Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Children Inside Trees

There's a bit in Harry Potter where he climbs inside a tree. I believe it's the Whomping Willow. There are two bits in The Box of Delights where Kay Harker takes refuge inside a tree. Whilst small he is escorted around by a mouse and whilst large he is led there by a lady. There's an Enid Blyton novel called The Faraway Tree (followed by the sequel The Magic Faraway Tree) that takes place almost entirely inside a tree. Timmy Tiptoes is imprisoned in a tree as you can see from the illustration on the left which terrified me as a child. Owl in the Winnie the Pooh books lives in one.

[There was a Canadian soldier who signed up to fight in World War One. To get to the lovely trenches he had to take a train all the way across Canada. The train stopped at a station in Winnipeg where somebody had a bear cub for sale so the soldier bought it and named it Winnie because it was purchased in Winnipeg. The bear travelled all the way to England, by which time it had become a regimental mascot. However it was deemed unsuitable for frontline combat, so it was left at London Zoo where it was a big attraction under the name Winnie the Bear. A.A. Milne took his son to see it, but his son couldn't pronounce bear and called it Winnie the Pooh instead.]

There's a bit in Lord Of The Rings where one of them (I think Sam) gets almost eaten by a tree. Possibly related: Ariel in The Tempest was imprisoned inside a pine

[Sycorax] did confine thee,
By help of her more potent ministers
And in her most unmitigable rage,
Into a cloven pine; within which rift
Imprison'd thou didst painfully remain
A dozen years; within which space she died
And left thee there; where thou didst vent thy groans
As fast as mill-wheels strike. 

A suffering that Prospero threatens to revive:

If thou more murmur'st, I will rend an oak
And peg thee in his knotty entrails till
Thou hast howl'd away twelve winters.

I don't wish to get overly psychoanalytical about this because I'm jung and easily freudened*, but can anybody think of other occassions where people are living or imprisoned inside trees, especially in children's books? It seems to be significant to the infantile mind. Here, for example, is the view from inside the hollow tree I loved to play in as a child.

*James Joyce, whose pun that was, was immensely proud that his name was the same as Freud's which, in German, means Joy (ce). That's why Beethoven's Ode To Joy was lots of people singing freude.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010


On Radio 4 the other day, the statue of Athene in the Parthenon was described as being "made of gold and ivory", which neatly avoided one of the most beautiful words in the English langage: chryselephantine. Chrys for gold, elephantine for ivory.

Chryselephantine Athene goes rather well with Callipygian Venus. The word can also be used to describe any pale blond.

Chryselephantine morituri te salutant

Monday, 29 March 2010


If a word begins with the letters al, there's a damned fine chance that its origin is ultimately Arabic. Albatross, alchemy, alcohol, alcove, algebra, Algeria, algorithm, alkali and Al Qaeda all start with the Arabic word al meaning the. Even the Koran used to be called the Alcoran in English and almonds acquired their l through a bewildered Spanish belief that the Al must be there somehwere.

Similarly words beginning sal are as likely as not connected to salt.

For example, lettuce and the like need dressing and that dressing will probably contain oil and salt and so it becomes a salad, or herba salata in the original Latin. Salt is also used in making sauces which derives straight from salsa and those salsa sauces can be put on salami and salamagundi.

People need salt. I remember the government running a big public health campaign telling everybody to cut down on their salt intake. As the campaign reached its height with talk of a salt tax and other such insanities I was busily ghost-writing the memoirs of a soldier who had got stuck in the jungle in Vietnam without any salt.

If you have no salt at all, you get muscle cramps and then you die in agony. This process is sped up if you sweat, which unfortunately seems to happen rather a lot in the Vietnamese jungle.

Anyway, people need salt. Soldiers need salt. Soldiers used to get an allowance to spend on salt called a salarium from which we get the word salary. Pliny the Elder, who was a bit of nutjob, claimed that soldiers were originally paid in salt. Others that they were paid to guard the salt roads or via salarium. Others go even further and say that the word soldier itself derives from sal dare, to give salt. This latter theory is hard to swallow unless taken with a pinch of salt.

That is not the reason that soldiers are often the salt of the earth. Indeed Roman soldiers used to kill the salt of the earth who were early Christians, persecuted by salaried soldiers for the sake of righteousness. As Jesus said whilst sermonising upon the mount:

Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.

It's strange that the phrase originally meant the tiny thing (the early church) that made the world palatable to God, but now means the common majority. The important thing is that government campaigns against salty foods are almost certainly blasphemous; or as St Paul put it:

Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.

And I think we have demonstrated that it is. The word salaam, though, has nothing to do with salt. It's Arabic.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

There and Then

Is there any word in English, or indeed in some foreign tongue, that means there and then? A single point in space and time.

A friend asked me this in the pub on Friday. During the intense and meticulous planning process that precedes all my excursions into the outside world, I had sent a text saying "The Flask at nine?" And he had started to reply "See you..." and then tried to think of a single word that would mean there and then.

