Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Etiquette on Tick


Once upon a long time ago in France, there was the word étiquette. But it didn't have the meaning that it has today. Etiquette was nothing to do with passing the port the right way through a revolving door. An étiquette was just a small piece of paper.

So far as anybody can tell (and nobody is sure of this) people would write down the rules of the court on a small piece of paper and hand them out to visitors, or pocket them so they didn't forget who was meant to give way to whom. Thus our English etiquette.

However, the primary French sense also got straight into our language by the much simpler route of dropping the E at the beginning. Etiquette became ticket: train tickets, political tickets, lottery tickets. Even the small piece of paper behind the bar on which your drinks bill is tallied is a ticket. That's why, when you buy something on credit, you buy it on tick.

Court etiquette used to be a terribly complex and time consuming thing. For example, when you got up to leave from supper everybody had to leave in reverse order of seniority, with the king going last. That meant that you had to size up everybody else at the table and shuffle around and wonder whether it was your turn (unless you slyly consulted your étiquette) and it all got very awkward and slow. That's why when Lady Macbeth tells her dinner guests to leave immediately, she says:

At once, good night:
Stand not upon the order of your going,
But go at once.

The order there isn't her command, it's about not standing on ceremony and just Getting Out Now.

 

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Pulp Shakespeare


Usually, parodies of Shakespeare are rubbish. People think that if you throw in a few thous, prithees and marry nuncles that that's enough. It's not. Because if you've ever read much Elizabethan drama you'll know that that is how they all spoke. Moreover, they usually fail to make any use at all of blank verse, which means that the Shakespeare parody is nothing more than godwottery, gadzookery and a blizzard of well-known archaisms.

That's why the video below is fantastic. Not only have the writers put it mostly into iambics, not only do they have occasional references to actual Shakespeare lines (making the beast with two backs with the moor), but they have zeroed in, as all good parodies do, on Shakespeare's weaknesses. Will's love of puns and word play is often quite preposterous. Before watching this you should know that tread, for example, was an Elizabethan term for sex and for foot, thus setting up a ridiculously overinvolved set of puns on the subject of foot massages. And the silliness of "dropping the rock of horror as though he were a mere stone" and "The rock's words stick and stutter as stones themselves/And roll smooth no more" is just what Shakespeare would have done.

Were I in LA I would be buying tickets now.

Eagle eyed readers will have worked out by now, that this is a Shakespearean reworking of the film Pulp Fiction, familiarity with which is probably necessary for full enjoyment.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Opportunity Blows


File:TempleOfPortunus-ForumBoarium.jpg
The temple of Portunus
If you're a sailor in a sailboat then you care a lot about winds, and the best sort of winds are those that blow your ship towards the port that's your destination. Or at least, they're the best sort when you're on the open sea.

If you're a sailor who happens to speak Latin, then you will describe these winds as ob portunus, or towards the port, because Portunus was the god of harbours. These ob portunus winds are good and favourable and represent, for the homesick seasick sailor, an opportunity.

By a reverse of this process, you can really pick the wrong moment to ask somebody for something and thus you are im-portuning them.

Etymologically speaking, this has a pleasant side-effect. Port wine is named after Portugal which is named after the Portus Cale. So if you hurl yourself towards an unguarded bottle of port then you have become an opportunist.

When leaving port, you should rely more on the tides than the winds. Wait till high tide, or flood, and then let the retreating waters pull your boat out. To see exactly how the metaphor survives have a look at this passage from Shakespeare.

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

File:Cesar-sa mort.jpg
An opportunity

Friday, 24 February 2012

Pareidolia


POLONIUS: My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
POL: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
HAM: Methinks it is like a weasel.
POL: It is backed like a weasel.
HAM: Or like a whale?
POL: Very like a whale.
HAM: Then I will come to my mother by and by.
III,2

There is a word for everything, and the word for seeing shapes in clouds is pareidolia. In fact, pareidolia is the word for seeing patterns in any random system. So if you see pictures in a Rorschach Test, or a man in the moon, or have deduced the date of the Second Coming from a code hidden in the bus timetables, that is pareidolia.

