Saturday, 31 July 2010

A New Verse Form: The Mope

Once, on a five hour train journey, I developed a brand new verse form. The rule was that every line had to be an anagram of my full name. The result, of course, made no sense but did fit together gramatically. It ran thus:


Ok, thrash my dwarf, or
Ask for a word rhythm
Worthy of Mark's hard
Harrows of dark myth.
Hark as my word-froth
Arks forward, myth-ho!
Oh dark swarthy form,
Martyr who had forks,
Ask for a word rhythm
Or thrash my dwarf, ok?

Any readers who have much too much time on their hands are invited to post their own in the comments. They don't have to be anagrams of your name, you could choose anything. But they do need to form full, or at least vague, sentences. They should also not contain the original word or phrase, which should be hinted at in the title, thus making the poem a puzzle.

I shall call this new form the Mope, because it is a poem, but anagrammatically so.

P.S. I've claimed to invent new verse forms before and been cruelly informed of my belatedness.

Friday, 30 July 2010

The Ascent of the Snob

Once upon a time, at the end of the eighteenth century, a snob was a cobbler. He repaired your shoes. The word had couple of other meanings. It was the last sheep to be sheared or, if you were a student at Cambridge, it was any of the poor people of the town. Whichever way you looked at it a snob was at the very bottom of the social (or agricultural) ladder.

By 1831 this meaning was fixed: a snob was anybody from the lower orders of society: prole, pauper or peasant. A snob was the opposite of a noble, or nob.

In the 1859 Dictionary of Slang a snob was defined as "A low... vulgar person". And to be vulgar is so often to be showy. True vulgarity is not hidden beneath a bushel but displayed in contemptible ostentation.

From there snob, quite understandably, came to mean a wannabe. A snob was somebody who imitated his social superiors. And from there it came to mean somebody who despised his social inferiors, which is where it stood at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Then things like Rolls Royces started to have snob-value or snob-appeal until the word became almost (but not quite) synonymous with posh and exalted society. And that's when the French came in and stole the word. I would say that they had borrowed it, but I don't trust the French further than I can cook them.

"C'est snob" is a French term of approbation. It means chic, posh, sophisticated and desirable. "C'est si chic. C'est si snob." There are no negative connotations.

I once heard of a sign in a Parisian clothes shop: Si snob, presque cad. So snob, it's almost cad.

And thus has the humble cobbler risen to the top of fashionable Parisian society.

Lyrics and translation here.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Lucubrating Lychnobites

If, like me, you yawn all morning, try slyly to snooze all afternoon, start to feel tolerable in the evening, but don't truly wake up until you hear the chimes at midnight, you are a lychnobite. This comes from the Greek lokno-bios, which literally means lamp-life. For your life is lived in the shadow of the earth.

Lychnobite was invented by Seneca to describe noctivagant souls like me. It was then invited into English by Nathan Bailey in his Universal Etymological Dictionary of 1727. He defined lychnobite as 'a night walker', but the meaning has now spread to night shift workers and sleepless fishermen.

When, in the small and wee hours, I find myself with nothing to do, I settle down and knock off couple of posts for Inky Fool. I lucubrate. I produce lucubrations.

To lucubrate is to work by artificial light, from the Latin lucubrare. As I have usually had a few drinks by that time, what you end up reading are the lubricated lucubrations of a lychnobite.

Incidentally, the small hours are just as long as the other ones. I've checked. It is the o'clocks - one, two, three - that are small.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Improving Shakespeare

This is how Shakespeare worked. In 1599 (or thereabouts) Will wrote Julius Caesar, in which Caesar is murdered by a brute. On the morning of Caesar's assassination his wife warns him not to go out because the weather has been simply dreadful. She says:

Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets,
And graves have yawned and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fight upon the clouds
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

In 1601 (or thereabouts) Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, and in the very first scene Horatio describes exactly the same night:

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets.

That Hamlet's version is shorter is of no great consequence. Of course, Julius Caesar is going to spend more time on Julius Caesar. What's interesting is that Shakespeare is clearly working over his own original, finding the flaws and improving. You can almost hear him muttering "Did shriek and squeal? Did shriek and sqea... Did squeak! Why didn't I think of that in the first place? Squeak and um... gibber."

The grave as mouth was a favourite device of Shakespeare, for example "the grave doth gape/For thee thrice wider than for other men". But here he has consciously cast that aside and turned the tomb into a bijou rental property. The graves stand tenantless, making it a touch more Christian.

You can see Shakespeare fiddling with his words of 1599, dwelling on them, improving them, working them over. And you can see how he worked with the sounds of squeal and shriek. And you can see how he considered and changed his metaphor from grave as mouth to grave as boarding house.
It all relates back to Shakespeare as a worker rather than a genius, which I have written about before here and here.
For more on Shakespeare's attitude to death, see this old post. For the moment, I shall simply add that Calpurnia's "I never stood on ceremony" was the first time that anybody had ever stood on ceremony. Stand on already meant pay attention to (as in "Stand not upon the order of your going" which means "don't worry about who leaves the room first"), but standing on ceremony, that was Shakespeare.
The Inky Fool asking for proof-reading help

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Booze and the Doctor

Bitter beer is bitter. Stout is stout, as in strong (stout-hearted etc). But lager is beer that has been made to be stored, or in German lager-bier. A lager is a storehouse.

