Friday, 31 December 2010

New Year's Evening

Another circle around the sun is complete, and nobody will tell me how many more we must do. The earth is back where it started and there is No Progress.

Australia is a terribly advanced country, and almost all of the world's marsupials are already facing up to the horrors of 2011, meanwhile beavers and bald eagles languish and linger in 2010. Under the old system, days started at sunset and the eve, even or evening was therefore part of the following day.

If you want a useful word, then an apophoret is a gift given on New Year's Eve. I recommend gin.

Anyway, for those like me who shudder at the pedicular Scottish doggerel that Burns so optimistically called poetry, here's a sober little something by Charles Lamb from his poem The New Year. My apophoret to you, dear poetic reader.

Why should we then suspect or fear 
The influences of a year, 
So smiles upon us the first morn, 
And speaks us good so soon as born?
Plague on't ! the last was ill enough, 
This cannot but make better proof; 
Or, at the worst, as we brush'd through 
The last, why so we may this too; 
And then the next in reason should 
Be superexcellently good; 
For the worst ills (we daily see) 
Have no more perpetuity, 
Than the best fortunes that do fall; 
Which also bring us wherewithal 
Longer their being to support. 
Than those do of the other sort; 
And who has one good year in three, 
And yet repines at destiny,
Appears ungrateful in the case,
And merits not the good he has.

And to all* readers, a superexcellently good New Year.

The Inky Fool composing tomorrow's post

*With a couple of exceptions.

Thursday, 30 December 2010


If you are squiriferous you are like a squire, which is to say that you are gentlemanly. It's a fun word, if only because it is redolent of squirrels. Also the squ sound is irresistible to any thoughtful speaker of English.

Incidentally, if you are both a squire and a parson, then you are a squarson. Squarsons were so ubiquitous in the Victorian age that there were also squishops and squebendaries.

If a squire decided to pass on
His title to some lowly parson,
Then the words would be one
And the priest would become
Not squire or parson, but squarson.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Some Shakespeare Criticism

The following comes from George MacDonald Fraser's Quartered Safe Out Here. MacDonald Fraser, who would become famous for the Flashman books, was an officer of the Border Regiment and fought in Burma during the Second World War. Late in the campaign, just before the battle of Pyawbee, he records this little anecdote:

I got two paperbacks from home which I had requested: Henry V, which we had done in my last year at school and for which I had developed a deep affection, and Three Men in a Boat - not that I was a devotee of Jerome's, but I had felt that comedy and a reminder of the beauties of the English countryside wouldn't come amiss. I had also thought that it might be acceptable when passed round the section, but I didn't expect any takers for Shakespeare, intellectual snob that I was. The result was instructive. 

I was laying on my groundsheet, renewing acquaintance with Jerome and the tin of pineapple, when Sergeant Hutton squatted down beside me.

"W'at ye readin', then? W'at's this? 'Enry Vee - bloody 'ell, by William Shekspeer!" He gave me a withering look, and leafed over a page. "Enter Chorus. O for a muse of fire that wad... Fook me!" He riffled the pages. "Aye, well, we'll 'ev a look." And such is the way of sergeants, he removed it without by-your-leave; that's one that won't be away long, I thought.

I was wrong. Three days later it had not been returned, and having exhausted Jerome and the magazines, I was making do with the Fourteenth Army newspaper, SEAC, famous for its little cartoon character, Professor Flitt, a jungle infantryman who commented memorably on the passing scene. And I was reading a verse by the paper's film critic

I really do not care a heck
For handsome Mr Gregory Peck,
But I would knock off work at four
To see Miss Dorothy Lamour

when Hutton loafed up and tossed Henry V down beside me and seated himself on the section grub-box. A silence followed, and I asked if he had liked it. He indicated the book.

"Was Shekspeer ivver in th'Army?"

I said that most scholars thought not, but there were blanks in his life, so it was possible that, like his friend Ben Jonson, he had served in the Low Countries, or even in Italy. Hutton shook his head.

"If 'e wesn't in th'Army, Ah'll stand tappin' [I'm a Dutchman]. 'E knaws too bloody much aboot it, man."

This was fascinating. Hutton was a military hard case who had probably left school long before 14, and his speech and manner suggested that his normal and infrequent reading consisted of company orders and the sports headlines. But Shakespeare had talked to him across the centuries - admittedly on his own subject. I suggested hesitantly that the Bard might have picked up a good deal just from talking to military men; Hutton brushed the notion aside.