The term was invented by Victor Kandinsky, who was the uncle of the painter and rather strange to boot. He had what he called a delirium of judgement, which is to say he didn't quite hallucinate but he was capable of so misinterpreting the world around him that it amounted to the same thing.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I think my cup of coffee is trying to tell me something.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Dust and Dustmen


Dust used to be the subject of poetry. Hamlet, in his great prose speech, asks of mankind:

And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me...

Because men are made of dust, and to dust we return. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, fun to funky. So Auden also asked:

May I, composed like them
Of Eros and dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

In which he merely adds sexual appetite to the vacuum-fodder. It was therefore rather pleasant to find this entry in an old slang dictionary of 1811:

DUSTMAN. A dead man: your father is a dustman.

Which lends a certain poignancy to this song:

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Hob and Nob and Hobnobbing


I have been asked by Twitter whether there is any connection, however tentative and tangential, between hobnobbing and hobbledehoy. The short answer is No, because nobody has any idea where hobbledehoy comes from. However, I did discover the true meaning of hobnobbing, which is much more fun than I expected.

The first record of hob nob is found in Twelfth Night where an angry duellist is described thuslyly:

He is knight, dubbed with unhatched rapier and on carpet consideration; but he is a devil in private brawl: souls and bodies hath he divorced three; and his incensement at this moment is so implacable, that satisfaction can be none but by pangs of death and sepulchre. Hob, nob, is his word; give't or take't.

Hob appears to come from the Old English for have, and nob from have not. However, the meaning of hob nob seems to have shifted slightly to give or take - in this case the knight will either give death or take it, but it is a mortal duel.

However, hob or nob quickly became a much more friendly term when combined with a few drinks. If I fill a festive flask and say, 'Here's to you, dear reader of this ridiculous blog,' and you say 'No, here's to you, dear writer of this ridiculous blog,' then we can be said to have toasted each other hob a nob.

Hob nob became a shortening of such mutually amicable bibosity, so that in 1762 Oliver Goldsmith could have the line:

Hob nob, Doctor, which do you chuse, white or red?

And soon such friendly exchanges became known as hobnobbing.

Anyway, after nearly a week at number one on the Amazon bestsellers list, I can gaze with monumental patience on The Etymologicon's comfortable lapse to second place. I shall go and unearth for myself a beaker of the warm South, pop the cork and drink a toast to all of you, dear readers. I shall hob, whether you nob is up to you.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Foolscap


Foolscap paper is one of those things that I've never really been sure about and to which I have never devoted even the idlest of my idle thoughts. I had never, for example, noticed that it's a contraction of fool's cap. But it is.

That's odd because foolscap is an old paper size. Whenever it's used in the news (and it often is) it's put there to evoke what editors like to call a bygone era filled with dial telephones, morality and rationing. Foolscap was a little bit larger than A4, and once upon a time it bore a watermark depicting a jester's headdress.

When it did this is a matter of fevered debate amongst those who care about paper sizes. The earliest known example in England dates from 1659. Indeed, there's an obscure story that during the Commonwealth the republican Parliament replaced the royal watermark that had once appeared on all the laws of England with a fool's hat. But like all the best stories that's probably tosh.

There are much earlier fool's caps in German printing, indeed they go back to 1479. This lends some credence to the idea that the fool's cap was introduced by Sir John Spielman who built England's first paper-mill, as the poor fellow was German.

Despite his teutonicness he still managed to get a legal monopoly on all paper production in England in 1581 and thus he achieved immortality. Not with his paper, not with his watermarks, but because he managed to be obliquely satirised by Shakespeare.

In Henry the Sixth part II, the ridiculous rebels capture a lord and their peasant leader, Jack Cade accuses him thus:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

As Shakespeare would have had to obtain his paper from Spielman's foolishly behatted mill one way or another, we can make a shrewd guess at who he had in mind.

Incidentally, despite the fact that it's probably about his fourth play, Henry VI part II contains Shakespeare's first truly memorable* line, and it's said by another of the peasant rebels when they're planning what to do once they've seized power:

CADE I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.


