Sunday 31 January 2010

Swearing in The Wire

A recent immigrant to my Alamut for exhausted journalists has brought with her not only the suicidal plants I mentioned a few days ago, but a complete set of the Digital Versatile Discs of The Wire, which I have settled down to throughsuffer.

I was watching the fourth episode today, in which there is a reasonably long scene towards the end that uses only the word fuck and its cognates (by cognates I include the oedipal pejorative and the mysterious fuckin' A). It is a fascinating, if slightly obvious, linguistic exercise

Saturday 30 January 2010

Welcome to Hell

Most headlines, however unpleasant, I find amusing. I laugh at manslaughter (because it's man's laughter), I tut over tragic (unless it's Aristotelean), and I wonder how casual the casualties really were. But BROWN JOINS HAITI POETRY READING...

I cannot type. My eyes are filled with tears.

Friday 29 January 2010

Complete With

Mr Beesley was granted permission to build a barn for agricultural use only but fitted it out as a luxury house complete with three bedrooms, a study, bathroom, lounge, reception area, storeroom and gym.
   - BBC News

A very common phrase, but it becomes odder and odder the more you think about it.

Well disguised

Thursday 28 January 2010

Pipe Dreams

Nato has a new plan in Afghanistan. We're going to pay the Afghans lots of money to stop shooting people and growing opium. However, the head of the National Conciliation for Dialogue with the Tribesmen of Afghanistan says that this plan is nothing more than a "pipe dream", which is appropriate as a pipe dream is the hallucination you get after smoking a pipe full of opium.

A busy day in the Nato Strategy Unit

Wednesday 27 January 2010


Reading CityAM on the train this morning, I was intrigued to learn about the Salt Cave, a London clinic where visitors can treat their colds or asthma by breathing in sodium chloride.

According to the owner of the clinic, salt has "anti-sceptic" properties - I can only think she meant antiseptic, unless she really was referring to the ability to overcome sceptical clients' doubts about the efficacy of the treatment.

The article also had a long sidebar on complimentary therapies.

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Paralipsis and Occultatio

Paralipsis is the most common rhetorical device in domestic arguments. Last night I was walking a dog (not mine) when I passed a young lady haranguing her beau. She was pointing her finger into his face at close range, as though it were a gun, or perhaps as though she were conducting a tiny orchestra that was hidden in his mouth. This digital aggression was accompanied by vocals that went:

'I'm not going to bring up how you were late. Late. By half a [inaudible] hour. Or the time in the bath. I'm not bringing that up. Okay? Because... I don't need to bring all that [inaudible] up because...'

But I was wending my way down the road and didn't hear her reason.

The practice of bringing up the fact that you're not bringing something up is called paralipsis, and that's what this girl was doing. She was listing her boyfriend/husband's faults whilst pointing out how kind it was of her not to list them. She was having her cake and gobbling it up.

There's a bit in Chaucer's Knight's Tale where he spends forty-five lines describing exactly what it is about a funeral that he won't describe. This goes into some detail. He concludes:

I wol nat tellen eek how that they goon
Hoom til Atthenes, whan the pley is doon;
But shortly to the point thanne wol I wende
And maken of my longe tale an ende.

Chaucer's exercise in not-mentioning-what-he's-mentioning can seem even to a Chaucer-lover (like me) a rather pointless and prolix rhetorical exercise. But if you're a nosy, prurient eavesdropper (like me) you realise that that's how people really talk. Paralipsis is an essential part of our language, embalmed in the phrases "not to mention" or "I won't bore you with..."

Now, as somebody is bound to point this out there is a very, very technical distinction between paralipsis and occultatio. Occultatio is the literary, indifferent version of paralipsis where you're not trying to put anyone down, you're just doing it. So Chaucer was using occulatio. However, the two are so closely related that they are oftentimes confused or substitued for each other like the Neville twins.

"Not to mention" can be used for either paralipsis or occultatio. I won't bore you with examples, but needless to say the girl last night was definitely using paralipsis, not to mention her finger.

Eavesdropping made simple

Monday 25 January 2010


The Yaghan people of Tierra Del Fuego have a terribly useful word: mamihlapinatapai. Mamihlapinatapai means Two people looking at each other each hoping the other will do what both desire but neither is willing to do, or to be utterly literal about it you could call it ending up mutually at a loss as to what to do about each other.

At first glance it may seem surprising that the Yaghans should develop such a complex word when they didn't even think of wearing clothes until Europeans turned up and showed them how. However, these two facets are almost certainly related as the Yaghans used to keep warm by smearing themselves in animal fat and cuddling, which if you think about it is a system that's going to produce an awful lot of mamihlapinatapai.

One gets a fair amount of mamihlapinatapai on British public transport. When a tube train has been stopped in a tunnel for more than ten minutes the imprisoned passengers are suddenly seized with a desire to talk to each other in order to complain. But nobody ever does because nobody talks on British public transport except for drunks and foreigners.

Mamihlapinatapai is also an essential preliminary to kissing, bar brawls and combinations of the two.