Eventually he gave up and wrote "there and then" which I concede is not much of a sacrifice, but the problem bothers me. It niggles.

I was thinking that perhaps there was a word in theoretical physics or Basque.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Old Nick the Quisling

My lifelong ambition is to have my photograph on the cover of a newspaper with a caption that reads "THE FACE THAT BROUGHT SHAME ON BRITAIN". I don't know how I'm going to do it, but everyone's got to have a dream.

One up from such ephemeral infamy is to enter the language. Here are some pictures. First, the devil himself:

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, and gave us the word machiavellian. The thing is that though everybody in 16th Century England knew that The Prince was a Nasty Book, nobody had actually read it. The Prince appeared in Italy in 1532, but there was no English translation until 1640. Free of such hindrances as information, the English could therefore turn poor Niccolo into a diabolically, supernaturally evil figure.

In the early 1590s Marlowe decided to open The Jew of Malta with Nicollo addressing the audience thus:

Albeit the world think Machevil [note the spelling] is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps,
And, now the Guise [who organised the massacre of Paris] is dead, is come from France
To view this land and frolic with his friends.
To some perhaps my name is odious
But such as love me guard me from their tongues

Compare that to Sympathy for the Devil.

Stuck around in St Petersberg when I saw it was time for a change
Killed the Czar and his ministers. Anastasia screamed in vain.
I rode a tank, wore a general's rank
When the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank.
Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name.

I am not arguing here for a direct Marlovian influence on Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, especially as this song was probably based on Baudelaire and the opening to Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. But the similarities get stranger the more you compare the two. (I only noticed this connection a minute ago and am feeling rather astonished). You can read the full texts: Machevil's speech here and the song's lyrics here.

The important thing is not a direct connection, but that the nature of the personified Devil in the English imagination cannot have changed very much in four hundred years. The passages are essentially the same, right down to the need to not to mention names (Vide Voldemort).

Machiavelli was already a figure of satanic and supernatural evil and from there it was but a trifling step to full diabolism. And so poor old Nicollo became Old Nick: the Devil.

Next up, a traitor. (If you scroll carefully enough you can make this a quiz)

Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian maths prodigy and invented his own religion (another of my plans). He also embarrassed himself rather during the Second World War by trying to get Norway to surrender so that he could be the puppet Minister-President. He succeeded in his plan and ten weeks after his appointment The Times wrote:

Major Quisling has added a new word to the English language. To writers, the word Quisling is a gift from the gods. If they had been ordered to invent a new word for traitor... they could hardly have hit upon a more brilliant combination of letters. Aurally it contrives to suggest something at once slippery and tortuous. Visually it has the supreme merit of beginning with a Q, which (with one august exception) has long seemed to the British mind to be a crooked, uncertain and slightly disreputable letter, suggestive of the questionable, the querulous, the quavering of quaking quagmires and quivering quicksands, of quibbles and quarrels, of queasiness, quackery, qualms and quilp

Perfect journalism. I was going to add two more names, one of whom was surprising, but that Times quotation has put me to shame. I shall save them for next week.

Thursday, 25 March 2010


Some words are just so damned beautiful that it doesn't matter that they are obsolete, archaic and incomprehensible. You should use them anyway. Such a word is wamblecropt.

Say it. Each syllable is intolerably beautiful.


Wamblecropt first pops up in the Abecedarium Anglico Latinum of 1552, which you have doubtless read. It's a sort of early English to Latin dictionary incorporating lots of useful terms for which people might want a Latin equivalent such as "Wench always beaten about the shoulders"*. Across the page from which you find:

Wamble cropped Stomachichus
Wamble stomaked to be Nauseo
Wamblyng of stomake, or disposition, or will to vomit. Nausea

That ought to give you some idea, but if you want something more precise (or less latinate) then the OED has wamble as "a rolling or uneasiness of the stomach" and wamblecropt as being afflicted with and incapacitated by such wambling. So wamblecropt means queasy, only slightly stronger.

The odd thing about the word is that after a little citation from 1616 the wamblecropt goes into hiding and doesn't reappear until 1798 in America where it remained. The Massachusetts Spy has the line "I feel a good deal womblecropped about dropping her acquaintance". And that, my dears, is almost the end of wamblecropt. It does pop up here and there but always as a joke, always as an example of dialect word, a mickey take. For example, there was a humorous Canadian writer called Thomas Chandler Haliburton who wrote a (rather good) series of sketches in the persona of Sam Slick who says of marriage that:

The difference atween a wife and a sweetheart is near about as great as there is between new and hard cider: a man never tires of puttin' one to his lips, but makes plaguy wry faces at t'other. It makes me so kinder wamblecropt when I think on it, that I'm afeared to venture on matrimony at all.

Sam Slick uses the word, but I doubt that Haliburton did. It was fast disappearing down the chute of quaint dialect and all future uses are of the 'By jiminee I'll be wamblecropt,' averred the blacksmith quaintly variety.

