Thursday, 31 December 2009


I told you that there would be another post on Thomas Browne's Religio Medici. It has been slow in coming but I read at the speed of a retarded six-year-old. This from page 55:

All flesh is grass, is not only metaphorically, but literally, true ; for all those creatures we behold are but the herbs of the field, digested into flesh in them, or more remotely carnified in our selves.

Is it me, or does the word carnified somehow suggest employment in a travelling circus? Of course it means turned into meat, as in carnivorous or the carnal embrace discussed in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

THOMASINA: Septimus, what is carnal embrace?

SEPTIMUS: Carnal embrace is the practice of throwing one’s arms around a side of beef.

THOMASINA: Is that all?

SEPTIMUS: No......a shoulder of mutton, a haunch of venison well-hugged, an embrace of grouse....caro, carnis; feminine; flesh.

THOMASINA: Is it a sin?

SEPTIMUS: Not necessarily, my lady, but when carnal embrace is sinful it is a sin of the flesh, QED.

Also in the Browne, observe the early modern plague of commas.


Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Vocabulary and Shakespeare

For Christmas I was given Think On My Words by David Crystal, which is all about Shakespeare's language. In the first chapter he sets about debunking various bardolatrous myths: the first being that Shakespeare had a larger vocabulary than anyone else in history.

Having got through all the questions of method and counting, Shakespeare had a vocabulary of about 20,000 words. Most modern, educated English speakers have a vocabulary of about 50,000. This is largely because the language is bigger now: Shakespeare wouldn't have known the words nationalise, juggernaut or internet. It's all about how Shakespeare employed his language.

Anyway, all the discussion of methodology made me ponder a couple of points. The first is that we know a lot of quite ordinary words that we rarely use. I am certain that I have not used the word glide in the last week. I'm not sure, but I may never have written it. This is not simply because I haven't been in a glider much over the festive season. It's quite possible for people to glide in and out of a room, I just don't think that I employ the word that way.

Another oddity of language is the precise nouns that we all know but never use. These are, on the whole, invisible to us, but are revealed by foreigners. I used to know a french girl whose English was near perfect. We worked together as copywriters at the BBC, doing exactly the same job. But whereas I was born and brought up in England and have an English degree from Oxford she had arrived a few years before at Cambridge to do a masters in philosophy speaking almost no English. She had learnt some as a child but had given the language up at the first opportunity.

This had caused her some problems. On arrival she had got a part-time job in a pub and had started learning English slang. After a week or so the job and the masters had left her so exhausted that her tutor called her in to ask her why she looked so tired. 'I have,' she said in her strong French accent, 'been shagged all week.'

Shagged in English can, in context, mean tired, as in "I'm totally shagged". More usually it means sex.

The point about this girl is that after several years she had learnt and learnt and learnt until she was just as good an English copywriter as me (or as I, but that's another post). She had become not merely competent, but a professional user of English.

She was, though, missing a couple of words. Once, we were walking together in the Brecon Beacons and she asked me what these "walls of twigs" were called. She meant hedges. Another time she pointed at a banister and asked me what it was called in English.

It is possible to live in England speaking English for years and never hear anyone use the word banister, hedge, rafter or ladle despite all natives knowing what these words mean. Many words that a native considers common are, in truth, seldom spoken. I suspect that I have used the term rhadamantine more recently than flagpole, simply because flagpoles are dull and not worth talking about. The stange and crazy alleys of my vocabulary bustle, while the wide central avenues are silent.

This makes my Russian aunt, who last week told me that a wood-pigeon had fluffed out its feathers, all the more impressive.

The point of all this is that David Crystal's method for measuring modern vocabulary was to ask somebody how many words he understood on a single page of a dictionary and then multiply by the number of pages. This would certainly test how many words I know, but employment is something diffferent. Many words are like Facebook friends: technically there, but I haven't seen them in years.

I somehow suspect that if I could only start to use the words flagpole and banister more often I would be as great a poet as Shakespeare.

A wall of twigs

P.S. As evidence for my theory, I noticed only at the last moment that banister has but one N.

Monday, 28 December 2009

The Oddities of Lycidas

This post will mean nothing if you haven't read Lycidas. Your life will also mean nothing if you haven't read Lycidas. There is a text here.

This post is nothing more than an observation. It would be easy to call it a criticism, but it is impossible to criticise something wonderful. I could no more suggest that Lycidas is not a good poem than I could suggest that a sheep is not ovine or three not triple. Perhaps the following observations can uncover something about the way Milton wrote.

Here Milton* suggests how he hopes to be praised after his death:

So may some gentle Muse
With lucky words favour my destined urn,
And as he passes turn,
And bid fair peace be to my sable shroud.

If Milton is destined for an urn he is to be cremated. A shroud goes only with burial.

What time the grey-fly winds her sultry horn,
Battening our flocks with the fresh dews of night,
Oft till the star that rose at evening bright
Toward heaven's descent had sloped his westering wheel.

That the grey-fly is female is odd but passable. An uncouth swain would probably have had trouble obtaining a microscope and sexing an insect. However, it perhaps grows to something when the evening star is male (his westering wheel). The evening star is Venus and Venus as any fule kno is a goddess. Milton was not any fule, certainly not on the subject of astronomy and classical mythology. Anyone who has read Paradise Lost knows that he was obsessively accurate on such subjects.

Here he contemplates a drowned man:

He must not float upon his watery bier
Unwept, and welter to the parching winds

The corpse of Lycidas, like Milton's, changes throughout the poem. I can happily see that for poetic reason he may not be floating, now sunk and now on a laureate hearse. I may be missing something about the word parch here, but I don't understand how a drowned man can be at risk of it.

On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks

Swart means swarthy or dark. Some believe that the star was dark because of it's appearance in the Dog Days, during which you might get a tan. But I have never seen any evidence for this beyond Lycidas.

In this section Milton considers the drowned man's fate. Follow the grammar and meaning closely.

Ay me! whilst thee the shores and sounding seas
Wash far away, where'er thy bones are hurled;
Whether beyond the stormy Hebrides,
Where thou perhaps under the whelming tide
Visit'st the bottom of the monstrous world;
Or whether thou, to our moist vows denied,
Sleep'st by the fable of Bellerus old,
Where the great Vision of the guarded mount
Looks toward Namancos and Bayona's hold.
Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth:
And, O ye dolphins, waft the hapless youth.

