Thursday, 30 June 2011

Rivals and Rivers

Your rivals were, originally, simply the people who lived on the other side of the river from you. The idea was that you were both after the same fish, and therefore rivals, when viewed from an angler's angle.

Indeed, the original meaning of rival in English was riverbank, and the sense of opponent didn't crop up until the late sixteenth century.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to shoot some South Londoners.

Like this

Wednesday, 29 June 2011


I can't fit this on the blog. So I thoroughly recommend that you simply click this link, which will take you to a short, simple, silent animation that shows how our alphabet developed from Ancient Phoenecian. It's exorbitantly fascinating.

Meanwhile, have a look at the symbol &. Let's have that big:


Do you see how there's almost a capital E on the left?

Do you see how there's a cross on the right, almost like a simple t or +?

That's because & was originally a just a joined up way of writing et, the Latin for and.

Basically the same as ours.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011


Ophelimity is the capacity to satisfy a need, desire or want. It's an economics term, but I can think of at least a thousand non-economic situations in which it could usefully be used, and not all of them are obscene.

It comes ultimately from the Greek ophelimos, which meant useful, and is therefore vaguely related to Ophelia, which meant help. Nobody is sure why Shakespeare decided to name Hamlet's bit of fluff Ophelia, but the best guess is that he simply made a mistake. There's a Ben Jonson play in which there's a nymph called Apheleia.

The fourth, in white, is Apheleia, a nymph as pure and simple as the soul, or as an abrase table, and is therefore called Simplicity.

As Ophelia in Hamlet is a simple, innocent nymph, this makes a Lot More Sense. And as Shakespeare was a good friend of Jonson's, and was even godfather to Jonson's son, there could well be a connection, even though Jonson's play came after Hamlet. The explanation has ophelimity.

Here is Ophelia's lack of ophelimity illustrated:

Monday, 27 June 2011


The Huns lived in Hungary. The goths built Gothenburg. The Franks ruled France. I knew all that. But I only recently discovered that the Vandals lived in Andalucia.

It was the Arab invaders who dropped the V.

This means that if Andalucia ever campaigned for independence, it would be political vandalism.

Sunday, 26 June 2011


There's an anonymous poem of 1747 called The Poetess's Bouts-Rimés. It starts as a woman's prayer to Apollo concerning a fellow she has a crush on. But half way through, she realises that she may reveal too much, so she decides just to give you the rhymes and let you guess the rest.

The poem goes thusly:

Dear Phoebus, hear my only vow;
If e'er you loved me, hear me now.
That charming youth - but idle Fame
Is ever so inclined to blame -
These men will turn it to a jest;
I'll tell the rhymes and drop the rest
te-TUM-te-TUM-te-TUM       desire,
te-TUM-te-TUM-te-TUM-te    fire,
te-TUM-te-TUM-te-TUM-te    lie,
te-TUM-te-TUM-te-TUM-te    thigh,
te-TUM-te-TUM-te-TUM-te    wide,
te-TUM-te-TUM-te-TUM-te    ride,
te-TUM-te-TUM-te-TUM-te    night,
te-TUM-te-TUM-te-TUM-te    delight.

I invite you, dear reader, to fill in the blanks. Obscenity is not necessary, but it will be appreciated. Incidentally, this sort of competition is called bout-rimés, or end-rhymes.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Jane Austen and Broken-Hearted Octopuses

In Martin Amis' novel Other People there's a girl whose only knowledge of life comes from reading the novels of Jane Austen.

She read The Jane Austen Gift-Pack. The six stories it contained spoke more directly to her than anything else had done. The same thing happened in every book: the girl liked a bad man who seemed good, then liked a good man who had seemed bad, whom she duly married. What was wrong with the bad men who seemed good? They were unmanly, and lacked candour, and, in at least two clear instances, fucked other people.

