We are probably all too familiar with that truly comfortable semi-conscious state experienced before waking fully. It is that time of the morning when your bed feels the most comfortable and during which you might either want to prolong your dream or indulge in being oneirocritical by trying to interpret or make sense of your dream. This is when you might listen to the dawn chorus with your eyes closed and your body still in the relaxed mode of sleep. Such a condition is known as hypnopompic and is experienced before we have to ‘snap out’ of it to attend to the demands of the day.

In his delightful book, The Horologican, Mark Forsyth brings to light this and other long disused words in the English language. Another pertinent one here is uhtceare, meaning ‘lying awake before dawn and worrying’. Far too many of us allow the potential concerns of the day to disturb our hypnopompic state or what is also known as the antelucan hush of pre-dawn.

Speaking of which, Forsyth draws our attention to another delightful word, day-raw, which describes the first streaks of colour in the dawn sky. According to him, eighteenth century farmers would have called this the day-peep time of the day – what we now moan about whenever we have to rise ‘at the crack of dawn’ for some compelling reason!


I first came across the game of backgammon mentioned in various novels – with no clue of what the board even looked like or how to play it. Once I had actually seen a board for the first time I was none the wiser: there was nothing intuitive about it.

The game of Backgammon is said to be one of the oldest board games still in existence, having originated – according to various sites consulted – about 5 000 years ago in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). The word backgammon first appeared in print in 1645 and its etymology is thought to have roots in Middle English baec (back) and gamen (game). The Dutch painter, Jan Steen, depicted the game of backgammon in his painting titled Backgammon Fight.

Compare this backgammon board from the 13th century:

With the board my eight-year-old grandson introduced me to:

I had to admit defeat before I had even begun, assuring him that I had never played the game before and didn’t even know how to begin. “I’m a good teacher, Granny” he told me confidently. During the first round he gently corrected my errors and even helped me to biff some of his pieces off the board. I found it difficult to get my head around the fact that his pieces were travelling around the board in one direction and mine in the other.

He is a good teacher: after a few rounds lasting only minutes (during which I was thoroughly walloped) I began to get a glimmer of technique – thanks to his patient explanations. Our final game together lasted over twenty minutes: we laughed so much and did our best to outdo each other. This was no pushover on either side: we concentrated hard, shouted with excitement … and I am hooked!




My enjoyment of reading poetry aloud began a long time ago:

I was in Grade 2 when the small primary school I attended at Sheba Gold Mine, in the then Eastern Transvaal, hosted a concert. As was the custom, this took place on the small stage of the mine recreational hall. Apart from the weekly film show, opportunities for entertainment were so rare that most people in that mining community attended, even if they didn’t have children in the school. The details of the concert elude me for my concentration was solely focused on my contribution to the evening’s entertainment: I had been directed to recite a poem. All the poems we had learned at school were in Afrikaans; mine had to be in English.

I clearly recall paging through my mother’s embossed leather-bound volume entitled An Anthology of Modern Verse containing a collection of poems selected by A. Methuen and published in 1933. I imagine it had been among her set works at Rhodes University in Grahamstown – where decades later I was to graduate with a B.Ed. I still have that anthology and holding it in my hand even now I can tell why I was attracted to it. The blue leather is embossed in red and gold and it has a thin silk ribbon to mark one’s place. The pages are fairly thick with a slightly ribbed texture – very sensuous – and the print is bold and clear. Everything about it was as aesthetically pleasing to me then as it is now.

The poem I settled on was Silver by Walter de la Mare:

Slowly, silently, now the moon

Walks the night in her silver shoon;

This way, and that, she peers, and sees

Silver fruit upon silver trees;

One by one the casements catch

Her beams beneath the silvery thatch;

Couched in his kennel, like a log,

With paws of silver sleeps the dog;

From their shadowy cote the white breasts peep

Of doves in a silver-feathered sleep;

A harvest mouse goes scampering by,

With silver claws and a silver eye;

And moveless fish in the water gleam,

By silver reeds in a silver stream.

This poem ‘spoke’ to me: I understood how the moon walked about wearing silver shoes for I had always marvelled at the way a full moon would light up the world at night; I could thus ‘see’ the Silver fruit upon silver trees. The other images are so well described that I could easily identify with them. I read that poem over and over as my ever patient mother advised me how to read it with meaning instead of a lilting line-by-line delivery. “Imagine you are telling the story of the moon,” she encouraged me, “and that you want people to get a clear picture of what you are describing.”

Such wise words. Who wouldn’t be nervous as a child reciting a poem in front of an adult audience for the first time? I doubtless wore a ribbon in my hair and know that I would have worn black school shoes with short white socks. Other details have vanished other than the memory of standing alone on that stage. I took a deep breath and, with a sense of importance, announced the title of my poem in a disappointingly squeaky voice. This was my moment to shine!

“Slowly, silently, now the moon / Walks the night in her silver shoon” I began with a confidence I didn’t feel. Memory took over, as did my natural inclination to ‘talk’ with my hands. I became aware of the silence of the audience and the unaccustomed boldness of my six-year-old voice. I curtseyed at the applause and walked off the stage filled with the power of words. I can still recite that poem over sixty years later.

I have blogged about this poem before – it clearly made an impression on me for I came to love poetry with a passion and once I became a teacher of English was always determined that the boys and girls under my tutelage would experience the power of poetry just as I had that evening so long ago.



