Sunday, 31 October 2010

Puling Hallowmas

Once upon a time, people would go begging from door to door on All Hallows Day. Now they do it on All Hallows Eve, which is, I'm told, often shortened to Halloween. That this is a despicable and annoying custom is mentioned by Shakespeare, through the character of Speed in Two Gentlemen of Verona. Speed says that he knows his master to be in love... these special marks: first, you have learned, like Sir Proteus, to wreathe your arms like a malcontent; to relish a love song, like a robin-redbreast; to walk along, like one that had the pestilence; to sigh, like a school-boy that had lost his ABC; to weep, like a young wench that had buried her grandam; to fast, like one that takes diet; to watch like one that fears robbing; to speak puling, like a beggar at Hallowmas. 

The idea was that, in exchange for food or money, the beggar would say prayers for the souls of your defunct and decomposing relatives, All Souls' Day being the appropriate festival. I particularly like the word puling, which means talking in a thin or weak voice.

The Inky Fool welcoming trick-or-treaters

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Chaucer Stone

If you want to know what Jesus looked like you need only inspect a drainpipe in Coventry where his face miraculously appeared. I've never been utterly certain how, upon inspection of a piece of toast or a puffy cloud, people manage to identify a historical figure. The omissions of ancient portraiture mean that any burnt piece of toast could be a holy likeness for a Christian, or a blasphemous one for a Muslim.

Those, like me, who worship at the shrine of verbiage and prostrate themselves before the blessed poets will be more interested in the Chaucer Stone, which is kept in the British museum and depicts, geologically, the face of the blessed Geoffrey.

And there's a real portrait to which we can compare it. Chaucer hovers over English literature with agonising influence. Even Chaucer found it hard to live up to Chaucer. In the Man of Law's Prologue he says:

I can right now no thrifty tale seyn [say]
That Chaucer, though he can but lewedly
On metres and on rhyming craftily,
Hath said hem in swich [such] English as he can
Of olde tyme, as knoweth many a man;
And if he have noght said hem, leve [dear] brother,
In o book, he hath said hem in another.
For he hath told of loveris up and doun
Mo than Ovid made of mencioun
In his Epistles, that been full old.
What shold I tellen hem, syn [since] they been tolde?

Friday, 29 October 2010

Boring Drilling

I have, of late, been mucking around with power tools. Boring is rather boring, and one must learn the drill for drilling.

So far as anybody can tell*, these senses are related. A bore proceeds slowly through the rock: a bore proceeds slowly through his subject. However, it should be noted that there is a French word bourre, which means padding, that may bear responsibility.

Drills, when they're boring, go round and round and round and round; and soldiers when they march around the parade ground do the same. Thus drill to drill. Drill then came to mean anything routine, such as a fire-drill, which is, coincidentally, very boring.

I am now going to listen to The Turn Of The Screw**.

The Inky Fool got carried away

*And nobody is utterly sure.

** There was a young lady from Whitton
Who was kinky for Benjamin Britten;
And the things she would do
To The Turn Of The Screw
Are so lewd they can't even be written.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

The Language of Love

A young lady of my acquaintance asked a young chap, 'Are we seeing each other?' He frowned, glanced at a mirror and observed that his eyesight was fine. Was hers?

The terror of, and yearning for, labels have skewed the lover's lexicon. Euphemism and exaggeration have stolen from it all semblance of logic. All the following sentences are comprehensible, if utterly illogical:

We've been going out for so long that we always stay in.

My lover isn't in love with me. It's purely sexual.

My mistress does as she's told.

We've been on a few dates, but we're not dating.

I don't get on with my sixty-four-year-old girlfriend.

I'm not getting any sleep since we started sleeping together.

And thus do meanings split and fracture. The phrase divorces the verb. The verb cheats on the noun.

The Inky Fool playing it cool

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

An Omphalic Post

First off, an omphalos is a belly-button. So an omphalic post is a navel-gazing one. I would coin the word omphaloptic, but some blighter got there before me and the word means a lens that is convex on both sides. The correct term is omphaloskepsis: contemplation of the belly-button.

The reason for this umbilical fixation is that the Inky Fool is a year old today. It is 365 days since I wrote about branding (although I'm no longer sure of the fabulous fact I appended). Since then 423 posts have sprung, whimpering and forlorn, into the Blogosphere.

Since you ask (you do ask, don't you, dear reader?) here are my favourite twelve posts of the last year.

Data, Singulars and Plurals
Estate Agent's Dictionary
Gormless, Feckless, Ruthless and Reckless
Lionized Lions (and Lionel Singh)
Join The Majority
The Drunken, Addled, Insane Parliament of Bats and Dunces
Prepositions The End Of Sentences At
Snarling Snobs and Sniggering Sneaks
The Most Quoted Lines of Poetry: Now With Added Graphs!
Parenthetical Codpieces

I should thank all those who have put up links, or posted Inky Fool to Facebook, or e-mailed their friends or twittered or tweeted or otherwise done their bit to insinuate the Inky Fool into a surly and unforgiving world. If you've never e-mailed it to a friend, do so now.

