Sunday, 28 February 2010


A chap in the pub today told me that something was "picayune", and I had no idea what he meant. It panicked me. It embarrassed me. I felt like a picolexical dolt. Just so this never happens to you: if something is picayune it means that it's so small that it's not worth considering. The name derives from an old Spanish coin that was worth half a real. So it's the equivalent of the English phrase tupenny-hapenny.

As Spanish money used to be legal tender in the USA, I can tell you that a picayune was equivalent to six and a quarter cents. Apparently the word picayune used to be quite common in England; but then again, so did smallpox.

Not much of an income

Requests and Requires

The second best* thing about being British is the bit of text written in preposterously florid italics on the inside flap of your passport.

Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely etc etc

(Blogger cannot do justice to the font and neither can Word, I just checked. The original typeface was developed by a secret team of crack orthographers in 1864 to assert British hegemony and Maintain The Empire).

There is something so laughable yet laudable about the phrase "requests and requires". It has a tone so deliciously, unprovokedly bellicose. It asks politely - requests - and then, without waiting for acquiesence or rejection, just requires, casts away the sham of good manners and jolly well tells the mischievous Johnny Foreigner to stop mucking about. "We asked you nicely two words ago, now we're fucking telling you." It makes me nostalgic for the days when a thoroughly disproportionate gunboat would follow each and every Briton on his unfortunate but necessary ventures into the bloodiness of foreignland (where foreigners come from). And yet... and yet... the dignity is maintained by that simple "and". As though Her Britannic Majesty's Secretary of State (currently David Miliband) cannot request without also requiring, such is his Dread Might. Rhetorically, it is not correctio - a retraction and restatement - but a grand epexegesis - a redefinition of a previous word. David Miliband's merest whim is your solemn decree. But I'm sure you knew that anyway.

I don't know why I keep mentioning this guy.

*The best thing is being absolutely certain that you're not Dutch.

Friday, 26 February 2010

Roundly Rejected

The Society of Homeopaths "roundly rejected" the findings and claimed it applied to give oral evidence, but was refused.
   - The Daily Looking Glass Mirror

I should like to reject something roundly but I'm not sure that I know how. Perhaps I should walk in a circle saying "No, no, no, no, no." Or maybe I should curl myself up into a ball and shout "Go away."

Fuck off.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Robust Exchanges

The news lately has been filled with robust exchanges, which pleases me immensely. I imagine Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown playfully wrestling in a meadow until, ruby-cheeked and exhausted, they both fall down laughing and then hurry home for tea. It's probably because of robust health. I don't think I've ever had a robust exchange myself: the phrase is as much a euphemism as "full and frank discussions" or "performed a sex act on".

Speaking of which, bully, before taking on its modern sense of "being angry with yourself" used to mean lover. Prostitutes used to have a "bully" to look after them so the phrase passed over to mean pimp and then violent and intimidating person. I don't know why but this origin popped into my head when I heard Peter Mandelson say that he was taking it "like a man"*.

On the subject of "unleashing the forces of Hell" (non-British readers should look at this):

But wherefore thou alone? wherefore with thee
Came not all Hell broke loose?

Is from the fourth book of Paradise Lost and is the origin of the phrase "all Hell broke loose". It's also what Alistair Darling asked Gordon Brown in a one-on-one meeting.

The cabinet meets to discuss election stategy (Alistair Darling in white. Ed Balls bottom right)

*The old, positive sense of bully is preserved in the phrase "Bully for you."

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Lionized Lions (and Lionel Singh)

According to The Independent Banksy "is so lionised by the art world establishment (and now by the movie world too) that his edge risks becoming blunted."

You might deduce from this, dear reader, that Banksy is suffering from leontiasis ossea - a grotesque medical condition where the bones of the face grow and grow and grow until you start to look like a lion - and indeed if this were the case then it would explain why Banksy never appears in public. But The Independent was, of course, referring to the Tower of London.

The lion is half of the Royal coat of arms, which is a little odd as lions are not and never have been native to these shores (although I'm reliably informed that unicorns roam wild in East Anglia). This bothered Henry I who decided to have some imported and kept at the Tower of London in the Royal Menagerie along with a few camels (history does not record how the camels felt about this).

