Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Bizarre - An Odd Word with an Angry History

Studded, Nose rings, Earring, Man,
Photo by Skinbobs


Adjective & noun. Mid-17th century.
[French from Italian bizzarro angry, of unknown origin. Compare Spanish and Portuguese bizarro handsome, brave.]

A1. adjective. Eccentric, fantastic, grotesque. M17

A2. Designating variegated forms of garden flowers, as carnations, tulips, etc. M18

B1 noun. A bizarre carnation, tulips, etc. L18

B2 absolute. The bizarre quality of things; bizarre things. M19

Also: bizarrely adverb L19. bizarreness noun E20. bizarrerie noun bizarre quality M18.

A girlfriend once told me that I use the word bizarre a lot. From this, I concluded that I either really liked the word bizarre (and I do), that my threshold for what I consider bizarre was rather low, or that I needed to expand my active vocabulary to include other similarly queer synonyms (such as curious, fantastic, grotesque, singular, etc). It was probably a combination of all three.

Bizarre is a fittingly curious word. There are only three other biz- words in the Shorter OED, being biz, bizarro (which hardly counts) and bizcacha; the zarr formation is similarly odd. As for its etymology, this too is steeped in mystery. For some time it was thought that it was a word of Basque origin meaning 'beard' (the idea being that some clean-shaven French folk found the look of bearded Basque soldiers odd). Most sources, however, are now settled on the idea that bizarre comes from French through the Italian word bizzarro, meaning 'angry', which is similarly appropriate as many people become inexplicably angry when they encounter the bizarre or unfamiliar. The ultimate origin of bizzarro, however, is a mystery.

Do you like the word bizarre?

Is there anything out there that you find particularly bizarre? Do you get angry when you encounter it?

Do please leave your oddest comments below.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Bivouac - A Night Beneath the Stars


Noun & verb. Early 18th century.
[French, probably from Swiss German Bîwacht literally 'extra watch', said to have been used in
 Aargau and Zürich to denote a patrol of citizens to assist the ordinary town watch.]

A. noun. Originally, a night-watch by a whole army.
Later, a temporary encampment, usually for the night, without tents;
the place of such an encampment. E18

B. verb intrans. & trans. in passive. Inflected -ick-. Remain in the open air (especially during the night) without tents etc. E19


Noun & verb intrans. Slang. Early 20th century.
[Abbreviation of bivouac.]

A. noun. A shelter; a small tent. E20
bivvy bag, bivvy sac(k) a person sized waterproof bag in which one may sleep when out of door.

B. verb intrans. Spend the night in the open air without a tent, especially in a bivvy bag;
encamp with little or no shelter. M20

There are few greater pleasures in life than packing up your sleeping bag, escaping the city, and sleeping under the stars on a warm summer night. I used to do it frequently when I was young, packing up some food and drink and heading off to Dry Sandford Pit, a nature reserve in Oxfordshire that my father used to take me to as a child to search for insects and fossils. There, the night sky was released from the sickly yellow glow of streetlights, and the ever present hiss of distant traffic was replaced by the chirping of insects and the rustling of leaves in the breeze. Lying on my back, looking up at the expansive sea of innumerable stars, I felt as if I was looking down, looking down into the depths of the universe and then, just for a moment, my stomach would turn as if I were about to fall into it. It was a profoundly moving and humbling experience - the feeling of falling into and being part of the stars and universe, the feeling of experiencing just a little of the awe-inspiring vastness of space.

If you have any thoughts or feeling on bivouacking, do please leave your comments below.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Bivious - You Have Two Options

Bivious, Left or Right, Crossroads, Warning sign,


Adjective. Mid-17th century.
[from Latin bivius, from BI- + via way + -OUS.]

Having or offering two ways.

I like the word bivious; it's given me pause for thought. Very often, we find ourselves at a bivious juncture in life, considering between two extreme options. Now that I've finished school, for example, should I go to university or straight into the workforce? Now that my parents are getting old, should I care for them myself or put them into care? At the next election, should I vote Labour or Conservative, Democrat or Republican?

Of course, none of these options are truly bivious, and I can't help but wonder if many things in life aren't really as one or the other as we make them. It's quite possible, too, that social and societal pressures push us into thinking something is bivious: "Are you going to university, or will you be happy to wait tables for the rest of your life?"

George W. Bush famously presented the nations of the world with a direly bivious choice:

"Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." 

This is such patent nonsense that it hardly seems worth addressing, but clearly not everyone that chooses not to align themselves with the United States and its actions is automatically declaring their allegiance to terrorists.

The next time, therefore, I am at a bivious juncture in my life, I am going to try to remember to pause, think, and consider if it truly is bivious, or indeed there are more options that I haven't yet considered, or whether I actually need to make a choice at all.

Do please leave any comments on bivious below.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Update Report - Halfway Through B

Word, OED, Dictionaries, Trivia

Halfway Through B!

