Saturday 31 October 2009


I am a man of regular habits (as the monk said to the tailor) so for 364 days of each year I keep to a rigid routine. I wait until it's dark, put on a mask and a black cape and creep around the streets offering boiled sweets to children. I do this in lonely homage to the Comte De Lautreamont. Halloween is my night off.

I was just setting up the mantrap outside my front door and was about to start boning up (odd phrase) on the legality of stabbing children in the face through one's letterbox when I glanced in the mirror and was reminded of the word Eldritch. It's a useful little epithet meaning "weird, unnatural, hideous". In fact, it's derived (probably) from the Anglo-Saxon for other kingdom (el rice). So it gets across the idea both of ugliness and of the supernatural in one word which more than compensates for the disadvantage that nobody will know what you're talking about.

There's a book by Philip K. Dick called The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch about a chap who has gone on a long journey and come back changed into something horrible and weird. It's rather a good novel all round, but the cliche on the cake for me is the name Palmer Eldritch. You see in the Medieval period pilgrims returning from Jerusalem would bring palm leaves as a memento, which was itself in memory of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on a donkey when there was of course a shout about the poor animal's ears and palms beneath his feet.

Anyway, a palmer is a pilgrim. As Chaucer put it:

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes [shores]

So Palmer Eldritch, who has gone on a journey and come back changed into a hideous monster, is a palmer eldritch, with the adjective being used postpositively.

Philip K. Dick's publishers were never ones to skimp on cover art

Friday 30 October 2009


Vibrant 1.
Moving or quivering rapidly; vibrating. 2. Of sound, the voice: Characterized by or exhibiting vibration; resonant. Hence Vibrancy, the condition or quality of being vibrant.
   - Oxford English Dictionary

Vibrant: Vibrating: Thrilling: Resonant
   - Chambers

And here are some precise-phrase searches from Google:
"Vibrant community" 628,000 results
"Vibrant communities" 144,000 results
"Vibrant multicultural" 26,100 results
"Vibrant diverse" 35,200 results
"Vibrant" in UK news sources in the last week: 1,478 results
I wouldn't mind in the slightest if the word actually meant something, anything. I don't fret at people talking about the bonnet of a car because I know what the bonnet of a car is. The only really vibrant communites I can think of are Los Angeles during an earthquake and the Quakers.
Whilst wondering what precisely I would like to do to any journalist who so much as thinks about using the word vibrant to describe anything other than a vibrator or an electric toothbrush, I was inexplicably reminded of a passage in Gibbon describing the neo-platonist philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria:
Hypatia was torn from her chariot, stripped naked, dragged to the church, and inhumanly butchered by the hands of Peter the Reader and a troop of savage and merciless fanatics: her flesh was scraped from her bones with sharp oyster-shells and her quivering limbs were delivered to the flames.
Go on, tell me something's vibrant.



I cannot look at this headline from today's Times without the uneasy feeling that somebody has eaten someone. Perhaps because a VIP dinner sounds like a steak supper.

I also want to know why there aren't more IPs.

I once sat in the VIP room in a nightclub in Stevenage. It was very small and there was a mouse in the corner.

O father, whereso'er thou be,
   Who pledgest now thy gallant son;
   A shot, ere half thy draught be done,
Hath stilled the life that beat from thee.

                    Tennyson - In Memoriam A.H.H.

Thursday 29 October 2009

Accidental Acrostics

In Auden's poem "It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens" there's a five line section that goes like this:

Fading in silence, leaving them in tears.
And recent particulars come to mind;
The death by cancer of a once hated master,
A friend's analysis of his own failure,
Listened to at intervals throughout the winter

I have never been utterly certain whether the word FATAL, spelled out in the first letter of each line, was intentional. The poem is nearly a hundred lines long and there are no other acrostics. It could be a case of infinite monkeys and typewriters. Yet having flicked, unscientifically, through the rest of the book I can't spot any other candidates, except for "OW".

To my knowledge, Auden's only other reference to acrostics came in "A Happy New Year" where he wrote "I warned them of spies in acrostic odes", so perhaps FATAL was intentional and Auden not simply an infinite monkey.

I was reminded of all this by a letter from Arnold Schwarzenneger to the California state legislature that has been kicking around the internet for the last few days.

At first blush (whatever that is) Mr Schwarzenegger's effort seemed much more impressive than Auden's. Auden had had control over his own line-breaks whereas the great actor had managed it in prose, and hadn't even needed to cheat by using courier. Moreover, he had filled it out with such blissfully trite politicisms - "major issues are overlooked", "brought to the table" - that I was quite ready to throw my Complete Auden out of the window and devote myself to il miglior fabbro. But just before I did so Schwarzenegger's press office released a statement (lovely phrase - I imagine them opening a lorry on the African savannah. The statement blinks at first in the sunlight. It sniffs cautiously, creeps forward and then, breathing the clear air of freedom, the statement is gone! Bounding into the long grass while the PR people who have raised it since it was a mewling pup watch with a tear in each eye: one for joy, one for sadness) the gubernatorial press office has, as I say, released a statement saying that the acrostic was simply a "strange coincidence". So perhaps I was wrong about Auden.

A busy day in the gubernatorial press office


I'm rather fond of the verb to name as in "Capello names his team" or "woman names her attacker". I imagine it to be like a christening. I always hope that the sentence will continue, as in "Andrew Strauss named his wicket keeper Susan" or "Woman names her attacker Dennis. 'It sort of suits him,' she explained."

The usual spoken English equivalent would be "Woman says who her attacker was", but I suppose that would use to much ink.

It sits well with the beautiful phrase "named and shamed", which is, incidentally, a nice account of what Adam did in the Garden of Eden.

