Sunday, February 7, 2016

7-Letter Sunday: RETAINS

At first glance, retains is a rather boring word. It basically means to have, to keep, to hold onto. You can retain a deed to a property, a fact in your head, or a lawyer by paying him a fee (called, of course, a retainer). In this photo, the wall retains the soil behind it:

It originates in the Latin re (back) + tenere (to hold). That led to the old French retenir and then in turn to Middle English reteynen, which became our word, retain.

For Scrabble fans, though, retains is a bit magical, for two reasons. First, it's one of the easier 7-letter words to find on your rack, since all of its letters are very common ones. If you find yourself with a rack full of low-scoring letters, take a quick glance to see if RETAINS is lurking.

Second, it has the most anagrams of any 7-letter Scrabble word -- eight other words! This gives you lots of options to maximize your score when playing these letters, or to get a bingo on the board at all when things start to crowd up.

Thus, it's good to take a look at the anagrams of RETAINS. Most competitive Scrabble players know these by heart:

  • ANESTRI - periods of sexual dormancy; plural of ANESTRUS
  • ANTSIER - comparative of ANTSY; even more jittery or hyper
  • NASTIER - even more mean or hostile
  • RATINES - RATINE is a heavy, loosely woven fabric; RATINES is the plural
  • RETINAS - the RETINA is a part of the eye; RETINAS is the plural
  • RETSINA - an alcoholic drink in Greece; a resin-flavored wine

    Athens :: Retsina Malmatina by tomislavmedak, on Flickr
    "Athens :: Retsina Malmatina" (CC BY 2.0) by  tomislavmedak 
  • STAINER - a person or a thing that stains
  • STEARIN - the solid part of an animal or vegetable fat

This is an excellent list to retain in your memory!

Short Word Saturday: LIMB

Well, that little hiatus went longer than I meant to! But some weeks will be like that. I really want to post here every day, but I refuse to beat myself up or give up on this blog if I miss that goal.

Today's word, limb, is one of those that gets more and more interesting as you dig deeper into its meanings. Let's start with the obvious: a limb is something that branches off from a main body. People have limbs--their arms and legs. Tree limbs are branches on the tree, normally the larger branches that support smaller branches of their own.

A lesser known definition of limb is that of a margin or outer limit. In astronomy, limb means the apparent edge of a star or other celestial object. In this picture posted to Flickr by Nasa, the caption describes it as showing a filament snake seen in the "sun's south-east limb" or on the edge of the lower left quadrant.

In botany, certain kinds of flowers, like elderberry flowers or hibiscus, have petals that fuse together to form a sort of tube at the base of the flower, flaring outward at the upper edge. That area that flares outward is also called the limb -- the outer boundary of the flower.

Limb is also a verb, meaning to remove limbs (generally of a tree). "Limbed" is interesting, as it can be both a verb (he limbed the tree after felling it) or an adjective (a many-limbed tree).

Now, where limb really gets fun is in the number of words that can be formed from it in Scrabble. There is LIMBATE, which means having an edge of a different color, deriving from the meaning of limb as boundary. Similar you have the word LIMBUS, which means a distinctive border (a limbate flower would by definition have a limbus!). Even more fun, limbus has two plural variations, LIMBUSES and LIMBI.

You also have a LIMBIC system within your brain, a group of structures that govern much of your emotional life. It is named because it is located in the limbus, or border area, between the cerebral area and the brain stem.

Next comes a series of words that relate to limb as an appendage. There are the verb forms of LIMBED and LIMBING and the adjective LIMBY, meaning something with many branches. This leads to a comparative (LIMBIER) and superlative (LIMBIEST), as well as an opposite, LIMBLESS, for the state of being without limbs at all.

Finally, there are words you can build from LIMB that don't relate to either definition. These include:

  • LIMBA - a species of tree found in Africa
  • LIMBECK - a variation of alembic, a type of ale
  • LIMBER - flexible (also LIMBERER, LIMBEREST, and LIMBERLY) or the act of making something flexible (limber up before a gymnastics class), which gives us LIMBERS, LIMBERED, and LIMBERING
  • LIMBO - a place of suspension or neglect (left in limbo while waiting for management to make a decision)
So many words and meanings in four little letters!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thesaurus Thursday: KIBBLE

Happy Thursday!

I picked out all my words for the week last Saturday when I started the themed days. I should have written down the chain of words that led me to pick the word kibble for today. I'm not sure if it was a completely random selection from the actual thesaurus or if researching another possible word led me to it.

