The Happiness of the Humdrum

After a few days filled with grandchildren, gifts, food and drink, festive TV [ I particularly loved the programme about the new London Lego store ] (  I started thinking that today is ‘back to the humdrum’. I felt the urge to go for a walk – shake off the Christmas cobwebs, remind myself there is life beyond my Christmas tree – you know the sort of thing – so off I set. As I walked I found myself wondering where the word ‘humdrum’ comes from.

I walked down the same old front street – and saw a lovely wagtail. We get them round here when the weather turns cold; I love watching them bobbing around. Definitely not humdrum.



Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) male perched on fence post, Isle of Coll, Scotland, UK, June
Pied wagtail (Motacilla alba) male perched on fence post, Isle of Coll, Scotland, UK, June

I then turned the corner onto the lane which probably still looks pretty much the same as it did when the house proudly displaying ‘1688’ in its brickwork was built. Familiar, yes. Humdrum, no.

I wandered along the lane and found myself watching a squirrel running up and down a tree in that absent-minded fashion they have. I have pondered inventing an app for them, sort of Pokenut Go, which helps them locate their hidden nut supplies, but realising their spending power isn’t going to make me rich I decided against it. Squirrels are a pretty common sight round here, but humdrum? Nah.

I walked along thinking how I will entertain my grandchildren when they come to stay in a couple of days and decided to check out a nearby pub. Yup, even the thought of their invasion drives me to drink. Only kidding, I knew it served pizza, so thought I’d research the serving times and menu before offering to treat them to their dinner there. It’s also handy for a good park where they can get muddy – local, simple, but not humdrum. Children can always surprise us with their insightfulness and creativity in the humblest situations.

I then headed home and made myself a coffee. It must have been about my 5th or 6th of the day. Only a few centuries ago, coffee would have been either unheard-of or a very rare treat indeed. One of my gifts this year was a cafetiere and 2 special matching cups. Coffee – everyday or special, but never, ever humdrum.

Finally, I turned on my computer and looked up the OED’s entry for humdrum, adj. and n. I was hoping for some amazingly intricate, deeply rooted etymology going back to time immemorial. Nope, the first mention of the word is actually humtrum  in 1553, and the entry reads:

Found c1550: apparently a reduplicating formation < hum v.1; it is doubtful whether the second element had any distinct connection with drum n.

Hmmmm, what a let-down. Humdrum indeed! But, Pooh is famous for his hums – and he is absolutely, no way, never ever remotely humdrum. Thankyou Pooh. And thankyou, Lord, for the beauty of the humdrum.


I Wish You a Swedish Christmas



I vividly remember the moment I realised that the Swedish must save so much time during December. It was during a visit to Ikea, which was festively festooned in  a suitably Swedish manner, with banners everywhere wishing me a ‘God Jul’. I stared at these words…what a revelation! The Swedes [and the Norwegians, too – though they aren’t quite as famous for their flat-pack furniture] could write their Christmas greetings using only SIX LETTERS. Yes, that’s right – a mere 6 quick letters and their seasonal message is complete.

I took to my fingers and started attempting some maths….H A P P Y   C H R I S T M A S is….errr…..fourteen letters long….which is….errr……eight longer than the Swedish equivalent. My envy knew no bounds. I had just the other evening been writing my cards [and I refuse to write ‘ Xmas’] so had spent over twice the time a Swedish person would have needed to convey the same sentiments. I then just HAD to work it out properly [being somewhat obsessive about it all by now]. According to my calculations, it takes 2.66666666 [insert many, many more decimal places if you wish] more time…and ink.

INK! So it’s not only more time-consuming, but also more exPENsive [sorry 😦 ].Those lucky Swedes save time AND money writing their cards. There must be some way we get our own back, mustn’t there? If you’re one of those who also add ‘Happy New Year’, maybe the equation balances itself? Nope….It’s ‘gott nytt år’ in Swedish, another 2 letters saved. Curses…even their language is well designed to save time, space and money. Still, for giving us Ikea I will forgive them, and leave you with the ode to Ikea I penned after another visit.

Oh Swedish Goddess of design

Let me enter thy portals, I am thine.

Thy strange green plastic shapes: I crave.

About thy flat-packed wares: I rave.

I bought a Billunk and a Norp

A Kvestar and a Torrisporp,

I placed them happily in the car

[But haven’t the faintest what they are].

Back home, I gloat with utmost bliss,

But, ah, there’s something quite amiss.

Oh Swedish Goddess of cruelty,

Thou forgot’st to include the Allen key.


God Jul

…and a Fartridge in a Pear Tree

Who would dare argue with Sandi Toksvig? Who would even want to argue with her? She’s a one-woman latter-day Danish invasion which I reckon we’re very luck to have.

She also, according to S [the blonde who doesn’t understand question marks – see previous post] pointed out the wonderful etymological origin of the bird which is famous for sitting in a pear tree. I quote from the OED [which, again, nobody in their right minds would argue with] below:-

partridge, n

Etymology:…..[lots of other stuff which isn’t all that amusing, to be honest]….

probably < πέρδεσθαι to break wind (see fart v.; perhaps after the noise made by the bird as it flies away: this etymology goes back to antiquity)

Isn’t that just wonderful? Happy farty Christmas to you all! [And I bet you’ll never sing the song in quite the same way again, will you?]



Ice Cream or Custard with your Question Mark?


How important is a question mark.

How important is a question mark?

It’s the difference between a statement and a question, that’s how important it is. This became very apparent during a text conversation about that most vital of subjects – PUDDING. The first sentence above is a declarative statement, the second is, undoubtedly, a question. It has a question mark – that’s the give-away!

So, how did this topic become embroiled in a discussion of pudding? Easy, due to the lack of this clever little punctuation mark, two of us both thought the other had got it sorted.