The venerable babushka that kickstarted 'B' now seems like a distant memory (although not nearly as distant as the ant-snaffling aardvark that kicked-off Lexicolatry altogether). And here we are - eight months since that weird little creature waddled across my computer screen and out into the blogosphere, and we've reached (approximately) the halfway mark in 'B'.

And the first half of 'B' has had some very exciting, flattering and honouring developments. These include:

  • Guest bloggers! I have been immensely proud to have the wonderfully talented Katie Dwyer write for Lex, covering befuddle, besmirch and bicker. Thank you Katie!
  • The award-winning author Sally Prue wrote about bespangle for Lex. Thank you Sally! And thank you for your lovely blog, The Word Den, which is well worth a squizz for anyone that hasn't seen it (I particularly enjoyed her recent post on how her publisher has asked that she remove the word 'sausage' from her most recent book).
  • And a song! Have you ever had a song recorded for you? Well I have, thanks indeed to the very charming blogger Nick Number. Having mentioned that I particularly like the song The Distance by Cake, Nick went off and recorded his own version of it for me, dedicating it to Lexicolatry. How wonderful is that!? Nick writes the very funny blog A Vandal's History of Everything, which is history according to Wikipedia vandals. Just don't be writing your thesis on what you find there.

  • Fan art! Well, no, it's not really fan art, but it's as close as I've come so far, when the wonderful Bibi from Bibi Blog drew a picture based on my post bilocation. The picture is of Bibi imbued with the superpower of bilocation, pithily called Bilocation Bumblebee Bibi. And yes, she's been knocked unconscious in the picture due to her incessant monologuing.
  • Awards! One of my favourite bloggers, Evi from Sexta-fiera, recently asked if I accept personal blog awards, and promptly presented me with a "Love Your Blog!" award. Well, Evi, I didn't know they existed, but now I do and I definitely do accept! I suddenly feel like a real blogger. And as if I wasn't feeling flattered enough, Kara Braun from Lay It Down also presented me with one. My award is now proudly displayed at the top of the page. Thank you!
  • On top of all this, I want to thank everyone that's been reading and supporting Lexicolatry. The readership is steadily rising, and the commenting is a real highlight - very funny, insightful and fascinating. As well as the Facebook group, I recently started a Google+ page and a Twitter account, so feel free to join in there too if you like. Thank you!
  • Finally, you may have noticed that I put up an oh-so-subtle Nominate Me! badge for Blog Awards Ireland. The nominations close on Wednesday 31st July, so there are only a couple of days left. If you enjoy reading Lexicolatry and would like to nominate it, you can follow that link in the top left or click on the badge below. I really do appreciate your time in doing so - it means a lot. Several people have emailed me asking what category Lex should be in, but it's completely up to you. You can even nominate it in more than one if you wish. The information you'll need is the blog address (, the blog email ( and the blog start date if you're nominating it in the Newcomer category (26th November 2012). Thank you!
blog awards ireland

So that's it - halfway through 'B' and undeterred as we push our way through the tomes of the English language. If you're looking for today's word, fear not: it's bitrex, so there's not need to be bitter (oh dear).

Thank you, thank you, thank you again! It's been such great fun so far and I look forward to discovering and discussing many new words with you. 



Bitrex - Bitter Safe Than Sorry

Bitrex, Bitter, Taste. Bitterant
(photo by Greg O'Connell)


Noun. Mid-20th century.
[Invented name.]

(Proprietary name for) a bitter-tasting synthetic organic compound (denatonium benzoate, C28H34N2O3)
added to cleaning fluids or other products to make them unpalatable.

Have you ever used shampoo that smelt so delectable, so inviting, so irresistible, that you just had to taste it? I'm a sucker for anything coconut, and it just seems impossible that something that smells so seductively wonderful could be anything but delicious. But it doesn't, of course; quite the opposite, it tastes positively repulsive, and the reason it does is because it's had Bitrex added to it with the specific purpose of stopping idiots like you and me from drinking it. Yes, you! Don't pretend you didn't take a sip of that mango and passion fruit body lotion once.

Beyond stopping numbskulls from chugging back soap, Bitrex has a number of other (more serious) applications. It's used in treatments to prevent nail biting, for example, and also as a general bitterant to prevent humans (especially children) from consuming nasty things like cleaning products and antifreeze. It's also used as an effective animal repellent. In fact, one of its first applications after its discovery in 1958 was to stop Danish pigs from cannibalising each others' tails - a quick daub of Bitrex on the old corkscrew and bingo! No more tail-munching piggies to threaten the world's bacon supply.

And there are more pigs in this story! You know the ubiquitous alcohol-based hand-sanitiser that suddenly popped up everywhere in the wake of swine flu? You thought it was made to taste revolting to stop people drinking it, didn't you! Well, you're half right, as it's an example of what's called 'denatured alcohol', which is an alcohol product that's had all kinds of stuff put into it to make it thoroughly unfit for human consumption. Therefore, not being an alcoholic drink, it falls into different tax brackets and is much cheaper to produce. Bitrex kills two birds with one stone, though, as they seriously do not want you drinking industrial alcohol, which is likely to kill one moron with one sip.