This limited experience of life is a problem when she has to lie to the police:

'How old are you . . . Mary Lamb? Do your parents know what you get up to?'
'I'm in my twenty-fifth year,' said Mary carefully. 'My parents died.'
'Of what?'
Mary hesitated. 'One of consumption,' she said, 'the other of a broken heart.'
'People don't die of those things any more. Well they do, but we call it something else these days.'

Actually, we don't. A cardiologist friend of mine told me that, just as it is possible to tug on somebody's heart-strings, so it is medically possible to be broken hearted. It is actually called broken-heart syndrome and involves the sudden weakening of one of the muscles of the heart. It is sometimes brought on by emotional strain, such as the death of your beloved, and is usually fatal. This means that it is quite possible to die of a broken heart.

However, doctors don't usually call it broken-heart syndrome. They call it takotsubo, which is Japanese for octopus trap. That may sound a trifle odd, but when you're broken hearted your left ventricle swells up until it's just the same shape as a traditional Japanese octopus trap. Like this:

The poor (but delicious) octopuses find the pot and think it would make a nice home, so they crawl inside and, once snug, the wily fisherman pulls it up to the surface, cooks his tenant and leaves the other octopuses broken-hearted.

They usually die.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

It's Not Tennis

As Wimbledon is upon us again, it is vital, dear reader, that you should point out to anyone who'll listen that they are not playing tennis. They are playing sphairistike.

Tennis is an old French game named after the command Tenez or Hold that you would shout when you served the ball. It's played in an enclosed court and is nowadays usually referred to as Real Tennis.

The game that they are playing at Wimbledon was invented by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield* in 1873, and he named his new sport Sphairistike, which is Ancient Greek for ball skill (sphere-tech).

The only reason that it isn't called the Wimbledon Sphairistike Championship is that nobody had the faintest idea how to pronounce sphairistike, and so they quickly gave up and started referring to it as Lawn Tennis.

Sphairistike is easy to pronounce, though. It rhymes with sticky.

So go forth, dear reader, and every time somebody mentions the tennis, tut and shake your head.

No, of sphairistike.

*Londoners can see his blue plaque just round the corner from Pimlico Tube Station.

N.B. I've mentioned this in a post last year. But if they're allowed to hold the same championship once a year, then I don't see why I can't write posts on the same subject.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Thrice Silly

A sillikin is a silly little fellow.

A sillypop is a silly woman (pop is a shortening of the endearment poppet).

A sillyism is anything you say that is silly.

That is all.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Periphrasis and Paraphrase

Samuel Johnson's great poem The Vanity of Human Wishes, which is a sort of reworking of Juvenal's 10th Satire, opens with the lines:

Let Observation with extensive view
Survey mankind from China to Peru...

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (rather unkindly) rewrote this as:

Let Observation with extensive observation
Observe mankind extensively.

But just before doing so, Coleridge made some interesting points about poetry. Here's the context:

As we walked up Mr. Cambridge's meadows towards Twickenham, he [Coleridge] criticized Johnson and Gray as poets, and did not seem to allow them high merit. [That's Gray who wrote Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard] The excellence of verse, he said, was to be untranslatable into any other words without detriment to the beauty of the passage; — the position of a single word could not be altered in Milton without injury. Gray's personifications, he said, were mere printer's devils' personifications — persons with a capital letter, abstract qualities with a small one. He thought Collins had more genius than Gray, who was a singular instance of a man of taste, poetic feeling, and fancy, without imagination. He contrasted Dryden's opening of the 10th satire of Juvenal with Johnson's: -

"'Let observation, with extensive view,
Survey mankind from Ganges to Peru.'

which was as much as to say, -

"'Let observation with extensive observation observe mankind.'

"After dinner he told us a humorous story of his enthusiastic fondness for
Quakerism, when he was at Cambridge, and his attending one of their
meetings, which had entirely cured him. "

And in case you were wondering how Dryden did it, he managed the same couplet in five words:

Look round the habitable world, how few
Know their own good; or knowing it, pursue.
How void of reason are our hopes and fears!
What in the conduct of our life appears
So well design'd, so luckily begun,
But, when we have our wish, we wish undone?