Wambling, of the uncropt kind, survived far longer on these shores. Indeed wambling was a standard activity of British stomachs right up to the late nineteenth century. Here are my three favourite examples:

 [My soul] can digest a monster without crudity, a sin as weighty as an elephant, and never wamble for it.
   - Middleton A Game At Chess 1624 (because I like the sin as big as an elephant)

Vast fires subterranean... work and wamble in the bowels of the earth
   - John Goad Astro-Meteorologica 1686 (because it revives the zombie-metaphor "bowels of the earth")

Yes faith have I [been in love], and have felt your flames and fires, and inclinations and wamblings.
  - Betterton Revenge 1680 (because it's beautiful)

Incidentally, wamble can by extension mean to roll or stumble around and can be spelled with an O, making womble.

Womble cropped

*Scapularis, in case you were wondering.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Peaky Peaks

I have been feeling peaky today. I told somebody so and then I wondered why peaky. I mean, I'm not at the summit, the acme, apogee or zenith of my powers. Indeed, I'm at the lowpoint, nadir and perigee. But it turns out that the peaky and peak are probably unrelated.

Back in the sixteenth century there used to be a verb peak that meant 'to look sickly or thin' and that might have something to do with mountain peaks as perhaps thought undernourishment you have become bony and pointy like a peak. But then again, perhaps not.

Tomorrow, I'm sure I shall be on top of the weather and my gills will be bad for the environment.

The Inky Fool composing a new post

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Indiana Jones and Stephen Dedalus

I am convinced that a fictional character should have one dull name and one extraordinary name. It doesn't matter which way around.

David Copperfield
Sherlock Holmes
Keith Talent
Indiana Jones
Oliver Twist
Winston Smith
Stephen Dedalus
Luke Skywalker

There are exceptions. A deliberate dullness may pay, and if the book is fascinating the name will be coloured like the dyer's hand. Try to guess the name blanked out in the following interview. I guarantee that you've heard it a thousand times.

I wanted the simplest, dullest, plainest-sounding name I could find, 'BLANK BLANK' was much better than something more interesting, like 'Peregrine Carruthers.' Exotic things would happen to and around him, but he would be a neutral figure — an anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a government department.

The answer will be beneath the line break, so you'll have to click on read more.

There are never any real rules in the world, even the rules of physics break down as you get back before the big bang (gravity was reversed, matter outran light). There are none in writing. The only true laws are those of cricket and those of the Medes and the Persians which did not change. But most real names don't work in realist novels. They seem too studiedly normal: too realistic to be true. I mean... well here's what I mean. I just tried to think up normal first name - thought Geoffrey - normal second name - thought Robinson and then realised that there is a Geoffrey Robinson, he's an MP and he was involved in a scandal and he used to own something-or-another and his name just wouldn't work in a novel. Reality rarely convinces.

But Jeremiah Johnson or Mary Poppins?

Incidentally, Dickens was of course the greatest namer that literature has ever known I have some Dickens names that I doubt you know. You see, the cause of Polish independence was terribly fashionable in Victorian London and Dickens was a member of The Literary Association of the Friends of Poland. He used to go to meetings. But, as he complained in a letter, the meetings were often preposterous with people pretending a knowledge of Polish politics that none of them actually had, the speaker would be

talking about celebrated Polish Women, and saying “but when I mention the hallowed name of Titchibowski – or of Lobski – or of Pastocrontik – or of Sploshock – or of Screweyzlunskifi, that wife and mother” – and everybody professing to roar with enthusiasm at every name, as if they knew all about it!

Have you guessed the name yet? Then click on read more.

Monday, 22 March 2010


This is how you etch.

You take a sheet of metal. You cover it in wax. You take a needle and use it to scrape your design into the wax. You may wish you use an echoppé. I don't care. Now - and this is the important part - you dip the whole thing into acid: strong, metal-devouring acid. This acid is called the mordant or etchant. Mordant from the Latin mordere meaning to bite, etchant from the German ätzen, from Old German azzon meaning to bite.

This is the point: the biting. The acid bites the metal and dissolves it.

Then you remove the wax, put some ink on the metal and use it to make a print.

This is not the same as engraving. This is not the same as carving. This is not the same as tattooing. This is using damned acid to burn up metal. Got that?

Given this, I shuddered when I discovered that a lady/river called Jordan had had her husband's name "etched on her wrist". I hope they meant tattooed. There is, of course, such a thing as metaphorical language, but if you can explicate how David Beckham's face was "etched in agony", as The Times reported, you are cleverer than I am.

Faces get etched a lot. Yesterday's Observer reported that "Years of conflict" had been "etched on a Congo village chief's face", which is a crime either against humanity or English usage. Written would have done. Or simply "Chap in difficult circumstances looks a bit glum". There was nothing extraordinary about his face. I know because they had a picture of it. I would have said he's looking pretty good for a seventy year old: quite a bit better than Shakespeare looked at that age.