Claret is clear wine. Port comes from Oporto in Portugal. But brandy, which is more distilled, is burnt wine or, in Dutch, brandewijn.

Which brings me, of course, to Dr Johnson who said:

Claret is the liquor for boys; port for men; but he who aspires to be a hero must drink brandy.

Between the dictionary and the endless quotations, a chap is liable to forget that Dr Johnson was a fine poet. If you are just such a forgetful chap, follow this link.

He was not, though, a looker.

Monday, 26 July 2010


An ouranophantor is a revealer of heavenly mysteries. It was originally a title of Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea.

I'm off to print out some new business cards.

The Inky Fool pops round for tea

Sunday, 25 July 2010


Percy Bysshe Shelley invented the word antenatal.

I bet you didn't know that.

It crops up in the utterly turgid and dull poem Prince Athanase. I have read it, dear reader, so that you don't have to. Basically, there's a prince and he's great and stuff, but like every second bloody romantic hero he's mysteriously sad. Nobody knows why.

Some said that he was mad, others believed

That memories of an antenatal life
Made this, where now he dwelt, a penal hell

Others believed that Shelley had talent, but needed a damned fine editor.

I remember that.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

Nerds of Lincoln

And then just to show them I'll sail to Ka-Too
And bring back an It-Kutch, A Breep and a Proo,
A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!

Dr Seuss, If I Ran A Zoo

I managed to go to the only college in Oxford with almost no famous alumni. This was deliberate. My plan was, and is, that they would therefore have more room for a gold-plated statue of me. Even the few old boys that you might have heard of barely had a connection. John Wesley was there post-graduate and Dr Seuss came, hated it and left after a couple of terms.

Other colleges had portraits of Auden or Laurence of Arabia up in their halls. We had some rectors from the eighteenth century.

However, through Dr Seuss, Lincoln does have one great claim to lexicographic fame. The passage quoted above, which is from 1950, is the first recorded use of the word nerd. It seems, though, miserably unlikely that this is the origin of our familiar insult as by 1951 Newsweek recorded nerd as Detroit slang for a weakling or drip. So unless the underbelly of Detroit was eagerly reading all Dr Seuss's works just as they came out, nerd must derive from another source.

Perhaps, it was an alteration of turd; but, if so, why the E? Or maybe it was backslang for drunk=knurd. Who can tell what strange linguistic pericombobulations produce these odd insults? By the nineties nerd had taken on the modern sense of somebody more interested in computers than soap.

Anyway, here to cheer you through Saturday is another poem by an Old Lincolnite, Edward Thomas:

Gone, gone again,
May, June, July,
And August gone,
Again gone by,

Not memorable
Save that I saw them go,
As past the empty quays
The rivers flow.

And now again,
In the harvest rain,
The Blenheim oranges
Fall grubby from the trees

As when I was young
And when the lost one was here
And when the war began
To turn young men to dung.

Look at the old house,
Outmoded, dignified,
Dark and untenanted,
With grass growing instead

Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth. love, age, and pain:

I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:--

I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at--
They have broken every one.

Read that to your kiddies and let them sob themselves to sleep.

The Original Nerd of 1950

Friday, 23 July 2010

I Just Spazzed A Monkey

A chap I know was having a quiet drink with some friends in a club on Pall Mall. A lady of about eighty strode up to them. She appeared to be no stranger in the land of gin.

'I just spazzed a monkey on the gee-gees,' she exclaimed, and then looked at them all sternly. 'Now, do any of you young men know what that means?'

She was terribly impressed that they all knew that she had lost £500 betting on race horses, and wandered off without further conversation. I'm more impressed with her. I like the idea of a lady who goes around springing surprise tests of slang on the youth of Britain.

And, in case you were wondering, a pony is £25, and a Dead Brazilian = Ayrton Senna = Tenner = £10.

As for quid, nobody is sure. It may come from quidditas in Latin, meaning that which is, perhaps with the sense of hard cash against airy nothings. But it may come from cud, as in the thing that cows chew. The idea is that cud came to refer to chewing tobacco and therefore to the little piece of tobacco to be chewed. It then came to mean any small amount of anything, and hence a unit of money.

Anyway, the first use of quid comes from the 1661 classic Strange News From Bartholomew Fair:

The fool lost his purse, but how he knew not; for the reckoning being suddainly brought in, his Quids were vanisht.

The Inky Fool in a rare lapse of concentration

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Champagne, Campaign, Campus, Camping and Camping it Up

Vin de Champagne originally meant wine from the countryside, as in the modern French campagne. It was only in the eighteenth century, after the English had worked out how to bottle fizzy drinks, that it took on its modern meaning of a Bottle of Bubbly, and contracted itself to those wines produced in the region around Épernay.