Delayed commuters on the Northern Line avoiding conversation

Sunday 24 January 2010

Good Gone Home

A year or so ago there was much linguistic excitement that book had become New York slang for cool, because that was the first word that came up in predictive texting (2665). This is, apparently, called a textonym. Some other results that I've noticed is that home is third choice after good and gone meaning that as I cycle through I get the phrase "Good gone home".

I can tell that the verbal priorities were not decided by an Englishman as I'm always flicking through shot and riot to get pint. When texting people about a male chicken (2625) the result is enough to make the puerile titter, although I gaze solemnly and sadly at my handset.

I would love to know how the hierarchy is decided. I've worked out that it definitely does not use the British National Corpus. The BNC (to which there is a permanent link on the right) is a one hundred million word database of current English usage on these unfair islands. Some other people have set up a site called Wordcount, which has arranged every single one of these words in order of their frequency starting with the of and to and ending with workless recrossed conquistador.

I checked up shot riot pint on Wordcount and found that the order was shot (ranked 1,257), then pint (6,131) with riot bringing up the rear* (7,259).

The same applies to good gone home, which Wordcount orders good (116), home (161) and gone (462). This is odd as I would have imagined that, unlike pint and riot, these words would have the same frequency in Britain and America. I can only guess that the telephone companies did the same thing as Wordcount with every text message ever written.

Anal does precede cock on Wordcount and I was astonished to find that the latter (ranked 10,870) is the next-door neighbour of penis (10,871) and, for some reason, hare. I should probably spend less time with foul-mouthed Londoners and more with predatory rustics.

The workless conquistador recrossed Carniola

*Has anyone else noticed that rear can mean to bring up? It's rather like a dancer who can cancan or an eager testator who will will.

P.S. Wordcount, which I didn't know about at the time, partially confirms this previous post as flagpole is next to Suarov who is apparently the fictional Russian president from the TV series 24, and glide is ranked two below inexorable.

Saturday 23 January 2010

Vestigial Vestonyms

This morning I dressed as usual in my white collar, brown shirt, blue stockings and white shoes - all sans culottes of course - along with my fur coat and no knickers, and as I did so I wondered how many other vestigial vestonyms there were. It drove me beserk (meaning I wore a bear shirt).

Me and Mrs Malaprop relaxing

P.S. This made me laugh

Friday 22 January 2010

In [The] Hospital

Apparently something political has happened in America which will have some sort of effect on how Americans pay their hospital bills, a subject towards which I am passionately indifferent. The only important aspect of the debate, which nobody else seems to have touched on, is linguistic.

There is a tiny difference between the ways that we in Britain and they in America talk. If an Englishman is injured he ends up in hospital, the same goes for Canadians and Australians. If an American is injured he ends up in the hospital.

You can confirm this little tic with a few country-specific google searches for the specific phrase "the hospital". Here are Britain, USA, Canada, Australia. The USA does have some uses of "in hospital" but they're always in the headlines where definite articles can be omitted anyway.

This made me think about the other places you can be in without a definite article. As an Englishman I can be (and usually am) in the pub. I am at the shops. I spend an evening in the cinema. The only unarticled places are school and prison, both of which are paid for through taxes.

Americans also spend time in school and prison without a the and in America both of those are also provided by the government. The reason that I brought in Canada and Australia earlier on is that there seems to be a direct correlation between government funding and the definite article.

This is especially odd as Canadian English is usually dominated by their mutinous neighbours to the South. But all healthcare in Canada is public (except on Indian reservations, which is because of clauses about medicine men in ancient treaties that can now be splendidly profitable).

So here's my theory (and it is only a theory): if you usually pick and pay for your hospital (or anything else) you will tend to think of it as a far more specific thing than you would if it were a ubiquitous and remotely funded service. The definite article is part of the market system.

As I say, it's only a theory; but it fits facts, especially Canada. Howls of derision in the comments, please.

Canadian medical policy getting sorted out

Thursday 21 January 2010

Searing Performances

There's a letter in today's Times from Steven Berkoff. Apparently he disagrees with an article a couple of days ago attacking Kirk Douglas's performance in Lust for Life. He says:

Douglas's interpretation was and still is universally acclaimed as one of his bravest and most searing performances.

I have, as the phrase goes, a lot of time for Mr Berkoff. The best theatrical adaptation of a novel I've ever seen was his of The Trial. But that sentence is hideous.

First there's the rather silly rhetorical mistake of claiming universal agreement on a subject. This tack simply can't work in an argument. The whole reason for his writing the letter is that the acclamation is neither universal nor, as he would imply, eternal.

Then of course there's the slightly silly notion of thespian bravery (a form of self-sacrifice not recognised by soldiers, firemen, tiger-wrestlers etc), but that only makes straight the way of the word searing.

There are eight thousand "searing performances" on google. But searing is branding, cauterizing, burning or - originally - withering: to quote, as this blog always does, Lycidas: "Ye myrtles brown with ivy never-sear". The OED even cites a sense of "to make callous (a seared conscience)".

