Monday, 28 February 2011


According to a beautiful sentence on the BBC website:

Almost spontaneously, the Libyan city of Benghazi has been galvanised into action.

That this sentence is nigh-on meaningless is not our concern, our concern is with the word galvanised, and what it has to do with a frog's testicles.

Once upon a time, in 1791, there was an Italian fellow called Luigi Galvani who thought that frogs' testicles were contained in their legs. Even the best of us have stray thoughts like that occasionally, but Galvani decided to cut a frog's leg open to see if he could find them.

He couldn't, but something odd happened. He had previously been experimenting with static electricity and one of his scalpels contained enough charge that when it touched the frog there was a little spark and the frog's leg kicked. This was odd as the frog was dead and the leg had been cut off.

Galvani became excited. Luckily his friend Alessandro Volta had just started making primitive batteries called Voltaic piles (from which we get volt), so Luigi was able to have great fun massacring frogs, hooking them up, and making them dance. I remember my old science teacher explaining that he had attached a thousand frogs to a huge metal frame and waited for a thunderstorm and watched them kan-kan. I do not know whether this is true.

Anyway, Volta suggested that the phenomenon should be called galvanism, and so it was. The world was fascinated by the idea that a dead frog could be reanimated by electricity. It made people wonder. In 1818 Mary Shelley wondered:

Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endured with vital warmth.

And thus wrote Frankenstein. Charlotte Brontë wrote about being galvanised to "new and spasmodic life" and Sydney Smith advised "Galvanise a frog, don't galvanise a tiger".

This illustration should make it all clear.

P.S. You can also use galvanism to coat things in metal.

P.P.S. Whilst researching I came across this passage in Havelock Ellis, which tells you lots of fun stuff about the Scientific Mind:

Goltz confirmed Spallanzani's observations and threw new light on the mechanism of the sexual instinct and the sexual act in the frog. By removing various parts of the female frog Goltz found that every part of the female was attractive to the male at pairing time, and that he was not imposed on when parts of a male were substituted. By removing various of the sense-organs of the male Goltz further found that it was not by any special organ, but by the whole of his sensitive system, that this activity was set in action. If, however, the skin of the arms and of the breast between was removed, no embrace took place; so that the sexual sensations seemed to be exerted through this apparatus. When the testicles were removed the embrace still took place. It could scarcely be said that these observations demonstrated, or in any way indicated, that the sexual impulse is dependent on the need of evacuation. Professor Tarchanoff, of St. Petersburg, however, made an experiment which seemed to be crucial. He took several hundred frogs (Rana temporaria), nearly all in the act of coitus, and in the first place repeated Goltz's experiments. He removed the heart; but this led to no direct or indirect stoppage of coitus, nor did removal of the lungs, parts of the liver, the spleen, the intestines, the stomach, or the kidneys. In the same way even careful removal of both testicles had no result. But on removing the seminal receptacles coitus was immediately or very shortly stopped, and not renewed.

Sunday, 27 February 2011


A passiuncle is an insignificant or trivial passion. The word was invented by De Quincey to describe those emotions whose exercise exhausts the soul and the heart, making them incapable of true passion.

Such a failing is evident in Romeo who, you will recall, begins the play madly in love with a girl called Rosaline. As Friar Laurence says:

Holy Saint Francis, what a change is here!
Is Rosaline, whom thou didst love so dear,
So soon forsaken? young men's love then lies
Not truly in their hearts, but in their eyes [...]
And art thou changed? pronounce this sentence then,
Women may fall, when there's no strength in men.

Although Auden may have put it better in his sequel to The Tempest:

Will Ferdinand be as fond of a Miranda 
Familiar as a stocking? Will Miranda who is 
No longer a silly lovesick little goose, 
When Ferdinand and his brave world are her profession, 
Go into raptures over existing at all?

And while we're on the subject, too few people are aware that E.M. Forster wrote a brief sequel to A Room With A View (called A View Without A Room), in which George Emerson, forgets all his peacenik principles and cheats prolifically on Lucy Honeychurch.

For myself, I am certain that I am incapable of true emotion, but I inhabit a delightful aviary filled with flittering passiuncles and squawking whimsies.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Little Banquets

In Italian, the suffix -etto means little. So Giovanni Canal, because he was the son of the painter Bernard Canal, was known as Canaletto. It just means Canal Junior. (Similarly, Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, had an elder brother who was nicknamed The Keg, or Il Bottici. So he, the little brother, was nicknamed The Little Keg, or Botticelli.)

A bench in Italian is a banco. So a little bench was a banchetto, hence the English banquette.

Now, if you're in a terrible hurry and don't have time for a proper lunch, what do you do? You buy a sandwich, you sit on a park bench and you gobble it up into your greedy gob. Thus, a snack, the sort of thing you eat on a little bench, is a banquet.

