Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Nothing Compares...

Yesterday, I heard Nothing Compares 2U playing on the radio and I was reminded of how bloody fantastic the first line is.

I've mentioned before that I think first lines are overrated things, but they have a job; indeed they have a couple of jobs. There are two things that a first line should do. First: it should establish something important. The sky was blue and the grass was green is a bad first line because it could be prefixed to almost any story without adding anything (unless your hero is colour-blind).

The other thing that a first line should do is throw the reader off slightly. Only slightly. There's always a danger that a chap will settle down to appreciate your book, and books should not be appreciated, they should be experienced.

You don't want your reader to appreciate that your joke is funny, you want him to laugh. You don't want your reader to appreciate your plot-twists, you want him to be startled. This problem is horribly acute when the reader picks up the book for the first time, because of course he is probably going to use his judgement of your first line to decide whether to continue. So you need to, as it were, pull his seat of judgement out from under him.

But here's the paradox: if you do that too obviously, the reader is likely to say 'Oh! How wonderfully unexpected! He's pulled my seat of judgement out from under me in a very clever way.'

This is a failure. So you must be cunning. You need to be subtle. That's why Call me Ishmael is the best first line in history. On the surface, nothing has happened. The main character is called Ishmael. Onwards to the second sentence.

But he's not named in a normal way. The first line is not My name is Ishmael. It's Call me Ishmael. Most readers don't notice that the narrator of Moby Dick is anonymous. Instead, a sort of ad hoc deal is set up between narrator and reader that Ishmael is the name we shall use, but that for all we know he's really called Brian.

And the vital thing is that that ad hoc deal is set up just quickly enough and just subtly enough that the reader barely notices. He's on the second sentence, but somewhere at the back of his mind there's that nagging feeling that something is wrong.

The same thing goes with It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Right ho! On to the second sentence, barely wondering whether this is a statement of truth (It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the sun rises in the East) or of satire (It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if a girl doesn't have a Gucci handbag she might as well be dead). Is this the omniscient or sarcastic narrator? Does Jane believe this, or is she laughing at those who do?

Subtle. The reader barely notices, but they are that much less able to stand in dissociated judgement.

Which brings me around to the song by Prince, first recorded by The Family, and made famous by Sinead O'Connor. It's not on a level with Melville or Austen, but it's damn close.

It's been seven hours and fifteen days
Since you took your love away.

All Prince did was to reverse the usual order of weights and measures. Most people start with the largest - three pounds and fifty pence, eleven stone and six ounces, fifteen days and seven hours.

It's hardly a dramatic shift. Seven hours and fifteen days is quite comprehensible, you might not notice. But it's enough to tip you off balance so subtly that you don't even notice your fall. Moreover - and this is the beauty of it - it establishes the character. After the first two lines the rest of the song is barely necessary. It's somebody who split up with his girlfriend* more than a fortnight ago, but is still counting their separation in hours. That's why they're listed first.

That's all you need to know about the poor fellow: lovelorn enough that his measurements are reversed. And the real beauty is that the listener might never notice that all that information has been conveyed in the first seven words.

It's enough to make you forgive the 2U instead of To You.

Almost enough.

*Working from the original version.

Monday, 30 May 2011


As I was preparing my late and lenten supper last night, I was reminded of the word pilgarlic. You see, I was peeling garlic at the time. Have you ever peeled garlic? Does that smooth, shiny surface remind you of anything? Yul Brynner, perhaps?

Let's look at the evidence:

Do you see what I mean? A pilgarlic is an ancient and derogatory term for a bald man. It was invented by John Skelton who once wrote:

Your peeled-garlic head
Could occupy there no stead.

And has been used off and on ever since. As late as 1978 the Oxford Times wrote:

BBC 1 offers those pilgarlic gentlemen Yul Brynner (in an adventure movie) and Telly Savalas (as Kojak).

But despite the continued absenteeism of hair, the word has fallen, unjustly into disuse. This is actually rather useful, as, if you call a chap a pilgarlic to his face, he probably won't understand what you mean.

Yul in his pre-pilgarlic days

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Beer Lane

Another in the series of pub poems (previous entries here and here). This one is from the Lamb on Lamb's Conduit Street in Bloomsbury. The picture is Hogarth's Beer Street, the lesser-known sister of Gin Lane, and the poem runs thusly:

Beer, happy Produce of our Isle
Can sinewy Strength impart,
And wearied with Fatigue and Toil
Can chear each manly Heart.