"Nivver! Ye knaw them three - Bates, an' them, talkin' afore the battle? Ye doan't get that frae lissenin' in pubs, son. Naw, 'e's bin theer." He gave me the hard, aggressive stare of the Cumbrian who is not to be contradicted. "That's my opinion, any roads. An' them oothers - the Frenchman, the nawblemen, tryin' to kid on that they couldn't care less, w'en they're shittin' blue lights? Girraway! An' the Constable tekkin' the piss oot o' watsisname -"

"The Dauphin."

"Aye." He shook his head in admiration. "Naw, ye've 'eerd it a' afore - in different wurrds, like. Them fower officers, the Englishman an' the Scotsman an' the Irishman an' the Welshman - Ah mean, 'e's got their chat off, 'esn't 'e? Ye could tell w'ich wez w'ich, widoot bein' told. That Welsh booger!" He laughed aloud, a thing he rarely did. "Talk till the bloody coos coom yam, the Taffies!" He frowned. "Naw, Ah nivver rid owt be Shekspeer afore - Ah mean, ye 'ear the name, like..." He shrugged eloquently. "Mind, there's times Ah doan't knaw w'at th' 'ell 'e's talkin' aboot -"

"You and me both," I said, wondering uneasily if there were more passages obscure to me than there were to him. He sat in for a moment and then misquoted (and I'm not sure that Shakespeare's version is better):

"There's nut many dies weel that dies in a battle. By Christ, 'e's reet theer. It's a good bit, that." He got up. "Thanks for the lend on't, Jock."

I said that if he'd liked it, he would like Henry IV, too. "Falstaff's bloody funny, and you'd like Hotspur -"

"'Ev ye got it?"

I apologised that I hadn't, and promised to write for it. By way of a trailer I told him as much as I remembered of Hotspur's "When the fight is done" speech, but I'm no Sean Connery, and although he nodded politely I could see I was a poor substitute for the written word.

He went off, leaving me to reflect that I had learned something more about Henry V, and Shakespeare. In his own way Hutton was as expert a commentator as Dover Wilson or Peter Alexander; he was a lot closer to Bates and Court and Williams (and Captains Jamy and Fluellen) than they could ever hope to be. And I still wonder if Shakespeare was in the Army.

Of course, by this rationale Shakespeare was also a king and, for that matter, an occasional woman. He would have been a prolific murderer and almost permanently suicidal. Some sort of allowance should, and never is, made for imagination. It's terribly unlikely that Shakespeare was in the army, or on the throne, or transgendered. However, his imagination was first rate.

In particular, his was an imagination not easily seduced. His wars are as horrid as they are heroic. Even in Henry V, which has its bellicose moments, he maintained terror among the valour and horror in the heroics.

I feel a trifle bad reproducing so much of a book, so run and buy it from Amazon here.

Another family Christmas turns sour

Monday, 27 December 2010

To Gruel

Listening to a snatch of the cricket commentary last night, I was informed that the contest in Melbourne was gruelling. I confess that from my snowbound Cumbrian igloo I couldn't quite see how sunny Australia managed to gruel, but gruel it did.

Gruel is one of those odd words, like ailing, that exists only as a participle. This should be not be so. Too few conversations go:

Bill: How was the atmosphere at the party last night?
Ben: Oh it gruelled.
Bill: Really? Did it gruel an awful lot?
Ben: More than I can say, old boy, more than I can say.

Why is so much gruelling when so little gruels, and how does this all relate to broth?

When gruel began its career as an English word, back in the fourteenth century it was content to simply mean flour. From there it began to mean soup made with flour, which was probably a lot tastier than it sounds. Here's a 1688 definition:

Grewel, is a kind of Broth made only of Water, Grotes brused and Currans, some add Mace, sweet Herbs, Butter and Eggs and Sugar

Delicious. If the contest in Melbourne was so well spiced and so eggy, I am sure that the cricket would be wonderful. But this is not so, for gruel came to be part of a phrase, a phrase that can be best illustrated by this little snippet from the eleventh canto of Lord Byron's Don Juan. Juan has just been attacked by highwaymen on the way to London. He whips out a pistol and shoots the brigand and...

...Juan, who saw the moon's late minion bleed
As if his veins would pour out his existence,
Stood calling out for bandages and lint,
And wish'd he had been less hasty with his flint...

But ere they could perform this pious duty,
The dying man cried, "Hold! I've got my gruel!
Oh for a glass of max! We've miss'd our booty;
Let me die where I am!" And as the fuel
Of life shrunk in his heart, and thick and sooty
The drops fell from his death-wound, and he drew ill
His breath, -- he from his swelling throat untied
A kerchief, crying, "Give Sal that!" -- and died.

To get your gruel is to get your just deserts, to take what's coming to you or, like a feral gardener, to make your bed and lie in it. And from this sense of gruel as a punishment, came the modern sense of a gruelling contest. Though I still can't see how Melbourne in December can gruel that much.

