Wednesday, 30 June 2010

On Tenterhooks in -Shire

This is what a tenterhook looks like. Don't pretend you knew.

You take some cloth. You wash it. You fasten it to a wooden frame called a tenter using tenter-hooks and that stops it shrinking as it dries.

Riveting, isn't it? I presume, gentle reader, that you are nailed to your seat. Otherwise you would leave.

My eyes were once caught, peeled and glued to the stage. I have required glasses ever since.

Incidentally, the first recorded use of the phrase to catch somebody's eye is in Pride and Prejudice at the moment when Mr Darcy first sees Elizabeth:

"Oh! She is the most beautiful creature I ever beheld! But there is one of her sisters sitting down just behind you, who is very pretty, and I dare say very agreeable. Do let me ask my partner to introduce you."

"Which do you mean?" and turning round he looked for a moment at Elizabeth, till catching her eye, he withdrew his own and coldly said: "She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men. You had better return to your partner and enjoy her smiles, for you are wasting your time with me."

Mr. Bingley followed his advice. Mr. Darcy walked off; and Elizabeth remained with no very cordial feelings toward him.

Even more incidentally, Pride and Prejudice was originally called First Impressions, and it was under that title that it was rejected for publication (publishers were as brilliant then as they are now).

Sense and Sensibility did get published and was such a success that Miss Austen decided she'd better stick to the alliterative-abstract-noun formula. So she changed First Impressions to Pride and Prejudice and the book has since sold (roughly) twenty million copies.

In America the novel was first published as Elizabeth Bennet with P&P demoted to the position of subtitle.

Even more and more incidentally (and I promise I'll stop in after this) Pride and Prejudice is the origin of the phrase "my humble abode", which is how Mr Collins always describes his house.

The Inky Fool's humble abode

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Filler Words: Part The First

I was once reading what I thought was an utterly awful novel. It was only when I got to page 14 and found the word "drugstore" that I realised that I wasn't reading stilted, rhythmless, English: I was reading very good American.

This, dear reader, is a problem. When you speak you have the advantage both of body and of accent. When you write you do not. Your words, which in your head were a ferocious rant or a bewitching drawl, on the page are lame, dull and denuded of voice.

This problem is also very easily solved. What you need are filler words. Every language has them.

I saw a good film last night.

I saw a jolly good film last night.

The first (although it might be informative and factual) is a dead sentence. The second tells you how to read it. It is as though the sentence came with an instruction booklet: the voice is British and posh. Moreover, having put that one word in the first sentence the reader will have got the idea and you may now continue ad infinitum and nauseam with your film review, safe and secure in the knowledge that your reader, whoever he, she or it happens to be, will be reading it in the voice that you intend.

Voice in literature is an infinitely complex and subtle business. Filler words cannot do the whole job, but they will do half of it and will do that work for No Effort Whatsoever on your part. If that American novel had simply used the word goddamned in the first sentence I would not have been tempted to throw it on the fire.

So, for your delight, instruction and edification here are some filler words, insertable almost anywhere, along with what I consider to be their implications:

[All English, unless otherwise stated. Most would go at the beginning of a sentence, especially those followed by a comma]

Jolly = Posh
Jolly well = Posher
I mean = Intense student
I believe = Slightly overintellectual and careful
Honestly, = Middle-aged female
Awfully = Posh
Achingly = Aesthete
Bleedin' = London
Believe me = Gossip
The thing is = Chronic debater
That's as maybe, but = Straight-talking common man
I think = Dull as ditchwater
I suspect = Clever
I imagine = Whimsical
I suppose = Amiable
I asseverate = Call the asylum
Let me tell you = No. I won't.
Indeed, = Academic
Indubitably, = Wooeeah
Utterly = Solidly built, middle-class male with obedient children
Hell, = American
Awesome = American
You know, = Probably American, but not the kind I like
Oh and = Female (for reasons I would find hard to explain)
Simply = Ditto. Aren't they simply lovely?
Therefore, necessarily, of course, obviously, you have to admit, so, it follows, logically = Male (because we love to delude ourselves by dressing in the clothes of logic)
Jesus mate, = Not an order to Our Lord that he should reproduce, but an Australianism
I would like to point out that = Prick
Frightfully = Posh
You know what? = ********in*
Anyway, = refreshing insofar as it does down everything you've just been saying. Infuriating for the same reason.
The interesting thing is = Then why didn't you cut the last bloody paragraph?
Intense(ly) = Passionate and (almost) intellectual
Rather = Chappish
Pretty = Middle-Class
Kind of = Hippy
, know what I mean? = Not necessarily

Now, dear reader, you may shudder at this requirement. You may feel that your voice is so godfuckdamned unique that no such filler word could ever do it justice. But remember that without them your voice may not be unique, it may simply be non-existent. Pick one. Go on.

Conversationally, I think. When writing Inky Fool I usually imagine. That's because someone I'm having a conversation with can tell by my demeanour that I'm a whimsical sort of fellow. A blog reader cannot, so I have to change my words. A voice can be infinitely modulated after you have set it up, but why not give your reader a clue as to what it is to be modulated from? Put a filler word in the first sentence. It is a courtesy. Then set to work on the fine tuning.

It's a jolly goddamned peach of a, like, idea.


Of course these are just my own associations. Queries and contradictions in the comments, please. I think there will be further posts on exclamations and endearments, intensifiers and disapprobators. Suggestions welcome.

(This is also a far better way to denote accent than by just spelilng evrey wrogn.)

Hell, yeah.

P.S. Thanks to Moptop, who inspired this post, even if it horridly fails to answer her question.