In the eighteenth century the lions were made available to the gawping public. You had to either pay thruppence to get in or just bring along a cat or dog to feed to the hungry attractions - a policy that could be usefully adopted by London Zoo. The lions were the tourist draw in London. As with the Eiffel Tower in Paris, The Colosseum in Rome or the NEC in Birmingham, so a trip to London was incomplete without having "seen the lions" which became a phrase equivalent to "seeing the sights". Lion became a term for anything worth going to stare at. The lions were the celebrities - sought after and gawped upon - and so celebrities began (in 1715) to be called lions. Lion meant celebrity. By 1800 famous writers were being called literary lions and celebrity spotters came to be called lion-hunters*, all because of those lions in the Tower.

Being a lion, as any celebrity will tell an interviewer, is a tiresome business. Nobody likes to be gawped at. It's embarrassing. Walter Scott, a literary lion, said of the London celebrity party circuit in 1809:

If I encounter men of the world, men of business, odd or striking characters of professional excellence in any department, I am in my element, for they cannot lionize me without my returning the compliment and learning something from them.

He invented the word and the word stuck, and that's why Banksy has been lionised. It's all the fault of Henry I and Walter Scott.

It only remains for me to tell you that Lionel means little lion and that Singh means lion, so in the unlikely event of somebody being called Lionel Singh I would be ridiculously pleased. Oh, and dandelions are lions' teeth. Oh, and it's a symbol of Saint Jerome.
The paw little thing

P.S. There seems to be no consistency in English spelling between lionise and lionize, I have servilely followed the dictionary.
*Hence, since you ask, Mrs Leo Hunter in Pickwick Papers

Monday, 22 February 2010

Innocent Civilians

Innocent civilians seem to get killed an awful lot. They're rather like vivacious people, who only ever appear in obituaries. There's that strange rule of adjectives that they tend to imply that their nouns usually aren't usually so: vide Graham Greene's The Quiet American.

I'm no expert on foreign policy, but wouldn't it be a good idea to invade a country where all the civilians are guilty? Aside from the Swiss Guard the Vatican State is practically undefended and they have no serious air-cover aside from the occasional cardinal's hat. They would look up from their maudlin and guilty musings, see the Predator Drone, and know that God was giving them exactly what their sins deserved.

I merely assume that the ever-present adjective "innocent" is there to serve a purpose. Alternatively we could carpet bomb penal colonies.

Your fault for coveting, Pontiff.

P.S. I once went on a date with an lady arms dealer who told me that cruise missiles are actually able to hover in front of their targets, which is kind of freaky. 

Sunday, 21 February 2010


I turned on the television the other day and in that split second between the sound coming on and the screen warming up I heard a male voice say with the utmost despair "The magazine! It's empty!"

Now I know a chap who works in the magazine business which probably messed with my mind on the subject, but my immediate understanding of the line was that too many journalists had missed their deadlines and that they weren't going to put the issue to bed (lovely phrase) in time for the printers. The voice sounded approximately as panicked as my acquaintance would be in these circumstances.  

Then the screen warmed up and I saw an actor inspecting his gun.

So what was the connection? Once upon a time there was an Arabic word khazana meaning to store up. From that they got makhzan meaning storehouse and its plural makhazin. That word sailed northward across the Mediterranean (the middle of the earth) and became the Italian magazzino, which then proceeded by foot to France and magasin, before jumping into the back of a lorry and getting into Britain as magazine, still retaining its original meaning of storehouse, usually military. Then along came Edward Cave.

Edward Cave wanted to print something periodically that would contain stuff on any subject that might be of interest to the educated of London, whether it be politics or gardening or the price of corn. He cast around for a name for his new idea and decided to call it the Gentleman's Magazine: or, Trader's monthly intelligencer. So far as anyone can tell (and in the absence of a seance we can only guess at Mr Cave's thought process) he wanted to imply that this the information in his publication would arm the gentleman intellectually, or perhaps he wanted to imply that it was a storehouse of information. Anyway, he dropped the monthly intelligencer bit and by 1759 he was publishing this:

Cave's arms depot of information was a great success, not least because he employed a young and penniless chap called Samuel Johnson. But if, dear reader, Cave had decided instead to drop the magazine bit instead, we might all now be buying intelligencers. Thus Cave's caprice altered English. Porn mags might have been called carnal intelligencers and that, I am sure, would make the world a Better Place. And my acquaintance wouldn't be working for part of a gun.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Spot the Labour Election Slogan

1) Full fathom five thy father lies
2) Far from the fiery noon
3) The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,/The furrow followed free
4) A future fair for all
5) When fishes flew and forests walked

I think the Labour Party may be on to something. There's a funereal and melancholy grandeur to alliterative Fs. Returning to the traditional, indigenous alliteration of Anglo-Saxon verse (since ruined by Norman immigrants) may even claw back some votes from the BNP. There's also the delicious verbal hint of "A future free-for-all", which gets my vote.

A working draft of the Labour manifesto

Friday, 19 February 2010

The Thief Of Time

Today's Times has a three word front-page headline:


It's to do with the economy or something. If you are, perhaps, suspicious of the notion that time can be borrowed you should consider tempo rubato. This is what happens when a musician slows down or speeds up for the sake of expression: literally tempo rubato is stolen time.

This sets up a difficult case for the High Court of Cliché. According to the Italians musicians are the thieves of time. But according to the utterly forgotten poet Edward Young Procrastination is the thief of time.  We've already seen that The Times, which ought to know, thinks that time has only been borrowed while TS Eliot insists that it hasn't gone missing at all and that "Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future", which I suppose solves something.

Edward Young's poem Night Thought's from which the procastination quotation is taken is actually rather good. Here's from a few lines later:

At thirty, man suspects himself a fool;
Knows it at forty, and reforms his plan;
At fifty chides his infamous delay,
Pushes his prudent purpose to resolve;
In all the magnanimity of thought
Resolves, and re-resolves; then dies the same.

He also said: "By night an atheist half believes a God" and:

Some for renown, on scraps of learning dote,
And think they grow immortal as they quote.

So I'll stop. Here's some rubato:

Gordon Brown's Sensitive Side

I know that pointing out the strange juxtapositions of text and image is neither big nor clever and nobody will think that I'm cool. But the cover of The Week did, quite honestly, puzzle me for a second.

If we'd only known that he looked like Father Christmas, I'm sure we would have been kinder to him. I adore, by the way, the phrase "human side" as in The Independent saying that "50 per cent of people believe Gordon Brown has a "warm, human side"." It makes him sound like a mythological beast, probably a centaur.

Gordon Brown fleeing Piers Morgan

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Plucked From Obscurity

Every year publishers receive thousands of manuscripts sent in on-spec from unknown writers hoping to be plucked from obscurity to become professional authors.
  - The BBC

I hope no more writers are plucked from obscurity. I worry that, if plucking continues at the rate reported in the papers, obscurity will become quite bald.

Obscurity a few years ago      Obscurity in 2020 (projection)

Incidentally, the innards that butchers pluck out of a dead animal used to be called pluck, which is why plucky is a synonym for gutsy. It's actually possible to pluck up your pluck.

Even more incidentally, there's a pub in the Lake District called The Drunken Duck, which allegedly got its name because a duck got at the beer kegs, passed out, was presumed dead and plucked. It was about to go into the oven when it woke up and started groggily quacking. The landlady took pity on it and knitted it some clothes in which it used to parade around the pub. Believe that if you will.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010


Corey Wild (catchphrase: Wild by name, wild by nature) is being touted as the new Crocodile Hunter after Irwin died from a stingray barb.
   - Today's Metro

Let not my lord, I pray thee, regard this man of Belial, even Nabal: for as his name is, so is he; Nabal is his name, and folly is with him:  
   - 1 Samuel 25:25 [Nabal was Hebrew for fool]

There is, dear reader, a word for everything. Punning on somebody's name is a rhetorical trick called adnominatio and has been going on, it would seem, since at least the time of King David in the eleventh century BC. Adnominatio is, literally, to the name, so the figure takes the name literally. There were several incredibly witty uses of adnominatio on the name of America's last president such as the bumper sticker: "The only bush I trust is my own". Shakespeare uses adnominatio to utterly bloody hysterical effect in Henry IV part 2:

FALSTAFF: Is thy name Mouldy?