The BBC, reporting on "etched" paleolithic ostrich eggs, either has no idea what etching is or has placed the discovery of metals and acid 59,000 years earlier than was thought. But give a journalist a verb and they'll probably change it to etch. For example: "President Obama's landmark healthcare bill narrowly etched itself into the US House of Representatives, etching in the most etching health reform in decades."

They are engraved. Carved. Scratched. Scraped. They are not bloody etched. If you ain't using acid, you ain't etching.

Incidentally, and only because it's a couple of words down in the dictionary, when children are trying to get their parents' attention they're being etepimeletic.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

You Pigeoning Pigeon

A brief look at British fauna:

Chicken - Coward
Cow - Unpleasant lady
Dog - Ugly lady
Catty - Unpleasant, complaining
Pussy - Coward (also a specific kind of scarf worn by pupils at Winchester College)
Sheep - One who follows
Sheepish - Subservient
Fox - Pretty young lady
Fox - Decieve
Horse - Heroin
Stag - Engaged drunk
Crow - To boast
Rabbit - Talk constantly
Rat - Traitor
Squirrel - To hoard
Pig - Greedy person

Pigeon - ?

Duck actually derives from the verb to duck meaning to go under water. The Old English word was ened.

The lack of a meaning for pigeon bothers me. I want to go around calling people pigeons. I want to shout: "Stop pigeoning, you bloody pigeon." But I fear that I would be being more meaningless than usual.

Pigeon used to have several meanings: a young girl, a sweetheart, a coward, one who was swindled or possibly a combination of all four. Pigeon milk was "An imaginary article for which children are sent on a fool's errand" (OED). Letters sent by carrier pigeon were called pigeongrams. But these are all obselete so pigeon is now ripe for signification. Suggestions in the comments, please.

This from London Fields by Martin Amis:

At one point as I walked under a tree I felt the warm kiss of a voluptuous dewdrop on my crown. Gratefully I ran a hand through my hair - and what do I find? Birdshit. Pigeonshit. I'm feeling okay for once, I'm feeling medium cool, and a London pigeon goes and takes a dump on my head. It had this effect on me: despair. I swore and stumbled around, bedgraggled, helpless, the diet of a London pigeon being something that really doesn't bear thinking about. I mean what the digestive system of a London pigeon considers as waste...

Incidentally, Pidgin English is so called because pidgin was, apparently, how the Chinese used to pronounce business.

Yet another website posting photographs of pussies

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Join The Majority

There are innumerable euphemisms for death. Some - pushing up daisies, sleeping with fishes, achieving room temperature - are comical and unused. Others are simply prissy circumlocutions: passed away, in a better place, gathered up to God, gone over etc etc.

The essential problem with any euphemism is not the verbiage or circumlocution; it's that they avoid a truth. Even assuming the existence of God and realised eschatology, how do you know that dear old Aunty Ethel is in a better place? She may be in Hell. In fact, I'm certain that she is.

The great exception to this rule is a solemn and beautiful phrase that has almost passed out of currency: Joined the majority. It came to English from the Latin of Petronius: Abiit ad plures is found in The Satyricon. Whole ages of death are contained in the phrase.

Join the majority avoids die (if that was your aim) whilst meditating on the eternal gluttony of the grave. It takes a miserable fact and clothes it in a greater and more miserable truth.

It is true. There is an utterly erroneous notion that the majority of all humans who have ever existed are alive today. In fact, about six percent are. The majority is 94%. Facts and figures can be found by following this link. The score currently stands at 6 billion living: 100 billion dead; or as Dante/Eliot said in the Inferno/Waste Land,

So many
I had not thought death had undone so many.

si lunga tratta    [so long a line]
di gente, ch'io non avrei mai creduto    [of people, that I'd never have believed]
che morte tanta n'avesse disfatta.     [that death had undone so many]

The only euphemism for death I like (if it is a euphemism) is Shakespeare's "precious friends hid in death's dateless night". Dateless night is wonderful enough (reminds me of Catullus' nox est perpetua, una dormienda) but the enigmatic idea of their having been hidden is what makes the line. As though death were squirreling people away in the dark. Perhaps it has something to do with Cleopatra's running "into the secret house of death."

I once got a Shakespeare concordance and went through every single reference to Death. I discovered that in Shakespeare personified Death is a rotting corpse who tends to eat men and seduce women, which is a trifle freaky.

For example:

He is too good and fair for Death and me:
Whom I myself embrace, to set him free.
   - Girl in All's Well That Ends Well

O proud Death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck.
   - Chap in Hamlet

Falstaff says "swifter than he that gibbets on the brewer's bucket", which doesn't appear to have anything to do with death at all. In fact it's pretty damned obscure to modern eyes because bucket is being used with the old sense of a cross-beam. Butcher's used to tie animals by their feet to a cross-beam and then kill them. The animals would writhe and kick and that's how we get the phrase kick the bucket.