Those who link here, are linked back to, and I thoroughly recommend trying all the lovely blogs that are listed down the right hand side of this page. Thank you to the Antipodean for telling me my typos. And thank you, dear reader, thank you for gazing down into my abyss. I don't know who you are, but I love you anyway.

In fact, I do know something about you. Due to the delights of Statcounter I can find out what words you googled in order to get here and the name of your server. It is a source of immeasurable pride to me that this blog spent a long time as first result if you did a Google-blog-search for donkeysex.

What little I get from Statcounter makes me confused, and rather curious. I see the same people coming back and I grow fond of them, by which I mean you.

So to the reader who keeps googling Who is the Inky Fool, just click on the contributors button on the right.

To the regular reader in the United States Senate, there's another regular reader in the House of Representatives. You should hook up.

To the readers on the House of Commons server, get back to work.

To the private detective in North Carolina, I'm innocent, I tell you.

To the other reader in Raleigh, NC, there's a private detective who keeps logging on just after you.

To the reader at Macmillan Publishers, give me a damned book deal.

And to the reader who got here searching for inky sex, come back!

Adam and Eve did not have belly buttons

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Unchanging Words and Roman Wives

Here's a little chart of words that we still understand. The older the word, the bigger it is: the newer, the smaller. If you click doubly on the picture you ought be able to see it more clearly.

The picture was drawn up by a chap called Mark Pagel at the University of Reading, for an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. The underlying principle is, of course, that the more basic a word is, the less it changes. Highfalutin words, like, for example, highfalutin, tend to be much more mutable. The most central words are as unchanging as a tramp's pants.

It is possible to write whole sentences that would have been understood in Anglo-Saxon times, more than a thousand years ago. For example:

Harold is swift. His hand is strong and his word is grim. Late in life he went to his wife in Rome.

However, most Anglo-Saxon sounds to modern ears like utter gobbledygook (a word that was not invented until 1944).

Lots more strange maps here.

The Inky Fool school for the study of ancient languages

Monday, 25 October 2010

Jane Austen and Latin

Professor Kathryn Sutherland, who, through no fault of her own, is an academic at St Anne's College at the University of Oxford in the county of Oxfordshire, has, in a paper much reported in the national press, suggested, to the surprise and consternation of many, that Jane Austen, who has for so long been regarded as the mistress of English prose, may have relied more than a little upon the corrections of William Gifford, a classical scholar in the employment of John Murray who was her publisher, a translator of Juvenal, and an imitator of Persius.

Christ, it's hard to write like Austen. Take the fourth sentence of Sense and Sensibility:

But her death, which happened ten years before his own, produced a great alteration in his home; for to supply her loss, he invited and received into his house the family of his nephew Mr. Henry Dashwood, the legal inheritor of the Norland estate, and the person to whom he intended to bequeath it.

Now let's cut away the subordinated stuff:

Her death....produced a great alteration...for...he invited... the family 

The last seventeen words are apposite clauses relating to the possessor of the object of the second main clause. The extraordinary thing is that the prose is so readable, so lucid, despite being grammatically so distant from spoken English.

English doesn't like to be complicated. It's a bluff, crude language that likes to stride around in a series of main clauses. The spoken equivalent of that sentence would be something like:

She died ten years before he did. That changed things. He needed someone to replace her. So he invited Henry Dashwood's family to come and live with him. Dashwood was the legal inheritor...

In fact, spoken English isn't quite like that because the sentences of spoken English rarely end. But if you replace all the full stops with and then you'll end up with something approaching normal conversation.

As I say, it doesn't make sense in English, but it would in Latin. English likes to be simple because English has so few inflections. Unlike Latin (or German for that matter), you can't pin a suffix to the end of the word family to show how it relates to the main verb. This means that, in English, your grammar's complexity is your reader's confusion; unless you're very, very careful.

However, as Latin prose was thought the model of good writing, and Latin language the palace of good thinking, its grammar crept into our literature, if not our language. Milton read all the classics, and wrote poetry that Ezra Pound denied was English at all. Thomas Browne knocked out jormungandrian sentences that nonetheless delight. Over breakfast, De Quincey used to improvise translations of the newspapers into Greek. Dr Johnson wrote a Latinate English that nobody ever spoke, but which was, when Austen began writing, considered the peak, pinnacle and pineapple of prose perfection.

I always thought that that was where Miss Austen got her prose style. She imitated Dr Johnson and Dr Johnson imitated the Ancients and thus... well, thus that fourth sentence of Sense and Sensibility. But now I have a new suspect: William Gifford, possessor of a classical education, and the man to whom Austen's prose was entrusted.

I have, though, not read Professor Sutherland's paper and can't find it online, so this must be taken as nothing more than the suspicions of a suspicious suspecter.

N.B. I'm working on the basis that Jane Austen herself didn't know Latin. This is reasonably safe, as she once wrote in a letter that she didn't know Latin. However, some scholars think that she only pretended not to know Latin in order to avoid getting a job.

Sunday, 24 October 2010


means to render thunderous. The word was invented by the American diplomat and revolutionary Joel Barlow for his wonderfully pompous epic The Columbiad. His reasoning was that fulmen was the Latin for lightning (as opposed to lightening) and that the word sounds fantastic.