Zwodder is a dialect word from Somerset and means a drowsy, foolish frame of mind. It's a fine word because I imagine that, with a smidgen of context, people would know exactly what you meant. It's hard to say zw- without sounding sleepy. There isn't really a zw- sound in English, but try saying Swinburne's swirling swans when you're drunk or drowsy and the Sw will be thickened to Zw.

The odder suggests (at least to me) doddery, plodder and Hodder & Stoughton.

"Sorry. I completely forgot to bring the antidote. I've been in a zwodder all day."

"It was Sunday morning and I was lying in bed zwoddering."

The Inky Fool in a moment of passionate intensity

P.S. For those searching for usages, it's listed in the OED as a variant of swother.

Monday, 28 June 2010

Mo Tay For No Thing

I am in a funk, gentle reader, a terrible funk. It's about my pronunciation, which I've just discovered to be abominable. It has been abominated. And the abominater is no less a deity than P.G. Wodehouse himself. I quote tearfully:

Many lyricists rhyme as they pronounce, and their pronunciation is simply horrible. They can make "home" rhyme with "alone," and "saw" with "more," and go right off and look their innocent children in the eye without a touch of shame.

It pains me dreadfully to admit this, but I have always pronounced "saw" to rhyme with "more" (or versa vice). Indeed, I move in such reduced social circles that I have never heard anyone pronounce it any other way.

The OED suggests that the word used to be pronounced mo, but doesn't make clear when this stopped, or was shooed off to the ghetto where it still survives in film titles like Mo' Money.

A Receipt to Cure the Vapours by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu starts like this:

Why will Delia thus retire,
    And idly languish life away?
While the sighing crowd admire,
    'This too soon for hartshorn tea.

Because in the Eighteenth Century tea was pronounced tay. Just as in Pope's Epistle to Miss Blount the lonely girl will:

... pass her time 'twixt reading and bohea,
To muse and spill her solitary tea.

Bohea being a kind of black tea that was pronounced bohay.

To go further back into the fogs and sea frets of time, Shakespeare wrote a very odd sonnet about the goddess Nature creating a woman, falling in love with it and attaching a penis. The penis meant that Shakespeare was therefore Not Interested.

And for a woman wert thou first created
Till Nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting
And, by addition, me of thee defeated
By adding one thing, to my purpose nothing.

Which is an odd little rhyme to us, as the pronunciation was no-thing, which makes perfect etymological sense. Once upon a time (allegedly), Ben Jonson (the poet, not the sprinter) was composing his own epitaph in a tavern. He began:

Here lies Ben Jonson
That was once one

Then he asked Shakespeare to finish it off. Will wrote:

Who while he lived was a slow thing,
And now, being dead, is nothing.

Now go and read this poem on pronunciation.

Here runs Ben Johnson
Whose foolish nonchalance on
Doping made him a fast thing
And now, forgot, he's a past thing.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Summer in London

London has passed out from the heat. She is lying flat on her back, sweating horridly, with a handkerchief tied around her head. Occasionally she thinks about buying an ice cream. Her skin is as red as a pepper. Dickens put it much better than I. Here is a little something from the nineteenth chapter of Bleak House.

It is the hottest long vacation known for many years. All the young clerks are madly in love, and according to their various degrees, pine for bliss with the beloved object, at Margate, Ramsgate, or Gravesend. All the middle-aged clerks think their families too large. All the unowned dogs who stray into the Inns of Court and pant about staircases and other dry places seeking water give short howls of aggravation. All the blind men's dogs in the streets draw their masters against pumps or trip them over buckets. A shop with a sun-blind, and a watered pavement, and a bowl of gold and silver fish in the window, is a sanctuary. Temple Bar gets so hot that it is, to the adjacent Strand and Fleet Street, what a heater is in an urn, and keeps them simmering all night.

There are offices about the Inns of Court in which a man might be cool, if any coolness were worth purchasing at such a price in dullness; but the little thoroughfares immediately outside those retirements seem to blaze. In Mr. Krook's court, it is so hot that the people turn their houses inside out and sit in chairs upon the pavement—Mr. Krook included, who there pursues his studies, with his cat (who never is too hot) by his side. The Sol's Arms has discontinued the Harmonic Meetings for the season, and Little Swills is engaged at the Pastoral Gardens down the river, where he comes out in quite an innocent manner and sings comic ditties of a juvenile complexion calculated (as the bill says) not to wound the feelings of the most fastidious mind.

I am sure that my readers in warmer climes will scoff at this post, but that is merely because they don't understand. London is not designed to be hot. We have no air-conditioning. I own two pairs of shorts and one of those is so little worn that it still has a school name-tape sewn inside.

Nobody has ever thought to put a bench in the shade. The best a Londoner can do is to shelter from the sun under awnings that usually protect him from the rain and hail. It is for this reason that the Bible reads so strangely to an Englishman: heat and sun are curses, rain and shade God's promises. Only on days like this can an Englishman's heart pant for cooling streams.

I am now off to sit in a square in Bloomsbury in direct and perfect imitation of Dickens. I would follow the clerks to Margate, but all I seem to do there is sandily connect nothing with nothing.

The Inky Fool's method for keeping cool got rather out of control

Friday, 25 June 2010


A correspondent has asked me to give the final, definitive, Ex Cathedra pontification on snuck as a past participle of sneak. The subject has, it seems, been much argued on the Internet: here and here.

I know an answer to this insoluble question, but I won't tell the world what it is unless the world first does something for me. Here are my three demands and none are negotiable:

1) The plural of mongoose shall be mongeese. I care for neither dictionary nor derivation. They are mongeese.