There's a bit in Horatius by Lord Macaulay where the Etruscans are approaching and:

From all the spacious champaign
To Rome men took their flight.

A couplet that confused me terribly as a child. All it meant was that the Etruscan army was advancing across the countryside and the country folk were running away.

This advance would, of course, have happened during the summer. During the winter troops have to hole up and wait for the snows to depart. Then, with the thaw, they set out on the campagne, which is why they are on campaign, literally on the countryside.

Of course, back in Roman times it wasn't called campagne. Campagne comes from the Latin Campus, meaning field. Fields have many uses. For example, you can put university buildings up in a field and that is the campus where young humans go to learn (hippopotamuses are confined to the hippocampus).

You can, if you are an army on campaign, simply pitch your tent in a field and that is called a camp. This is what the Etruscan army would have done. Thousands of Etruscan men would have spent their night in a field while their wives, lovers and catamites remained in Etruria.

The sexual frustration of thousands of womanless men would have been somewhat assuaged by the prostitutes who made a living by following the army around and offering their bodies to indiscriminate lewdness for hire. These indiscriminate ladies were the camp followers.

Nobody is quite sure of the next bit, but those camp followers, meaning harlot, seems to have been shortened to camp meaning tarty, illicitly sexual etc etc etc. This then got switched from queen of the night, to queen, to queer, gay*.

And so you get to camp fellows camping it up, which now means the outrageous chap in the bar on Old Compton Street with a glass of pink champagne.

An obviously heterosexual champagne drinker

*N.B. Alternatively, camp comes from the C18th French se camper, meaning to pose. Nobody's quite sure and the OED cautiously writes "Etymology obscure".

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

We Few, We Lesser Few

Just in case you didn't know (and I'm sure you did) if you have fewer pints you have less beer. You cannot have fewer beer and you cannot drink less pints.

If you are talking about items that you can count - one, two, three, four - you use fewer (in mathematics this is called a discrete variable). If you are talking about an amount you use less. With that in mind, from the sullen quagmire of the Dear Dogberry page comes this query from Eleus:

The other day I wrote a comparison of Mozart and Schumann (not just for fun). The whole essay was coming together really well, except for one sentence that I just couldn't resolve.

I wanted to say something along these lines: "Schumann was born less than 20 years after the death of Mozart". But I had a sneaking suspicion that it should have been "fewer than 20 years", and it niggled at me for hours until I went back and re-wrote the paragraph so I didn't have to say it that way at all.

Still, I'm a bit befuddled.

I know that we say there is "less time" - but years are finite, aren't they, so surely it's "fewer years". What happens then if the years aren't whole years? For instance what if he was born 19 and a half years after Mozart - is that really "fewer"? - because it seems more of a continuum to me.

Or what if one person has 3 litres of water and someone else has only 2.9 litres of water. I know the second person has less liquid but do they really have fewer litres?

I've been thinking the issue over so much it's become obnubilated and I just can't straighten it out.

Am I making a simple thing complicated?

Well, Eleus, I think that in your wisdom you have pretty much answered your own question. It would be "less than a year" because, though a year is a discrete variable, the time that you are now subtracting from it is not, it is an amorphous amount. The same, I think, applies to twenty years.
This could not be said of "less than twenty people", which would be wrong because you could only subtract one person at a time from the crowd.
Just to be complicated. If, rather than using years, you were using markers of a year's passing (like winters) you would need to use to fewer. Schumann was born fewer than twenty winters after Mozart's death, but less than twenty years.

There's a Cowboy Junkies song about a long marriage that goes "It's been thirty summers that I've spent with him", meaning not that they spend winters apart, but that they've been married thirty years. Had their marriage been shorter, they would have spent fewer summers together. As Wordsworth put it:

Five years have passed; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters!

I hope that clears it up.

Incidentally, I love obnubilated, which, dear reader, means beclouded.


P.S. I'm sorry that this reply has taken so long, I am now back in England and clearing the backtwig (which is like a backlog, but smaller).

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Filler Words Part the Third: People

As with the previous filler-word posts (here and here), this post is all about voice. If I write:

Louis Armstrong was the first man on the moon.

The sentence is flat. But if I write:

Louis Armstrong was the first chap on the moon.

You immediately know what my voice is. You know what accent to read in. Chap doesn't say anything new about the great trumpet-playing astronaut, but it says something about me, the writer, and about how I should be read.

Man, woman and person are all dull and give no indication or hint of voice. Here are some alternatives and what I consider to be their implications. (All are British, unless otherwise stated).

Chap = Relaxed, posh
Fellow = Relaxed, middle-class
Bloke = Heading down the social ladder
Gentleman = Not posh at all, I'm probably a waiter in a provincial hotel. I may also be in the closet.
Geezer = Cockney (but nobody actually says this any more)
Guy = So universal as to be almost as insipid as man.
Dude = American, young
Son of a bitch = Welcome to America!
Varmint = Welcome to more frightening parts of America!
American = It's very strange that Americans will use American as a synonym for human. Only Americans do this. So, by identifying Louis Armstrong as American you are also identifying yourself as such.

