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.

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.

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