Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Some Handsome Hand

Sometimes, the original meaning of a word is so bloody obvious that you can't believe that you don't use it that way any more. Such a word is handsome, which apparently is as it does - a phrase I have never understood. When you realise that handsome used to be a synonym for handy, it seems obvious.

Something that is hand-some is, or was back in the fifteenth century, suitable for the hands. It was easily handle-able. It was conveniently to hand. It was handy.

From convenient it was a short shift in meaning to appropriate. And because a large reward is always felt to be an appropriate one, handsome then started to mean big - a meaning we still use in phrases like "He was handsomely rewarded."

And then, from the sense of being a good size, you got the modern meaning of human, usually male, beauty.

Mind you, this may not be the case in America. Certainly, in the C19th an Englishman could still observe that on the far side of the Pond:

A writer is styled ‘a very handsome author’, meaning a good and clever one, and quite irrespective of his appearance, which may be the reverse of comely.

Not handsome, then.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Leper Juice

Nobody knows where the dan in dandruff comes from, but the second syllable probably derives from the Old English hreofla meaning leper. Perhaps there was a particular flaky chap called Dan.

I hate to tell you this, but there is a thing called leper juice. It's the stuff in the lesions. The things you find in the OED. I'm off to start a soft drinks company.

Incidentally, the World Health Organisation think leprosy's got a bad reputation and prefer to call it Hansen's Disease. This must be a great comfort to those dying of leprosy, but not to people called Hansen.

Not a speck in sight.

Friday, 24 February 2012


POLONIUS: My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
POL: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
HAM: Methinks it is like a weasel.
POL: It is backed like a weasel.
HAM: Or like a whale?
POL: Very like a whale.
HAM: Then I will come to my mother by and by.

There is a word for everything, and the word for seeing shapes in clouds is pareidolia. In fact, pareidolia is the word for seeing patterns in any random system. So if you see pictures in a Rorschach Test, or a man in the moon, or have deduced the date of the Second Coming from a code hidden in the bus timetables, that is pareidolia.

The term was invented by Victor Kandinsky, who was the uncle of the painter and rather strange to boot. He had what he called a delirium of judgement, which is to say he didn't quite hallucinate but he was capable of so misinterpreting the world around him that it amounted to the same thing.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think my cup of coffee is trying to tell me something.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Soda, Sodium and Pop

It's an odd little reverse of the expected that sodium is actually derived from soda, which was a fifteenth century term for a mysterious alkaline substance. Sodium, was not isolated and named until 1807. Soda itself probably comes from the Arabic suwwad, which is the name of a sort of herb.

The chap who invented, or discovered, sodium, was Sir Humphry Davy, who has great literary significance as he was the subject of the first ever Clerihew, an odd sort of four-line poem that has a man's name as a first line.

Sir Humphry Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium.

He was also the first Englishman to use the word potassium, which is named after potash.

Soda water is first recorded in 1802 as a name for fizzy water with bicarbonate of soda in it. To an Englishman, soda remains just the name for carbonated water, however in America it is a generic name for fizzy drinks. This map shows the Arab word's infiltration of the United States (double click to enlarge):

Monday, 20 February 2012


Those of you who have read The Etymologicon may just remember that in chapter two I recount how the French game of poule, where you threw things at a chicken for a prize, gave us the idea of pooling your money. As I recall, I had a lot of fun at the expense of our Gallic and gallicidal cousins.

However, I have now discovered that we had almost exactly the same sport in England. It was called cock-squailing, or sometimes cock-throwing. It was pretty much the same as the French version. You paid a penny, and in return you were given a stick, or cockstele, to throw at the poor chicken. Whoever killed the chicken, got to eat him.

Changes in attitude to this practice can be seen from two OED citations. The first from 1663:

Cock-throwing. Cock-a-doodle do, 'tis the bravest game.

And the second from 1825:

Cock-squailing, a barbarous game, consisting in tying a cock to a stake, and throwing a stick at him from a given distance, so as to destroy the bird.

There are references to cocksteles going back to the early sixteenth century. However, the fullest description I could find was the following letter to The Sporting Magazine from 1795:


As the custom of squailing at cocks is very prevalent in the part of the country in which I reside, and as it may not be known to the generality of your readers, I take the liberty of transmitting the following description.