Either way, I decided it was perfect, because I had wondered off and on how the stuff I feed my dogs had acquired its name. And now I know.

The older form of kibble that dates back to the 18th century is a verb that means to grind or break something down into bits. The exact etymology is not known, according to Collins and the other online dictionaries I checked, but the word comes out of the mining areas of England.

The noun form of kibble describes the bits left from the process of kibbling. Obviously, dry pet food acquired the name because of the similarities to kibble formed of rocks or earth.

Now I am left with a new question--other words with a similar construction to kibble include dribble, quibble, and nibble, all of which also contain suggestions of something small and possibly insignificant. I'm wondering if there is something about the -ibble construction that has that meaning or if it is all a big coincidence. Still researching this question!

Not much to say about kibble in terms of Scrabble, except that it's a good word to have in your pocket as it would allow you to play a 5-point letter and two 4-point letters. Kibbles, kibbled, and kibbling are also playable words.

While we are on the subject of -ibble words, my poking around for similar words gave me two I hadn't been familiar with before: fribble and dibble.

Fribble means something unimportant and maybe a little silly -- probably with the same root somewhere as words like frivolous and frippery. A dibble is a hand tool used in farming or gardening that makes holes for planting seeds. I think both still contain implications of smallness, but I may be stretching it.

I have another project I'm going to be working on all day tomorrow, so there won't be an entry here. I will make sure I do an extra one over the weekend to stay caught up!

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Weird Word Wednesday: CRWTH

Welcome to the first Weird Word Wednesday! I love weird words so this may become my favorite day of the week! Only time for a quick entry today, but it's a fun one.

Today's word is a great one for when you find yourself with a crazy set of Scrabble tiles and no vowels in sight. It's also awesome if you get a chance to play it across the two double word scores in WWF, as you will seriously rack up the numbers with a C, W, and H in the word.

So what is a crwth? The word comes from the Welsh, and is the name of an ancient musical instrument played in Wales and other Celtic places. It looks like a cross between a harp, a lute and a violin.

Crwth is pronounced as if it were spelled "crewth" -- the word "crew" with a -th sound added. It rhymes with "truth." How do we get that sound? Do you remember rattling off the vowels in grade school (a-e-i-o-u-and-sometimes-y-and-w)? Well this is one of those sometimes-w times. They are very infrequent (and often associated with Welsh words).

Back to the instrument, here is a picture of a crwth player from the 9th century:

Britannica Crowd 9th Century Crwth

There are very few players of the crwth in modern day, but there are a few! You can see above that the player is playing it as you would a guitar, by fingering chords with one hand and plucking the strings with the other. Modern players play it more like a violin, with a bow. Here is a video of a modern player named Benjamin:

He holds it something like a cello; there are other players who hold it as you would a violin.

Sorry to run off so quickly today, but I'll be back tomorrow with another the meantime, here's another video with a bit more history of the crwth, and some lovely playing by Cass Meurig:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

2 or 3 Letter Tuesday: AA

Let's start 2 or 3 Letter Tuesday at the very first word in all Scrabble lists: AA. Most Scrabble players know it because they've played it or seen it played. But what is it?

Let's start with pronunciation. It's something like AAH that stops short rather than trailing off. It's not ay-ay or ah-ah (which is what I thought all this time til I hit the pronunciation button on the Collins' entry just now.

As for what it is, it comes from the Hawaiian language and describes a kind of language (kind of like people of cold climates having words for types of snow, Hawaiians have words for different types of lava).

Aa is a slow-moving lava, and the surface of it therefore keeps cooling and then breaking up again as the lava keeps moving. It moves as a noisy tumble of hot rocks rather than a smooth flow. When it cools entirely, it forms very jagged, sharp rocky surface. You don't want to walk across a field of aa lava, even long after it is cooled, because the rocks are often loose and it's all too easy to take a tumble -- and it that happens, you will get cut up because the rocks are so sharp. It's no fun.

Here's a video showing flowing aa:

Since there isn't much more to say about aa, I'll just quickly mention another good Hawaiian word to have in your vocabulary: pahoehoe. This is the other kind of lava most often seen in Hawaiian volcano eruptions, and is a smooth, faster flowing lava. In fact, when the camera in the above video pans to the left, you can see that the current aa flow is covering an old hardened flow of pahoehoe.

Here's what active pahoehoe looks like:

Pahoehoe is also a legal Scrabble word, by the way!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Mundane Monday: KILL

For a mundane word, kill actually packs in a lot of drama. First, there's the obvious meaning: to cause the death of someone or something. Can't get much more dramatic than that.

