Wednesday, 17 September 2014

New Books and Snipes

Just to let everyone know, The Elements of Eloquence is out in paperback (at least in the UK), and The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delights of not getting what you wanted is now available in all bookshops, not just independent ones, for only £1.99.

Anyway, there's a seabird called a snipe. It wades around and eats crustaceans, and of course it flies. It flies though in a very erratic way, changing direction all the time, and it's also rather well camouflaged. This makes it very hard to shoot.

I don't really know why you'd want to shoot a snipe, maybe they're delicious, never tried. The point is that it's only the very sharpest of sharp-shooters who can manage it. They are therefore called snipers.

I'd never seen the connection before.

I shall be giving a lunchtime talk (or talk with lunch included) at the Sevenoaks Literary Festival next Tuesday (the 23rd). Do come along if you can, but you'll need a ticket.

The Inky Fool searching for lunch
And I've just found an 1840 description of sniping in India. It's from a book called Scenes and Sports in Foreign Lands by Edward Napier
Now cast we a glance at what is allowed to be the best and one of the most exciting sports of the East—I mean, snipe shooting. In its effects it is also the most fatal to the British sportsman. A burning sun over head, whilst for hours immersed above the ankles in water, together with being exposed to the noxious marshy exhalations, have, alas! proved fatal to many, and have probably added more greatly to the numerous cases of fever, liver complaint, and dysentery, than anything else in the treacherous climate of India. Still with this hand-post of " high road to the other world" full in view, such are the attractions of this pursuit, that few who are fairly engaged in it can ever leave it off, until brought suddenly up by one of the above stumbling-blocks. It becomes a sort of infatuation. With his brandy-flask by his side, and his wellfilled bag, the sniper still wanders through his old haunts, the well-known Paddyfields, until at last brought down himself by the unerring aim of the grim Azrael —the angel of death.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Guardians, Wardens and Gages

The British newspaper industry is looking up
I'm giving a Guardian Masterclass on grammar tomorrow (I think there are still tickets available). And it reminded me of mortgages and wardens.

Back in the dear old Dark Ages when all was umbrous, the French used to borrow words from the Germans. Some of these words began with a W, which the French, being French, found hard to pronounce and changed them to a G.

But not all the French. The northern Frenchmen could say their Ws and so French would end up with two forms of the word, one beginning with G and the other with a W. And then we English would import both.

I don't know if you've ever wondered what the difference is between a guarantee and a warranty, but really there isn't one. It's the same word one via Southern French and one via the Northern.

Similarly, when medieval chaps wanted to challenge somebody they would throw down their gage as a challenge. This sense still survives in en-gage (for marriage is really a long duel) and mort-gage, which, as I explained in The Etymologicon is really a death-challenge. Or, to be more precise, a death-wager, because gage gave use wage and wager, which are both involve putting down items of value.

And the third of these doubles is guard vs ward. Same words, pronounced differently. And the same thing goes for a warden and a guardian. Hence my long train of thought.

The Inky Fool delivering his lecture

Friday, 29 August 2014


Whilst in Berlin I discovered a word, a German compound word to be exact. Now, usually I'm rather suspicious of these, but zettelwirtschaft seems to me admirably useful. Zettelwirtschaft means disorder or chaos amongst pieces of paper.

That's a very useful word, especially in the way that Germans seem to usually use it - ein zettelwirtschaft haben - to have a zettelwirtschaft going on. But it can just be a noun used to describe top of my desk.

It's also rather mysterious etymologically. Zettel is plain enough, it means paper. And schaft is just the German equivalent of -ness or -ship or -hood. It makes it a state of being. But wirt...

Well here I must admit that my German is rather basic, but so far as my dictionaries tell me, wirt is either a verb meaning to host, or it's a noun meaning innkeeper. And wirtschaft means pub or tavern (or sometimes economy, for some weird reason). So zettel-wirt-schaft means paper-tavern-ness.

I suppose that works, the slips of paper cavorting like drunks in a bar at midnight. Indeed, I hope that's the explanation, but it does seem rather odd. Are there any German experts out there who can come up with something better?

The Inky Fool opens a savings account

Monday, 11 August 2014

Penetralia and Berlin

Shakespeare and Sons Bookstore and CafeI rather like a word that sounds as though it should be rude and isn't. And vice versa. I like jumentous because it sounds like a mixture of jubilant and tremendous and actually means smelling of horse urine. But I also like penetralia because it sounds like well... something awful, when, in fact, it means the innermost rooms of a building. So you go through the halls and foyers and public ballrooms until you reach the penetralia.

The singular is either penetralium or penetral. Keats preferred the former and said of Coleridge that he:

...would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge

Which almost makes sense if you read it a few times. Penetral is the older form, though, and is stressed on the first syllable. It may not have Keats' seal, but it does have the advantage of sounding like entrail.