2) The past participle of fit shall be fat, following the hallowed pattern of sit/sat and shit/shat.

3) The plural of toothbrush shall be toothbri. I don't know why, in fact I hate Latin pluralisations. Perhaps I feel that it should be teethbrushes, senseless though that may be. Mrs Malaprop suggests toothbroi and I would be willing to compromise. But I abhor toothbrushes.

Once my three whimsies are acceded to by all speakers of English, I shall reveal the terrible truth of snuck.


P.S. This from New Orleans in 1887: "He grubbed ten dollars from de bums an den snuck home."

Thursday, 24 June 2010


From the abyss of Dear Dogberry page comes this shriek for help:

Being in the general proximity of Wimbledon you will doubtless have heard of the record-pulverizing match between Nicolas Mahut of France and John Isner of the USA, currently suspended at 59-59 in the 5th set. Our ESPN commentators were having a terrible time coming up with fitting adjectives: "epic," "freakish," a "battle royale," a "clash of wills," etc.. "Epic" yes, but not just any epic--after all, you could recite the Iliad all the way through in a mere 24 hours. Last year's final was epic. This match is Mahabharatan. At least, that's the best I can do. What say you? From your vast lexical treasury, your bathypelagic well of verbal resourcefulness, can you generate suitable superlatives? I eagerly await your offerings. Signed,

Dumbstruck in Delaware

Well, Dumbstruck in Delaware, I should begin by saying that Mahabharatan is a damned fine coinage. For readers who don't know (and I'm sure there's one of you), the Mahabharata is a Sanskrit epic that's about ten times longer than the Iliad. I like mahabharatan. I shall steal it and use it for my own sinful purposes.

Can I do better? I'm not sure. It's pretty easy to coin words for large. You find a large thing and turn it into an adjective. Gargantua, the giant hero of a book by Rabellais, gave us gargantuan. The Biblical monster Behemoth gives us behemothic. The Himalayas give us Himalayan and so on and so forth. But none of these words fit. They are all bulky, and the tennis match is long.

My best suggestion would be jörmungandrian. Jörmungandr is a snake from Viking mythology which grows so long that it encircles the earth and ends up biting its own tail. As I mentioned in a previous post the circumference of the earth is 24,901.55 miles, so Jörmungandr is very long indeed.

There's an added advantage that the snake biting its own tail is one of the mysterious symbols that pops up in almost every culture in the world. Mythographers call it the ouroboros and generally agree that its some sort of symbol of the infinite (or possibly of wisdom). That means that if you were captured by some strange and isolated tribe of Amazonian headhunters and forced, at hatchet-point, to describe the Mahut-Isner match you could confidently use the word jörmungandrian. The head-hunters might not understand you immediately, but they would doubtless have a cognate symbol in their own twisted and macabre mythology.

Well, Dumbstruck in Delaware, I hope that helps. And remember: having a bigger vocabulary doesn't necessarily make you a "better" person, what really matters is whether you can use that vocabulary to negotiate with tennis-obsessed cannibals.


The Inky Fool engaging in pest-control

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Little Tommy Turdman and the Waste Land

I've just discovered that in the early Eighteenth Century the servant whose job it was to empty the chamber pots was called a Tom Turdman.

You'd think that the job was bad enough without your employers rubbing it in (as it were). But I'm so delighted with the name that I care not a whit, jot or iota for poor Tommy Turdman's feelings.

Incidentally, I am not alone in my infantile delight at the word turd. T.S. Eliot, in his notes on The Waste Land, needlessly annotated these lines thus:

But sound of water over rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine trees*

*This is the Turdus aonalaschkae pallasii, the hermit thrush which I have heard in Quebec Province. Chapman says (Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America) 'is is most at home in secluded woodland and thickety retreats. ... Its notes are not remarkable for variety or volume, but in purity and sweetness of tone and exquisite modulation they are unequalled.' Its 'water-dripping song' is justly celebrated.

The notes to The Waste Land were utterly unintentional. It was decided that the poem was too short to publish on its own, so T.S. Eliot composed them to fatten  up the volume, and to mention the word Turdus.

Or, as the host says in the Canterbury Tales,

...pleynly, at a word
Thy drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord.

A constipated hermit thrush

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Ciao, Slave-Driver

Medieval Italians were terribly serious fellows. They would wander around solemnly declaring to each other "I am your slave". However, being Medieval Italians they weren't able to say it in English, so they had to say Sono vostro schiavo instead.

Then they got lazy and shortened it to schiavo. In the North, where they were lazier still, this got changed to ciau. Then the Italians got all energetic and tried to join in the Second World War. British troops were sent to tick them off. We invaded and Monty spent several days in a casino.

When our troops got back they introduced the word ciao into English and it is now much used. But be wary, when you say ciao; however merry and debonair you may think you're being, you are declaring your own enslavement.

This also means that Michelangelo's Dying Slave (pictured) is saying ciao.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Hesternal Pop Music

The French cannot do pop music. Everybody knows this except the French. I once met a fellow who had a theory to explain this gallic failure. He said that all the best pop songs have Germanic lyrics.

English is basically made up of Germanic words like need or house and Latinate words like require and habitation. This fellow assured me that the lyrics to Yesterday were entirely Germanic in origin. This is not true. The words in bold are, ultimately, Latinate.

All my troubles seemed so far away;
Now it looks as though they're here to stay.
O, I believe in yesterday.

There's a shadow hanging over me;
I'm not half the man I used to be.
O, yesterday came suddenly.