The first thing you ought to notice is that these are some of the greatest lines ever written. The second is that no sense is made. To what does whilst refer? The whether-whether suggests two possibilities but scattered bones can hardly look homeward. Moreover how can the dolphins be wafting an angel who's Pope-spotting on top of a mount?

The still morn walked out with sandals grey

Still and walking?

The white pink and the pansy freaked with jet

White pink?

I don't know what conclusion to draw from these observations. I'm sure that somebody will object to one or other of them, and perhaps one or all are objectionable. Perhaps I should connect it with another strange aspect of the poem: its obsessive anthropomorphism. Where mythology ends and personification begins is an awkward question. Milton starts by talking to a laurel bush, which could just be a poetic address. Then he talks to the muses: again normal. Then the dawn's eyelids are opening. Then the grey-fly is a female musician. Then river after river is humanised. The Deva spreads her streams. Mincius is confided in and crowned. Camus (the river cam) is wearing a hat.

Odd but doable. What's odd is that Camus, a strange allegorical figure, is part of a procession in which he is followed by Saint Peter. Saint Peter appears to have an equal reality to a hat-wearing river. Indeed the second he's gone Milton is back chatting to yet another stream. The still dawn walks out with sandals grey just after the angels have been singing. All of this is without mentioning the huge cast of occassional characters like Hippotades, Old Damoetas, Amaryllis, Noera etc etc.

Milton does not carry through. He invents an image, be it a funerary urn or a behatted river and then forgets a few lines later that that was his register, his style, his reality. He cannot rest with or carry through on an image. The suggested reality behind the words is unstable, ephemeral and in some cases barely extant.

As I passed the threshold of tediousness long ago, I may as well mention that Milton must have been reading Daphnis and Chloe (I'm not sure that anyone else has noticed this). That work contains, among other things, an Amaryllis in the shade, a complaint to the muses that they let a loved one drown and a loving pair driving the flocks out together every morning.

When Mrs Malaprop sat down to her Finals back at Oxford she found this question:

"But now my oat proceeds" Discuss digestion in Milton.

Surprised, she re-read the question and realised that the word was not digestion but digression.


A she, not a he.
*Or the uncouth swain

Sunday, 27 December 2009


Crepitation, I was raised to believe, is the crackling sound made by a log fire: the little pops and snaps that emerge from arboreal combustion. More generally it can be any crackling noise: for example the sound made when you rub your hair together beside your ear. Go on, try it. Medically it is a "dry, crackling sound or sensation, such as that produced by the grating of the ends of a fractured bone", which I suppose must be similar.

This latter meaning - of which I was, until today, ignorant - reminded me of The Waste Land and

And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat's foot only, year to year.

Which caused me to discover a hypertext of The Waste Land, meaning an internet version of it with built in notes. This a Good Thing. I have a battered old copy in which I scrupulously and in a Lilliputian hand transcribed every note from the a companion volume. While the notes don't seem to be quite complete I can still recommend it. It is here.

There is a third meaning of crepitation: "the sudden expulsion of an acrid fluid by some beetles as a means of self-defence".

There is a post on crepitation over at wordnik. They cite almost infinite usages, most of which seem to be from a "Special Report on Diseases of the Horse". One though is from a book I had never heard of called The Cardinal's Snuff Box. It goes:

The tiled roof just above his head resounded with a continual loud crepitation, as if a multitude of iron-shod elves were dancing on it.


Saturday, 26 December 2009


A man with alleged al-Qaeda links - reported to be a UK student - is quizzed after an attempted "act of terrorism" on a plane.
   - Today's BBC News

Quiz is an odd verb and best confined to scrabble. The police and lawyers call it questioning or interrogation. Perhaps there is legal loophole that allows somebody to be detained for quizzing but not questioning. Even on a quiz show with a quiz master, quiz is seldom if ever verbed. If it were then I would imagine a scene something like this:

An interrogation room deep beneath Langley Virginia. A wild-eyed TERRORIST is strapped to an electronic buzzer.

Let's get this show started. For ten points: by what name is Gordon Sumner better known? I'll repeat the question: by what name is Gordon Sumner better known?

Buzzer sounds, TERRORIST writhes slightly.

Hi there, Abdul! Great to have you in the cell. So who is Gordon Sumner?

I spit on your simple infidel questions! Gordon Sumner is Sting!

Lights flash, a jingle plays and water is boarded.

That's 100% correct!

TERRORIST (waving his fists jubilantly):
Death to the infidel!

Okay, Abdul, do you want to take this to the next level?

I am prepared to die!

Okay, for one hundred points and control of part of Somalia can you name me the most northerly, the most southerly the most easterly and the most westerly of the United States?

Got to be Hawaii to the West. And... no.... let me think...

Incidentally, the answer to that last question is N:Alaska, W:Alaska, E:Alaska, and S:Hawaii. But as Monty Python said: "Nobody leaves this show empty-handed; so we'll cut off his hands."

William Guantanamo Stewart

Friday, 25 December 2009

Festive Quatrain

And He said: ‘What hast though done? The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground.’
Genesis IV,9

The answer to the blood of Abel
 Was found among abandoned sheep,
 And landlord startled from his sleep
By woman screaming in a stable.

Incidentally, Auden used to miss out articles definite and indefinite in his early poems because he believed some linguistic theory that the article was going to die out as a part of speech. He was therefore adjusting his style for theoretical generations of the future, who never came to be.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Alphonse Allais and the Holorhyme

In 1883 Alphonse Allais exhibited a painting called First Communion of Anaemic Young Girls In The Snow, which was of course a white canvas. I was reminded by of this by the snowy view from my window, of which Persil would be proud. Allais' painting was the companion piece to his Apopleptic Cardinals Picking Tomatos Beside the Red Sea.

Allais also invented the holorhyme, which consists of an entirely homphonous couplet so the two lines sound identical, but mean different things. One of his ran:

Par les bois du djinn où s'entasse de l'effroi,
Parle et bois du gin ou cent tasses de lait froid.

Which means:

By the genie's forest where fear abounds
Talk, drink gin, or a hundred cups of cold milk.

The only example of a holorhyme in English that I know of is by Miles Kington and goes thuslyly:

In Ayrshire hill areas, a cruise, eh, lass?
Inertia, hilarious, accrues, hélas!