'Eh?' I hear you cry. 'A banquet isn't a little snack. It's a bloody great feast that goes on for hours and involves quails and fried elephants. It's not something you munch on in a hurry.'

And you're right, dear reader, utterly right. That's what banquet means now, but once it meant a tiny snack, probably eaten between proper meals. And absolutely nobody knows how the word got from the one meaning to the other.

I'm now going to make myself a quick banquet.

A dinner party at Inky Fool mansions

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Literary Efforts of the Leaders

On the same subject as yesterday's post, Colonel Gaddafi has written several poems and stories. Many political leaders have heard and heeded the plaintive calling of the poet's pen. So I'm going to set you a little puzzle. Here are six little literary efforts by political leaders. The authors are Colonel Gaddafi, Barack Obama, Radovan Karadzic, Chairman Mao, Jimmy Carter and Saddam Hussein. But can you guess who wrote which?

Goodbye Assassins

Goodbye, assassins, the boundaries between
The worlds are trampled
Instead of the heart, a hornet drones in vain.
History turned its back on us.
What should one shoot at?
Like an octopus, the age hides its vertebra,
And the winter approaches
With white drifts.


Is not life in the midst of ordinary things filled with the most extraordinary things? Is its consistent flow not interrupted by some unexpected leaps? Could the colours of life be rich if the most ordinary things were not interspersed with miracles? Would a valley bring delight to the eyes of the one gazing at it if there were no mountain peaks above it?

Yellow Crane Tower

Wide, wide flow the nine streams through the land, 
Dark, dark threads the line from south to north. 
Blurred in the thick haze of the misty rain 
Tortoise and Snake hold the great river locked.
The yellow crane is gone, who knows whither? 
Only this tower remains a haunt for visitors. 
I pledge my wine to the surging torrent, 
The tide of my heart swells with the waves.


The miles of rubber trees bend from the sea.
Each of the million acres cost a dime
nearly two Liberian lives ago.
Sweat, too,
has poured like sap from trees, almost free,
from men coerced to work by poverty
and leaders who had sold the people's fields.

The plantation kiln's pink bricks
made the homes of overseeing whites
a corporation's pride
Walls of the same polite bricks divide
the worker's tiny stalls
like cells in honeycombs;
no windows breach the walls,
no pipes or wires bring drink or light
to natives who can never claim this place as theirs
by digging in the ground.
No churches can be built,
no privy holes or even graves
dug in the rolling hills
for those milking Firestone's trees, who die
from mamba and mosquito bites.

I asked the owners why.
The cost of land, they said, was high.

On Death

Is death a male or a female? God knows ... My father killed the snake with his strong foot. But death ran away quickly from under my father's foot and masqueraded as another snake which intercepted my father on his way back home so when he put his hand in a bush, to light a fire, this second snake caught him and it emptied its poisonous saliva as one injection in his arm ... this time death expected its stubborn adversary not to escape. Yet it forgot that my father had vaccinated himself against snake poison by being bitten before.


Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

So who wrote what? You had:

1) Goodbye Assassins
2) Is not life in the midst of ordinary things....
3) Yellow Crane Tower
4) Liberia
5) On Death
6) Underground

And the writers were:

1) Colonel Gaddafi
2) Barack Obama
3) Radovan Karadzic
4) Chairman Mao
5) Jimmy Carter
6) Saddam Hussein

Now before you go and look at the answers, I want you to take a minute to decide which one you liked the most. In the blind tasting of poetry's wine, without the prejudice of politics, which of those was the best and which was the worst? Decided? Right. You can get to the answers by clicking on this link.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Wrongously Skeik Zbir

In 1989 Radio Tehran reported a major breakthrough in Shakespeare scholarship. The breakthrough had been made by none other than Colonel Gaddafi. He had realised and then proved that Shakespeare was not called Shakespeare, he was called Sheik Zbir (or Zubair) and that he was, in fact, an Arab.

Gaddafi's reasoning is so simple that I need hardly repeat it here. Suffice to say that Macbeth is taken from The Thousand Nights and One Night, that Romeo and Juliet is just a combination of Leila and Manjoon and Quys and Lubna, and that Othello is simply a reworking of the Tale of Kamar Al Zaman.

I went to have a look at the Tale of Kamar Al Zaman, and, though I couldn't quite see how William Sheik Zbir had plagiarised it, I did find the lovely word wrongously, as in:

...the Prince had been falsely accused and wrongously

Wrong as wrongously may sound today, it was a common word right up until the nineteenth century. As wrongously's meaning is so clear I think that wrongously could and should and must be revived. As in:

Gaddafi, though a great scholar of Shakespeare, wrongously started bombing his own capital city. 

The Colonel conducting his research

P.S. You'd think he'd be in line for a promotion by now. Why still only a colonel?

Tuesday, 22 February 2011


A Word A Day, has just put up the word fluke. Fluke has several meanings: it can be a funny little fish, the point of an anchor, or a stroke of luck. This latter is put down by AWAD as "of uncertain etymology" (1857).