Why she had to go,
I don't know
She wouldn't say.
I said something wrong,
Now I long
For yesterday.

Love was such an easy game to play;
Now I need a place to hide away.
O, I believe in yesterday.

That's only seven Latinate words out of 84*. By contrast, I just went through the main news story on the BBC website and thirty of the first hundred words were Latinate. I then tried Sonnet 18 which scored fifteen out of 104.

It is well known that you can prove anything, everything and nothing with statistics. However, I think that this theory holds a little water.

Of the seven Latinate words in Yesterday none of them sound particularly Latin. There are no -ations and no -ities. I had always assumed that trouble was Germanic and had never connected it with turbulare. Sudden, which ultimately comes from sub-ire, meaning go up to, has lost the B that made the derivation obvious, and now finishes with a German-sounding -en.

Some words have become so Anglified that they can be re-imported: use and utility, trouble and turbulence. So, that score of 92% Germanic underestimates the effect. I reckon the the chap was technically wrong, but effectively right.

And the cause? I can think of two reasons.

1) The more basic the concept, the more likely it is to be expressed by a Germanic word. That's because the Anglo-Saxons were here before the Normans. They got to name love and hate, while the Frenchies could only Christen attraction and disinclination.

2) Germanic words sound better for pop songs. The consonants are harder. Germanic words thud and bang about, while Latinate terminologies expire in languorous confusion.

I have never believed in Fowler's dictum that the Anlgo-Saxon word should always be preferred to the Latinate. Nor do I imagine for one second that Paul McCartney was consulting an etymological dictionary as he wrote. If he had been I doubt he would have got anywhere at all. I don't know how many conclusions you can draw from this tiny sample, I just find it interesting.

Oh, and if you were wondering (and I'm sure you weren't), hesternal means of or pertaining to yesterday. Indeed, the song could usefully be renamed Hesternopathia, which means "yearning for yesterday". With a name like that, it wouldn't have needed any lyrics at all.

*Not counting repeats

P.S. If I were an academic I would now repeat the process with every Beatles single. Thank God I am not an academic. This is an observation and not a study. Anybody making sarcastic comments about Michelle or the early Kylie hit Je Ne Sais Pas Pourquoi will be shot.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Mucking About With Phrasal Verbs

There's a wonderful thing called a phrasal verb. Essentially it's a verb plus a preposition, which together give you a whole new meaning: for example, doing up a house. A foreigner learning English might know the word do and the word up, but would still be unable to work out why you were performing a building skywards. And when he discovered that you could also do in your enemies, he would be done for.

Muck out = clean a stable
Muck in = help
Muck about = play uselessly
Muck up = ruin

So a lazy and incompetent stable boy could be said to muck about constantly, out and in rarely, and up everything.

Rhetorically, this trope of using one verb in several different senses (She left in a taxi and a flood of tears) is called syllepsis. Without doubt the greatest exercise is syllepsis is Have Some Madeira M'Dear by Flanders and Swann.

Printed lyrics here.

You are invited to compose similar sentences and leave them in the comments. However, before setting off to write a novel relying entirely on syllepsis you should consult Joel Stickley's inestimable How To Write Badly Well blog.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

Beats Andrex, I Suppose

OBSCENITY ALERT. Those readers of a gentle, innocent and tender disposition should stop reading right now. However, if you learned too much too young, if you are of a foul and fetid disposition, if your mind is little more than a latrine shat into morning, noon and night by loose-boweled reality, then by all means read on.

Friday, 18 June 2010

Coming, I Saw and Conquered

Contemplate the title of this post. It is less natural than the original. It is less clear than the original. It is less snappy than the original. In short, it is worse.

Over on the Dear Dogberry page, Moptop has been complaining about a novel filled with sentences like this:

Doing something, he did something else.

That structure is extraordinarily common in written English, and rare in spoken. Sometimes the order is reversed and you get:

He did something, doing something else.

Puffing meditatively on his pipe, Aloric shot an elephant. "I'll give you £100 pounds for the trunk," cried the Inky Fool, flicking frantically through a dog-eared book of recipes.

There are two problems with sentences like this. The first is well known, indeed it's one of the few bits of grammar that still get taught in schools: the dangling modifier.

In the sentence "Puffing meditatively on his pipe, Aloric shot an elephant" we understand that it is Aloric who is doing the puffing. The participle belongs to the first noun after the comma.

Therefore, in the sentence "Walking up the street, my mobile phone began to ring" it is technically my mobile phone that is walking up the street.

That sentence is on the cusp of alrightness. Grammatically it's wrong, but it would be hard to misunderstand. Indeed it would require a small effort of will. Some dangling modifiers are so much part of the language that they cannot be faulted.

Speaking of which, the weather's nice today.

You would have to be a pedant of Himalayan proportions to ask how the weather could speak. Indeed, if you asked me that, your body might never be found*. The problem with danglers is not one of Absolute Grammar, the problem is that they can be unintentionally comic or offensive.

Beautiful yet simple, the Inky Fool will perform Fur Elise in the bakery at midnight.

Is, to be honest, correct however you read it. Bill Bryson cites this lovely line from Time magazine.

In addition to being cheap and easily obtainable, Crotti claims that the bags have several advantages over other methods.

Which makes poor Crotti a cheap slut.

The second problem with such sentences was rather nimbly pointed out in a comment on yesterday's post. The Antipodean was correcting one of my myriad typos.

"Prophecy?" she says, sipping from her chipped fine bone china coffee-mug. Actually I probably wouldn't talk and sip at the same time, but you get the gist.