Lady = Slight delicacy
Bird = Equivalent of bloke
Filly = I have a moustache, gout, and a bad reputation
Lass = I'm terribly healthy and traditional. I may be into folksongs.
Chick = American male
Broad = Do any Americans still say this?
Dame = Ditto
Chappess = Preposterously good fun
Sheila = There has been much discussion in the comments on whether this word exists outside of one farm near Alice Springs

Individual = I'm a prick, or a policeman, or both.
Fucker = Amusing, I suppose. Take a long serious document on Microsoft Word. Go to EDIT, FIND, REPLACE, REPLACE ALL and then change "the" to "the fucking" throughout. It's great.

It annoys me more than I can say that Adam and Eve are always represented with navels

Monday, 19 July 2010


If something exulcerates you, it annoys you so much that it gives you an ulcer.

As Milton put it in Samson Agonistes:

Thoughts my tormentors..Exasperate, exulcerate, and raise Dire inflammation.

I just thought you ought to know.

An exulcerating young lady

Sunday, 18 July 2010

A Peal Of Sullen Bells

I've been idly reading the Wordsworth book of Gothic Short Stories. It's a collection of dark and gloomy tales form the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and it's amazing how formulaic they all are. Moreover, the formula always seems to involve bells.

The very first story, Sir Bertrand, starts with a noble knight riding on a lonely "heath" at sunset and hearing "the sullen toll of a distant bell". The second story, Captive of the Banditti, opens with the words "The sullen tolling of the curfew was heard over the heath", and who should hove into view but a noble knight.

And so on and bloody so forth. Nothing can happen in Gothic literature unless "the clock from the dungeon tower was heard to strike with unusual solemnity." It's rather like the distant barking of a dog in modern literature.

Three points occurred to me:

1) How can a chime be sullen? I mean, I know I'm being a trifle difficult here, but when you start to think about all these sullen bells, you do start to wonder.

2) "The castle bells rang out a merry [!] peal at the approach of a winter twilight" [The Spectral Bride] Again, I'm being a smidgen pedantic, but I know a bellringing fellow who absolutely insists that a peal of bells lasts for several hours. He has rung one peal of bells in his life and this is, apparently, a great achievement.

A bell tower contains a bunch of bells that can be rung in different orders. Each of these orders is called a change, hence ringing the changes (which has nothing to do with spot-the-difference puzzles). There are several thousand possible permutations and a peal of bells contains a minimum of five thousand changes. So a peal is a very long thing indeed. I don't know why anybody would want to ring five thousand changes, but bellringers' minds are funny places that probably shouldn't be investigated too thoroughly.

Originally, a peal was just any stroke on a bell. But by 1796 The Times was able to write that "The peal was divided into ten parts, or courses, of 504 each". So the anonymous author of The Spectral Bride was on the wrong side of pedantry. A peal, like a peck or a swathe, is one of those measurements that should be used with fear and trembling.

3) Bells are not always clichés. Literature contains some beautiful tintinnabulations. Here, in no particular order, are my favourite literary chimes. Obviously, there's the curfew tolling the knell of parting day in Gray's Elegy, but I prefer the The Waste Land, which has:

...each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

And there's John Donne's amazing feat of starting and ending a paragraph with phrases that entered the language whilst nobody can remember the middle:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

There's Falstaff's beautiful "We have heard the chimes at midnight, Master Shallow," which Orson Welles used as the title for his film. But the best bell I know is Baudelaire's La Cloche Fêlée, which is incurably French but translates loosely as:

The Broken Bell

Sweet sadness on a winter night to hear,
While on the grate still burns one crackling log
And strange and distant memories appear,
The sound of church-bells singing through the fog.

So sweet a sound, so happy and so sure.
Old age cannot defeat that steadfast bell:
Its firm and faithful call so good, so pure:
The guardian of truth! God’s sentinel!

My soul is broken. Though I sometimes try
To chime triumphant through the freezing night,
Its feeble noises, if they sound at all,
Resemble more the crippled soldier’s sigh
Who, trapped beneath the corpses of the fight,
Must die because he is too weak to crawl.

There are several much better translations (and the original) here. I must go now: Time and the bell has buried the post.

The Inky Fool's new alarm clock

P.S. Does anyone remember Mr Clapper?

Friday, 16 July 2010

Pool, Pool And Throwing Stuff At Hens

I spent yesterday either in the swimming pool or playing pool. This strict regime was broken only by a delicious lunch of roast chicken. It occurred to me, even in my languorous and licentious state, to wonder whether there was any connection at all between the two pools. There is not.

The pool that I was swimming in is of Germanic extraction and relates only to places like Liverpool, which means muddy waters (there is some sort of pop music joke to be made here, but I can't think of it at the moment).

The pool that I was playing (or, if you're American, shooting) goes back to 1848. Before that it was a gambler's card game and the pool was the money to be won. This goes back to the French poule, meaning the pot of money to be won. This is a trifle odd as une poule is French for a hen (as in the English pullet).