Perhaps they are easier in French. Here, off the top of my head, is one of my own composition on Napoleon's advance on Moscow.

War, snow, rushin' on.
Was no Russian? Non.

Which may prove my point about the language (I can't quite work out the Gaul/gall pun right now). Anybody with an effort of their own please feel free to post in the comments. It will give you something to do over Christmas other than charades.

Herewith another photograph I took yesterday:

Note the anaemic communicants on the left

Update: Another (two?) holorhymes on the advance on Moscow

There, hoarse as Marshall Ney,
Their horse's martial neigh

And almost:

The steppe galls
The gauls' step.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

And the Iron Entered into Coverdale's Soul

Myles Coverdale is my hero. He is the patron saint of inadequate optimists.

Coverdale was an early protestant and like all protestants he believed that the Bible should be translated into the vernacular. Thus the ownership of the Bible would be taken from the priests and prelates of the Roman Church. To do this, you of course needed to go back to the original Hebrew and Greek. So Coverdale set out to make his translation bravely ignoring the fact that he didn't know any Hebrew and was utterly innocent of Greek.

Coverdale did know a bit of German and the Germans had already started translating the Bible from its original languages. So armed with a dash of Deutsche and the belief that he was doing God's Work he settled down to translate.

The result was a carnival of inaccuracy. The most fabulous of his mistakes is in Psalm 105 and it goes like this:

But he had sent a man before them: even Joseph, who was sold to be a bond-servant
Whose feet they hurt in the stocks : the iron entered into his soul

The iron entered into his soul and the phrase entered into the language. It is beautiful, and like most beauty it is utterly wrong. It should be his neck was put in irons.

How this came about is reasonably explicable. The Hebrew word nefesh means breath. Metonymically it can mean neck, because that's where you do most of your breathing. Metaphorically it can mean soul because your breath is your soul (the same as spirit, which comes from the latin to breathe).

Once you've got his soul was put in irons, all you need to do is mistake the subject for the object, which Coverdale could do with ease, and you have The iron entered into his soul.

There are too many Coverdale mistakes to list them all. My second favourite, which I came across in church one Sunday, is in Psalm 18:

As soon as they hear of me, they shall obey me : but the strange children shall dissemble with me.

The strange children shall fail : and be afraid out of their prisons.

Who are the strange children, and why were they in prison in the first place? To what abominable crimes has infantile strangeness led them? Why will fear release them? What the hell is going on, God?
Coverdale's strange children are the ben necker or foreign-born. Coverdale's prison should be a stronghold or fortress. The literal translation is:
As soon as they hear me, they obey me;
foreigners cringe before me.
They all lose heart;
they come trembling from their strongholds.

Which isn't nearly as good. It's just another of those dull, dull, dull gentiles-shall-be-driven-before-me bits of the Old Testament. That is the paradox of the Coverdale psalter. It may be inaccurate, it may not be what God or David or a series of writers over several centuries meant, but it is one of the finest works in the English language.
The Book of Common Prayer, which is used on Sunday evenings in my parish church, still contains the Coverdale Psalter. Shakespeare, I once read*, alludes to the psalms more than any other book. Coverdale, though no linguist, was a poetic genius. Had he let his utter inadequacy deter him from his task, posterity would have been impoverished. Keats was wrong: error is beauty, beauty error.
Well done, my son.
*I can't remember the reference.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Tropical Thomas Browne

It is dark. I sat down with Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici and in the preface I found these words:

There are many things delivered Rhetorically, many expressions therein meerly Tropical, and as they best illustrate my intention; and therefore also there are many things to be taken in soft and flexible sense, and not to be called unto the rigid test of Reason.

Tropical, I confess, threw me. I vaguely imagined that some of the opinions in Religio Medici were fit only for a sunny beach. I pictured Browne dancing in a lei while pronouncing on matters reasonable and religious. Perhaps the intense cold had paralysed my deductive faculties for, falling from this airy reverie to the frosty fields of reason, I realised that Tropical meant relating to rhetorical tropes.

The connection is turning. The earth tilts upon its axis. For six months the Northern Hemisphere is tilted towards the sun and this I call summer. For the other six months it is the turn of my anitscian to don a shirt of many colours and loll around on the shores of Bouvet Island. The extent of this turn is 23 degrees both ways. Even as I sullenly type the sun (from our point of view) appears to be hovering at noon over those who are 23 degrees South of the Equator. Then it turns back northward. The Greek for turn is tropos hence tropic.

So the tropics, cancerous and capricious, are the latitudes at which the sun turns. The Greeks, it would appear, used a direct translation of our expression turn of phrase, they called it a rhetorical trope, because a word was being turned to something other than its normal use. So if you use tropes, your prose is tropical.

My prophetic soul tells me there will be more posts on Browne before advent is out. Mrs Malaprop is on holiday. She like Browne is "oft-times fain to wander in the America and untravelled parts of truth."

Sir Thomas Browne's stolen skull resting on a copy of Religio Medici


Snow here has covered everything that might ever have been a thing. I may post something etymological or journophobic later, but for the moment the best imaginable thing you can do with your allotted span on earth is to read the opening lines of Little Gidding and then contemplate a photograph I took this morning.

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable
Zero summer?

The Inky Fool's plush new offices

Monday, 21 December 2009


As the serial sex fiend was finally caged for the sickening crime...
   - The News of the World

He played with Dion Dublin, no mean sax fiend, and it has been claimed they formed an impromptu jazz combo...
    - BBC internet commentary on yesterday's test match

Sometimes I hardly know why I add any comment at all. It seems remarkably unfair that the changing of a single vowel should be all that divides good from evil. The reason is that the junkie devil or dope fiend was keen on dope and keenness implies expertise.

"No mean sax fiend" means exactly the same as "mean sax fiend".

Caged is an epithet peculiar to tabloid court cases and birds.

Dion Dublin

Saturday, 19 December 2009


The Inky Fool overheard this little exchange between two British journalists coming out of Gordon Brown's press conference in Copenhagen yesterday:

Journo 1: That was so figjam.
Journo 2: Figjam?
Journo 1: Fuck I'm Great, Just Ask Me.

