Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Vocal C[h]ords

According to The Guardian, an actress has...

...previously expressed her eagerness to flex her vocal chords on a guest spot on Glee, and for a spell was attached to a Judy Garland biopic.

Aha! I thought. There's a topic for a post. Because, you see, there are cords in your throat that vibrate to produce sound. Several people's vocal cords vibrating at the same time will produce a chord.

So I go to the OED. I look up cord. I get down to section 2.b and there it is.

Now applied generally to a nerve trunk, and spec. to certain structures, esp. the spermatic cord, spinal cord, and umbilical cord, the vocal cords; see these words.

Ok. I'll see those words. I turn to the entry for vocal and to my shock and flabbergasterment, I see this in section 6.a:

Operative or concerned in the production of voice. Freq. in vocal chord, vocal fold, vocal organs, vocal tract, etc.

So I can't really criticise The Guardian at all. Or if I did, I'd have to sneer at the OED too, which is blasphemous. I would have no lexicographical backing or supply chain. I would just be alone, muttering maledictions, straining my vocal kords, and shouting myself horse.

The Inky Fool was feeling a little horse that day.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Stephen King on Harry Potter

When a magician watches a magic show he* sees something utterly different from the rest of the audience. While most of us are wondering how the conjurer made that elephant disappear, the magician is appreciating how the elephant appeared to be there in the first place. The same principle applies to an actor who goes to the theatre. He* will see the lighting, the smoothness of the entrances and exeunts, the clarity of the delivery, and the blocking. A show always looks different from backstage, and, once you have seen the greenroom, the set will never be the same again.

All of which is a long way round of recommending that you read this article by Stephen King on the Harry Potter novels. It's thoughtful and clever, and, most of all, it is one craftsman's take on the work of a fellow craftperson. Just click this link.

Another way of looking at it, is to say that it's the third highest earning author writing about the first.

Incidentally, I heard that somebody once asked Stephen King where he got his ideas. King replied "I have the heart of a small boy. And I keep it in a jar on my desk."

I have work to do.

*or she, or it.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Currants, Sportsmen and Brothels

In Greece there's a little city called Corinth which lies on the narrow isthmus (Greek for neck) that connects the Peloponnese with the mainland. They used to make raisins there.

These raisins were known in Medieval England as raysyn of Curans. And then people got lazy and just called them currants. As a chap pointed out in 1578:

The smal Raysens which are commonly called Corantes, but more rightly Raysens of Corinthe.

Oddly, the S was on the end to make it sound like the Greek Corinth; but then people got the mistaken idea that it was there because the word was plural. So a singular word currant was mistakenly invented.

Corinth was known for its wealth and decadence. From the wealth we get the word Corinthian meaning a rich, amateur sportsman. From the decadence we get the fact that Corinth used to be a slang term for a brothel.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Etymologicon

Ladies and gentlemen, I give unto you Inky Fool - The Book! The Etymologicon!

Yes, our little blog will finally be available in bookshops all over the English speaking world so that you, dear reader, so that you can brandish it and cherish it and use to intimidate your friends or prop up an unstable table. We shall emerge from our furtive Internet cave into the bright sunshine of ink and paper.

For months I have been beavering away on The Etymologicon - A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language. All my finest fancies and most recondite research has been held back and stored up in a beautiful, beautiful book.

So, though I say that the blog's become a book, it's almost all new stuff with occasional posts woven into the weft and woof.
Basically, it's about the links between words and phrases that you never knew about: the etymological connection between the Rolling Stones and Elizabethan horticulture or between California and the Caliphate. It's like this blog, but you can give it as a Christmas present.

It will be coming out in Britain from Icon Books, in North America from Corinthian and from somebody else in Australasia, and I think even India (although I must do some more research). Moreover, it has a beautiful red cloth cover and the title is in gold and it is, in short, the most beautiful thing that has ever been devised by man, beast or deity.

It's released on November the third just in time for all your Christmas shopping, but you can (and will) pre-order it now. It's on Amazon. Just click this link.

And, in case you were wondering, an etymologicon is a book that contains etymologies, as in Milton's line:

So that they who are so exact for the letter shall be dealt with by the Lexicon, and the Etymologicon too if they please...

Just because it's so damned beautiful.

Thursday, 25 August 2011


Awumbuk means the feeling of heaviness and sorrow you feel after your guests have departed. It's a word from the Baining people who live in the mountains in Papua New Guinea. But it's so eminently useful that I feel it should be imported into English at once.