The participle implies synchronicity. This means that you have to be dreadfully careful about what actions you yoke together. Sloppy novels are filled with lines like: "Skidding to a halt, he leaped out of his car", which is simply a dangerous and irresponsible way of parking, especially on the school run. One of the sentences Moptop cited on Dear Dogberry ran:

Opening his eyes, he watched Lazar.

The frustrating thing about that sentence is that it could so easily be recast.

He opened his eyes and watched Lazar.

Is that so hard? Is that so odd? As I said at the beginning of this post, these participle sentences are pretty rare in spoken English. People tend to chat in short simple sentences connected by conjunctions (speech, if you listen carefully, has very few full stops)**. It is only when a fellow sits down to write that he suddenly starts converting every other verb into a participle. As well as sounding slightly unnatural, this exposes him to the dangers described above and is Utterly Unnecessary.

It is so easy to avoid these dangers. It is so much more natural to have two verbs connected by and. Here are the other sentences Moptop cited along with the natural alternative:

Standing over him, Zoya raised the knife.
Zoya stood over him and raised the knife.

Hearing the guards at the window, Malysh picked up a slate.
Malysh heard the guards at the window and picked up a slate.

Standing up, she glanced into the hallway.
She stood up and glanced into the hallway.

That's how you'd say it, so why not write it that way?
Of course there are times when the actions are simultaneous. More specifically, there are times when one continuous action acts as the background for a shorter one. "Reading Hamlet, I came across this line" should not be recast, because the actions are not consecutive. One occurs during the other and so the participle is dandy and fine. I am not attempting to outlaw the practice, merely to observe the overuse and the risk.
I once read (and cannot now find) an essay by Clive James on writing for the radio. He observed that English is a basically linear language. Perhaps a more inflected language like Latin or German would allow for more grammatical complexity, but it is unnatural for English. Though we can subordinate our clauses we tend not to. This, he said, counts doubly for the radio. The reader of a book can always check back to the beginning of a sentence to work out who or what is doing the verb, a listener cannot. So sos, ands and buts beat commas.

Sell participles and buy conjunctions. Or: selling participles, buy conjunctions.

However, I should conclude by saying that the rules of English are neither hard nor fast. Consider the following from Paradise Lost. Brave young grammarians, intent on making a name for themselves, have set off into this sentence hoping to find a main verb and never been heard of again. But it's wonderful. This is a fallen angel addressing Satan in Hell.

"If thou beest he--but O how fallen! how changed
From him who, in the happy realms of light
Clothed with transcendent brightness, didst outshine
Myriads, though bright!--if he whom mutual league,
United thoughts and counsels, equal hope
And hazard in the glorious enterprise
Joined with me once, now misery hath joined
In equal ruin; into what pit thou seest
From what height fallen: so much the stronger proved
He with his thunder; and till then who knew
The force of those dire arms?"

The Inky Fool contemplating a typo

*Although I might post it back, piece by piece, to your nearest and dearest.
** Far commoner is "I was walking down the street when my mobile began to ring". However, neither of the dangers described in this post can apply to such sentences.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

PIN Numbers And The Greek Masses

When I put my card into the Barclays cashpoint down the hill it asks me for my Personal Identification Number. The NatWest cashpoint on the high street asks me for my PIN Number, which is, of course, a personal identification number number. 

I use the term pin number, although I'm not sure why. I don't talk about ISP providers as some do, and I'm faintly amused by the 22,000 results Google turns up for the "Irish IRA". But pin number it is, and pin number, I prophesy, it will remain, like a chipped tea-cup that one has become sentimental about.

The New Scientist invented a term for such repetitions back in 2001. They called it RAS Syndrome, the RAS standing for Redundant Acronym Syndrome. But the habit is far older than that. In 1668 John Dryden was already referring to "the hoi polloi". Polloi is Greek for people and Hoi is Greek for the, so the hoi polloi means the the people. Indeed, his is the first usage cited by the OED.

Yet, Hoi polloi it must remain because if we dropped the hoi we'd lose the lovely rhyme that distinguishes the base peasantry from the hoity toity.

And if you're American and have been wondering what in blazes a cashpoint is, it's the British term for an ATM machine.

The Inky Fool freeing the polloi from the hoi

N.B. I am about to try to tinker with the RSS feeds. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, however to me it is a mystery on a par with the incarnation or the hard question of consciousness. If a post doesn't show up tomorrow could you inform me in the comments? In fact, does anybody know whether turning on smartfeed in feedburner simply consolidates all the feeds into one, and if so does it disrupt those who have already subscribed? RSVP please.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Mondegreens And Understanding Orphans

There's a funny little thing called a mondegreen that you have, no doubt, experienced. Have you ever listened to Purple Haze and wondered whether Jimi Hendrix is saying:

Excuse me while I kiss the sky


Excuse me while I kiss this guy

Have you? That's a mondegreen. A mishearing of  a song. The term was coined way back in 1954 by a lady called Sylvia Wright. She described how her mother used to read her a poem that went:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands,
Oh, where hae ye been?
They hae slain the Earl O' Moray,
And laid him on the green.

And she had always understood that last line to be:

And Lady Mondegreen.