I can guess that Steven Berkoff somehow wants to say that the performance was rather good, but I don't understand how. Was the performance tender? Bombastic? Ranting (as the article he alluded to had claimed)? Subtle? Gelatinous? Turquoise? Could you change the part of speech? Could you say "His performance seared"? Searing is just a nonsense word like iconic or cowardly. It's a word that looks right in a newspaper but that has no meaning. It is, in short, journalese.

And that's what depresses me about the letter. It demonstrates that the draw of journalese is so strong that even a writer of Mr Berkoff's universally acclaimed abilities lets all his verbal dexterity drop just in order to write a letter to the paper.

He even used the word lambast.

Wednesday 20 January 2010

Later Today

I arranged by telephone to meet Mrs Malaprop for a curry tomorrow night. At the end of the call I said "Good bye" (as it was spoken I didn't even have to think about the one-word-or-two dilemma). She said "See you later" and hung up.

This valediction made me think that she had misunderstood the arrangement and was coming for a curry tonight. So I sent her an e-mail which ran:

You said "see you later" did you mean "tomorrow"?

To which she sent the lapidary and laconic response:

Yes. That is later.

This threw me into terrible bewilderment as to me later means later today. Of course things can happen "a few years later", but I always use that plain, naked, unadorned later to mean "before bedtime". Certainly if somebody told me that we were going to the cinema later, that wouldn't mean June. But perhaps it's me that's mad and Mrs Malaprop who controls the heights of normality.

I have also never been quite certain whether the phrase "You'll be late for your own funeral" contains an intentional pun.

Happy Families

The other day I mentioned that conspirators are, etymologically, those who breathe together, just as inspiring is breathing in, expiring breathing out, perspiring breathing through and so on and so forth with transpire, respire et al.

There's something lovely about seeing these families of words all of which have gone their separate ways. There's the Mit-Mission family (Latin: to send): commit, remit, admit, emit, submit, manumit, permit, transmit and the rest all descended from Grandpa Mission. There are the fuses: defuse, infuse, confuse, suffuse and refuse along with strange children like effusive, whose verb-daddy is on his last legs.

(For those of you who never had the alloyed pleasure of chanting amo amare amavi amatum till your tongue bled, I should explain that a Latin verb has four principle parts that you need to memorise. The first is the normal verb, the last is called the "supine stem". It's approximately the equivalent of write wrote written and is the part you use to make nouns. So mitto mittere misi missum is still the reason that commit becomes commission.)

My favourite Latin clan are the wildly varied Duct-Duces (all from duco, duxi, ductus, the Latin for to lead). There are the philosphically minded siblings deduce, adduce, educe and induction who sneer at their commoner cousins reduce, produce, conduct and introduce, yet have some hopes for education. Some have gone into the legal profession like traduce and abduction and they occassionally have dinner with the bespectacled scientists transducer and ductile. There are the runaways, aqueduct and viaduct, who live in the countryside. And finally there's the wily young rake seduce: which in Latin means only to lead aside.

All, of course, under their leader: the Duke.

The supine stem of a plant that has come to my bathroom to die

Tuesday 19 January 2010


The iconic British chocolate manufacturer Cadbury fell last night to an £11.7 billion takeover by the US food conglomerate Kraft.
    - Today's Times, first line, front page.

Inky Fool is concerned with words, not right and wrong. Inky Fool as, Auden nearly put it, makes nothing happen. But given that I don't give a damn about Cadbury or Kraft and don't even like chocolate much, I adored the bias worded out in this opening line.

I'm not talking about iconic, although the word is delightfully meaningless. Two thousand things have been iconic in British news in the last month, including a lighthouse in Suffolk, Rotherham United's stadium, and Ken Dodd. Journalists are all, I suppose, iconodules.

Nor was it the healthy, flat-cap wearing, horny-handed-son-of-toilish manufacturing that Cadbury's do. That would have meant nothing had it not been contrasted with the evil, evil, evil conglomerate.

There's something so sinister about the word. Say it aloud. It sounds like a portmanteau of coagulate and clot. Company suggests good company. Corporation implies co-operation, with only a hint of corpse (to which it is related). But conglomerates. Conglomerates buy your soul, melt it down and make it into pigs.

Conglomerate, though, is a technical term. In fact it derives from geology where it means one of those rocks that looks like lots of different pebbles have been stuck in cement. Like this:

Then in 1967 people started to wonder what to call all these strange companies, the product of interspecies mergers, that operated ferry lines, manufactured teapots and sold inflatable underwear all at once.

I assume that it was a geologist who had the bright idea of bringing the word conglomerate out from its rocky obscurity. In this business article of 1968 the writer still felt the need to explain the geological meaning of the term. So that's what a conglomerate is now: it's a company that combines unrelated businesses (including melting down your soul to make pigs).

And here's the funny thing: Kraft is not a conglomerate. Like Cadbury, it only makes food.

Empress Irene, noted iconodule, would no doubt have defended Cadbury, which will now become a corporate corpse.

P.S. There was a period in the 1980s when Kraft was a conglomerate, but all that was spun off years ago.