The OED is a little more helpful. It says that fluke was originally a lucky shot in billiards, and suggests that it might have something to do with the Whitby dialect word fluke, meaning guess, although that wasn't recorded until 1876, so it's probably the other way round.

This all made me curious.

I chased up the OED's first citation of fluke. It's from Notes and Queries and is actually about the origin of the word fluke:

Billiards. — In playing at billiards, if a player makes a hazard, & c. which he did not play for, it is often said that he made a crow. It may be derived from the expression of " Shot at a pigeon and killed a crow". Another term is, " He made a flook (or fluke)." It seems to me that, as there are two flooks to the anchor of a ship, and as when the anchor shall be dropped either flook may take hold of the ground (as both do not, so that it is accidental which takes hold), the flook, at playing at billiards, may have reference to the same cause (accident). The favour of an answer will oblige.

A Billiard Player.

Oriental Club.

Good, but not good enough for the OED.

So I did some sniffling around of my own. It turns out that the billiard player at the Oriental Club and the OED have both missed an easy pot: namely a comic novel of 1853, four years before Notes and Queries. It's called The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green, An Oxford Freshman by Cuthbert Bede (well, in truth, it's not by Cuthbert Bede, that was just the pen-name of Edward Bradley, but we'll let that pass); and the relevant passage is herefollowing:

Besides these out-of-door sports, our hero also devoted a good deal of his time to acquiring in-door games, being quickly initiated into the mysteries of billiards, and plunging headlong into pool. It was in the billiard-room that Verdant first formed his acquaintance with Mr. Fluke of Christ Church, well known to be the best player in the University, and who, if report spoke truly, always made his five hundred a year by his skill in the game. Mr. Fluke kindly put our hero "into the way to become a player;" and Verdant soon found the apprenticeship was attended with rather heavy fees.

Now, there are two possibilities here: the first is that the slang word fluke was already around in 1853 and the author wanted to give his character a funny name. This seems unlikely. It's hardly a good joke to use a word so obscure that it had never appeared in print before.

The other possibility is that the word came from the novel. But is this possible? Was it an influential tome? You need to sell a lot of copies to get a word into the language. Did anyone read Verdant Green?


According to the DNB:

The first edition of The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green sold out in Oxford on the first day and the continuing success of the three narratives was affirmed when the outright copyright was acquired by James Blackwood in 1858 and a collected cloth-bound edition was issued. (By 1870 it had sold 100,000 copies.)

So fluke, meaning a lucky shot at billiards, could have come from the once-famous, now-forgotten novel. Or was it just a coincidence?

Then I thought of a simple test. If it was a comedy name derived from billiards slang, there wouldn't be any real Mr Flukes (reality tends to elude me rather a lot, like a bitter ex-girlfriend). The name would be like Gradgrind or Micawber or Doasyouwouldbedoneby.

But if it was a real surname then it would be probable to the point of persuasion that the flukey chance derives from a pre-existent surname.

With quivering fingers I Googled the words Fluke surname.

Millions of the damn fellows. So far as I can tell from the Internet you can't move for real people called Fluke. My absolute favourite Fluke is John M. Fluke Jr. who runs the family financial business.

Now, I'm sure that John Fluke is a good and competent man, in fact he must be super-competent to get anybody on earth to invest in a company called Fluke Capital Management.

All of which convinces me that fluke, the chance, comes from Mr Fluke of Christ Church.

Mr Fluke is back right, smoking and chalking.

Monday, 21 February 2011


Here is a picture of Goldsmith's Hall in the City of London. Why is that of interest? Because once upon a time, if you had a bit of gold or silver that you wanted to sell, you had to take it to the Goldsmith's Guild where they would test its purity. They would then stamp it with the mark of the Goldsmith's Hall, which guaranteed its value to a buyer.

In the racy classic An Exact Abridgement of All the Statutes of King William and Queen Mary (1700) it says:

Any Persons, Natives or Foreigners, who by themselves or others shall bring any sort of Wrought Plate between 1 Jan 1696. and 4 November, 1697. to any of his Majesty's Mints, or to such Persons as shall be Authorized to Recieve the same, shall be then and there paid for such Plate at 5 s. 4 d. per ex. And all such Plate, having the Goldsmiths Hall Mark and Workman's Mark, shall be Received as Sterling Silver*

And that, my child, is where the word hallmark comes from. It's the mark of quality given out in Goldsmith's Hall. It's also why the building in the picture is the origin of all those greetings cards and the American TV channel.

Well, in fact, that building wasn't erected until the 1820s. In William and Mary's time it looked like the picture below.

By 1809 the word was being used figuratively to mean a characteristic stamp. So a sermon could have the hallmark of orthodoxy. Thus the cards.

*The OED doesn't have a citation for hallmark until 1721, and nothing for the figurative use until 1864. Do I get a prize?