Ricky Ponting asking for more referrals

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Boxing Day and the Perils of Poetry

Today is not boxing day.

Once upon a time, there was a thing called a Christmas box. A Christmas box was a box with a small hole cut in it, like a piggy bank, through which coins could be dropped. It was kept in a church and, like a piggy bank, it could not be opened, only smashed. The smashing was done at Christmas, hence the name: Christmas box.

Christmas boxes were used by servants, apprentices, bloggers and other impoverished fools to save up some money for the frosty and festive season. In gambling dens there would be a Christmas box of tips for the benefit of the butler. As one chap put it in 1634:

It is a shame, for a rich Christian to be like a Christmas boxe, that receives all, and nothing can be got out, till it be broken in peeces.

Anyway, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the idea of the Christmas box shifted. There were lots of chaps like postmen and milkmen and butchers' boys and bloggers who didn't have loose change to be stowing away all year. Yet they still felt they deserved a little something at Christmas. So generous Victorians would make a little box of presents which they would present to all the delivery boys on the first weekday after Christmas, thus insisteth the OED.

The first weekday after Christmas therefore became known as Boxing Day. And today?

Today is a Sunday.

All those pleading postmen, beggarly bloggers and other assorted lazzaroni will arrive at your door on Monday morning, their usual truculence usurped by a poor smile and rich words. As Mr Weller remarks of his son's attempt at a Valentine's card in The Pickwick Papers:

''Tain't in poetry, is it?' interposed his father.

'No, no,' replied Sam.

'Wery glad to hear it,' said Mr. Weller. 'Poetry's unnat'ral; no man ever talked poetry 'cept a beadle on boxin'-day, or Warren's blackin', or Rowland's oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy.'

You have, dear poetic reader, been warned.

(A beadle, by the way, was a sort of policeman paid for by the parish).

Saturday, 25 December 2010

The Feast of the Uncarnation

On matters spiritual, as on all others, the Inky Fool defers to Thomas Browne, and in particular to Pseudodoxia Epidemica [Popular Misconceptions, or Epidemic Wrong-Teaching]. For example, on the blazing question of Did Jesus Ever Laugh? Browne has this to say:

The same conceit there passeth concerning our blessed Saviour, and is sometimes urged as an high example of gravity. And this is opinioned, because in holy Scripture it is recorded he sometimes wept, but never that he laughed. Which howsoever granted, it will be hard to conceive how he passed his yonger yeares and childhood without a smile; if as Divinity affirmeth, for the assurance of his humanity unto men, and the concealment of his Divinity from the devil, he passed this age like other children, and so proceeded until he evidenced the same. And surely herein no danger there is to affirm the act or performance of that, whereof we acknowledge the power and essential property; and whereby indeed he most nearly convinced the doubt of his humanity. Nor need we be afraid to ascribe that unto the incarnate Son, which sometimes is attributed unto the uncarnate Father; of whom it is said, He that dwelleth in the heavens shall laugh the wicked to scorn.

Not only did Browne answer the question, but in doing so he invented the word uncarnate. This is a lesson to us all, dear reader. You can see how Browne worked. Browne wrote the incarnate son and then wanted to balance that with an adjective father. No fitting adjective existed that would balance incarnate both antithetically and syllabically, so he made one up.

Just as carnal sins are sins of the flesh and carnivores are flesh-eaters so incarnate simply means made flesh and uncarnate means not made flesh. It's thus a terribly useful word that can refer to anything metaphysical and whose meaning is clear after an athomus of thought.

So incarnations and uncarnations are expounded and explained, but what of flowery and petalled carnations?

Carnation was originally just another word for incarnation: a fleshing out. But what colour is flesh? It's pink. (Well, for some of us it's pink. In my case it's a sallower shade of pale, and for others, I am reliably informed, it can be brown, yellow, red, or, in the case of daytime TV presenters, orange.)

But let's stick to pink for a moment. Pink is the colour of flesh and therefore carnation came to mean pink, as in the death of Falstaff so sorrowfully described in Henry V:

Nay, sure, he's not in hell: he's in Arthur's
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom. A' made
a finer end and went away an it had been any
christom child; a' parted even just between twelve
and one, even at the turning o' the tide: for after
I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with
flowers and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew
there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as
a pen, and a' babbled of green fields. 'How now,
sir John!' quoth I 'what, man! be o' good
cheer.' So a' cried out 'God, God, God!' three or
four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a'
should not think of God; I hoped there was no need
to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So
a' bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my
hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as
cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and
they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and
upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

They say he cried out of sack.