Labour and Art upheld by Thee
Successfully advance,
We quaff Thy balmy Juice with Glee
And Water leave to France.

Genius of Health, thy grateful Taste
Rivals the Cup of Jove,
And warms each English generous Breast
With Liberty and Love.

And Chear is spelled like that. This picture and rhyme are not as obscure as the previous entries, and as my picture was rather shaky and disturbed by reflection, here is a good copy from the Internet.

P.S. If you see a poem up in a pub, do send it in.

Friday, 27 May 2011

Morris Dancing and Othello

Pausing on Lamb's Conduit Street yestereve I saw a troop of Morris dancers waving their sticks about. For those of you who have never seen or heard of morris dancing, it's the most traditional olde-worlde, merrie-Englande form of folk dancing. Except it's not English. It's Arab.

Morris is a corruption of Moorish (via Morisk). Moorish is of or pertaining to the Moors and Moor is an old word for an Arab.

Well, in fact, Moor used to be used indiscriminately to mean Arab, negro, Indian, Muslim or pretty much anything that originated from beyond Kent. That's why nobody, to this day, is quite sure whether Othellothe Moor of Venice, was meant to be black (as we would understand the term) or Arab.

The dance that I witnessed yesterday has been called a Morisk, Moresque, Moorish or Morris dance since the fifteenth century. So I assume that it was Othello's favourite jig.

Moor itself comes from Mauritania which was the ancient name for Morocco, although, weirdly Morocco doesn't have anything to do with Moor.

Nor does Moorish, meaning Arabian, have anything to do with More-ish meaning appetite-whetting, a fact that was lost on the writers of a wine list in a restaurant I once visited. Here is a rather blurry photo:

A Scotsman once told Arnold Bax that "You should make a point of trying every experience once, except incest and folk-dancing." This phrase is usually now repeated with the folk replaced by Morris. But poor Desdemona would tell you that you should also strike from the list a dangerously Moorish husband.

The hankerchiefs were all stolen from Desdemona

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Fits and Starts and Leaps and Bounds

An American* chap called Barack Obama gave a speech yesterday in which he lyrically waxed upon the origins of things like liberty and the rule of law, but not upon the origins of phrases. It was his analysis of developing economies that caught my ear:

And that is why countries like China, India and Brazil are growing so rapidly -- because in fits and starts, they are moving towards the market-based principles that the United States and the United Kingdom have always embraced.


Countries like China, India, and Brazil are growing by leaps and bounds.

Fits and starts and leaps and bounds! What strenuous movements!

Fits and starts goes back to a sermon of 1620 by a chap called Robert Sanderson who compares Christian virtue to actually having a fit thusly:

A man of a cold complexion hath as much heat in a sharp fit of an ague, as he that is of a hot constitution, and in health, and more too; his blood is more inflamed, and he burneth more. But whether do you think is the more kindly heat, that which cometh from the violence of a fever, or that which ariseth from the condition of a man's temper? . . . Then for constancy and lasting,—if the heat come by fits, and starts, and paroxysms, leaping eftsoons and suddenly out of one extreme into another, so as the party one while gloweth as hot as fire, another while is chill and cold as ice, and keepeth not at any certain stay, that is an ill sign too, and it is to be feared there is an ague either bred, or in breeding...

Personally, I do everything by fits and starts, except for having a fit, which I do constantly. I live in a semi-permanent fit of poetic inspiration, which is no good, because as Nicolas Boileau pointed out in his L'Art Poetique:

A Poem, where we all Perfections find,
Is not the work of a fantastick [crazy] Mind:
There must be Care, and Time, and Skill and Pains;
Nor the first heat of unexperienced Brains.
Yet sometimes artless Poets, when the rage
Of a warm Fancy does their Minds engage,
Puff'd with the vain Pride, presume they understand,
And boldly take the Trumpet in their hand;
Their fustian Muse each Accident confounds;
Nor can she fly, but rise by leaps and bounds,
'Till their small stock of Learning quickly spent,
Their poem dies for want of Nourishment.

Well, obviously that's not what Boileau wrote. He was French, poor chap. But luckily for him John Dryden and Sir William Soames produced that translation in 1694. Which one of them actually wrote the words leaps and bounds is unknown, but I like to think it was Soames as I can't find anything else about him.