Where yon blue ridges hang their cliffs on high
And suns infulminate the stormful sky.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Literary Cuckolding

A distressing mental image from today's Guardian.

Well, get him off them, then.

Poor things.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Red Pens And Acceleration

People didn't stick their heads into ovens with the gas on, jump in front of subway trains or come plummeting like dead weights out of hotel windows with a whoosh!, accelerating at the rate of sixteen feet per second to land with a hideous plop! on the sidewalk and die disgustingly there in public like an alpaca sack full of hairy strawberry ice cream, bleeding, pink toes awry.
   - Catch-22, Joseph Heller

I was a proof reader once. Perhaps, dear reader, you have noticed all the typos that wriggle their way into this blog and think that I can't have been much of a proof reader. However, it is a truth universally acknowledged that it is impossible to proof your own writing. The writer remembers what he meant to write, and therefore sees what he meant to write. That's why people need proofers: proofers are other people.

Anyway, I know how a proofer's mind works. I know the mistakes he is looking out for: the missing prepositions, the incorrect numbers, the words the words written twice. This last error is terribly common with writers who were distracted for a second and then continued to type.

That's why I'm pretty sure that the mistake in the paragraph above is the fault not of Joseph Heller, but of some poor proofer who doesn't remember his physics.

...accelerating at the rate of sixteen feet per second....

Your speed is measured in distance per time (e.g. 5 miles per hour). Your acceleration is measured in speed gained over a period of time (e.g. 20 mph per hour). If, dear suicidal, you jump out of a hotel window you will accelerate at sixteen feet per second per second.

And the chap who proofs the coroner's report will tut and tush and take out his red pen and strike out the last two words.

The proofer who adds a mistake to his text is, of course, going straight to hell, where he will be scribbled over in red by a hundred demons who will pluck missing commas from his nether-regions.

A friend of mine once tipped his chair too far back, keeled over, and fell on his arse. Rather than looking foolish, though, he picked himself up, smiled and nodded sagely and muttered, almost to himself, as though recording the result of a successful experiment "9.8 metres per second per second."

Whenever you drop something, dear clumsy reader, it is an infinitely reusable line.

Thursday, 21 October 2010


A fainéant is an idler and a sluggard. Somehow you can guess that without bothering to dig out your dictionary. Fainéants sound lazy. Why? Why, dear inactive reader, did you suspect immediately that a fainéant was a lazybones, a lie-a-bed, and a lotos-eater?

Perhaps it was the suggestion of faint, with the éan slumbering redundantly in the middle. You pictured the poor fainéant so shocked by the threat of work that he had to go and lie down with some smelling salts and a good novel. Or perhaps you detected in fainéant a whisper, a suggestion, of fain. 'I would fain do that,' says the fainéant, 'but I have this terribly important pillow that I've promised to warm.'

Both suggestions rest dreamily upon the word like a warm linguistic duvet. Then you see an older spelling and the etymology seems to spring out at you.

Is there no difference [asked Samuel Ward in 1618] between busibodies and tell-clocks, between fac-totum and fay't neant?

'Aha!' you think, believing yourself to have unravelled the fainéant's sleepy secrets. 'A fainéant is a fait neant, a French do-nothing! It is like the Italian dolce far niente: it is sweet to do nothing.' And with that you are satisfied and relapse into a deeper slumber.

Yet still, dear reader, you are wrong: wrong because the French themselves were (as the French ever are) wrong. They thought that a fainéant was a fait neant because that's how it sounded to them. Yet the origin is hiding in a more ancient bedroom. A faignant, in Old French, was sluggard who feigned some excuse (French faindre) and feign relates to feint whose meaning meandered from lie to lazy to weak to faint, which means that, in a way, dear drowsy reader, you were right all along.

The original fainéants were the rois fainéants, the French kings of the late Merovingian dynasty who did nothing at all and earned themselves marvellous monikers like Louis the Sluggard.

Or as Catullus put it:

Otium, Catulle, tibi molestum est;
Otio exsultas nimiumque gestis;
Otium et reges prius et beatas
Perdidit urbes.

Which translates very roughly as:

Laziness shall be my end,
Laziness, my dearest friend,
Who wrecks without remorse or pity
Honoured king and holy city.

A busy day at Inky Fool mansions

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Long Sentences and the Sahelian Swahili

Knowledge corrupts prose. You write upon subjects you know. Thus you can write a sentence that seems clear to you. You understand because you understood the ideas as you wrote it. Yet to the uninformed reader for whom you meant it, it is a belligerent mob of subordinated clauses, cavilling caveats and curious connectors.

Take this sentence from an article I was just reading:

As the longtime editor of the Socialist Register, Leys would probably not endorse this view, but a strong case can be made that just as it had been a mistake for supporters of communism who nonetheless opposed the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba to keep saying that not one of these actual communist regimes had lived up to the doctrine's emancipatory potential, so it is time to admit that there is only "actually existing" development, and that it has not worked.

