Thursday, 9 January 2020

Exercise and the Ark of the Covenant

Image result for antique print  runningWe are in that beautiful season of the year known as January, or to give it its full technical name the-season-of-plump-people-jogging. Luckily for all of us, it will be over in a few days, and we may return to our restful cakes and our crumpets of calm.

Originally, exercise was something that Romans did to horses (and soldiers). It was too cruel for proper people. Most of the time horses (and soldiers) were kept penned up so that they couldn't run away. The Latin word for penning up or enclosing was arcere. Occasionally, they would be let out to go and canter freely in the paddock or take up horsey-pilates or whatever it was. To do this was to ex-arcere them, and from that you got exercere, and modern exercise.

The word arcere also gave us the adjective arcane, because arcane knowledge is knowledge that is enclosed and shut away and locked up in a big box. Indeed, arcere itself comes from the noun arca which means box or chest or ark.

The Ark of the Covenant was simply a very fancy chest. We refer to it as an ark because the Latin Bible called it an arca. The Ten Commandments contained therein were therefore the original arcane knowledge. And when, as it saith in the book of Indiana Jones, all those spirits jumped out and killed the nasty Nazis, they were simply exercising.

Image result for raiders of the lost ark last scene warehouse
The Inky Fool's filing system was becoming ever more efficient.

Friday, 3 January 2020

The Two-Faced Janitors of January


Welcome, dear reader, to January. January is a time to look back upon the dunghill of a year that has passed, and to look forward to the miseries to come. However, it is impossible to look both backwards and forwards unless you have two faces and you only have one, I hope. Otherwise you suffer from the horrid genetic disorder known as diprosopus, or you are the Roman god Janus [see picture].

Because Janus had two faces and was able to look in two directions he was the god of boundaries. The first month of the year, being the boundary between the old and the new, was therefore sacred to him and was named Januarius or January.

Janus was also, of course, the god of gates and passages and doorways and portals of all sorts, and that is why doorkeepers are called janitors.

Leonato: You will never run mad, niece.
Beatrice: No, not till a hot January.

I am told that these lines from Much Ado About Nothing sound rather odd when performed in Australia.

Sacred to Janus

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Opinion Polls and Tadpoles

Image result for tadpole old printThe question 'Who's ahead in the polls?' is a delicious and savoury pun, because a poll is a head. Or it was. Shakespeare used poll to mean a head and it was still going strong in the C19th. But now it's mainly used about horses.

Nonetheless a poll was a head and from this you get:

Tadpoles - which are literally toad-heads. Little heads swimming around waiting to grow their bodies.

Poleaxe - an axe with a specialised and rather brutal looking head. See the illustration.

Image result for poleaxePoll tax - a tax per person. Think of it like a head-count, or the phrase 'a hundred head of cattle' (try not to think of poleaxes at the same time).

Polling station/booth/going to the polls etc - This gives you the head count of an entire nation.

Opinion poll - a headcount of people's opinions

Straw poll - Nobody's quite sure about this one. It's either a poll that is so weak that it may as well have been made of straw. Or it derives from the practice of throwing some straw in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. As Bob Dylan correctly observed "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows". You do not. You need straw.

Sometimes the poll was just the top of the head, just the bit that your hair grows out of. From this you got the sense of a poll as a haircut. ("Nice poll." "Oh, do you like it? Thank you."). So, in Hamlet, Ophelia sings:

He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll:
He is gone, he is gone...

This meaning was still around when D.H. Lawrence wrote Sons and Lovers in 1913:

The child—cropped like a sheep, with such an odd round poll.

This is because a poll was usually a short, even haircut. And from that you get poll as a verb, meaning to cut short and evenly. If you do that to a tree, then the tree has been pollarded.

Moreover, the paper on which a legal deed is written can be cut evenly at the bottom, in which case poll becomes a postpositive adjective (like attorney general, or astronomer royal) and the legal deed is a deed poll.

But the two most important variants of poll are doddypoll, which is an old word for an idiot, and poll-sickness, which was helpfully defined in 1899: a kind of sore or abscess which horses get from knocking their heads against low door-ways and is commonly supposed to be incurable.

I fear it is.

Image result for poleaxe old print
Two doddypolls arguing about the polls with poleaxes

P.S. Something really important will be happening on Thursday evening, and it truly is your civic duty, and the duty of everyone, to tune in to BBC2 at 9pm where I will be making a brief appearance on Inside the Factory, discussing the history of kissing under the mistletoe.

This could change Britain forever. I hope for the worse. I just wanted to sell a few copies of Christmas Cornucopia, which, I happen to notice, is available to buy and would make a wonderful Christmas present. 

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Covers, Discoveries, Handkerchiefs and Curfews

I have been considering the word cover. This is partly because The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and The Elements of Eloquence have been reprinted in a beautiful new edition, just in time for Christmas; and partly because I am an extraordinarily dull and lonely fellow.

I also have a cold, which is putting great strain on my collection of handkerchiefs. Now a handkerchief is obviously a kerchief that you hold in your hand. That much is obvious. But it leaves the throbbing question of What is a kerchief?

