Showing posts with label America. Show all posts
Showing posts with label America. Show all posts

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Thomas Jefferson's Mysterious Shag

Here is a mystery that I can't solve, and it's driving me mad.

Shag is an English verb for the world's most popular pastime.

That it is English and not American was a central joke of Austin Powers, and a central flaw in the British marketing of the 1989 American romantic comedy Shag.

So I was astonished to read the first citation in the OED. It's not English, but American. We've lost! Not just any old American, either: the first recorded shag is by Thomas Jefferson.

He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.

That, I think you'll agree, is a pretty weird sentence. But the OED, of course, don't give context. They just have the line and the name of the book. So I ran down to the British Library to get hold of a copy and see what Jefferson was talking about.

I don't know whether it's that Thomas Jefferson isn't important enough, but the British Library have never bothered to buy a copy. It's recent too. Though Jefferson wrote it in 1770, it wasn't published until Princeton University press put it out in 1997.

But it's not there, dammit. It's not on Google Books either. So I'm left with this one enigmatic sentence:

He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.

What the hell does it mean? I've been thinking long and hard about this. Who shagged his mother? It's not Oedipus because he didn't beget himself. I looked up Sin and Death in Paradise Lost, but they don't fit.

Then I came up with an odd idea. Maybe he's talking about Jesus. If you consider Jesus and God the Father to be one, then Jefferson's Shag might make sense. It's more than a trifle blasphemous, but I can't see what else he could have been writing about.

Does anybody have a better suggestion?

Does anybody have access to the original book? Any Princetonians? Anybody with another copyright library round the corner?

If you do then it's:

Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson's Memorandum Books volume II (ed. James Bear and Lucia Stanton)
Princeton University Press
ISBN 0-691-04719-7

And it's the entry for Dec. 27 1770 on page 200.

And it's urgent.

The Inky Fool wonders if he can get his money back.


Thanks to Mark (see comments) I now have a photo of the page in question. The context is that it's all brief notes of court cases in which Jefferson was acting:

Now, I'd like to say that that cleared it up, but really it's caskets within caskets. I still can't work out what the phrase means. It's hard enough to see who's suing who for what and why. The open vestry is mysterious. I assume the pl. is the plaintiff, but I can't be sure.

Ah well.

Thank you to everyone for suggestions.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Sir Richard Has Taken Off His Considering Cap

Benjamin Franklin was far more fun than you might think. Not only did he write a learned tract called Fart Proudly, he also produced, in his memoirs, a Drinker's Dictionary which contains over two hundred synonyms for being drunk. I have put my favourites in bold.

He's addled, in his airs, affected, casting up his accounts, biggy, bewitched, black and black, bowzed, boozy, been at Barbadoes, been watering the brook, drunk as a wheelbarrow, bothered, burdocked, bosky, busky, buzzy, has sold a march in the brewer, has a head full of bees, has been in the bibing plot, has drunk more than he has bled, is bungy, has been playing beggar-my-neighbour*, drunk as a beggar, sees the beams, has kissed black Betty**, has had a thump over the head with Samson's jaw-bone, has been at war with his brains, is bridgy, has been catching the cat, is cogniaid, capable, cramped, cherubimical, cherry merry, wamble croft, cracked, half way to Concord, canonized, has taken a chirping glass, got corns in his head, got a cup too much, coguay, cupsy, has heated his copper, is in crocus, catched, cuts capers, has been in the cellar, been in the sun, is in his cups, above the clouds, is non compos, cocked, curved, cut, chippered, chickenny, has loaded his cart, been too free with the creature. Sir Richard has taken off his considering cap, he's chopfallen, candid, disguised, got a dish, has killed a dog, has taken his drops. 'Tis a dark day with him. He's a dead man, has dipped his bill, sees double, is disfigured, has seen the devil, is prince Eugene, has entered, buttered both eyes, is cock-eyed, has got the pole evil, has got a brass eye, has made an example, has ate a toad and a half for breakfast, is in his element, is fishy, foxed, fuddled, soon fuddled, frozen, will have frogs for supper, is well in front, is getting forward in the world, owes no man money, fears no man, is crump fooled, has been to France, is flushed, has frozen his mouth, is fettered, has been to a funeral, has his flag out, is fuzzled, has spoken with his friend, been at an Indian feast, is glad, grabable, great-headed, glazed, generous, has boozed the gage, is as dizzy as a goose, has been before George, got the gout, got a kick in the guts, been at Geneva, is globular, has got the glanders, is on the go, a gone man, has been to see Robin Goodfellow, is half and half, half seas over, hardy, top heavy, has got by the head, makes head way, is hiddey, has got on his little hat, is hammerish, loose in the hilt, knows not the way home, is haunted by evil spirits, has taken Hippocrates grand Elixir, is intoxicated, jolly, jagged, jambled, jocular, juicy, going to Jericho, an indirect man, going to Jamaica, going to Jerusalem, is a king, clips the King's English, has seen the French king. The King is his cousin, has got kibed heels, has got knapt, his kettle's hot. He'll soon keel upward, he's in his liquor, lordly, light, lappy, limber, lopsided, makes indentures with his legs, is well to live, sees two moons, is merry, middling, muddled, moon-eyed, maudlin, mountainous, muddy, mellow, has seen a flock of moons, has raised his monuments, has eaten cacao nuts, is nimtopsical, has got the night mare, has been nonsuited, is super nonsensical, in a state of nature, nonplussed, oiled, has ate opium, has smelt an onion, is an oxycrocum***, is overset, overcome, out of sorts, on the paymaster's books, drank his last halfpenny, is as good conditioned as a puppy, is pigeon eyed, pungy, priddy, pushing on, has salt in his headban, has been among the Philistines, is in prosperity, is friends with Philip, contending with Pharaoh, has painted his nose, wasted his punch, learned politeness, eat the pudding-bag, eat too much pumpkin, is full of piety, is rocky, raddled, rich, religious, ragged, raised, has lost his rudder, has been to far with Sir Richard, is like a rat in trouble, is stitched, seafaring, in the suds, strong, as drunk as David's sow, swamped, his skin is full, steady, stiff, burnt his shoulder, has got out his top-gallant sails, seen the dog-star, is stiff as a ringbolt. The shoe pinches him. He's staggerish. It is star light with him. He carries too much sail, will soon out studding sails, is stewed, stubbed, soaked, soft, has made too free with Sir John Strawberry, right before the wind, all sails out, has pawned his senses, plays parrot, has made shift of his shirt, shines like a blanket, has been paying for a sign, is toped, tongue-tied, tanned, tipsicum grave, double tongued, tospey turvey, tipsy, thawed, trammulled, transported, has swallowed a tavern token, makes Virginia fame, has got the Indian vapours, is pot valiant, in love with varany, wise, has a wet soul, has been to the salt water, in search of eye water, is in the way to be weaned, out of the way, water soaked, wise or otherwise, can walk the line, The wind is west with him. He carries the wagon.