A few days ago I happened to be a spectator where a rabble of idle fellows were convened for the purpose of barbarously torturing at a stake, those domestic animals. Among the rest, a rustic approached in tattered garb, with a bad on his shoulder, wherein was supposed to be deposited a cock. But though he attended ultimately for the purpose of making the dumb creature the sport of infidels, he feigned to profess himself a friend to humanity, nor would he submit to tie his bird to a stake, as is the custom, but devised the following manoeuvre: That a large earthen pan should be procured, under which the cock was to be lodged, to be paid the gamester's stipulated gratuity for throwing, and whoever was fortunate enough to break the pan, would be entitled to the sheltered victim.

These humane proposals being unanimously acceded to; the rustic artfully conveyed the pretended object of his sympathy under the potter's vessel. A ragamuffin undertook to abolish the clay-burnt mark; and after having incurred a pretty heavy expence shivered the pan to atoms, when to the astonishment of the multitude, (though to their no small diversion) instead of a cock, up flew a huge rusty owl, crying Hoo-hoo-hoo! The winner has ever since been known and called by the name of Hoo-hoo-hoo!

Yours & C
June 10, 1795

Though cock-squailing gets several other mentions, some things make me suspicious of that particular story, not least the name of the correspondent.

Anyway, I thought I'd recount my researches, partly because it's a splendid corroboration of the etymology, partly because I was a little unfair to the French, and partly because cock-squailing was always practised on Shrove Tuesday, which is tomorrow.

Cocksteles at the ready.

The Inky Fool wondered why he had been asked to dress up in such a silly chicken costume.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Egg Saturday

Today is, according to the Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English (1857), Egg Saturday - being the Saturday before Shrove Tuesday. It should be celebrated with eggs and dancing, like all other days.

Each and every morning.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Professor Yaffle

Just a little something for those who remember Bagpuss: a yaffle is, or was, a Kentish dialect term for the Green Woodpecker.

Thursday, 16 February 2012


I had always assumed that a nest-egg (of the financial variety) was something that would hatch upon a rainy day. I made this mistake because I have never kept chickens.

Chickens, being giddy creatures, are liable to lay their eggs and then, when they have hatched, to abandon their nest. To stop this happening the solicitous gallicultist will slyly introduce a nest-egg. A nest egg is not an egg at all, but it looks like one and the chicken is fooled. She stays with the nest constantly hoping that the little fake will hatch. Whilst there, she lays more eggs of her own.

The metaphorical potential of a nest-egg that keeps the chicken laying was not lost upon Samuel Butler who in 1678 described a lawyer's office thus:

...mounted in his pew,
With books and money placed for shew,
Like nest-eggs to make clients lay;
And for his false opinion pay...

And from there it became the principal invested in a bank to produce dividends and interest. So, properly speaking, one should, if one wishes to maintain the metaphor and solvency, spend only the interest on your nest egg.

However, in matters financial one should always remember the words of George Best:

I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.

I too like chicken pie.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012


Today is Saint Cyril's day. Because Saint Cyril was the greatest missionary to the Slavs, the Cyrillic alphabet is named after him. Cyril died 1143 years ago today.

It is also the day of Saint Methodius, Cyril's brother. So far as I can tell there are no other saints in the current Romish liturgical calendar for today, although there is a petition to have a certain chap reinstated.

For those of you who can bear the sound of my horrid, nasal voice.

Monday, 13 February 2012


Everybody knows the word mow. It's the thing that you can't be bothered to do to grass. If we weren't such inconstant gardeners we might even know the word math, which is defined in the OED thuslywise:

A mowing; the action or work of mowing; that which may be or has been mowed; the portion of a crop that has been mowed

It makes me tired just reading the definition. There are even compounds formed of math. There is a day math, which is the amount of land you can mow in a day. There is an undermath, which is an undergrowth of grass. There is even a latter-math which is the later mowing, it's the grass that has grown after the first math.

There is even a synonym for latter-math: aftermath.

The aftermath of an earthquake, a revolution or a bottle of gin is merely a metaphor derived from mowing. This pleases me.

The first metaphorical use of aftermath seems to have been in a rather extraordinary 1656 poem called To my honoured friend Mr T.C. that asked me how I liked his Mistress being an old Widdow.

The simple answer is that he didn't, and wrote the most extraordinarily ungentlemanly poem containing couplets like:

If thou wilt needs to sea, O must it be
In an old galliasse of sixty three?

He's immensely troubled by the widow's lack of virginity and says:

Rash lover, speak what pleasure hath
Thy spring in such an aftermath?