Monday 18 January 2010

Coup de Twat

A friend who works in Parliament* tells me that in the cubby-holes of power the abortive Hewitt-Hoon plot of yesterfortnight is referred to as the Coup de Twat.

Try saying it aloud.

This goes to show that those politcojournalisty types can all use English rather marvellously. They're just shy about showing it in public.

Thanks for that

*Don't for a second think this narrows it down: almost everybody I know/am related to/have been out with/deal crack to works in Parliament.

P.S. I promise to write something tomorrow that isn't obscene.

I Have Nothing To Add

Inky Fool could not let this compounded and indecipherable headline pass. I fear that any commentary I might make would be mere lily-gilding. Now I know how Semele felt just before she died.

Simple explanation here


The other day as I flicked through The Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English (I was going to meet some obsolete and provincial relatives and was desperate to make a good impression) I came across the word felch, which was defined as "A tame animal. Lincolnshire dialect". So I typed the words felch tame animal into google and got a nasty shock.

Only those with an iron constitution and/or a fascination for bizarre sexual practices should click on this link to an alternative definition of felch. But somebody lied.

Alpheus Felch, fifth Governor of Michigan
(So far as I know he was not a tame animal. As to the other definition, history is mute.)

Sunday 17 January 2010

Skeuomorphic Journalism

The front-page article of yesterday's Guardian was an eye-witness account of the ruins of Port-au-Prince. The second paragraph went like this:

The first shock was the sight of the [government] building itself. Its domes had caved in, each at its own bizarre angle, lending the palace a dishevelled look. Then the mass of people outside the palace shifted into focus, queuing up in neat lines at the presidential gates.

Now it's possible that the journalist was very, very, very drunk; otherwise I don't see how the crowds can have "shifted into focus". Perhaps he has a serious eye defect, but I'm plumping for the gallon-of-vodka solution.

In the nineteenth century, when photography was still in nappies, exposure times were so long that people who were walking would be blurred. They would have ghosts flowing out behind them. It was this that introduced the idea in paintings and drawings that movement could be indicated by lines flying out behind a moving object. Photography changed our visual ideas and that changed representations in other mediums. The viewer looks at a blurred drawing and thinks "Ah the chap's running. I know that because of the technological failings of photography." Think about it: have you ever actually seen a runner with lines coming out of his back?

There's a technical term for this: it's skeuomorphic. A skueomorph is a technological limitation that is deliberately imitated even when it's no longer necessary. My digital camera has a little loudspeaker that emits a clicking noise when I take a photograph, just like an old mechanical camera.

The Guardian journalist was not, I suspect, actually drunk. The poor chap has just seen so many films that he is no longer capable of describing things as he sees them. He can only describe them as he imagines a camera would show them with all the limitations of focus-depth that you have in films.

I saw the same scene on television and the crowd did shift into focus. But then again I was very, very, very drunk.

Try as he might, he could not escape the terrifying horizontal lines that pursued him

Saturday 16 January 2010

Hello, Sadness!

In the bookshops is a new edition of Françoise Sagan, containing in a single volume her two novels Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile. It said so on the cover. Both books were of course written in French and A Certain Smile was originally called Un Certain Sourire. Yet that title has been translated while Bonjour Tristesse has not. The reason for this inconsistency is, I'm sure, that Hello, Sadness sounds so irredeemably stupid in English (so does the utterly literal Good-day, Sadness, which if anything adds a feeling of lunatic politeness).

Some titles, like A Rebours, are untranslatable. Others like L'Etranger dwindle a little in translation (étranger can mean either outsider, foreigner or stranger, but the English translator can only choose one). But these cases are quite different from those foreign words and phrases that, when translated, lose their exoticism. The ancient authority of Latin, the cerebral chic of French, the compounded intellectualism of German and the romantic intensity of Italian all vanish with translation. It's like Helen of Troy visiting her gynaecologist. There is a terrible sense of: "Is that all it means?"

This is particularly true of Italian names. Would you go to an opera by Joe Green? Or be seduced by Jacob Newhouse? Or watch a film starring Lenny Goat? Of course not.

But Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Casanova and Leonardo Di Caprio are another matter.

I can also assure you that the body of the novel Bonjour Tristesse is quite as disappointing, French and pretentious as the title.

The usual girls-staring-out-of-windows-vaguely-implying-profundity crap

P.S. I know that goat in Italian is technicaly capro, but it still amuses me.

Friday 15 January 2010


Just as a duckling is a little duck and a gosling is a little goose, so a godling is a little god.

I am fond of the idea of a godling and should like to meet one. Being of a monotheist bent I tend to assume, like St Anselm, that God is that greater than which nothing can be conceived. Godlings seem to thrive in Northern India, where I suppose the weather suits them or somesuch. They often take the form of undressed stones, with little pebbles as their children.

As a pointless extra: by the same principle that a godling is a small god, a little fellow who stands to one side used to be a sideling. But the word's origins were cast Lethewards and people started to suspect that sideling must be a participle of an enigmatic verb. Thus was invented the word sidle.