Which makes some sort of sense, an earl suggests a lady. I am as prone to mondegreens as the next man, possibly proner; and my mishearings often make no cents at all. I was once involved in an argument and then a wager about whether the drink sangria is mentioned in Lou Reed's Perfect Day. I insisted that it is not. You see I know the song by heart. It goes:

Just a perfect day
Drinks and grey are in the park

I had never stopped to consider what "grey" would be doing in a park. Mrs Malaprop informs me that at her school the Banarama lyric "Guilty as a girl can be" was universally heard as "Guilty as a cocoa bee". If you're French and perverse (and what Frenchman isn't?) you can wonder gallicly to yourself why Edith Piaf is singing about a pink aeroplane: L'avion rose/La vie en rose.

But the point of this post is not foolish mistakes, but the good ones.

I shall never recover from being given a lovely big hardback collection of Bob Dylan Lyrics 1962-2001. My two favourite lines were gone, vanished, vanquished by the cold, dead hand of print. First, there's the great statement of the human condition in Subterranean Homesick Blues:

Get born, keep on.

I loved that line. All life summed up in four syllables: birth and survival. That rotten book revealed that it was in fact "Get born, keep warm", and I've never been truly happy since. But worse than that mondegreen, much worse was what unambiguous ink did to It's All Over Now Baby Blue. I knew the song started like this:

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last.
But whatever you wish to keep you better grab it fast.
He understands you orphans with his gun.

It's a brilliant line. First you have a reversal, something equivalent to "He nurses you with his fist", but more brilliantly, there's the leaping of categories. Understanding with a gun is what a philosopher would call a category error. A category error is a statement which is not simply wrong, but which could not conceivably be right because words from two different categories have been yoked together.

Salmon cannot read newspapers, but I can imagine one doing so. A salmon reading a newspaper is not a category error. However, "There's too much Tuesday in my rhubarb crumble" is unimaginable as, though Tuesday is a noun, it's not a physical one and could therefore not be mixed up with rhubarb. Nor could you have too little or too much Tuesday. Similarly one cannot understand with a gun in any normal sense. That's what gives Dylan's line its power. It parodies violence by expressing it as a form of comprehension. Clever, eh?

That bloody book.

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun.

I shall maintain till the day I die that my cloth ears improved those songs.

I was reading a friend's website the other day and momentarily misread the line "Next time there better be mistakes" as "Next time there'll be better mistakes."

The Inky Fool listening to Bob Dylan

P.S. A mondegreen is almost the same concept as a holorhyme, about which I blogged in December.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Talknophical Assumnacy

I'm flummoxed. Yesterday I mentioned the lovely word snollygoster meaning a dishonest politician. The OED cites this quotation from the Columbus Dispatch of 1895:

A Georgia editor kindly explains that ‘a snollygoster is a fellow who wants office, regardless of party, platform or principles, and who, whenever he wins, gets there by the sheer force of monumental talknophical assumnacy’

The problem is that the OED has no definition for either talknophical or assumnacy. It's happy to use the words but not to explain them, and I can't work them out for myself. I would guess that they are portmanteau words, but of what? Talknophical might be talk and philosophical? But then where does the N come from? Assumnacy could be assume and... obstinacy? The Reverse Alphabet Dictionary lists only four words ending nacy: effeminacy, indeterminacy, obstinacy and lunacy and none of those could have been readily guessed.

Any advance on my frail theories?

Three snollygosters talknophicating

Vuvuzela and Malay Butterflies

In an effort to bring you incisive, up-to-the-decade commentary on the English language, I should tell you that vuvuzela is not listed in the OED (although it does have the word vulpeculated meaning robbed by a fox). For those of you who don't know, the vuvuzela is the horn that is ruining the World Cup by making every match sound as if it is being played inside a beehive.

There are three theories on the origin of the word:

1) It comes from the isiZulu meaning "make a noise"
2) It comes from Township slang for shower, because it resembles a shower head.
3) It is imitative of the sound it makes: vu-vu

That last one is a reduplication* like murmur, because the vu-vuing continues for ninety minutes.

My favourite reduplication is in Malay. Malay doesn't have normal plurals, you form them by simply repeating the noun, so tables would become tabletable. That's fine so long as the singular noun wasn't formed by reduplication already. The Malay for butterfly is rama-rama, so butterflies is rama-rama rama-rama. The Malays also repeat verbs to intensify them, so "I really like" would be rendered as "I like like". We occasionally do this in English, when somebody says "I've got to, got to see that film". Therefore, the Malay for "I really like butterflies" is:

Saya suka suka rama-rama rama-rama

Not to be confused with Ramalamadingdong.

P.S. I am not, alas, a scholar of Malay. I've been searching round the net and found some back-up, but my prime source is that a policeman told Mrs Malaprop this when she was reporting that her shoes had been stolen by a monkey.
P.P.S. Neil van Schalkwyk, who brought vuvuzelas to the mass market, has now started doubling his profits by manufacturing earplugs. Bastard.
*Or just a duplication, but linguists don't care much about language.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Snarling Snobs and Sniggering Sneaks

The Chambers English Dictionary lists 80 words beginning with the letters SN and 62 of them have derogatory, disgusting or violent connotations. Only three - snazzy, snog and snug - are cheery. And in making that calculation I didn't even count as negative the five words that refer to a scythe-handle. 

I do not believe, dear reader, that this is a coincidence. Here's the list in all its horridness:

Snab, snabble, snack, snaffle, snafu, snag, snaggle-tooth, snail, ‘snails, snake, snap, snaphaunce, snapper, snar, snare, snark, snarl, snash, snaste, snatch, snath, snazzy, snead, sneak, sneap, sneath, sned, sneck, sned, snee, sneer, sneesh, sneeze, snell, snib, snick, snicker, snicker-snack, snickersnee, snicket, snick-up, snide, sniff, snig, snigger, snip, snipe, snip-snap-snorum, snirt, snitch, snivel, snob, snod, snoek, snog, snoke, snood, snook, snooker, snool, snoop, snoot(y), snooze, snoozle, snore, snorkel, snort, snot, snotter, snout, snow, snowk, snub, snick, snudge, snuff, snuffle, snug(gle), snush, snuzzle

If you remove the obscure terms you're left with 46 words of which 38 are negative, which is a nastiness quotient of 83%. Just look at all the fun and horrible sentences you can dream up:

The snivelling snitch sneered at the snaggle-toothed sneak.

