Sunday, 10 December 2017

Snow and Snew

A repost from 2010:

Eskimos have no more words for snow than we do. The notion that they do is a myth, a mirage, and a cold white lie. They certainly don't have fifty of the damned things.

We have a few words of our own: snowblizzardsleetslushpowder and neve (a field of even snow). And if we feel this isn't enough, we simply invent compounds: snowstormsnow-flake, snow-flurry, snow drift, snowfall and snowperson.

It is exactly the same in your average igloo. The Eskimo-Aleut languages (of which there are several) have a few bases and many compounds. So the next time somebody repeats this porkie to you, cudgel him.

The urban myth of the Eskimo's verbosity did give rise to the young and useful word snowclone. A snowclone is hackneyed sentence structure. X is the new rock'n'roll. What do you get if you cross an X with a Y?*

The reason it's called a snowclone is that so many hackneyed hacks have written something along the lines of:

If Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have Y words for Z.

Snowclone was invented by a language blog called Language Log, which goes to show something, but I don't know what.

The past tense of snow used to be snew, on the same pattern as grow and grew or know and knew. So it snew in the night.

This from Froissart's Chronicles (1525):

Also it rayned, blewe, & snewe, that it was a mervaylouse yvell wether.

And this from Holinshed's describing special effects in a theatrical production of Dido in 1583:

It hailed small confects, rained rosewater, and snew an artificiall kind of snow.

*I imagine that the answer would be that you'd get back together with her.

Thursday, 7 December 2017


Sometimes an etymology is so obvious, once you see it, that you can't think why you never saw it at all. A dumbbell was, originally, a bell that didn't ring.

The idea is pretty simple really, bell-ringing is a form of exercise. Church bells are big heavy things and a bell-ringer must really tug on that rope. I once wrote a post explaining that to ring a full peal of bells takes several hours and a huge amount of energy (was that seven years ago? I've been doing this for much too long). The problem is that, as a form of regular keep-fit, it's a trifle noisy and will get on your neighbours' nerves.

Hence the dumb-bell. The first reference is from Joseph Addison writing in The Spectator in 1711:

For my own part, when I am in town, for want of these opportunities, I exercise my self an hour every morning upon a dumb bell, that is placed in a corner of my room, and pleases me the more because it does every thing I require in the most profound silence.  My landlady and her daughters are so well acquainted with my hours of exercise, that they never come into my room to disturb me while I am ringing.

So what exactly did such a mute piece of gym equipment look like? Well, here's one from the Seventeenth Century that survives (I think) at Knole House in Kent:

Basically, the sticky-out bits have weights on them. When you pull on the rope (from below) they rotate, as a bell does, and then, through momentum, wind the rope up again. You now give another pull and so on and so forth. There's a little more information to be had by following this link to a modern dumb bell manufacturer.

At some point somebody seems to have taken those sticks with the weights on the end off the dumb bell and started using them on their own. Thus the modern dumbbell.

In other news, tonight I shall be at Waterstones Piccadilly from seven until nine signing A Short History of Drunkenness, other books by me, cheques, Czechs and off.

On Monday, I shall be doing my Dickens show in Clapham.

Next Saturday (the 16th) I shall be at Libreria bookshop in Shoreditch doing a reading at seven. 

The Inky Fool's new alternative to Uber

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

Dickens Explained in Clapham

Image result for dickensAnybody who's read The Merry Wives of Windsor (written in about 1598) will have been surprised to see a reference in it to Charles Dickens (born 1812). It's in Act II scene 2 and goes like this:

I cannot tell what the dickens his name is my
husband had him of. What do you call your knight's
name, sirrah?

Sir John Falstaff.

The reason for this is feat of anachronism is that the Dickens in what the dickens has nothing to do with the surname; it is, instead, a euphemism for the Devil. It may be that there was the Devil, and then there was a little devil or devilkins. Kin is common English diminutive as in lambkin or bunnykins or napkin (a nap used to be a tablecloth).