Those of you who have read The Etymologicon will know that the Rolling Stones are named after an implement for keeping your lawn nice and flat. So, the fact that they did an album called Aftermath is doubly appropriate. In fact, I'm developing a theory that the entire works of Jagger and Richards are coded references to gardening.

P.S. I am scribbling a new book and doing so so furiously that I fear I shall have to bring the blog down to three posts a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, which is still a lot if you think about it. Having said that, there will be a post tomorrow, for my laziness is matched only by my inconsistency.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Dark Cully

A dark cully is defined in Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue thuslyly:

DARK CULLY. A married man who keeps a mistress, whom he visits only at night, for fear of discovery.

I rather like the idea of this worried husband running around in the dark, bumping into things and fearing for his wife. It also reminds me of the fantastic passage in the biblical Book of Proverbs, even though here it is the other way around:

For at the window of my house I looked through my casement, And beheld among the simple ones, I discerned among the youths, a young man void of understanding,Passing through the street near her corner; and he went the way to her house, In the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night: And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of an harlot, and subtil of heart. (She is loud and stubborn; her feet abide not in her house: Now is she without, now in the streets, and lieth in wait at every corner.) So she caught him, and kissed him, and with an impudent face said unto him, I have peace offerings with me; this day have I payed my vows. Therefore came I forth to meet thee, diligently to seek thy face, and I have found thee. I have decked my bed with coverings of tapestry, with carved works, with fine linen of Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes, and cinnamon. Come, let us take our fill of love until the morning: let us solace ourselves with loves. For the goodman is not at home, he is gone a long journey: He hath taken a bag of money with him, and will come home at the day appointed. With her much fair speech she caused him to yield, with the flattering of her lips she forced him. He goeth after her straightway, as an ox goeth to the slaughter, or as a fool to the correction of the stocks.

Whatever happened to girls like that?

The Inky Fool catches forty winks.

Thursday, 9 February 2012


The word inquilinate is defined in the dear old OED as:

To dwell in a strange place.

I'm not sure if Clerkenwell counts. As the poet John Oldham wrote in 1680:

‘Tis a long way to where I dwell,
At farther end of Clerkenwell:
There in a garret near the sky,
Above five pairs of stairs I lie.

Which, other than the precise number of stairs, describes me perfectly.

That the OED is not able to quote a single usage of inquilinate proves that every man's home is ordinary to him.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Slush Funds and Slush Piles

A timely repost from two years ago:

London thaws. Snow becomes slush. I nearly went my length today and as I tottered, windmilling my arms like a mad semaphorist and trying to defy Newton, I suddenly thought: "Why a slush fund?" And that question only led to "Why a slush pile?"

A slush pile, dear reader, is the pile of unasked for manuscripts that accumulates in the corner of a publisher's office until some semi-literate work experience girl is asked to read them and post them back wither they whenced. Was the slush in slush pile purely derogotary, I wondered? Or was there some sense in which frozen writing was slowly thawing?

Once upon a time slush was just melting snow - either from some Scandy language or simply onomatopoeic - but then in 1869 the Oracle came along. The Oracle was Mark Twain's nickname for a pompous travelling companion he had on a cruise of the Mediterranean. In Innocents Abroad the Oracle describes poets thuslyly:

I never see one of them poets yet that knowed anything. He'll go down now and grind out about four reams of the awfullest slush about that old rock [Gibraltar at sunset] and give it to a consul, or a pilot, or a nigger, or anybody he comes across first which he can impose on. Pity but somebody'd take that poor old lunatic and dig all that poetry rubbage out of him. Why can't a man put his intellect onto things that's some value? Gibbons, and Hippocratus, and Sarcophagus, and all them old ancient philosophers was down on poets

We can deduce two things from this: that slush must already have been American slang for drivel, and that poets haven't changed much.

We imported this sense of slush quite quickly and by 1896 The Times was saying that the campaign against capital punishment was "steeped in a sloppy and slushy sentimentalism". Now there's clearly an alliterative bias in the choice of words here right down to the sl, but some sense is implied, I think, of the inchoate nature of slush: ice, water and dirt all mixed together. Inchoate, slushy sentiment is set against ordered, frozen reason. From this we seem to have got the sense of a slushy novel and from that (I'm theorising, of course) we would get the slush pile.

