Sunday, 10 December 2017

Snow and Snew

A repost from 2010:

Eskimos have no more words for snow than we do. The notion that they do is a myth, a mirage, and a cold white lie. They certainly don't have fifty of the damned things.

We have a few words of our own: snowblizzardsleetslushpowder and neve (a field of even snow). And if we feel this isn't enough, we simply invent compounds: snowstormsnow-flake, snow-flurry, snow drift, snowfall and snowperson.

It is exactly the same in your average igloo. The Eskimo-Aleut languages (of which there are several) have a few bases and many compounds. So the next time somebody repeats this porkie to you, cudgel him.

The urban myth of the Eskimo's verbosity did give rise to the young and useful word snowclone. A snowclone is hackneyed sentence structure. X is the new rock'n'roll. What do you get if you cross an X with a Y?*

The reason it's called a snowclone is that so many hackneyed hacks have written something along the lines of:

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.

Snowclone was invented by a language blog called Language Log, which goes to show something, but I don't know what.

The past tense of snow used to be snew, on the same pattern as grow and grew or know and knew. So it snew in the night.

This from Froissart's Chronicles (1525):

Also it rayned, blewe, & snewe, that it was a mervaylouse yvell wether.

And this from Holinshed's describing special effects in a theatrical production of Dido in 1583:

It hailed small confects, rained rosewater, and snew an artificiall kind of snow.

*I imagine that the answer would be that you'd get back together with her.

Thursday, 7 December 2017


Sometimes an etymology is so obvious, once you see it, that you can't think why you never saw it at all. A dumbbell was, originally, a bell that didn't ring.

The idea is pretty simple really, bell-ringing is a form of exercise. Church bells are big heavy things and a bell-ringer must really tug on that rope. I once wrote a post explaining that to ring a full peal of bells takes several hours and a huge amount of energy (was that seven years ago? I've been doing this for much too long). The problem is that, as a form of regular keep-fit, it's a trifle noisy and will get on your neighbours' nerves.

Hence the dumb-bell. The first reference is from Joseph Addison writing in The Spectator in 1711:

For my own part, when I am in town, for want of these opportunities, I exercise my self an hour every morning upon a dumb bell, that is placed in a corner of my room, and pleases me the more because it does every thing I require in the most profound silence.  My landlady and her daughters are so well acquainted with my hours of exercise, that they never come into my room to disturb me while I am ringing.

So what exactly did such a mute piece of gym equipment look like? Well, here's one from the Seventeenth Century that survives (I think) at Knole House in Kent:

Basically, the sticky-out bits have weights on them. When you pull on the rope (from below) they rotate, as a bell does, and then, through momentum, wind the rope up again. You now give another pull and so on and so forth. There's a little more information to be had by following this link to a modern dumb bell manufacturer.

At some point somebody seems to have taken those sticks with the weights on the end off the dumb bell and started using them on their own. Thus the modern dumbbell.

In other news, tonight I shall be at Waterstones Piccadilly from seven until nine signing A Short History of Drunkenness, other books by me, cheques, Czechs and off.

On Monday, I shall be doing my Dickens show in Clapham.

Next Saturday (the 16th) I shall be at Libreria bookshop in Shoreditch doing a reading at seven. 

The Inky Fool's new alternative to Uber

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Dickens Explained in Clapham

Image result for dickensAnybody who's read The Merry Wives of Windsor (written in about 1598) will have been surprised to see a reference in it to Charles Dickens (born 1812). It's in Act II scene 2 and goes like this:

I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my
husband had him of. What do you call your knight's
name, sirrah?

Sir John Falstaff.

The reason for this is feat of anachronism is that the Dickens in what the dickens has nothing to do with the surname; it is, instead, a euphemism for the Devil. It may be that there was the Devil, and then there was a little devil or devilkins. Kin is common English diminutive as in lambkin or bunnykins or napkin (a nap used to be a tablecloth).