So the message is clear - stop drinking or even tasting shampoo, soap, lotion or any other toiletry, no matter now irresistible it smells. As for sanitising gel, antifreeze or any other type of denatured alcohol, seriously: you're going to a very bad place indeed if you knock that stuff back.

I present to you Denatonium Benzoate. This diagram ... umm ... means something apparently

Do you want to deny that you've ever deliberately tasted shampoo?

Seriously? No one will believe you.

Would you like to invest in my business idea of edible chocolate shampoo?

Do please leave your sweetest, least bitter comments below.  

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Bitch - A Dogged History

Dogs, Canines, Insults, Slurs, Sexism, Misogyny


Noun & adjective.
[Old English bicce related to Old Norse bikkja.]

1A. A female dog. OE

1B. A female fox, otter, wolf, or (occasionally) similar animal. LME

2A. A man. Latterly derogatory. Now rare. ME

2B. A woman, especially a lewd, malicious, or treacherous one. Derogatory. LME

2C. Something difficult or unpleasant. Colloquial. E19

3. A simple lamp made by by placing a wick in some bacon fat. Alaska & Canada. E20

B. Attributive or as adjective. (Of an animal) female; like a bitch. LME

Also: bitch goddess (material or worldly) success. bitchery noun bitchy behaviour. M16


Verb. Late 17th century.
[from the noun.]

1. Verb trans. Frequent the company of whores; call someone 'bitch'. L17-E18

2. Verb trans. Spoil, botch. Frequently followed by up. Colloquial. E19

3. Verb trans. Complain, grumble. Colloquial. M20

Also: bitching adjective (slang, chiefly US) (a) expressive of contempt, derision, dislike, or anger; (b) great, excellent, wonderful. E20


Adjective. Early 20th century.
[from BITCH noun + Y.]

1. Sexually provocative; malicious, catty. E20

2. Of a male dog: resembling a bitch. M20

Also: bitchily adverb M20 bitchiness noun M20

A bitch, first and foremost, is a female dog. This definition isn't offensive, improper or even colloquial. If the Book of the Bitch raises a smirk, however, its subtitle A Complete Guide to Understanding and Caring for Bitches raises an outright snigger, irrespective of the fact that it's a completely fitting title considering the book's subject matter. And yes, it did make me laugh - a childish, guilty, I-thought-my-humour-was-better-than-this type of laugh, but a laugh all the same. It's an undeniably eye-catching and provocative cover, something one suspects the authors were fully aware of when they thoughtfully named their guide to bitches. 

Beyond canine gender and old-fashioned Alaskan lamps, however, bitch is an insult, and a particularly nasty insult at that. As far as English epithets go, it's one of the oldest, most complex and contradictory insults we have, with evidence of its use as a slur going back to 1400. Originally it may have specifically referred to a woman's sexual behaviour, comparing her to 'a bitch in heat' (thus, if you call someone 'a son of a bitch', you're calling him the son of a whore, rather than the son of a dog). The modern meaning of bitch has become diluted, however, and it can mean radically different things depend on who is saying it, to whom it is being said, and the context within which it is spoken.

For example, when a man calls a woman a bitch, it's likely because she is seen as obnoxious, domineering, scheming, uncooperative or malicious. When a man calls a man a bitch, however, he could be calling him effeminate, weak, submissive, subordinate or disloyal. In both applications, perceived gender roles and qualities are at the core of the insult - women should not display stereotypical masculine qualities such as assertiveness, and men should not display feminine qualities such as being submissive. It's of note that the use of bitch as a slur against women rose sharply in the 1920s - a time that some researchers have noted corresponds with the age of women's suffrage (or, depending on how you look at it, the age of inappropriately assertive females pushing for rights that they had no right to push for).

Bitch, Sexism, Prejudice

Even when bitch is not directed against a person, it's still steeped in misogyny and sexism. If you're sick of all the bitching at work, for example, you're sick of all the catty gossip and malicious backbiting - favourite pastimes of women no less. And if your kitchen sink was an absolute bitch to fix, it was difficult, unyielding and uncooperative - typical qualities of a woman who's getting a little too big for her boots. 

Interestingly, some women have chosen to 'reclaim' the word bitch, self-identifying as bitches and readily embracing the various qualities and attributes that being a bitch entails. This approach obviously has its detractors. After all, why would anyone choose to identify with such negative characteristics as being obnoxious, pushy, domineering or spiteful? If, however, a woman is confident, assertive, strong-willed and determined, why does she need to identify as anything? If a woman with such admirable qualities did self-identify as a bitch, could it be that it only serves to reinforce the stereotype that these qualities are somehow threatening and abnormal in a woman and thus require a gender-specific appellation?  