MOULDY: Yea, an't please you.

FALSTAFF: 'Tis the more time thou wert used.

SHALLOW: Ha, ha, ha! most excellent, i' faith! Things that are mouldy lack use: very singular good! in faith, well said, Sir John, very well said.

So, to be fair, he didn't mean it. But isn't it good to know that there is a golden thread of adnominatio connecting King David, William Shakespeare and Corey Wild?

Pope was a Catholic

Moment of Madness

Yesterday, I was chatting to some people about a colleague who appeared to have lost his temper. We all agreed the chap had had a "moment of madness" and I suddenly realised how much our very vocabulary had been affected by Ron Davies.

For those of you who don't remember or never knew, Ron Davies was Secretary of State for Wales. Then one day in 1998 he lost his car keys at midnight on Clapham Common and, perfectly innocently, tried to find them behind some bushes in a gay chap's bottom. In the ensuing media hurricane he first insisted that that was a reasonable place to look for car keys and then that he had had "A moment of madness".

The papers loved it, of course. The Conservative Party loved it because every time they did something embarrassing they could now refer to it as a "moment of madness" and deflect everybody's attention back to poor Mr Davies' elusive car keys. Everybody loved it, because referring to anything as a "moment of madness" guaranteed a snigger.

Now of course the phrase had been around before. Who can forget The Flower Pot Men's 1969 single? You? Damn you to Hell, you unmusical swine.

However, a quick check tells me that there has been one "moment of madness" in American newspapers in the last month as compared to 119 in Britain. I attribute that discrepancy to Ron Davies. Apparently a "moment of madness" is how we won the rugby last weekend: which fits.

When Ron Davies resigned many thought it the sad popping of career-balloon that was still only half-inflated: I take the contrary view. Any old politician can set up a regional assembly, only the few can change the language.

Lest we forget

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Everything is not alright

Am I alone in my aversion to “alright”?

A neon sign above the Millbank entrance to Tate Britain is currently assuring us that “everything is going to be alright”. To me, the sentence provokes an instinctive shudder – how can everything be all right, when it is spelled “alright”*? But I worry that this is fast becoming a minority view, an eccentricity - although the Telegraph, Times and Guardian all back me up, at least in their official style guides (the Telegraph's describes "alright" as an "abomination").   

I responded with equanimity to the use of “alright” by East 17, Supergrass and, more recently, Lily Allen – pop stars are allowed some leeway in matters of spelling and grammar. Aaron Britt, in the New York Times, wrote an eloquent and persuasive article not just defending but celebrating the use of “alright” in pop, arguing that it means “something different from the "satisfactory, average or mediocre" that all right conveys…what... countless…pop musicians mean is "sublime, fantastic, second to none." Alright is better than just all right; it's the best, the greatest, the tops”.

But increasingly, “alright” is being used as a standard spelling, even by those who make no pretence to youth or trendiness. The Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal,  a poster advertising social work. Even the OED admits “alright” into its pages without comment, tracing it back to the nineteenth century (when it first appeared in the Durham University Journal) and describing it as a “frequent spelling of all right”. The only glint of censure comes in one of its citations – from HW Fowler, who in Modern English Usage declared that “there are no such forms as all-right, allright, or alright, though even the last, if seldom allowed by the compositors to appear in print, is often seen…in MS”. I take comfort from this, although I recognise that clinging to the recommendations of a 1926 usage guide is slightly pathetic.

Dogberry thinks that there is a distinction between “all right”, as an adjective meaning “satisfactory”, and “alright”, as a phrase used to express agreement or acquiescence, or as a conservational marker to signify a change of topic or the beginning of a talk or discussion. I can see where he’s coming from – for some reason, “Alright class, here’s your assignment” (Wall Street Journal, 5 February 2010) is marginally less jarring than “Well, that’s alright then” (Financial Times, 14 December 2009). The very fact that the word can be found in serious newspapers like the FT and WSJ is a sign that it has successfully insinuated itself into standard English – although, gratifyingly, “all right” is still used ten times more frequently in British newspapers than “alright”.

