The Roman God of Dodgy Definitions





As this post is written in English [ok, apart from the bits which are in Double-Dutch] I am making the huge assumption that you understand the definition of many English words.

Words such as:





Simple, right? However, all these words – along with many others – are known as Contronyms, or Janus words.


That’s him, old two-face himself. Janus looks both forwards and backwards; he’s the Roman god of doorways, and the deity from whom we derive the name for January.

So, what has he got to do with the words in the list above? Well, each of these can mean the exact opposite of itself ;

You can dust furniture or dust a cake – in one you remove dust, in the other you add a dusting of sugar or some-such.

You can cleave something into two parts, or a couple can cleave together in marriage.

Something fast might be stuck fast or moving very quickly

A bus may have left the bus station or be left in it.

According to my in-depth research* [a quick search on Google!] there are 75 examples of contronyms in English, something for word-nerds to maybe use to spread confusion far and wide. Thanks, Janus!



The Parable of …..

Today, I went to a cathedral. Not a brick or stone one but a glorious little patch of woodland a short bus ride from where I live. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned my anxiety problems before [well, you don’t think I actually READ this blog, do you?] but I used to love going for long wandersome walks. Nowadays, however, I really struggle to go out on my own with no real purpose, other than the sheer joy of going out on my own with no purpose [if you see what I mean].

Before even leaving my flat I started to feel the familiar butterflies in my stomach, so I decided to invent a reason for going out. I decided it was time that a small plant on my windowsill was released from captivity. On Mothering Sunday, all the ladies [I include myself in the loosest possible terms!] in our church were given a small primrose in a pot to take home, but mine is now showing signs of neglect and is suffering from my general ineptitude to care for anything other than weeds. I put the plant in a carrier bag, having given it a good final watering to help it along its way, and then set off on my mission. [Not having a garden, I don’t own any gardening tools, by the way, but an old cheese knife thingummy looked like the nearest thing I had to a trowel so I took that too!]

Getting off the bus and crossing over to the parkland, I was immediately struck by the intensity of the green [invented, I believe, by Lord Percy Percy during Elizabeth I’s reign]. Although several motorways run nearby and the traffic was rumbling away in the background, the foremost sound was definitely the birdsong. Immediately my anxiety gave way to curiosity – I could see tiny flowers, gnarled trees and the amazing timeless peace of the British woodlands.

I looked for somewhere I might plant my primrose and soon spotted a tree with quite a bit of clearing round it and fairly soft, diggable* soil next to it. Hoping to goodness that nobody spotted me, I took my plant and cheese knife from the bag and started to dig a small hole, before placing the plant in it and covering it back up as best I could. It did look much happier than it had on my windowsill, so I wished it the Vulcan ‘Live long and prosper’ then left it to settle in to its new environment.


As I walked along a path once so familiar, yet which I hadn’t felt able to visit in over 7 years, I noticed so much of God’s beautiful creation. I saw a wall which I had never noticed before which had a tree growing through it; I saw a rabbit hole, and soon after, 2 of its inhabitants; I saw so many flowers and interestingly shaped trees; I watched the small river which flows through the area and I smelt the wonderful earthy aromas of the trees and soil. Despite going to church most Sundays, this is where I really feel close to my Creator.

Walking back to the entrance, I noticed a lot of Himalayan Balsam shoots. This is a beautiful plant, but totally alien to Britain and it chokes the indigenous flora. Heroically I did my bit by destroying as much as I could. I couldn’t help thinking how wrong it felt to be destroying what is, in its correct environment, a lovely plant and found myself wondering, if Jesus were preaching in modern Britain, would we have a Parable of the Himalayan Balsam?

Himalayan balsam

I said a last goodbye to ‘my’ plant, but realised that, having put it in this woodland park I would now have a reason to revisit many, many times to check on its progress and spend more time in this amazing cathedral.

*Auto-correct does NOT like my word ‘diggable’ – I don’t care. I’ve got a degree in English language so I feel I have every right to use it. So there!!! Take that, Microsoft.


Dissertation Dilemmas


available at:

Well, it’s that time of year again which sees the libraries of universities packed to the rafters with students who desperately wish they’d:

i] Started work earlier

ii] Chosen a totally different topic for their dissertation

iii] Chosen a totally different course of study altogether [personally, a degree in Lego-building would suit me down to the ground!]


iv] Been studying at the university where Dr Who is currently residing – he could, surely, just take them a month or 2 into the future , just in time for their graduation party 🙂

Since academic proofreading is one of the services my company –  Starfish English Services – offers, I have been glued to my computer for the last few weeks desperately wondering whether bi-variate needs a hyphen, [it doesn’t], whether ‘smoothening’ is a word [it can be, but usually ‘smoothing’ is best] and other such considerations. However, sometimes everybody’s brain needs a break, so I thought I’d share a couple of common errors for your information TOTALLY FREE OF CHARGE! How generous is that?