P.S. In his gripping bestseller The Panjab, North-West Frontier Province, and Kashmir (1916), Sir James McCrone Douie says that in Hinduism there is room "for the villager of the eastern districts, who often has the name of Parameshvar or the Supreme Lord on his lips, but who really worships the godlings, Gúgá Pír, Sarwar or Sultán Pír, Sítla (the small-pox goddess), and others, whose little shrines we see round the village site; and for the childish idolaters of Kulu, who carry their local deities about to visit each other at fairs, and would see nothing absurd in locking them all up in a dungeon if rain held off too long."

Thursday 14 January 2010

Slush Funds and Slush Piles

London thaws. Snow becomes slush. I nearly went my length today and as I tottered, windmilling my arms like a mad semaphorist and trying to defy Newton, I suddenly thought: "Why a slush fund?" And that question only led to "Why a slush pile?"

A slush pile, dear reader, is the pile of unasked for manuscripts that accumulates in the corner of a publisher's office until some semi-literate work experience girl is asked to read them and post them back wither they whenced. Was the slush in slush pile purely derogotary, I wondered? Or was there some sense in which frozen writing was slowly thawing?

Once upon a time slush was just melting snow - either from some Scandy language or simply onomatopoeic - but then in 1869 the Oracle came along. The Oracle was Mark Twain's nickname for a pompous travelling companion he had on a cruise of the Mediterranean. In Innocents Abroad the Oracle describes poets thuslyly:

I never see one of them poets yet that knowed anything. He'll go down now and grind out about four reams of the awfullest slush about that old rock [Gibraltar at sunset] and give it to a consul, or a pilot, or a nigger, or anybody he comes across first which he can impose on. Pity but somebody'd take that poor old lunatic and dig all that poetry rubbage out of him. Why can't a man put his intellect onto things that's some value? Gibbons, and Hippocratus, and Sarcophagus, and all them old ancient philosophers was down on poets

We can deduce two things from this: that slush must already have been American slang for drivel, and that poets haven't changed much.

We imported this sense of slush quite quickly and by 1896 The Times was saying that the campaign against capital punishment was "steeped in a sloppy and slushy sentimentalism". Now there's clearly an alliterative bias in the choice of words here right down to the sl, but some sense is implied, I think, of the inchoate nature of slush: ice, water and dirt all mixed together. Inchoate, slushy sentiment is set against ordered, frozen reason. From this we seem to have got the sense of a slushy novel and from that (I'm theorising, of course) we would get the slush pile.

However, on consideration I think it more likely that I've been wasting your time. It could simply be that the snow piled at the side of the road is the last survivor of a thaw and so a slush pile would be the ignored and bothersome stuff that has been put to one side waiting to miserably disappear.

As for a slush fund, that's quite different. That's fat. There's a rule of etymology that pretty much all words are somehow maritime in origin. As Churchill almost put it "Don't talk to me about naval tradition. It's nothing but rum philology and the lash." [comma deliberately omitted] Anyway, in the eighteenth century sailors used to keep all the fat that boiled off their meat rations. They called it slush, perhaps because it sloshed around. When the ship got to port they would sell all their slush (don't ask me to whom) and the money would be divided among the ship's officers. Hence slush fund.

In case you cared - and I am confident you don't - I recovered my balance and, with cautious steps and slow, through London took my solitary way.

Everybody gathered round to hear Nelson inventing a word

P.S. Apparently Churchill did not say "rum, sodomy and the lash", although he wished he had, and Bismarck never said "A language is a dialect with a navy". Ah well.

Wednesday 13 January 2010


It's a crying shame that David Miliband didn't become Prime Minister last week. There's an interview with him in today's Times in which he begins by saying:

I'm not going to plead not guilty to the charge of thinking

Reading it I found myself all nostalgic for John Major, the greatest British practitioner of litotes, which is asserting something by denying its opposite. (There's a persistent myth among the lower orders of society that litotes is simply a posh Greek way of saying understatement. It is not. If you desperately want a posh Greek way of saying understatement you can make do with meiosis or a noose). For those of you too young, too senile or too foreign to remember John Major there is a helpful biography of him called Not Inconsiderable.

It's also worth noting that litotes is not necessarily a double negative. Puttenham gives the example "I know you hate me not", meaning you love me.

I believe that with David Miliband we have a chance to return to the moral certainties and linguistic bewilderment of the Major years. The second line of his interview went like this:

I think it's quite important to think. In fact, I think that thinking is...

A busy day at the foreign office

Lapidary and Telegraphic Texts

I was sending an encouraging text message today. I was going to write "Hope everything goes well." I never abbreviate. I typed hope, then my thumb hovered for a second over the 3def key, but everything is an awfully long word. In texting terms it's positively sequipedalian. Dammit, I thought, and typed all instead.

Texting is odd insofar as the slowness of typing provides not merely an incentive for orthographic economy but also the time in which to ponder it. A haiku (I despise haikus) gives the former but not the latter. Also haikus, unlike texts, are rarely written by people with anything to communicate except their own awfulness.