Arguments can be made for calling a spade a spade, or course: if a woman behaves like a bitch and has the qualities of a bitch, what's wrong with calling her a bitch? This argument makes little sense. After all, if your issue really is with a woman's behaviour, why are you implicitly referencing her gender? True, it might not be as emphatic to say "Don't be so obnoxious!" rather than "Don't be such a bitch!" but there are plenty of non-gender-specific slurs out there if you really must use one. However, the fact that gender needs to be referenced with a word like bitch suggests that, yes, somewhere, at some level, gender is an issue, much the same as if, in an argument with a black man, I called him a stupid black moron. Yes, he may be stupid, he may be a moron, but somewhere along the line his skin colour has become a bit of an issue for me, and the fact that I mentioned it (even if inadvertently) says more about me and my attitudes than it does about him. The use of the word bitch, steeped as it is in prejudice, sexism and misogyny, is no less telling.

Do you have any thoughts on bitch?

Is it ever acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch?

Is it more acceptable for a woman to call another woman a bitch?

Is there even a difference between who calls who a bitch and where they do it?

Have you read Book of the Bitch and did it tell you all you needed to know about caring for them?

Do please leave your comments below
(while remembering to be awfully polite about it please!)

Friday, 26 July 2013

Bismillah - "In the Name of God"

Bismillah, Arabic, Muslim, Islam, Religion,


Interjection & noun. Late 18th century.
[Arabic bi-smi-llah(i), the first word of the Koran.]

(The exclamation) in the name of God; used by Muslims at the beginning of any undertaking.

The figures vary slightly according to different sources, but the proportion of Muslims in the United Kingdom stands at around 5%, and about 1% in Ireland. Saying bismillah, which is the opening word of every surah in the Koran but one, is an important aspect of daily Muslim life, and is said before meals and before undertaking any specific task. As with just just about every Arabic expression I hear, I do rather love the sound of it - maybe one day I'll work up the courage to learn Arabic, which currently sits alongside Russian and Hindi on my "Really hard languages that I'm going to learn one day" list. Until then, I will have to be satisfied with the scattered but beautiful words and expressions that have become part of English.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Bishop - Filing For Da Horse

Bishop, Tamper, Fraud, Age, Selling, Equine,
I can confidently say I will never, ever, ever be tempted to kiss a horse.
(image by Leo Reynolds)


Verb trans. Early 18th century.
[from Bishop, a surname.]

File and tamper with the teeth of (a horse) to deceive as to age.

If you've ever thought about buying or selling a horse, you probably know that the traditional method of checking its age is to have a good root around in its mouth, checking its teeth for the typical growth and wear patterns of an aged animal. There have, however, always been less-than-saintly characters willing to give the horse a damn good pre-sale bishoping: that is, to get stuck into its teeth with files and blades so as to alter them and make the horse look younger. That's fraud, of course, but considering that it's fraudulently passing off old horses, it should at least be easy to make the charges stick.

Bishop, Equine, Fraud, Filing, Altering, Tampering, Age
"Hahaha! Make the charges stick! I love it!"
(photo by Toonbobo)

Dictionaries don't tell us who the eponymous Bishop was, nor how his name became associated with doing bad things inside a horse's mouth. In my mind, the mouth of an animal is a place a human should never be, although (apparently) there are legitimate reasons to be filing (or floating) a horse's teeth. Personally, I can think of few jobs more stomach-churning that forcibly prying open a stallion's jaws and manually grinding down those grostesquely gargantuan gnashers. But that's just me.

Incidentally, if you've ever wondered about the origin of the expressions "long in the tooth" (meaning old) and "never look a gift horse in the mouth" (meaning don't be such an ungrateful git), now you know.

Have you ever bishoped a horse? Would you like to bishop a horse? Is the recurrence of the word bishop making you as uncomfortable as me?

Do please leave your comments below ...

May the Horse Be With You!

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Bish - A Blunder With a Touch of Class

Blunder, Faux Pas, Mistake, Admission
Sounds like a bit of a bish to me.
(image by Andrew Forgrave)


Noun. Slang. Mid-20th century.
[Origin unknown.]

A mistake, a blunder.

Researching the distinctly posh sounding bish has been quite a task. For one thing, on searching for bish meaning "blunder", Google was understandably determined to return hits on George W. Bush, fond and oddly adept as he is in the art of the über-bish. Taking it down to street level, bish also gets a little bit ghetto, quaintly defined in the Urban Dictionary as "a soft and loving term for bitch". Aww. Bless those young scallywags and their charmingly offensive gutterspeak! Oh, bish is also short for 'bishop', and imitative Australian slang for throwing something (I have no idea what bish is imitating here). So there it is. Whether you want to write about Bush's bushisms, insult a woman, get cozy with the clergy or lob something at an Australian, bish might just be the word for you.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Biscuit - This Takes It

Bourbon biscuits, Cookies,
A stack of biscuits. Or are they? Yes. They clearly are.
(photo by Caro Wallis)


Noun & adjective. Also bisket (obsolete). Middle English.
[Old French bescuit (modern biscuit), ultimately from Latin bis twice + coctus past participle of coquere to cook.]