Ay, that a' did.

And of women.

Nay, that a' did not.

Yes, that a' did; and said they were devils incarnate.

A' could never abide carnation; 'twas a colour he never liked.

And so from flesh to colour and from colour to flower, and that is why you may now wear a pink carnation.

For an older post upon matters carnal click here.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Tis The Season To Be Jolly

Unless, of course, you're Alfred Lord Tennyson, in which case:

With trembling fingers did we weave
  The holly round the Chrismas hearth;
  A rainy cloud possess'd the earth,
And sadly fell our Christmas-eve.

At our old pastimes in the hall
  We gambol'd, making vain pretence
  Of gladness, with an awful sense
Of one mute Shadow watching all.

We paused: the winds were in the beech:
  We heard them sweep the winter land;
  And in a circle hand-in-hand
Sat silent, looking each at each.

So whatever happens this Christmas - if the tree falls down and the turkey explodes and the bread sauce congeals on the kitchen floor -just remember it could be worse. You could have Tennyson with you.

 Let's play charades.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010


Those readers who are less festive than restive, and who feel that Christmas is the season to be anything other than merry, may resort to having the mulligrubs. It's such a charming way of saying that you're in a bad mood that your malevolence will be instantly forgotten.

The word pops up in The Harangues or Speeches of Quack Doctors of 1719:

See, Sirs, see here!
A Doctor rare,
who travels much at home!
Here, take my bills,
I cure all ills,
Past, present, and to come
The cramp, the stitch
The squirt, the itch,
The gout, the stone, the pox
The mulligrubs
The bonny scrubs,
And all Pandora's box.
Thousands I’ve Dissected,
Thousands new erected,
And such Cures effected,
As none e’er can tell.

The bonny scrubs is an itch, although why that should be bonny I really don't know.

P.S. Mulligrubs also seems to have been the name of a very strange Australian children's programme.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Mortgage and Death

Those landed readers who have invested in the property market will be unsurprised to discover that a mortgage is, literally, a pledge to the death. The idea is that a mortgage is a gage, or pledge, that can die in one of two ways. Either you pay the whole debt and the deal dies, or you can fail to make a payment and the deal dies and your house is repossessed and you are forced to live under a railway bridge exchanging amusing etymologies for crack.

Or to put it another way:

It seemeth that the cause why it is called mortgage is, for that it is doubtful whether the Feoffor will pay at the day limited such summe or not, and if he doth not pay, then the Land which is put in pledge vpon condition for the payment of the money, is taken from him for euer, and so dead to him vpon condition, etc. And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant, etc.
   - Institutes of the Laws of England (1628)

It's mortifying.

Of the six surviving signatures of Shakespeare, two are on a mortgage. Shakespeare's views on such deals are amply displayed in sonnet 134, where he is complaining to his mistress about her having an affair with his best friend:

So, now I have confess'd that he is thine,
And I myself am mortgaged to thy will,
Myself I'll forfeit, so that other mine
Thou wilt restore, to be my comfort still:
But thou wilt not, nor he will not be free,
For thou art covetous and he is kind;
He learn'd but surety-like to write for me
Under that bond that him as fast doth bind.
The statute of thy beauty thou wilt take,
Thou usurer, that put'st forth all to use,
And sue a friend came debtor for my sake;
So him I lose through my unkind abuse.
Him have I lost; thou hast both him and me:
He pays the whole, and yet am I not free.

That, dear reader, if you can follow the metaphor, is some sub-prime loving.

Mortgages were, at least, prettier then.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Five Gold Rings

The Twelve Days of Christmas are, of course, the twelve days after Christmas. However, by that time everybody will have stopped singing. So this post must go up five days before Jesus and Mary began their stable relationship, thus giving you five days to stride around sounding clever.

I assume, dear reader, that if you love anybody truly you have been off spending your savings on partridges, turtle doves, French hens and the like. This is all right and proper, but don't whatever you do buy them a pear tree, four calling birds or five gold rings, for these are all linguistic illusions.

Diligent and paleomnesiac readers of this blog will remember that the Old French for partridge was pertis (meaning fart) and the pear tree of the song is almost certainly a confused anglicisation of pertis to pear-tree.

Similarly, there is no such thing as a calling bird; but a colly bird is a blackbird because colly (from coal) means black.

Finally, the gold rings. I hope you have not already bought them, dear amorous reader, or that if you have you have kept the receipt.

Let's have a look at the list for the first week, shall we?

