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.

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

A Quick Guide to Decoding English Place Names

Image result for newcastle road signIt's generally quite easy to guess the etymology of an English place name, and quite pleasant too, as you get to sound clever. The system is not in the slightest bit infallible, but it generally works. So long as nobody has The Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names to hand, nobody will be able to contradict you, and that's the important thing.

So, here is a quick cheat sheet, and I shall explain at the end why it doesn't always work.


English place names tend to have two elements, perhaps three if they're feeling important. The last element is the important one because it tells you what the place actually was. For example, ton meant farm in Old English. So if the place name ends ton, then way back in the fogs of time it was a farm.

The first element is basically an adjective. Often it's just a physical description. So Norton is North Farm.

Sutton = South Farm
Easton = East Farm
Weston = West Farm.

Not insanely complex.

So, here is a quick and incomplete list of final elements.

Borough = Fortification

Burn/Bourne = Stream

Bury = Manor or estate, i.e. a big farm

By = Viking town (that's why they're only in the North in the old Danelaw)

Chester/caster/cester = Roman fort

Cot/coates = Cottages

Ley/leigh/ly = Clearing in a forest

Don = Hill

Den = Woodland or valley (or, sometimes, a wooded valley)

Ham = Home (or sometimes it means land that stretches out into a river)

Hurst = Wooded hill

Ing = Family land (-ing means that the first element is definitely someone's name. It's often compounded to -ington or -ingham or somesuch. So Birmingham is Beorm's family's home)

Sea = Island, or a bit of dry ground in the middle of a marsh

Ton = Farm

Ware = Weir

Wick/wich = Market. To be more precise wick is a market or a very specialised farm. It means that an industry was concentrated there. Whether Chiswick was a cheese factory or a cheese farm or a cheese market is hard to say. But we do know that Chiswick was cheesy, as was Keswick, and that Gatwick contained many goats.

Worth = Enclosure i.e. there was a fence up to keep out the wolves and the Welsh and other furry creatures of the night.

First Elements

The first element is a description.

The first element can be physical. I hope that Up- is self-explanatory. Or there's chal/chil, which means cold. Sometimes it refers to a nearby physical feature. Underhill or Exmouth should both be clear, provided you've heard of the river Exe.

Often, the first element an animal or a plant. Shepton is obviously a sheep farm. But often the animal can be a little hidden. For example Swin = Swine = Pig. So Swinton is Pig FarmHoun Hound DogCraw Crow. So when you see a first element just wonder vaguely to yourself whether it sounds roughly like a common animal.

Musbury, Musgrave, Muscoates and Muston were all infested with mice.

The same thing happens with the plants. The Old English for Oak was Ac, so Acton is Oak Farm. Lind is Linden tree (or lime tree as we usually call it). Poplar is poplar.

But the main thing to remember about the etymology of English place names is that they're mostly very, very boring, because they are named after people. These are not important people. It's just that once upon a time there was a guy who owned that farm or that clearing or that weir. So people called it after him. And so some Anglo-Saxon lives on forever. This accounts for most place names.

Well, to be honest, I've never done a full study. But I just opened the Dictionary of Place Names at a random page and found that of the 22 entries, 11 were called after people, including Chilbolton which was a farm that belonged to Ceolbeald.

So, to dash around North London: Finchley is a clearing in a forest (a ley) that was once filled with finches, but Wembley? Well, there isn't any animal or plant that sounds much like Wemb, so you could guess that it was Wemb's clearing, and you'd be pretty much spot on. It was Wemba's clearing, which means that those football supporters who sing about Wemb-a-ley, are etymologically correct.

And there you have it. Look at the last element. Ask yourself whether the first element sounds like a plant or an animal or some physical description. Otherwise assume that it's the name of some Anglo-Saxon chap. You'll be right about three quarters of the time.

It is time for the destruction of error

I'm afraid that even a medium sized blog post like this cannot make you immediately infallible.
You may well be wrong. There are three main reasons for this.

1) Sometimes names just change over time for no good reason. There's a place in London called Aldgate. Anybody who knows anything about Old English can tell you that that means Old Gate. But it doesn't. Originally it was called Alegate (beer gate, presumably because beer was sold there). And then in the late Medieval period a D somehow insinuated itself and took up residence.

2) What looks like on thing is in fact another. There's a place in London called Brixton, which, using this method would come out as something like Mr Brix's Farm. In fact, the older records have it down as Brigga's Stone.

3) Sometimes something completely different comes in. A property developer can think up a nice sounding name. Baron's Court in West London is precisely that. The developer just wanted it to sound as posh as Earl's Court, which is the area next door. Further out, there's Richmond. It's only called that because the Duke of Richmond built a palace there. So really it's named after Richmond in Yorkshire, which is hundreds of miles away. (Since you ask, Richmond in Yorkshire is Rich Mount from the Norman French).

The only way to be sure, is to consult a copy of the Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names. The writers of that have gone back to the Doomsday book etc and actually checked. But as very few people carry one around, you can always get away with a bit of specious speculation using the above method. Plus, it makes road signs mildly more interesting.

P.S. I've used the term "English" here because, obviously, none of this works for a Celtic place name. It would have confused things. The prefix Kil- means calf in English and Church in Celtic. Mind you, there are English place names all over the British Isles, and lots of Celtic place names in England. The Celts survived here, and where they lived the preface is Wal-, which was the Old English word for foreigner.