DICK The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

P.S. There's a lovely review of The Etymologicon over at Tom Cunliffe's excellent blog A Common Reader. Moreover, I shall be talking about the book tonight on Resonance FM on the show Little Atoms, which is also available as a podcast. Evenmoreover, I'm going to be on Loose Ends on Radio 4 tomorrow (Saturday) at a quarter past six.
Smithfield still feels like this on a Friday night.

*Incidentally, I once posted something along these lines before and was bombarded with impolite e-mails from people who assumed that I hadn't read Titus Andronicus. I have, and can even recite you a couple of speeches from it. However, neither Titus nor Love's Labours have any lines that are known to the man upon the Clapham omnibus.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Harking Back, Forward and Away


Shakespeare stole most of his best ideas from The Simpsons. So Mr Burns' great line "Release the hounds" is repeated in much less memorable form in The Tempest, where Prospero sets a pack of ghostly dogs on Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo.

A noise of hunters heard. Enter divers Spirits, in shape of dogs and hounds, and hunt them about, PROSPERO and ARIEL setting them on

PROSPERO Hey, Mountain, hey!

ARIEL Silver I there it goes, Silver!

PROSPERO Fury, Fury! there, Tyrant, there! hark! hark!

CALIBAN, STEPHANO, and TRINCULO, are driven out

The reason for all those harks of Prospero's is that, though hark can just mean listen up as in Hark the herald angels singhark is also a hunting cry. When you want your hounds to set off you shout Hark-away. If you want them to follow the scent onwards you shout Hark forward. However, if they have lost the scent and gone the wrong way, you shout Hark back.

In 1882 Robert Louis Stevenson said of a fellow that "He has to hark back again to find the scent of his argument."

But these days the original hunting sense has been forgotten, except by very old people who own packs of hounds, like Mr Burns.




P.S. And if you want to know the etymological connection between Caliban and the Caribbean, I explained it here.

Friday, 22 July 2011

The Four Corners of the Earth


And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.

So said Isaiah (11v12) and it's rather odd, because at first sight it would appear to contradict the newfangled theory that the earth is round. When you think about it more, though, it becomes yet odder, because it seems to suggest that the earth is not simply flat, it's square.

So did the ancient Hebrews believe that the earth was square? No. The Hebrew word here is kanaph which means, among other things, quarter. It's the four quarters of the earth: North, South, East and West.

So were the sixteenth century translators of the Bible twisting things to make it look as though the earth was square? No. Back then corner didn't have to mean corner in the modern sense. It could also have this definition from the OED:

...a region, quarter; a direction or quarter from which the wind blows (obsolete)

Winds could come from different corners, meaning quarters or points of the compass. So in the gulling scene in Much Ado About Nothing you can get this exchange:

LEONATO No, nor I neither; but most wonderful that she should so dote on Signior Benedick, whom she hath in all outward behaviors seemed ever to abhor.


BENEDICK Is't possible? Sits the wind in that corner?

It's hard to find any civilisation that ever definitely believed the earth was flat. Not only did the ancients know it was round, but a clever chap called Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth with an error of only 2%.

The Medievals knew it too. The Travels of Sir John Mandeville* (C14th) says clearly that "the world is quite round" and "those men who live right under the Antarctic Pole [star] are foot against foot to those who live right below the Arctic Pole [star], just as we and those who live at our Antipodes are foot against foot." Because antipodes means foot against foot.

Mandeville then writes:

I have often thought of a story I have heard, when I was young, of a worthy man of our country who went once upon a time to see the world. He passed India and many isles beyond India, where there are more than 5,000 isles, and travelled so far by land and sea, girdling the globe, that he found an isle where he heard his own language being spoken. For he heard one who was driving a plough team say such words to them as he had heard men say to oxen in his own land when they were working at the plough. He marvelled greatly, for he did not understand how this could be. But I conjecture that he had travelled so far over land and sea, circumnavigating the earth, that he had come to his own borders; if he had gone a bit farther, he would have come to his own district. But after he heard that marvel, he could not get transport any farther, so he turned back the way he had come; so he had a long journey! Afterwards it happened that he went to Norway, and a gale blew him off course to an island. And when he was there he knew it was the island he had been in before and heard his own language, as the beasts were being driven. That could well be, even if men of limited understanding do not believe that men can travel on the underside of the globe without falling off into the firmament. For just as it seems to us that those men there are under us, so it seems to them that we are under them.