Figjam is similar to the obscene acronym Snafu (Situation Normal: All Fucked Up), but utterly different to Sweet F.A. which is Sweet Fanny Adams, an unfortunate girl who was murdered in 1867. Sailors in the Royal Navy thought that their meat rations resembled her corpse so she became synonymous with "tinned mutton". By 1919 the term, though still military, had drifted to mean little or nothing.

You can of course make jam out of figs if you particularly want to. There's a recipe here.


Update: After writing that last post I went to a bookshop to do some Christmas shopping and came across a whole book about military slang titled FUBAR (Fucked Up Beyond All Recongnition).

Friday, 18 December 2009


   - Thus The Times

The actual number was 80. It said so in paragraph two. It's a lot simpler, though, to refer to 80 as an unspecified multiple of 20, presumably on the basis of marking a notch in a stick when attempting to count sheep. Explanation here.

Incidentally, 43,000 sheep drowned yesterday, which means 2,150 score.

Even more incidentally, the French used to have a word huitant before shifting to quatre vingt or four score. It was also of course Abraham Lincoln's preferred method of counting. Why say 87 when four score and seven will do?

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Warning Over

I saw this on the BBC News website and rather than wondering what will happen to my poor little toes tonight, I instead wondered whether I have ever warned somebody over somthing. About: yes. Over: not that I recall.

So far as I can tell warning over is pretty much peculiar to British news; in America reporters still warn each other about things. There is, though, more that unites our two great nations than divides them: a love of liberty, a dream of justice, and the fact that warnings are always issued, and usually stark.

Cassandra issues stark warning over horse

A Merry Crimbo and a Cool Yule

Reading the sports pages of Metro this morning, I noticed a stray reference to “crimbo”, meaning "Christmas". Crimbo! This word, which must have seemed cheerful, irreverent and rather modern at one point, today feels rather dated – to me, it is somehow redolent of the 1980s, although the OED has a citation for “Dick Crimbo” (meaning St Nicholas) as early as the 1960s. An OED citation for a closely-related word, “crimble”, perfectly captures the period flavour: “Stevie's determined to have a well-wacky Crimble do” (Just 17, 1987).

At any rate, both “crimbo” and “crimble” (the jury is out on whether to capitalise them, although Christmas is almost always capitalised, presumably because of the reference to Christ) seem to be fading from popular use. Over the last five years, there has been a steady decline in their use by British journalists, as the chart below demonstrates.

The OED is slightly vague on etymology. It describes both words as "humorous alteration[s] of Christmas, perhaps reflecting childish speech".

The earliest citation for "crimble" is in a Beatles Christmas message, cited in the New Musical Express in December 1963: "Garry Crimble to you, Garry Crimble to you, Garry Bable, Dear Christmas, Happy Birthday, me too!"

The earliest recorded reference to "crimbo" is from The Strand Magazine in 1928: "You've saved your man, by crimbo". It's not clear that this is actually a reference to Christmas - to me it sounds more like an exclamation along the lines of "by Jingo!". That said, "Christmas" (in phrases like "Oh, Christmas" or "Jiminy Christmas") was also used as an interjection in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - perhaps, like "cripes" or "crikey", a euphemism for "Christ" - so "crimbo" could be a variation on that.

"Yule" is much easier. It's straight from the Vikings* via Old English, and still survives in Scandinavia in the form of jul and jultid (Christmas and Christmastime), although in Britain it is now mostly used for rhyming or punning purposes in headlines ("Yule duel rage", "uncool Yule rules", "Yule feel fabulous" are recent examples) and phrases like "Yule log". It is also used by pagans to refer to the winter solstice.

* Or possibly the Angles and Saxons; the OED describes its origins as "Teutonic".

Wednesday, 16 December 2009


There are many kinds of truth. Al Gore was poleaxed by an inconvenient one yesterday.
   - The Times talking about Al Gore and the Arctic

I think poleaxe is a pun. I'm not sure; but I think it is. North poleaxed. Do you see? The other week I actually woke up an unfortunate journalist on a Saturday morning to complain about a mild pun in an article only to discover that it had been completely unintentional. With The Sun you pretty much know that a pun is a pun. Puns in The Sun are out and proud and shoving the proverbial "it" down your throat. In the broadsheets puns tend to linger and loiter on the page trying not to attract attention. If challenged they will concede that yes they are puns, but no they never intended to actually make you laugh.

Anyway, I didn't know what a poleaxe was. They have nothing to do with poles, and everything to do with polls. A pollaxe (ax if you're efficient and American) was a medieval axe that was used to hit people over the head or poll. A poll as (as in Gallup) is a headcount, just as a poll tax is a tax on heads and a tadpole is a toad-head (tadpole used to be slang for a child, then got shortened to tad, then started to mean anything small, hence "move it a tad to the left"). A tadpole can also be called a polliwog, or wriggling head.

With the arrival of gunpowder, cannons and light-sabres pollaxes were driven from battlefield and confined themselves to abattoirs where they were used to kill or simply stun cattle, hence the modern use of poleaxed to mean stunned or paralysed. It's sad that this should have happened to Emile Heskey, but I'm sure it's the way he would have wanted to go.

A polecat, on the other hand is a cat that eats chickens or poules.

I'm still not certain that poleaxed was a pun. I'd go and wake up the writer, but there were three of them - Hannah Devlin, Ben Webster, Philippe Naughton - and I don't know where any of them sleep.


Uses for a polecat

Pedantic Presents

I thought, as Christmas is coming and a pandemic of obesity sweeps the goose population, Inky Fool could offer a little choice of pedantic books as stocking fillers, complete with sample passages demonstrating their linguistic rectitude and links to Amazon.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark is about a group of young ladies in London at the end of the Second World War. They are all slightly in love with a poor poet and an expensive dress. The reason for recommendation is this passage where a man called Rudi is reading out a political tract:

   There is a kind of truth in the popular idea of an anarchist as a wild man with a home-made bomb in his pocket. In modern times this bomb, fabricated in the back workshops of the imagination, can only take one effective form: Ridicule.

   Jane said, '"Only take" isn't grammatical, it should be "take only". I'll have to change that, Rudi.