P.P.S. Through all this I'm missing out words that are the same in modern English like Church or Ford or Bridge. You should have worked out what Newton means by now. And if you can't work out what Newcastle is then you're either very silly or very clever.

Image result for john bull bombarding the bum boats
This map should now make sense

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Time is of the Essence or at Large

Image result for clock antique  printI've used the phrase time is of the essence all my life without realising that it has a quite precise legal meaning. I just thought that it meant something like get your skates on or show a leg or hurry up. But it is much stronger than that. Time is of the essence because it's essential to the contract.

Contracts usually have a deadline in them, but it's not that important. If I have a contract to write a book and I hand it in a month late nobody particularly cares. The world remains quite extraordinarily calm.

Some contracts, like building ones have a deadline where the supplier is penalised a bit if they're late. But the contract itself still stands (and has usually taken all this into account).

But sometimes the whole contract is based on the deadline, and if the deadlines is missed the contract is null and void. If I'm delivering perishable goods, like milk, to you, and it arrives three weeks late and very sour: then the goods are worthless. The deadline is broken and with it the whole contract. You pay me nothing.

A wedding cake that arrives too late is no longer a wedding cake. It is mere cake. The essence of the task, the central part of it, has been destroyed.

In cases like this the contract stipulates that time is of the essence, which means that failure to meet the deadline renders the contract defunct.

The opposite of time is of the essence is the much rarer, but rather beautiful time at large. Time at large, in a contract, means that the task must be done, but it really doesn't matter when. Take your time. Have cup of tea. Go for a stroll. Wander around like a lazy outlaw who is at large.

You can find out more from these two articles on construction contracts.

A grand tip of the hat to the Antipodean for pointing this out to me. And for those who like a little light swearing:

P.S. For anybody interested. My book A Short History of Drunkenness is now out in Polish, Italian, Estonian, Romanian and Portuguese (for the Brazilian market).

Thursday, 6 September 2018

A Measure of Rudeness

Image result for dr syntax rowlandsonI've found something beautiful. The British television regulator, Ofcom, whose job it is to see that we are shocked politely, commissioned a study of exactly how rude rude words were. The poll was carried out by Ipsos Mori who went off and quite earnestly asked a representative sample of the Great British public what they thought about the word tits.

This is therefore the official British list of naughty words.

The results, in all their muddied glory, are available online here. They're rather fascinating, and very usefully arranged by subject. So if you were trying to mildly insult an old man, but couldn't think of anything to say, you could consult the survey and find:

Coffin Dodger: Mild language, generally of little concern. Seen as humorous, including by older participants. Some said that more aggression or specific intent to hurt would heighten impact, but not common enough for this to be based on experience.

Some of the words in the survey were previously unknown to me. I had never in my life heard of a bloodclaat or a chi-chi man, which shows that I am an essentially innocent person. I'd also not heard the term Iberian Salute, although a quick check on the Internet shows what it is (bend your right elbow, clench your right fist with the knuckles facing away from you, put your left hand on your right bicep. The French call it the bras d'honneur).

Anyhow, it's a fascinating read, and you can measure your opinion of a word's rudeness against that of the general public. My favourite line in it, though, came under Discriminatory Language, subsection Race and Ethnicity.

Taff: Medium language, potentially unacceptable. Some uncertainty outside Wales about how offensive it is to Welsh people.

It is time to end this uncertainty. I'm off on a research trip to Offa's Dyke with a megaphone and a pair of binoculars.

The perils of life in Oswestry

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Emojis and Emoticons

Image result for smiley faceThe etymology of emoji ought to be obvious. It's a little digital picture: hence e- like e-mail. And it expresses emotion: hence emo-. Except that that's not it at all.

First, the OED mentions that the word dates, in Japanese, back to at least 1928, when computer graphics were not up to much. That also means that it's got little to do with e-things or emo-things. E here means picture in Japanese and moji means character. So it's a pictograph, indeed emoji may have originally been a straight Japanese translation of the English word.

Emoji is therefore closely related to Kanji, which is the Japanese writing system that uses Chinese characters. Kan = Chinese and ji = letter. 

(So far as I can tell moji and ji are the same, but I don't speak a word of Japanese, I am simply relying on the clever people at the OED, who, I suspect, do.)

Emoticons, on the other hand, are emotion-icons and have been recorded since 1988. They are therefore utterly unrelated to emojis.

Image result for Choju Jinbutsu Giga
And this is from a Japanese picture scroll, or e-makimono, or emaki.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

Booze, Glorious American Booze

Image result for american flagMuch has happened since A Short History of Drunkenness came out in America a couple of weeks ago. First, there's a lovely review in the New York Times. I believe it will be in the print edition on Sunday, but, like an insomniac spider, it's already on the web and you can read it by following this link. I never thought that I picture I drew would end up in the NYT.

Second, there's a review the Wall Street Journal, which you can read here.

Third, I did an interview for the lovely folks at Big Blend Radio Hour that you can listen to by following this link.

Fourth, I wrote an article for Read It Forward, that, if you are forward, you can read here. It's about great fictional drunkards.

All of which leaves no excuse for any whisk[e]y drinker. A Short History of Drunkenness is officially a "refreshingly guilt-free account of getting sloshed through the ages".

Incidentally, in case you wanted to see the original Pubai seal, here it is. The beer drinkers are at the top centre, using straws to avoid all the horrid sediment that you got in Sumerian beer.