), but the end product does actually turn out to be a real word (often an archaic, obsolete or highly specialised word). This is termed 'a perfectly cromulent word', a phrase from the same episode of The Simpsons in which a character expresses doubt about embiggen, only for someone to assert that 'embiggen is a perfectly cromulent word'.

However, if you're just a semi-literate idiot that doesn't know basic English words, it does not qualify as a 'perfectly cromulent word' scenario. I mean c'mon! Acclimatise? Acclimatise? It's such a rudimentary (and cromulent) word! Bah!

Saturday, 15 June 2013


Bully, Biff, Belswagger, Bangster, Thomas F. Wilson, School violence, Butthead
"What are you looking at, butthead?"


Interjection, verb & noun. Colloquial (originally US). As interjection, also bif. Mid-19th century.

A interjection. Reproducing the sound of a smart blow. M19

B1 verb trans. Hit, strike. L19
B2 verb intrans. Go; proceed. E19
B3 verb trans. & intrans. Throw. Australian & NZ. M20

C noun. A blow; a whack. L19

There can be few more pleasing examples of onomatopoeia than biff, which has the rather ambiguous quality of being imitative yet euphemistic (to biff someone sounds a lot less violent than to punch someone), and also rather middle-class and posh, as in: "You're getting my dander up, you dashed blackguard! I've a good mind to give you a smart biff on the nose!"

Biff Tannen, of course, is also the main antagonist in the classic Back to the Future trilogy. A seemingly untouchable belswagger, Biff thinks nothing of meting out quite extreme violence on those that oppose him. As well as his forename alluding to violence, it's noteworthy that to tan is also rather old-fashioned slang meaning to beat, as in the oft-heard parental refrain: "If you don't behave, young man, I'll tan your hide!" (it's possible, therefore, that the young Biff Tannen is himself a victim, one of nominative determinism - boo hoo for him).

In a pivotal scene in the first film, Biff is served his just desserts (with generous lashings of comeuppance) when George McFly ... well ... biffs him. It's actually quite a dark and nightmarish moment, with the timid and somewhat cowardly George struggling to find the courage to not walk away from an imminent rape. Valour prevails, however, and the destiny of numerous characters hinges on that one moment in which George refuses to be a bystander. You can watch Biff getting biffed in one of the truly great cinematic punches in the video below: 

Have you ever been biffed? Have you ever biffed anyone? Are you named Biff and do you feel it caused you to become a violent bully? Do please leave any comments below.

Friday, 14 June 2013


Book, Conduct, Manners, Bienseance, Propriety, Behaviour


Noun. Late 17th century.
[French, from bien well + séant, from seoir befit.]


Oh for crying out ... another bien word! Having wearily plodded the platitudinous path of bien entendu, gandered gaily through the gladsome gardens of bien-être and challengingly charged into the conservative courtyard of bien pensant, we arrive at the last stop on the well-trodden path of Franco-wellness: bienséance.

As weary as one might be from such prodigious wellness, one still offers a polite smile and welcoming handshake to bienséance, fully understanding that it's a fascinating word in its own right and neither weariness nor familiarity with its bienish brethren should sully the occasion. It's propriety, darling; it's what one does.

For this reason, I for one am very pro-propriety, defensive of decorum, mindful of manners, encouraging of etiquette and wont to shout out "Bully for Bienséance!" at the flimsiest of excuses. It's what makes us all that little bit nicer to each other and the world that little bit more pleasant.

Bully for bienséance!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Bien pensant

God, Priest, Vicar, Church, Catholic, Saint, Holy, Theologian,
Theologian Alexander Schnütgen as painted by Leopold von Kalkreuth


Adjectival & noun phrase. As noun bien-pensant (plural pronounced same). Early 20th-century.
[French, bien well, pensant present participle of penser think.]

(A person who is) right-thinking, orthodox, conservative.