Nicolas Boileau's Art of Poetry, even in the Dryden and Soames translation, isn't a classic. Sensible: yes. Famous: no. Voltaire liked it and so did Dr Johnson. But in Dr Johnson's opinion it was nothing as compared to Pope's translation of the Iliad which was (apparently): "a performance which no age or nation could hope to equal".

That's absolute hogwash. Chapman's Homer is much better, but we'll let that pass. I've written about Iliad translations before and the only reason I mentioned Pope's was that he uses the phrase leaps and bounds twice: first in the introduction where he says of those who would translate Homer:

Methinks I see these different followers of Homer, some sweating and straining after him by violent leaps and bounds (the certain signs of false mettle), others slowly and servilely creeping in his train, while the poet himself is all the time proceeding with an unaffected and equal majesty before them.

And then in Book 21 when a river is trying to drown Achilles (and no: that shouldn't be passive):

High o'er the surging tide, by leaps and bounds,
He wades, and mounts; the parted wave resounds.
Not a whole river stops the hero's course,
While Pallas fills him with immortal force.

It is Pope's poem that, I suspect, made the phrase famous and slyly inserted into the language. As this blog proved a year ago, Pope is the most quoted English poet by quite some way, even if he is scandalously underread in these seedy times.

So Obama's speech about the basis of democracy is itself based upon John Dryden, Alexander Pope and God.
*Although I have compelling evidence he was actually born in Tring.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A Dildo For A Song

Last night I went to see All's Well That Ends Well at the Globe. A line in the play made me think of the Beatles and Our Mutual Friend.

Clown: By my troth, I take my young lord to be a very melancholy man.

Countess: By what observance, I pray you?

Clown: Why, he will look upon his boot and sing; mend the ruff and sing; ask questions and sing; pick his teeth and sing. I know a man that had this trick of melancholy sold a goodly manor for a song.

What is the connection to the Beatles? Well, it's an obscure aspect of the song Your Mother Should Know (video beneath), the lyrics of which run:

Let's all get up and dance to a song
That was a hit before your mother was born
And though she was born a long, long time ago,
Your mother should know,
Your mother should know.

You see, Paul McCartney's mother was born in 1909, which means that the song was probably a hit in 1908 or earlier, in which case its hittiness would not have been measured in record sales, but in sales of sheet music.

Do you remember Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend? No? Oh well. He's a poor street vendor who develops a rather weird obsession with the occupants of the house outside of which he sells ballads and sheet music.

Sheet music used to be everywhere. Before the gramophone existed it was the only way of obtaining a song for keeps. Hearing a song was no more than hearing a recitation of a poem. If you liked it, you bought it on paper. So selling music was an essential part of everyday life, and the salesmen were (often) the lowest of the low.

The same character, essentially, pops up in A Winter's Tale. Autolycus, who describes himself as "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles", is an itinerant ballad-seller who:

...hath songs for man or woman, of all sizes; no
milliner can so fit his customers with gloves: he
has the prettiest love-songs for maids; so without
bawdry, which is strange; with such delicate
burthens of dildos and fadings...

I fear an aside on dildoes is required. The word is first recorded in 1598 meaning exactly what it does today, but it also appeared in lots of ballads as a meaningless refrain. Just as our songs have sha-la-las and yeah-yeah-yeahs, so Elizabethan ballads had fa-la-las, hey-nonny-noes, and dildoes.

All of which brings us full circle to that line from All's Well That Ends Well which is the very first recorded example of selling something for a song. When the melancholy man of whom the clown speaks sold a goodly manor for a song, he was exchanging his real estate for a piece of sheet music because he needed something new to sing.

Perhaps, for the price of his land he got hold of the Roxburghe Ballads, which contain the beautiful lines:

She prov'd herself a Duke's daughter, and he but a Squire's son.
Sing trang dildo lee

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to sing trang dildo lee all over London until I get arrested.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011


Wink used to mean shut both your eyes for a while. So when Shakespeare wrote:

When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see,
For all the day they view things unrespected;
But when I sleep, in dreams they look on thee,
And darkly bright, are bright in dark directed.

He wasn't talking about closing one eye in a licentious manner. So what happens if you pull somebody's hood down over their eyes? You blind them and thus hoodwink them.

Monday, 23 May 2011

A Henge?

On Saturday I was pottering around the stone circle at Avebury, which is a bit like Stonehenge but wider and shorter, when somebody asked me what a henge was. I had no idea. Moreover, the powerful spirits of the neolithic gods were interfering with my iPhone so I couldn't find out instantly. A Swedish chap suggested that henge meant stone, which would have made Stonehenge mean stonestone. This would have been fun, but was not true.