The diminutive kin is also the source of the English surname Dickens which is Little Richard (if you're into rock'n'roll) or Little Dick (if you're a puerile giggler, as I am). And the surname Dickens is the source of Charles Dickens and Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which is the best Christmas story ever written, and there's an actor called Martin Prest who can recite the whole thing, and he's going to be doing so on Monday in Clapham at Bar Humbug, and I'm going to be interrupting him to explain the origins of Christmas Traditions and it ought to be a great show, so you should come along if you're in London.

More information and tickets and the like can be found by following this link. 

Meanwhile I'm doing a talk at Hungerford Books tomorrow (Wednesday 5th), and on Thursday Evening I shall be sitting in Waterstones Piccadilly with a pen ready to sign any and all books that are thrown at me*.

*In all seriousness, I was once doing a signing in Waterstones Piccadilly and a foreign gentleman came up to me, put a book in front of me, and asked me to sign it. I had a good look at it and explained to him that it wasn't my book. "No," he said. "You sign it."
"But I can't really sign it," I replied, "if I didn't write it."
"You are author, yes?"
"Well, yes, but not..."
"You sign it. It's for my daughter."
"But this is by..." I had a look, and the book didn't actually have an author, or not one who'd been prepared to put their name to it, which was surprising as it was a self-help book, and the cover said it was all about feeling "self-worth".
"It's for my daughter. You sign it."
He seemed irked by my recalcitrance, and so I gave in and I signed it E.L. James.
He seemed very happy.

Friday, 1 December 2017


I've just discovered that there is a Finnish word for "getting drunk at home in your underwear with no intention of doing anything else". The word is kalsarikännit. This is important news.

At first, I didn't believe it. There are a lot of amazing-foreign-words-with-sentence-long-definitions that either don't exist, or only exist in a very theoretical sense. Yes, a German might be able to put all those words together in the same way that I might be able to say snow-gobbling-day, it doesn't mean that there's such a word in common English usage.

But kalsarikännit is real. The etymology is quite simple: kalsarit means underpants, and känni means to be drunk. So it's underpants-getting-drunk. I don't quite know where the with no intention of doing anything else comes from: it may be poetic license, but I suspect that if you are drunk and in your underpants it would be hard to attempt any task of merit and importance, especially outdoors, especially in Finland.

Tolkien taught himself Finnish as a child in order to read the epic poem Kalevala. I, on the other hand, didn't. So I'm a little unclear on the grammar, but so far as I can tell kalsarikännit is the verb and kalsarikänni is the noun, though I may have that wrong, the sources vary. It's pronounced CARL-sarri-KAN-nit. [See video below, and top comment for greater detail]

Naked drinking has been quite a thing, historically speaking. In the London Gin Craze or the early 18th Century, poor people took to selling their clothes to buy spirits, resulting in mass public nudity. In Ancient Egypt at the Festival of Drunkenness all clothes were removed at around midnight when the sex began, and in early colonial Australia people got drunk and gambled:

To such excess was this pursuit carried among the convicts, that some had been known, after losing provisions, money, and all their spare clothing, to have staked and lost the very clothes on their wretched backs, standing in the midst of their associates as naked, and as indifferent about it, as the unconscious natives of the country.

There are also accounts of naked drinking in Russia and Ancient China, and of course there was Noah in his tent. That however was unintentional self-exposure. It's something of a theme in the Bible. Here is Isaiah describing (in a roundabout way) Egyptian foreign policy. Egypt is like someone:

...who gives drink to his neighbours, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies!
You will be filled with shame instead of glory.
Now it is your turn! Drink and let your nakedness be exposed!

All of these fascinating facts are of course mentioned and enlarged upon in A Short History of Drunkenness, which is a book by me. It can be bought from these lovely people, or in a real bookshop.

Book Depository

In other news, I'll be doing a talk at Hungerford Books on the 6th, a signing at Waterstones Piccadilly on the 7th, and a show about Dickens' Christmas Carol in Clapham on the 11th.