That last phrase can't have anything to do with being on the wagon, which only popped up in the twentieth century. I think that from now on, when I arrive in the pub, I shall buy a beer and announce: "Sir Richard has taken off his considering cap."

The Inky Fool enjoys a quiet night in

*Note spelling.
**A whiskey bottle
***A medicinal plaster made from saffron, vinegar, and various other ingredients (OED)

Friday, 22 January 2010

In [The] Hospital

Apparently something political has happened in America which will have some sort of effect on how Americans pay their hospital bills, a subject towards which I am passionately indifferent. The only important aspect of the debate, which nobody else seems to have touched on, is linguistic.

There is a tiny difference between the ways that we in Britain and they in America talk. If an Englishman is injured he ends up in hospital, the same goes for Canadians and Australians. If an American is injured he ends up in the hospital.

You can confirm this little tic with a few country-specific google searches for the specific phrase "the hospital". Here are Britain, USA, Canada, Australia. The USA does have some uses of "in hospital" but they're always in the headlines where definite articles can be omitted anyway.

This made me think about the other places you can be in without a definite article. As an Englishman I can be (and usually am) in the pub. I am at the shops. I spend an evening in the cinema. The only unarticled places are school and prison, both of which are paid for through taxes.

Americans also spend time in school and prison without a the and in America both of those are also provided by the government. The reason that I brought in Canada and Australia earlier on is that there seems to be a direct correlation between government funding and the definite article.

This is especially odd as Canadian English is usually dominated by their mutinous neighbours to the South. But all healthcare in Canada is public (except on Indian reservations, which is because of clauses about medicine men in ancient treaties that can now be splendidly profitable).

So here's my theory (and it is only a theory): if you usually pick and pay for your hospital (or anything else) you will tend to think of it as a far more specific thing than you would if it were a ubiquitous and remotely funded service. The definite article is part of the market system.

As I say, it's only a theory; but it fits facts, especially Canada. Howls of derision in the comments, please.

Canadian medical policy getting sorted out

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Bunking and Debunking

It is vital that you know that debunking has nothing to do with bunk beds. It's connected to bunk as a contraction of bunkum or rubbish. Bunkum, as any fule kno, derives from Buncombe County, North Carolina, whose representative in Congress made a particularly stupid speech in 1820 "for Buncombe". It was such an inane oration that the word bunkum, with a K, has now spread around the world. Buncombe, North Carolina, was named after Edward Buncombe who fell down stairs and died. Edward Buncombe must have been a descendant of Richard de Bounecombe of Somerset (1327), whose name meant "dweller in the reed valley" from the Anglo Saxon bune meaning reed and cumb or coomb meaning valley. Coomb relates to cwm in Welsh and is one of the very few words that the Anglo Saxons took from Celtic languages.

The origin of bunk bed is unknown.

All of which is utterly irrelevant to what this post was meant to be about.

Michael Flanders once said, "The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth. And our job, as I see it, is to put it back again."

So in the interests of continuing his good work:

Kangaroo does not mean 'I don't understand' in aboriginal. This is a myth.

Yucatan does not mean 'I don't understand' in Mayan. This too is a myth, a deliberate untruth spread by Cortes to discredit a province-naming rival. It means "place of richness" in nahuatl.

However, before you tearfully decide that there is No Fun in etymology anymore, there is in Madagascar a kind of lemur known to science as the indri. Indri, in the native tongue, means Look at that!

The reason, as you have no doubt already guessed (aren't you clever?), is that a naturalist called Pierre Sonnerat was wandering happily through the jungle naming things (like Adam) when his guide shouted "Look at that!"

Out came the notebook and it has been the indri ever since.

This is not, alas, a useful titbit of information for cocktail parties as nobody else will have heard of the indri. But it is useful to know that something from Madagascar is not Madagascan but Malagasy, just as something from Monaco is not Monacan or Monte Carlan but Monegasque. So it's the Monegasque Grand Prix.

Look at that!