Tuesday, 19 November 2019

Of the Gibbon, the Jockey, and the Womble

Image result for gibbon old printThe post will be about rude words. Well, rude compound words to be precise, but they're still very rude. If you are an infant or heavily pregnant, or lightly pregnant, or if you are easily offended (as so many are in these offended times) you should stop reading now, leave the Internet, and go and sit beneath a sycamore tree and weep at what the world has come to. Otherwise, read on.

Still here?

I was once driving in Wiltshire, doing just a smidgen over the speed-limit (which was 50mph, as I recall) and being tailgated at a distance of, I would estimate, two or three inches. It was remarkably dangerous as I couldn't even have dabbed the brakes without causing an accident. One of the other chaps in the car referred to the driver behind us as a "fucking knob-jockey".

I like this term. It amused me. But I did not at the time think that much about its structure.

Sometime later, I came across the term "cock-womble", this also amused me, but I did not think that much about its structure.

Lately, clever people have started thinking about such phrases, and a new technical term has emerged, and I mean technical, it's the term that you use in academic papers and the like. The term is Shitgibbon. 

A shitgibbon is formed when you take a one-syllable rude word, be it shit, fuck, cock or whatever, and then add a non-offensive trochee. A trochee is a two-syllable word with the stress on the first syllable. The resulting compound - knob-jockey, cock-womble or etc - is a shitgibbon.

The shitgibbon is the subject of a recent paper entitled Vowel but not consonant identity and the very informal English lexicon, which was written by Anne-Michelle Tessier and Michael Becker of
Simon Fraser University and University of Michigan and Stony Brook University. And these two have thought a lot about the shitgibbon's structure.

You can read the whole thing here. But the big point that I had never noticed was that a shitgibbon works best when the vowel of the rude word is the same as the first vowel of the trochee.

Shit-gibbon has two short i's.

it ib

Shit-monkey doesn't, and doesn't sound nearly as good.

Knob-jockey has two O's

So does cock-womble.

Meanwhile, dick-womble, doesn't sound nearly as good.

The paper's authors did an awful lot of research, which you can read in the original paper. They did surveys asking people how funny and satisfying any particular shitgibbon was and the compared it to a null hypothesis etc etc etc etc.

What's weird is that alliteration had no effect. Only assonance makes a shitgibbon work.

So, if you want to make your own shitgibbon (I now feel like a degenerate Blue Peter presenter), just pick a rude word. Identify the vowel. Then pick a trochee that has that vowel in the first syllable. Et voila:


Image result for gibbon old print
I cannot quite tell what the gibbon on the right is holding, but I hope it's fruit.

Monday, 30 September 2019

Cosmic Cosmetics and Una Borrachera Cósmica

The ancient Greeks had the peculiar idea that the universe was very well ordered. How they came to this conclusion is unclear, but it involves Pythagoras and togas. Anyway, they therefore called the universe the kosmos because kosmos just meant orderly arrangement.

From that we get cosmos in English, and from that we get cosmic, which (to some extent) has now come to mean spiritual and airy-fairy. This is a bit odd, because when the word kosmos comes up in the New Testament it means the physical world, as opposed to heaven and the kingdom of God etc.

Anyway, in their occasional breaks from philosophising the Greeks would do what normal people do and try and look nice. For example, they would comb their hair, which they called kosmokomes or hair-ordering. And the whole art of looking good was called kosmetike. It's a contraction of kosmo-tekhne, so etymologically it's cosmos-technique, but in English it has simply become cosmetics.

Which is why your lipstick is cosmic.

All this occurs to me because my book A Short History of Drunkenness has been renamed Una Borrachera Cósmica for its release in Spain, an earth-wobbling event that will occur on Thursday. I think there's also going to be an interview with me in El Mundo on Tuesday. It's all very pleasing because I've been learning Spanish for nearly two years now, but I still don't quite understand the name-change, but a Madrileña friend of mine says it's a splendid name, and tried to explain it all to me over a tinto de verano last month.

Anyhow, you can learn lots more about Una Borrachera Cósmica by following this link. And you can also (and really should) tell all your Spanish friends and relations about it.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

The Real Inky Fool

I had a friend called Andrea who couldn’t go within fifty yards of a fountain pen without getting ink all over her fingers. She’d wipe her fingers on her face and then I would call her the Inky Fool.

Ten years ago, Andrea had an idea for a blog about the English language that we could write together. It was all her idea and we named the blog after her: Inky Fool. Back then she wrote as Mrs Malaprop and I as Dogberry. Andrea had a full-time job and I didn’t, so gradually she stopped posting and I continued, always under her watching eye.

The blog became popular and then it became famous and then I got a deal to write The Etymologicon. I wrote it, Andrea read all the proofs. She did that for all my books. When it was first published the name on the cover was


But I was never the Inky Fool. The Inky Fool was always Andrea.