The snotty snob snubbed the snarling snake.

Other such groups of words have been found (although I believe I'm the first with the SNs*): there are the ump words - dump, clump, frump - and a peculiar number of words referring to dim light that begin GL: glisten, glimmer and gloaming. It's called sound symbolism and academics are forever snarling at each other about it.

There are two main theories on the subject. 1) It's a complete coincidence. There are a lot of words in the language and something like that is bound to happen**. 2) People naturally look for patterns in language. Perhaps there were once only a few nasty words beginning SN, but there were enough that when people started inventing new words or altering old ones we did it to fit the pattern. This effect snowballs and we even start to let the pleasant SN words die out because they don't fit.

I believe in the second theory. The reason? Because in that tiny sample of the English lexicon, in those five pages of a seventeen-hundred-page dictionary, are two words coined by Lewis Carroll: Snark and snicker-snack. The Snark is, of course, the mysterious and deadly centre of The Hunting of the Snark, and snicker-snack is the sound of the Jabberwocky's beheading.

This shows that Carroll, the master word-coiner, could discern the pattern and use it to his advantage. Moreover, when I checked in the OED I found that there were lots of neutral SN words that had disappeared and died. (Although the OED did list the delicious word Snollygoster, which means a shrewd, unprincipled politician).

This rule of the snarling SN also has consequences for the naming of fictional characters. For example, J.K. Rowling was on to a good thing when she called her villain Severus Snape. (Snape does pop up in the OED meaning a rebuke or a change to cold or bad weather, but Rowling named him after a village in Suffolk).

The result of all this is that you can invent a word and drop it into conversation and it will sound right. "That snikey bastard!" you can shout. "I'm going to snobble him."

Of course, it may just be coincidence. It may be that the theory of sound symbolism is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy, a phantasm, a falsehood and a fraud.

But if you wanted clinching proof of SN's hellish and horrible connotations, I need only say that it is also the post code for Swindon.

Finally, and simply because we're here, my three favourite SN words were:

Snicket - A narrow passage or alleyway
Snirt - A suppressed laugh
Snool - One who submits tamely to wrong or oppression
Snudge- EITHER to save in a miserly way OR to be snug and quiet

Supernova SN1987a (I bet it's horrid)

*It has been noted that there are several SNs relating to the mouth and nose (snout and snuffle), but not the negative aspect that I'm pointing out. Mind you, I stand ready to be corrected. There are also a lot of words to do with cutting.

**This is the classical, Saussurian view. Saussure famously said "The sign is arbitrary"; unfortunately he was driving at the time.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Ape-Leaders, Bears and Virtual Koalas

Once upon a time unmarried women were called ape-leaders. You see, spinsters are all going to Hell for having disobeyed God's first commandment to man(and woman)kind: go forth and multiply*. Once in Hell the old maid's punishment will, for reasons that I can neither discover nor divine, be to lead apes around.

The notion gets a mention in Much Ado About Nothing:

LEONATO: You may light on a husband that hath no beard.

BEATRICE: What should I do with him? dress him in my apparel and make him my waiting-gentlewoman? He that hath a beard is more than a youth, and he that hath no beard is less than a man: and he that is more than a youth is not for me, and he that is less than a man, I am not for him: therefore, I will even take sixpence in earnest of the bear-ward, and lead his apes into hell.

The bear-ward, since you ask, is a bear-keeper. There was a bear-baiting pit next door to the Globe Theatre and it seems that they kept apes there as well. That's also where they would have borrowed the bear that was used in The Winter's Tale, which resulted in the stage direction: Exit, pursued by a bear.

That scene takes place on the coast of Bohemia, which of course doesn't exist as Bohemia is landlocked, but did suggest the name for a collection of poems by Lachlan Mackinnon that (if I remember aright) has a poem with the first line "Virtual koala".

The Inky Fool attempting to be Bohemian

*Go fifth and divide.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Bedraggled, Bedrabbled and Befuddled

I like to spend my weekends bedraggled, bedrabbled and befuddled; simply because I adore the words.

I love the word bedraggled for two reasons. First, I have a irrational predilection for be-words: bemoaned, befogged and benighted (literally overtaken by night). A fellow called Ammon Shea read the entire OED and among his favourite discoveries was unbepissed, which means not having been pissed upon.

Second, I'm fond (and I know this sounds silly) of the frequentative suffix -le. If you continuously wag your head and dance a jig and bob up and down, then you waggle and jiggle and bobble. If you can't stop putting food in your gob, you gobble. If you keep prating and pissing, you prattle and piddle. I imagine it therefore follows that if you've not been pissed on frequently, you are unbepiddled.

And if you have been repeatedly dragged about, then you are bedraggled.

Bedrabbled is formed in the same way and means almost the same thing: dirty with rain and mud.

Befuddled therefore means that you are fuddled, and everybody knows what fuddling is. What's that, dear reader? You don't know what fuddling is? My word, what a sheltered life you do lead.