1) Partridge
2) Turtledoves
3) French hens
4) Calling [colly=black] birds
5) Gold rings
6) Geese a-laying
7) Swans a-swimming

All birds. Notice the odd one out? Neither did I, for the gold rings are almost certainly ring-necked pheasants, or ring pheasants as they used to be called. The gold would be the colour of the wings, or perhaps the female plumage.

Or the rings could be ring-bills, ring-birds, ring-blackbirds, ring-buntings, ring-dotterels, ring-pigeons, ring-plovers, ring-sparrows or ring-thrushes. There's a veritable aviary of birds that could be called rings and that, given the feathered context, is what the song is about.

As an oven-ready pheasant costs four quid, you could have saved yourself a lot of money by consulting me before consulting the jeweller.

Oven-ready, dear reader, oven-ready.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Antanaclasic Verse

There's a Chinese poem called Shi Shi Shi Shi Shi. The reason for the title should be obvious if you read the poem in Westernised script:

Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

Which translates as:

In a stone den was a poet named Shi, who loved to eat lions, and had resolved to eat ten.
He often went to the market to hunt for lions.
At exactly ten o’clock, ten lions had just arrived at the market.
At that moment, Shi had just arrived at the market too.
Seeing those lions, he shot them with his arrows.
He brought the corpses of the ten lions to the stone den.
The stone den was damp, so he had his servant clean it.
After the stone den was cleaned, he tried to eat those ten lions.
When he ate, he realized the corpses were in fact ten stone lions.
Try to explain this matter.

It was written by a linguist called Chao Yuen Ren to demonstrate how inflection and the use of tone could alter the sense of Chinese words. In Chinese the same word can have different meanings when pronounced at a different pitch.

It's an exercise in what the ancient and rhetorical Greeks called antanaclasis, the repetition of a word in different senses. As Benjamin Franklin said: 'Your argument is sound. All sound.' Or Shakespeare's:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy will,
And will to boot, and will in over-plus...
Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me, for my name is will.

(These verse are often ignored by the Shakespeare-was-all-written-by-Walter-Raleigh-dressed-as-Queen-Elizabeth brigade.)

Shī Shì shí shī shǐ, put me to pondering whether it was a possible to write something slightly similar in English. I started with: She's chi-chi, sews so-so tutus too. And then turned to: Right, write which witch ate eight bare bears, but got bored. So instead I shall give you the much looser poem below as a Sunday punishment. You are invited, dear inventive reader, to write your own antanaclasic rhyme over Christmas and to post it in the comments.

House Rules

Don’t meddle with medals
And don’t peddle pedals
And don’t throw your beer on the bier.
Don’t ever stalk storks
And don’t hawk those hawks,
Don’t peer at that peer on the pier.

Don’t fiddle with fiddles
Or riddle me riddles
Or wail about whales in Wales.
Well, well, you’re not well
Since you fell down that fell;
And - Alas! - that’s the tail of my tale.

So reader so dear to my heart, be as a deer to my hart, and write your own. I am not averse to a verse that is short, nor long for one that is long. Come to the waters of creativity, lower your can into the well and do as well as you can.

Very chi-chi

P.S. For the translation, and indeed the name of the author, of Shi Shi Shi Shi Shi I am indebted to this article.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

He Said, She Said

I have become obsessed with a new little toy of Google's. Essentially you can put in phrases, a period (e.g. 1800-2000) and a corpus (e.g. fiction in English) and see how frequently the phrase appears and how the frequency it changes over time. For example, you can put in coffee and tea and you get this (click to enlarge):

Bingo! A cultural history of the popularity of tea against coffee. Since about 1970 the black beans have been outinfusuing the golden leaves.

Anyway, I could probably write posts on this new toy for a year, but for the moment I shall simply give you these two graphs on the way people speak in novels, or more precisely: how novelists write dialogue. I put in he exclaimed, he cried, he screamed, he whispered, he shouted and got:

And then I did the same words but with she instead of he.

Nobody exclaims any more. Women didn't start to scream or shout until 1920, but men had been shouting, at least, all through the Victorian period. 'Nobody cries any more,' cried Mrs Bennett gaily. And why, dear reader, why the sudden, recent rise in whispering. What are we moderns trying to hide?

Now go and read this little gem from How To Write Badly Well.

Friday, 17 December 2010

At Your Call and Beck

I'm sure you weren't wondering what a beck was, as in beck and call, but, as the Inky Fool's duty is to fix what ain't broke and to bind imaginary wounds, I can inform you that a beck is a gesture of command, usually a nod. It relates, as you would expect, to beckon.

So Wycliffe's Bible of 1382 gives Job 26v11 as:

The pileris of heuene togidere quaken and dreden at his bek.

Whereas the King James has:

The pillars of heaven tremble and are astonished at his reproof.