Words have been swirling around me lately the way dry leaves eddy in the wind – lifting and swirling high up before falling down; scattering; disappearing; and dropping out of nowhere to nestle in my brain or to tickle me with the desire to use them. Our U3A talk last week was about the vagaries of English spelling; I am reading that delightful novel The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams; and today I solved Wordle in the first try for the first time. The word was found. Now isn’t that a satisfying word: that something that has been lost has now been found; or that a burst of happiness has found me and landed unexpectedly on my shoulder.

“English is a precise language,” my maternal grandfather would admonish me. “There is a word for everything,” he would explain, probably after hearing me uttering yet another Afrikaans word or slang that peppered the then flat nasal Transvaal accent of my youth. Both the accent and the sloppy language use was probably jarring to his ears. Finding some of those ‘words for everything’ is why I enjoy receiving A-word-a-Day in my inbox every single day. It is from that source, for example, that I discovered that the large marble used as a shooter that we grew up calling a ‘goen’ is actually a ‘taw’ in English!

I have encouraged my own children to use language more precisely – easier for them as they grew up in a predominantly English-speaking environment, were schooled in English, and with my own accent modulated by me having spent seventeen years living in Natal. They love words too. We play with them; toss them about; find new uses for them; and we revel in coming across new words from whatever source. What about scurryfunge? This refers to the hasty tidying of one’s house when a last-minute guest is coming to visit. Admit it, we have all had to resort to scurryfunging at one time or another!

I sometimes challenged the pupils in my English classes to get out of their well-worn ruts and find synonyms for everyday words, to delve into the shades of meanings each represented, and then to make sentences with them. Their eyes would roll, yet by turning this into a game not repeated too often, the exercise would become heated and filled with laughter: some words, as valid as they are, simply don’t ‘sound right’ to our ears anymore. Nonetheless, these paths of discovery helped them towards learning how to manipulate language to suit a particular purpose. You can doubtless imagine my joy as I recognised the gradual improvement in their choice of words when I marked their essays.

This, at last, brings me to rip, tear, and rent by way of example: they can all mean severing paper in some way.

To me rip carries the connotation of the severing action being performed with considerable emotion – such as when venting one’s anger or showing vehement disapproval. Rip carries an undertone of violence: Georgina was so disappointed in her poor result that she ripped up her test paper. She may even have gone further and ripped it to shreds. This is far more satisfying than merely crumpling the paper. Mind you, the word rip might also harbour uncontrolled emotion, such as ripping open the paper covering a gift – as young children tend to do, so keen are they to see what is hidden under the wrapping.

By contrast, to tear paper seems to be a more controlled and deliberate act. You might simply want to divide a sheet of paper in half by tearing it instead of cutting it. In order to tear the paper, your pull it apart by force. When seen in a negative sense, if someone tears a document, the act of destruction is a deliberate one as in: Harold tears up any drawing of his that doesn’t meet his specification – no matter how it is praised by others.

Rent is not a word I naturally apply to the perforation of paper; I associate it more readily with material. Yet, rent can also be used to describe the act of tearing.

Don’t get me started on why my copy of a thesaurus is so well thumbed.


My father was fond of using the word ‘discombobulate’ when relating events that had happened during his working day: so-and-so was discombobulated by the change in the time of the shift, for example. Little did he know that the day would come when he would be disconcerted and confused by something he wasn’t even aware of happening at the time!

Let me give you some background to provide the context for his discombobulation. In our family home we had several framed watercolours painted by his aunt, May Taylor Morgan. My father, an orphan, came to southern Africa when he was seventeen years old and these paintings were sent on to him from England years after we had all been born. This is one of the two less colourful ones that I now have in my home. The caption was written by my father on the back of the frame:

Caernarvon: This shows Queen Eleanor’s Gate where the first Prince of Wales was shown to the public, The picture shows the old slate warehouses at low tide. This is a very true reproduction and was painted by May Taylor Morgan.

Also important to know is that my father was the Mine Captain and his stand-alone office was situated close to the mine shaft. The shift bosses would gather there before or after their underground shifts to give a verbal report or to discuss events that had taken place. On this particular Monday morning, the mine carpenter happened to be in my father’s office when the skip spewed out the miners. As was usual, it wasn’t long before my father’s office was filled with shift bosses, whose language usage would have proverbially turned the air blue.

The carpenter remained after the departure of the shift bosses and said quietly, “These men would not have used such dirty language had they known there was a lady present.”

My father looked around at the office with only the two of them present. “What lady?”

“She was standing behind your chair.” The carpenter went on to give a detailed description of the old woman who had stood there quietly. I can no longer recall the details, other than that she had very white hair. My father absorbed all of this and realised it could only have been his long-deceased Aunt May, who had lived in Caernarvon.

His discombobulation was still evident when he related this encounter over lunch. “It had to be Aunt May,” he explained. “She is the only person I know who looked like that!” Why would a woman who had died in Wales decades earlier appear in my father’s mine office in South Africa? Who can tell? The mine carpenter was not one to play jokes. “Besides,” my father insisted, “there is absolutely no way he could have known what she looked like and yet he described her to a T!”

Caernarvon: The old brick works by May Taylor Morgan.

My father noted in his unpublished memoir, A Brief History of the Currors that “she must have been rather shocked as she had picked a real ‘Blue Monday!’”