One such error is ‘people that…’ or similar. When discussing people, the word needs to be ‘who’ [or whom, but that’s another topic altogether]. So, ‘the politicians who passed the resolution…’ but ‘the experiments that proved…’. OK?

Another one, very important to get right, is ‘objectionable’ or ‘objective’. ‘Objective’ is when a case is looked at from a neutral, impersonal point of view, with no hidden agenda or bias. ‘Objectionable’, on the other hand, means unpleasant, offensive, rude….definitely not the way a researcher would want to conduct their survey!

One final point, which isn’t as clear cut, is when to use ‘that’ and when to use ‘which’. I found this really helpful blog post about it and, as I doubt I could put it any more clearly myself, I’ll just leave you  with the link.

PS – In conversation with the worship leader at our church, as I shooed him out of the kitchen we’d just set up for serving the after-service tea and coffee, I found myself saying

‘Don’t you dare disrupt this kitchen; we’ve only just rupted it’!

I reckon I’ve maybe coined a great new word 🙂

Praises and Passwords

The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670)

Have you ever used a Shibboleth? It’s a way of signing in whenever I need to access the OED online through my university’s portal. It is also, according to a quick Google search ‘among the world’s most widely deployed federated identity solutions, connecting users to applications both within and between organizations.’

Another definition comes up as: ‘a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people, especially a long-standing one regarded as outmoded or no longer important.’

The OED, which, ironically, I needed to use Shibboleth to look up the self-same word has, amongst many definitions:

A word or sound which a person is unable to pronounce correctly; a word used as a test for detecting foreigners, or persons from another district, by their pronunciation.

A custom, habit, mode of dress, or the like, which distinguishes a particular class or set of persons.

A catchword or formula adopted by a party or sect, by which their adherents or followers may be discerned, or those not their followers may be excluded.

But, where did this word actually come from? The topmost entry in the OED explains:

The Hebrew word used by Jephthah as a test-word by which to distinguish the fleeing Ephraimites (who could not pronounce the sh) from his own men the Gileadites (Judges xii. 4–6).

Basically, it was an ancient equivalent of what I call the ‘Chip Butty’ test. Being a proud Lancashire woman [albeit with a Yorkshire influence from my mum] I often hear people bragging that they’ve lived in Lancashire for x number of years and are, therefore, now true Lancashire-ites. I simply ask them to say ‘Chip Butty’. If it comes out more like ‘Chip Batty’ then they are NO WAY proper Lancashire! [If they don’t even know what a butty is, then they are ridiculed out of the pub, staff room or wherever by all and sundry.] If they do get the beautiful ‘u’ sound just right then, Hallelujah, they can count themselves as true natives of our fair county.

So, Hallelujah? I’m sure many people find themselves saying it, even if in a rather ironic or patronising way at times. It is actually Hebrew for ‘Praise the Lord’ and, therefore, something I love to say but in a hopefully more meaningful sense. Did you realise you were praising the Lord whenever you uttered that word? Something to think about maybe.

‘God Knows’ is another saying which people seem to use all the time – to which I usually answer ‘Yes, I know He does, but do you?’ Something else to think about?

Whilst I am on this topic, I’m sure we have all heard about the Samaritans, and I’m not ashamed to admit I have phoned them myself on a couple of occasions. They do amazing work for which they can’t be praised highly enough. However, did you realise that the original Good Samaritan was something of an oxymoron*? Interestingly, when I searched for an antonym for Samaritan I couldn’t find one at all. Nowadays it would perhaps be equivalent to Good Hooligan or Good Thug, although it had religious and racial connotations too. The Samaritans were people who vehemently differed from the Jews as to where to sacrifice to God, and the two nations were deeply mistrustful and antagonistic towards each other. For one to perform such an act of kindness in the parable [found in Luke 10:25–37] would have been almost unthinkable to Jesus’ audience. Yet nowadays it is a byword for kindness, unselfishness and helpfulness – quite a difference from its original derogatory meaning.

Despite the fact that most people nowadays would never open a Bible from one decade to the next, it’s quite surprising how much of our language is derived straight from there.