 * Apparently – according to Sandi Toksvig, writing in the Sunday Telegraph’s Seven magazine – the sentence is supposed to make you feel depressed, although not because of its spelling. Rather it is designed to evoke 'the ways in which the opposite is the case' – i.e. remind you of all the reasons why things will not be all right. Or alright.


Consider Your Metaphors

We're trying to change the course of the Titanic, it cannot be done in a day.

   -George Papaconstantinou, the Greek Finance Minister, on administering Greece's finances

Greece leaving the Euro

Monday, 15 February 2010


Imparadise is a lovely verb meaning "to place in paradise".

Incidentally, paradise originally meant a walled garden, like the one in which Emily is seen in The Knight's Tale. Walled gardens were dreadfully important to the medieval poets, partially because of The Romance of Rose and partially because such sequestered fertility was a symbol of the Virgin Mary's womb, which is why she is often pictured like this:

Paparazzi snap of Mary in her hortus conclusus

Two paradises 'twere in one
To live in paradise alone.

A tip of the blogger's bowler to Bradshaw of the Future

Taliban Taleban

Taleban in The Times, Taliban on the BBC. The first casualty of war is not innocence but regularised spelling.

The high command meet to work out how they're spelled

P.S. The only proper rhyme I can think of for Taliban is Caliban from The Tempest. This makes me suspicious.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Parallel Adjectives

There's always a problem with parallel adjectives - good times and bad times - that, if not antithetical, they at least imply mutual exclusivity. If I say that there are good writers and there are Welsh people, I imply a difference between the two. I only thought of this because of headline in today's Observer that went:


Damn those dipsomaniac foreigners: coming over here drinking our whisky, stealing our children etc etc.

Foreigners celebrating a succesful kidnap

Saturday, 13 February 2010

A New Verse Form

As a little follow up to Monday's post on which were the most quoted lines of poetry on the internet, I have invented a new* verse form. The rules ought to be pretty self-explanatory. You are invited to compose your own, however short, and place it in the comments section. There will be an imaginary prize for the best one and bonus points if they rhyme or bring laughter to my teary cheeks. Here are two examples:

Index of First Lines

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,
She walks in beauty like the night
Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
(Just the place for a Snark, the Bellman said).

I think that I shall never see
White founts falling in the courts of the sun
And you, my spent heart’s treasure.

Busy old fool, unruly sun,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

I think that I shall never see
Lars Porsena of Clusium
(He did not wear his scarlet cloak).

I think that I shall never see
Everyone suddenly burst out singing
Beneath the thunders of the upper deep
And many voice marshalled in one hymn:
“Hail muse! et cetera.”

Index of Last Lines

I never writ nor no man ever loved:
That is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
I embrace the purpose of God and the doom assigned
And that has made all the difference.

The Lady of Shalott
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on
Watched by every human love.

The Lady of Shalott
Will never come back to me,
For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.

You might as well live
Where ignorant armies clash by night
And the yellow god forever gazes down.

*Update: It appears that this verse form is not entirely new, although I have been beaten by a mere 1,700 years, which is nothing in geological time. It is called a cento.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Horrid Cowardly Stupid Ostriches

There was a letter in yesterday's Times about ostriches. A comment article had accused EU leaders of hiding their heads in the sand like a bunch of ostriches. The letter claims the myth began because sound travels faster through the earth than through air so ostriches cleverly rest their heads against the earth so that they can hear things coming from farther off (see picture). It's the equivalent to a human having his ear to the ground, his finger on the pulse and his nose to the grindstone.

There's a startling moment in the Lamentations of Jeremiah where he says:

Even the sea monsters draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones: the daughter of my people is become cruel, like the ostriches in the wilderness.

Just as ostriches are now a byword for foolish cowardice, so they were once a byword for cruelty as they were believed to abandon their young. Either way, there must be something about those birds that we just don't trust.

There are lots of lovely bestial myths in the language like suicidal lemmings, disembarking rats (hence traitorous) and pacifist doves (as opposed to hawks). The sea monsters in that Biblical passage are pelicans*, which were believed to bite their own breasts when there was no food and let their young drink their blood. My favourite is that chameleons don't require food at all and survive on air, a belief that crops up in Hamlet:

Claudius: How fares our cousin Hamlet?