But then there are the many other meanings that draw from this primary one. For example, you can "kill" a piece of legislation, a running engine, a newspaper story, or a bottle of liquor.

Then there is the dramatic hyperboles -- a standup comedian "kills" when he does really well. The world of online marketing is full of advertisements for programs, software, and secret formulas that let you "kill it" in internet sales.

On the home front, a parent may tell a whining child, "You're killing me!" -- and days later the child tells the parent the same thing when she is told to take a bath. Of course, neither person literally thinks that they are going to die from whining or bathing.

Kill has a specific meaning in sports as well. In tennis or volleyball (or, I think, pretty much any sport that involves hitting a ball (or other object like a birdie) back and forth) a "kill" is when one player hits the ball (or other object) so hard that the opponent has no chance of returning it.

As a noun, "kill" can be both single and plural: a single deer or shot-down plane is a "kill", but so is the total number of (usually) animals hunted or destroyed by pollution - a fish kill, the overall deer kill in a hunting season.

Kill comes from Middle English kullen or killen, which in turn comes from Old English cyllan. Cyllan, in turn, comes from the older word cwellan, which also gives us the English word "quell". Interestingly, quell takes us right back to the meanings of kill that imply stopping -- killing legislation or an engine. Language is so cool!

Even cooler, there is an entirely different and unrelated meaning for kill as a noun -- a stream or inlet, which comes from the Dutch word kil, which also means inlet. You see it most often as part of place names in the areas of the northeastern United States where the Dutch settled--Peekskill, Catskill, Schuykill. These names all have to do with the geography and nothing at all to do with death and violence.

As a Scrabble word (I'm just going to stop saying "Scrabble or Words With Friends" all the time, okay? Just assume I mean both when I say Scrabble) KILL isn't all that exciting. It does have the usual set of extensions like KILLS, KILLER, KILLING, etc. There is even the adjective KILLABLE.

But when you dig into the other unrelated words that begin with KILL, you find some useful "secret weapon" words to have in your game vocabulary, such as:
  • KILLDEE or
  • KILLDEER (a type of bird)
  • KILLICK or
  • KILLOCK (a small anchor)
  • KILLIE (a type of fish)
not to mention the delightful KILLJOY which is a 7-letter word (bingo!) and which can really rack up the points if played across high-scoring board squares, as it includes both a 10-point and 5-point letter.

Any of these lesser known extensions can be added to an opponent's use of KILL; moreover "kil" or "kill" can be added to the front of commonly played words like DEE, DEER, LICK, LOCK, LIE, and JOY.

Truly a killer word to have in your arsenal!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

7-Letter Sunday: BHANGRA

Why 7-letter Sunday and not six letters or 13 letters? Because in Scrabble and Words With Friends, a rack of tiles is 7 letters. If you can make and play a word using up all your letters, you get a bonus (50 points in Scrabble, 35 in WWF). If you can play one of these words (Scrabblers call it a "bingo") over double or triple word scores, you can really rack up the points!

So 7-letter words are of particular interest to word game players. Plus, there's the whole alliteration thing with seven and Sunday!

Today's word is bhangra. It is an Indian word that has been adopted into English to describe a style of music and dance that comes from the Punjab region in India. The music tends to be lively and bouncy and in recent years has come to embrace everything from traditional Punjabi folk music to combinations with Western style pop, dance and hip hop music.

Bhangra dancing is also very lively and has become popular all over the world through Bollywood movies, dance competitions and exhibitions in the Indian diaspora communities around the globe, and most recently, in combination with exercise in workout classes and videos!

This video is for a Punjabi pop song and showcases bhangra music as well as bhangra dancing:

Thanks to Netflix, I've become more and more of a Bollywood fan in the last few years and particularly enjoy the fluffier romance and comedy movies that almost always feature multiple song and dance numbers. Bhangra music is energizing and fun to listen to, and just as hip hop has infiltrated the bhangra sound, I'm also tickled to recognize bhangra beats and samples in Western hip hop and dance music as well.

I didn't know about the bhangra dance competitions before researching this post, but I will definitely be watching for any that happen locally -- here in the Atlanta area we have a very large Indian community so I'm sure there are performances and competitions happening locally. Now I know to watch for them!

One more note on a Scrabble/WWF perspective -- players love to have words in their vocabulary that contain smaller, more common words within them so that you can add on letters to make a longer word, possibly reaching a high-scoring square on the board in the process. Bhangra has the word "hang" in the middle of it. Your opponent may expect a word like "hangs" or "hanger" -- but turning "hang" into "bhangra" will be a mind-blower!