My favourite use of penetralia is the first citation in the OED:

From the penetralia—the secret chambers of the soul.

Anyway, I shall be going to Berlin the weekend after next and shall be giving a talk on August 23rd at the wonderful Shakespeare & Sons on Warschauerstrasse. Do come along if you can. There'll be a film screening too and all sorts of lovely stuff.

 Samuel Taylor Coleridge portrait.jpg
Contemplating the penetralia

Thursday, 31 July 2014


I have a strange fondness for frequentatives, frequentative being verbs that happen frequently. So if you spark once, you spark. But if you spark frequently, you sparkle. If you crack once, you crack. But if you crack frequently you crackle. If you charge into somebody once wearing full armour and carrying a lance, you joust. If you do it all the time, you jostle. Burst, bustle. Jog, joggle. Tramp, trample. Scuff, scuffle. Prate, prattle. Wade, waddle.

One that I'd never noticed before was that if you push once then you shove, and if you push repeatedly into the earth with a spade, you shovel. It comes from the Old High German scioban.

But there is a second shove frequentative. If you shove one foot forward, and then the other and so on and so forth, you shuffle.

Which is a long way round of saying that I'll be speaking at the Shuffle Festival in East London on Sunday at 3pm about death, sex and toilets.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

Harrogate and Moby Dick

I'm going to Harrogate this Sunday to do an event with the splendid Simon Garfield. It's at 5:30, and tickets are available here. In honour of this occasion I shall repeat this old post on how Harrogate gave the world coffee.

So what does the opening of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Keats have to do with the world's largest chain of coffee shops?

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither'd from the lake.
And no birds sing.

Give up? I thought so. You never were one for hard work, were you, dear reader? The connection is in the sedge.

Sedge is any kind of plant that grows on the banks of a lake or stream. More recently its meaning has dwindled to refer to plants of the cyperaceae family; and, really, unless you're a water-vole, the only place that you'll have heard of it is in the Keats poem.

This takes us to a suburb of Harrogate in Yorkshire with a small stream flowing through it. Here is a picture of that stream*:

You will notice the depressing lack of sedge. It must have wither'd, for there was sedge there once, as the suburb's name is Sedge-stream, except it's not. Yorkshire was, a thousand and bit years ago, overrun by Vikings, so most of their place names are Scandinavian, and the Viking word for Sedge-stream is Star-beck.

Starbeck is only recorded from 1817 but it must have been around before because a) It has a Viking name and b) there were people there who had sex as early as 1379. This sex produced families, and those families were called, by a slight alteration in the name, Starbuck. Since 1379 two things have happened: the Quaker movement was founded and America was discovered.

The result of this double-catastrophe was that among the first settlers on Nantucket Island was a Quaker family called Starbuck. Nantucket was a centre of the whaling industry and the Starbucks took up their harpoons and set off to seek their oily fortunes at sea. Valentine Starbuck met the King and Queen of Hawaii and took them to London where they got measles and died. Obed Starbuck sighted a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific which was later named Starbuck Island in Valentine's honour. The point is that the Starbucks were famous whalers, which brings us to Moby Dick.

Moby Dick is about a bunch of sailors having a whale of a time (whale, in case you were wondering, was early C20th American slang for a lot - whale of a job etc). The first mate of the whaling ship Pequod is called Starbuck, because the Starbucks were such prominent whalers. Moby Dick, aside from having a vaguely amusing name, is a favourite with American schoolteachers, which brings us to Jerry Baldwin.

Jerry Baldwin was an English teacher from Seattle, who in 1971, along with a couple of friends, decided to start a coffee shop. He wanted to name it Pequod, after the ship in Moby Dick but was shouted down by his partners who pointed out that Pee is not a good syllable to have in a shop selling liquids.

So the others cast around for a local name and found that there was an abandoned mining town near Mount Ranier called Camp Starbo. At this point Jerry Baldwin piped up and suggested a compromise. If he couldn't have Pequod, what about Starbucks,which sounds a little like Starbo and is a character in Moby Dick. They decided that this was a good name, and the rest is bad coffee.

And it all goes back to a sedge-covered stream in Yorkshire.

Gone fishin'

*Stolen from Flickr without a flicker of conscience.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Leatherbound Hidebound Competition

The Elements of EloquenceJust  a link today to this article what I wroted in the Independent on Sunday, summarising my views on bookshops.

Also and moreover, there is a competition on to win a leatherbound copy of The Elements of Eloquence. There are only twelve of these in the world, and I have two of them. If that weren't enough you also get £20 of book tokens. All you have to do is to tweet a photograph of The Unknown Unknown in front of an independent bookshop and add the hashtag #IBW2014. You may do this any time until the end of August.

By the way, the origin of the word hidebound is that if cattle (or humans) are underfed, their flesh becomes very tight on them, so tight that they have difficulty moving. Thus a cramped and unmoving mind has hidebound attitudes.