The Tetherballs of Bougainville by Mark Leyner is a simple story about a young man who, when his father's execution in a New Jersey penitentiary fails, runs off to Bougainville with a mysterious talking orang-utan and writes propaganda for the breakaway de facto government. The reason for recommendation is this passage wherein our hero remembers how his father used to help him with homework:

   All of a sudeen Dad grabbed the mouse and highlighted a line on the computer screen, and he said, "That's a non-restrictive modifier. It needs to be set off by a commas."
   I probably said something to the effect of, "It's not a big deal, Dad, let's just leave it out."
   At which point he went completely beserk. "It's a non-restrictive adjectival phrase. It's not essential to the meaning of the sentence's main clause. It should be set off by commas. It is a big deal!"
   And he grabbed a souvenir scrimshaw engraving tool, which I'd gotten at the New Bedford Whaling Museum gift shop several summers ago, and he plunged it into his left thigh, I'd say at least two to three inches deep.
   "All right, I'll put the commas in," I said.

The Rachel Papers was Martin Amis' first novel and was about a young man running around London in the seventies trying to get laid (mainly by a girl called Rachel) and cram for the Oxford Entrance Exam. I've always had a soft spot for it as I read it back when I was (chastely) cramming for the Oxford Entrance Exam. The reason for recommendation is, inter almost all alia, this passage:

   The Practical Criticism Paper. I explicated a Donne sonnet and paid uncomprehending lip-service to a beefy dirge by someone called John Skelton. there was a D. H. Lawrence essay on how passionate and truthful D. H. Lawrence was: a characteristic piece of small-cocked doggerel  which I treated with characteristic knowingness. Finally, I belaboured one of Gerard Manley Hopkins's sleazier lyrics, implying (a last-minute reread made clear) that it was a high time we burned all extant editions of the little fag's poetry; emendations took the form of replacing some of the 'ands' with 'buts', and of changing the odd 'moreover' to 'however'.

The last recommendation is Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood which is (besides being the basis for the film/musical Cabaret) a careful depiction of Berlin in the 1930s. The reason for recommendation is, obscurely, this exchange:

   'And tell me, please, do you find German girls different than English girls?'
   I blushed. 'Do you find German girls . . .' I began to correct her and stopped, realizing just in time that I wasn't absolutely sure whether one says different from or different to.

Now I'm off to buy socks for my family.

Oh, you shouldn't have.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Halcyon Days

Today (or possibly yesterday, but I forgot) is the first of the Halcyon Days which will last until just before the end of December. The Halcyon Days are the fortnight of supposedly calm weather in midwinter during which the halcyon, or kingfisher, lays her eggs.

The eminent biologist/meteorologist Ovid explains that Ceyx and Alcyone were lovers. Ceyx had to go to sea for some reason and every day Alcyone (the girl) would go down to the shore to look for his returning vessel. She continued this vigil until she was informed by the utterly reliable medium of a dream that the ship had sunk and Ceyx had drowned. At this news, as Chaucer so movingly put it,

"Allas!" quod she for sorwe
And deyede within the thridde morwe.

[quod=said sorwe=sorrow deyede=died thridde=third morwe=day]

Anyway, everybody was terribly upset including the gods who decided on their tried and tested fall-back plan of turning both the lovers into birds (avification was only just behind stellafication in the Attic list of divine mercies).

The gods then went further and decided to make the sea calm and the weather bright for one fortnight a year starting on the 14th/15th of December so that the Alcyon could explore and develop her newfound egg-laying capabilities, for which I'm sure the young lady was profoundly grateful.

Anyway, the usual modern sense of the halcyon days as being the happy days before all the trouble started is a figurative extension of this precise ornithometeorlogical usage.

Note the wings forming

Tabloid headline compound noun sensation

Writing about attributive nouns and noun compounds reminded me of one of the most striking characteristics of journalese, particularly tabloid journalese. When not indulging in wordplay or mysterious literary allusions, newspaper sub-editors will often construct headlines out of nothing but nouns.

These virtuoso displays of noun-compounding, although they bear very litle relation to everyday English, are delightfully efficient. Every word carries weight and meaning, making them perfect for squeezing as much information into headlines as possible. Sometimes, though, they are so compressed that you have to read the story to find out what the headline means, making them more like teasers than summaries.

Here are a couple of examples from Saturday's Sun:

Harry jury time plea
(Harry+jury) + (time+plea)

Two noun compounds - "Harry jury", meaning the jury trying a teenager who poured bleach over somebody's head during the screening of a Harry Potter film, and "time plea", meaning "request for more time to consider a verdict", bolted together to make a single noun compound.

UKIP vid "leak" rap
((UKIP+vid) + leak) + rap

This is built up in a slightly different way. "UKIP vid" is the first noun compound - meaning the video of a prospective UKIP MEP being interviewed. "Leak" is added onto the end to make a new compound meaning the posting of that video on YouTube. Finally, "rap" is added to make a third compound, referring to the court ruling that UKIP must compensate the candidate for posting the video.

The Mirror offers this example:

Pope abuse sympathy
Pope + (abuse+sympathy)

In this case, the primary noun compound comes at the end - "abuse sympathy", meaning "sympathy for victims of abuse". This is modified by "Pope", so it means "Pope's sympathy for victims of abuse".

Tabloid headlines also use noun compounds as shorthand for referring to people in the news. The rather depressing selection from my copy of The Sun includes: "Maddie cop"; "acid girl" (girl who survived an acid attack, although it could equally refer to a girl involved in making, taking or selling LSD); "carjack brute"; "tot death ma"; "drug dad"; "Guy pal" (friend of Guy Ritchie) and "porn Sir".

Update: Language Log has several entertaining posts on this topic: here, here and here.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Italian Italics

I was about to write a terribly amusing post about pushing the envelope when my eyes drifted up the column in the dictionary to entrepreneur. It was in italics because it was foreign, exactly the same as its gallic abecedenarian neighbour entre nous. So I flicked back through the dictionary. It's an old one that is used as much for door-stopping as it is for reference. It was a revised 5th edition from 1964.

What surprised me was that I don't think that I have ever seen entrepreneur in italics (except perhaps in that famous, probably apocryphal, bushism). Some time between 1964 and my terrifying emergence into basic literacy it must have acquired British nationality and therefore shed the italics that we use for mots etrangers.