The OED and other authorities say that beck was married to call in 1875. However, I've found hundreds of earlier examples and can trace the affair all the way back to the man who traced things all the way back: Archbishop Ussher.

James Ussher was the fellow who worked out that the earth was created on October 23rd 4004 BC (a view that's now a trifle disputed); he also mentioned in a sermon of 1640* that:

...but for the wicked God will use no such restraint: Satan shall use them at his pleasure: both in soul and body they shall follow him at his beck and call.

And quite right too.

P.S. Poor old Ussher comes in for a lot of stick these days from people who don't realise that his chronology was a brilliant work of scholarship that simply happened to use a different methodology to our own. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay on how clever Ussher was, which is collected in Ever Since Darwin. It's sort of on the Internet but in an awkward form. If you go to this page and click on p0009.htm, then go back and click on p0010 and so forth and so on, you can read the whole thing. Otherwise go and buy the book.

*Published 1660 from the memory of the publishers. So the phrase may have been theirs not his. Either way, it sits in the sermon like a well-known phrase rather than an invention.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Nightingale Floor and the Empty Orchestra

I have never been to Japan, but imagine it to be a place of poetry, because their words are so beautiful. Japan itself is Chinese for sun risingNippon is Japanese for the same, and their language is filled with such word-pictures.

Take karaoke, which I once associated only with those who possess less shame than talent. Then I found that karaoke means empty orchestra and now I cannot hear those plaintive tuneless ululations without imagining the void among the violins, the emptiness filled only in remote repetitions.

And the empty orchestra of karaoke therefore relates to the empty hand of karate.

And manga, the darling of the spotted adolescent, seems pimpled by association until you find that manga means involuntary images, and that the term was popularised, if not coined, back in the 1814 by the great artist Hokusai, who painted the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and the Great Wave Off Kanagawa.

Yet we have not, dear occidental (and maybe accidental) reader, imported Japan's most delectable phrase: the nightingale floor. A nightingale floor, or uguisubari, is the creaky floorboard that sings as you tread upon in your noctivagant wanderings. Before I had heard the phrase I would get all ratty and worried at the nocturnal noise I made fetching a glass of water or hunting owls. But now that I know that those creaks are the singing of wooden nightingales, they have become beautiful.

In Japan they would make such floors deliberately so that people could not tiptoe into a temple undetected. In England we have been making them accidentally for years, without ever using the proper name.

Preparing a post at the Inky Fool offices

Wednesday, 15 December 2010


Are there many more beautiful words in the English language than phlebotomist? I mean, there are a couple, but words like wamblecropt don't wander around hospitals. There are people who, when asked what they do for a pittance, actually get to say: 'I'm a phlebotomist.'

Say it aloud.

Go on.

A phlebotomist, in case you were wondering, is the chap who does blood tests. Or more particularly the chap who takes the blood out of your arm and sends it off to be inspected by vampiric doctors. The word is just Greek for blood-taker. A less kindly world would have called them bloodsuckers or leeches or mosquitoes. It's not as though we enjoy their pins and needles. But the beauty of phlebotomy could not be held down.

What bloodshed, however dire, would not be pardoned if it were only called phlebotomy? Would Dracula have been a villain? Would fleas be scorned? I could continue in this vein (as the garrulous corpuscle once remarked), but I shall not. All wordplay is in vein beside phlebotomy. The word is just bloody beautiful.

Incidentally, a phlebotomist should never be confused with a phlebotomus which is a kind of very hairy sandfly.

The Inky Fool got carried away

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Digital Information and Flipping the Finger

The fingers are the digits and are therefore used for counting. Thus did digits become numbers and when information is stored in numbers it becomes digital.

The Old English names for the fingers are much more fun than those which have been more recently fangled.

The index finger was once the towcher, or toucher, because it was used for touching things. We non-tactile moderns no longer use this finger for touching things and instead only point at, or indicate them. Hence index finger.

Though you may, dear reader, run your inky index finger down the index of a book, that's not where the name comes from. Like a co-owned onion, they merely share a root.

The index of a book indicates where a passage may be found (and the index expurgatorius indicates where the good, dirty stuff is). From this idea of indicating come all the other dull and dreary stock market and scientific indices.

The dully-named middle finger was, to our forbears the fool's finger, but not, alas, because it was covered in ink. Instead we got the name from the Romans who called it the digitus infamis (infamous), obscenus (obscene), and impudicus (rude). Nobody is sure why the Romans bore such a grudge against the middle finger, but it seems that it was they who invented the habit of sticking it up at those they did not like.

As Martial so delicately put it:

Rideto multum qui te, Sextille, cinaedum
dixerit et digitum porrigito medium

Which translates extraordinarily loosely as:

If you are called a poof don't pause or linger
But laugh and show the chap your middle finger.

