Saturday, 31 October 2009


I am a man of regular habits (as the monk said to the tailor) so for 364 days of each year I keep to a rigid routine. I wait until it's dark, put on a mask and a black cape and creep around the streets offering boiled sweets to children. I do this in lonely homage to the Comte De Lautreamont. Halloween is my night off.

I was just setting up the mantrap outside my front door and was about to start boning up (odd phrase) on the legality of stabbing children in the face through one's letterbox when I glanced in the mirror and was reminded of the word Eldritch. It's a useful little epithet meaning "weird, unnatural, hideous". In fact, it's derived (probably) from the Anglo-Saxon for other kingdom (el rice). So it gets across the idea both of ugliness and of the supernatural in one word which more than compensates for the disadvantage that nobody will know what you're talking about.

There's a book by Philip K. Dick called The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch about a chap who has gone on a long journey and come back changed into something horrible and weird. It's rather a good novel all round, but the cliche on the cake for me is the name Palmer Eldritch. You see in the Medieval period pilgrims returning from Jerusalem would bring palm leaves as a memento, which was itself in memory of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on a donkey when there was of course a shout about the poor animal's ears and palms beneath his feet.

Anyway, a palmer is a pilgrim. As Chaucer put it:

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes [shores]

So Palmer Eldritch, who has gone on a journey and come back changed into a hideous monster, is a palmer eldritch, with the adjective being used postpositively.

Philip K. Dick's publishers were never ones to skimp on cover art


  1. “Eldritch” is perhaps the important flourish in HP Lovecraft’s unusual and restricted vocabulary.

    Another is “gibbous”- care to give us a post on this one?

    I went to Google Books to get statistics on Lovecraft’s usage, to prove that eldritch is used in about 47% of his sentences.

    It’s not quite as impressive as that, but he does really like the word:

  2. In a rather eldritch fashion, it seems that about the same time you were struck by the recollection of Dick's novel, so was I! In a posting dated September 27th, 2009, I wrote about the meaning of the word, which means we were only mentally a month apart. So how eldritch is that?