Self-diagnosis is a dangerous business, but symptoms of awumbuk include sleeping in and feeling bored. According to the Baining, awumbuk lasts for exactly three days, during which you will be no good at either gardening or hunting. However, if you leave a coconut shell full of water out around the house, that will soak up the awumbuk which can then be disposed of safely.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Pot Shots

I was watching the telly yesterday and there was a man in a blue flak jacket talking about snipers taking pot shots. He was concerned about this because he might be killed; I was concerned because I didn't know why pot shots were called that. I suspected that it had something to do with snooker. How wrong I was.

The term goes back to hunting. There are two kinds of hunter: the sportsman who kills merely for the pleasure of ending another animal's life, and the hungry hunter who kills things for the thoroughly base reason that he wants to put them in his cooking pot and eat them. In the eighteenth century this latter was called a pot hunter.

As somebody anonymous put it in an 1825 tract on bull baiting:

There's nothing a regular Shot would be sooner chafed at than being called a Pot-hunter.

What makes pot hunters so despicable is that they kill things at the wrong time of year. They are so hungry that they can't even wait for the glorious twelfth until they start shooting. Instead, they potter around firing pot shots at animals that they intend to eat, this new term popped up in 1839.

From there it was a trifling step to start using the term for any opportunistic bit of gunfire, and then to capricious insult or heckle. And that's how you get to the snipers of Tripoli taking pot shots, presumably with the intention of cannibalism.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Jerry Leiber

Weep. Weep. Weep. For Jerry Leiber is dead. The man who wrote the lyrics to Jailhouse Rock, Hound Dog, Yaketty Yak, Stand by Me, Kansas City, Don't, Young Blood etc etc is dead.

I'm much too mournful to have much to say, except to comment upon Leiber's clever extension of metaphors.

The band was jumping and the joint began to swing.
You should have heard those knocked out jailbirds sing.

The phrase jailbird seems to have originally been coined in reference to a caged bird singing. The first known use is in a poem by John Davies about Penelope Rich* who in the course of her unhappy marriage:

...didst express what Art could never show,
The Soul's true grief for loss of her Love's soul;
Thine Action speaking-passion made, but O!
It made thee subject to a jail's control.
But, such a jail-bird heavenly Nightingale,
For such a cause, sings best in greatest bale.

But in the 350 years since that poem was written the idea of an actual bird had been lost. Leiber saw it and revived it. The same sort of idea was at work when, not content with calling a chap a hound dog, Leiber then extended the metaphor to other aspects of a canine life:

You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Hanging round my door.
Well you can wag your tail,
But I ain't going to feed you no more.

That was in the original Big Mama Thornton version, and when Mr Presley covered the song, it was changed to catching rabbits.

And I shall leave you with a lesser known example of Mr Leiber's genius.

I've tried this. It's delicious. But you must follow the recipe to the letter.

*Who was also Stella, as in Astrophel and Stella.

Monday, 22 August 2011


Just to keep up a faint miasma of relevance: you should know that Tripoli comes from the Greek Tri-Polis meaning Three Cities.

Once upon a time there was Sabratha, and then forty miles east of that was Oea, and a hundred miles east of that was Leptis Magna. The Romans called this tripolitic region the Regia Tripolitana. The name stuck but gradually it came to refer only to the middle city of Oea, which is the one through which the rebels are now revolting.

And as a bonus fact, the Greek for in the city was eis tan polin, a phrase that slowly got corrupted until it was pronounced Is-Tan-Bul.

The Inky Fool brings you up to the minute reportage

Friday, 19 August 2011

Heal the Scars

A headline from the Evening Standard:

Quite right. It won't heal the scars. That's because scars don't heal. Wounds heal, and, once they've healed, they leave a scar. Everybody knows this except subeditors.

A more accurate song about scars.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Counterfactual History (or Not-Sooth Tales)

English, as a language, is basically made up of a Germanic base with French icing. This is because England was settled by the Angles (hence Angle-Land or England) and Saxons, Jutes etc. Then, it was invaded by the Normans.

But what if it hadn't been? What if the Normans had lost the battle of Hastings. What would the English language look like?

Obviously, it's a bit of a silly question as all sorts of other things might have happened or not happened and so on and so forth. Nonetheless, it's a fun idea to muck around with, and somebody has been doing exactly that.