Henge relates to hang and to hinge. A hinge is the centre upon which the everything else hangs. A henge-cliff is an overhanging rock and so Stonehenge is the Hanging-Stones. This may be because the horizontal stones hang upon the others, or because the monument could usefully double as a gallows.

Stonehenge has only been called by that name since the twelfth century, before that it was known as the Giant's Dance.

Avebury stone circle has mysterious and powerful properties that cannot be explained by rational thought. For example, when I was standing exactly in the middle of the circle and facing towards the setting sun, I suddenly received two text messages despite the fact that my phone said NO SIGNAL.

The Inky Fool comparing washing powders.

P.S. If anyone can find a video of Flanders and Swann doing the Henge monologue, I would be most grateful.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Shakespeare's Starlings

Just a link today, because I'm feeling lazy and faineant. Here's a little article on how Shakespeare introduced starlings to America and was responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln. Click here.

Thursday, 19 May 2011


Being an up-to-the-decade aficionado of pop culture, I was intrigued to discover the existence of a creature called "Lindsay Lohan". Apparently, he/she is terribly famous. Luckily, I didn't need to find out anything more about this creature as, being a clever chap, I already know what a lohan is.

Lohan is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as A Buddhist saint of the highest rank. It's somebody who has achieved the highest level of enlightenment and freedom from suffering and desire*.

As we know, the OED is never wrong. Or, at least, it carries such authority that, when it is a little mistaken, it is the world that is corrected.

A topless lohan

*Well technically it depends what sort of Buddhism you're into. A lohan is the same as an arhat.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Irriguous Poetry

Much of the time this blog is merely an excuse to quote poetry. It's like a money laundering joint, with etymology at the front and stacks of used verses in the back room. So today's word is irriguous which means moistened, and comes from the same root as irrigated. I came across the irriguous in an obscure eighteenth century poem by a chap called Lord Dreghorn who was hopelessly in love with his housemaid.

He writes so sweetly of how she won't have sex with him even for money, of how she's hit him with a broom, a mop and a frying pan, of how he spies on her when she's bathing, and of how love has made him loathe his greenhouse.

Lord Dreghorn is also very good with his compound adjectives: tub-enclosed, coal-fraught, turf-kindled, heiress-married, art-created and fortune-hunting.

In fact, I shall copy out the whole thing, just for you, dear reader, just for you.

Nor Hammond's love, nor Shenstone's was sincere,
For, they, though poor, to high-born maids laid claim;
A handsome house-maid causes my despair,
And Nelly, not Neaera, is her name.

What though devoid of all coquettish care,
Bare-footed she, except on Sundays, goes,
To wash her hands forgets, and comb her hair,
Nor with her fingers scorns to blow her nose?

On ev'ry feature and on ev'ry limb,
Beauty and strength have lavished all their care;
A food too rich is skim-milk cheese for him
That would with her the city-flirt compare.

In vain, to win her, proffered oft have I
The gaudy ribbon, and the curious lace,
In vain displayed, to her relentless eye
The guinea's seldom unsuccessful face.

Repulsed, I often have indignant sworn;
Some freedoms often struggled hard to force;
But soon, too soon, severely checked forbore,
She more enraged, and my reception worse.

The brimful milking-pail, the empty can,
Th' unwieldy besom, big with prickly fate;
The nauseous mop, and hissing frying-pan,
Have fall'n, vindictive, on my guardless pate.

Yet I, infatuate! pursue her still;
Happy to lurk, insidious, and unseen,
Among the willows, nurslings of the rill,
That winds irriguous, through the washing-green;

For there, with forcible alternate tread,
From the soaked linen ev'ry stain to press,
The tub-enclosed, and unsuspecting maid,
Furls, unashamed, th' impediments of dress.

This scene augments my ardour to proceed,
Nor from the heart her cruelty to me;
Nay, she acknowledged once it did proceed,
Not from dislike, but difference of degree.

‘Tis true, for though she spurns my fond address,
Yet to her equals is no coyness shown;
She, unconstrained, will Tom the gard’ner kiss,
Toy, romp and wanton with the ploughman John.

Heav’n knows, for thee, sole mistress of my heart!
I to the meanest station would descend,
Drive whistling cheerfully the coal-fraught cart,
Or buttered milk from unscoured barrels vend.