Fuddling is drinking. Nobody knows quite where the word comes from. It is not, alas, a frequentative. There is a word fud, but it's a noun and means either buttocks or a woman's pubic hair. No, fuddle is an orphan of mysterious ancestry, but it does produce the lovely word fuddler.

Now, I must be off as I am planning (in the words of The Gentleman's Magazine of 1756) to: "fuddle away the day with riot and prophaneness."

Saturday night with the Inky Fool

Friday, 11 June 2010


Oh all right. As you are no doubt agonisingly aware, an emergency meeting of illiterate millionaires has been convened in South Africa.

The bountiful game is a subject of dispute amongst the literati. Albert Camus said "Everything I know about mortality I learnt from football". Camus played in goal and one of the most vivid moments in The Plague is the nostalgia felt for the prepestilential football matches:

...the once familiar smell of embrocation in the dressing-rooms, the stands crowded with people, the coloured shirts of the players against the tawny soil, the half-time lemons or bottled lemonade that titillated parched throats with a thousand refreshing pin-pricks.

Shakespeare mentions the game only once, with the insult "You base football player."

Football has donated many phrases to English. Some are old and venerable: kick off, play into touch, score an own goal and move the goal posts. Some are new and telling: roasting and handbags. But what, I hear American readers cry, is Dogberry talking about?


And the word soccer was invented by the decadent poet Ernest Dowson. Obviously, the word derives from a syllable of Association Football. But the first citation in the OED is Dowson writing in 1889 "I absolutely decline to see socca' matches."

Dowson also wrote:

They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.

Dowson contemplating injury time

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Lord and Lady Panivorous

Here's a splendidly useful word: panivorous.

It means "that eats or lives on bread" (Latin panus) and should therefore be wildly applicable. Yet it seems only ever to have been used once, in 1845, by Mrs Catherine Gore who wrote of a man that he was: "A boulanger in the panivorous kingdom of France."

We are all panivorous. Stand outside any office block at lunchtime and watch the panivorous staff scuttle back from the sandwich shop leaving, like Hansel and Gretel, a trail of crumbs.

There's the simple bread that we eat; there's the religious "daily bread"; and there are a hundred and one hidden etymologies for when we eat our words.

The Old English word for bread was hlaf, from which we get loaf; and the old English division of labour was that women made bread and men guarded it. The woman was therefore the hlaf-dige and the man was the hlaf-ward.

Hlafward and Hlafdige

Hlaford and Hlafdi

Lavord and Lavedi

Lord and Lady

And when the lord and lady finally sit down and devour the bread, they become companions; because a companion is someone you eat bread with in the same way that a mate is somebody who shares your meat.

Had enough? I don't care. The old word for beg was briber, and the way to get rid of a beggar was to palm him off with a morsel of bread called a bribe, hence bribe. Ciabatta is Italian for carpet slipper because that's what the bread resembles, just as baguette means stick. And gritty was not first applied either to dramas or to roads but to dear old, mere old bread.

'So cast your bread upon the waters,' as a friend mine likes to say. 'You never know, it might come back as smoked salmon sandwiches.'

These do not count as ciabattas

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

She Who Must Be The Grand Panjandrum (BA Oxon)

Last night, as the clock struck twelve, I was busily proof-reading when a chap asked me what exactly a Grand Panjandrum is.

There was an eighteenth century actor called Charles Macklin who boasted that he could memorise any speech after hearing it only once. Another eighteenth century actor called Samuel Foote, who had played Othello to Macklin's Iago, decided to write an unmemorisable speech for Macklin. He came up with this:

So she went into the garden to cut a cabbage-leaf to make an apple-pie; and at the same time a great she-bear, coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. "What! No soap?" So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyalies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top, and they all fell to playing the game of catch-as-catch-can till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots.

Perhaps Foote wrote it down. History is mute. Though the speech was composed in the 1750s it wasn't published until 1825 and the authorities seem authoritatively confused as to how the challenge was put. The important thing is that it's a passage that Lewis Carroll would have been proud of. No decent human being could read the words "So he died" without at least smiling.

In conclusion, Grand Panjandrums may be recognised by the little round button at the top.

The Grand Panjandrum, though, should never be confused with the Great Panjandrum, which was a (slightly insane) explosive device invented during the Second World War and never used. It was called a panjandrum in reference to the gunpowder running out at the heels of the boots.

My conversation then turned to She Who Must Be Obeyed, which my interlocutor believed came from RumpoleShe comes from the novel She by H. Rider Haggard. (I always pictured Rider Haggard as a gaunt man on a horse. I was miserably disappointed to find he was a healthy looking fellow with a beard). She is a novel about a couple of jolly brave Victorian fellows who find a secret kingdom in Africa ruled by an immortal and intolerably beautiful lady whom the natives refer to as She Who Must Be Obeyed. She falls in love with one of them and it all ends in tears and wrinkles.

She is one of the most extraordinary books ever written. In essence it is the greatest myth composed in modern times: the sort of story that takes a seat in the reader's soul. In execution it is a rather silly ripping yarn: the sort of thing I loved when I was twelve. Imagine the myth of Oedipus with Biggles in the main part.

Like the Bellman and bad news, I like to work in groups of three. So I shall leave you with the opening paragraph of another African adventure: Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh.

'We, Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, being in this the twenty-fourth year of our life, summoned by the wisdom of Almighty God and the unanimous voice of our people to the throne of our ancestors, do hereby proclaim...' Seth paused in his dictation and gazed out across the harbour where in the fresh breeze of early morning the last dhow was setting sail for the open sea. 'Rats,' he said; 'stinking curs. They are all running away.'

Not haggard