Incidentally, a tip of the hat should go to the Spectator's review of Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North, where I discovered this.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Some More Spanish Place Names

Image result for dan snow history hit
Explained below
My Spanish studies continue with all the alacrity and promise of an armada. I was idly flicking through the Psalms (or Salmos, which is the strange Spanish spelling) when I came across this:

Hasme puesto en el hoyo profundo, En tinieblas, en honduras.

Which seemed, to my ignorant eye, to say:

You have put me in a deep pit, in darkness, in Honduras. 

Which seemed an odd thing to happen to a chap in Jerusalem, and also to be rather rude about Hondurans. However I should have read it as:

You have laid me in the lowest pit,
In darkness, in the depths.

Because that's what Honduras means: The Depths. It was, apparently, named after the adjacent sea, which is rather profound.

Anyhow, here are a few more of greater or lesser obviousness:

El Salvador = The Saviour

Nevada = Snowy (because of the mountains)

Costa Rica = Rich Coast

Puerto Rico = Rich Port (because Spanish adjectives are agreeable)

Florida = Was discovered on Palm Sunday, which, in Spanish, is Pascua Florida or Flowering Easter. It's therefore named in almost exactly the same was as Easter Island. It's also cognate with Florence (blooming city), florid and floral. Also, the Florin was the coin of Florence, so called because it had a lily - the symbol of the city - stamped on one side.

And those who've read The Etymologicon will already know that:

Ecuador = Equator

Venezuela = Little Venice (because the natives lived on little huts on poles out in the water)

I am sad to report, though, that Quito does not mean removed.

None of which has anything to do with this the historian Dan Snow, but I did do a long interview with him for his podcast about the new and wonderful book A Short History of Drunkenness. You can listen to it by clicking on this link. He's a lovely fellow, and very, very tall. I'm serious. I'm 6'2" and it takes quite a lot to make me feel like a midget, which is how I felt throughout.

As ever, A Short History of Drunkenness can be obtained in all reasonably good bookshops, or over the Internet from these people:

Book Depository

And, as Margaret Atwood says, it's "Highly suitable for Xmas!"

This place is the pits

Monday, 20 November 2017

Tutus, Cul-de-Sacs and French Bottoms

A tutu (the thing that ballerinas wear) is a bum-bum, or an arse-arse if you prefer. Or, if you are of the American persuasion, I suppose it's an ass-ass. It's an alteration of cucu, which is itself a shortening of cul-cul, which is French for arse-arse. The French are terribly relaxed about such things, the British, thank God, are uptight and anxious. The very first mention of the tutu in 1910 said:

She wished to exhibit what in technical slang is called le tutu, a term descriptive of the abbreviated costume and possessed also of a secondary meaning.

And that secondary meaning was arse. (If, by the way, you were wondering what a tutu was called in Britain before 1910, it was a parasol-skirt).

The French are always inserting their arses into the English language. There is, for example, the cul-de-sac which literally means arse of a bag and which sneaks onto English street signs without anybody noticing. Before this disgusting French term was introduced, the English had a much better, cleaner native term for a dead end; we called it a butt-hole. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary's butt-hole entry lists this as the only meaning.

butt-hole  n. a blind hole, a cul-de-sac.

1905   Westm. Gaz. 3 Mar. 3/2   The old dog's got him [sc. a badger] in a butt hole.

I have never managed to get a badger into a butt-hole, because I don't have a dog.

The reason for all this Gallic hideousness is probably a thing called the French Revolution. What happened was that French aristocrats wore knee-breeches, but the French poor didn't and were forced to wear unfashionable trousers. This infuriated the poor. There was a big fight and it was won by the without-breeches, or, in French the sans-culottes.