*Oxymoron:  A term which contradicts itself, for example ‘Deeply Superficial’

A Fresh Perspective


One of the things I love doing is browsing in the children’s section of Waterstone’s. The amazing range of books available nowadays; tactile, audible, some even incorporating glove puppets….they are a joy [which could never be replicated with a Kindle, could they???].

So, with half an hour to spend, I was idling there the other day when I spotted a book by a wonderful writer:- Shirley Hughes. My daughters loved her Alfie* books when they were small, and so my eye was drawn to one I hadn’t seen before…then I had to look again! Since when did she become a political writer? A year of Tories????? What a strange book to write for small children. I’m all for educating them, but surely this was a step too far!

Happily, I soon figured out my mistake – by taking a step closer I could see it was actually A Year of Stories. Phew! But then I started noticing other rather misleading words. On the bus to Liverpool, mentioned in my earlier post, I saw a car with ANGER written on the back. It was a big 4 wheel drive type, very shiny and expensive looking. I have long thought DUSTER a silly name for a car – [when will the dishcloth and tea-towel models be following?] but to actually call a model ANGER – this is just inviting road rage, isn’t it. The car pulled away slightly to reveal it was actually a RANGER. Phew again. A much more peaceful-sounding name.

I do, however, still chuckle when I remember my absolute horror whilst strolling in the lovely Northumbrian seaside town of Seahouses. Ambling down an arcade, ice cream in hand, thinking about puffins, Vikings and other such Northumbrian-related matters I was suddenly confronted by a very large sign, proudly stating SEMEN. Yup….you read that right. I wondered if this was the red-light district [although the sign was a very innocent-looking blue and white]. Not sure whether to investigate more closely or just hurry past in the very British ‘none-of-my-business’ way, I took another step and the mystery was solved. The AMU and TS from either end of the sign were now, thankfully, in view. Seahouses is not the vice capital of Northumbria after all….unless you know differently?


A Change of Pace



The other day I had to go to Liverpool [yes, it was a super-secret undercover mission and I will now have to kill you because you know].  I am a Christian, and recently came across Shelly Miller’s Sabbath Society*. This is, in a nutshell, some books, writings, blogs and inspiration for us to take more rest and realise it’s ok to do nothing; God rested on the Sabbath so why do we think we’re superhumans who can keep going seven days a week?


So, back to my Liverpool trip. I don’t drive, so the quickest way would have been to get the train. It saves an hour over the time the bus takes so – a no-brainer? However, I felt God telling me – ‘Take the bus, it’ll be fine.’ I really didn’t fancy a 2 hour bus ride, but the impetus was so compelling I surrendered and climbed on board.

I decided I might as well sit on the top deck to make the most of the scenery [it was an absolutely beautiful Spring day when England is looking especially lovely]. The route trundles through sleepy villages and country lanes for a good hour until it reaches Southport so I thought I might have a nap. [Yes, I’m definitely at that age where any excuse for a nap is most welcome!] However, the things I saw from my vantage point kept me enthralled.

I saw a couple of pheasants in the fields; magnificent birds which you just never ever encounter on the urban estate where I live.

I saw the clearly-defined shadow of a gull swooping low over a field.

I saw a small workshop, its door wide open to let in the sunshine, where two men were making a big iron fireplace; I wondered what home it would eventually grace.

I saw some amazing street names; Sugar Stump Lane and Cockle Dicks Rd. Why? How? Who on earth christened them?

I saw both great sturdy Shire horses and tiny, yet equally sturdy, Shetland ponies.

I saw tall trees bursting forth with magnificent blossoms, and delicate spring flowers timidly standing nearby at the roadside.

I saw No Fracking signs which always gladden my heart – it would be an unforgiveable crime to destroy these centuries of beautiful heritage with ugly, poisonous monsters.

We came into Southport – a place I have visited many times, but on this occasion I noticed how wonderful their Waterstone’s branch is.


I also spotted a hostelry called Peaky Blinders which described itself as a Beermongers – what a lovely word.


The journey took 2hours, 15 minutes – yet I was almost sad when it came to an end. The slow way is sometimes the best way – it can do the soul a power of good.

The trouble with Aunts


I am not technically gifted, especially where TVs are concerned and I’ve been having some trouble with one of the gizmos connected to my set. Thankfully I have friends-and-relations, just like Rabbit does, who can usually sort stuff out for me. So, after almost a month of not being able to watch anything through my Now TV box, I am playing catch-up.

As I mentioned a while back, I’d been loving The Big Spell and, tonight, I finally managed to catch the last 2 episodes. One word the children had to spell was a word beginning with ANT meaning ‘a thing that existed before or logically precedes another‘, and I had my heart in my mouth wondering if they’d think the 4th letter was ‘e’ or ‘i’. Would you have known? Anticedent or Antecedent?*

Anti-Natal or Ante-natal?