The diminutive kin is also the source of the English surname Dickens which is Little Richard (if you're into rock'n'roll) or Little Dick (if you're a puerile giggler, as I am). And the surname Dickens is the source of Charles Dickens and Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which is the best Christmas story ever written, and there's an actor called Martin Prest who can recite the whole thing, and he's going to be doing so on Monday in Clapham at Bar Humbug, and I'm going to be interrupting him to explain the origins of Christmas Traditions and it ought to be a great show, so you should come along if you're in London.

More information and tickets and the like can be found by following this link. 

Meanwhile I'm doing a talk at Hungerford Books tomorrow (Wednesday 5th), and on Thursday Evening I shall be sitting in Waterstones Piccadilly with a pen ready to sign any and all books that are thrown at me*.

*In all seriousness, I was once doing a signing in Waterstones Piccadilly and a foreign gentleman came up to me, put a book in front of me, and asked me to sign it. I had a good look at it and explained to him that it wasn't my book. "No," he said. "You sign it."
"But I can't really sign it," I replied, "if I didn't write it."
"You are author, yes?"
"Well, yes, but not..."
"You sign it. It's for my daughter."
"But this is by..." I had a look, and the book didn't actually have an author, or not one who'd been prepared to put their name to it, which was surprising as it was a self-help book, and the cover said it was all about feeling "self-worth".
"It's for my daughter. You sign it."
He seemed irked by my recalcitrance, and so I gave in and I signed it E.L. James.
He seemed very happy.

Friday, 1 December 2017


I've just discovered that there is a Finnish word for "getting drunk at home in your underwear with no intention of doing anything else". The word is kalsarikännit. This is important news.

At first, I didn't believe it. There are a lot of amazing-foreign-words-with-sentence-long-definitions that either don't exist, or only exist in a very theoretical sense. Yes, a German might be able to put all those words together in the same way that I might be able to say snow-gobbling-day, it doesn't mean that there's such a word in common English usage.

But kalsarikännit is real. The etymology is quite simple: kalsarit means underpants, and känni means to be drunk. So it's underpants-getting-drunk. I don't quite know where the with no intention of doing anything else comes from: it may be poetic license, but I suspect that if you are drunk and in your underpants it would be hard to attempt any task of merit and importance, especially outdoors, especially in Finland.

Tolkien taught himself Finnish as a child in order to read the epic poem Kalevala. I, on the other hand, didn't. So I'm a little unclear on the grammar, but so far as I can tell kalsarikännit is the verb and kalsarikänni is the noun, though I may have that wrong, the sources vary. It's pronounced CARL-sarri-KAN-nit. [See video below, and top comment for greater detail]

Naked drinking has been quite a thing, historically speaking. In the London Gin Craze or the early 18th Century, poor people took to selling their clothes to buy spirits, resulting in mass public nudity. In Ancient Egypt at the Festival of Drunkenness all clothes were removed at around midnight when the sex began, and in early colonial Australia people got drunk and gambled:

To such excess was this pursuit carried among the convicts, that some had been known, after losing provisions, money, and all their spare clothing, to have staked and lost the very clothes on their wretched backs, standing in the midst of their associates as naked, and as indifferent about it, as the unconscious natives of the country.

There are also accounts of naked drinking in Russia and Ancient China, and of course there was Noah in his tent. That however was unintentional self-exposure. It's something of a theme in the Bible. Here is Isaiah describing (in a roundabout way) Egyptian foreign policy. Egypt is like someone:

...who gives drink to his neighbours, pouring it from the wineskin till they are drunk, so that he can gaze on their naked bodies!
You will be filled with shame instead of glory.
Now it is your turn! Drink and let your nakedness be exposed!

All of these fascinating facts are of course mentioned and enlarged upon in A Short History of Drunkenness, which is a book by me. It can be bought from these lovely people, or in a real bookshop.

Book Depository

In other news, I'll be doing a talk at Hungerford Books on the 6th, a signing at Waterstones Piccadilly on the 7th, and a show about Dickens' Christmas Carol in Clapham on the 11th.

Incidentally, a tip of the hat should go to the Spectator's review of Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North, where I discovered this.