Wednesday, 17 September 2014

New Books and Snipes

Just to let everyone know, The Elements of Eloquence is out in paperback (at least in the UK), and The Unknown Unknown: Bookshops and the delights of not getting what you wanted is now available in all bookshops, not just independent ones, for only £1.99.

Anyway, there's a seabird called a snipe. It wades around and eats crustaceans, and of course it flies. It flies though in a very erratic way, changing direction all the time, and it's also rather well camouflaged. This makes it very hard to shoot.

I don't really know why you'd want to shoot a snipe, maybe they're delicious, never tried. The point is that it's only the very sharpest of sharp-shooters who can manage it. They are therefore called snipers.

I'd never seen the connection before.

I shall be giving a lunchtime talk (or talk with lunch included) at the Sevenoaks Literary Festival next Tuesday (the 23rd). Do come along if you can, but you'll need a ticket.

The Inky Fool searching for lunch
And I've just found an 1840 description of sniping in India. It's from a book called Scenes and Sports in Foreign Lands by Edward Napier
Now cast we a glance at what is allowed to be the best and one of the most exciting sports of the East—I mean, snipe shooting. In its effects it is also the most fatal to the British sportsman. A burning sun over head, whilst for hours immersed above the ankles in water, together with being exposed to the noxious marshy exhalations, have, alas! proved fatal to many, and have probably added more greatly to the numerous cases of fever, liver complaint, and dysentery, than anything else in the treacherous climate of India. Still with this hand-post of " high road to the other world" full in view, such are the attractions of this pursuit, that few who are fairly engaged in it can ever leave it off, until brought suddenly up by one of the above stumbling-blocks. It becomes a sort of infatuation. With his brandy-flask by his side, and his wellfilled bag, the sniper still wanders through his old haunts, the well-known Paddyfields, until at last brought down himself by the unerring aim of the grim Azrael —the angel of death.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Guardians, Wardens and Gages

The British newspaper industry is looking up
I'm giving a Guardian Masterclass on grammar tomorrow (I think there are still tickets available). And it reminded me of mortgages and wardens.

Back in the dear old Dark Ages when all was umbrous, the French used to borrow words from the Germans. Some of these words began with a W, which the French, being French, found hard to pronounce and changed them to a G.

But not all the French. The northern Frenchmen could say their Ws and so French would end up with two forms of the word, one beginning with G and the other with a W. And then we English would import both.

I don't know if you've ever wondered what the difference is between a guarantee and a warranty, but really there isn't one. It's the same word one via Southern French and one via the Northern.

Similarly, when medieval chaps wanted to challenge somebody they would throw down their gage as a challenge. This sense still survives in en-gage (for marriage is really a long duel) and mort-gage, which, as I explained in The Etymologicon is really a death-challenge. Or, to be more precise, a death-wager, because gage gave use wage and wager, which both involve putting down items of value.

And the third of these doubles is guard vs ward. Same words, pronounced differently. And the same thing goes for a warden and a guardian. Hence my long train of thought.

The Inky Fool delivering his lecture