What do leeches have to do with love? A leech is an old metonym for a doctor, and doctors are interested in the heart. Because it was believed that there was a nerve that ran from the fourth finger to the heart, doctors thought that they could influence the one through the other. Lovers believe that by putting a ring around the fourth finger they had, so to speak, lassoed the loved one's heart. And that's how the leech finger became the ring finger.

And the little finger? It was called the ear-finger. Why? Because it's just the right size for digging wax from your shell-like.

The Inky Fool consults the future

Monday, 13 December 2010

Capuchin Cappuccinos and Libidinous Monkey-Monks

To some is revealed the secret truth, to others is revealed the utterly obvious. I am in the latter camp. Somehow I managed to get through three decades of life without noticing that cappuccinos - those caffeinated concoctions covered with froth and chocolate - must have something to do with Capuchin monks.

They do. That light, creamy brown of a well-stirred cappuccino is the same as the light creamy brown of a well-hooded Capuchin's. Hence the name of the coffee.

Capuchin itself is merely the diminutive of the Italian capuccio, which means hood. The Capuchins originally wore hoods to hide from the Pope; and by the time the Pope got bored and stopped searching for them, the monks had grown too attached to their little hoods to let them go. It had become, so to speak, a habit.

Monks used to be the butt and target of medieval satire. People would write poems about them. You get some idea of their reputation from the fact that the first definite record of the word fuck comes from a fourteenth century poem about East-Anglian monks.

Non sunt in celi
quia fuccant uuiuys of heli

Which is a Latin-English mish-mash meaning:

They are not in heaven
Who fuck the wives of Ely

Monks also wore brown and black. They were therefore sometimes compared to apes. And that is probably* where we get the word monkey. So what do you call a monkey that looks like it's wearing a hood?

That's right, dear reader, that's right. You call him a capuchin monkey.

P.S. Incidentally, the idea for this post came to me when I was wandering around the Capuchin crypt in Rome, which is decorated entirely with the bones of dead monks [see picture]. It is without doubt the most screwed-up place I have ever been to, with the possible exception of Stranraer.

*The OED says this is the most likely derivation.

Sunday, 12 December 2010


A tatterdemalion is a chap (or chappess) whose clothes are tattered and torn. It is the same as a tatter-wallop, a ragabash, or a flabergudgion; and, given the threadbare state of modern fashion, it is an eminently useful word.

Tatterdemalion should even be immediately comprehensible to the uninitiated because everybody knows what tatter means, and the demalion bit was never anything more than a linguistic fascinator.

Tatterdemalion is a lovely word with a suggestion of dandelions towards the end (although it is pronounced with all the stress on the may of malion).

More wonderfully still, there are spin off words: tatterdemalionism and tatterdemalionry. This latter word means all tatterdemalions. So, for example:

The tatterdemalionry of Shoreditch cannot endure the glory of my silk scarf.

Tell me that's not a useful phrase.

Dress-down Friday at Inky Fool Mansions

Saturday, 11 December 2010

British Libraries

Those who dwell beyond the seas will find nothing of worth in this post. I fear the same for those who wander in these windswept isles, but I shall persevere.

Did you know that if you have a library card you get remote access to the Oxford English Dictionary Online? I didn't. I'd been paying my subscription fees (or cajoling Mrs Malaprop into paying them for me). But all I needed to do was pop around to the gaily coloured ruin that the council so whimsically refers to as a library and get myself a card with a number on the back. Off to the OED website and Bob's your uncle and Stan's your gran.

(Incidentally, Bob (your uncle) was probably Lord Frederick Roberts, a Victorian general, known to his men as Uncle Bob.)

Anyway, you then get free access to the full OED, the biggy, the behemoth, the 30 volume monstrosity that takes up several shelves in the British Library with every date, every etymology... indeed it renders Inky Fool quite redundant.

So don't do it.

More particularly for Londoners: did you know that there's a poetry library above the Royal Festival Hall? I didn't, and I used to work in the damned building. I knew about the bar downstairs. I knew about the other bar round the corner that's so terribly hip until you notice the mice. But I had no idea that there was a free library of 20th Century poetry at the top, all stocked up and without any late fees (the chap apologetically told me that if I was several months late they might telephone).

So, my British bookworms, turn up, sign in, and take out.

Top floor, on the left.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Hell Hath No Fury Like A Lily Gilded

A couple of originals whom time hath much abused:

Some people like to re-swear their vows of marriage. King John wanted to renew his coronation, to which the Duke of Salisbury objected:

Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
To guard a title that was rich before,
To gild refined gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

And by a strange, forgetful laziness, that line has been contracted to the phrase "gild the lily", which is not at all what Shakespeare meant.