So far as anybody can tell the reason for this is an old French game: le jeu de la poule. In Medieval France medieval frenchmen would thrown medieval french stuff at a hen, which would run around squawking. Whoever hit the hen won a prize: hence pool the card game and hence pool the variant of snooker and billiards.

Hence also, pool your resources or carpooling. This surprised me as I had always imagined that when you pooled your money you were putting it into the same... pond, as it were.

So it turns out that my pool-playing related more closely to my lunch than to my swimming. It also means that a gene pool is, etymologically, a race of chickens.

The Inky Fool's animal sanctuary soon went to the bad

Thursday, 15 July 2010


I'm not sure, dear reader (I never am), but the following may be the most beautiful paragraph to which the English language has ever given birth, or ever will.

Tread softly and circumspectly in this funambulatory Track and narrow Path of Goodness: Pursue Virtue virtuously: Leven not good Actions nor render Virtues disputable. Stain not fair Acts with foul Intentions: Maim not Uprightness by halting Concomitances, nor circumstantially deprave substantial Goodness.
   - Thomas Browne, Christian Morals

And when I formed that opinion I didn't even know what funambulatory meant. I didn't care either. Sense can often mar the wonder of a word and meaning murders beauty. It turns out that funambulatory means "like a tightrope walker". So you, ambitious reader, can use it yourself in phrases such as "That finance meeting was a bitch: trying to play off the CEO and the CFO and that guy from HR... I tell you, my morning's been bloody funambulatory. Fancy a pint?"

But you will never write a sentence as sweet as Browne's.

I still haven't worked out what concomitances are.

Mrs Malaprop commuting to work

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Aux Armes, etc

Today is Bastille Day. So here, for your political edification, is a history of the French Revolution done entirely in terms of when words first appeared in the English language. All of them, of course, imported from the French. 


Sans Culotte

Capitalist, Functionary

Regime, Commune, Emigre

Demoralise (meaning to corrupt) , Disorganise, Guillotine



There's a fantastic Blake poem called The French Revolution, but I can't find it on the web.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The Oxford Comma

When Americans write lists they tend to do it like this:

The Inky Fool is always floating, gloating, thinking, stinking, and winking.

Those who never felt the need to waste tea in Boston Harbo(u)r tend to write it like this:

The Inky Fool is always floating, gloating, thinking, stinking and winking.

The English do not usually insert the comma before and. However, a chap called F.H. Collins insisted that you should, and it therefore became the house style of the Oxford University Press. So it's called an Oxford Comma*. There are myriad arguments for and against the Oxford comma. People cite authority, precedent, Fowler, ambiguity, concision(,) and almost everything else. These are not my concern.

I would merely like to point out that lists with an Oxford comma seem to build to a climax. The comma sets off the final noun and gives it emphasis.

You are my PA, my friend, my lover, and my god.

The commaless list, on the other hand seems more reasonable and less exciting.

Every Tom, Dick and Harry.

I would choose my punctuation based not on some rule, but on the way in which I would like you, mysterious reader, to read the sentence.

Now watch this:

*Or, sometimes, a serial comma.

P.S. There's an immemorial superstition that if you sleep with a book under your pillow the information therein will somehow seep into your brain. I have no idea whether this can be scientifically proved, but I used to live above the Oxford University Press Bookshop.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Some Winds

In 1274 Kubla Khan tried to invade Japan. He got an awful lot of soldiers and had just landed them and was getting ready for a nice battle when it started to rain and the wind began to blow. So, rather than risk their being marooned, the troops were ordered back into the boats. This was a mistake because the wind was very strong indeed and all the ships sank.

Not to be deterred Kubla tried again in 1281 and this time an even bigger typhoon raged for two days straight and spoiled everything. The Japanese were now convinced that Japan was being saved from invasion by "Divine Winds". The Japanese for divine was Kami and the Japanese for wind was Kaze and so the defenders of Japan in the 1940s were called Kamikazes.

Kubla was forced to return to the mainland and concentrate on pleasure domes.

The Chinook helicopters, of which the RAF do not seem to have enough, are named after a spring breeze that blows in North Western America and melts the snow away.

The Mistral blows southward through Provence. It's name comes from the Latin magister, meaning master, for this is a dominant wind. It gives you a headache and (I once heard but cannot confirm) that in Medieval French law if the mistral had blown for three days that would be considered a defence for murdering your wife.

The Simoom (which is alluded to in Edgar Allen Poe's Berenice) is an Arabic wind, formed on the uplands and driven down to the lowlands where the pressure increases its temperature in quite incredible and incomprehensible ways. In 1859 there was a simoom in Santa Barbara, California. The morning was a pleasant twenty-something (70s F) degrees and then at noon the temperature shot up to 54 degrees, or 133 degrees Fahrenheit, where it remained for the next few hours.

The people hid in their houses. The animals died on their feet.