Soldiers wittering on about how when the war's over they'll go back home, buy a little plot of land and raise cattle, is the origin of bought the farm. At last he's out of all this.

Anyway, given the 100 billion to six majority talked of earlier, it's worthwhile remembering G.K. Chesterton's line "Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead." So join the unworking majority.
I have rambled too long. I was going to finish on a frightfully witty political joke, but I can't work it out. Something about a hanged parliament.

A postcard from Aunty Ethel

Wednesday, 17 March 2010


Almost every word in the English language derives from shah.

Once upon time there were shahs. Some shahs were happy shahs. Other shahs were crippled or dead. In Persian that meant that they were Shah mat. Shah went into Arabic as shah (ain’t etymology fascinating?). That went into Vulgar Latin as scaccus. That went into vulgar French (all French is vulgar) as eschec with the plural esches and that went into English as chess. But when the king is crippled, you still say Checkmate.

Chess used to be played on a “chessboard”. Chessboards are kind of useful because you can arrange stuff on them. For example, when Henry II wanted to do his accounts he did them on:

a quadrangular surface about ten feet in length, five in breadth, placed before those who sit around it in the manner of a table, and all around it it has an edge about the height of one's four fingers, lest any thing placed upon it should fall off. There is placed over the top of the exchequer, moreover, a cloth bought at the Easter term, not an ordinary one but a black one marked with stripes, the stripes being distant from each other the space of a foot or the breadth of a hand. In the spaces moreover are counters placed according to their values
  - Dialogus de Scaccario c. 1180

It looked just like a chessboard and Henry II spoke French it was called the Escheker and that's why Alistair Darling is currently the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the S changed to X through confusion and foolishness).

Back in the twelfth century there was a chap called Elias Ostiarius who worked at the exchequer. He made lots of money there, bought an estate and named it after his job. The house passed down to his descendants and then to the D'Awtrey family (who locked up girls), then to the Crokes, the Wooleys, the Thurbanes, the Russells (bear with me here), the Astleys, the Clutterbucks and the Lees who didn't (thankfully) have any children so they gave it to the nation in 1921 as country house for the use of the Prime Minister. And that's why the Chancellor of the Exchequer often stays at Chequers.

But chess doesn't stop there. We are nowhere near the endgame. I shall continue unchecked.

You see when you shout "Check" the game is stopped. At the very least the other player's moves are limited. From this you got check meaning to attack and the idea of somebody or something being held in check. Check meant to stop, as in checks and balances.

Check or cheque began to mean somebody who stopped things going wrong. For example the Clerk of the Cheque mentioned in Pepys' Diaries had to keep a seperate set of accounts for the shipyard. He checked fraud and served a good lunch.

I walked and enquired how all matters and businesses go, and by and by to the Clerk of the Cheque’s house, and there eat some of his good Jamaica brawne

And from that you get the sense of a check as something that stops dishonesty. At a hatcheck you get a check to prove that you're not stealing somebody else's hat. Bank checks (or cheques) were therefore so called because they checked fraud. Dictionaries say this started in 1789 but, browsing idly through my copy of the State Laws of Delaware, I found this statute of 1786:

And people don't pass laws against things until they've been around for a while. The check was changed to cheque in Britain because of the exchequer and then in 1927 they started to  bounce, which only goes to show that Delaware's legislators were pissing in the wind.

And from there you get check off (1839), check up (1889) and Chekhov (1860-1904). And then the Wright Brothers invented the airplane and people would fly around and navigate by distinctive landmarks called check-points. And then WWII broke out and pilots were trained and then given an examination or checkout. Then shops got checkouts and roadblocks became checkpoints and people went to doctors for checkups and stories checked out of hotels and checked in at checkins wearing a checked shirt and all, dear reader, all because of crippled shahs.

(And it's nothing to do with Czechs).

The Inky Fool tries to guess his opponent's plan

Tuesday, 16 March 2010


Here's a challenge: try reciting the poem Jerusalem without making it sound like the hymn.

Those of you of a foreign persuasion may not know that William Blake's poem was set to music by Sir Hubert Parry during the First World War to boost morale and stiffen upper lips. In fact, you may not know the poem at all, but I'm sure you've heard of Chariots of Fire.

Anyway, the hymn is so famous on these shores that reciting it as a poem has become astonishingly difficult. You start out declaiming like Laurence Olivier, but the rhythms and cadences of the music keep creeping in.

For example, lines 2 and 4 should end with an upward inflection because they're questions; but the music makes you want to end them as statements. The "did" in the first line should be stressed as it's part of the tetrameter; but in the hymn the first stress falls on "feet".

Indeed, the first thing to do is say de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM de-DUM a few times as firmly as you can. Then launch in. And DID those FEET in ANCient TIME. It's a completely different poem, postively mooreeffocish.

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England's mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England's green and pleasant Land

And as a fillip to foreigners here is the hymn accompanied by a series of preposterously patriotic English images that make me tear up and want to jolly well go and shoot a german.

