Wednesday, 27 March 2013


The Oxford Dictionaries blog has a post today on the song Respect as sung by Aretha Franklin. I addressed the same song in 2009. Their post is here, and here is mine.

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Rise and Fall of Middle England

As usual after a budget, there has been much talk of Middle England. However, this exotic place didn't exist, according to the OED, until 1982. The adjective middle had, of course, been yoked to the noun englandular before, but only geographically. It meant the Midlands.

Then in the 80s Middle England and the Middle Englander emerged (there had been occasional 70s references to Middle Britain). The whole idea seems to have been imported from Middle America.

Anyway, I went off to google ngrams to see what they made of the concept, and it's really rather striking. In 1993, Middle England suddenly took off. It rocketed. It exploded. It careered upwards until 2002, when it suddenly started falling away.

This blog does not do political analysis. But I suggest you take a look at the graph yourself by clicking here.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Budget and Bilge

A budget was, originally, a little leather pouch in which you carried your money. The word first popped into English in the fifteenth century. Before that it was living in France as bougette, a diminutive form of bouge, or leather bag. Bouge came from the Latin bulga, which also meant leather bag.

However, the Norman French took that Latin bulga on in a different way. They had boulge. And from that the English, in about 1200 got the word bulge. Bulge also meant leather bag, but soon it started to mean... well... bulge.

However, when sailors referred to the bulge of a ship's hull, they called it a bilge. Then, when sailors referred to the nasty rotten water that collected at the bottom of a ship's hull, they called that bilge water, or just bilge.

None of which has anything to do with Bulgarians.

I should probably mention that, as ever, the Inky Fool has no political opinions and believes in government by whim.

Or it may be a small budgerigar.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Pontificating on Bridges

As a new pontiff has been elected, I feel it is my duty to pontificate, which of course means to speak with pompous authority, like a pontiff. Originally, pontificate simply meant "to perform the functions of a pontiff", hence Francis I was pontificating on the balcony.

The Pontifex Maximus was actually the title of the chief pagan priest of Rome. When the empire converted the title was simply moved over to the chief Christian priest. This means that the current Pope has a title that was once held by the Emperor Augustus two thousand years ago.

Pontifex itself means bridge-builder in Latin, perhaps because the priest built a bridge between heaven and earth, or between gods and men, or over the Tiber.

Friday, 15 March 2013


The Wurzels

I recently bought West Country English (for the lovely price of £2.50). It's a short collection of words that are, apparently, still in use in the west of England. It includes the exquisite word twankleten, which means melancholy.

Never again shall I be unhappy. I shall instead be twankleten.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Loyalty and Allegiance

I just witnessed the spectacular sight of a chap becoming British. It's like a caterpillar (from Late Latin Catta Pilosa or shaggy cat) becoming a butterfly or a tadpole (toad head etymologically) becoming a toad, except it's much quicker and takes place in a couple of minutes in Islington Town Hall.

Anyway, the oath that he was given to swear rather intrigued me. He swore his allegiance to the Queen and her heirs in the first paragraph, and then his loyalty to the United Kingdom in the second. The full thing goes like this:

I [Joe Winston Bloggs] swear by Almighty God that, on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Her Heirs and Successors according to law.

I will give my loyalty to the United Kingdom and respect its rights and freedoms. I will uphold its democratic values. I will observe its laws faithfully and fulfil my duties and obligations as a British citizen.

Now perhaps I'm reading too much into this, but loyalty seems to be set in antithesis to the allegiance of the first paragraph, and I can't work out why. Allegiance makes sense in so far as you become the liege-man of the Queen and are now her feudal vassal. Liege derives from old German ledig meaning free.

Loyalty comes from French leial, which comes from Latin legal and means... well the OED defines it as faithful in allegiance, which rather takes you back to the first paragraph. It just looks so wrong. I would have imagined that you were loyal to the Queen and bore allegiance to the state. It seems that the Queen gets the good stuff and the UK has to make do.

This makes me think that there may be some terribly technical legal distinction. So, are any lawyers reading this? Can you enlighten me? In exchange I will tell you that lawyers are not, etymologically, loyal. They come from law, which comes from Old English lagu meaning something fixed, and related to lay and layer.

A typical day in Islington Town Hall

Monday, 11 March 2013

Language Origins

Just a link today to this rather interesting article on where the words in a typical bit of prose come from. I once did the same thing with the song Yesterday (which is almost all Germanic). You can read my old one here.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013


File:Flag of Italy.svgWhile I was researching The Horologicon there was one word that I desperately wanted to track down. Somebody had once told me that there was a single Italian word for the practice of buying two suit jackets, one to actually wear as you swan from café to café, and one to leave hanging over the chair in your office so it looks like you're at work.

You'll admit that that's a pretty good word.

But I couldn't find it. I searched and I e-mailed and in the end I managed to get the translation and interpretation department of a major Italian institution onto the question. Every one of them said that they knew of the practice of buying two suit jackets, one to actually wear as you swan from café to café, and one to leave hanging over the chair in your office so it looks like you're at work, but none of them had ever heard of a single word to describe it.

So with heavy heart and hanging head, I gave up and toddled down to the pub to drown my sorrows (remembering, of course, to leave my jacket hanging over the chair by my computer, in case the Muse came past).

It's a poor substitute, but I came across another Italian word today, which may reveal something about the great and beautifully governed nation. Dietrologia is the study of the real reason for things, as opposed to the official explanation. There is more about it in this Economist article. It's rather useful to describe conspiracy theorists.

Or is that just what I want you to think?

File:William Hogarth 031.jpg

Monday, 4 March 2013

Go, Went, Wend and Gaed

Repost because my computer isn't working.

Let us wend our irregular way to an odd leftover of grammar. The English verb go declines as: go, goes, went, gone. Or at least that's what you're taught in school; but it's a goddam lie.

The verb go looks terribly irregular. What's that W word doing between the Gs of go and gone? The etymological truth, though, is that went is a completely different verb.

Once upon a thousand years ago there was the present tense go and the past tense gaed*. Then there was another, separate, verb: wend. We still use wend in the phrase to wend your way.

Just as the past tense of send is sent, so the past participle of wend became went. So in the past tense you went your way.

And then something very odd happened. People stopped using gaed as the past tense of go and pretty much stopped using the present tense of wend. This left modern English with go and went, which became so universally used for motion that they appear to be one irregular verb, which effectively, they now are.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I must wend.

An old game of go is therefore a went.

*But mainly in the North. There was another past tense - eode - in Old English, but that too appears to be a separate derivation.