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Fact-Checking Poetry

I never knew that the New Yorker magazine fact-checks the poetry it publishes. There's a lovely article about it here. This seems to me a splendid notion. Had Shakespeare been fact-checked, Prospero wouldn't have been smuggled, under cover of darkness, down to the docks in Milan; Perdita wouldn't have been abandoned on the coasts of land-locked Bohemia; and Cleopatra wouldn't have talked of being hanged from the pyramids.

Moreover, had a proper proof-reader been set the task of going over The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, the first line might have been the grammatically correct:

Let us go then, you and me,

Not strictly accurate

Friday, 18 February 2011


If you are autolatrous, you worship and idolise yourself. It's like being idolatrous, but without the need for accessories. It comes from the Greek auto (oneself) and latria (worship). The noun is, of course, autolatry.

I don't know how useful you'll find the word; but, for myself, I'm wondrously fond of mirrors.

Shakespeare once wrote:

Sin of self-love possesseth all mine eye
And all my soul and all my every part;
And for this sin there is no remedy,
It is so grounded inward in my heart.
Methinks no face so gracious is as mine,
No shape so true, no truth of such account;
And for myself mine own worth do define,
As I all other in all worths surmount.

Which is a sentiment that I can identify with perfectly.

The Inky Fool falls in love

Thursday, 17 February 2011


Trix is a funny little suffix that only gets used occasionally. It means female, which is why a female aviator was an aviatrix, and why a female dominator is a dominatrix. I've heard the term editrix occasionally, but my favourite trix is a female hairdresser, who can be called a tonstrix.

Trix is also the reason that meretricious is such a confusing word, and so often misused. Meretricious sounds as though it should mean good and worthy, but in fact it means gaudy and flashy.

The reason for this oddness is that the Latin word mereo meant I deserve or I earn, and that's where we get merit from. However, a lady who earned was therefore called a meretrix, and, ancient Rome being what it was, there weren't that many ways that a lady could make a living besides prostitution, and that's what meretrix came to mean.

And from meretrix we got meretricious, which means tarted up.

Incidentally, what do you call a woman who can balance a pint of ale on her nose?


Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The Irrefragable Quodlibetist

Two useful words today, for the price of one; though, as I do this all for love and vanity, I'm not sure that makes much of a difference.

There once was a fellow called Alexander of Hales. He was an Englishman but he ended up teaching theology to thirteenth century Parisian monks. As a teacher he would set aside three days during which his students were allowed to dispute with him upon any question they pleased. These were called quodlibets, which was Latin for whatever you want. Quodlibet is simply a much grander sounding word for what is now called a Q & A session.

So great a quodlibetist was Alexander of Hales, that in all these disputes nobody ever managed to outdebate him. It was from this that he earned the title The Irrefragable Doctor, meaning the Doctor whose arguments can never be defeated.

Irrefragable is a wonderful word, especially as it's a useful argumentative term. You can drop it into a dispute (The first two points are irrefragable, but point three is interesting because...) and thus put your opponent off his stride out of sorts.

Not everybody liked Alexander of Hales. Roger Bacon said of his book the Summa Theologica Alexandri, that it weighs more than a horse and was made by other people.

This may be why there is now a racehorse named after him.

Incidentally, the Glossographia; or, A dictionary interpreting all such hard words, whether Hebrew, Greek or Latin... as are now used in our refined English tongue defines quodlibitaries as those that run after their own fancy or imagination, and do what they list, which sounds rather fun.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Thomas Jefferson's Mysterious Shag

Here is a mystery that I can't solve, and it's driving me mad.

Shag is an English verb for the world's most popular pastime.

That it is English and not American was a central joke of Austin Powers, and a central flaw in the British marketing of the 1989 American romantic comedy Shag.

So I was astonished to read the first citation in the OED. It's not English, but American. We've lost! Not just any old American, either: the first recorded shag is by Thomas Jefferson.

He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.

That, I think you'll agree, is a pretty weird sentence. But the OED, of course, don't give context. They just have the line and the name of the book. So I ran down to the British Library to get hold of a copy and see what Jefferson was talking about.

I don't know whether it's that Thomas Jefferson isn't important enough, but the British Library have never bothered to buy a copy. It's recent too. Though Jefferson wrote it in 1770, it wasn't published until Princeton University press put it out in 1997.

But it's not there, dammit. It's not on Google Books either. So I'm left with this one enigmatic sentence:

He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.

What the hell does it mean? I've been thinking long and hard about this. Who shagged his mother? It's not Oedipus because he didn't beget himself. I looked up Sin and Death in Paradise Lost, but they don't fit.

Then I came up with an odd idea. Maybe he's talking about Jesus. If you consider Jesus and God the Father to be one, then Jefferson's Shag might make sense. It's more than a trifle blasphemous, but I can't see what else he could have been writing about.