It can be hot in the Lake District, damned hot

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Prose in Quotation

This is another of my index posts. The following is from the back of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations:

all for prose and verse                      CAREW
All that is not prose is verse              MOL
as well written as prose                    POUND
differs in nothing from prose            GRAY
for discourse and nearest prose        DRYD
Good prose is like a window-pane    ORW
I love thee in prose                              PRIOR
moderate weight of prose                 LAND
Not verse now, only prose                 BROW
Of a prose which knows no reason   STEP
other harmony of prose                    DRYD
pin up my hair with prose                 CONG
Poetic souls delight in prose             BYRON
prose and the passion                       FORS
prose is verse, and verse                  BYRON
Prose is when all the lines                BENT
prose run mad                                     POPE
Prose was born yesterday                FLAU
Prose = words in their best              COL
speaking prose without knowing it  MOL
They shut me up in a prose                 DICK
unattempted yet in prose or rhyme  MILT

That is all. Incidentally, anybody who has read the wonderful Me Cheeta, should study the index closely.

Saturday, 10 July 2010


An omniana is, according to the OED:

Thoughts or scraps of information about all or many kinds of things, esp. (a collection of) notes, jottings, or short pieces of writing on all or many kinds of subjects.

I feel like the chap in the Moliere play who is shocked to discover that all his life he has been speaking prose without knowing it.
Once, the Inky Fool's mind fell out of his ear

Friday, 9 July 2010


Ortzikara is a Basque word meaning the time when a storm is brewing. Not only is it a useful term, but I feel that there is something ominous in the very sound.  It's the sort of word that a high priest intones over a human sacrifice. That may be only my gloomy imagination, or it may be because Basque words all sound a trifle odd; but ortzikara is certainly a more frightening word than nibble.

I remembered ortzikara today because I am staying fifty miles from a range of invisible mountains. Not that they are diaphanous, but that they are hidden in a summer haze except when a storm is coming. Then they appear, towering gloomily on the horizon, and distant thunders roll over the plain.

It is just beginning to rain.

I should mention that I found ortzikara on the erudite Omniglot blog, here.

The Inky Fool was just laying out his picnic

Thursday, 8 July 2010

Concealed Farts

Our word partridge comes from the Old French pertis which comes from the Latin perdicem which comes from the Greek perdix which comes from the Greek verb perdesthai which means fart, because that's what a partridge sounds like when it flies. The low, loud beating of the wings sounds like the clapping of the buttocks when the inner gale is liberated.

Petard, which is a kind of explosive, comes from the French péter meaning fart, for reasons much too obvious to state. Incidentally, it was Hamlet who originally said:

Tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petard.

Hoist here simply means raised or blown sky high. Hamlet is talking about how he plans to kill Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who then become dead).

Pumpernickel (bread) was (for some reason unrelated to good marketing) originally just a German insult. Nickel meant devil and pumpern meant... I assume, dear and flatulent reader, that you get the picture. So it's devilfart bread.

All of which carminative fun leaves you with what Milton called "a singèd bottom all involved with stench and smoke."

The Inky Fool in his Sunday Best

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Lyttle Lytton

The other day I mentioned the Bulwer-Lytton contest for bad writing. I also mentioned that I disagreed with the judgement of its judges. I have since been informed by a kindly commenter that there is a much better prize: the Lyttle Lytton.

Each winner comes with a cogent explanation from Adam Cadre (I believe) of exactly what is so horribly wrong. There is also a limit of 25 words, which means they march snappily by. I thoroughly recommend it. The 2010 winners can be found by clicking on this link.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

The Dog Days

The Dog Days start today. Well, it depends who you ask, really. But if you ask the Book of Common Prayer the Dog Days start today, and that's good enough for me.

Dog Days have nothing directly to do with dogs: they are named after the Dog Star, also called Sirius, which is the brightest star in all the heavens (excluding the sun). Back in Roman times the Dog Star rose with the sun during late summer and it was believed that it was this conjunction of the two brightest stars in the sky that caused the heat of July and August.

If you want to know what the next couple of months will be like, you need only consult Hesiod's Works and Days:

In the season of wearisome heat, then goats are plumpest and wine sweetest; women are most wanton, but men are feeblest, because Sirius parches head and knees and the skin is dry through heat. But at that time let me have a shady rock and wine of Biblis, a clot of curds and milk of drained goats with the flesh of an heifer fed in the woods, that has never calved, and of firstling kids; then also let me drink bright wine, sitting in the shade, when my heart is satisfied with food, and so, turning my head to face the fresh Zephyr, from the everflowing spring which pours down unfouled, thrice pour an offering of water, but make a fourth libation of wine.

Which is, verbatim, what I'm going to say the next time I see a waiter.

That Sirus heats the earth is not true scientifically, but it is true poetically; and poetry is Much More Important than truth. If you don't believe that principle, try using the two methods to get laid.

