Friday, 28 September 2012

Six Degrees of Sir Thomas Urquhart

Neither this blog nor the English language would be anything without Sir Thomas Urquhart. He's one of the few authors to get his own tag (down on the right somewhere) and the OED attributes 413 words to his invention. Whether you're talking about metopomancy, eleemosynary or nival, he is that man among wordy men.

What's really needed in this sad and weeping world is a blog entirely devoted to the wonderful words that he invented. And this need has now been fabulously fulfilled. The finest possible thing you can do with your life is to click on this link to Six Degrees of Sir Thomas Urquhart, where you will find out what barytonize really means.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012


As I fly back to Blighty from South Africa tonight, the word that will be going round my head is soutpiel. It's a very rude, boorish and boerish, Afrikaans word for people who divide their time between South Africa and Britain.

Sout means salt and piel means penis, because such people are said to have one foot in South Africa, one foot in Britain, and their penis dangling in the Atlantic Ocean.

I shall be using that a lot in London.

The Inky Fool at the airport

Monday, 24 September 2012


If you wish to practise a South African accent, the best sample sentence is, without doubt, "Turn right at the robot, my friend".

Robot is a bit of a surprise for a foreigner, and it took me a worried while to realise that robot is just South African for traffic light.

So I had to set out to discover why. The answer, it would appear, is that South Africa has maintained a usage that has long since died out in England. Once upon a time there were traffic policemen who directed the traffic. Then, in 1927, this article appeared in the London Evening Standard, describing a strange new invention:

We, of course, changed the name to traffic lights. But in South Africa they merely shortened it to robot. So, rolling all your Rs: "Turn right at the robot, my friend."

Friday, 21 September 2012

Horologicon Launch in Cape Town

It begins. The Horologicon will be launched into the icy waters of Cape Town this very evening at six o'clock. It won't reach the shores of Britain for another five weeks, but if you're in Cape Town do come along to the Fugard Theatre at six where I shall be discussing (or perhaps just excusing) the book with (or to) Beryl Eichenberger.

The Horologicon is a book of strange and beautiful words arranged by the time of day when they are most likely to come in useful. For example, over breakfast this very morning, I managed to casually use the words vitelline (pertaining to egg yolk) and aristologist (an enthusiast for breakfast).

Typical launching conditions near Cape Town

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Ah Big Yaws?

Having been in South Africa for all of a few hours, I have, of course, bought myself a dictionary. I can't help it and I admit that I have a problem. In this case I have bought a copy of Ah Big Yaws? A Guard to Sow Theffricun Innglissh by Rawbone Malong, which helpfully renders English phrases into South African pronunciation. For example, the title means "I beg yours", as in pardon.

The idea is that if a Woozer says "Big poured in?", you should and could reply "Ah big yaws."

As the book itself explains "Wyall, uttsa saw-toffa-kine-doffa guard to yow peeble spick."

Just say it aloud and it'll all make sense. In a few months, I'll be fluent.

Monday, 17 September 2012



 I'm flying to South Africa tomorrow to take part in the Open Book Festival. This involved numerous bits of paperwork and e-tickets and the like, none of which, to my vast misery, contained the word waftage.

Waftage was originally transportation by boat, specifically of course by a sailboat which is wafted by the wind across the alliterative water. But it also therefore means anything that can travel through the air and was being applied to witches and their broomsticks from the mid seventeenth century. A journalist of 1834 describing insects wrote:

Forest flies, ephemerals all like ourselves—but happier far in their airy waftage or watery voyaging, than the vain race of man!

And that's roughly the style in which all airlines' websites should be written.

Anyway, if any readers are in Cape Town for the next few days, here's a link to the events I'll be doing.

Friday, 14 September 2012

17 Words for Nooky

Somebody else has been reading Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, and has made a list of seventeen words for what I like to call carnal confederacy. The link is here.

A tip of the hat to the Antipodean.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012


Somebody mentioned having "no qualms" about something on Saturday night, and it made me wonder what a qualm actually was. A quick check in the dictionary told me that a qualm could be the cry of a raven. But the qualm of conscience turned out to be one of those weakening words, like naughty.

Back in Old English qualm meant violent death, pestilence and plague. In fact, a qualm was anything that was monstrously and bloodily horrific. A qualm-house was a torture chamber, a qualm-stow was a place of execution.

Then, in the sixteenth century, it started to mean a period of suffering, like a bout of fever. Then it began to mean a brief illness, and then a faint feeling of discomfort. And it's from that last meaning that we get the modern ever-so-delicate qualm of conscience.

This means, that you can have no qualms about committing qualms.

Now, I'm off to a qualm-house to feel qualmish.

Many qualms and none.

This is another repost, until I'm digitally remastered.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Sulking in the Boudoir

A repost, as I still can't type.

A lady's boudoir is where she sulks.

Once upon a time there was a French word bouder meaning to sulk or pout and boudoir is simply the sulk-room, like a panic-room but much moodier.

Bouder is probably imitative of puffing your cheeks out, because melancholy is so often accompanied by windy suspirations of forced breath. In exasperation you puff out your cheeks, then you blow the air outwards, perhaps biting your lower lip and making an ffff sound. The whole sound could be transcribed as huff, hence being in a huff.

The first ever person to be tetchy was Juliet (as in Romeo). Her wet nurse decided to wean Juliet by putting wormwood oil on her breast. Wormwood is one of the bitterest tastes in the world and the poor baby did not like it:

For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall;
My lord and you were then at Mantua:--
Nay, I do bear a brain:--but, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!

Incidentally, wormwood has nothing to do with either worms or wood. If you put wormwood into alcohol a chemical called thujone is released which is a rather effective painkiller. The old Germans referred to it as man-courage or wer-mut. Wer was man - as in werewolf or man-wolf - and mut was courage as in modern English mood.

The Inky Fool throws a party

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Ham & High Literary Festival

I'll be doing a little thingy at the Ham & High Literary Festival in North London this Sunday at four o'clock. More details and tickets available at this website. Basically, I'll be talking about blogs and books and the long dusty road between them, along with Jen Campbell of Weird Things Customers Say In Bookshops fame.

Monday, 3 September 2012


I am, temporarily, both sinister and gauche. Sinister comes from the fact that bad omens were believed to appear on the left hand side (or west side if you're facing north like a good soothsayer). Gauche because to be gauche is to be as clumsy as someone who uses their left hand.

Even the word left comes from the Old English lyft meaning weak and foolish.

Etymology is no comfort to someone who can't use his right hand. I am maladroit.