S: [She’s blonde so will remain quite anonymous for her own dignity]

Got pudding sorted for Sunday

Me: [ Noting the absolute lack of any helpful punctuation to the contrary]



Me: See you then

End of conversation. ‘S’ and her family were coming to mine on the Sunday and I had mentioned a few days earlier that I still hadn’t decided what to do for afters. I took her text as a statement [no question mark, none whatsoever m’lud] and thought to myself ‘Well, that’s nice of her, she’s bringing something, saves me the bother’.

Sunday comes, they turn up. I have dinner cooking in the oven, and look at her expectantly to see what she’s brought. ‘Pudding?’ I ask, realising there are no carrier bags, cake boxes or other such potential containers of yumminess. ‘You said you’d sorted it.’ she replied. ‘No,’ says I, ‘you said you had’. I then show her exhibit 1, the text.

‘I was asking you if you’d sorted it!’ she explained, looking quite bemused that I could possibly have misunderstood.

‘Where’s the question mark then?’ I asked.

‘Oh Mother!’ she replied, exasperated ‘ you and your grammar’.

But, the lack of punctuation meant a lack of pudding. Try telling that to two small boys.

Custard with your punctuation anybody?

* Thankfully there’s a shop just round the corner, so all was not lost. The picture? They are the ice cream cones we had in Paris, just thought I’d brag a bit!

From the Pencils of Babes and Infants.

Google Alerts [very handy tool – why didn’t I discover it years ago?] sent me this article today about the age-old problem of children’s education. Can educators ever win? They are criticised for not paying attention to grammar, then criticised for spending too much time on it.

Having narrowly missed becoming one of the ‘ITA generation’ [if you are blessed enough never to have encountered this, you may, or may not, want to follow this link ] I have always counted myself lucky that we were taught spelling, punctuation and grammar from the earliest stages of school life.


[ITA spelling – it HURTS!!!!!]

Now, though, the world is changing. Children are going to need to be equipped to fit in with the international, technological, scientific industries of tomorrow. There is a strongly held theory that there is a critical age for learning languages; basically between birth and puberty. Children are learning language as soon as they are born [and many believe they are learning the rhythm, intonation and other factors even before]. By the time they are of school age, they have an incredible vocabulary and grasp of basic grammar and this needs to be nurtured carefully. But this is, therefore, also the best age to teach them other languages – so why not have early classes in Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish?

You could argue that we need to ensure our children have a really good understanding of their own language before ‘confusing’ them, and there is the ever-present problem of classroom time, money and available staff; but maybe we should re-think education? I don’t know, but would love your views.

D.O.G spells..

Yep, ‘dog’. It’s one of the first words we try to teach children when they begin to read. It’s a simple word, no silent letters, no weird pronunciation rules [they can wait for -ough words til next week!], and it’s a word for something they can easily recognise. Four-legged creature, not a cat.

So what on earth is interesting about the word ‘dog’? Well, quite a lot as it happens. We have absolutely no idea where the word originated or how it came to mean ‘four-legged creature, not a cat’.  If you have an hour or so, you could go to the OED and read up on the word’s fascinating etymology…no, wait, it doesn’t seem to have one. You could look in other languages for their similar words for ‘four -legged creature, not a cat’. No, wait, there are none. Hmmmmmmm.

We get the word ‘cat’ [Four legged creature, not a dog] from clear routes via Greek Katta,  later Latin had Catta, Old French had Cat  and modern French has Chat.  Nice and easy to get the picture, isn’t it? Dog  on the other hand….Latin Canis, German Hund French Chien…none of them very ‘dog’-like, are they?

If you really want to see the official theories from the OED, I have pasted a brief section below; but I reckon I know the real origin of the word:

Saxon no 1: Be that yer hog? [This is authentically, honestly how they talked….trust me, I’m a Time-Lord]

Saxon no 2: No, it be a different creature. It be having 4 legs, but it’s not a hog.

Saxon no 1: Ooooh, be it maybe a cat?

Saxon no 2: No, I not be thinking that, it’s too friendly-like. Seems to like people, bit like hogs.

Saxon 1:  Arrrrr, so it b’ain’t a cat, and it b’ain’t a hog….what be it?

Saxon 2: It sure b’ain’t a cat, it’s more b’ain’t a hog…I reckon I’ll call it a bog.

Saxon 1: Bog…I like that there name…only b’ain’t that the name of that muddy grassy field yonder?

Saxon 2: FORK! [this word later evolved when they invented eating implements].  Bat? Hat? Cog?…

The debate continued over many a horn of ale…which is how the aforementioned four-legged creatures, not cats came to be known as…



The etymology of the English word is unknown. No likely cognates have been identified with a meaning at all close to that of the English word, and all attempted etymological explanations are extremely speculative. A word of this phonological shape is hard to explain as a regular development from a Germanic base, but nonetheless a number of attempts have been made. One attempt sees a connection with the Germanic base of dow v.1, assuming an original meaning such as ‘useful or faithful animal’, but this has not met with general acceptance. In this connection an Old English personal name Dycga is sometimes compared as a possible formal parallel from the same base, but it is quite possible that the personal name has no connection with dog n.1 Another attempted etymology takes the word ultimately from the Indo-European base probably meaning ‘run’ which is probably reflected by Sanskrit dhav- (see prothetely n.), but this poses a number of formal difficulties. Another suggestion is that the word shows a development from an Indo-European base meaning ‘to be or become unconscious’, but this involves a very large number of unattested stages in the semantic development (assuming a development ‘bundle’ > ‘cuddly bundle’ > ‘pet’ > ‘dog’), and also involves a very uncertain original base form.

And this is only a very small extract from the entry…..thanks OED!