With scanty wages and with weekly meal,
A thatch-roofed cottage and turf-kindled fire,
Content and happy, I through life would steal,
Nor envy once the heiress-married squire.

By thee rejected me my fields no more,
No more, my art-created gardens please;
I loathe my greenhouse, so admired before,
And undelighted wander through my trees.

Since I in grief must pine my youth away,
If disappointed of this virtuous maid,
How weak, how foolish, is it to delay,
The low, but lovely villager to wed.

What would my parents, what my kindred say?
What defamation would I undergo,
At rout, ball, concert, opera and play,
The jest of ev’ry fortune-hunting beau!

No four-wheel chaise, of nice new-fashioned shape,
Would ever stop at my dishonoured house;
No well-dressed footman, with tremendous rap,
Announce a visit to my humble spouse.

Fond youth, t’indulge the mean idea cease,
A flame disgraceful to extinguish strive,
And bear resigned, when, of the jolly piece,
A country-wedding shall they hopes deprive.

The besom filled with prickly fate is, by the way, a broom (here used by Nell as a weapon). I looked up Lord Dreghorn in the Dictionary of National Biography. I hoped desperately to find that he had married an Eleanor, but no. Two years after that poem was written Lord Dreghorn married a woman called Esther Cunninghame and had ten children.

The guinea's seldom unsuccessful face

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


There's a brand new word in the OED. Well, the word's not new, it's been sitting around since 1620, but it only made it into the dictionary a few days ago, like one of those saints who's canonised centuries after his immolation. The word is rugible.

Say it.


Sounds good, doesn't it?

Rugible is defined as Obscure Rare: Capable of roaring.

It has only, so far as the OED knows, been used once, back in 1620 in a book called Syntagma Logicum, which contains the sentence:

A Lion is a fore-footed Beast rugible.

I have a weakness for postpositive adjectives, which are the ones used after the noun like court martial and attorney general. Plus, when life is getting me down and niggles are niggling a little too much, I often feel very, very rugible.

The Inky Fool conducting fieldwork

Monday, 16 May 2011

The Position of the Missionary

I was reading an anthropological work of 1929 called The Sexual Life of Savages,when I came across this passage:

When we go on a love making expedition we light our fire; we take our lime gourd (and chew betel-nut) we take our tobacco (and smoke it). Food we do not take, we would be ashamed to do so.We walk, we arrive at a large tree, we sit down, we search each other's heads and consume the lice, we tell the woman that we want to copulate. After it is over we return to the village.

Other than the betel-nut, that is my method precisely.

You may wonder, dear savage reader, why I was reading this and the answer is that I promised you a post on the missionary position and it is from Malinowski's Sexual Life of Savages that the term ultimately derives. However, the term appears to be a Big Mistake and a calumny on poor missionaries. Here are the two relevant passages:

Above all, the natives despise the European position and consider it unpractical and improper. The natives, of course, know it because white men frequently cohabit with native women, some even being married to them. But as they say: "The man overlies heavily the woman; he presses her heavily downwards, she cannot respond (ibilampu)."

Well, each to his own, I suppose. But you may well notice that there is no mention of missionaries in this passage. Nor do they pop up anywhere nearby. I checked. The missionary fashion doesn't appear until a hundred and something pages later and it's not a sexual position. Here's the full passage:

Even courting is conducted most decorously. Scenes of frequent occurrence in an public park in Europe, after dark or even before, would never be seen in a Trobriand village. Holding hands, leaning against each other, embracing. . . are not permitted to lovers in public. I observed once or twice that Yobukwa'u and his betrothed used to lie together on a mat in broad daylight decorously leaning against each other and holding hands, in a manner which we would find perfectly natural in a pair of lovers soon to be married. But when I mentioned this in discussing the whole subject with some natives, I was told at once that it was a new fashion and not correct according to old custom. Tokolibeba, once a famous Don Juan, now a peppery old conservative and stickler for proprieties, insisted that this was misinari si bubnela, "missionary fashion", one of those novel immoralities introduced by Christianity. He spoke with as much feeling and righteous indignation as the late Rev. C.M. Hyde of Honolulu might have against heathen pruriency.

So, you have the awkward European coital posture, and the scandalous European habit of hand-holding. They're described separately and are utterly distinct. Who could possibly confuse the two?