P.S. I was reminded of all this because I went to see the play Jerusalem last night, which is terribly good and goodly terrible.

P.P.S. Anybody who thinks fit to complain about the split infinitive in the last sentence will be fed to the weasels.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Inconstant as the Northern Star

Gordon Brown has just said that he will remain leader of the Labour Party no matter what, which is a clever, clever thing to announce on the Ides of March, which is today. Every month has ides but March's may not be the one on which a leader should announce his plans for permanence. It took me right back to what dear old Julius said 2053* years ago today:

But I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix'd and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber'd sparks,
They are all fire and every one doth shine,
But there's but one in all doth hold his place:
So in the world; 'tis furnish'd well with men,
And men are flesh and blood, and apprehensive;
Yet in the number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshaked of motion: and that I am he,

In case that speech makes no sense to you, all the stars appear to revolve around the sky, apart from one star directly to the North and about 52 degrees above the horizon (if you're in Britain) that doesn't move at all. This time lapse photo taken over five hours should illustrate what I mean.

So Caesar is saying that he's better than all the other stars because he doesn't change and doesn't move. However, Caesar is wrong dramatically because he's about to get stabbed. And Caesar is wrong astronomically because the Northern Star does change, or more precisely which star we call Northern changes.
The earth, you see, wobbles a bit like a spinning top beginning to fall down. Therefore, the northern extreme of the heavens, from our point of view, veers around the sky, performing a little loop every 26,000 years. So Julius Caesar would not have been talking about Polaris, the current North Star, but Beta Ursae Minoris, also known as Kochab.

There's something very distressing about discovering that the great symbol of constancy used by everybody from Shakespeare to Joni Mitchell** is, in fact, inconstant. I imagine it also means that Gordon Brown will resign in 26,000 years' time.

The cabinet meeting went well
*Think before commenting.

**Just before our love got lost you said
'I am as constant as the northern star.'
And I said, 'Constantly in the darkness?
Where's that at?
If you want me, I'll be in the bar.'
  - A Case Of You

Baited Breath

THE private equity industry will watch with baited breath as European Union finance ministers discuss the regulation of alternative investment funds tomorrow.
   - Today's City A.M.

I often wait with baited breath. I put a fly in my mouth and stand gaping next to a river waiting for salmon to leap in. Then I go to singles bars and hyperventilate. It works surprisingly well.

To be fair (which I never am), the phrase bated breath is the only survival of the verb bate, although its sister abated is still putting it about. Bate is a fossil word, a sole and strange survivor from years of yore that still creeps amok in some necks of the linguistic forest. So confusing it with the still common bait is understandable, even if it sticks in a pedant's craw.

I've already posted on some other examples in Gormless, Feckless, Ruthless and Reckless.

You see that bag at the bottom of the neck? That's a craw. It's where birds store food before digesting it.

P.S. The origin of amok (a Malay habit of suddenly and inexplicably dashing about trying to kill people) is fascinating and there's more here.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Wlonc ond Wingal

I'm off on to an elaphine party in Lyme Regis where I shall probably become wlonc ond wingal, a lovely Anglo-Saxon phrase meaning "proud and flushed with wine".

Wlonc ond wingal crops up in The Seafarer and in The Ruin, a beautiful poem about the Roman baths at Bath. The Anglo Saxons were very troubled by the huge Roman ruins scattered about their dark and rainy country. They considered them to be the work of giants or enta geweorc. Enta meant giants, so when JRR Tolkein, who was an Anglo Saxon scholar, wanted a name for his giant talking trees in Lord Of The Rings he called them Ents.

Here's a bit from The Ruin and a translation:

Hryre wong gecrong
gebrocen to beorgum, þær iu beorn monig
glædmod ond goldbeorht gleoma gefrætwed,
wlonc ond wingal wighyrstum scan;
seah on sinc, on sylfor, on searogimmas,
on ead, on æht, on eorcanstan,
on þas beorhtan burg bradan rices.

Which means:

The ruin has fallen to the ground
broken into mounds, where at one time many a warrior,
joyous and ornamented with gold-bright splendour,
proud and flushed with wine shone in war-trappings;
looked at treasure, at silver, at precious stones,
at wealth, at prosperity, at jewellery,
at this bright castle of a broad kingdom.

And you can read the whole thing with a parallel translation here.

Daily life in Lyme Regis

Friday, 12 March 2010


Family connections in the Lake District mean that I know a ridiculous number of words for rain. It's rather like the fifty alleged eskimo words for snow. (For those of you who have never visited the Lake District, shovelling some mud into the bottom of the shower is a fair substitute). Indeed, I have identified a psychological condition called Lake District Affected Weather Disorder (LAWD), that allows people to say that it's not raining, it's drizzling; or that it's not drizzling, it's simply mizzling.

Mizzle is a fine word, because despite being dialect and obscure it's meaning is obvious to absolutely anybody. It means that it's half way between drizzle and mist, which by coincidence is precisely what it's doing in London now. There's also a slight suggestion of misery and snivel.