I can make neither head nor tail of that. I could try taking the sentence apart, but I'm not even sure how to. On my fifth reading of it, I decided that he had missed out a not. On my sixth I wasn't so sure. Now, I'm quite sure that the author knows what he means. He seems like a clever chap. But that is the problem. His expertise has got the better of his prose. Because he can understand the sentence he assumes that others will. Because he has a subtle and complex understanding, his prose is subtle and complex and cannot be understood at all.

The simple solution would have been to break the sentence up. Eighty-one words is just too long, unless you're Milton. A full stop after view would be a start. I'm not sure how to continue because I still don't get the gist of the remaining sixty-six words.

The understanding must be subtle, the prose simple: such is the paradox of informative writing.

The article did, though, give me a word that I'd never heard before: sahelian. The Sahel is the strip of Africa immediately to the south of the Sahara. It comes from the Arabic sahil, meaning edge as it is the edge of the desert. The word is therefore terribly useful metaphorically. If I'm feeling pessimistic I could be feeling sahelian, with deserts of misery sweeping away before me. A chap who had just lost his job could receive a sahelian P45. An ambitious and verbose journalist could call today's Comprehensive Spending Review a sahelian moment.

The plural of sahil is, for some reason best known to the Arabs, sawahil. That is why the inhabitants of the edges, or coasts, of East African are called the Swahili, or the coastal people. That does not mean that the Swahili (coastal) live in the Sahel (edge of the desert), only that their names come from the same source. After all, mad Welshmen aren't walnuts.

Whereas the Swahili are opposite Madagascar

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Overground Retronyms

I was joyriding on the North London Line and happened to read the message that scrolls forever on the LED display.


Now quite aside from the redundancy of London (although I like to imagine somebody jumping up and shouting 'This isn't Tokyo?') the word overground is curious. It is what is known these days as a retronym. There was a time when all trains were overground unless otherwise specified, but London is now so filled with metal worms sliding gracelessly beneath the city, that they need to tell you that this train is overground.

It's the same principle by which we have a landline, organic food, or live music.

Mind you, as the train has windows, you wouldn't think that the word was utterly necessary.

Reasonably obvious

P.S. A philosopher friend of mine once pointed out how the use of the word music has changed: that you can now ask 'What music do you have?' and someone can reply 'I have Caruso singing Poker Face.' The idea would be incomprehensible a couple of hundred years ago.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Less Is More, Up Is Out

R. Buckminster Fuller is often said to be the inventor of the geodesic dome and the motto Less is More. Neither are his. The geodesic dome was invented by Walther Bauersfield (Fuller obtained the patent) and the phrase less is more by Robert Browning in the poem Andrea Del Sarto: called "The Faultless Painter".

Del Sarto was a renaissance painter who acquired the title Senza Errori because he was considered the most technically accomplished painter in Italy, but without inspiration, without a spark, without anything to say. He had wings and nowhere to fly to. Browning depicts him talking to his wife, Lucrezia, about his failure as she waits for her lover to arrive:

I do what many dream of, all their lives,
- Dream? strive to do, and agonize to do,
And fail in doing. I could count twenty such
On twice your fingers, and not leave this town,
Who strive - you don't know how the others strive
To paint a little thing like that you smeared
Carelessly passing with your robes afloat, -
Yet do much less, so much less, Someone says
(I know his name, no matter) - so much less!
Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.
There burns a truer light of God in them,
In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,
Heart, or whate'er else, than goes to prompt
This low-pulsed forthright craftsman's hand of mine. 
Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,
Reach many a time a heaven that's shut to me...

Del Sarto's tragedy is that "a man's reach should exceed his grasp", although I don't know how original that line was to Browning. Anyway, it's a fantastic poem and you can read the whole thing here. There's also a lovely, and I'm sure deliberate, etymological joke about "Such frank French eyes".

Buckminster Fuller never wrote a poem that good, but he did have a funny idea about banning the words up and down. You see the earth is (so modern science claims) round. So my up, would be an Australian's down*. Buckminster Fuller proposed using in and out, downstead. When you go up you go outward from the centre of the earth and when you go down you go inward. So he proposed going outstairs and instairs.

This idea has a frivolity that I could find myself supporting, were it not that I fear it would cause unnecessary distress and confusion to those who are down and out.

The Inky Fool wonders where he left his shirt

*This will be significant during the Ashes.

Saturday, 16 October 2010


I can't be bothered today. Sorry, but that's just how it is. I'm not your slave, you know. You can't go round treating a chap like a beast of burden. I have a lot of important things to drink. If you really must read something, I recommend that you have a look at this splendid little post on the use of the word hirquitalliency in seventeenth century erotica.

It's vital and important information.

P.S. Thanks to the Antipodean for this.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Passing the Buck

Fool that I am, I had always thought that the buck in passing the buck or the buck stops here was a dollar. Of course, when you think about it, that hardly makes sense. How would passing somebody a dollar shift responsibility? I probably thought that it was a dollar only because the elaphine alternative, that you were passing a male deer, was even less congruous. But that's etymologically closer.