Alfred Kinsey, that's who. In a book of 1948 he refers to The Sexual Life of Savages thusly:

Malinowski. . . notes that caricatures of the English-American position are performed around the communal campfires, to the great amusement of the natives who refer to the position as the ‘missionary position’.

No. Malinowski does not. Not in the slightest. The missionary fashion he describes is holding hands. The sexual position he describes is the European position.

By such mistakes is language formed; and those poor missionaries can only weep at the injustice of it all.

The Inky Fool's sermon went down rather well.

P.S. This post was meant to come out on Friday, but a combination of technical problems and personal faineancy have delayed it until now.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Eliot on Typewriters

In August 1916 T.S. Eliot was working as a book reviewer and wrote this in a letter to Conrad Aiken:

I have reviewed some good books and much trash. It is good practice in writing and teaches on speed both in reading and writing. It is bad in this way, that one acquires an extraordinary appetite for volumes, and exults at the mass of printed matter which one has devoured and evacuated. . . . Composing on the typewriter, I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences which I used to dote upon. Short, staccato, like modern French prose. The typewriter makes for lucidity, but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.

I'm always interested in how external, physical circumstance affects writing. Oddly, I think the reverse would be true of me. I type much faster that I can write and this leads to a voluptuous superfluity of words. Were I to take up my old fountain pen, I would probably become much more stern and efficient.

Eliot's words are more appropriate to the lapidary style of my text messages, of which I have already written here.

And here, because life needs a spoonful of poetry, is Eliot on the subject of a typist

The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun's last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.

A peek behind the scenes at Inky Fool

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


You musn't call people fat. They get offended. Call a man tubby and he will bubble with resentment, call a lady plump and she'll give you a slap. Even pleasant sounding words like podgy can get you in trouble. The whole thesaurus - meaty, stout, obese, overweight, chubby, pudgy, fubsy, squat, five by five, square, dumpy, chunky, portly, corpulent, paunchy, pot-bellied, gorbellied, convex, puffy, pursey, bloated, double-chinned, plump as a dumpling, plump as a partridge, fat as a quail, fat as butter, fat as brawn, fat as bacon, fat as a pig - will get you in similar trouble.

So what are you to do when you need to describe a fatty-fattener? Inky Fool and a three-hundred year old dictionary have the answer: Ventripotent.

Sounds good, doesn't it? Everybody wants to be potent and, unless they know what the ventri is, I suspect they'll take it well. Of course, if they looked in a copy of Cawdrey's Table Alphabeticall (1604) they would find the following:

Ventripotent, big-paunch, bellie-able, huge-guts.

But as they are very unlikely to have a copy to hand you're safe. Ventri, you see, was the Latin for stomach and potent means, well, potent. It's the same ventri that you find in ventriloquism, which means speaking from the stomach. In fact, ventriloquism was originally the belief that you had a loquacious demon in your belly. Another antique dictionary, Blount's Glossographia, has this:

Ventriloquist, one that hath an evil spirit speaking in his belly, or one that by use and practise can speak as it were out of his belly, not moving his lips.

The Inky Fool resented being pointed at like that.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


Editor was once a Latin word meaning one who puts forth. That's why the chap or chappess who puts forth a book came to be known as an editor. As the putter-forth of a book usually has to make some alterations we then got our familiar verb edit. As those alterations are usually deletions, edited has come to mean cut.

However, it's worthwhile remembering that editor only got attached to books by coincidence. Etymologically, somebody who threw you out of a nightclub or a window could have been called an editor. Moreover, the original Roman editors were much more brutal people.

In the high and palmy state of Rome the Editor was the man who put out the games at the Colosseum. He obtained the Christians, the lions, the gladiators and decided, in his pomp, which would live and which die. A couple of descriptions will help:

The editor giving the games, usually to curry political favor with the mob, rode behind on a chariot perhaps drawn by exotic wild animals such as zebras or even ostriches.


If the emperor was not in attendance, the producer (editor) of the games decided the fate of the victim. Even if defeated, a gladiator might be granted a reprieve (missus) if he fought well or, if neither fighter prevailed, both could be reprieved stans missus. But a gladiator also could be forced to fight again the same day, although that was considered bad form, and there were contests in which no reprieve was granted the loser (sine missione).

Ask any writer: nothing has changed.

The Inky Fool asks whether something should be cut

Monday, 9 May 2011

The Return of the Mission

I met a distressed vicar yesterday. The source of his troubles was not guilt or doubt or the approach of the rapture: the terror facing this particular vicar was that this week he has to write a Mission Action Plan.