But I prefer Johnson's.

Observation, you have your task.

Monday, 20 June 2011


On Saturday evening I let a choir sing some Renaissance madrigals to me. Among them was a song about how Italy was terribly oppressed in the sixteenth century. The country was exhorted to:

Grasp, grasp, bold one, the righteous sword
To avenge yourself of a thousand other abuses.

Which wouldn't have been at all interesting were it not that they were singing in Italian, so the lines went:

Strigni, strign'animosa iusto ferro
Che de mill'altre ingiurie fai vendetta

Where vendetta means avenge. It's funny seeing a word like that stripped of its later associations and sitting at home in its native language. It's rather like seeing a school photograph with Hitler in it (see below).

Vendetta is merely the Italian word for vengeance and comes from the same root as vengeance: vindicare. An odd little aspect of vindicare is that it gave us too words - one virtuous and one vicious - vindicated and vindictive.

If you are vindictive you are nasty and always seeking vengeance, but if you get your revenge you are vindicated and In The Right. This is approximately the same principle as John Harington's rhyme:

Treason doth never prosper, What’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.

The vendetta was originally a custom of the Corsicans who so enjoyed the practice that between 1821 and 1852 they shot, stabbed and strangled more than 4,300 people. Luckily there is a word in the OED for what they were. They were keen vendettists.


Two violent chefs of Valetta
Began on a bloody vendetta
 Several hundred were killed
 Braised, broiled and grilled
When one dishonoured the other's bruschetta.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Isaac Watts

I took a necropolitan stroll yesterday through Abney Park, which is a jumbled and bramble-covered cemetery in North London. One might easily deduce from the chaotic state of the grave stones that the Second Coming had happened years ago. Everything is overgrown with brambles and ivy, and the whole thing is like Ozymandias run riot in Stoke Newington.

Hidden right in the middle is a monolithic monument to Isaac Watts, whose writings, dear reader, you are familiar with.

What's that? You've never read any Isaac Watts? Well, you have. Sort of.

Do you remember the poem in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland that goes:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in
With gently smiling jaws!

You do? Do you remember how it is introduced? Alice says:

I'll try and say 'How doth the little - '," and she crossed her hands on her lap as if she were saying lessons, and began to repeat it, but her voice sounded hoarse and strange, and the words did not come out the same as they used to do...

The lesson that Alice is trying to recite was Against Idleness and Mischief. It's a moral poem by Isaac Watts, who was an eighteenth century moralising poet, theologian and hymn-scribbler. The original starts like this:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labours hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

And then it goes on to be the origin of another terribly well known phrase:

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

So that's two bits of the same poem that you sort of know, isn't it? Did your mother ever tell you that birds in their little nests agree? Mine did. That's another of Isaac's. The full verse goes like this:

Birds in their little nests agree;
And 'tis a shameful sight,
When children of one family
Fall out, and chide, and fight.

Mind you, you can also kill two birds with one stone, which is how I dealt with my siblings. My old physics teacher told me that time always was always marked on the X axis of a graph because:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

As you can probably tell, Isaac Watts combined tediousness with talent in roughly equal helpings. So I am complimenting him when I say that he was pretty damned tedious. Victorian children were forced to learn and recite all his awful moralisings.

However, his poetry can be turned on its head. For example, he wrote a thoroughly condemnatory poem called The Sluggard that begins:

'Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
"You have waked me too soon, I must slumber again."
As the door on its hinges, so he on his bed,
Turns his sides and his shoulders and his heavy head.

Which I think I shall print out and pin to the door of my bedroom. Later in the poem we are told of the Sluggard's garden:

I pass'd by his garden, and saw the wild brier,
The thorn and the thistle grow broader and higher;

Which would be a perfect description of Abney Park, in which his memorial now stands among grandiose brambles.

Friday, 17 June 2011

The Smoke Gets In Your Eyes Ambiguity

My love is as a fever, longing still
For that which longer nurseth the disease...