Mist also has the lovely linguistic property that it goes all the way back to Proto-Germanic *mikhstaz and then to Proto-Indo-European *migh from which the ancient Indians got the Sanskrit megha, meaning mist.

LAWD sufferers would start hanging the washing out to dry

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Parenthetical Codpieces

I don't know if you've ever noticed the two pictures of codpieces on your computer keyboard.

Once upon a time there were Gauls who spoke Gaulish until Caesar came and cut them all into three parts. One of the Gaulish words that the Gauls used to speak was braca meaning trousers, the Gauls being far more troused than the toga-ed Romans.

Anyway, from this came the early French brague meaning trousers, and when they wanted a word for a codpiece they decided to call it a braguette or little trousers, which is not to be confused with baguette meaning stick. In fact a Frenchman might brag that his baguette was too big for his braguette, but then Frenchmen will claim anything. They're braggarts (literally one who shows off his codpiece).

Braguettes were important back then, especially as part of a suit of armour. Henry VIII (who was rather concerned about his reproductive abilities) had armour like this:

So everyone carried on being happily Medieval and building cathedrals and that sort of thing. And then people started wondering what to call the big structural supports in these big supported structures. There was (I imagine) an emergency meeting of builders and linguists and they decided that these new-fangled architectural supports looked like nothing so much as big stone codpieces.

Compare, contrast, and try not to think about the dog.

Anyway, in the 1570s they decided to call them braggets. However, a fellow called Captain John Smith sailed to America, shagged a native girl called Pocahontas, came back to England, and wrote a dictionary. (Back then men were men and lexicographers diddled princesses.) More precisely, he wrote a book called A Sea-Man's Grammar and Dictionary. Captain Smith didn't call it a bragget. He called it a bracket, and the name and spelling stuck.

"I'm sorry, Pocahontas, but I've got to go back to England and write a nautical dictionary."

So now you've got an architectural thing called a bracket. But if you want to be really secure, you should use a double bracket. A double bracket looks like this:

So what are you going to call this ] bit of punctuation?

That, my child, is correct. You're going to call it a bracket, because it looks like something that looks like a codpiece. My etymological dictionary says that this happened in 1750, but I just found a usage from 1711 in William Whiston's racy classic Primitive Christianity Revived.

This earlier citation makes me a clever, clever, clever little boy.

Now look at your computer keyboard.

Top right.

Y U I O P [ ].


They're codpieces.

And so bracket can be traced back to Asterix.

[ ] -> *

Codpieces have nothing to do with cod

A Word Cloud of The Four Quartets

I wish they'd had word clouds back when I was at university sniffing dictionaries. For those of you innocent and ignorant of such things, the more times a word appears in the original text the bigger it is in the cloud. Here, for example, is Eliot's Four Quartets.

You can make your own at Wordle, although I should warn you that some are decidedly less interesting than others. The full text of Four Quartets can be found here. And a final oddness: there is on British television a programme that I have never watched called Wire In The Blood. I've no idea what it's about, but as the title is a quotation from Four Quartets -

Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.

- I assume that the programme is mostly about TIME.

The actual rose garden at Burnt Norton, where you can apparently now get married.

Oh, and "Human kind/Cannot bear very much reality" is the 32nd most quoted line of poetry.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010


London is in the grip of unending winter and every brass monkey is bereft. Shelley once asked "If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?" and the answer to his question is Abso-bloody-lutely. It is permanently and perpetually parky, which is tramps' slang because parks are colder than doorways. This arctic chill means that I am often afflicted, especially in the early mornings, by horripilation. I horripilate.

I horripilate horribly.

Horripilation is the rising of the hairs on the skin caused by cold, or sometimes fear. It is the bristling that accompanies goosebumps. Horreo in Latin meant to bristle or stand on end. So horripilation is the direct descendant whilst horrible is a changeling child that, like petrified, refers merely to the effects of fear.

Incidentally, the creeps, as in "That picture gives me the creeps", was first recorded, and perhaps invented by, Dickens, along with mooreeffoc.

P.S. There's an excellent piece on the etymology of brass monkeys here.

When Did You Stop Beating Your Choirboy?

Spot the connection between these two:

I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
   - Eliot's Waste Land

  - Today's Times

You can't work out the tense in either. The "read" in Eliot and the "hit" in The Times could both be past or present.

The English verb has three principle parts: I write, I wrote, I have written. Some verbs make do with two: I walk, I walked, I have walked. And some lazy, idle, good-for-nothing verbs make do with one: I hit, I hit, I have hit; burst, burst, burst; read, read, read.

There's a particular problem with read as, though the parts are all written identically, the first is pronounced as reed and the others as red. This awkwardness often pops up on the Letters Page:

Dear Sir,
I read this paper every day.

Dear Sir,
I read this paper every day until 1947 when your journalism went to the bloody dogs.