However, on consideration I think it more likely that I've been wasting your time. It could simply be that the snow piled at the side of the road is the last survivor of a thaw and so a slush pile would be the ignored and bothersome stuff that has been put to one side waiting to miserably disappear.

As for a slush fund, that's quite different. That's fat. There's a rule of etymology that pretty much all words are somehow maritime in origin. As Churchill almost put it "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum philology and the lash." [comma deliberately omitted] Anyway, in the eighteenth century sailors used to keep all the fat that boiled off their meat rations. They called it slush, perhaps because it sloshed around. When the ship got to port they would sell all their slush (don't ask me to whom) and the money would be divided among the ship's officers. Hence slush fund.

In case you cared - and I am confident you don't - I recovered my balance and, with cautious steps and slow, through London took my solitary way.

Everybody gathered round to hear Nelson inventing a word

P.S. Apparently Churchill did not say "rum, sodomy and the lash", although he wished he had, and Bismarck never said "A language is a dialect with a navy". Ah well.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

All Washed Up

I had always thought that when somebody is all washed up, finished, past his sell-by date, a nobody etc, that the reason he is washed up is that he resembles the flotsam and jetsam washed up on a beach. He has been deposited by the high tide of fame upon the shores of obscurity.

I was wrong. The washing up here, is the same one that you do with dirty dishes.

You see, you wash up dishes once you're finished with them. Similarly, when an actor has finished his show he washes up i.e. he gets the make-up off his face and cleans the thespian grease from his hands.

The OED quotes the following extract from a 1925 article in the World newspaper, which, as the title doesn't suggest, reported New York stage gossip. Here an Italian performer with a trained canary is being fired.

‘That guy might be all right if he washed up,’ commented Buck.... Just then the stage manager called out: ‘What will I do with this act, Mr. Ziegfeld?’ ‘Wash up him and the bird,’ said Flo [Ziegfeld] and that was the last of the Italian and his trained canary... Hype Igoe, the World's sporting writer, heard of the incident... and in commenting... upon Frank Moran, heavy weight pugilist, advised that matchmakers ‘wash him up’. The phrase caught the sporting fancy‥and has become a colloquial fixture... as a meaty synonym for finals and farewell.

I can't find the full original, but I have conceived a sudden desire to start training a canary.
You're all fired.

Monday, 6 February 2012


Lucky devil
Robert Cawdrey's Table Alphabetical of 1604 has this entry:

Chambering, lightnes, and wanton behaviour in private places.

Cawdrey was a defrocked priest, but for non conformity rather than chambering. The OED has the word too, and mentions a Byzantine Emperor who "lived a chambering, idle life within his palace".

I'd like to do that.

Friday, 3 February 2012

A Chubbingly Bulchin

Bulchin is defined in a 1736 dictionary of slang as:

A chubbingly Boy or Lad.

I don't know which word I prefer, but I think it's chubbingly.

The Inky Fool is off to lunch

Thursday, 2 February 2012

February and Februation

Good morrow, Benedick. Why, what's the matter,
That you have such a February face,
So full of frost, of storm and cloudiness?
- Much Ado About Nothing

As we are now in February, you may as well know that this is the month of purification; specifically the Roman festival of purification or Februarius was held on the 15th.

Februa was the Latin for purification, and quite possibly derived from an older word for sulphur, making this sulphur-month. This means that February has some rather odd neighbours in the dictionary, such as februate, which means to purge souls by sacrifice or prayer.

Before this new-fangled Roman stuff came in, the Anglo-Saxons had a much apter name for the month. They called it Solmonath, or Mud-Month.

Mind you, the Venerable Bede called it the month of cakes, because apparently that's what pagans gave to their gods for a winter's snack.

The Inky Fool fondling an invisible cow

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Tidal Waves, Groundswells and Etymology Man

The majority of the population of the world have sent me a link to this cartoon about a superhero called Etymology Man. It is instructive in my uselessness, and I thoroughly recommend having a look.

However, it's not quite right. A tidal wave had always been a wave caused by the tide, until T.H. Huxley misused it in 1878. But there was a perfectly good English word for a huge rise in sea level caused by seismic activity: groundswell.

For some reason groundswell is now pretty much the prisoner of political journalists, as in a groundswell of support/disapproval/lust etc.

So, in cases of emergency you should shout Groundswell, and everybody on the beach with a copy of the OED in their swimming-trunks pocket will know to run for the hills. This is called Natural Selection.
This is not a groundswell