Well a chief is a head. That's true in English, is true in French (where the head cook is the chef), and it was true in medieval French where your chief was your head. If, for some French reason, you wished to cover your chief you used a piece of cloth called a cover-chief or, in French a couvrechief.

This was what we would call a headscarf, but that's just a square of cloth really. So a couvrechief came into English as a kerchief and hence a handkerchief is, literally, a handheld-cover-head. But I employ mine to blow my nose.

(Incidentally, the more obscure word for blowing your nose is emunction. This may come in useful. 'Tis the season and all that. The Anglo-Saxon word for the practice was sniting, but I digress down needless nostrils).

The other thing that Medieval French people liked to cover were their fires. They did this at the end of the day to make the fire burn down to a smoulder. Then they would toddle off to bed. In the morning, they would stir the fire up to a blaze and have a nice French breakfast.

In French this was called the couvre-feu, or cover-fire. There used to be a bell that was rung to tell everybody that it was time to cover their fire and go to bed. This tolling bell became known in English as the curfew. And hence a curfew is any requirement to go to bed, whether ding-donged or not.

[A foolish error has been removed. See below]

Anyway, the word cover has various other meanings and variations of varying mysteriousness. You can cover more ground by moving fast, you can cover for a colleague, a journalist can cover a subject (presumably in ink), and a gunman can have you covered. No amount of research has explained to me why a cover version is called that. But my favourite cover lingers in plain sight. It is the word discover.

To dis-cover something is to remove its cover. Once upon a time this could be used for anything. So a strong wind could discover a house, i.e. blow its roof off. A chef could discover a bowl. One could discover one's Christmas presents by unwrapping them. It is the sense of something that was once covered having its cover removed. This is rather beautiful when you think about it in its modern sense. The discovery of America, for example, suggests that there was a whole veiled continent , until Mr Columbus pulled the curtain away and discovered it.

You should not discover these books.

I've removed a digression that I made on the subject of being "in full swing", for the simple reason that I was wrong. I looked at the OED entry for "full swing", but hadn't noticed that they had another for "in full swing" that takes the phrase back to 1570 with no mention of bells.

(Incidentally, a church bell turns on an axle. If it's being rung in a slow dong... dong... dong... then that requires the bell-ringer to balance the bell at the the top of its turn in order to get the pause. The alternative is to let ring the bells like crazy and let them do their full swing. Hence the phrase in full swing. It's a bellringer's term*).

*The OED only has it from 1843 without any bells. But I found an "in full swing" from 1802: "The bell being in full swing, no alteration whatever was perceptible. The instant that the clapper was loosed the mercury leaped up, and continued that sort of springing motion, at every stroke of the clapper".

Friday, 29 November 2019

The Origin of the Christmas Tree

Image result for victoria albert christmas tree 1848You are probably about to buy a dead tree and put it up in your living room. This is, if you ponder it, odd behaviour on your part. What's odder is that the tree you're buying is the Tree of Knowledge that was planted in the Garden of Eden and brought sin into the world, and the baubles you'll hang on it are the forbidden fruit. But the explanation is pretty simple.

Adam and Eve were a lot more popular in Medieval Christianity than they are today. There were even quite a lot of continuation stories - The Further Adventures of Adam and Eve, as it were - which was pretty common practice before the Reformation. The First Couple were even treated as semi-saints. They had a name-day like proper saints do, and that name day was December 24th.

This made a lot of sense theologically. Adam (via Eve) brought sin into the world, and Jesus (via Mary) brought salvation from sin. So the fall of man and the birth of Christ were a natural pairing, like blue cheese and sherry.

What Medieval people liked to do to celebrate religious events was to put on plays. Am-dram is fun, and it was a good way to tell a Bible story to a population that mostly couldn't read. Bible plays got so popular that in 1210 the Pope had to actually issue and edict banning priests from acting on stage as it was starting to look undignified.

Adam and Eve were a popular subject, so popular that "Paradise Plays" about the Garden of Eden was a whole sub-genre of the religious theatre. And very often they would be acted on Adam and Eve's name day: December 24th.

The set would be pretty minimalist, but if you're going to put on a play about people picking an apple from a tree and eating it, you do absolutely need to have a tree.

And they did. There's even a description of one in the script of a paradise play called Le Jeu d'Adam performed in Arras in Northern France (this is very lucky for historians as usually medieval play-scripts don't have stage directions).

Then shall a serpent, cunningly contrived, climb up the trunk of the forbidden tree; Eve shall put her ear up to it as if listening to its advice. Then Eve shall take the apple and offer it to Adam.

But, of course, trees are hard to come by in late December, and fruit trees are all leafless and bare. So the only solution was to cut down an evergreen, bring it indoors on Christmas Eve and hang it with fake fruit. This may sound familiar. That's what you're about to do. That's what your Christmas tree is: it's the Tree of Knowledge hung with the forbidden fruit.

There are records of paradise plays still being performed on Christmas Eve right into the 19th century, though they were very rare. There are even some parts of Germany where the Christmas tree is still called the paradeisbaum, though tannenbaum is now much more common.