Is the opening of a sonnet by Shakespeare. The love he refers to is an emotion that he has. That clear? Good.

In Philip Sidney's Arcadia a shepherdess sings:

My true love hath my heart, and I have his,
In just exchange, one for the other given.

Here the true love is a man. The sheperdess refers to him as her true love but he is a person who reciprocates her emotion. Got that? Okay. Read the following carefully:

They asked me how I knew
My true love was true.
I of course replied,
Something here inside cannot be denied.

They said, 'Someday you'll find
All who love are blind.
When your heart's on fire,
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes.'

So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed
To think they could doubt my love.
Yet today, my love has flown away
I am without my love.

Now laughing friends deride
Tears I can not hide.
So I smile and say,
'When a lovely flame dies
Smoke gets in your eyes.'

So here's the question: is the love that has flown away an emotion or a person? Has he been dumped, or has he dumped?

When he goes to France, he's a cross-channel Ferry.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

The Tittle in the Title

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, who seems to have liked obscure words, said:

For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

Raising the question, what in the name of all that's holy is a jot or a tittle?

The Hebrew law to which Jesus was referring was written down, and Jesus is talking about handwriting. The gospels were written in Greek and the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet was ι. This ι was the equivalent of our i and was called iota. That's why the Vice President of FIFA recently said that he was guilty of:

Not a single iota of wrongdoing.

Meaning not even the smallest amount. I believe him.

Jesus' jot is referring to exactly the same thing: a very small thing indeed. But English has the advantage of Greek. We go smaller than ι.

What's the difference between the Greek ι and the English i? The tittle on the top. Tittle has nothing to do with titillate (which comes from titillationem meaning tickling) or with tit (which is a variant of teat). The tittle is the little dot over an i or a j and, because it's up at the top of the letter like a title, it comes from the same Latin route: titulus.

Oddly, the Romans didn't call it a titulus. They called it an apex. The Greeks called it a keraia and the Hebrews called it a qots, which meant thorn.

So the title of this post contains three tittles, but none of them, unfortunately, are as beautiful as the tittles on the London Underground. The Tube has its own special typeface called Johnston in which the tittles are diamonds. They're beautiful, and not one of them shall pass away until the ends of all eternity, or until the Tube runs smoothly, whichever happens first.

A good Christian font

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

A Mosquito Canapé

I have recently made several fruitless attempts to capture a mosquito. My aims are not biological but culinary. I want to flavour the little pest with something, put it on a small piece of toast and eat it.

This may seem like simple inter-species revenge, but my concerns are more etymological than entomological. You see, the Greek for mosquito was konops. Guess the word yet?

The Greek for a couch with a mosquito net around it was konopeion? Getting warmer?

The Old French word for a bed curtain was therefore conope. That's where we get canopy from. But can you see the other word?

The modern French, Spanish and Italian words for a couch or sofa is a canapé.

The bit of toast that acts as the couch upon which a morsel of food rests is therefore....

Yes. Canapé. The things you are buffeted with at cocktail parties.

That's why I want to make a mosquito canapé. So my question is this: Do I need psychiatric help or do I just need a better method of catching mosquitos?

Lucky devil.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011


Regular sufferers of this blog will know that I have a weakness for vagant words. Vagant is Latin for wandering and my love of them is probably down to my errant and erratic nature. I have already posted on noctivagant (wandering around at night) montivagant (wandering around the mountains) extravagant (wandering beyond) and omnivagant (wandering around absolutely everywhere).

To this aimless list I can now add nubivagant which means wandering around in the clouds. Most aircraft are therefore nubivagant, many reveries are, and walking tours of the Lake District almost inevitably combine montivagancy with nubivagancy and mizzle.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Bless You, Autocorrect

The original well
Those of you who possess an iPhone will know about Autocorrect, a system that automatically replaces a strange word with a more familiar one. This plays havoc with my prose as bathycolpian is corrected to Bathe impish and malbolge comes out as Map Olga. There's a whole website called Damn You, Autocorrect that is devoted to such amusing alterations. However, it doesn't always get it wrong.