Bucks have horns. The horns can be chopped off (it's best to kill the buck first, or at least get it drunk). Why would you chop off a buck's horn? To make a beautiful knife handle, of course. And once you have your buckhorn knife you can use it to cut things, stab people or mark the dealer in a game of poker.

The question of whose turn it is to deal is terribly important as the dealer can fiddle the cards, choose the form of poker, and has the advantage of placing the last bet. So in the saloons of the wild west and untamed Occident he needed to be clearly marked. This was done by stabbing a knife into the table in front of him. When his deal was done he would pass the buck(horn) to the next dealer.

Here is Mark Twain describing a conversation between a priest and a "rough" in the 1860s:

"Are you the duck that runs the gospel-mill next door?"

"Am I the-pardon me, I believe I do not understand?"

With another sigh and a half-sob, Scotty rejoined:

"Why you see we are in a bit of trouble, and the boys thought maybe you would give us a lift, if we'd tackle you - that is, if I've got the rights of it and you are the head clerk of the doxology-works next door."

"I am the shepherd in charge of the flock whose fold is next door."

"The which?"

"The spiritual adviser of the little company of believers whose sanctuary adjoins these premises."

Scotty scratched his head, reflected a moment, and then said:

"You ruther hold over me, pard. I reckon I can't call that hand. Ante and pass the buck."

"How? I beg pardon. What did I understand you to say?"

"Well, you've ruther got the bulge on me. Or maybe we've both got the bulge somehow. You don't smoke me and I don't smoke you. You see, one of the boys has passed in his checks and we want to give him a good send-off, and so the thing I'm on now is to roust out somebody to jerk a little chin-music for us and waltz him through handsome."

"My friend, I seem to grow more and more bewildered. Your observations are wholly incomprehensible to me. Cannot you simplify them in some way? At first I thought perhaps I understood you, but I grope now. Would it not expedite matters if you restricted yourself to categorical statements of fact unencumbered with obstructing accumulations of metaphor and allegory?"

[In case you're wondering, Scotty's friend has died and he wants the priest to deliver the eulogy at the funeral]

Anyway, a chap called Fred Canfil visited the warden of a prison in Oklahoma and saw a sign above the desk saying The Buck Stops Here. He liked it so much that he had a copy made and gave it to his boss Harry S. Truman who put it up in his office.

Which leads us, dear reader, to one overwhelming question: what was Harry S. Truman's full name?

I'll give you a clue: it's the same principle as Ulysses S. Grant and H. Norman Schwarzkopf.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Bad Sex With Martin Amis

Martin Amis correctly observes that sex scenes in novels are uniformly terrible. There is a Bad Sex Award given out each year by the Literary Review, but no good one. There is a good reason for this, which can be observed in the simple sentence:

He got into his car and drove off.

That sentence masks a hundred little actions. Were it fully written, it would go something like:

He reached down and grasped the cold metal of the door handle that sat in the bright red paint of the car's side, with one firm tug it moved upwards and with that movement the door came open allowing him to climb into the L-shape of upholstery that was the driver's seat... etc etc etc he pressed his left foot down onto the clutch that gave way and, with his left hand he reached for the gear lever... etc etc etc

'Yes,' thinks the reader, 'I know. That's how you get into a car and drive off.' A standard action requires no narration. It's nothing to do with whether the language is flowery or plain, good or bad. We do not describe the process of breathing in and out, nor the mechanics of opening the fridge. And sex is, unless you're the Marquis De Sade, a pretty standard business.

In fact I should add a caveat at this point that if there is something astonishing about the sex then the novelist should of course describe it. But what is astonishing is never, or rarely, the sex.

He got into his Batman costume and she started reciting A Season In Hell, and they had sex. 

Is enough. The sex itself is going to be a mechanical business. From the reader's point of view, it is everything else that is interesting: the lead-up, the aftermath, the wallpaper in the bedroom, all is going to be more interesting than the actual physical fandango.

They had sex beneath the red patterned wallpaper. She giggled throughout.

Anything but elaborate on that one phrasal verb.

Of course, it's a terribly emotional business, sex, or so I've been told. And when something is terribly emotional it seems important. But I don't think that's the case. People get emotional about all sorts of things. Flags, for example, people get terribly emotional about their country's flag. But that does not mean that the Union Jack requires description. We know what it is, and that is that.

Their mother had told them that if they had dirty thoughts they'd turn to stone, but they didn't listen.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010


It is a strange and mooreeffocish thing to look upon the photograph of a dear, bald friend in the days when he had hair. Stranger still to think that once upon a time you could be in a dudgeon without that dudgeon being high. Yet so it was, dear reader. In the sixteenth century you could simply take something in dudgeon, the altitude unmentioned.

As for jinks, well they were high before they were anything else. Originally, a highjinks was someone with a good liver and a bad conscience. The highjinks would settle down to booze with a stranger, match him drink for drink, and, when his victim passed out, would rob him (or swindle him while he was semi-conscious).

High could also mean complete or advanced and thus we have high noon and High Noon, which is the most watched film aboard Air Force One.

Now it's high time this post finished. So I shall hightail it (like a stampeding cow) to the high seas (which are high because they're deep).