For reasons unknown to me, somebody appears to have been re-writing Wikipedia using only words of Anglo-Saxon origin. It's fantastic: not simply because it's a fascinating linguistic feat, but also because any writing that follows a strange rule ends up being a good read.

For example, in the article on the history of the USA (or Banded Folkdoms of Americksland) you have people moving westward in search of "thrivedom" and a war of "Lonestance". Anyway, I thoroughly recommend that you read it. Link here.

Incidentally, there was a movement in the nineteenth century called The New Philology that attempted to purify the English language in just this way, I'm glad to see that somebody has now carried it to doneness.

Never happened.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


A musomastix is an enemy of the muses. Therefore, anyone or anything that distracts you while you're trying to write is a musomastix.

Mastix was the Ancient Greek word for whip, and, back in the sixteenth and seventeenth century inventing -mastix words seems to have been a popular sport. A select few plucked from the OED are:

Popomastic - Inimical to the Pope
Histriomastix - An enemy of actors
Infantomastix - Somebody who agrees with St Augustine that unbaptised infants go to Hell
Female-mastix - Somebody who writes denunciations of women

The great thing is that you can just make a up a mastix word of your own. All you need is a prefix. So you could be a twittermastix, or workomastic, or practice gymmastix.

Confusingly, mastix can occasionally be the other way round. A theomastix is God's appointed punisher, somebody who wields God's whip for Him, rather than somebody who tries to whip God.

Anybody who does carry a whip, whether for reasons theological, equestrian or voluptuous, is, by the same root, mastigophorous.

I shall now leave you with hospitality-management advice from Hamlet:

...use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.

Leave them be

And for a word utterly unrelated to whips, have a look at this old post of mine on backlash.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Joyce and Particle Physics

Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it's all beside the mark.

Quarks, the fundamental particles from which protons and neutrons and the like are made, have two very peculiar qualities. First, they're pronounced kworks. Second, they were invented by James Joyce. The two are connected.

As any fule kno, the word atom means unsplittable in Greek. It was then discovered, to the dismay of etymologists everywhere, that the atom could be split into neutrons, protons and electrons, and then these particles were themselves subdivided into quarks, courtesy of James Joyce.

The new fundamental particle was actually thought up in the sixties, two decades after Joyce's death. But Murray Gell-Mann, the physicist who had the idea, was a James Joyce fan:

In 1963, when I assigned the name "quark" to the fundamental constituents of the nucleon, I had the sound first, without the spelling, which could have been "kwork". Then, in one of my occasional perusals of Finnegans Wake, by James Joyce, I came across the word "quark" in the phrase "Three quarks for Muster Mark". Since "quark" (meaning, for one thing, the cry of the gull) was clearly intended to rhyme with "Mark", as well as "bark" and other such words, I had to find an excuse to pronounce it as "kwork". But the book represents the dream of a publican named Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Words in the text are typically drawn from several sources at once, like the "portmanteau" words in "Through the Looking-Glass". From time to time, phrases occur in the book that are partially determined by calls for drinks at the bar. I argued, therefore, that perhaps one of the multiple sources of the cry "Three quarks for Muster Mark" might be "Three quarts for Mister Mark", in which case the pronunciation "kwork" would not be totally unjustified. In any case, the number three fitted perfectly the way quarks occur in nature.

Long-serving readers of this blog will know that James Joyce also came up with Hogwarts.

You spoof of visibility in a freakfog.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Indians Entirely Responsible for the Looting!

Well, in the strictly etymological sense that loot comes from the Hindi word lut, meaning plunder.

There has been much argument in Britain over whether the naughty fellows of last week should be called protesters, rioters or looters. I object to all three terms. Looter is callow neologism dating from only 1858. The only acceptable name is the original eighteenth century term lootie-wallah.

I demand that lootie-wallah is brought back into the language Right Now, and if my demands are not met I shall unleash an apocalypse of violence and plunder the like of which has never even been conjectured.

Personally, I'm going to wait till it kicks off in Marylebone and then loot the hell out of Daunt Books. Get me some more Tennyson.

Friday, 12 August 2011


So we come to the Friday of our week of sesquipedalianism. We've had Hottentottenpotentatentantenattentat, floccinaucinihilipilification, Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and osseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary.