Does anybody have a better suggestion?

Does anybody have access to the original book? Any Princetonians? Anybody with another copyright library round the corner?

If you do then it's:

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson's Memorandum Books volume II (ed. James Bear and Lucia Stanton)
Princeton University Press
ISBN 0-691-04719-7

And it's the entry for Dec. 27 1770 on page 200.

And it's urgent.

The Inky Fool wonders if he can get his money back.


Thanks to Mark (see comments) I now have a photo of the page in question. The context is that it's all brief notes of court cases in which Jefferson was acting:

Now, I'd like to say that that cleared it up, but really it's caskets within caskets. I still can't work out what the phrase means. It's hard enough to see who's suing who for what and why. The open vestry is mysterious. I assume the pl. is the plaintiff, but I can't be sure.

Ah well.

Thank you to everyone for suggestions.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Chaucer's Fowls

Valentine's Day was invented by Chaucer. It's his fault. Whether you are planning to spend this evening paying five times the normal price for a corner of a crowded restaurant, or whether you are looking forward to a night of solitary sobbing, blame Geoffrey and ornithology.

You see, it's around this time of year that birds start to mate. (I've just conducted a brief field trip and didn't see any feathered fornication, but there was a frisky looking pigeon flapping about in a suggestive way.) How does this connect to Chaucer? Because he wrote a poem about birds falling in love. It's called the Parliament of Fowls, and if you like you can read it here.

Essentially, Chaucer dreams that he goes to the garden of love and witnesses a bunch of birds choosing their spouses.

For this was on Saint Valentines day,
When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate,
Of every kind that men thinke may
And that so huge a noise 'gan they make
That earth, and air, and tree, and every lake
So full was that unethe [hardly] was there space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.

And that is the first ever reference to Valentine's Day being the day on which creatures choose their sweethearts. Slowly the idea was transferred from birds to people, and that's the cause of all the trouble.

The Parliament of Fowls opens with some great lines on Love:

The life so short, the craft so long to learn,
Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquering,
The dreadful joy alway that slit so yerne [slides away]
All this mean I by Love, that my feeling
Astonyeth [is astonished] with his wonderful working
So sore, iwis, that when I on him think
Nat wot I well wher [I don't know whether] I float or sink.

And then these bookish and lonely lines:

For all be that I know not Love in deed,
Nor wot how that he quitteth [pays] folk their hire,
Yet happeth me full oft in books read
Of his miracles and his cruel ire.

So unruffle your feathers, get your hackles up and find yourself a bird.

Saturday, 12 February 2011


Pontiffs pontificate.

Pontificating hasn't always been a bad thing. Once, it simply meant performing the duties of a pontiff or a bishop. The sense of pompously pronouncing on a topic is only a little more than a century old.

The high priest of antique Rome was known as the Pontifex Maximus. It was a position held by, among others, Julius Caesar. When Christianity got the upper and whippier hand, it simply took the title for itself, which means that the Pope goes back in a direct line of succession to Caligula.

Pontifex probably meant bridge builder, but nobody is sure.

The Pope

Friday, 11 February 2011

Literary Canonisation

Canon Félix Kir was one of those fellows sent to earth to make the rest of us feel inadequate. Not content with being a canon, he also fought with the resistance and managed to free five thousand prisoners of war. Not content with being a priest and a war hero, he decided to become mayor of Dijon. But Canon Felix Kir was not content with simply helping the souls of his flock, the bodies of prisoners of war, and the city of Dijon. Oh no. He had to make everybody in the whole damned world happier.

How do you do that?

By adding cassis to white wine, thus making a drink called a kir. If you do it with champagne (and I don't suggest you don't), it's a kir royal.

Excuse me for a moment....

That's better. Now where was I? Ah, yes. Greek carpenters.

Greek carpenters needed measuring rods to act as rulers. These were called kanons, so canon came to mean a rule or an accepted standard. For example, the Biblical canon, which is all the books conventionally included in the Bible; and the literary canon, which is the secular equivalent. Then there's the canon, or official list, of saints that you can enter if you are canonised. And there's the rule, or canon, of a religious order under which you can live and thus become a canon like Canon Kir.

Finally, you can compose music using complicated rules. For example you can take a single theme and then repeat it backwards, upside down, at half speed or at double speed. Then you try to make those repetitions work on top of each other. It's all terribly complicated, but if you follow the canon, you will write a canon.

Here's one by Bach with an excellent explanatory video.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Cardinal's Sinful Numbers

Once upon an ancient Roman time, there were hinges, which were called cardos. If something belonged to the hinge it was cardinis. The word was of great metaphorical use as the centre-point around which things turned, for example the celestial poles. So the central and most important priests, those who elected the Pope, were called cardinalis ecclesiae Romanae: etymologically hinges of the church of Rome.