The Inky Fool kills a man with passive smoke

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

To Ail

North Korea's ailing leader Kim Jong-il took over the reins of the country after the death of his father Kim Il-sung in 1994.
   -The BBC

Ail is a strange verb. It exists almost entirely in the strange dialect spoken by journalists. Moreover, ail is almost always a participle. No recent British newspaper has used ail in the infinitive. Moreover, when ail does become an active verb, its meaning changes. Rather that suffering, it starts to mean harming. The reason for this is no doubt the phrase about curing what ails thee. Indeed, every ails that I could find in recent news was preceded by the word what, as in "we want to get to the heart of what ails our schools" (The Independent).

So if you are ailed, you ail. Nobody in the news seems ever to have ailed actively, apart from an unfortunate Cumbrian chap who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease and observed "I haven't ailed owt all my life, so it's just my turn to get something.'

I will ail. I have ailed. I did ail, but now I'm feeling a lot better, thank you.

In the same way, it's easy for a show, a film or an album to be hotly anticipated; but very hard to anticipate hotly.

Monday, 11 October 2010


Once upon a time, 180 years ago, a shop was built in Belgravia, on Motcomb Street. It was a shop like no other, because it was going to sell everything. It displayed goods manufactured by all conceivable kinds of craftsmen: carpenters, potters, painters, sculptors, glassblowers, silversmiths, goldsmiths, blacksmiths and (I assume) whitesmiths.

Then, as now (as ever shall be) a shop in Belgravia needed a fancy, filigreed, highfalutin name. So the Seth Smith brothers who had built it called it The Pantechnicon, which is Greek for Pertaining To All Of The Crafts, or Universally Crafty.

The shop did not do well. After a while they converted it into a storage place for people who had nowhere to put their furniture. All over Victorian London the great horse-drawn wagons would trundle, taking beds, divans, sofas and seats to and from the Pantechnicon. As with modern moving vans they had the name of the company- Pantechnicon - painted on the side.

The furniture storage business did very well until February 1874 when the Pantechnicon burnt to the ground. However, it had been around for long enough for the vast removal wagons to become universally known as pantechnicons. They were massive, twelve foot long and seven foot wide.

Nothing is left of the Pantechnicon today but the facade, and a nearby pub of the same name. But it still survives in the language as the name for a large vehicle that is just outside my window.

Not if you're American, though. I don't think Americans call them pantechnicons.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Saint Paul, Cleopatra, Shakespeare and Alliteration

As a little follow up to my previous post on Saint Paul. Saint Paul was born in Tarsus early in the first century. When he popped out into the world there would still have been people in the city who remembered the visit made by Cleopatra in 41 BC. Though, unlike Saint Paul, they would not realise that it was BC.

Cleopatra had been summoned there by Mark Antony who wanted her to support his war against the Parthians who kept winning wars by unsportingly shooting arrows in retreat. These were Parthian shots.

Anyway, the river Cydnus ran through Tarsus and Cleopatra insisted that she meet Antony by boat. Plutarch describes the meeting thus in Thomas North's translation of 1579:

...she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, cithernes, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge.

Sound familiar? It damned well should do, dear reader. Here's something from c. 1605.

The barge she sat in like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails and so perfumed, that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.

It's always great to watch Shakespeare at work, and the thing to notice here is how he cuts and elaborates on the basis of alliteration. The word barge is in the original, and Shakespeare adds that it was burnished and that it burned and that its gold was beaten. The poop and purple are in the original, so Shakespeare invents the idea that the sails were perfumed. Shakespeare picks the flute from among all Plutarch's instruments and then makes the water follow faster.

You see the method?

As I keep saying, Shakespeare was all technique.

The Inky Fool realised he was on the wrong ferry

N.B. Readers of immemorial antiquity will remember that I have blogged about this passage before.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Some Readings

The British Library has released a CD of rare recordings of poets reading their own work. The BBC has some extracts, including a crackly recording of Tennyson reciting The Charge of the Light Brigade, which is of course one of his worst poems. You can hear them here.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Thalatta! Tarsus!

My wandering walkabout, roaming like a dream between the spare beds of London, is over. In honour of my new address, we shall have a little post about Saint Paul. Saul of Tarsus is responsible for one of the greatest passages in the English language, 1 Corinthians 13, and of course he gave us a couple of sayings like as you sow, so shall you reap (Gal 6v7) and the wages of sin is death (Rom 6v23). This latter statement is not accurate.

Yet dear old Paul also gave us little linguistic morsels that we might never notice, because they aren't large enough to be a quotation at all. The first labour of love was that of the Thessalonians, for which Paul gave thanks in his letter. Paul was the first man to be all things to all men.

To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.
   Corinthians 9v22

Paul was the first man to see people fallen from grace (Gal 5v4), the first to fight the good fight (1Tim 6v12), and the first powers that be did their being in Tyndale's translation of Romans 13v2.