An inspirational haiku:

If you're too thick for
Iambic pentameters
Then don't write at all.

It is a maxim trite but tremendous that technology breeds style. The oral was replaced by the written which was replaced by the printed which was replaced by the telegraphed, which was replaced by the telephoned, which was replaced by the e-mail and the text.

The oral needed formulas to help the rhapsode's memory. The written produced the acrostic. The printed produced the cliché: a printers' term for a unchanged and reusable bit of type. Etc etc etc.

Once upon a time a frugal use of words was called a "telegraphic style" because a telegram's cost would increase for every word after the first ten. We texters share with them the omission of I, the and a and a ruthless attitude towards redundant phrasal verbs like "phone up". However, ten words for nothing is positively Edenic to the modern texter. Remember that I was just trying to cut down on letters.

For true companionship we must go back to the stonemason. Whilst carefully chiselling out each line of each letter economies of phraseology would be as tempting as siren with a feather bed. I would be preferred to M, and L to Q. A stonemason would have laughed at the my petty pruning of everything to all and pointed out that "prospers" would have been one key-stroke the fewer. And from such carvers, or lapidarii as they were called in Latin, we derive the phrase a lapidary style.

Unfortunately textual, as an adjective, is spoken for. So I don't know that my digital indolence will ever get the epithet that it deserves and requires


Tuesday 12 January 2010

Linear Ambiguity

This morning I saw a headline squashed into a side-column:


The problem was that I was reading it line by line (as I had to). So when I had finished line two but not started line three, the thing had a strangely metaphysical feel to it.

Years ago I used to proof read (appropriately, no two dictionaries can agree on whether proof read is one word, two words or hyphenated) TV listings: the little programme summaries towards the back of the newspaper. I learned so many wonderful things back then. I learned that outtake is one word, that EastEnders has a capital E in the middle and that people read sentences from the beginning to the end. The reason for that last one was that each episode of a soap opera would have two main plot strands, so the descriptions I proofed would look like this:

Ben ends up in bed with Tyra and Wayne loses his job

The problem with this sentence is that the reader is likely to read it from beginning to end. This means that half way through the sentence the reader has:

Ben ends up in bed with Tyra and Wayne

"Wow!" thinks the reader. "A threesome!" But then he finds the orphaned words:

loses his job

A verb and object cut loose from their mooring and left to drift incompletely on the seas of grammar. The reader is puzzled for a moment. He feels lost. He feels betrayed. He feels as Helen Keller would if you chucked her out of an airplane. Then, in a flash, he realises his mistake. He puts his finger back at the beginning of the sentence and starts again:

Ben ends up in bed with Tyra [pause] and Wayne loses his job.

So one of my main jobs was to put a comma before the word and. This was not because there was any grammatical necessity. The conjunction and between two main clauses is usually unpunctuated. It was merely a readerly necessity because readers move from the beginning of the sentence to the end interpreting all the time.

In this we are quite different from the Germans and Romans and anyone else with a very inflected language. In Latin you have to read the whole sentence and then make a guess as to its meaning. This is because the word order is so loose that a main verb or restrictive modifier can be skulking at the end of a sentence. What that patient waiting for the full stop does to the whole nature of the German mind I quiver to think and it is, anyway, beyond the mandate of this blog.

English is ambiguous and the reader impatient for meaning. Of course this allows for one our simplest forms of humour, the twist at the end of the sentence, as in "I don't go to church in the nude... much."

All of this is terribly acute if there's a line or page break to halt the reader, but I suppose that both are pretty perilous anyway. There was a glorious Mail article about how the

amputee model Heather
Mills married Beatles leg-
end Paul McCartney

And page breaks allowed my favourite joke in Hancock's Half Hour where a policeman on the witness stand is reading testimony from his notebook. He concludes:

I apprehended the suspect and took him into custard.

He then licks the tip of his finger, turns the page of his notebook and adds:


Monday 11 January 2010


Flicking listlessly through my OED I came across the word cover-slut, which means "something worn to cover sluttishness, an apron or pinafore", a verbal corollary to the phrase All fur coat and no knickers. The Universal Dictionary of Science, Art, Literature and Practical Mechanics of 1829 puts it more alliteratively: "Cover-shame and cover-slut are contrivances to conceal infamy and sluttishness."  But judging by the magazine rack at my nearest Tesco Metro (etymologically Tesco mother), I feel the noun could usefully be reassigned.

A gallimaufry of cover-sluts

P.S. The only actual usage of cover-slut I was able to turn up comes from Hall's Ireland: Mr & Mrs Hall's Tour of 1840 and is too deliciously domineering not to reproduce in full.

The Irish cloak forms very graceful drapery; the material falls well and folds well. It is usually large enough to envelop the whole person ; and the hood is frequently drawn forward to shield the face of the wearer from sun, rain, or wind. Yet we would fain see its general use dispensed with. A female in the lower ranks of life cares but little for the other portions of her dress if she has 'a good cloak;' and certainly her ordinary appearance would be more thought of, if the huge 'cover-slut' were not always at hand to hide dilapidations in her other garments. ' Oh, then, I'm not fit to be seen; hadn't I better tidy myself a bit? — but aisy! sure when I throw on my cloak no one will know what I am,' is a too frequent observation; and away they go, shrouded from head to foot in this woollen hide-all.