On Saturday I was in Clerkenwell, which is a bit of London mentioned by T.S. Eliot:

Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate.

And I tried to send a text message saying where I was. But Autocorrect was having none of it. Clerkenwell was, according to Autocorrect, Clerks Well. And the odd thing is that that is absolutely right.

Thomas á Beckett had a subdeacon called William Fitzstephen who wrote a brief description of the City of London in 1174 praising "the respectability of its citizens, and the propriety of their wives". He also describes how:

There are also in the northern suburbs of London springs of high quality, with water that is sweet, wholesome, clear, and "whose runnels ripple amid pebbles bright". Among which Holywell, Clerkenwell and St. Clement's Well have a particular reputation; they receive throngs of visitors and are especially frequented by students and young men of the city, who head out on summer evenings to take the country air.

The description was written in Latin, but the old English for students was clerken, from which we get the modern English clerk (and clerical). So the well where students hung around on summer evenings was the clerks' well, or Clerkenwell.

But Autocorrect knew that already.

The well, incidentally is still there, now contained within an office block called Well Court (pictured). And while we're on the subject of clerks, here's an interesting little detail about a poem by Auden.

Auden once wrote a poem called The Fall of Rome about the end of a civilisation that is, nominally, ancient Rome. However, there are all sorts of modern details (like trains and musclebound marines) that suggest he was thinking about a more modern civilisation. But which?

Auden was an Englishman who had emigrated to America so he knew that in Britain we pronounce clerk to rhyme with ark, but in America clerk rhymes with Turk. So the fifth stanza of this poem shows exactly which civilisation he's thinking about.

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.

Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.

Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.

Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.

God, I love that last stanza. Incidentally, cerebrotonic means:

Designating or characteristic of a type of personality which is introverted, intellectual, and emotionally restrained, classified by Sheldon as being associated with an ectomorphic.

Clerkenwell Gaol (or maybe Jail)

Friday, 10 June 2011


Molrowing, according to the OED, is:

The practice of socializing with a disreputable woman.

I must do more of it. Roll on the weekend.

Nobody is quite sure where molrowing comes from. It first pops up in an 1860 dictionary of slang which explains it thus:

Molrowing, ‘out on the spree’, in company with so-called ‘gay women’. In allusion to the amatory serenadings of the London cats

So the mol would appear to be a mog. I do like the plural of serenadings, it doesn't get used as a noun nearly enough.

The great advantage of molrowing is that, as nobody normal knows what it means, you can mention it blithely without receiving censure. Put it on your CV under hobbies.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

Browsing the Web

A web browser, if you think about it, is a peckish spider. Browse once meant a bud or leaf and so browsing is eating little bits of vegetation. In fact, the OED rather sternly points out that browsing and grazing are quite different things. Grazing is grassing and browsing is eating browse - leaves and buds and the like - which animals only usually do when there's no grass left.

The first recorded humans to browse were in Shakespeare and the browse that they browsed was cold meat. Nobody browsed a book until the nineteenth century, and the idea of going into a shop and just browsing the buds of commerce rather than buying anything is a purely twentieth century notion. And only twenty years ago did people start to browse the Internet.

It's rather appropriate, really. If there were grass in the real world we would graze; but for lack of proper pasture one ends up clicking on links, reading blogs and metaphorically and etymologically chewing at the sparse vegetation that grows in the central reservation of the Information Super-Highway.

I would say that it was impossible to use a browser to surf, but then I found this picture. So I shall simply leave you with the informaculus that the right to browse is called browsage.

Were I more skilled with Photoshop™ I would subimpose a cobweb and thus have a browser surfing the web. You'll simply have to use your imagination.
P.S. I can't think of anything to say about Kubla Khan today, maybe tomorrow.
P.P.S. Look! You're at It worked.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Error, Milton, Coleridge and the Opiate of Influence

On the contrary, it means a wandering.
Once upon a time there was a happy little Latin word errare, which meant to wander. That is why a wandering knight is a knight errant, and also why a knight errant is necessarily erratic. Indeed, he is an aberration, so long as he is wandering away from something, which he couldn't reasonably help doing, I suppose. A knight errant is therefore also erroneous, he errs, he is in error.