I'm not sure whether I'd get on with Paul. Wittgenstein said that the stream that had flowed so purely in the gospels seemed to have acquired froth in the epistles of the apostle. Somebody once told me that Paul had to be understood as a fallible and fallen man struggling to make a church out of a life. This may be so and I may be nothing more than Alexander the coppersmith. Paul's language may be chaotic and his grammar byzantine, as anybody who has tried to read him aloud will acknowledge. But when he was good he was divine, and he also gave the language a Damascene conversion.

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept my faith... The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpas, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.
(2Tim 4)

The Inky Fool moves in

N.B. This post works on the basis that the King James Bible was divinely inspired, and that in Heaven everybody speaks archaic English. If Heaven is not like that, I shall refuse to go in, and join my friends in  Hell.

Thursday, 7 October 2010


If something is hypnopompic, it happens when you are just beginning to wake up. Still half-conscious you imagine that the alarm clock is a fire engine, that the cockerel is your friend and that the bed is a warm womb from which you will never be induced.

It is the opposite of hypnogogic which applies to falling asleep and myoclonic jerks. Hypno is sleep and pomp is from the Greek word for send. A psychopomp is somebody who guides souls from one world to another: vide Charon, Papa Legba and Virgil.

Oh, and the immemorial reviser's belief that you'll remember a recording played to you while you're sleeping is hypnopædia.

I've got to stop doing this

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Some Rags

I always thought that a toerag was a rag used for cleaning the toe-caps of your shoes. I was wrong. A toerag is a substitute for a shoe or sock. Unshod tramps would wrap a rag around their toes to keep them from falling off in the cold.

Nobody is quite sure where the word rag comes from. It could be related to rug. It could be a backformation from ragged. Anyway, it seems to have been the ragged nature of the syncopated rhythm that gave us ragtime, first recorded in the title of Mississippi Rag by W.H. Krell in 1897 (Krell followed it up the next year with Picaninny Rag or Shake Your Dusters).

Newspapers have been referred to as rags since 1734, when a fellow called Roger North wrote:

Would any one expect in Print, upon tolerable Paper, and a clear Character, such Malice and Knavery as lies here, scarce fit for Midnight Grubstreet Rags.

Rags To Riches was a play by E.E. Rose and came out in 1897. Rag-and-bone men wanted bones to make glue.

But nobody knows why you lose your rag when somebody gets your goat. I assume the two are attached.

The Inky Fool's career as a couturier

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

American Clothes

I've been staying in the flat of an American friend and found amongst his books an American-English dictionary. It is a slim volume, almost bulimic, and it was first published in 1971.

This antiquity makes it a curious book. It preserves the distinction between the American billion (a thousand million) and the British (a million million): a numerological nomenclature that we abandoned twenty or thirty years ago. I believe that in the City billions have been smaller since the sixties.

Other terms testify to their times. I had no idea what a blackleg was, but imagine that in 1971 it was vital information for the travelling strike-breaker.

Mainly, though, it shows the areas in which our languages have drifted apart. Every third word or so is to do with either cooking or clothes. Barrettes, bathrobes, bellpeppers, bobbie pins, broils, business suits, candy, cheesecloth, clothes pins, collar stays, cookies, corn starch, cream of wheat and so on and so forth are still absent from English English. I knew about three of them, but the rest are a complete surprise. Do Americans really call it a lima bean rather than a broad one? Astonishing. Do swedes really become rutabagas beyond the Atlantic storms?

I suppose it's natural that these words should have drifted. Cooking is more talked about than communicated. It doesn't pop up much in films (movies) and novels in the way that serial killers do. Families have their own names for favourite dishes, so it is natural that a nation should as well.

And all those clothes! It is permanently amusing to an Englishman that American men like to wear their pants, knickers, vests and suspenders on the outside. If I tried that I would be arrested. Again.

What interests me about the clothes is that clothes do appear in novels. People are always being introduced as wearing a derby and jockey shorts, yet American novels have not affected English English. Why? I would guess that it is because clothes are almost never mentioned in films. On screen we can see what somebody has on (trousers and a tweed jacket) and no character needs to speak the words.

It's an old streetwalker of a book: outdated but fun. I never knew that a robin was a different creature in America. However, the book misses my favourite difference. Few legal activities give me more pleasure than hearing an angry American telling me that he's really mad and really pissed, because in English that means that he's drunk and insane.

Ours is prettier

Monday, 4 October 2010

I Shall Demonstrate The Reality Of This Dessert

Words change their meanings: phrases survive. Prove once meant test as well as show to be true. The two meanings are so close that they could reasonably interchange. To be tried and tested is to be shown adequate. Nobody says, though I suppose they could, that he was tried and tested... and found wanting.

Proof as test died out. But the phrase The proof of the pudding is in the eating remains, almost incomprehensible to modern ears: cogito ergo tiramisu. Similarly, the exception is still said to prove the rule, which, with the modern meaning of prove, is a statement of delightful fatuity.

Proving grounds are not, of course, places for ambitious epistemologists, but places where you are tested. And so on and so forth until it all proves too much.

It's enough to drive a proof reader to gin, strong gin, maybe 80% proof, and that's not waterproof.