And the reader has to jump back to the beginning of the sentence and repronounce the word in his head. T.S. Eliot, I suspect, intended this ambiguity of sound and tense in The Waste Land. It is the last line of a section whose grammar and subject have become increasingly confusing until, with this line, it breaks up like a bad telephone connection. The advantage of being a Top Poet is that all your mistakes are assumed to be intentional.

Given that hitting children became illegal under German law in 1980, The Times' ambiguity is commendably reckless.

"Me again. How about a nice Emperor's Crown?"

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

The Emperor's Crown and Other Enigmatic Perversions

N.B. This post was originally written about a mystery, but the mystery is now solved. See the wonderfully worldly description in the comments section.

The problem with the Internet is that there's not nearly enough information on obscure sexual practices. It's really quite maddening. For example, I was re-reading Graham Greene's Travels with My Aunt when I came across this line:

There was a brothel in Havana where the Emperor's Crown was admirably performed by three nice girls.

Now, I'm proud to say that I have a depraved and horrible mind. I know what felch means, I know what changing at Baker Street is, and I know at least 5,636,336 synonyms for the word perineum. But I have no idea what the Emperor's Crown might be. So I googled it. And what did I find? Nothing nil zero zilch rien.

It's actually a rather important point in the novel, now lost to understanding.

There are several competing problems with understanding the language of filth. The first is that obscenities are not written down enough, except on the walls of lavatories, which are then demolished or repainted. The second is that those places where they are written down tend to be terribly dubious. There is, for example, a splendid book called Roger's Profanisaurus that lists rude words and their meanings. It is revised each year in time for Christmas and then appears on the tables in Waterstones. Yet ten years of revisions have not got rid of the fact that a chap I know spuriously entered the name of another chap I know with an obscene definition. It's still there. I check every year.

The Urban Dictionary, which is in some ways terribly useful, is the same. There's an Auden poem that opens:

Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle

I happened to mention this aspect of doom to Mrs Malaprop and she didn't know what a sea dingle was. I reached for a dictionary, she for a computer. I found that a dingle was another word for a dell (hence Dingly Dell in Pickwick Papers is a tautology). She found this definition from the Urban Dictionary:

A sex act involving two people in which salmon roe is used as lubrication

Now, that ain't true. I know that ain't true. That's somebody who's read a little too much Auden (if that's possible) and is having a laugh. The problem is that the two best resources for the investigation of obscene English are tainted, infected. They have informational herpes.

And where does that leave the Emperor's Crown? What were the three nice girls doing so admirably? Perhaps Graham Greene was making it up. Almost any words in the right context can sound obscene. Have you ever done a flick Geoffrey? A koala gherkin? A Dutch steamboat?

If you have any idea what the Emperor's Crown is, do leave it in the comments. Otherwise the details may be lost to future annotators of this great novel. All that the prudish, priggish web would tell me was that the Emperor's Crown is usually bestowed by the Pope.

Yes, please.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Apostrophes and 'Bus[es]

I used to have a teacher who apostrophised everything. That's not to say that he talked to inanimate objects, at least to not to my knowledge. It was not the rhetorical apostrophisation, turning from the audience to address a city or a table or somesuch (London, can you wait?). No, it was turning away part of a word and replacing it with an apostrophe. He wrote a lot of notices that would refer to the 'phone and the 'papers, the punctuation point standing in for the missing tele and news. The habit was at the same time wondrously fastidious and gloriously silly. It would be fun to continue it to its logical conclusion: lunch' as a shortening of luncheon, fo'rt'night as a shortening of fourteen nights and 'bus as shortening for the macaronic voiture omnibus introduced by Monsieur Laffitte to the weary streets of Paris in 1820.

Technically, if you did consider 'bus to be an abbreviation, the plural would be bus as well as omnibus is simply the dative plural of the Latin omnus, meaning everybody. It was a car for everybody. So it wouldn't pluralize to bi as it was already plural.

Mind you, I used to know a jentacular chap who insisted that porridge was a plural as it was a shortening of porridge oats. So "How are your porridge?" "My porridge are delicious, thank you."

Speaking of macaronic buses:

WHAT is this that roareth thus?
Can it be a Motor Bus?
Yes, the smell and hideous hum
Indicat Motorem Bum!
Implet in the Corn and High
Terror me Motoris Bi:
Bo Motori clamitabo
Ne Motore caedar a Bo--
Dative be or Ablative
So thou only let us live:
Whither shall thy victims flee?
Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
Thus I sang; and still and still anigh
Came in hordes Motores Bi,
Et complebat omne forum
Copia Motorum Borum.
How shall wretches live like us
Cincti Bis Motoribus?
Domine, defende nos
Contra hos Motores Bos!
   - A.D. Godley 1914

That was terribly funny if you know a little Latin. If you don't and it wasn't, then I shall tell you what I used to tell my teacher: that I'm terribly sorry and will do better Next Time. Though I never did.

Next Time used to be such an important idea: a gleaming and better othertime, like an old man's memories.