It's strange the amount of time this process takes. The italics, I feel, ask of the reader that he assume the accent of the foreign language, which is reasonably easy for French but an awful lot more perplexing when with a word like smorgasbord or fakir (despite many attempts I have never been able to pronounce a single Scandinavian vowel, instead I just sound like an excited sealion). It's even odder when you read an old book that needed to italicise a word with which we are all now familiar. I was once reading a novel* from the first half of the twentieth century which said something along the lines of "The spaghetti that they ate was delicious", which made me try to mentally repatriate the word.

Schadenfreude currently seems to have dual nationality, but is almost a full citizen. A brief google shows that nobody is quite sure on the subject (in the same way nobody seems sure whether to capitalise g/Google). I found italicised and unitalicised examples in all four of the broadsheets.

I've often heard it said that schadenfreude is a German word because it is a peculiarly German emotion, in the same way that Eskimos are often said to have a whole drift of words for snow. But this doesn't seem to take account of our very own gloating and smirking, verbs almost always performed at the expense of others.

In case you were wondering, contemporary schadenfreude/schadenfreude seems confined to Tiger Woods, association football and Dubai.

Don't gloat

*I thought this was Where Angels Fear to Tread (1904), but having checked my Penguin Classics edition I find the word in ordinary roman. Perhaps it was Evelyn Waugh, I can't remember and can't be bothered to re-read every book I possess.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


I was buying train tickets online today so that I could zoom up to spend Christmas in the Lake District and the number of times I had to click submit would have made a gimp blush. The word is sinisterly ubiquitous. Last night I was at a party chatting to the editor of a poetry magazine who kept talking about poets' submissions, the submission process or how some poets submit too late. I couldn't help but imagine a hall full of versifiers all naked and rolling around on their backs like defeated dogs.

The submissions process

Saturday, 12 December 2009

From Portobello Road to Mount Vernon with a Hangover

In 1739 Admiral Edward Vernon led the British assault on Porto Bello in what's now Panama. He took just six ships but with lots of derring do and British pluck etc etc he won a startling victory. So startling was the victory in fact that a patriotic agrarian heard the news, dashed off to the countryside west of London, and built Portobello Farm in honour of the victory's startlingness. Green's Lane, which was nearby, soon became known as Portobello Lane and then Portobello Road and so the market (apparently the largest antiques market in the world) is called Portobello Market.

But Admiral Vernon's naming exploits did not end there. In 1740 he got a new officer called Lawrence Washington, who had been recruited from the British dominions in North America. Lawrence Washington ran around bravely shooting lots of Spaniards and then returned home to be with his brother George (who also has some minor role in history). So much did Lawrence love his old commanding officer that he renamed the family estate Mount Vernon.

But Admiral Vernon's naming exploits did not end there. When the seas were stormy he used to wear a thick coat made out of a coarse material called grogram (from the French gros graine). So he was known to his men as Old Grog.

British sailors used to have daily allowance of rum. In 1740 flushed from victory at Porto Bello and perhaps under the pernicious influence of Lawrence Washington, Vernon ordered that the rum be watered down. The resulting mixture, which eventually became standard for the whole navy, was known as grog.

If you drank to much grog you became drunk or groggy. My battered Concise Oxford Dictionary still has groggy down as meaning drunk. But the word has slipped through the night and in the chic dipsomaniac circles in which I move groggy now means hungover.

This means that I have visited two places named after the same chap and woken up with him.

Old Grog

Friday, 11 December 2009


I had always thought that a backlash had something to do with whips. Specifically, I thought that it was the reverse stroke, when the whipper's arm is being pulled up ready to strike, and there is a danger that the whip might strike an innocent bystander. Here is an illustration of my imaginings.

It fits the usual sense of the term perfectly: the violence that is being directed one way requires that it should suddenly be flicked back from the victim towards those who thought they were safe. Indeed, it looks here as though the chap in the white vest has turned his head to avoid the cat-o'-four-tails that the whipper is irresponsibly allowing to fly out into his blind spot. I can only assume that health and safety regulations were not as advanced in first century Judaea as they are now.

I was thinking about this because I read in the paper today that "the backlash over the golfer's sexual liaisons could eat him alive."

So I cast imagination to the sewer and decided to look it up. Backlash has nothing whatsoever to do with whips. It is, instead a property of cogwheels. No two connecting cogs can ever fit perfectly. If they did the friction would stop them moving at all. Moreover, in most systems a metal cog could heat up slightly and expand locking the device completely. As a result, you have to leave some room between the teeth and this space is called a backlash.

A backlash doesn't do much except when you reverse the system. In the diagram above the bottom wheel is turning anticlockwise. That means that if you start turning it clockwise there will be a moment of stillness before the tooth on the bottom left connects with the upper wheel and starts to move it. Moving diagram here. Video here.

Well, this stymied me. It means that the usual sense of backlash to mean a violent reaction is utterly wrong. The backlash is the empty period, it is the blank at the bottom of the page, it is the gap between songs, it is the please wait while your request is being processed.

But if a golfer were to get caught between the teeth of a very, very big gear system, I have to concede that he could be eaten alive.

Just so any whip enthusiasts don't get too disappointed, "enough room to swing a cat" is probably to do with a cat-o'-nine-tails.

P.S. Anyone interested in how much room is actually needed for feline swinging should check here. It's 10'1" for me, but obviously varies with height/size of mog.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Naughty Noughty

As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade
Some Australians have run a competition to see what to call the next one. They have concluded that the years of our Lord 2010-2019 should be called the One-ders. They give two reasons for this:

1. There is hope for many scientific, humanitarian and environmental breakththroughs.
2. The inclusion of number one in every year

For some reason, upon reading this my fists started to spasm and I could think about nothing other than ritual dismemberment involved in the Viking blood-eagle sacrifice. But that's by the by. More important is that nobody seems to agree on what to call the decade towards the end of which we are wearily trudging. Most newspapers dodge the issue by referring to the 2000's. Newsreaders tend to ge out of it with "this decade", "this century" or "since the millenium" and, if pushed, refer to the "two thousands".

Once you're on to the laxity of the review section the name becomes the noughties. This seems far more common, though, in Britain (380 recent uses) than in America (a mere 46).

Noughties is obviously a pun on naughty and suggests the naughty nineties of Wilde, Whistler, Dowson and all those other sinners. The thing about the naughty/noughty pun is that the etymology of the two words is the same. A wight with no possessions was a nowight or nought/naught. Such people tend to be criminals and are therefore naughty.