Shakespeare mentions the Dog Days in Henry VIII. He describes a red-nosed fellow by saying:

There is a fellow somewhat near the door, he should be a brazier by his face, for, o' my conscience, twenty of the dog-days now reign in's nose;

Milton appears to mention the heat of Sirius in Lycidas:

Ye valley low where the mild whispers use
Of shades and wanton winds and gushing brooks,
On whose fresh lap the swart star sparely looks

Pope complains that "The Dog Star rages". But my favourite reference to the Dog Days is, for some reason, Fons Bandusiae by Horace. It's only a passing reference and it's in Latin but it translates very roughly as:

Sabine spring, as clear as glass,
Where the floating flowers pass,
Take tomorrow’s sacrifice
In your water cold as ice:

(For it grew its horns in vain,
For it will not breathe again)
Let the kid-goat’s hopeless blood
Mingle with your perfect flood.

No: the Dog Days’ horrid heat
Cannot touch you. Oxen’s feet
Stray from ploughshare to your pool,
Wander, rest there, and are cool.

Fame is yours, for I shall write –
And eternity recite
In perpetual murmuring tones –
Of the oak upon your stones.

However, as I said, the Dog Days have nothing to do with dogs and nothing whatsoever to do with Hamlet's comment that:

Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.

Monday, 5 July 2010


I am off on holy-day. However, this should not affect the blog too much. I have prepared a posy of posts already. Tomorrow's offering will appear in splendid automation at ten sharp, even as I am riding the funicular railway to my time-share bungalow on the summit of Mount Abora.

However, as there are bound to be gaps I would thoroughly recommend that you rush over and visit How To Write Badly Well.

I'll have some Internet access but will, necessarily, be far slower in replying to interesting, indignant or importunate comments and queries.

The Inky Fool was late for his flight

P.S. If anybody knows of somewhere unbelievably cheap to stay in Paris on the 20th, it would stop me going inseine.

Filler Words: Part the Second: Vocatives

It would be foolish, indeed reckless, to read this post without having first read this one.

Listen, you, I have something to say.

The you is dull and voiceless and could be replaced with many other far more fascinating words. For example:

Listen, dude, I have something to say.

The choice of substitute says nothing about the person being addressed, but an awful lot about the speaker or writer. It therefore gives the sentence a distinctive voice. In writing, where you have no accent or body-language to help you along, that is frightfully important. One well placed vocative can set the authorial tone for a whole book, blog post or ransom note.

Dear = married
Darling = Engaged or theatrical/fashion/overbearing female/gay
My child = Biblical and therefore whimsical
My good man = 1950s, Middle Class and slightly enraged
Dear Reader = Austenish
Gentle Reader = Eighteenth Century. It tells you to read the whole work in a particular, mannered way.
Buddy = American
Chuck = Northern working class
Duck = Ditto
Petal = Working class
Guv = Ditto
Babe [to a man or unknown, unisex reader] = California cool?
Poppet = Wonderfully old fashioned and endearing
Old Bean = Bertie Wooster
My Friend = Sinister mafioso
Dude = American, young. Unlike my friend, dude suggests reciprocity and similarity. I cannot call you dude unless I am a dude myself. (I am not a dude).


Love = Unshaven
Cherie, Bella, Liebling etc = Effusive female OR gay man
Sweetness = Camper than a row of tents
Hon (or, if she's German, Hun) = Familiar and vaguely American
Baby = Generally cool
Babe = One should remember David Cameron's "I love you, babe" to his wife "caught" on microphone after his conference speech, and Pamela Anderson's respose in the profound and moving film Barbed Wire, where she shoots people.


Mate = If you are my mate, I am your mate. I am insinuating that I share approximately your views on football, beer and the fairer sex.
Pal = In England always aggressive, but in a weirdly middle-class way
Son = Authoritative, but also threatening
My boy = Healthy, bullish, red-faced
Dear boy = Camp or terribly posh
Chief = Southern working class
Man = This is some good shit we're smoking
Mister = 1930s Chicago Gangster, 1970s cockney, 1990s... in fact there are so many disctinct voices that could be deduced that I should avoid this one until after the voice has been established.
Old chap = Charming in a Terry Thomas sort of way (and if you don't know who that is, click here)

Due to the continuing phallologocentric nature of society (a condition that I do my level best to perpetuate) you can use male vocatives from an unknown reader, but not female ones.

Once, on a train, I was slyly reading a love-letter over the shoulder of the lady next to me, because I am an incorrigible snoop. In it, her beau referred to her as "my little snugglosaurus." There were tears in her eye.

I'm not sure why.

As ever, corrections and additions in the comments please.

Miss Anderson reacting to the Inky Fool's views on vocatives

Sunday, 4 July 2010


I've just discovered that Independence Day is not simply a Will Smith film. It is, in fact, the day on which nobody must be hanged.

The Latin pendere meant hang, and its past participle was pensum. In meant not, de meant from, sus meant down... anyway:

If you are independent you are not dependent because the only things that are dependent are pendulums and pendants which hang around your neck. Pendants are therefore pending, or indeed impending. They are, at least, suspended, and are therefore left hanging in suspense.

Weighing scales hang in the balance. Scales can weigh out gold for paying pensions, stipends and compensations in pesos (but not pence).

