Monday, 14 May 2018

Some Concealed Pigs

The wart is below the eye.
The pig is a curious creature. We all think we know what it is: that dear old, rather intelligent thing, rootling around in the mud and stuffed with lovely bacon.

And then one considers the guinea pig, which contains no bacon at all.

Then one thinks further and you realise that there's the hedge-hog. And the groundhog and the warthog and the road hog and that none of them, except maybe the last, contains bacon. And of course a wart-hog is just that. It's a hog with what appear to be warts. But a guinea pig doesn't look like a pig at all. Nor does a hedgehog. A hedgehog looks a bit like a porcupine.

And then, if you mull of the word porcupine enough:




You suddenly realise that a porcupine is merely a pork with spines, from the Old French porc-espin. It's enough to make a strictly kosher chap run screaming for the ocean, where of course there are no pigs at all. Unless a sea-pig existed. And there may be sea-lions and sea-horses but, surely there is no pigfish. Not even in Old French. That would be a porc peis - from the Latin pisces. Or porpais as it was by the twelfth century.

And then you realise your true porpoise in life.

The only possible way to relax is to visit the provinces and read poetry. So you quietly retreat to Swindon with a copy of Swinburne. And you know that don means hill and that burn means stream, but don't whatever you do think any further.

Incidentally, the Dutch don't say pearls before swine, they say roses before swine*, which I somehow think is prettier.

None of this has anything much to do with my new book A Short History of Drunkenness, which has just been released in America. But, if you're American and interested in history, or drunkenness, or if you're simply short, you should immediately buy a copy. You can do so by the simple expedient of following this link.

The Inky Fool found he'd been talking at crossed porpoises

*Or that's what I read, but see the comments.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

American Wino

Today is a day that will live in revelry: A Short History of Drunkenness: How, Why, Where and When Humankind has Gotten Merry from the Stone Age to the Present is released in the good ol' US of A. It's published by Three Rivers Press and you can read all about it, or even purchase it by following this link, or by toddling down to a bookstore.

The book should feel at home on that continent, as it has two chapters devoted to American drinking: one on the Wild West saloon and what it was actually like; and one on the subject of Prohibition and how, contrary to myth, it actually pretty much worked.

So in celebratory spirit, and in no particular order, here are some facts about drinking in America taken from the book.

1) In 1797 the largest distillery in America produced 11,000 gallons of whiskey a year. It was owned by the great distiller of early America, a man called George Washington.

2) The Pilgrim Fathers weren’t meant to land at Plymouth Rock, but the Mayflower had run out of beer. So they had to stop there.

3) American settlers, unless they lived very close to a brewery, drank spirits because they were easily transportable. A Kentucky breakfast was defined (in 1822) as ‘three cocktails
and a chaw of terbacker’.

A cocktail here is in essence exactly what it sounds like: a ‘Cock tail, then, is a stimulating liquor, composed of spirits of any kind, sugar, water, and bitters’ (1806). Whiskey for breakfast could be considered a challenge even then, so by mixing in a little fruit juice, or whatever came to hand, you
could take in all the health-giving benefits of an alcoholic breakfast (which were still believed in) and not vomit.

4) A lot of the booze sold in Old West saloons was fake. Here is a contemporary recipe for making something apparently indistinguishable from rye whiskey.

Neutral spirit, four gallons; alcoholic solution of starch, one gallon; decoction of tea, one pint; infusion of almonds, one pint; color with one ounce of the tincture of cochineal, and of burnt sugar, four ounces; flavor with oil of wintergreen, three drops, dissolved in one ounce of alcohol.

5) Prohibition didn't fully end until 1966 when alcohol became legal in Oklahoma.

6) Prohibition is a major reason that Italian food became popular in America, but to find out why, you will have to buy the book.

A Short History of Drunkenness can be bought from all good bookstores, and, I suspect, some bad ones. And purchased at all the usual sites on the World Wide Web. Follow this link for much more information.

And remember that Americans have always liked a tipple. There was a man called Frederick Marryat who travelled the USA in the 1830s and wrote a book trying to describe this new country to old Europe. He records that in the USA:

If you meet, you drink; if you part, you drink; if you make acquaintance, you drink; if you close a bargain, you drink; they quarrel in their drink, and they make it up with a drink.

Friday, 4 May 2018

German Names

Image resultI've always liked foreign surnames. They're just so foreign. So exotic. And then you learn the language and you find that the names have a translation and that the translation is so dull, so very dull.

And that amuses me.

As a little boy, like most little boys, I loved Ferraris. The name seemed to encapsulate speed and glamour and whatnot. And when I became a man and found out that Ferrari is the Italian for Smith, and the most common surname in that doubtful peninsula, it made me giggle.

And then you find that Giuseppe Verdi is just Joe Green and that Giacomo Casanova is Jacob Newhouse and so on and so forth. But whereas Italians names all sound romantic (at least to the ears of Albion), Germans all sound austere and imposing. So just to ruin everything, here are a few Germans composers (or at least composers with German surnames):

Johann Sebastian Bach = John Sebastian Creek (I've no idea how this may relate to the British TV show Jonathan Creek)
Leonard Bernstein = Leo Amber
Robert Zimmerman (real name of Bob Dylan) = Bob Carpenter
Richard Wagner = Ricky Wainwright

And here are a few more Germans for good measure:

Richter Scale = Judge Scale
Schneider = Tailor
Schumacher = Shoemaker
Muller = Miller
Claudia Schiffer = Claudia Skipper (as in ship's captain)
Albert Einstein = Bertie One-stone (Technically the surname here originally meant "place surrounded by a stone wall")
Boris Becker = Boris the Baker
Max Weber = Max Weaver
Carl Jung = Charles Young
Sigmund Freud = Sigmund Joy

As James Joyce one wrote somewhere in the middle of Finnegan's Wake "they were yung and easily freudened".