Lily-gilding might sound silly, but it would make a difference. Your lily would end up covered with gold, and might be rather pretty. Shakespeare talked of gilding gold, which wouldn't make any difference at all. Just as perfuming violets or smoothing ice is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

The same objection might also be made to unnecessary nuptials.

Jump forward a hundred years to 1697 and a tragedy by William Congreve was all, or at least most of the rage in London. It was called The Mourning Bride and opened with the line "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast". It doesn't quite keep up that standard, but it's really Not Too Bad.

There's a character in The Mourning Bride called Zara who's a bit of a bunny-boiler. She's in love with Osmyn, and doesn't realise that not only is Osmyn secretly married to a princess, but that he's not called Osmyn at all. Anyway, she discovers that he and the princess are all sighs and cuddles and decides to work their downfall, or more precisely to have Osmyn (not his real name) executed. She tells him in his prison cell:

Vile and ingrate! too late thou shalt repent
The base injustice thou hast done my love:
Yes, thou shalt know, spite of thy past distress,
And all those ills which thou so long hast mourned;
Heav'n has no rage, like love to hatred turned,
Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorned.

There isn't a hath in sight.

So now you know. But in order that you should know I just had to sprint pell-mell through The Mourning Bride, which doesn't seem to have been printed since they turned f to s. Usually I can cope with such typographical antiquity, but these lines, from a couple of scenes before the female furies, brought me up short:

The Inky Fool was behind the curtain

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Organic, Organised Organs

Organic food is food grown in a church organ. Organised crime is crime committed by organists.

Well, etymologically speaking.

Once upon a time, the ancient Greeks had the word organon which meant something you work with. An organon could be a tool, an implement, a musical instrument or a part of the body.

Originally, an organ was any musical instrument, but in the ninth century people decided that every church should have a pipe organ in it for, as Dryden put it, "What human voice can reach the sacred organ's praise?"

Slowly the pipe part got dropped and other instruments ceased to be organs (except the mouth organ, which, if you think about it, sounds a bit rude).

Organ continued to mean part of the body, hence the old joke:

Why did Bach have twenty children?

Because he had no stops on his organ.

Anyway, the body is beautifully and efficiently arranged (at least my body is). Each organ has a particular function. I have a hand to hold a glass, a mouth to drink with, a belly to fill, a liver to deal with the poison and so on and so forth. Heart, head, lungs, liver, kidney and colon each performs a particular task; and the result, dear reader, is the glory that is I.

So if you arrange a group of people and give each one a particular job, you are making them act together like the organs of a body. You are organising them.

Thus an organisation: something in which each person, like each organ of the body, has a particular task. And though that shift happened in the sixteenth century when everybody liked metaphors about the body politic, crime didn't get organised until 1929 in Chicago, which shows how lackadaisical most malefactors are.

A bunch of organs put together make up an organism, and things that are produced by organisms are therefore organic. In the twentieth century, when artificial fertilisers were strewn upon our not-green-enough fields, we started to refer to organic farming and thus organic food.

However, the church organ survives. If you add pipes to an instrument, you are organising it; and organ music can still be referred to as organic.

A reluctant organ donor

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Christmas Trees and Peep-Shows in New Zealand

Christmas trees, like Boney M. and spray-on condoms, were a German idea. Prince Albert brought the festive fir over to Victorian Britain. But as the OED puts it, it remains:

a famous feature of Christmas celebration in Germany, frequently but imperfectly imitated in England

Prince Albert arrived in 1840 and by 1850 the Christmas tree was so well known that Charles Dickens could write a whole essay on the subject that began thus:

I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping; there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men--and no wonder, for their heads took off, and showed them to be full of sugar-plums; there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes, and all kinds of boxes; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whispered to another pretty child, her bosom friend, "There was everything, and more."

What lovely lists! A teetotum, since you ask, is a spinning top with letters on its sides. And a peep-show box in that more innocent age was a box with a magnifying glass in the side through which you could see little painted wonders. In the twentieth century some bright and drooling spark had the idea of putting dirty pictures inside, and eventually somebody decided to shove a whole girl in there. This is called Progress.

I'm not sure, but that child may, according to my dated Google Book search, have been the first person ever to utter the words everything and more*.

In New Zealand a Christmas Tree is the English name for the pohutukawa, which flowers at this time of year and looks like this:

*I'm excluding sentences like "I hate everything, and more precisely I hate...". Also, you need to be careful on Google-book-searches about periodicals, which are dated according to the first one in the collection.