Friday, 21 October 2016


HoratioNelson1.jpgI've just noticed that it's Trafalgar Day. So, in the interests of something or another, I feel I should comment on the great debate of whether the dying Nelson said "Kiss me, Hardy" or "Kismet, Hardy". The latter seems preposterously unlikely as kismet is a Turkish word that isn't recorded in English until 1849, 44 years after Nelson's demise. Unless he was secretly a Turk.

On another note, the great signal sent at the Battle of Trafalgar "England expects that every man will do his duty", was originally meant to be "England confides". Confide here means is confident that, rather than the usual modern meaning of telling you a secret and thereby taking you into my confidence. Anyhow, confide wasn't in the signal book and would have to be spelled out letter by letter, so expects was picked as we might pick a word for predictive texting. It was faster.

Aren't mobile phones wonderful?

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

My TEDx Talk on Rhetoric

Concerned and solicitous people have been asking what I've been up to for the last few months. One of things up to which I have been was giving this TEDx talk at the University of Pennsylvania.

You can also watch it on YouTube here.

Pennsylvania, incidentally, was originally called New Wales until it was renamed in honour of William Penn. So it just means Penn's Woodland. Mr Penn didn't do the renaming himself, Charles II did. Penn thought, quite correctly, that people would assume that he'd done the renaming and would think that he was a terribly self-important bighead. He was rather embarrassed about the whole thing.

Other than that, I have been finishing my little book on the history of Christmas, which ought to be out in November.

A self-important bighead.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Mr Kowalski's Ferrari

I thought I'd post this lovely map that was made by Marcin Ciura. I hope it's big enough to read. If not, click upon it and it ought to expand. It's simple really, it's a map of the most common surname in each European country that designates a job. So there are a lot of smiths, and a lot of millers. But most of them are ones that I had never thought about. I've known the word Ferrari since I was a small boy, but it never occurred to me that the Fer meant iron and that the famous red car is simply a Smith. The same goes for all those Kowalskis. Anyway, click and have a look.

Incidentally, though I don't like to cavil, Murphy doesn't seem to belong here. It's from O Murchadha, a tribal name meaning the descendants of  Murchadh. Murchadh was a chap and his name meant sea-warrior. But that doesn't make it an occupational surname in the way that this map maps so wonderfully, as it doesn't map the most common occupation merely the tribe that bred the most. Murdoch, on the other hand, which is etymologically related, does mean sailor.

For another hidden Smith, see this old post of mine.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Another Book, Trullibubs and Kallithumpian Bands

As I have been terribly lazy about updating the dear old Inky Fool, I think I should inform you all (if you're still there) that I have signed a contract with Penguin to write another book that will come out a little before Christmas this year.

But whereas before I've written about etymology for Christmas, words for Christmas, and rhetoric for Christmas; this time I'm writing about Christmas. For Christmas. A whole book upon the origins of Christmas traditions, rituals and Brussels sprouts (which first appeared in an English recipe book in 1845).

I've been reading A Dissertation on Mistletoe and The Department Store: A Social History and the original poem of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and I currently know more about Santa Claus than can possibly be healthy.

In my researches I have come across a couple of lovely words. Trullibubs means entrails, but can also be a "jeering term for a fat man". And a kallithumpian band is one composed of a bunch of drunk people banging pots and pans and blowing whistles.

I also know, for absolute certain, that Coca Cola did not invent the modern Father Christmas with their advertising campaign in the 1930s.

December 12, 1923 - Click for high resolution image
This is from 1923, and it's an advertisement for White Rock ginger ale.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Today Is Not Boxing Day

A little repost from 2010:

Today is not boxing day.

Once upon a time, there was a thing called a Christmas box. A Christmas box was a box with a small hole cut in it, like a piggy bank, through which coins could be dropped. It was kept in a church and, like a piggy bank, it could not be opened, only smashed. The smashing was done at Christmas, hence the name: Christmas box.

Christmas boxes were used by servants, apprentices, bloggers and other impoverished fools to save up some money for the frosty and festive season. In gambling dens there would be a Christmas box of tips for the benefit of the butler. As one chap put it in 1634:

It is a shame, for a rich Christian to be like a Christmas boxe, that receives all, and nothing can be got out, till it be broken in peeces.

Anyway, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the idea of the Christmas box shifted. There were lots of chaps like postmen and milkmen and butchers' boys and bloggers who didn't have loose change to be stowing away all year. Yet they still felt they deserved a little something at Christmas. So generous Victorians would make a little box of presents which they would present to all the delivery boys on the first weekday after Christmas, thus insisteth the OED.