You, You, You and Mrs Prufrock

There's a letter in this week's Economist on the meanings of the word we.

In English we have three: the regular we meaning you and I, as in "we had dinner together"; the royal we meaning I, as in "we are not amused"; and the marital we meaning you, as in "we need to take out the garbage."

This is all awfully true and reminded me of a theory of mine about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the word you.

You has two meanings in normal English. It can mean you, the person I'm talking to, or it can be synonym for one, as in "I know the route I have to take. You go up here and turn right", which is the same as "One goes up here and turns right."

In love poetry (and songs) you acquires more ambiguity. You can be the poet addressing the reader or the poet addressing the beloved. I just listened to "You're sixteen, you're beautiful and you're mine" even though I am none of the above. I understood that Johnny Burnette was singing to somebody else. Whereas when Paul McCartney sings "She was just seventeen/You know what I mean", the you is me, the listener.

The word you pops up ten times in Prufrock. Two of them are in inverted commas and don't count ("I am Lazarus, come from the dead, Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"). That leave eight. Two of them pretty much force an interpretation.

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,

You and I are the same person here, which means that you must be one.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,

You is part of a list of physically present objects and is clearly another person. That leaves us with eight other yous malingering in the poem. Two of them are in inverted commas and don't count. So that leaves six. How should you/one/I interpret them.

That leaves six uses that could be considered ambiguous, but I don't think they are. The reason for this is the title of the poem. I once wrote a poem called Letters to the Sultan. I showed it to a friend who said that he liked it but "They all seem to be letters, right?" "Right," I said. He paused and then asked, "Who are they to?"

Readers tend to discard titles and all the information given in them. Eliot did not have to call The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock a love song. He could have called it a song, or simply Prufrock (in fact he originally titled it Prufrock Among the Women, which suppports the point I'm about to make).

So the title of the poem is:

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

And the first line is:

Let us go then, you and I,

So the you, is the beloved. Not to interpret it so is, at best, perverse. It is not the reader, it is not one (or there wouldn't be an I attached). Nor is there any suggestion that he is addressing his consciousness. It is pretty much the same as Come live with me and be my love: a love song addressing an imaginary beloved and enjoining her to get a move on. And things become more interesting if you carry this through.

The next you is here:

Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

We are only on line ten. There is no suggestion that the you has changed. You, the woman, is being led to the overwhelming question, not Prufrock. Prufrock is just walking. His woman is thinking about profound and overwhelming questions and he wants her to stop so that they can make their visit. Capish?

The next you is:
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
If we stick with the you as a woman the line makes extra sense. It's about make-up.
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

Again you is getting a question dropped on her plate. It's therefore reasonable to assume that this must be the same you who was being led to the overwhelming question twenty lines before. You is not me. There is time for you and time for me, clearly separated and delineated. And here's the important point: the murder, creation and question that are for you, are contrasted with the time for me (Prufrock) which will be devoted to indecision, toast and tea.

Here is the point. Prufock is unhappy, conscious of his own inadequacy etc etc etc (all the usual interpretations of him) because he is going out with such an profound woman. That is the conflict and the constrast of the first half of the poem. The point is the juxtaposition. The man's spiritual and intellectual inferiority among the women. She asks overwhelming questions. He worries about baldness. She wants to murder and create. He wants tea.
There is a simple delineation that every critical essay I've ever read manages to miss. She's profound and he's doesn't want her to be because it makes him feel shallow. He wants them to make their visit and not have some deep discussion on the way (I have been on similar dates).
There's even further evidence that a woman is physically there in lines 55-6:
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
So that's the first half of the poem. A carefully constructed juxtaposition of profound woman and man who doesn't dare to think about such things and disturb the universe. Then in line 69 he starts to try and say something. But he then realises that any attempted profundity on his part would not have been worth it after all if it wasn't the same profundity that the woman had meant.
And the beauty is that it is at this point that the yous disappear. She becomes a one, remote and considered. The poem now seems to become a soliloquy. (I imagine the dietary enquiries concerning peaches to be aporias). Until the woman with all her magical, other-worldly thoughts has become transformed into a magical other-worldly woman - a mermaid - and the women will not sing to each other, not to him.
Got that? Now go back and read the poem again. Don't pretend you have something better to do. You don't. Here's the link.
Of course you can go on reading it as an allegory of the Bermaniac relationship between image and consciousness of whatnot, so long as you remember that there's absolutely no reason to do so. Whereas my reading is clear and simple and takes account of the title.

Does Obama dare to eat a peach?

Sunday 10 January 2010

Like a Dog

Today I was going to give you a startling new interpretation of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but on the tube last night I discovered the sports section of The Daily Telegraph, the front page of which was covered with a headline about an attack on the Togolese team bus:


Now this may simply be my ignorance of Togolese customs, but who the hell machine-guns dogs?