The management jargon shuddered on the preacher's lips like a blasphemy. He had to write down goals and objectives and mission statements and feed forward his blue-sky ideas from outside the box. That's what a Mission Action Plan (or MAP!) is.

He asked me whether I would write it for him, assuring me that it would be a work of pure fiction anyway. I refused because I am lazy. But as I wandered away from God and towards the pub, it occurred to me that the word mission has come full circle. The primary meaning of mission, as defined in the OED, is:

In Trinitarian theology: the sending into the world of the Son or Spirit by the Father, or of the Spirit by the Son, esp. for the purpose of salvation.

This is the sense that the word had in 1530. Mission was a solely religious word for the first hundred years of its existence in English. It's from the Latin misso, meaning send, and is, or was, the exclusive preserve of missionaries. It wasn't until 1626 that Francis Bacon invented the idea of godless, diplomatic mission, and it wasn't until 1910 that anybody had the idea that soldiers might be sent on a mission. The missions impossible and accomplished of soldiers and spies are a twentieth century invention.

And shooting people, as everybody knows, is cool and efficient. So it's the military sense of mission that was eventually stolen by business-speak and by management consultants. The modern Director of Regional Sales no longer has a job, he has a mission, just like a soldier, a mission that he must complete at all costs (or, preferably, minimum cost).

And guess who appropriated the word mission from the horrid world of management jargon and gibberish? That's right. The Church of England.

So mission has come full circle: from theology to diplomacy, to the military, to management-speak and back at last to its true home in the church. It is the prodigal son of the language, sleeping among the swine.

Indeed, I think the story of mission has already been described in the Ecclesiastes:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

And that is, of course, the origin of the phrase nothing new under the sun.

I cannot believe that this graph exists

P.S. Yes. There will be a post on the missionary position some time later in the week. I may have to do some research in the British Library.

Friday, 6 May 2011


According to the news :

Intelligence garnered from waterboarded detainees was used to track down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and kill him

This is one of those awkward statements that will make any right-thinking person wrestle with the thorny question of where the word garner comes from and what exactly it means.

Garner is one of those strange verbs that lives only inside the pages of a newspaper. I don't believe that in my long and intricate life I have ever garnered anything. It's not one of those verbs that you use.

'What are you planning to do this afternoon?'

'Oh, I'm planning to garner.'

Doesn't work, does it? Even if you put in an object for the verb you still end up with:

'I was planning to garner some stamps for my collection.'

But newspapers get to use garner without an eyelid being batted. This seems unfair, why should journalists keep all the garnering to themselves? It comes, since you ask, from the French word grenier, which meant granary. The R got moved by a process that etymologists call metathesis and so we ended up with the noun garner which also meant granary.

Then the noun was changed to a verb. Just as a person can be housed or hospitalized, so grain could be garnered, or put into the garner. To garner is to granary-ize.

The metaphorical use of garner was, of bloody course, invented by Shakespeare. In every marriage guidance counsellor's favourite play Othello tells Desdemona that she is the place:

...where I have garner'd up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up...

And then kills her a few scenes later. Anyway, the OED traces garner as a rather obscure word meaning to store up, as in a granary, until the nineteenth century when it disappears. There's no sense in the dictionary of obtain, as in the news article above.

So what the hell happened? Some strange agricultural journalist with a penchant for granarizing facts?

Must be, I suppose. And it seems to have happened in about 1980. Here's a graph of the frequency of the use of the word garnered in English.

From that graph garner what you can. And remember, it has nothing to do with garnish.

Thursday, 5 May 2011


If you are medioxumate it means that you are a god, but only a middling sort of god. You aren't a top god like Allah or Jehovah, but you aren't a godling either. It's a rather useful sort of word for bringing in a qualification when discussing divinity. If you hear somebody described as a sex god, you can agree, but add that they are only a medioxumate one. This won't cause offence: partly because being a medioxumate sex god is better than not being a sex god at all, and partly because nobody in their right mind knows what medioxumate means.

The Toothache God of Kathmandu is a proper example of a medioxumate god. He's the chap in the picture and is only usually worshipped when a dentist is unavailable, because as Shakespeare put it: There was never yet philosopher that could endure the toothache patiently.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Dinosaurs and Tennyson

I was shocked to learn recently that brontosauruses never existed. Not only does that mean that the toy of my childhood was mischristened, it also means that there is no creature called a thunder lizard, and I think that's a shame.