But as you have probably noticed, the thing about long words is that you can just keep making them up for a laugh. In one short chapter of Urquhart's translation of Rabelais you can find the words disincornifistibulated, esperruquanchuzelubelouzerireliced, morrambouzevezengouzequoquemorgasacbaquevezinemaffreliding, morcrocastebezasteverestegrigeligoscopapopondrillated and morderegripippiatabirofreluchamburelurecaquelurintimpaniments. None of these words means anything much at all, except in context.

My favourite from that chapter (which you can read the whole of here) is this little beauty:

The bride crying laughed, and laughing cried, because the catchpole was not satisfied with drubbing her without choice or distinction of members, but had also rudely roused and toused her, pulled off her topping, and not having the fear of her husband before his eyes, treacherously trepignemanpenillorifrizonoufresterfumbled tumbled and squeezed her lower parts. [...] But, said his lady, why hath he been so very liberal of his manual kindness to me, without the least provocation?

Have a good weekend, dear reader, may it be filled with joy, trepignemanpenillorifrizonoufresterfumbling and manual kindness.

Thursday, 11 August 2011


The following is from an early nineteenth century comic novel called Headlong Hall by Thomas Love Peacock. The context is that a phrenologist called Dr Cranium is going to give an after-dinner lecture. I trust, dear reader, that you will notice the long words.

"I invite you, when you have sufficiently restored, replenished, refreshed, and exhilarated that osteosarchaematosplanchnochondroneuromuelous, or, to employ a more intelligible term, osseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary, compages, or shell, the body, which at once envelopes and develops that mysterious and inestimable kernel, the desiderative, determinative, ratiocinative, imaginative, inquisitive, appetitive, comparative, reminiscent, congeries of ideas and notions, simple and compound, comprised in the comprehensive denomination of mind, to take a peep, with me, into the mechanical arcana of the anatomico-metaphysical universe. Being not in the least dubitative of your spontaneous compliance, I proceed," added he, suddenly changing his tone, " to get every thing ready in the library."

Both those long words mean roughly made of bone, flesh, blood, organs and marrow.  So both simply mean bodily. Therefore, if you're feeling a little bit under the weather you have an osseocarnisanguineoviscericartilaginonervomedullary problem.

Headlong Hall (from which that extract was extracted) is the companion piece to another novella called Nightmare Abbey. It therefore gives me an excuse to quote the greatest description of posture ever committed to paper. I read the following passage when I was an impressionable young man, and have sat thus ever since.

[He] threw himself into his arm-chair, crossed his left foot over his right knee, placed the hollow of his left hand on the interior ankle of his left leg, rested his right elbow on the elbow of the chair, placed the ball of his right thumb against his right temple, curved the forefinger along the upper part of his forehead, rested the point of the middle finger on the bridge of his nose, and the points of the two others on the lower part of the palm, fixed his eyes intently on the veins in the back of his left hand...

Try it, dear reader, you'll look wonderful.

A rough sketch of the Inky Fool

Wednesday, 10 August 2011


Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch is a village in Wales. However, the name was only invented in 1860 as a publicity stunt to attract tourists. In Welsh it means St Mary's Church in the hollow of the white hazel near to the rapid whirlpool of Llantysilio of the red cave. Locals often just call it Llanfairpwll.

If you want to know how to pronounce it I have (with much technical wizardry) embedded an MP3 of a rather beautiful song by a chap I was at university with called Nick Kelley. At about the 1:45 mark he manages to not only sing the word, but also make it rhyme twice. The relevant lyrics are:

I'd take the low road to keep you
From the monsters of the loch.
Would you follow me if I got in trouble
all the way to Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-

However, if you want a less artificial place name, you should pay a visit to Mamungkukumpurangkuntjunya Hill in Australia, which apparently means, Place where the Devil Urinates.

The Infernal Urinal

Tuesday, 9 August 2011


The second in our week of long words is floccinaucinihilipilification, which is the act of believing something to be worthless. Unlike yesterday's Hottentottenpotentatentantenattentat, floccinaucinihilipilification is actually rather useful. You can say: "I was very offended by his floccinaucinihilipilification of my poetry."

In fact, I once managed to work floccinaucinihilipilification into an essay at university - the context was something along the lines of "Goneril and Regan's floccinaucinihilipilification of kingship". Bill Clinton's press secretary managed it too. Whilst talking about the economy in 1995 he said:

They happen to produce huge billion dollar differences over seven years in the federal budget, which is why they become fairly incendiary as the debate goes along. But if you—as a practical matter of estimating the economy, the difference is not great. There's a little bit of floccinaucinihilipilification going on here.