1a. A piece of usually unleavened cake or bread of various ingredients,
usually crisp, dry and hard, and in a small flat thin shape. ME

1b. A small round cake like a scone. N.American. E19

2. Porcelain or other ware which has undergone firing but no further treatment. L18

3. A light-brown colour regarded as characteristic of biscuits. L19

4. Each other the three square sections of a soldier's mattress. E20

5. CARPENTRY. A small round or oval piece of wood, a row of which are glued or wedged
into semicircular slots in each of two pieces of wood in order to join them together. M20

B. Attributive or as adjective. Of the colour of biscuit, light-browned. L19

biscuit-like adjective resembling a biscuit M19
  biscuity adjective resembling a biscuit in texture, flavour, colour, etc. L19

The other day at the beach, some friends and I entered into a spirited debate on the difference between a biscuit and a cracker. This discussion was precipitated by me calling TUC crackers "biscuits" and, as I apparently have a reputation as a bit of a pedant, some were quick to pounce on this perceived bêtise. "They're not biscuits!" they hollered. "They're crackers! Look! It even says 'crackers' on the packet!" So sad. So very, very sad.

It should be noted that we were on the rather remote beach at Fanore in Co. Clare. Therefore, our smartphones rendered impotent by lack of coverage, it was just like days of yore, arguing by wits alone, without some numpty sitting in the corner spoiling everyone's fun by looking up everything on Wikipedia and smugly announcing the answers as if he were the font of all knowledge.

So, what is the difference between a biscuit and a cracker? Various arguments were put forward. I maintained that a cracker is a type of biscuit, one that is typically thinner and more brittle. Others posited that a cracker is a type of bread while a biscuit is a type of cake, or that crackers are always savoury while biscuits are always sweet. I asserted that biscuits are not always sweet, and put forward Weetabix as an example of a savoury biscuit, to which someone countered that Weetabix cannot be savoury because you can put sugar on them. I think the moment someone shouted "What about Christmas crackers?" was the moment we realised it was all getting a little silly, and an awkward silence fell over Fanore.

As silly as it was (and as wrong as they all were), it well illustrates both the pettiness of man and the intrinsic difficulty in defining words, especially those words that have some kind of cultural significance. Biscuit is a prime example of a familiar word with a difficult definition. Americans and Britons, for example, have very different ideas of what a biscuit is. The British or Irish biscuit would be called a cookie in the US, whereas if someone here offered you a cookie and then handed you a digestive biscuit, you'd feel a little hard done by (akin to someone saying they're taking you out to a restaurant, only to take you out to a McDonald's Restaurant).

Biscuit, incidentally, literally means twice cooked (Latin bis + coctus), which is rather interesting. And if you're still wondering what constitutes a cracker, the OED defines it as "a thin dry biscuit."  Which seems to settle the argument in my favour, right? I mean, I don't want to go on about it but it does. So there. Twice cooked? Twice burned, more like. Ouch.

How do you differentiate between a biscuit, a cookie and a cracker?

Are there any pertinent factors that our skilled debaters failed to consider?

Do we need to ask ourselves what we're doing with our lives?

Do please comment below (with extra points for biscuity puns).

Monday, 22 July 2013

Bis - French for "Encore"

Bis, Encore, French, Music, Dance, Electronica, Techno
Daft Punk: I really don't think these guys will mind either way.
(photo by Juicy Rai)


Adverb. Early 17th century.
[French & Italian, from Latin bis twice.]

Encore; again; twice; specifically as a direction in a musical score indicating that a passage is to be repeated.

The next time you're Paris, planning an enchanting evening of classical music and culture, you must remember this post to avoid a thoroughly mortifying faux pas français: the French do not uncouthly shout "Encore!" like neanderthals when they want an encore. Rather, the Frenchman of taste will shout "Bis!"

Or so I've always been lead to believe; that it's one of those peculiar quirks of English's linguistic promiscuity, adopting a French word that sounds cultured and cosmopolitan, whereas to French ears encore used in this sense sounds distinctly odd. And authoritative references back this up: bis is defined as encore after all, and the OED's entry for encore plainly states that, in French, it is not used in the English sense.

These things are fickle, however, and I've had more than one Frenchman protest that they do indeed say "Encore!" when they want a bis, together with "Une autre!" when they want an encore, which is all frightfully confusing. If you want the advice of someone that doesn't speak French and has never been to a classical concert in France, then I would suggest just going along with the crowd (unless they're rioting, of course). And really, if a thousand people are chanting "Bis! Bis! Bis!" and one lone voice lets slip an encore, is anyone going to notice, let alone mind?

Or maybe they will. I don't know. This is France, after all. I think I might just go and see Daft Punk instead. Good luck, mes amis

Can you shed any light on the French use of bis?

What do you call at the end of the performance when you want an encore?

Do please tell below.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Biro - Balls Well That Pens Well

Balls well that pens well, Biro, Bic, Ballpoint pen, Notepad, Dictionary


Noun. Spelt Biro & biro. Plural -os. Mid-20th century.
[Lázlo József Biró (1899-1985), Hungarian inventor.]