That's why, back in the seventeenth century, Milton could write in the fourth book of Paradise Lost that streams flowed through the garden of Eden:

With mazy error, under pendant shades

By an extraordinary coincidence Coleridge used mazy to describe the flow of a stream through a garden in Kubla Khan:

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Funny that. Not that there's much more connection. I mean, it's true that both poems have a river flowing through a garden and that both rivers flow underground:

Southward through Eden flowed a river large
Nor changed its course, but through the shaggy hill
Passed underneath engulfed


Thence united fell
Down the steep glade, and met the nether flood,
Which from his darksome passage now appears

While Coleridge has:

Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

But there isn't much more in common between the "fertile ground" of Milton's Garden of Eden and the "fertile ground" of Coleridge's poem. I mean, Milton's garden has

Groves whose rich trees wept odorous gums and balms

While Coleridge's is a place where:

Blossomed many an incence-bearing tree

Which is a completely different wording. Nor could Coleridge's

Abyssinian maid . . .
Singing of Mount Abora 

have much to do with Milton's

Nor where Abyssin Kings their issue Guard,
Mount Amara,

Could it? And as for the bit in Milton where a moonlit demon comes across:

...a steep wilderness, whose hairy sides
With thicket overgrown, grotesque and wild,
Access denied; and overhead up grew
Insuperable height of loftiest shade,
Cedar. . .

That couldn't have anything to do with

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon lover.

Kubla Khan is often described as a pure vision that sprang from Coleridge's unconscious. It's not. Most of the imagery, right down to the ancestral voices, comes from Book 4 of Paradise Lost. This is rather important from a critical point of view.

Where is Mount Abora and what does it represent? Is a less perplexing question when you realise that it's just a misspelling of Mount Amara.

Are the river and the chasm Freudian symbols of semen and vagina springing from Coleridge's sex-starved psyche? Well, I admit that Coleridge was a bit screwy on the subject of sex, but the images come from Milton, not from his dreams.

What does it mean to have drunk the milk of Paradise? It means you've read Paradise Lost.

P.S. There's a slight controversy over where errant comes from, which I have ignored.
P.P.S. Full text of Kubla Khan here. Read it!

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Kubla Khan Crescendo

Yesterday, I wrote a rather puerile parody of the last section of Kubla Khan. The original contains one of the greatest crescendos in English poetry, which is all down to meter. It goes like this:

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

The crescendo to which I refer is in the lines

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,

The trick is in the trimeter.

Most of Kubla Khan is in tetrameters, that there are four beats to each line.

te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM te-TUM

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw
It was an Abysinnian maid
And on her dulcimer she played
Singing of Mount Abora.

But then Coleridge very cleverly drops down to the trimeter. He starts by merely missing off that last stressed syllable:

Could I revive within me,

'Ooh,' feels the reader, 'There's something missing here.' And then Coleridge cuts off the last unstressed syllable.

Her symphony and song.

We're down to three beats and only six syllables. We are noticeably short. And the reader, whether or not he can explain why, feels a frustration and a desire to break back into the proper rhythm. It is all much too short, too compressed, too stuffy and claustrophobic. Will we never be set free? Will the line never get its last syllable back? Yes, it will. Ready for the release? Here goes!

To such a deep delight 'twould win me,

Not only do you get back to the four-beat tetrameter, but you have beautiful release of a whole extra unstressed syllable. The dam has been broken, the torrent is flowing freely again. The compression was necessarily followed by an explosion, and the famine by a feast.

That with music loud and long...