You see, sauros was just the Greek word for lizard so all those sauruses that we know and love are just something-lizards. Brontes was a cyclops whose name meant The Thunderer so a brontosaurus was a thunder-lizard. A stegosaurus, whose back was covered with armour plating, was a roof-lizard; and a tyrannosaurus was a king-lizard, from the same root as tyrant.

Tyrannosaurus rex is funny name. Sophocles' Greek play Oedipus Tyrannos was known in Latin as Oedipus Rex because tyrannos and rex are the same thing: a king. So a tyrannosaurus rex is a king-lizard king.

Dinosaur itself comes from the Greek deinos and means frightening-lizard.

The reason that brontosauruses never existed is that the species had already been discovered and named. The chap who thought that he'd found a new kind of dinosaur had, in fact, merely found a slight variant on the old apatosaurus. And what does apatosaurus mean? Deceptive-lizard.

Oh, the lies of my youth!

Anyway, when I think about dinosaurs I always go back to what I believe is the first dinosaur poem. It's a section of In Memoriam by Tennyson probably written in the 1840s. Tennyson has been comforting himself with the thought that though individual humans die, humanity remains. Nature doesn't care about individuals, but looks after species and types.

He then remembers that the (reasonably) newly-discovered dinosaurs prove that that is not the case. This results in renewed misery for Tennyson and one of the greatest passages of poetry in English.

"So careful of the type?" but no.
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, "A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.

"Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death:
The spirit does but mean the breath:
I know no more." And he, shall he,

Man, her last work, who seem'd so fair,
Such splendid purpose in his eyes,
Who roll'd the psalm to wintry skies,
Who built him fanes of fruitless prayer,

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation's final law --
Tho' Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek'd against his creed --

Who loved, who suffer'd countless ills,
Who battled for the True, the Just,
Be blown about the desert dust,
Or seal'd within the iron hills?

No more? A monster then, a dream,
A discord. Dragons of the prime,
That tare each other in their slime,
Were mellow music match'd with him.

O life as futile, then, as frail!
O for thy voice to soothe and bless!
What hope of answer, or redress?
Behind the veil, behind the veil.

Tennyson contemplating the brontosaurus

Tuesday, 3 May 2011


To venustate something is to make it utterly beautiful. The minutes or hours that you spend each morning before the bathroom's looking glass is, I hope, an act of venustation.

Venustate pops up in a couple of seventeenth century dictionaries, but then faded away and perished. I fear that this is because in the intervening centuries few things have been made beautiful. Although, it is more likely that the adjective venust from which it derives has died too.

There is too little venusty in the world. We need venustation. Go forth and venustate.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Nothing to do with ABBA

A fellow was shot today in Abbottabad. It may have been yesterday. I'm not sure. What I can say for certain is that it is no coincidence that Abbottabad sounds like the English word Abbot, for the town is named after an English general named James Abbott.

This brings us to the central mystery of the shooting in Abbottabad: how did the surname Abbott come about. 'Simple!' I hear you cry. 'One of his ancestors must have been an abbot.'

Not so simple. The earliest Mr Abbot (Alwoldus Abbas) is recorded in 1111 AD, by which time priests were absolutely and completely banned from getting married and making babies. Of course, they still did have babies, but the babies were illegitimate.

Abbot as a surname probably arose not as a description of a profession (like Smith or Baker), but as a nickname, presumably for somebody rather pious and fatherly.

For abbot, ultimately means father. It comes from the Latin abbatem, which is the accusative of abbas, which comes from the Greek abbas, which comes from the Aramaic word abba.

How did an Aramaic word get into Latin? From Jesus, or more specifically from Mark's Gospel. Jesus would have spoken Aramaic, but the Gospels were written in Greek. Occasionally, though, the evangelists, for some reason, felt it necessary to mention the original word* that Jesus had used. For example:

And he said, Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.

So abba was an Aamaic honorific meaning Father. How Mr Laden felt about living in a place named after a Christian priest and a Jewish father is unknown. I hope that if the special forces were able to get one answer out of him, it would have been that.

None of which has anything at all to do with the Swedish pop maestros ABBA, who are named after a Swedish fish-canning company.

Since 1838

*Well, sort of. The quote actually comes from the agony in the garden, of which there were no waking witnesses. So, like me, it's either odd or inspired.