Hamlet: Excellent, i' faith; of the chameleon's dish: I eat the air, promise-crammed: you cannot feed capons so.

Claudius: I have nothing with this answer, Hamlet; these words are not mine

Hamlet: No, nor mine now.

The Inky Fool commuting to work

*As somebody is bound to point out, this seems to be a mistranslation in the King James Version and should really be jackals. However, the myth is true (if you see what I mean) nonetheless.

UPDATE: I queried the exorbitantly learned Joel Hoffman over at God Didn't Say That and he has given a wonderfully erudite and interesting answer which you can read here.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Under Plans

There's an article in the Daily Mail that begins like this:


People would be paid for shopping benefit cheats to the authorities under plans being considered by Labour.
I don't know why it is, but in newspapers things are always under plans, never according to them. I've never said: "Under my plan we'll be there in half an hour" or "We're off to the pub under plans being proposed by me." Perhaps I should. Perhaps that's why my social worker says I'm not yet Ready For Government.
I also adore the use of the pejorative criminal slang in the headline. The Daily Mail is clearly on the side of the benefit cheats against the snitches who would fain shop them. For a random Daily Mail healine generator click here.
Says Paul Dacre
A tip of the hat to The Engine Room

Monday, 8 February 2010

The Most Quoted Lines of Poetry

Here is the updated list of the fifty most quoted lines of poetry on the internet, including all the readers' suggestions. We started with a long list of over 400 lines taken from dictionaries of quotations, collections of favourite poems and our own knowledge. We put each one into google and google told us how many pages contained that exact line. The number of search results is shown on the right. It should be stated before you begin that google is, for a computer program, often strangely illogical and inconsistent. Click on the author's name for the full poem. Counting down from number fifty...

50. The mind is its own place, and in itself/[Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n] 403,000 Milton
49. Full fathom five thy father lies 438,000 Shakespeare
48. If you can keep your head what all about you 447,000 Kipling
47. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways 467,000 Elizabeth Barrett Browning
46. If music be the food of love, play on 507,000 Shakespeare
45. We few, we happy few, we band of brothers 521,000 Shakespeare
44. What is this life if, full of care,/We have no time to stand and stare 528,000 W.H. Davies
43. The moving finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on 571,000 Edward Fitzgerald
42. They also serve who only stand and wait 584,000 Milton
41. The quality of mercy is not strained 589,000 Shakespeare
40. In Xanadu did Kubla Khan 594,000 Coleridge


Noctivagant means wandering around at night and describes much of my weekend.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Shakespeare In The Wire

I was watching an episode of The Wire yesterday. There were an awful lot of muthafuckin niggas scattered about. Indeed the oedipus complex seems to be thriving in inner-city Baltimore. Then somebody sent some cops off on a new assignemnt saying "Brave new world for y'all" and I thought "Shakespeare upon the projects".

Brave New World is, of course, the title of an Aldous Huxley novel, but that title was taken from The Tempest V,i where Miranda, who has been brought up by her father on a desert island, finally meets a bunch of humans and exclaims:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in't!

Brave didn't mean courageous, any more than cool means cold these days. It's was just a vague word signifying approbation just as wizard did to schoolboys in the 1950s.

Anyway, about a minute later the cops were following the paper trail left by the drug money and someone said "And here's the rub" and that made me sit up. The rub is not street-slang for a coked-up ho. The context was:

In this country? Somebody's name has got to be on a piece of paper. A cousin, a girlfriend, a grandmother, a lieutenant he can trust. Somebody's name is on a piece of paper. And here's the rub: you follow drugs you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money and you don't know where the fuck it's gonna take you.

Now a rub was, once upon a time, an obstruction in bowls. As the Queen says in Richard II when asked if she'd like a game of bowls:

Twill make me think the world is full of rubs
And that my fortune rubs against the bias.

It's was on this basis that Hamlet says in a little-known speech that begins "To be or not to be"

To die, to sleep;
To sleep perchance to dream, ay there's the rub:
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause.