The first weekday after Christmas therefore became known as Boxing Day. And today?

Today is a Saturday.

All those pleading postmen, beggarly bloggers and other assorted lazzaroni will arrive at your door on Monday morning, their usual truculence usurped by a poor smile and rich words. As Mr Weller remarks of his son's attempt at a Valentine's card in The Pickwick Papers:

''Tain't in poetry, is it?' interposed his father.

'No, no,' replied Sam.

'Wery glad to hear it,' said Mr. Weller. 'Poetry's unnat'ral; no man ever talked poetry 'cept a beadle on boxin'-day, or Warren's blackin', or Rowland's oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy.'

You have, dear poetic reader, been warned.

(A beadle, by the way, was a sort of policeman paid for by the parish).

Friday, 4 December 2015

Forcing Back the F Word

I should probably warn readers that there may be swear words in this post, and they may come very soon. If you are of a delicate temperament, now is the time to reach for your smelling salts.

I said in The Etymologicon that the word fuck was first recorded in the late fifteenth century, but the word has now been found all the way back in 1310. A historian called Paul Booth was happily leafing through the archives of Chester County Court when he came across (if that is the right expression), a defendant called Roger Fuckbythenavel.

Now, Roger is, of course, a funny name, and I've always thought it appropriate that James Bond was played by a double entendre; but it's the surname here that is new and a trifle surprising. I've spent a little while trying to see if there could be any other meaning at all. And I can't. It's...

How do you get a name like that?

Here I could hypothesise until the home-coming of the cows, but I assume that it must have been a nickname based on poor Roger's poor rogering, or perhaps on some misconception bred from the lack of sex education classes in Chester.

Anyway, it didn't have a good effect on him. Roger Fuckbythenavel was summoned to court three times over the next two years, and it all ended with him being outlawed, which isn't as romantic as it sounds. It probably just meant that he was hanged. And if the hangman did his job properly Roger was...

Dear reader, forgive me, a never saw a pun I didn't like...

Roger was well hung.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Capital Geezers of Iceland

Few things are as tedious as other people's holiday photos. That's why facebook exists: it allows people to show their photographs without anyone bothering to look. With that in mind, would you like to see my holiday photographs? You would? Splendid. I've just got back from Iceland.

That's a sign for the Hotel Geysir*. I didn't actually stay there. Just took a photo of the sign because Geysir is a place in Iceland and all of the other geysers in the world, all of those big, spurty things are named after that place.

The Icelandic word for geyser isn't geyser or even geysir (with a funny comma on it). They call them either laug, which means bath, or hverr, which means cauldron. But European travellers didn't know that, and so they took the place name and carried it off around the world.

To be fair though, the place name is related. Geysir basically means, and is cognate with, gusher.

Anyway, would you like to see another photo of Geysir? No? What if I told you the photo was utterly hilarious?

Now, the reason that photo is hilarious is that there's a sign in the foreground saying NO SMOKING but in the background there's what looks like smoke. So it looks as though the ground is breaking the law!!!!! How we did laugh.

They've even got the sign in Icelandic REYKINGAR BANNABAR: Smoking Banned.

Of course it's not smoke. It's steam. But it looks like smoke. All of which explains Reykjavik (the name Reykjavik, that is, not the bus system or the price of a beer).

The first man ever to arrive in Iceland and want to stay for the winter was a chap called Ingolfr Arnarson (and his wife). He (and his wife) had taken the high seats from a temple to Thor and he decided to toss them (and his wife) off the side of his boat to see where they washed up. (That's not true about his wife, although she probably did occasionally wash up).

The seats washed up in a bay that had lots of geothermal vents a bit like the ones inland at Geysir, and because they looked like smoke rather than steam, and because the Icelandic** for smoke was reykja and the Icelandic for bay was vik, he called it Reykjavik***.

Meanwhile, the Cockney geezer has nothing to do with geysers at all, it comes from the Nothern word guiser, which means someone in fancy dress (like dis-guise), which means someone who looks a bit foolish.

And here's a photo of me with a dominatrix puffin.

*I'm afraid I have less than no idea how to type Icelandic diacriticals.
** Yes, yes, I know.
*** It was initially Reykjarvik, but the point stands.

P.S. I've changed this post slightly as there was a mistake in my Icelandic kindly pointed out by Torkirra on Twitter.