Ante-Perspirant or Anti=Perspirant

Anti-room or Ante-room?

Antediluvian or Antediluvian

Antiseptic or Anteseptic

Antebacterial or Antibacterial…….

Basically, if a word means it is trying to combat or stop something then the first part [or prefix, for the grammatically minded] is anti- from the Latin and Old French words meaning against.  [It’s also from a Greek word – not many can claim joint parentage from Greek AND Latin].

Ante- that prefix comes only from Latin [awww, bless] and means ‘before’. So, an Ante-room is one where you wait before a meeting, Antediluvian means before the flood, but Antibacterial is something that fights or is against bacteria. Simples……..

Until you come across an Antelope. Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr


*It’s Antecedent, and ………….SPOILER ALERT…………………  they got it right 🙂

Just checking-in.

Oops, it’s been a while since I posted here – mea culpa and all that. In my defence I have actually been getting on with some data collection for my MA, which isn’t anywhere near as boring as it might sound – well not to fellow language nerds anyway.

I am investigating the Dative Alternation; which, in a nutshell, is why we can say

I gave John a coffee


I gave a coffee to John

Do these different ways of arranging the sentence give the meaning some slightly different nuances? Do we consciously decide which we are going to use, and if so, why do we make those choices? Would we ever say

You gave an idea to me?

rather than

You gave me an idea?

From my own instinctive feeling and initial research I would say not – but why not? Anyway, back to the data collection which, hopefully, might give me some clues. In the meantime – I found this fascinating article which I thought you might like to read too:-

Linguistic Landlubber :(



Well, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been to the Isles of Dogs and was really hoping to take a trip to La Gomera to find out more about their whistling language. They developed this, apparently, to communicate across the deep valleys of the mountainous terrain. There was the possibility of taking a ferry from Tenerife to La Gomera with an included talk about the language [and lunch with wine 🙂 ] but…it was also very windy. My sea-legs are notoriously wobbly; they tremble at a slight ripple on the sea’s surface -and some of the waves were nearly 6 inches high!!!!! Sadly, for this intrepid linguist, the fascination of the trip wasn’t enough to overcome the dread of seasickness, so I went to the Hard Rock cafe instead.

By way of an apology [and to maybe inspire myself to try again next time I visit the Canaries] I did find this really interesting article on the BBC website:

Whilst busily lying by the pool instead, I did read a brilliant book called ‘I Let You Go’*     which I picked up in the hotel’s library. However, it was a North American edition and it got my brain ticking…..

The book is set in England and Wales, it involves a lot of British police procedure and other such content but I was amazed that, in order to publish it in North America, they must have employed somebody to go through it changing colour to colorgot to  gottengrey to gray and so on. I had to ask myself ‘Why?’. I have read many US books, published in Britain, where the American spellings and grammar have been retained – it gives, IMHO, an American ‘flavour’ to the book, it reminds me I am reading a novel set in another country – in much the same way the Monsieur Pamplemousse books I mentioned recently are full of French terms.

Having thought about all this, I decided that the only reason I could deduce for the changing of British English to US English is…..

We are clever enough to accept the grammatical and spelling differences whereby they can’t cope!

Or maybe you know better? I’d love to hear from you if you can shed light on the subject.


PS, while waiting at the airport to come home again, my heart was broken! Apparently I had JUST MISSED [by about 2 minutes] bumping into Brian May and Anita Dobson. Having loved Queen, and adored Brian May, for over 40 years I’m sure you can share my distress. Mind you, they did have one of Marc Bolan’s jackets at the Hard Rock. Small consolation but still quite awesome. [They also, of course, serve the most amazing food – might have to visit their Amsterdam branch next month!]


I’m off to the Isle of Dogs




Or rather, the Isles of Dogs. Yup, it’s a very nice place, you could well have been there yourself.

Tenerife, Gran Canaria, Lanzarote etc etc.


Maybe you thought they were named after little yellow birds? The Canary Islands, or Islas Canarias are actually called that because of dogs, or so the story goes. Yet there is no evidence that when the first Europeans arrived there they were full of such animals. In fact it seems there were no canine inhabitants at all. Weird? Well I’m off there in a couple of days, so ‘Hasta luego’, and in the meantime feel free to decide for yourself why these glorious little pieces of paradise were given their name.


PS La Gomera has a very interesting linguistic feature, and although I don’t think I’ll be able to get there during my holiday I am hoping to investigate further…… this space.