To be fair, though, even occasional Frenchmen sometimes have enough decency to look at their language and decide that Something Must Be Done. Voltaire wrote a letter To The Men of Paris, and signed it with a fake name and address. The address is given as:

l'impasse de St Thomas du Louvre; car j'appelle impasse, Messieurs, ce que vous appelez cul-de-sac: je trouve qu'une rue ne ressemble ni à un cul ni à un sac: je vous prie de vous servir du mot d'impasse, qui est noble, sonore, intelligible, nécessaire, au lieu de celui de cul

Which translates roughly as:

The Impasse of St Thomas du Louvre; what I call an "Impasse", gentlemen, is what you would call a "cul-de-sac": I find that a street resembles neither an arse or a bag: I would like to give you the word "Impasse", which is noble, sonorous, intelligible, and necessary, in place of the word "arse".

Many, many streets in France are now called impasse, and the word seems to have been invented by Voltaire.

And if this whole horrid subject has made you recoil like Voltaire, you should remember that recoil comes from the French reculer meaning to go back. 

You could also read less bottom-fixated writing such as, for example, the new book A Short History of Drunkenness. It's by me but, as I recall, it only contains one bottom and that's Odin's (it's to do with a legend about mead).

A Have-Not (left) and a Have (right). Both are revolting.

Thursday, 16 November 2017

The Unhelpful Alphabet

Image result for alpha bravo charlieI spent my schooldays being asked whether I was related to Bruce Forsyth or Frederick Forsyth. It therefore bothers me that, now I have come to man's estate, nobody knows how to spell my name. But I can also never bring myself to say "Like Bruce".

Anyhow, I spend a lot of time on the phone feeling slightly peeved as I say "F for forest, O for oligarch, R for Rabelaisian..."

Your mind tends to go blank unless you happen to know the NATO phonetic alphabet - Alpha, Bravo, Charlie etc. And I do sometimes find myself, in a fit of intolerable cruelty, throwing odd words in there. "S for sesquipedalianism".

But then it occurred to me to wonder what the least helpful phonetic alphabet would be, on the basis that if you're going to be unfair to be people in customer service who are just doing their job, you should be unfair properly, methodically and with malice aforethought.

The result is this. The Phorsighth Phonetic Alphabet. It's a bit weak in places. L is a cop-out. If you have any improvements, please leave them in the comments. It, of course, works best when read aloud.

A for Aitch (or Are, or Aye)

B for Bdelygmia

C for Cue (or Chute or Chthonic)

D for Double-U (or Djinn)

E for Ewe (or Ex or Eye)

F for Fill (to confuse Philips)

G for Gnaw

H for Heir

I for Itself

J for Jägermeister

K for Knight

L for Lwei (an Angolan monetary unit. One hundred lweis make a kwanza) Apparently, the Polish town of Lodz is pronounced Wodge, but that may be cheating.

M for Mnemonic

N for Night

O for Our

P for Phew

Q for Quay

R for Rwanda

S for See

T for Tmesis (or Tsar)

U for… um [long pause and then continue suddenly]

V for Vroom (although I was thinking of vrbaite, “A sulphide of thallium, mercury, arsenic, and antimony”, from the Czech, of course).

W for Why

X for Xenagogue (a tour guide)

Y for You

Z for Zloty

[Edit: improvements are already being made C for Cue, Lodz/Wodge for L, and T for Tsar]

As I say, if you have improvements, I'd love to hear them. In other news, Djinn sounds like gin, which leads me back to my new book A Short History of Drunkenness blah, blah, blah. There's a cartoon about it on page 34 of the new Private Eye, and you can as ever buy it from these people.

Oh, and in other news, I shall be doing an event in Clapham on Monday the 11th of November about Dickens' Christmas Carol. Well, it will actually be Dickens' Christmas Carol performed by the wonderful Martin Prest, and I shall provide explanations of where the Christmas traditions come from. More information here.

And I shall be talking about A Short History of Drunkenness at the Hungerford Bookshop on December the sixth.

I may be Forsyth, but this is forsythia