And this particular usage was so influential that "ay there's the rub" has it's own entry in the OED. It went from being a quotation (As Steele used it a 1712 Spectator "her Relations are not Intimates with mine. Ah! there's the Rub") to just being a phrase and ended up in The Wire on the mean streets of Baltimore.

Now it could have been that this was deliberate and an Oxford educated script-writer was playing a little game to amuse himself. But I looked up the original script here and though I found brave new world, the there's the rub scene was actually written as

...a grandmothe,r a lieutenant he can trust, maybe. You get those names you show the connection. And here's the thing. You follow the drugs, you get....

So it seems that the actor was expanding on his script and the two Shakespeare references were pure co-incidence. One of the thousand little intrusions that William Shakespeare makes into our everyday speech.

I spent the rest of the episode planning this post and hoping that somebody would say the word seamy. Nobody did. But as I can tell you're dying to learn. Seamy comes from shirts looking bad inside out because in Othello:

Some such squire it was
That turned your wit the seamy side without
And made you to suspect me with the Moor.

The world's his oyster

Saturday, 6 February 2010


Carminative is a terribly useful word. You, dear reader, have two options: skip down to the bottom of the post for a definition, or read this whole lovely passage from Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley. (I've put in a page break: just click on the read more below).

"One suffers so much," Denis went on, "from the fact that beautiful words don't always mean what they ought to mean. Recently, for example, I had a whole poem ruined, just because the word 'carminative' didn't mean what it ought to have meant. Carminative--it's admirable, isn't it?"

"Admirable," Mr. Scogan agreed. "And what does it mean?"

Friday, 5 February 2010


The Miliband brothers seem to get disproportionate coverage on this blog. Here's an article from Ed:

There is a big fight on for Britain's future. The tide isn't running out on progressive ideas. People don't live in the politics of an electoral pendulum, they live in changed times where progressive values are more, not less, powerful. If we go out and make the case, we should be confident we can succeed.

The word progressive is one of my pet hates*. Everybody is progressive, we differ only on definitions of the word. Every so often I hear a politician say that he wants what's best for Britain, but they never follow this up with free whiskey for all or the humane destruction of the Cornish. It's always healthcare or further education and other ideas that wouldn't make my top forty.
Every policy progresses somewhere. Theocracy, communism, genocide and compulsory nudity might all be progress in somebody's estimation, though I support only two of them. Mr Miliband is right, though trite, that the "tide" can never "run out" on progressive ideas (which I suppose form the beach in which the unpendulous case-makers are fighting). Progress can never stop, but to what strange utopias it may lead, nobody knows.
There are three exceptions to this rule. First, progressive and regressive taxation have both become technical economic terms. The former means taking from the rich and giving to the poor, the latter the reverse.

Second, progressive tenses, of which I shall blog some other time.
The third is a progressive disease: the stately progress of dementia, gangrene, cancer and the like. I had a friend who went for a test for a very serious disease. He was a trifle nervous so the nurse reassured him that it would "all be positive".
David Miliband searching for a pendulum
* I love the idea of a pet hate. I dream of a menagerie of malevolences and I would feed them and stroke them and take them for walks and they would be the happiest hatreds in the whole wide world. They'd wake me up every morning by licking my face with their vindictive tongues.

Thursday, 4 February 2010


There's a very good article on the word reform by Matthew Parris over at The Times (it's a little way down the page under the subheading Alternative view). However, it's terribly peeving to me as I had already written a near identical post. Link to The Times here.

Matthew Parris told me last summer that disinterest/uninterest was a lost cause for pedants but that begging the question could be saved. I believe the reverse.

Questioning the beggar


This morning I offered to euthanase a sickly and diseased young lady whom I discovered floccillating on my way to breakfast. The brave girl's only objection, uttered in a quavering voice, was that she wasn't sure that euthanase was really a verb.