As a word and concept, bien pensant is highly subjective. While orthodoxy and conservatism are a little easier to call, who is qualified to declare that one person is 'right-thinking' while another is not? Surely one man's right-thinking bien pensant is another man's wrong-thinking mal pensant, right?

A problem with right-thinking orthodox conservative types is the temptation to use their orthodoxy as an argument unto itself: "That's the way we've always done it - therefore it's the right and proper way." If such thinking is used to circumvent giving logical, reasoned arguments as to why something should be so, or why a certain belief is held, it can barely be described as "right-thinking" and is probably closer to narrow-minded bigotry.

Unfortunately, in certain matters I find myself succumbing to this temptation. With regards the necessity of the much-abused and oft-maligned apostrophe, I am undoubtedly bien pensant: orthodox, conservative, and in my mind thoroughly right-thinking. You see, the apostrophe is a vital and intrinsic component of the English language: that clarity and accuracy should be compromised because of a few half-wits who cannot be bothered to learn how to use it is thoroughly unthinkable. The apostrophe is the way it's been done since time immemorial and is therefore the right, proper and correct way and must not, nay will not, be changed. There is no debate; I will not discuss it further; I am bien pensant.

All very subjective indeed (though in the matter of the apostrophe I'm right - without a shadow of a doubt).

If you're wondering who the pictured Alexander Schnütgen is, I've no idea (beyond that he was a German theologian). I thought he illustrated bien pensant well and no doubt many of his time would have considered him so. If you have any thoughts on today's post, or indeed can tell us anything about Mr Schnütgen, do please elucidate us in the comment box. 

Wednesday, 12 June 2013


Relaxation, Calm, Gentle, Serenity, Relax, Well-being, Yoga


Noun. Mid-19th century.
[French, from bien well + être be.]

A state of well-being.

"Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness."
Pearl S. Buck.

With bien-être being so difficult to attain, what with all of our accumulated worries and misgivings, preoccupations and concerns, we can always aim a little lower. Create your own moment of bien-être with a walk, a book or a glass of wine. Dedicate an evening to watching that box set that you haven't got round to yet, or just take an hour out of your schedule and have an afternoon nap. It's true that the same worries and concerns will still be there afterwards, but with just that little bit of recharging, they'll somehow seem less daunting, and you'll be able to attack them with more vigour and confidence than you could before. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Bien entendu

Shrug, Bored, Tired, Fed up, Unamused, Not funny
Ashe Dryden captures the typical reaction of someone reading this post. 


Adverbial phrase. Mid-19th century.
[French, from bien well + entendu past participle of entendre hear, understand.]

Of course; that goes without saying.

It goes without saying that if something goes without saying there's no need to say it. Bien entendu? Of course. Bien entendu.

Monday, 10 June 2013


Shanty town, Madrid, Spain, Poverty, Poor, Deprivation, Bidonville
Smiles from Cañada Real
(photo by Rafael Robles L)


Foreign (plural same). Noun. Mid-20th century.
[French, from bidon = an oil drum or petrol tin + ville town.]

A shanty-town built of oil drums, etc., especially on the outskirts of a French or North African city.

Cañada Real, Madrid, is Europe's largest shanty-town. It has some 40,000 residents. Conditions there are described as comparable to the Third World. I've been to Madrid on a number of occasions, but until I started researching the French word bidonville I had never heard of Cañada Real. Its existence and my complete ignorance of it shocks me.

Whether it be Cañada Real in Spain, the bidonville of France or the burgeoning slums of Greece, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the idea of such shanty-towns in Europe and the grinding poverty that spawns them. A shanty-town, after all, conjures images of the Brazilian favelas, or the corrugated shacks of Mogadishu, foreign and remote, detached from the supposed egalitarianism and refinement of Europe. Maybe it's a misplaced sense of European pride, denialism or just stupid naivety, but something tells us we're better than shanties and slums and bidonville. The evidence clearly says that we're not.