Naughty used to be a far more serious word. When I arrested Conrad for deceiving the duke and maligning a girl so terribly that she had to fake her own death I called him a "naughty varlet", and that wasn't just me mixing up my words: Leonato used the word naughty too. It's a bit of problem for Shakespeare. I remember the whispered titter that overtook the National Theatre once when I was watching King Lear and Gloucester, having his eyes torn out, calls Regan a "naughty lady".

But of course like so many words it has been used too much in exaggeration and disobedient children were being called naughty by the 1630s. Incidentally, aught, to mean nothing is simply a metanalysis from a naught to an aught, in the way that the snake called a nadder became an adder.

I don't know what to call the next decade. As I believe I said before: Dost thou not suspect my years?

Me arresting a naughty varlet

Fun, funner, funnest

A few days ago I noticed an ad for "the funnest iPod ever". Despite having gone through a phase of using “funner” and “funnest” when I was young and foolish, I still felt a little pedantic and prickly about Apple using its marketing might to popularise what some still view as a “ghastly”, “grating and horrifying” word. I wonder whether the use of the non-standard superlative was deliberate - possibly to make a banal slogan less banal and more fun - or whether it is entirely unselfconscious: a quotation from Steve Jobs, perhaps, or a reflection of the way people speak in techworld.

A more important question is why "fun" and "funner" should be considered wrong, while almost all other short adjectives ending in a consonant take -er and -est in the comparative and superlative (here is a link to a simple table showing the rules for comparatives and superlatives). WorldWideWords and Grammar Girl (in a response to Steve Jobs' use of the word at a press conference) explain that this is because "fun" was not, historically speaking, an adjective at all, but a noun.

It started being used as an attributive noun (a noun which modifies other nouns) in the nineteenth century, with phrases such as “fun-room”, “funfair” and “fun-fest” creeping into use. It is only recently that it has made the transition to being an adjective, and even now not all dictionaries accept it as one – my online OED only lists it as a noun and a verb (meaning to “make fun or sport”).

As a result, fun is still treated like a noun when forming comparatives and superlatives - so it is "more fun" and the "most fun", like "more sugar" or the "most sugar". Grammar Girl explains it thus:
“Even people who accept that "fun" is an adjective are unlikely to embrace "funner" and "funnest." It seems as if language mavens haven't truly gotten over their irritation that “fun” has become an adjective, and they've decided to dig in their heels against “funner” and “funnest.” In their minds, if “fun” as an adjective is still informal, then the inflected forms are still “nonstandard,” or to use less fussy words—“funnest” is grating and horrifying. And the language mavens still have enough influence to hold the line for now”.
Incidentally, I have noticed that some non-native speakers of English use "funny" as an adjective meaning “fun”, which is entirely logical, in that it does derive from the noun “fun” (and has been around much longer than “fun” as an adjective). However, it always seems to have had the specific sense of “comical”.

On another slightly tangential note, I have noticed that another set of adjectives which don’t seem to follow the normal rules are adjectives of nationality. Words like “French”, “Dutch”, “Greek” and “Swiss” should in theory act like other one-syllable words ending in consonants, but I have never heard anyone use “Frencher” to mean “more French” (as in, “it’s more French to cook that way”, or “this bistro feels more French than the other one”). Does anyone know why this is?
No fun for pedants

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Cold, Hungry Ceilings

The pay ceiling, effectively freezing the earnings of four million public sector workers for at least two years, will bite in 18 months.
   - Today's Evening Standard

Some people would wrongly accuse this sentence of mixing its metaphors. 'How', they would whinge from their imitation-ivory towers, 'could a ceiling freeze or bite?' Such brainless pedants haven't considered either igloos or Napoleon III's private theatre at Fontainebleau, of which a picture below.

Very Real

One of the greatest forces for good, liberty and freedom - not to mention the defence of the free world - is in very real danger of being banished to the history books for ever.
   - The Daily Mail (possibly discussing itself).

I disagree with the idea that the danger is very real. I imagine the danger to be slightly real. Or maybe it's very surreal. One of the two. Surreal and unreal dangers are scandalously underreported in British Newspapers. I tested this out by telephoning the Guardian newsdesk to report that I was being chased by an elephant whose reflection looked like a swan. The shrift that I was given can best be described as short.

Just another day at the Inky Fool offices

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Bish bash bosh

Today I heard two of my colleagues use the phrase “bish bash bosh”, to demonstrate the ease and efficiency of something they had accomplished (“I called the client, explained the situation and bish, bash, bosh”). Like “ding, dang, dong” (the sound made by the bells in Frère Jacques) or “Ping, Pang, Pong” (a Japanese drinking game or the names of the courtiers in Turandot, depending on your frame of reference) it has an appealing if slightly nonsensical air and I was sufficiently struck by the phrase to try to find out where it had come from (my colleagues having no idea).

It seems that it was popularised by comedian Harry Enfield in his Loadsamoney sketch. The first newspaper references I can find – in the late 1980s – all refer to Harry Enfield, with the phrase gaining wider currency throughout the late nineties and into the 2000s (almost ten years in, I’m still not sure about the “noughties”).

Bish, bash, bosh - look at his dosh

There are earlier references in song titles (there is a jazz song “Bish Bash Bosh”, written by Barry Harris in 1962), and, according to The Guardian, in novels – a recent book review by Steven Poole states that the phrase “the bish-bash-bosh of freemasonry”, whatever that means, appears in a 1924 novel. I am not sure whether this means the phrase was in fairly wide use before Harry Enfield’s lighting on it, or whether he, like Barry Harris and the mysterious 1920s author, invented it independently of each other. The construction – three one-syllable nonsense words, with the noun changing from “i” to “a” to “o” – seems like a fairly intuitive one, if the examples above are anything to go by.

UPDATE - Dogberry points out that tic tac, mishmash, Kit Kat, knick knack, hiphop, clip clop and tick tock, ping pong, sing song, ding dong, and king kong all fit a truncated version of the pattern - an "i" followed by an "o" or an "a". So do flimflam, chit-chat, bric-a-brac (almost) and Mary Poppins' catchphrase "spit spot". Other phrases using all three vowels are "Slip, slap, slop" (as in "slip on a shirt, slap on a hat, and slop on some sunscreen") and Spike Milligan's On the Ning Nang Nong. There is a long list of similar words here - the "i" followed by "a" or "o" pattern seems remarkably prevalent.