All that remained was for Prince Albert and the royal family to make the Tree of Knowledge popular in Britain, which they did via a famous illustration in the Illustrated London News in 1848.

But this leaves two questions:

1) Who played the snake? It seems that somebody must have stood behind the tree with a long sock of something over their arm, tempting dear old Eve. It must have looked a little like the muppets.

2) At the beginning of the play, were Adam and Eve naked? And how can we obtain tickets? The disappointing answer is No. That same play, the Jeu d'Adam, has also has this stage direction:

Adam shall wear a red tunic, but Eve a woman's garment in white with a white silk scarf.

Thus making the plays utterly historically inaccurate.

All of the above (with some extra facts) and many many more explanations of Christmas traditions can be found in my book A Christmas Cornucopia: the hidden stories behind our Yuletide traditions, published by Penguin. It's filled with stories that allow you to be insufferably know-it-all about everything from now until the end of December.

It can be bought in all good bookshops or from Amazon here.

Also, Raymond Briggs said it was "Blooming brilliant!", which made me very proud.

Thursday, 28 November 2019

Fatal Nostalgia

Image result for basel old printNostalgia was once a very serious disease. It could be fatal, especially to the Swiss.

Nostalgia is a Greek term and literally translates as home-sickness: nostos + algia. Indeed, the two terms are first recorded in English in the same sentence written in 1756. Before that it was unknown in Britain.

At least it is thus Scheuchzer endeavours to vindicate the nostalgia, pathopatridalgia, or the heimweh, i.e. home-sickness, with which those of Bern are especially afflicted.

Heimweh is German for the same thing and pathoptridalgia is, so far as I can tell, just disease-homeland-disease. The term had been around before, you see, but only in German, because only Swiss people ever suffered from homesickness. The rest of the world was fine and dandy, but the Swiss yearned for watches and fondue, fell ill and died.

It was a serious problem, first identified by a Swiss scholar at the University of Basel in 1688. And importantly it was considered not a light and fluffy emotion, but a real and serious disease; albeit one that only Swiss people could catch.

But then it spread beyond those neutral borders. People started to suffer from it in Britain, where, again, it was treated as a serious medical condition. The great botanist Joseph Banks whilst sailing around the South Seas in 1770 noted that the ship's crew had a case of "the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia."

It crossed the Atlantic to America, where it took an active and serious role in the Civil War. An official report by the US Sanitary Commission recorded that:

In the first two years of the war, there were reported 2588 cases of nostalgia, and 13 deaths from this cause. These numbers scarcely express the real extent to which nostalgia influenced the sickness and mortality of the army. To the depressing influence of home-sickness must be attributed the fatal result in many cases which might otherwise have terminated favorably.

And that was just on the Union side.

It could get even worse, though. The Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine (1835) has an entry for Nostomania "the same morbid desire aggravated to madness", and hence, of course, there were nostomaniacs.

And then as strangely as it had arisen, it petered out. As with so many once-serious psychological terms - neurosis, narcissism, hysteria - it became just a feeling, a vague longing for what has gone before, a sentiment, a whimsy; felt for a moment and then blown away by a pufflet of wind.

Perhaps, we decided that home simply wasn't as we remembered it. The other English term that comes from nostos is nostos. It's a usually literary term to describe a homecoming scene. Usually it's Odysseus' return home to Ithaca, where he finds all the suitors drinking his wine and wooing his wife. But it can also apply to other homecomings, other nostoi, usually miserable, like Agamemnon and Bilbo Baggins.

And nobody dies of it any more, not even the Swiss.

Image result for fondue
O true apothecary, thy drugs are quick.

Tuesday, 26 November 2019

Unimportant Huckleberries

Image result for huckleberry finnI was listening to Moon River and noticed the lines:

Waiting round the bend
My huckleberry friend

And it occurred to me that I didn't know what a huckleberry was. The word, it turns out, has several meanings, one of which, astonishingly, is a kind of berry. But it also means, and has meant since 1835, a person of little consequence. Somebody unimportant.

This seems rather important to the naming of Mark Twain's character: Person of Little Consequence Finn, star of two books. Nobody seems to mention it.

Even the one essay on how Twain named the character - Huckleberries and Humans: On the naming of Huckleberry Finn - doesn't seem to mention it*. Instead, it suggests that the name comes from the fact that huckleberries, that's to say plants of the species Gaylussacia, can't be domesticated.

It also occurs to me that Huckleberry Finn obeys my rule that characters names should be half very boring and half very interesting: Huckleberry Finn, Indiana Jones, David Copperfield, Luke Skywalker, which I wrote about in an old blog post here.

There is another meaning of Huckleberry, though. As of the 1930s, it could mean sweetheart. So, I would imagine that the huckleberry friend, is just that.

All of these meanings, of course, are rural and Southern, but that fits with the fact that Audrey Hepburn is meant to be a secret hick.

*Well, the abstract doesn't mention it at all. I'd walk over to the British Library and read the whole thing, but it's raining.