So I fled to a dictionary and found that indeed euthanase is not the right word, nor does it even pop up on google. The Americans say euthanize, but according to the word of The Almighty OED we English make do with euthanatize. However, the only citation is from a Spectator of  1873:

I saw a crab euthanatising a sickly fish, doubtless from the highest motives

I also didn't realise that euthanasia meant a peaceful or happy death long before it meant deliberately bringing about such an expiration, an idea that didn't pop up until 1869. Moreover it was originally anglicized to euthanasy. The root, since you ask, is simply eu for good as in eugenics or The Eurhythmics, and thanatos meaning death, as in Aimée Thanatogenos (the heroine of Evelyn Waugh's The Loved One) whose name means death-born beloved — or as in thanatologist which is a euphemism for undertaker — or as in thanatorium which is a place people go to be killed.

Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!
Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
To thy high requiem become a sod.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Resurrected Animal Skins

As a rule Inky Fool doesn't make fun of shopkeepers' English, on the basis that I don't know how to run a shop. However, this leaflet, which I picked up in the dry cleaners, really freaked me out.

I'm off to Hollywood to pitch my new idea for a horror film and I'm never wearing my snakeskin belt again.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010


There's a headline in today's Sun:


For some reason The Sun uses quotation marks for things that aren't quotations. Nobody said the words 'warning by hubby'. The actual quotation given in the article is:

She said: "He said to my husband and I that he was very concerned about the safety of the children in her hands."


I have lived in Britain almost all my life. I have been all over this grey and unpleasant land. I have been to university and I have been to Asda. I have chatted to aristocrats, tramps, professors, pimps, immigrants, emmigrés, builders, bouncers, farmers, doctors, nurses, criminals and even journalists. I have been to the North and the South. I have dined at the Savoy and got drunk in the nastiest pub in Britain*. I have walked and crawled amongst the lowest of the dead, and I have never once heard anyone use the word hubby.

The word hubby is in the OED. They have citations from 1688 and 1887. And it's distantly possible that I have survived all these hubbyless years as a linguistic and statistical oddity. But I contend that this word is concoction and confection from the diseased brain of some paleolinguistic tabloid hack.

That's why the word was not in the quotation.

She said: "He said to my husband and I that he was very concerned about the safety of the children in her hands."

Oh, and it should have been "my husband and me".

A bear and her hubby

*This is a close run thing between Off The Rails on Weston-Super-Mare station and Doyles Tavern opposite the entrance to Pentonville Prison.

The Depth Charge

There was an article by Patrick Wintour in yesterday's Guardian which meandered, as Coleridge put it, with a mazy motion. It started out on Gordon Brown and co-operatives. Then, after a few paragraphs it moved on to the weekend's polls. Then there was a bit about leadership speculation. Then there was a mention of The Mail On Sunday, which claimed at the weekend to have seen a new book by Andrew Rawnsley with all sorts of lurid revelations about the Prime Minister. This is a subject that Patrick Wintour ought to know all about as he and Mr Rawnsley have consumed an awful lot of lunch together. So the most important paragraph of Wintour's article was actually the last.

The Mail on Sunday has not seen the book, not due out for some weeks. It may make uncomfortable reading for Brown, but not for reasons given by the Mail.

This technique of saving the most important or revelatory part of the article for the last sentence is known amongst the ladies and gentlemen of the press as the depth charge. Whether this is because of the delay before a depth charge's explosion, or because the revelation is deep in the article, I do not know.

There's also something rather lovely about the authority of the first sentence setting up the apophatic teasing of the second.

Lobby journalists filing an article

Monday, 1 February 2010


The signals given by EU leaders thus far have been uncertain, putting the pressure on Greece to be bold in its domestic reforms. In the next two weeks, the EU commission and EU finance ministers (Ecofin) will decide whether the country is doing enough to avoid Armageddon.
   - Today's Guardian

Greece is 399 miles from Armageddon. Mainland Greece is 705 miles from Armageddon. Armageddon, literally the hill of Meggido, is just a place in Israel.

Here's what Armageddon actually looks like.

It seems rather tranquil, perhaps even dull. Nobody's quite certain why St John the Divine/God/Satan picked this spot for the final battle between good and evil. But he did.

For they are the spirits of devils, working miracles, which go forth unto the kings of the earth and of the whole world, to gather them to the battle of that great day of God Almighty. Behold I come as a thief. Blessed is he that watcheth, and keepeth his garments, lest he walk naked, and they see his shame. And he gathered them together in a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon.
  - Revelations 16 v14-16

So keep your clothes on.