Now, we're back to the tetrameter, and perhaps something should be said about the meaning of the words rather than just the rhythm. The change in meter has not happened alone. For starters it's been bound into one sentence. This means that the reader can't think to himself that the differing line-lengths signify different sections of the poem. This is reinforced by the fact that the rhyme scheme runs straight over the metrical variation. Moreover, the two trimeter lines have been part of one conditional clause. And here's the beautiful thing: in terms of meaning he's talking about what he'd like to do and can't (revive within me), in terms of grammar he's talking about a hypothetical condition that can't be fulfilled, and in terms of meter he's nearly getting to the end of the tetrameter, but no quite.

Then he gets into a hypothetical success, a subjunctive reality and a metrical release.

All at once.

Clever, isn't it?

And the lovely thing is that, though not everybody can write Kubla Khan, the metrical trick is infinitely reusable.

If I could only finish
My posts a little quicker,
Your interest would not diminish
Nor would your eyelids start to flicker.

Hail muse etc.

The Inky Fool's main drain

Everything Must Change So That Everything Can Remain The Same

Update: It may have worked.

So said Giuseppe di Lampedusa in The Leopard, which is, incidentally, one of the greatest novels ever written.

This comment on the politics of the Italian Risorgimento sprang to my mind because, in a fit of opulence, I have bought the domain name and I'm going to switch over to it. Today.

My plan is that everything will redirect and that bookmarks won't need to be changed and that everything will remain the same. My crack team of technical staff assured me over a pint the other night that it would all be fine, but that may be because my crack team of technical staff is an optimistic fellow who does much of his technical cracking via a phone from a bar in West Hampstead.

Anyway, if all goes well, Lampedusa will be proved right and I'll write a nice new post on Kubla Khan later. In fact, we might have a week of posts on Kubla Khan. Hmmm. Yep. That or I'll be sobbing into a computer.

So far as I'm concerned, this is what the Internet really looks like.

Monday, 6 June 2011


There is a damned fine reason
for this picture.
A bathometer is, so saith the OED:

A spring balance of peculiar construction for ascertaining the depth of water without actually measuring the sounding line.

And can therefore be used to measure the depth of your bath. The odd thing about this is that there is No Connection Between The Words. Bathometer comes from the Greek bathos (meaning depth), and bath comes from the Old English baeth (meaning bathe).

Bathos has made a good little career in the English language. Alexander Pope used it to mean the art of sinking in poetry. I've already written a blog post on bathypelagic. But I have never mentioned (and I very much doubt that you already know) the beautiful and buxom word bathycolpian.

Bathycolpian means deep-bosomed is an absurdly oblique and beautiful way of saying that a lady has voluptuous and luxuriant boobies.

The advantages of describing a lady in such an incomprehensible manner will be evident to anyone who has ever been slapped or released on strict parole.

As Samuel Taylor Coleridge didn't put it:

A damsel with enormous breasts
In a movie once I saw:
It was a bathycolpian maid,
Who in the Trevi Fountain played,
Each bosom like Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Those mammaries so proud,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me
That with music long and loud,
I would build those domes in air,
Those happy domes! so round and nice!
And all who heard should see them there
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his flowing hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
It is too late to intervene,
For he Fellini's films hath seen,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Solar Perplexus

I just came across this line from P.G. Wodehouse:

'What's the matter, Jerry? You seem perturbed. You have the aspect of one whom Fate has smitten in the spiritual solar plexus, or of one who has been searching for the leak in Life's gaspipe with a lighted candle. What's wrong?'

And it made me wonder why the solar plexus is solar, and indeed what a plexus is, and furthemoreover why I don't hear the term any more.

The answer to the first two of these questions is that the solar plexus is a complex of nerves that sits in the middle of the body just as Sol sits in the middle of the solar system. The plex of plexus is the same plex that you find in complex or indeed perplex and comes straight from the Latin for braid: plectere.

This also means that if you encircle something with braids you complicate it.

The reason that you don't hear it much any more is that it is now called the coeliac (bowel) plexus, which is much less fun. Although I suppose that the bowels do lead down to Life's more literal gaspipe.