The etymology is quite simple: it's four Latin words that all meant worthless: flocci means a tuft of wool (as in floccilation which I wrote about here), nauci means trifle, nihil means nothing and pili means a hair. These were all synonyms to the Romans, and were listed together in a standard Latin textbook of the eighteenth century. Hence the word.

There's a related verb, floccipend, which means to regard as insignificant. And even more lovely, if you are lady habitually given to floccinaucinihilipilification, you are a floccinaucinihilipilificatrix.

An act of floccinaucinihilipilification

Monday, 8 August 2011

Long Words and Unfortunate Aunts

We're going to have a week of posts on long, jormungandrian words. And we shall start with the dead relative of a Khoekhoe king.

The Khoekhoe are a people of Southern Africa. Like their their neighbours, the San, they use a peculiar clicking sound in their language that sounds utterly alien to European ears. This is probably the reason that Dutch explorers called them stutterers or Hottentots. If you want to read some other theories about the etymology follow this link.

The word Hottentot spread among European languages, probably just because it's such a lovely word to say aloud, and thus it got into German. The German language is remarkably open to the formation of compound words, and making up long silly ones is something of a parlour game beyond the Rhine. So, though the word was only invented as a tongue twister, Hottentottenpotentatentantenattentat is a perfectly viable German word. It means the assassination of the aunt of a Hottentot pontentate. Tante is aunt and attentat is assassination.

It's 36 letters long, but only uses 7 letters to get there. Incidentally, the adjective of Hottentot is, or can be, Hottentotic.

And here is a useful video on how to do the clicky sounds.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Kingly Corduroy

I have discovered that my trousers are kingly.

That's not to say that they appear regal to the nude eye, but etymologically they should sit upon a throne because they are made of corduroy.

The OED has two alternative etymologies for corduroy: either it is corde du roi, which is French for the king's cord, or it's named after the English surname Corderoy. However, that means it's kingly either way because the family name Corderoy comes from the French coeur de roi meaning heart of a king.

Oddly, the French don't call it corduroy or corde du roi, instead they called them king's cords, meaning that they had borrowed the English French term and translated it to make a French English one.

Corduroy was an English invention and was manufactured in Manchester, which is why the Germans used to call it Manchesterstoff, which sounds a lot less regal.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011


Regular readers of this blog will know that I'm something of a word-chap. I've read Ulysses three times, and enjoyed it, which is more than can be said for James Joyce's wife who only made it to page 26.

However, I am currently involved in the attempted purchase of a piece of property. This means that I have to read over a million billion documents written in legalese. For example, this sentence, which I have not made up:

There are excepted from the effect of registration all estates, rights, interests, powers and remedies arising upon, or by reason of, any dealing made in breach of the prohibition or restriction against dealings therewith inter vivos contained in the Lease.

If any reader can tell me what that means, or even hazard a guess, I would be greatly grateful.

(Inter vivos means not in a will)


Tuesday, 2 August 2011


Ante-jentacular means before breakfast. It's therefore an immensely useful word for describing coffees, showers and the occasional bloody mary.

Monday, 1 August 2011

August August

Welcome, dear reader, to August, the most august month of the year. The month is stressed on the first syllable and the adjective, meaning grand, is stressed on the second. But they both derive from exactly the same place.

Gaius Octavius Thurinus was posthumously adopted by Gaius Julius Caesar and changed his name to that of his new dead dad. Then, in 27 BC, the Roman Senate awarded him the honorific name Augustus, meaning venerable - something akin to your majesty. That's the word from which we get the word august, meaning grand.

So Gaius Octavius Thurinus ended up being called Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus. Then in 8 B.C. the Roman decided to rename the month Sextilis in his honour. And that's where we get the month of August.

For some reason the month is a trochee - August - and the adjective is an iamb - august. Another word from the same root is augment which is also stressed on the second syllable.

The point about all these stressed syllables is that you can arrange them in patterns, for example stressed and soft syllables alternating. So, in iambic pentameters:

Augustus's augustness was augmented
The day the month of August was invented.

I am monarch of when I survey
My right there is none to dispute
To September's first day from July
You will find that my name is the root.