Catherine of Aragon told Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius:

The more shame for ye: holy men I thought ye,
Upon my soul, two reverend cardinal virtues;
    (Recorded by Shakespeare and Fletcher in Henry VIII)

But there isn't really a connection, only a common ancestor. Religious cardinals do not, or should not, commit cardinal sins. Nor did they decide which sins would be named after them. Cardinal sins are so-called because they are the central sins, on which all the other minor sins depend. They are the sinful hinges.

So for example, the central cardinal sin of lust might result in your committing the particular sin of animal husbandry. Wrath might lead to murder, or violence, or simply taking the Lord's name in vain.

Pope Paul VI may have had this in mind when, in 1974, he made Jaime Sin a cardinal, thus creating Cardinal Sin. Jaime himself liked the joke and referred to his official residence as the House of Sin.

One of the many idiots who have tried to prove that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare, was a chap called Georg Cantor. He was a mathematician and invented set theory. He also coined the term cardinal numbers. As with the sins, cardinal numbers are the proper numbers (one, two, three, four) on which the ordinal numbers (first, second, third, fourth) depend.

I shall leave you with Edmund Spenser's parade of the Seven Cardinal Sins from the Faerie Queen. It's fantastic but it's rather long so I'll put it under a jump break. Click on read more to continue.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Bishops, Apes and Booze

A few weeks ago, I explained how monkeys were really monks. Primates are not primates, although they do have a common ancestor. Bishops are primates because they are of the first rank. Linnaeus decided to call primates primates because they were the highest and first rank of all the species.

Anyway, bishops get tired and want to sit down. The Greek for a seat was kathedra and so bishops' chairs are called cathedrals. Notable primates include Saint Hilarius and Santa Claus.

A bishop is defined in Grose's Dictionary as:

A mixture of wine and water, into which is put a roasted orange.

The lexicographic significance of this drink is recounted by Boswell in his life of Dr Johnson:

One night, when Beauclerk and Langton had supped at a tavern in London, and sat till about three in the morning, it came into their heads to go and knock up Johnson, and see if they could prevail on him to join them in a ramble. They rapped violently at the door of his chambers in the Temple ,till at last be appeared in his shirt, with his little black wig on the top of his head instead of a nightcap, and a poker in his hand, imagining, probably, that some ruffians were coming to attack him. When he discovered who they were, and was told their errand, he smiled, and with great good humour agreed to their proposal : "What, is it you, you dogs! I'll have a frisk with you." He was soon dressed, and they sallied forth together into Covent Garden, where the green-grocers and fruiterers were beginning lo arrange their hampers, just come in from the country. Johnson made some attempts to help them ; but the honest gardeners stared so at his figure and manner, and odd interference, that he soon saw his services were not relished. They then repaired to one of the neighbouring taverns, and made a bowl of that liquor called Bishop, which Johnson had always liked : while in joyous contempt of sleep, from which he had been roused, he repeated the festive lines,

Short, O short then be thy reign,
And give us to the world again.

They did not stay long, but walked down to the Thames, took a boat, and rowed to Billingsgate. Beauclerk and Johnson were so well pleased with their amusement that they resolved to persevere in dissipation for the rest of the day.

And that, dear reader, is how you go about writing the first English dictionary.

What mitre been

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Curates and their Eggs

An old joke: If smoking's so bad for you, how come it cures salmon?

A curate is somebody who cares for souls. Cure and care come from the same Latin root: curare, which has nothing to do with the South American poison.

A curate is exactly the same thing, etymologicalwise, as a curator, and the sense of taking care of pork or salmon is a reasonably obvious eighteenth century extension.

In these fallen days, a curate is usually someone who substitutes for a vicar, which is odd as we've already seen that vicars are vicarious substitutes. None of which explains eggs.

Here is a cartoon by George Du Maurier. It was published in Punch in 1895. Much of its humour has been lost because it satirises two things: the ambitious sycophancy of the Church of England and boiled eggs in the days before refrigerators. The joke is, of course, that an egg cannot be part-rotten.

If you reworked it with a CEO and a middle manager, and replaced the eggs with lap-dancers you might have a good modern equivalent. Either way, the cartoon was so popular that the phrase entered the language.

Monday, 7 February 2011


A week, I fear, of priests and prelates, beginning with the lowly vicar.

A vicarious pleasure is one that is experienced at second hand, it is the smiling elder brother of compassion (suffering with) and sympathy (suffering with). I once heard that back in the days of rationing, when you couldn't buy a good cigar, fellows used to go and watch Citizen Kane, just to see Orson Welles smoke.

Anyway, a vicar is a vicarious substitute for God. God isn't there in the flesh (being uncarnate) so he sends along his substitute.

The novel The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith includes this merry little rhyme:

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can soothe her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?

The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom, is -- to die.

Which I would love to see reprinted as a response in an agony aunt column. T.S. Eliot had fun with it in The Waste Land. His version is, alas, more accurate.

When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.