Spit spot, and off we go...

This type of vowel alternation is known as ablaut, and the construction of phrases using vowels in this sequence is known as "ablaut reduplication" or "ablaut-motivated compounding". According to this grammatical essay, the "a", "i", "o"/"u" sequence is the most common because these three vowels are the the "fundamental pillars on which the whole system of vocalisation has been constructed", with "i" at one end of the spectrum (at the front of the mouth) "o" or "u" at the other (at the back of the mouth) and "a in the middle. The sequence is not just found in English - the essay cited above notes that phrases like "piff paff", "piff puff", "bim bam", and "bim bum" are also found in German.

Some English irregular verbs also follow this pattern. Those with three vowels include ring/rang/rung, sing/sang/sung, drink/drank/drunk, sink/sank/sunk, and shrink/shrank/shrunk. Those with two include hang /hung, sit/sat, and spit/spat.

Middle English had even more examples of irregular verbs using ablaut, like chide/chode, climb/clomb and help/holp. But, as this essay by a group of Harvard maths graduates reports, these have gradually died out and been replaced by regular forms, with the least frequently used disappearing first. The paper predicts that "wed" will be the next to go, with "wedded" replacing it as the past participle.

Far from gauche

I know this blog is meant to celebrate the vicissitudes of the English language, but I would just like to spice it up with a foreign offering, which I discovered this summer and I think trumps its English counterpart, "champagne socialist."

The much chic-er French version, in my view, is "gauche caviar."

The Yanks apparently use "limousine liberal" or even "mastercard marxist." So obvious, darling.

We British, meanwhile, continue to flaunt the national propensity for booze with the alternative, "bollinger bolshevik."

Whichever you prefer, these days, when even the Conservatives are banned from drinking champagne, all suggest a bygone age of political glamour. Now it's all spending cuts, tax increases and concern for the environment. Yawn.

Meanwhile, I expect the French of both sides are still utterly unapologetically eating caviar (and quaffing champagne).

A sturgeon moving towards the left


   - Thus the BBC

People often ask me why I don't dare go outside my front door and the answer, if I'm being honest, is that I am terrified of being slammed, a doom that appears to overtake everybody in the carnival of violence beyond my letterbox.

Ministers seem to have it worst, they're always being slammed, but the epidemic of violence and bruising is not confined to the government. Husbands, plans, coporations, Simon Cowell, Iran, Liverpool and sex fiends have all been slammed of late.

I am not equipped for the world. The only thing I have ever slammed transitively is a door. I have slammed things down onto other things, for example a glass onto a table, and I have slammed things into other things, for example a copy of the OED into a journalist's face.

I don't think, though, that I could slam something big like a puppy farm or Keith Vaz, and my brain is too weak even to conceive of slamming a loophole.

So I shall stay inside with my etymological dictionary and my memories and tell you that Grand Slams are to do with the game of bridge and nothing to do with doors. In America, apparently, they slam dunks and there's something else called a poetry slam, which I don't want to know about.

The typical headline form, by the way, is:


As in:


Enquire no further.

Don't go out there.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Gambits, Blueprints and Quantum Leaps

Ministers and regulators bought the gambit hook, line and sinker.
   - Simon Jenkins in The Guardian

This is, I think, a rare, almost extinct specimen of the correct use of the word gambit. It can't last because gambit is dead, it has fallen into the terrible linguistic oubliette of being a technical term that nobody knows about. A word cannot serve two masters: conversation and precision.

A gambit, technically speaking, is a series of opening moves in chess in which a piece is sacrificed for the sake of a positional advantage. Opening gambits are therefore tautologous. Saying "Nice weather we've been having lately" is not a conversational gambit, unless you are trying to trick a meteorologist. A gambit, technically, must have some sense of either deception or sacrifice. Otherwise it's just... well it isn't anything. It's a start.

But of course 99% of the population don't know that, so unless you're actually chatting to Kasparov it's utterly Quixotic to use gambit in its technical sense. Mr Jenkins, though correct, had to add the words "bought" and "hook, line and sinker" to frame the meaning. If, after falling out with someone, I call them up and admit that I partly wrong in the hope that they would do the same, I could call that a conversational gambit, but few readers would know the implications of the word unless I explained them.

So you're a fool if you think you can still use gambit correctly, but you will be thought a fool by some if you use it incorrectly.

The word is dead. Chess journalists, I suppose, can continue to use it. But for the rest of us gambit has spent two long splitting: retaining a technical meaning whilst wandering the mean streets of verbiage.

The same probably goes for a quantum leap. A quantum leap is a sudden movement, a sort of magical shift, but it is terribly, terribly, terribly tiny. In fact, it is the smallest shift possible in nature, which is why there is no between. I know that quantum physicists are not a large part of anyone's coterie, but why display your ignorance to the fury of pedants like a babooness in heat madly presenting her swollen rump to the mercy of the pack?

Oh, and a blueprint is not a preliminary sketch, it is the final plan delivered to the factory.

Is this who you want to be?

Lies! Lies! Lies!

I once bought a Gillette Mach 3 Turbo razor. I made this purchase on the understanding that it would move at three times the speed of sound (it was after all invoking the name of Ernst Mach) and further that the razor would use the power of its own engine to funnel back compressed air into its combustion chamber. That's what turbo means. I didn't know why a razor would have an internal combustion engine, but it was precisely this curiousity that led me to make the purchase.

A day later, I stormed back into the chemist and started haranguing, accusing, cajoling and condemning the young deceiver behind the counter who had the cheek to feign innocence.

I once (truly) engaged in an e-mail correspondence with a fellow from Dell Computers asking him if I qualified for the free executive carry-case when I wasn't an executive. He seemed confused, but I did actually manage to get his assurance in writing that executives have the same hand-shape as other humans.

Someday, when I have more money than thirst, I'm going to go on a rampage of barratry suing any seller of tandoori that is not made in a clay oven. Moreover, I'm going to put a huge series of posters on the Tube showing the actual Jack Daniels Distillery. I do not believe that that company has managed to get a bottle of sugary raccoon urine into every bar in the world on the basis of two slow-moving rustics called Jeb and a horse-drawn cart.

Is that so, Santa?