Here is a picture of us at the book launch for The Etymologicon. She was so kind and so clever, and she was my dearest friend, and she died on the seventh of July from auto-immune hepatitis. It’s a cruel disease and it isn’t studied enough. Please, if you have ever enjoyed any of my books or my blog, give a little something to the fund set up in her memory to study the disease. It doesn’t matter how little. https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/andreacolvile

Friday, 25 January 2019


There is a German word, schnapsidee, for an idea that seems great when you're drunk but which wilts and withers when considered under the stern gaze of sobriety.

This is a useful word, at least for me.

The etymology is almost too obvious to point out: schnapps is German for strong drink, liquor might be the best English translation; and idee is idea.

This should not be confused with a Schnapszahl, which is a number composed of a repeated digit, like 77, or 666. This latter seems (merely seems) to be down to the idea that in certain games, if your score ends up as a Schnapszahl, you have to buy everybody a schnapps.

This explanation seems convincing to me, if only because of the Nelson in cricket: which is the idea that it's very bad luck to be on a score of 111 (or, indeed, 222) if you make it that far. This bad luck can only be remedied by raising one leg off the ground, obviously.

Anyhow, this post seemed a lot more interesting last night.

By the way, I am going to Kerala (etymology uncertain, but probably to do with coconuts) next week to speak at the Mathrubhumi International Festival of Letters. Anybody who finds themselves in god's own country should toddle along.

The Inky Fool's journey to India took just as long as expected.

Saturday, 29 December 2018


I like precision in all things, even in cloudiness. It's therefore terribly useful to know the word okta, which is the standard unit of measurement of cloud cover. It goes from 0 oktas (clear blue sky) to 8 oktas (completely overcast). I think we can all guess the etymology. Unusually, there is an occasional 9 okta measurement, which means something like too cloudy to see the clouds, although I'm a bit hazy on the subject.

It's curious that this should come to mind while I'm staying in the Lake District.

In the Lake District all of these are possible simultaneously.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Operating Amphitheatres

When you cut open, it's usually in one of two places: a dark alley, or a theatre; or, to be more precise, an operating theatre. The reason that it's called an operating theatre is quite simple, medical students used to sit in rows and watch. It was a spectator sport to such an extent that it was, until the 1820s just called a theatre without the need of the prefix operating.

In 1823, for example, The Lancet reported that:

At half-past Seven this Theatre was crowded in every part, by upwards of four hundred Students, of the most respectable description; in fact we never before witnessed so genteel a Surgical class.

Which is a pleasant thought for the diseased snob who doesn't want to be cut open by the working classes.

A theatre, of course, has two sides that face each other: the stage and the spectators. There can be no spectators behind the stage as, if there were, the actors wouldn't know in which direction to shout. However, if you don't have actors, but instead gladiators or delicious Christians, then you can have the spectators on both sides. This theatre-of-cruelty-in-the-round, where the the audience is 360 degrees instead of 180, is called an amphitheatre. Amphi just means around, or on both sides, and that is the reason that that something that lives (Greek bios) both on land and in water is called an amphibian. It's also the reason that one of those big old wine jars with a handle on both sides is called an amphora.

Phora there just means carry, and that is the reason that in Greece today a removals man, who carries your furniture from one place to another, is called a metaphor.

We tend to use the word metaphor a little more metaphorically.

Image result for operation old print
The Inky Fool spying on his neighbours

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Dublin and the World

I'm going to Ireland, to Dublin, to take part in a brunchtime debate about drink and othersuch fun on Sunday 18th of November. It's part of the Temple Bar Festival of Politics. I find this terribly exciting as I have never been to Ireland before and thus imagine it to be a land of rain and mystery, when in fact it's probably only one of the two.

For the record, my favourite Irish-derived word in the English language is slogan. I wrote about it before in 2010, but shall reprint it here.

Once upon a time a slogan was a battle-cry. When ancient Gaelic warriors raised their kilts and ran into battle they would shout the name of their tribe or their capital before rushing like wolves to the slaughter. If you imagine the modern football hooligan screaming the name of his club, you probably have some idea.

Their army-shouts or sluagh-gairms did not have the desired effect and the English language spread by spear-point and sword into all but the boggiest parts of these rainy islands. Sluagh-gairm was anglicised to slogan and taken up by politicians and plutocrats, cabinet ministers and corporations. Yet, I still like to think of the advertising executives and PR girls girding up their kilts, shrieking their slogans, and running to their brave and selfless deaths.

Meanwhile, A Short History of Drunkenness has been sold (the translation rights that is) to about fifteen countries. It is now translated and available in bookshops in:

Poland - with a postscript by Roberta Makłowicz

And I think:


Which is to say that this tweet must say something, I just don't know what.

Editions are forthcoming in everything from Korean to Spanish via German and Chinese.

I find it all terribly confusing. But I do know what a free brunch is, and that's what you get for your ticket to the Dublin event at Gallagher's Boxty House on Sunday 18th.

Also, if you have any dear friends in one of the above-mentioned countries, I would much appreciate your spreading the good word.