Yulia Tymoshenko is a complicated lady.

Friday, 3 June 2011

How to Write to a Literary Agent

So you write a novel and send it off to your agent, let's call him Mr Pinker. Mr Pinker shows it to a publisher - Duckworth for example - and writes back to you saying that they didn't like it, but he accidentally includes the reader's report in with the letter. You don't know how to respond to his mistake and it's terribly awkward.

Unless of course you're James Joyce, the novel is Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and you have Ezra Pound dealing with the agent on your behalf. Then you're fine and dandy. Because Ezra Pound writes letters like this:

Dear Mr Pinker,

   I have read the effusion of Mr Duckworth's reader with not inconsiderable disgust. These vermin crawl over and beslime our literature with their pulings, and nothing but the day of judgement can, I suppose, exterminate 'em. Thank god one need not, under ordinary circumstances, touch them. Hark to his puling squeak: too 'unconventional'. What in hell do we want but some change from the unbearable monotony of the weekly six shilling pears soap annual novel; ... the dungminded dungbearded, penny a line, please-the-mediocre-at-all-cost doctrine. You English will get no prose till you enterminate this breed ...

Canting, supercilious, blockhead... I always supposed from report that Duckworth was an educated man, but I can not reconcile this opinion with his retention of the author of the missive you send me. If you have to spend your life in contact with such minds, God help you ...

Why can't you send the publisher's reader to the serbian front, and get some good out of the war...

Serious writes will certainly give up the use of english altogether unless you can improve the process of publication.

In conclusion, you have given me a very unpleasant quarter of an hour, my disgust flows over, though I suppose there is no use in spreading it over this paper. If there is any phrase or form of contempt that you care to convey from me to the reeking Malebolge of the Duckworthian slum, pray, consider yourself at liberty to draw on my account (unlimited credit) and transmit it.

Please, if you have occasion to write again either in regard to this book or any other, please do not enclose the publisher's readers opinions. Sincerely yours,


P.S.  ...  as for altering Joyce to suit Duckworth's readers - I would like trying to fit the Venus de Milo into a piss-pot ....

Since you ask, enterminate isn't a word, but Malebolge is. It's pronounced Mal-e-bolsh and it's the eighth circle of Hell in Dante's Inferno. The Malebolge are the evil valleys where the fraudulent are punished in various horrid and amusing ways.


Thursday, 2 June 2011


I have just this second been sent an e-mail containing a word I'd never hear before: worrywart. Isn't that a lovely word? It means exactly what you'd think it means: somebody who frets too much*. It's beautifully alliterative and the OED says that it's been around since 1956, and I've just found it in a magazine from 1937. So far as I can tell, the only reason that I've never heard of worry-wart before is that it's an Americanism, but such a beautiful one.

I was told last night that worriers live longer. I'm such a carefree and debonair sort of fellow that this threw me into a panic.

Worry, by the way, originally meant to strangle, but its meaning has slowly weakened over the years until throttling has become a mere irritant. Mind you, my tie still worries me.

Which reminds me of a concrete poem by Guillaume Appolonaire. The idea of a concrete poem is simply that you write it in the shape of the subject. The following translates approximately as: The painful tie that you wear so smartly, take it off, civilised one, if you want to breathe easily.

*And I don't mean a guitarist, although guitars are highly strung.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Kinetic Cinema

The other day, a chap asked me where cinema came from, and I had no idea. So I dashed home and looked it up. First, I found that it is not, of course, cinema, but cinematograph, which means moving picture, or more precisely it means kinetic picture, because it's exactly the same Greek root, kinemat, which meant movement.

This means that cinema and movie (or cinmatograph and moving picture) are exactly the same thing, except that one is Latin (via movere) and the other is Greek.

However, as the images don't actually move, but only appear to, a stickler for facts should really go to the pictures.

The other word that comes from kinema is cite, because if you bring a fact into your argument (something that I never do as I abhor facts and prefer my opinions) you cite it.

Now, run!