All such dispensations must, of course, be weighed up mentally. One must be pensive before being expensive. You must give equal weight to all arguments in order to have either equipoise or poise. If you don't your scales will hang too much to one side and you will end up with a preponderance and propensity towards your own penchants. Whether these penchants make you perpendicular, I am too polite to ask.

I hope that this post on the pendulous hung together. If it did, it was a compendium.

Right. If you frequently weigh things up you think (pensare) about them. You give people flowers to make them think about you. Florologically speaking, the traditional flower to make you pensive for a loved one is the flower in the picture which was therefore called a pensée, or, in Modern English, a pansy. (The gay sense didn't come in until a hundred years ago). By the way, I couldn't find any way to work pansies into the main post, so I had to append them in an appendix.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Oozing Collectables

I have before me the particulars of a flat (or, if you must, apartment) which, apparently, "oozes charm."

Is that possible. Could charm - lovely, fresh-faced, care-free charm - ooze?

Charm comes from carmen which is Latin for song. Ooze comes from wase which was Anglo Saxon for mud.

There's something quite blood-curdling about these forced marriages between unsuitable words. I cannot see the words "Intimate Wipes" without shuddering. A few weeks ago I was sidling around the London Print Fair with Mrs Malaprop, lusting cashlessly for this picture or that. Mrs Malaprop observed with that if I ever did make any money I would "only go and squander it on collectables."

I detest the word collectables. It is the most pointless, hideous piece of jargon in the English language. You can collect anything: stamps, jam jars, baboons or oak trees. Every concrete noun could be collected, and even some abstract ones (cool and calm). So to lock that predatory horror of a word into a dark sentence with the delightful squander seemed the apogee of linguistic cruelty.

Squander is a splendid word (of obscure etymology). It has just enough morality to have meaning, but not enough to remove its sense of fun. George Best once said:

I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.

The River Ouse: not as muddy as you thought

P.S. First I should point out that Mrs Malaprop was aware of her linguistic antitheses. I would never wish to slight her language. Second, I think somebody else pointed out the intimate wipes before me, possibly Stephen Fry, but I'm not sure.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Bulwer-Lytton or: The Pen is Mightier than The Great Unwashed

The winners of the Bulwer-Lytton prize for the worst opening of a novel have been announced.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was a nineteenth century novelist, poet, playwright, politician, philanderer, debauchee and wife-incarcerator who put four phrases into the English language. Here are the first three:

The pen is mightier than the sword
   - From the play Richelieu, since disproved by experiment.

The Great Unwashed
   - From Paul Clifford, of which more anon.

The Coming Race

   -And if that is an unfamiliar phrase then you don't know nearly enough about Nazi mysticism or the lyrics to David Bowie's Oh You Pretty Things. It comes from a novel Bulwer-Lytton wrote about super-people who live underground, obviously.

However, poor Bulwer-Lytton will be forever remembered not for those sublimities, but for the ridiculous opening lines of Paul Clifford, which was published in 1830:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents--except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Apparently those first few words were much quoted in the Peanuts cartoon strip (which I fear I have never read). Anyway, the phrase "It was a dark and stormy night" have become a byword for bad opening lines.
Rightly so. That whole paragraph tells you nothing at all about the story that is to follow. Zero. Zilch. Nada. Rien.

Is this going to be a novel about a serial killer or about an amusing talking cat called Gerald? I don't know and that paragraph gives me not a hint of a whiff of a clue. It is a collection of clichéd images full of rain and darkness and signifying bugger all.

As with a proper cliché it could be cut out and prefixed to almost any novel set in London (and, with the alteration of a word, any city). That is what's wrong with it.

Which leads me inevitably on to the Bulwer-Lytton prize. Contestants have to write the first few lines of an imaginary terrible novel. This year's winner is a lady called Molly Ringle and her paragraph goes:

For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss--a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil.

But... but... that's not terrible. That's not terrible at all. So far as I'm concerned that's brilliant. I would read on. If I picked up a book in the bookshop and that was the first paragraph I would be leaping for the till, cash in hand and whooping joyously. It's surprising, it's funny, it is utterly different. It is everything that Bulwer Lytton's paragraph is not. There is the suggestion of Ricardo's desperation, of the unhealthiness of the relationship and yet of its comical contemptibility.

Molly Ringle's lines have none of the problems that scar Bulwer-Lytton's immortal drivel. They are original. They are amusing. They could not have been put at the start of any other book. I have a damned fine idea of the kind of (very odd) novel that I'm about to read. The story has already got itself going and I've been introduced to the main characters, their relationship and the animal to which they can best be compared. I care about Ricardo already.

But Felicity's horrid.

For all the winners and honourable mentions follow this link.

P.S. When he was old Kingsley Amis became so depressed with the tedium of contemporary literature that he vowed never to read another novel unless it began with the words "A shot rang out."

P.P.S. This whole post could, perhaps, have been better expressed in the words of a wildly successful screenwriter friend of mine who will tell you, at gun-point if necessary, that you should start a story as late as possible and finish as early as possible.

Such mysteries