(Proprietary name for) a ball-point pen.

I should probably start with an apology to Mr Biró himself, for I think it unlikely that his biro was ever used to pen a more terrible pun. And I had other options: one fine young lady suggested "Doing it Write Since 1935". But alas! No sooner had I sat at my desk to research this post than I found I had scrawled those words across my notepad: "Balls Well That Pens Well". My apologies, Mr Biró.

Although perhaps not. Looking closely, I'm not really sure that it is a Biro; it's just an anonymous, cheap ballpoint pen. That's the point, though, isn't it? Biros are so ubiquitous that we don't give them a passing thought as we hunt for them, chew them, dismantle them, suck them and occasionally write with them. And if someone lends us one, it's even questionable whether it's worth the bother of returning it. I mean, is it? Really? Worth standing up and crossing a hotel foyer to return a biro to the receptionist who'll probably just give you a quizzical oh-you're-actually-giving-that-back sort of look? This is one of the 20th century's greatest ethical conundrums.

Andrea Joseph, drawing, pen, ink
Andrea Joseph's bironic art
While it might seem so inconsequential, the humble biro is one of Hungary's greatest inventions (and Hungary has quite a few, believe you me). Biró wasn't the first person to come up with (or even patent) the idea of a rolling-ball system for pens, but he was the first to make it commercially viable. With his brother György, a chemist, he perfected the troublesome ink viscosity and the ball housing unit, and the ballpoint pen was born in 1935 (patented in Britain in 1938). Since then, a biro has become a generic term for any (cheap) ballpoint pen, whether it happened to an actual Biro or not (the Biro trademark is now owned by Bic).

And that's it: the humble yet thoroughly groundbreaking biro was born. It was quickly adopted by the RAF (whose pilots were rather tired of their fountain pens exploding mid-flight), became a favourite drawing tool for artists, and there's probably not a second of any day in which someone, somewhere, isn't asking: "Do you have a biro?" (and then wondering if they can be bothered to give it back).

Ballpoint pen, Hungarian inventions, Bic, Biro

Do you use biros?

Is "stealing" a biro really stealing?

Can you think of a better (or worse) pun?

Do please leave your comments below.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Bird - Winging Its Praises

Birds, Avian, Pretty, Garden
A Goldfinch
Photo by Nigel Winnu


[Old English brid, (late Northumbrian bird, of unknown origin and without cognates.]

1. A nestling, a fledgling; a chick. Long obsolete except northern. OE

2. A feathered, warm-blooded, amniote animal of the vertebrate class Aves, characterized by modification
of the the forelimbs as wings for flight, oviparous reproduction, and care for the young. ME

2b. SPORT. A game-bird, specifically a partridge; figuratively prey. LME

3. A maiden, a girl; a young woman. (Originally a variation of BURD, later taken as figurative use for sense 1 & 2). Now slang, frequently derogatory. ME

4. A person (frequently with specifying adjective). Colloquial. M19

5. A first-rate person, animal, or thing. US slang. M19

6. [Abbreviation of BIRDLIME noun] A prison sentence; prison. Slang. E20

7. An aeroplane; a missile, rocket, satellite, spacecraft, etc. Slang. M20

8. In badminton: a shuttlecock. L20

Firstly, I'd like to explain why I think bird is an interesting word. The English language is such a a mixed bag, rife with French and German and Latin and Greek and a myriad other languages, it's quite unusual to find a word that's English, just English, and nothing else, having no cognates in any other language. Being such a pretty little word representative of such pretty little creatures, I can't help but feel a flush of irrational pride when I think of bird: it's our word, all our own, and no one else can touch it.

Secondly, birds are jolly interesting creatures. There are approximately 10,000 species of bird spread across every continent on the planet, ranging in size from the Bee Hummingbird (2 - 2.5in in length) to the Ostrich (up to 9ft tall). They are generally sociable, engaging in cooperative breeding and hunting, as well as other cooperative behaviours such as flocking and the mobbing of predators.

Corvids, Intelligent, Rook, Black, Smart, Avian, Birds,
An Amercian Crow
Photo by Joe McKenna
It's also of note that birds are remarkably intelligent, with the parrot and crow families being rated as among the most intelligent of all animals. Certain birds have demonstrated self-awareness, for example, as well as the ability to fashion and use tools, to count and to employ observation and social learning. Birds have also demonstrated an understanding of object permanence, and it's possible some are able to understand another animal's perspective (such as predators). Such cognitive abilities were previously thought to solely be in the domain of humans, great apes and perhaps dolphins and elephants. However, the contemporary study of avian cognition challenges this, and certainly dispels the notion that birds are stupid, a myth enshrined in such language as bird-brained, meaning stupid, flighty. 

Lastly, birds have a special place in human culture. We've worshiped them, eaten them, kept them and trained them; we've sung about them, written about them, and allowed our language to be shaped by them. I shall leave you with a song by Eels that pretty much sums up everything I want to say about birds:

Can't view this? Fly away here to see it in YouTube.