N.B. The vicariousness of vicars was pointed out to me by an erudite correspondent.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Lanspresados and Snecklifters

A lanspresado is (according to a 1736 dictionary of thieves' slang):

He that comes into Company with but Two-pence in his Pocket.

You either know a lanspresado, or you are one. I have taken the latter course, or it has taken me, either way I'd love a drink, thank you, and I usually have a pint of brandy at this time of day.

Lanspresados are everywhere. They have usually forgotten their wallets or can't find a cashpoint (Did you know that in Wisconsin cashpoints are called time machines?) or some intensely complicated thing has happened with their rent which means that they're skint till Thursday.

Lanspresado isn't in the OED, which is odd as I would have thought the first thing you did when making a dictionary was to ransack old ones (as with this old post on antiscian). The OED's lackadaisicality means that I have no idea where the word lanspresado comes from. However, I can give you an explanation of a more English sounding equivalent: the snecklifter.

You see a lanpresado has to prowl around. He goes to the pub, but of course he can't approach the bar unless he sees a friend already there. So he lifts the latch of the pub door, pokes his head in, sees if there's someone who'll buy him a drink and if there isn't he walks calmly away.

An old word for a latch is a sneck and so a snecklifter is a chap who pokes his head into the pub to see if there's anyone who might stand him a little drink.

Though I've checked that that's all true, I originally learnt it from the back of a bottle of beer, which goes to show something, but I'm not sure what. You see the Jennings Brewery of Cumbria brews a beer called Snecklifter, and very tasty it is too.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Two Slang Dictionaries

The TLS has an excellent review of two dictionaries of slang: one brand new and one reprinted from 1699. I thoroughly recommend that you surf off and read it here.

As an incidental point, the review contains the word equivoque, which is a beautiful synonym for ambiguity.

The purpose of early slang dictionaries was to reveal to the honest and literate world, the secret language of criminals. Without a work of reference it is all to easy for an honest man to find himself bamboozled, as this video amply demonstrates.

Friday, 4 February 2011

Infant Tongues

Here's the opening line of Great Expectations:

My father's family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.

The odd thing is that infant means unable to speak. In means not, and fans was the present participle of the Latin fari, which meant speak. So infans was not speaking.

Incidentally, being tongue-tied is a proper medical condition. It's a congenital disorder whereby the tongue is fastened to the bottom of mouth. If you go to a mirror and make a horrid face you'll see an anchoring bit of flesh at the back middle of your tongue's underside. With those who are tongue tied that bit of skin comes out all the way.

Medical types call it ankyloglossia, because medical types are all frustrated scholars of Greek.

I know a chap who was born tongue-tied, but the doctors snipped his licker free and he has been making up for it ever since.

In the North of England they used to call tongues lollies, which may be the source of lollipop.

Tongue-tied no more

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Quicunque Vult and Athanasian Wenches

Some bits of slang are astonishing in their intricacy. For example, an Athanasian wench was an early nineteenth century term for a strumpet or messalinist. Why? Well there was a fourth century chap called Athanasius who was terribly holy and became a saint. He also wrote a creed called the Athanasian Creed. This creed opens:

Quicunque vult salvus esse, ante omnia opus est, ut teneat catholicam fidem...

Which translates roughly as:

Whoever wants to be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the Catholic Faith.

The creed is often known by its first two words: Quicunque vult, Whoever wants to.

And thus from the Athanasian Creed to an Athanasian wench or whoever-wants-to girl. The phrase was mentioned in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue back in 1811 where such a creature is gently described as:

A forward girl, ready to oblige every man that shall ask her.

It seems to me to be a term ripe for resurrection, as it manages to obscure its rather unkind meaning in a distant ecclesiastical reference. Why use a nasty term, when you can just say that a girl is Athanasian?

Try not to think about the cannon

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Minimal or Maximal

I have been having fun today. I have been rewriting, improving and cutting. Here are the first ten pages of Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse, but I've altered them slightly. I've cut out the unnecessary verbiage and rewritten them in the style of Ernest Hemingway. It is, I think you'll agree, a great improvement. I've also retitled it.

A Farewell to the Old Man without Women 

Chapter One

I was in the bath. My Aunt had written asking me to meet some people called Trotter. I didn't want to go, but I would. It was business. 

I heard footsteps and sat up, alert. My valet was back. He told me that another letter had arrived by special courier asking me to invest a thousand pounds in a play. I refused. I had the money, and the play was written by my cousin. But I didn't care.

Here, on the other hand, is the first paragraph of L'Etranger by Camus, rewritten in the style of P.G. Wodehouse. I've also retitled it.

Hang It All!

