Be alert

Many years ago one of my sisters gave me a calendar with a pun-based cartoon on every month’s page. One had a cartoon of two strange animals with the caption “Be alert. Your country needs more lerts.” (Or something like that. One website gives the version “The world needs more lerts”, crediting Woody Allen.)

I have recently been exploring prefixes. For some reason I started at the end of the alphabet and worked my way backwards, and have now reached a-, which is causing me great problems because the humble a– prefix has more meanings than any other.

You probably knew, or guessed, that alert is not derived from a lert. So what is its derivation? It comes from Italian all’erta, or all(a) erta, which means to or on the lookout or watchtower. Erta, in turn, is the feminine form of erto, which is the past participle of Italian ergere, Latin ērigere, meaning to erect, so an erta is something erected. So if you are alert, you are, literally, on the erection. Hmmm …

(The word often seen in close proximity, alarm, is from Old Italian all’arme, to arms – arms being from the Latin arma, not the Old English earmas.)


What rhymes with axolotl?

Not a lotl, I would have thought.

A few days ago someone posted on Facebook The Axolotl Song (earworm warning), by a music/video/comedy group called Rathergood, which consists of Joel Veitch and unnamed others. They quickly rhyme axolotl with bottle and lotl, and also with mottled, which doesn’t quite rhyme.

There is a surprising number of English words ending with -tle. lists 104, but there are several derived forms; for example, bluebottle is listed alongside bottle. Eleven of these have a silent t in the cluster –stle, for example, castle. There are also a few with –ntle, for example, gentle, in which the n is part of the previous syllable, and one with –btle (subtle), in which the b is silent. The one which goes closest to rhyming with axolotl is apostle, but I can’t imagine anyone fitting both of those into the same song. Otherwise, there are bottle (and bluebottle), throttle, wattle and mottle among relatively common words and pottle (a former liquid measure equal to two quarts) (why not just say ‘two quarts’ or ‘half a gallon’?) and dottle (the plug of half-smoked tobacco in the bottom of a pipe after smoking) (does anyone really need a word for this?). Continue reading

argh, arrgh, aargh, aarrgh …

For reasons I might explain sometime, I needed to know the spelling of argh. Or arrgh. Or arrrgh. Or aargh. Or aarrgh, Or aarrrgh. Or aaargh. Or aaarrgh. Or aaarrrrgh. Or possibly multiple gs and/or multiple hs. gives ‘argh or aagh’. Google Ngrams shows argh, aargh, arrgh, aaargh and arrrgh, with no results for aarrgh, aarrrgh, aaarrgh or aaarrrrgh.Multiple as emphasises the length of the vowel, while multiple rs emphasises the throatiness of the rhotic. Multiple gs and/or multiple hs are also possible: Ngrams has arghh, and a general Google search has arghh (1,330,000), arggh (242,000) and argghh (148,000). aarrgghh is also possible (151,000), but the combinations grow exponentially, so I’ll stop there.

There are two meanings: the pirate sound, which is most commonly written as arrr, and the frustration sound, which is most commonly written argh or aargh.


I have thought of an idea for a post based on Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky. I copied the poem from an internet site and pasted it into Word for Mac. Immediately, I realised that some of Carroll’s nonce words were red-underlined for spelling, and others weren’t.

Red-underlined are: toves, gimble, wabe, mome, raths, outgrabe, Jabberwock, Jubjub, frumious, Bandersnatch, vorpal, manxome, Tumtum, uffish, tulgey, Callooh, Callay (17). Not red-underlined are Jabberwocky, brillig, slithy, (gyre), mimsy, borogoves, whiffling, burbled, snicker-snack, galumphing, beamish, frabjous, chortled (12 or 13). I’ve put gyre in brackets because it exists as a noun but not as a verb, as Carroll uses it in this poem.

Continue reading

right speech

I have just been editing an article which refers to “The negative and discriminatory rhetoric of the current same-sex marriage debate [in Australia]”. For the target readership, I wanted to change “rhetoric” to something simpler. But what? lists as synonyms for “rhetoric”: hyperbole, oratory, address, balderdash, bombast, composition, discourse, elocution, eloquence, fustian, grandiloquence, magniloquence, oration, pomposity, verbosity, big talk, flowery language, hot air. Most of these have moderately or extremely negative connotations. Even rhetoric, which includes “the art of prose in general as opposed to verse”, “the ability to use language effectively”, “the art of making persuasive speeches” and “the art or science of all specialized literary uses of languages in prose or verse” has as its number one definition (according to “the undue use of exaggeration or display; bombast”.

Because the passage already has the adjectives “negative and discriminatory”, I don’t need a noun with negative connotations, so I simply changed it to “negative and discriminatory language”.

Continue reading


Yesterday we celebrated the engagement of one of my nieces and her fiancé. So who is engaging whom, or are they both engaging each other?

The past participle form of a verb can used as a verb to show a process, or as an adjective to show the result of that process.

My employers engaged me to teach English. I was engaged to teach English by my employers. I am engaged in teaching English.
She engaged me in conversation. I was engaged in conversation by her. I am engaged in conversation with her.

The change from to teach English to in teaching English and by her to with her is a sign that something has happened to the grammatical status of engaged in each case.

In my niece and nephew-in-law-to-be’s case, presumably:

He engaged her. She was engaged by him. They are engaged.

Ummm ….

Continue reading