Northwest Airlines 1950's Ad - Four Corners of the Earth - Sold
The truth is out there.

*One of my favourite books.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Shakespeare Sounding Funny


I'm always a little suspicious of these things, but here is a scene from Shakespeare in what is supposed to be the pronunciation that would actually have been used in Elizabethan England. My suspicions are based on the fact that no two of these versions ever sound alike. In fact, why don't I demonstrate that by putting in two videos. Compare and, if you must, contrast.



And this:



They're both rather fascinating.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Prove That You're Better Than Shakespeare


Any reader of Inky Fool will enjoy this. It's a site that estimates the size of your vocabulary.

You start off with some reasonably simple words, and then move onto a much more logopandociec test. Indeed, it tested me with several words that I've written about on Inky Fool, including fuddletatterdemalion, funambulist, hypnopomic and pule. So you, dear reader, should be at an advantage.

There's a myth that Shakespeare had a much larger vocabulary than anybody else in the whole history of English. In fact, his vocabulary was about 20,000 words. This would put him in the bottom 10% of English speakers today. That's largely because the English language in Will's time only contained about 150,000 different words, whereas the current OED has about 600,000.

Still, that means that if you take the test and make it out of the bottom 10% of the population you can brag about having a larger vocabulary than Shakespeare.

Go and try it.



P.S. Because somebody is bound to ask, they estimated my vocabulary at 41,800; but then again I am meant to be good at this sort of thing (and have no other talents).

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Ophelimity


Ophelimity is the capacity to satisfy a need, desire or want. It's an economics term, but I can think of at least a thousand non-economic situations in which it could usefully be used, and not all of them are obscene.

It comes ultimately from the Greek ophelimos, which meant useful, and is therefore vaguely related to Ophelia, which meant help. Nobody is sure why Shakespeare decided to name Hamlet's bit of fluff Ophelia, but the best guess is that he simply made a mistake. There's a Ben Jonson play in which there's a nymph called Apheleia.

The fourth, in white, is Apheleia, a nymph as pure and simple as the soul, or as an abrase table, and is therefore called Simplicity.

As Ophelia in Hamlet is a simple, innocent nymph, this makes a Lot More Sense. And as Shakespeare was a good friend of Jonson's, and was even godfather to Jonson's son, there could well be a connection, even though Jonson's play came after Hamlet. The explanation has ophelimity.

Here is Ophelia's lack of ophelimity illustrated:

Friday, 27 May 2011

Morris Dancing and Othello


Pausing on Lamb's Conduit Street yestereve I saw a troop of Morris dancers waving their sticks about. For those of you who have never seen or heard of morris dancing, it's the most traditional olde-worlde, merrie-Englande form of folk dancing. Except it's not English. It's Arab.

Morris is a corruption of Moorish (via Morisk). Moorish is of or pertaining to the Moors and Moor is an old word for an Arab.

Well, in fact, Moor used to be used indiscriminately to mean Arab, negro, Indian, Muslim or pretty much anything that originated from beyond Kent. That's why nobody, to this day, is quite sure whether Othellothe Moor of Venice, was meant to be black (as we would understand the term) or Arab.

The dance that I witnessed yesterday has been called a Morisk, Moresque, Moorish or Morris dance since the fifteenth century. So I assume that it was Othello's favourite jig.

Moor itself comes from Mauritania which was the ancient name for Morocco, although, weirdly Morocco doesn't have anything to do with Moor.

Nor does Moorish, meaning Arabian, have anything to do with More-ish meaning appetite-whetting, a fact that was lost on the writers of a wine list in a restaurant I once visited. Here is a rather blurry photo:


A Scotsman once told Arnold Bax that "You should make a point of trying every experience once, except incest and folk-dancing." This phrase is usually now repeated with the folk replaced by Morris. But poor Desdemona would tell you that you should also strike from the list a dangerously Moorish husband.