Chapter One

Usually, you know, I like to begin these memoirs of mine with something cheery. A good book, in my opinion, should brighten up the world, put a spring in the reader's step and a merry song on his lips. Some fellows love to be sombre and I suppose that they've got a right to it. There are those who don't consider a book worth reading unless they're sobbing their eyes out by the end of the first page. I've never understood that line myself and have always tried to start with something to rouse the sagging spirit and bend the corners of the mouth in an upward direction; but today I really can't. You see, I've had a bit of a blow. Today my dear old mother, the lady to whose tender dandling I owe my all, has kicked the proverbial bucket. 

I mean, I say today, but it could have been yesterday. All I got was a bare and bleak telegram with one sentence on it. Wallop! Well, you can imagine that I didn't take it too well. Really, these telegram chaps have all the compassion of an angry tigress. You'd think, wouldn't you, that when you're telling a fellow news like that you would at least give the chap some warning? Blows should be softened and pills sugared. They could begin:

Dear Meursault, Poor yourself a triple snifter and sit down somewhere where you won't fall off, we've got some dark and drearies to impart.

Then they could slip in some stuff about splendid innings and God gathering up his sunbeams and I wouldn't be sitting here foisting all this unpleasantness on you like a whining willow. 

I suppose I ought to catch the bus to Marengo.

Why have I been making these improvements? Well, it's all to do with George Orwell.

You see, I used to have a link up on the right of the blog to Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language. It's one of the classic essays on English prose and its general drift is that the words you use tend to fuddle your thoughts and those of the reader. Therefore, says Orwell, you ought to prune, prune, prune until you are left with the bare minimum needed to convey meaning.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I noticed that there were far too many links up on the right and it was all getting rather cluttered. I had to take something down. I looked at the links and felt rather like the chap operating the lifeboat concession on the Titanic. But in the end I decided that Orwell could go. He'd had his spot for ages and it was time to make way for new blood etc etc.

Then, last week, I posted a link to an article on prose that suggested the exact opposite. This other article had the idea that you should use as many words as you possibly could.

It has been pointed out that this seems to be an inconsistency. I post one link and then I post another and you dear reader are left dizzy and disappointed by my traitorous tergiversations.

Whose side am I on? Minimalist or maximalist? Am I a prosaic and prosodic Vicar of Bray? Do I have no loyalty, no constancy, no honour?

Well, the truth is that I'm not on either side. I just thought that both arguments were interesting and carefully thought out. Being well dressed for a funeral is quite a different thing to being well dressed for the beach. The occasion is all and you're going to look a bit silly emerging from the sea in a black suit and tie or weeping over the coffin in your speedoes and flip-flops. It's the same with prose. Prose has a place and purpose and though I thought that I was improving Wodehouse and Camus, helping them out of their stylistic rut, sometimes I'm not so sure.

Horses for courses, dear reader, and each to his own.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011


This from Wilt by Tom Sharpe. Mr Wilt is being questioned about the disappearance of his wife.

'Interesting word "rehearsal",' he said. 'It comes from the old French, rehercer, meaning...'

'To hell with where it comes from,' said the Inspector, 'I want to know where it ends up.'

'Sounds a bit like a funeral too when you come think of it,' said Wilt, continuing his campaign of semantic attrition.

Inspector Flint hurled himself into the trap. 'Funeral? Whose funeral?'

'Anyone's,' said Wilt blithely. 'Hearse, rehearse. You could say that's what happens when you exhume a body. You rehearse it though I don't suppose you fellows use hearses.'

Well, if a passage like that won't send you scurrying to the dictionary, nothing will; and the connection to hearses is more than coincidental, it is rakish.

Once upon a terribly long time ago there was a French word hercer, which meant to rake. This gave us three words: the first was herse, meaning rake which is now forgotten and mouldering in the garden shed of language.

In modern English we still have the phrase to rake over something and that's exactly what rehearse meant. By Shakespeare's time rehearsal had already come to mean the preparation for a play, but you can, and I often do, rehearse old arguments and doctrines.

Hercer gave us a candlestick, but to explain why I shall have to briefly explain Tenebrae. Tenebrae is a morning service performed over Easter. You have a great, big, fifteen-branched candlestick with fifteen lit candles. You say fourteen psalms and after each one you extinguish a candle, until there is only one flame left. At that point the priest slams his Bible shut with a strepitus, or great noise, and the last candle is then hidden under the altar to symbolise the death of Christ.

Now, the first thing you'll notice is that strepitus is a fantastic word for the final, satisfying slamming shut of a long book that you've been reading for the last year. The second is that a fifteen branched candelabra is going to be huge. It is; and just for you I've added a picture on the right.

Looks a bit a rake, doesn't it? It does. And that is why Tenebrae candlesticks are called hearses.

Then people started putting candles over coffins: not directly on coffins, but on a framework just above, and that framework was called a hearse. And from that, in 1650, you got the carriage that carries a chap's last, wooden, bijou residence.

All of which casts a glimmering light on the word rehearse in this Shakespeare sonnet:

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sudden bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that write it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse,
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

The Inky Fool's taxi had arrived