Do you have any thoughts on birds?

Do please comment below.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Birch - A Switch in Crime

Corporal punishment, Birch rod,


Verb trans. Mid-19th century.
[from the noun.]

Flog with a birch. 

Also: birching noun M19
The action of the verb; a flogging with a birch.

"Bring back the birch!" is the oft-heard refrain of the morally-outraged tabloid-reader that ascribes virtually all of society's ills to immigrants, socialism and the abolition of corporal punishment in modern schools. Curiously, on Googling the phrase 'bring back the birch', the top three hits were for Wikipedia, The Daily Mail and The Sun; bringing back "the birch" (i.e corporal punishment) is also a stated policy of the British National Party. Hmm.

Interestingly, birching need not involve actual birch at all; rather, a birch rod can be a bundle of any leafless twigs so fashioned as to be a tool for corporal punishment. It was used as a judicial punishment in the United Kingdom until abolished in 1948 (presumably at which point society collapsed), although the Isle of Man (a Crown Dependency) has the bizarre claim-to-fame of only abolishing birching in 1976 (apparently the meddlesome European Court of Human Rights had something to say about it), although they only officially got around to repealing the law in 1993.

Do you long for an age when children will once again have their bare buttocks flogged with a birch rod?

Am I being hopelessly naive when, in fact, birching would be of great benefit to wayward modern youth? 

Do please leave your comments below.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Bipolar - The Extremes of Manic Depression

Bipolar, Depression, Mania, Mental Illness, Mental Health.


Adjective. Early 19th century.
[from BI- + POLAR adjective.]

1. Have two poles or opposite extremities. E19

2a specifically Of a nerve cell: having two axons, one either side of the cell body. M19

2b Of psychiatric illness: characterized by both manic and depressive episodes,
or manic ones only (in indiviual or family history). M20

3 Of or occurring in both polar regions. L19

(a) the state of having two poles
(b) the occurrence of the same species in each of the polar regions

Although the psychiatric definition originated in the mid-20th century, it does seem that the words bipolar and bipolar disorder have only entered the wider public consciousness relatively recently. Growing up, the term bipolar was completely unknown to me, whereas terms like manic depression and manic depressive were not.

Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme fluctuations in mood between highs (mania) and lows (depression). Although often represented by the dramatic masks motif, commonly interpreted as 'happy' and 'sad' faces, bipolar disorder is much more severe than merely a cycling between feeling bright and cheerful one day and a bit down the next. The highs, for example, while sometimes associated with bursts of productivity and creativity, can also manifest themselves in extremely destructive behaviour, such as reckless spending or risk-taking. The lows can manifest themselves in a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness, perhaps even suicidal thoughts and self-harm. Both extremes of bipolar can have a severely detrimental effect on one's life, career and relationships.

Bipolar disorder is surprisingly common, with some sources giving the figures of 1% of the population having bipolar, and 4% experiencing some of the characteristic symptoms at some point in their life. Various celebrities with bipolar have also done much to boost public awareness of the condition, including Stephen Fry, Russel Brand, Frank Bruno and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Sadly, despite this growing awareness, ignorance and stigma toward bipolar remain, as it does toward all mental illness, including the perception that people with bipolar (and depression) should just "get over it", and confusing bipolar with very separate illnesses like schizophrenia. In researching bipolar, I particularly liked Abigail Southworth's picture, shown below, that well-illustrates both the disruptive nature of bipolar, and the sense of being 'caught in the middle' of various negative stereotypes and misconceptions.  On a positive note, the growing awareness of bipolar, as with all mental health matters, should do much to continue breaking down ignorance toward it, just as medical treatment and research continue to improve.

Mental health, Mania, Depression, Stereotype, Misconception, Prejudice,
By Abigail Southworth

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Biotecture - Wall of the Wild

Biotecture, living wall, Green wall,


Noun. Late 20th century.

The use of living plants as an integral part of the design of buildings.

I once visited a house that was on a piece of land adjacent to a very busy railway line. Running the length of the track was a high wooden wall, hollow-framed but filled with earth and seeded so that it had become completely engulfed in green foliage. The owner explained that the purpose of this living wall was for the earth and greenery to absorb the noise from the passing trains and, as I noted when a train did pass with little more than a soft hum and gentle vibration underfoot, the effect was impressive. Aesthetically, too, it was a quite magnificent structure, and was my first experience of biotecture.

Many other examples of biotecture exist, with interior and exterior walls being designed with hydroponic systems to sustain the plant life integral in their design. Advantages of such biotecture are said to include added beauty and aesthetics, improved air quality and benefits to the mental health and well-being of those using the building.

Have you lived or worked in a building that uses biotecture? Do you have any thoughts on its use? 

Do please leave your comments below. 

Tuesday, 16 July 2013


Biota, Endemism, Animals, Reptile
The Galapagos Land Iguana
Photo courtesy of


Noun. Early 20th century.
[modern Latin from Greek biote life.]

The animal and plant life of a region.