The hankerchiefs were all stolen from Desdemona

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A Dildo For A Song


Last night I went to see All's Well That Ends Well at the Globe. A line in the play made me think of the Beatles and Our Mutual Friend.


Clown: By my troth, I take my young lord to be a very melancholy man.


Countess: By what observance, I pray you?


Clown: Why, he will look upon his boot and sing; mend the ruff and sing; ask questions and sing; pick his teeth and sing. I know a man that had this trick of melancholy sold a goodly manor for a song.

What is the connection to the Beatles? Well, it's an obscure aspect of the song Your Mother Should Know (video beneath), the lyrics of which run:

Let's all get up and dance to a song
That was a hit before your mother was born
And though she was born a long, long time ago,
Your mother should know,
Your mother should know.

You see, Paul McCartney's mother was born in 1909, which means that the song was probably a hit in 1908 or earlier, in which case its hittiness would not have been measured in record sales, but in sales of sheet music.

Do you remember Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend? No? Oh well. He's a poor street vendor who develops a rather weird obsession with the occupants of the house outside of which he sells ballads and sheet music.

Sheet music used to be everywhere. Before the gramophone existed it was the only way of obtaining a song for keeps. Hearing a song was no more than hearing a recitation of a poem. If you liked it, you bought it on paper. So selling music was an essential part of everyday life, and the salesmen were (often) the lowest of the low.

The same character, essentially, pops up in A Winter's Tale. Autolycus, who describes himself as "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles", is an itinerant ballad-seller who:

...hath songs for man or woman, of all sizes; no
milliner can so fit his customers with gloves: he
has the prettiest love-songs for maids; so without
bawdry, which is strange; with such delicate
burthens of dildos and fadings...

I fear an aside on dildoes is required. The word is first recorded in 1598 meaning exactly what it does today, but it also appeared in lots of ballads as a meaningless refrain. Just as our songs have sha-la-las and yeah-yeah-yeahs, so Elizabethan ballads had fa-la-las, hey-nonny-noes, and dildoes.

All of which brings us full circle to that line from All's Well That Ends Well which is the very first recorded example of selling something for a song. When the melancholy man of whom the clown speaks sold a goodly manor for a song, he was exchanging his real estate for a piece of sheet music because he needed something new to sing.

Perhaps, for the price of his land he got hold of the Roxburghe Ballads, which contain the beautiful lines:

She prov'd herself a Duke's daughter, and he but a Squire's son.
Sing trang dildo lee

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to sing trang dildo lee all over London until I get arrested.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Shakespeare's Starlings


Just a link today, because I'm feeling lazy and faineant. Here's a little article on how Shakespeare introduced starlings to America and was responsible for the death of Abraham Lincoln. Click here.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Garnered


According to the news :

Intelligence garnered from waterboarded detainees was used to track down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and kill him

This is one of those awkward statements that will make any right-thinking person wrestle with the thorny question of where the word garner comes from and what exactly it means.

Garner is one of those strange verbs that lives only inside the pages of a newspaper. I don't believe that in my long and intricate life I have ever garnered anything. It's not one of those verbs that you use.

'What are you planning to do this afternoon?'

'Oh, I'm planning to garner.'

Doesn't work, does it? Even if you put in an object for the verb you still end up with:

'I was planning to garner some stamps for my collection.'

But newspapers get to use garner without an eyelid being batted. This seems unfair, why should journalists keep all the garnering to themselves? It comes, since you ask, from the French word grenier, which meant granary. The R got moved by a process that etymologists call metathesis and so we ended up with the noun garner which also meant granary.

Then the noun was changed to a verb. Just as a person can be housed or hospitalized, so grain could be garnered, or put into the garner. To garner is to granary-ize.