"And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field" Gen. II, 20

"And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed" Gen. II,25

"And I name you the Large-Toothed Rock Hyrax"

Wednesday 28 October 2009

Words You Should Know


Fitful plucking at the bed-clothes by a delirious patient (Chambers)

Med. The movements of delirious patients, as if searching for imaginary objects, or picking the bed-clothes (OED)

An all too common occurrence

Laughing On The Other Side Of One's Face

A perplexing and pointless cliche.

Rats that leave a sinking ship, spilled beans and drunk lords are at least clear and comprehensible images. Yet laughing on the other side of ones face has managed to achieve the exalted position of cliche without managing to mean anything at all. Even if one were able to switch one's laugh from one side to the other, one would still be laughing. Indeed, one would have the last laugh.

There are important and unexamined aspects of laughter. Is it, for example, possible to laugh like a drain up your sleeve? How do drains laugh in the first place? And what at?

Neither the OED nor Chambers nor Brewer's offer an explanation. Google has a strange and unverified assertion that it's to do with Janus, which doesn't work at all as Janus had two faces and might have laughed equally with both.

However, the OED did at least tell me that laughee means the object of laughter and that laughsome has the delightful meaning of "addicted to laughing". Perhaps, this was the affliction of the Laughing Murderer of Verdun whom I found mentioned in Brewer.

Picture snaffled from a fascinating article on Wittgenstein


meant 'worry before dawn'. Uht was the time before dawn and ceare meant care. The Anglo Saxons were sorely afflicted by uhtceare, especially the wives.


Tuesday 27 October 2009

He Said, He Said

I was watching the BBC News just now. They had a story about crime in London. When it was finished Huw Edwards leaned over the desk, looked at the camera and said, 'Tony Blair must not become the President of the EU'.

He then added, 'Said David Cameron today.'

I can understand why a newsreader would make a statement before revealing that it was all in quotation marks. If the headline had been phrased the other way it would have been 'David Cameron said, "Tony Blair...."'. The viewer would have thought to himself, 'Well he would say that, wouldn't he?' and relapsed into a deeper slumber. The same habit applies to print journalists.

"People will need to consider turning vegetarian if the world is to conquer climate change, according to a leading authority on global warming," said The Times today on page one.

Its second article, on page three (this being The Times), began, "A helicopter crash that killed three servicemen today was caused by inadequate "administration, airmanship and discipline" on the part of the Royal Air Force, a coroner ruled today."

Neither statement means a thing until one knows who has made it. With the wearisome patience of a perturbed parent one can see why the sentences were so strangely inverted: they wanted your attention. Like so many perturbed parents one must secretly mourn Herod's death.

However, before I jump, shrieking, at the throat of journalistic syntax, it is, perhaps, worth noting an oddity of novelists.

In spoken English the name of the speaker almost always precedes what is said. I said, 'Hello.' He said, 'Oh hell.' Yet in novels the inverse applies. At least, novelists never begin with the speaker's name.
I have just reached, without getting up, for a novel - The Death of Ivan Ilyich, since you ask - opened it at random and found:

'No,' he answered briefly.


'No,' he repeated. 'I am grateful for it.'

Novelists do not write as people speak, or people do not speak as novelists write: I cannot be sure which. The speaker is at the end or is inserted, sometimes after only a word, so long as he does not begin. Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the pulp crime novelists, are the only exceptions to this rule that I know. Novelists, though, maintain this inversion through a lazy convention. Their motive is different to that of journalists.

The overcast gloom of certainty tell me that neither Huw Edwards nor his autocue writer were gesturing towards the verbal glories of early twentieth century American prose. They are only hoping for your attention, for a few seconds' attention, only until the end of the sentence. For that pittance, for that twitch in the eyelid of the somnolent viewer they are prepared to sacrifice all future attention, for like most tricks this inversion can be used only once and then we tire.

There seems to be, below this, a problem with newspapers in general. Newspapers believe that nobody wants them. They believe in their own irrelevance, beating on the ground like the old man in The Pardoner's Tale. No editor seems able to say with confidence, 'The idiot has shelled out 90p for my paper. He must want to read articles so we don't need to trick him into doing so.' Instead he acts like the girl who is still desperately trying to get your attention after you've bought her a drink. I was watching the news. I was not going to switch channels before Mr Edwards had finished his sentence. But maybe that's only because my reactions are too slow.

(For anyone who wants a sample of Dashiell Hammett's dialogue here is a man addressing the woman he loves:

He said, 'I'm going to send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means you'll be out again in twenty years. You're an angel. I'll wait for you.' He cleared his throat. 'If they hang you I'll always remember you.')

Too quick for me


Branding cattle is a cruel yet oddly pleasurable business. You take a piece of steel that has been bent into a distinctive shape, often so that it spells out a word. Then you heat it over a fire until it is glowing red. Now, get somebody to hold the cow still. Now press the burning metal against the living flesh and watch the scar form.

These from recent newspapers:

Hugh Grant has been branded a love-rat by his secret Polish girlfriend
Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC branded the PC, 24, a "show-off"
Griffin branded 'bigot' by rabbi's son

Nobody has ever used the word branded in spoken English as a synonym for called. I must therefore happily assume all of these cases to be of literal branding, and shall probably have to take the precaution of disposing of my secret Polish girlfriend.

(As an incidental aside, there was once a rancher in Texas named Maverick who refused to brand his cattle. He did this not through some soppy sympathy for his bovine brethren, but because he was therefore able to claim all unbranded cattle as his own. So notorious did his practice become that Texan politicians who didn't belong to any political party were called Maverick. Hence the modern meaning of the word and the character so touchingly portrayed by Tom Cruise in Top Gun)

Hugh Grant is recovering in hospital