Biota, by its definition, has a quite incredible scope. In defining a particular biota by its time period, you could talk of a the biota from any specific nano-second, or one encompassing whole geological periods or even the biota since the beginning of time itself. Geographically, you could speak of the biota of a particular dash of garden soil all the way up to the biota of the entire Earth. If that's still a little small-scale for your tastes, why not discuss the biota of the whole universe, or (if you want to get really big and rather theoretical about it) the biota of the total multiverse?

As I was unable to find any authentic photos of the multiverse (or even the universe), I've included some photographs of various species from the Galapagos Islands, famed for its endemic flora and fauna since the visit of Charles Darwin in 1835.

Focas, playa, Endemism,
Sea lions on a beach in the Galapagos Islands.
Photo by Max Ruckman
If you know of any particularly fine or interesting biotas, do please leave your comment below

Monday, 15 July 2013


Che Guevara, Gael Garcia Bernal, Biopic, Rodrigo de la Serna, Argentinian cinema


Noun. Colloquial. Mid-20th century.
[from BIOGRAPHICAL + PIC noun.]

A biographical film.

Biopic annoys me a bit as a word. For as long as I can remember, I've pronounced it incorrectly, firmly stressing the 'o' so that it rhymes (somewhat ironically) with myopic. However, virtually every authoritative source gives its correct pronunciation as bio-pick. Ever since I discovered the proper pronunciation, however, I've remained resolutely convinced that my pronunciation is the superior one. Yes, it's true that it doesn't make as much sense (after all, biopic means biographical picture), but it just sounds so much better. Biopic (spoken my way) sounds so much grander, with so much more majesty, bigger and bolder, with tones of the epic. The thing is - it isn't just my pronunciation; after a modicum of research on the interweb, it seems that others are also partial to my myopically-intoned pronunciation. So perhaps we're right, and to continue to deny so is simply ... ahem ... short-sighted?

How do you pronounce biopic? Is it just me and some other renegade internet weirdos? Or is something big starting here?

Oh, I rather like The Motorcycle Diaries, a biopic (pronounced my way) of Che Guevara.
If you have any favourite biopics (pronounced my way), do feel free to share.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Biophilia - A Loving Nature

Photo by Adam Baker


Noun. Mid-20th century.
[from BIO- + -PHILIA, after necrophilia.]

1. PSYCHOANALYSIS. (In the writing of Erich Fromm) a love of life or self-love enabling normal emotional and social development. M20

2. A love of or empathy with the natural world, seen as a human instinct. L20

I once read that humans are the only species that will risk their lives to save a creature of another species. I don't know if that's true, but humans definitely do risk themselves for animals. Remarkably, we're not just talking about pets either - humans will take enormous risks to save an animal that's completely unknown to them. Although on first thought I find this behaviour rather baffling, I do remember a time that my brother and I were hillwalking in Wales and we saw a (particularly stupid) sheep with its head stuck in a fence. Together, we climbed a steep, scree-covered gorge to wrestle the sheep's head out of the fence. Why? I've no idea, especially as later that week we'd probably be covering the poor sheep's progeny with lashings of mint sauce and gravy down the local pub. I suppose it just felt like the right thing to do.

This 'rescue' is remarkably similar to my own - until about 0:57 anyway
(you can read about another lamb-fisted attempt to save a sheep here)

Some suggest the reason humans take such actions is our inherent biophilia. That we're all biophiliac by nature is a theory popularised by biologist E.O. Wilson in his book Biophilia. While the biophilia hypothesis has its basis in evolutionary theory and psychology, it's of note that many of the world's religions allude to biophilia: there are specific laws recorded for the Jews in the Old Testament regarding animal welfare, and animals are considered sentient beings in the Buddhist faith.

Regardless of its origin, expressions of biophilia can be seen in our concern for animal welfare, our appreciation of natural beauty and such specific actions as filling our homes with plants and flowers. That being said, this supposed biophilia does seem highly selective to me: while I can't bear the thought of animal cruelty, I happily eat meat without ever really questioning where it's come from. On a global scale, we're also highly selective about the animals we want to save from extinction: of course we must save the beautiful panda with its big cuddly frame and stylish monochrome suit, but what about the similarly endangered blobfish? If we're so truly biophilic, why does our ecological concern only stretch to those animals which we find aesthetically pleasing?

Dickon Sowerby, left, from The Secret Garden
If I seem a little cynical with this whole biophilia thing, it might be that I'm just a teensy bit jealous. I love the natural world; I'm thoroughly awed by it, but I could never describe myself as having an affinity with it. Noble characters like Dickon Sowerby from The Secret Garden and Simon from Lord of the Flies have always fascinated me, perhaps because they don't just have a connection to nature, but nature seems to reciprocate that connection with them. I'm certain of one thing though: if humankind truly is biophilic, we'd better start getting serious about this supposed "love and empathy with the natural world" thing, as right now we've got a funny way of showing it.

Do you consider yourself a biophile? Do you agree that the human race is biophiliac? 

Do please share this post, and feel free to comment below.