P.S. I'm now suffering from lapse of meaning.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Will, Shall and Mornington Crescent

Volumes, tomes and libraries have been written on the correct use of will and shall. So I shall keep this short (as the film archivist once said). I was in Mornington Crescent tube station yesterday, waiting for the lift (elevator, if you're American) to raise me to superterranean liberty.

A voice, one of those rather too clear female voices that machines always have, said:

Lift number two shall be the next lift.

And it didn't sound right at all. It's not that I was concentrating. I wasn't. I was guilelessly clutching my suitcase, my mind its habitual blank. But my first thought was that it was a spell. It sounded as though the voice were trying to make lift number two the next lift, as though it were an imperative, as though Harry Potter were pointing his wand and willing that lift to come and get me.

Lift number two shall be the next lift.

In grammar, as in buttoning, nothing reveals more than a mistake. I think that my misunderstanding reveals something of the distinction between will and shall. Shall suggests what should happen, it expresses a human hope or order. Thou shalt not kill. If a weatherman were to say 'It shall rain tomorrow', it would sound wrong, because will or going to are used for such predictions. Similarly 'You will not kill' does not sound like a command, merely a statement of fact or murderous inadequacy.

Anyway, Fortune smiles on the confused, because in speech we usually contract both words to 'll.

The confused should follow this link.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Thomas Derrick, Jack Robinson and Dr Guillotin

Once upon a time, hanging was the punishment for almost any crime. Even Ben Jonson, for the trivial offence of murder, was sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted when he proved that he could read and thus got Benefit of the Clergy. He had a T branded on his thumb and was sent home with a warning.

The T stood for Tyburn, which is where the hangings used to take place. The man who would have executed Ben Jonson was called Thomas Derrick. Thomas Derrick was a nasty man. There hadn't been enough applicants for the role of executioner and so the Earl of Essex pardoned a rapist on condition that he would take on the job. That rapist was Derrick.

Modern recruitment companies could learn a thing or two from the Earl of Essex.

Which isn't to say that Derrick was technically bad. In fact, he was something of an innovator. Rather than just slinging the rope over the beam, he invented a complicated system of ropes and pulleys, and it was by this method that he, in 1601, executed the Earl of Essex.

There's a moral in that, but I haven't the foggiest notion what it is and this is an counterethical post because Derrick's name survives. The rope system he invented started to be used for loading and unloading goods at the dock and that is why modern cranes still have a derrick.

There are three main theories on why things happen before you can say Jack Robinson. The first is that Robinson used to be the French term for an umbrella (because of Robinson Crusoe), and that French servants were usually called Jaques. This meant that when rich Frenchmen visited England and were surprised by the inevitable rain they would shout "Jaques, robinson."

The second theory is that there was an eccentric fellow in early nineteenth century London who would walk out of parties without warning, often before you could even say his name, which was Jack Robinson. However, there is no contemporary evidence for his existence.

The third and most plausible theory is that it comes from Sir John Robinson who was constable of the Tower of London from 1660 to 1679. He was therefore in charge of executions and was a stickler for efficiency rather than solemnity. The prisoner was marched out, put on the block and shortened without any opportunity for famous last words. He did not even have the time to appeal to the overseer by crying 'Jack Robinson.'

So derricks and brief spans of time are both named after cruel and psychotic executioners. The guillotine, on the other hand, is named after a jolly nice chap.

Dr Joseph-Ignace Guillotin had nothing whatsoever to do with the invention of the Guillotine. In fact, so far as anybody can tell, he was against the death penalty. Nobody's sure who designed the first modern guillotine, but it was built by a German harpsichord-maker called Tobias Schmidt.

It was Guillotin's kindness that got the machine named after him. You see, in pre-revolution France poor people were hanged, whereas nobles had to the right to be executed, which was considered less painful (although I'm not sure how they worked that out). When the poor French were revolting, one of the key demands was the right to be beheaded. Dr Guillotin was on the committee for reforming executions. He decided that the mechanism with the blade was the least painful and most humane method available. He recommended it.

In the debate that followed, on the first of December 1789, he made one silly remark: "Avec ma machine, je vous fais sauter la tete d'un coup-doeil, et vous ne souffrez point." With my machine, I cut off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it.

It's a great line. People loved it. They composed a comic song about it. Here's an English translation:

And physician,
Bethought himself, 'tis plain,
That hanging's not humane
   Nor patriotic;
And straightway showed
A clever mode
   To kill - without a pang-men;
Which, void  of rope or stakes,
Suppression makes
   Of hangmen.

'Twas thought, and not in vain,
   That this slim
   Hippocrates limb
Was jealous to obtain
The exclusive right of killing
By quicker means than pilling.

   The patriot keen,
The best advice to have
   Before the next debate
   Consults Coupe-tete
Chapetier and Barnave;   
   And then off-hand
   His genius planned
   That machine
That 'simply' kills - that's all -
Which after him we call

So Thomas Derrick and Jack Robinson were both sadistic, heartless thugs, whose names live on in innocence, if not glory. Poor Dr Guillotin's family were so embarrassed that they had to change their name.

There is, as the fellow remarked in the empty magistrates court, no justice.

The Inky Fool catches forty winks