Not that I'm an expert in German, or course. As Jerome K. Jerome put it somewhere in the middle of Three Men in a Boat: "I don’t understand German myself.  I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since."

This is Mr Joy

P.S. I know some of these people are Austrian, but the names are German.

P.P.S. Only four days until A Short History of Drunkenness is released in America.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018


Illustration Hordeum vulgare0B.jpgAs I get older (which I keep, for some reason, doing), I find that I'm the only one of my friends not furiously procreating and getting married. Sometimes, (and you may be shocked to hear this) they even do it in that order.

There is therefore much demand in our modern and sinful world, for the old Shropshire dialect term barley-child. A barley-child is a baby born within six months of the wedding. This seems to be because your average farmer plants barley and reaps it six months later.

Anyway, barley-child is a useful term in these fallen times, and so I've been using it. Sternly.

It also shows that, though we of the modern world may be going to hell on a sex-crazed handcart, Shropshire has always been bad.

Shropshire within England
A heat-map showing fornication in the UK

P.S. Barley-child first pops up in Shropshire Word-Book, a Glossary of Archaic and Provincial Words Etc (1879). It's a cracking read.

P.P.S. Only one week until A Short History of Drunkenness is published in the U.S. of A.

Monday, 30 April 2018

Why There Are No Bears In The Antarctic

Image result for polar bear old printThere are no polar bears at the South Pole because it's etymologically impossible.

If you look to the north on a clear night (an idea that seems extraordinary in Britain at the moment), you will see the constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Ursa Minor is so far North that it even contains the Pole Star.

Ursa is just the Latin word for bear (and constellation is Latin for together stars (con-stella)). That's why louche English astronomers will call these constellations the Great Bear and the Little Bear.

But Greek astronomers, being Greek, didn't use either the Latin ursa or English bear, they used the Greek work Arctos, which also just means bear.

So the Arctic is, literally, the bear-place. And the opposite end of the world is the Antarctic or Anti-Arctic or No-Bears-Here-Place.

And that's why polar bears don't move to the Antarctic. They feel unwelcome, etymologically speaking. This may be a ploy on the part of the penguins.

Mind you, polar bears are etymologically impossible, because bear come from the Proto-Germanic *bero, which means brown.

So brown bears are brown browns.

Oh, and grizzly bears are etymologically grey browns (from French gris), which is why I only use the Latin name Ursus Horribilis.

And some bears have no fur at all. I despise them. I can't bear bare bears.

The Inky Fool defending the etymological purity of Antarctica

P.S. Only a week until Short History of Drunkenness comes out in the USA

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Chile, not Chili

I'm off to Chile for a fortnight's holiday. The main thing about Chile, etymologically speaking, is that it is not the origin of the word chili meaning spicy stuff in food. That word comes from the Aztecs who lived all the way up in Mexico. Oddly enough, our standard word for the Aztec equivalent of beer - pulque - is from a language spoken in what's now Chile: Araucanian to be precise. This language also gave us gaucho, meaning wanderer, and poncho, meaning woolen cloth.

So where does the name Chile come from? Nobody is very certain. But one theory is that it comes from a lost native language and means cold place or land's end. In which case it would be appropriate as the tip of Chile - Tierra del Fuego, or land of fire - is very cold even now, in their midsummer.

Santiago, though, is rather warm, which is why I'm going.

For more information about words of Chilean origin have a look at this old post about mamihlapinatapai.

The hotel was not as described

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Losing your Rag in Rag Week in America

Image result for postman patI've been going through A Short History of Drunkenness for the American edition, changing those words and phrases that would be incomprehensible on the farther shores of the Atlantic. It's a process that I find utterly fascinating.

Some of the phrases are expected: "Does exactly what it says on the tin" comes from a British advertising campaign of the 1990s. I was surprised that rumpy-pumpy doesn't exist in America, but it was easily replaced with hanky-panky. But I became particularly curious about "lost his rag". This phrase not only doesn't exist in America, but I didn't really know why it existed in Britain.

The phrase is first recorded in 1928:

Finally, losing his rag completely, he extended his fingers to his nose and challenged any three men in the audience to come up on the platform and fight him.

This goes back to an old Yorkshire term "to get somebody's rag out", and that in turn appears to go back to the use of rag to mean tease, torment, scold etc. That's the same rag that you have in Rag-Week at University: the first week when everybody chases each other around rather boisterously. And it's also the origin of the American phrase to rag on sombody as in this line from 1979:

Critics all over the country..for years and years have been ragging on Joyce Carol Oates.

So Americans, it turns out, can be ragged on, but their rag cannot be gotten out, and nor can it ever be lost; they're just too good tempered.

The other problematic differences were the absence of Postman Pat on those distant shores (the British version points out that a Sumerian drinking song can be sung to the theme music), and finding a precise American equivalent of Maidstone.

Anyhow, A Short History of Drunkenness is already available in Britain, indeed the Spectator says that:

My favourite book of this and possibly any other Christmas is Mark Forsyth's A Short History of Drunkenness

And as it would make the perfect present for just about anybody, it should immediately be bought from a bookshop or one of these people:

Book Depository

And for all who don't know or remember here is the original Ronseal advertisement that changed our language, followed by the original Postman Pat theme.

(American readers should note that the majority of British English is now based on this one advertisement)