The metaphorical use of garner was, of bloody course, invented by Shakespeare. In every marriage guidance counsellor's favourite play Othello tells Desdemona that she is the place:

...where I have garner'd up my heart,
Where either I must live, or bear no life;
The fountain from the which my current runs,
Or else dries up...

And then kills her a few scenes later. Anyway, the OED traces garner as a rather obscure word meaning to store up, as in a granary, until the nineteenth century when it disappears. There's no sense in the dictionary of obtain, as in the news article above.

So what the hell happened? Some strange agricultural journalist with a penchant for granarizing facts?

Must be, I suppose. And it seems to have happened in about 1980. Here's a graph of the frequency of the use of the word garnered in English.


From that graph garner what you can. And remember, it has nothing to do with garnish.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

William the Conqueror


I was casting about in my tiny mind for something about regal nuptials, and couldn't think of anything. However, I did remember a story about a previous King William. The following is a piece of gossip noted down by a Londoner called Manningham in 1602. You'll need to know that Richard Burbage was the lead actor in Shakespeare's company. He was the first Hamlet, the first Macbeth, and the first Richard III. Now read on:

Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night with her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained, and at his game ere Burbage came. Then message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III, Shakespeare’s name William.

You old dog, you.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Lethologica


There is, dear reader, a precise word for not being able to remember the precise word: lethologica. This was sometime a paradox, but next time you misplace the mot juste, comfort yourself with the fact that you are simply having a lethological moment.

Lethologica was invented by Carl Jung and is simply a combination of lethe - forgetfulness - and logica- wordy. In Greek mythology there was a river of forgetfulness in the underworld called Lethe. When you bathed in Lethe you forgot everything and were washed in sweet oblivion. That's why Keats opens Ode to a Nightingale with:

My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains
My senses, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past and Lethewards had sunk.

Similarly, when Hamlet's dead daddy reveals that he's been murdered, he's pleased to see that Hamlet gets antsy:

...duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That roots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this.

There's also some poem where Time sits on the banks of Lethe throwing people's names in to the water, but I can't remember what it is. Perhaps it's Dante. It sounds like Dante. Anybody know? I just can't remember.

Jung tries to remember that splendid word he thought up.

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Birthdays


Today is, traditionally, Shakespeare's birthday. So here is Shakespeare on the subject of getting old. He wrote a lot of sonnets about ageing, but I've always suspected that he wrote this one on his birthday:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith, being crowned,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight
And Time that gave, doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of Nature's truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow;
And yet, to times in hope, my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Cry God for Shakespeare, England and Saint George.

Why has nobody ever Photoshopped™ some hair back onto this?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Cry Havoc


Havoc is a funny old word. I think that I only use it myself in the phrase play havoc, as in "Ortolan plays havoc with my digestion". This is because I never realised that havoc is, technically, a military command.

There are two bits, you see, to being a soldier. There are the battles, which are rather difficult and require discipline. Then, when the battle is won and there are only civilians left, the soldier's fun really starts.

So once the general is happy that the enemy has been routed and the city is ours he gives the order to his men that they may plunder, pillage and ransack everything that isn't bolted down and some things that are. This order is Havoc, because havoc literally means plunder.  And once the general has cried havoc the troops can do whatsoever and whomsoever they like.

Once you realise that crying havoc was a standard part of warfare and, indeed, goes straight back to the French crier havoc, Mark Antony's promise to Julius Caesar's corpse makes a lot more sense:

Blood and destruction shall be so in use
And dreadful objects so familiar
That mothers shall but smile when they behold
Their infants quarter'd with the hands of war;
All pity choked with custom of fell deeds:
And Caesar's spirit, ranging for revenge,
With Ate by his side come hot from hell,
Shall in these confines with a monarch's voice
Cry 'Havoc,' and let slip the dogs of war;
That this foul deed shall smell above the earth
With carrion men, groaning for burial.

Ate, by the way, was a goddess who personified a mad impulse towards destruction. She was the eldest daughter of Zeus, and I fear I may have gone out with her at some point.

Anyway, what this post is leading round to, is that "Cry 'Havoc' and let slip the dogs of war" is, technically, a booty call.

The party was a mixed success