And why haven't I been invited?

People do things to dogs that I never would have imagined. Leafing through my leather-bound collection of The Mirror's agony aunt column (by Dr Miriam Stoppard, M.D, D.Sc, FRCP, DCL) I was intrigued to discover that a man was described as being "treated like a dog" because his wife "expects him to do all the cooking and cleaning."

The tables turned

P.S. I know that I'm in danger of turning this into an animal cruelty blog (see last three posts). I hereby resolve not to mention a single animal tomorrow, except maybe a mongoose.

Saturday 9 January 2010

Golden Opportunity

In the last month British newspapers have reported 169 golden opportunities, but no silver ones.

Kill it!

Friday 8 January 2010


All things have their seasons and all things move in cycles and circuits. Every month brings a full moon (though this month it was blue), every year brings its snow (mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?) and every couple of months brings an attempt by the constipated Labour Party to force out Gordon Brown .

One of these seasonal wonders of nature occurred the day before yesterday. It followed its usual pattern. The conspirators (those who breathe together) sent a letter. Then a dribble of non-conspirators appeared on the TV and radio saying that the conspirators should not have sent a letter. One of them called the conspirators "cowardly". I heard her say so on the radio.

Now I can see thinking that such epistolary betrayal was wrong. But I can't for the life of me see how it could have been cowardly. The same goes for throwing hamsters at walls (a habit that I have almost kicked). This from that deep well of truth The Daily Mirror:

A student who killed a hamster by throwing it against a wall was branded "cowardly".

Harry Clay, 19, hurled the pet in the air, let it drop to the floor then chucked it against a wall before binning it.

Jan Edwards, of the RSPCA, called Clay's actions "disturbing".

She added: "He ended its life in the most cowardly way by throwing it against a wall, as if it was nothing more than a snowball."

English is, by most reckonings, the largest language in the world and the words of moral condemnation it contains are pretty much innumerable. Cruel, evil, sadistic, despicable, contemptible, disgusting, unforgivable, shameworthy, mean, unconscionable, immoral, unethical, malicious, malevolent, spiteful, heartless, callous, sick, twisted, ruthless etc etc etc.

But unless one hurled the hamster at the wall out of fear (perhaps you were frightened of the wall and wanted it to stay back) I don't see that it can possibly be cowardly. "Cowardly attacks" seem ubiquitous because of a foolish desire to drag in an accusation of weakness where one of wrongness would do just as well.

Like most misplaced accusations this presents the problem that if Jan Edwards of the RSPCA is upset because of the cowardice of the attack, the implication is that she wouldn't mind if the student had ended the hamsters's life in the most courageous way, perhaps by jumping into the big cat enclosure at London Zoo and shoving it up a tiger's arse. (There may be braver ways of killing a hamster but I can't think of one off hand. Maybe a Deerhunter-style game of Russian roulette).

Cowardly means running away. Etymologically it means possessing a tail (and has nothing to do with cower, which comes from kuren meaning to lie in wait). A cowardly attack is pretty much an oxymoron. One could, I confess, use a cowardly method of attack, but utter inaction would still be the more cowardly choice. True cowardice requires flight. Only if one attacked due to a greater fear of something else (if I said I'd attack you if you didn't attack the hamster) could the attack really be cowardly. As for suggesting that Gordon Brown might not be the best prime minister ever: that's not cowardly, it's Just Plain Wrong.

Thursday 7 January 2010

Albigensian Donkey Sex

Dear reader, this post will be obscene. Whatever you do, don't read it.

This is currently the most read story on the BBC news website


An arrest warrant has been issued for a Leicester man accused of having sex with a horse and a donkey, after he failed to turn up to court.

Joseph Squires, 66, of Overpark Avenue, is charged with buggery of a donkey between February and April 1999 and buggery with a horse in March 2004.

The things I love about this article are legion. There's the noun pile up in the headline. There's the ambiguity of whether he had sex with a horse and a donkey after failing to turn up to court. There's the fact that he appears to have buggered the donkey non-stop for two months. There's the mysterious change of preposition from "buggery of a donkey" to "buggery with a horse". And there's a repressed memory that suddenly burst screaming from the vagina of my unconscious.

I was a student again. I was alone in a library and... I don't know how to tell you this, but I was reading the Publications of the Modern Language Association. It's a sad fact but true that one in twenty English Literature students has, at some time or another, been intellectually buggered by the PMLA.

The article I was reading was on medieval filth in general and the word bugger in particular. Many people know the origin of the word bugger. Basically, a bunch of Zoroastrians from the Middle East moved to Bulgaria to work in the mines, bringing with them a bunch of dualist thought. Several heresies sprang up in the Balkans so when the dualist Albigensian heresy emerged in the Pyrenees the heretics were referred to as Bulgarians or Bougres in French.

The Pope sprang into action. He decided to suppress the heresy by putting it about that they were all a bunch of shirt-lifters. Therefore bougre came to mean homosexual or bugger (which was a noun before it was a verb). When calling them woopsies didn't work, the Pope organised a crusade, which, if it didn't stamp out the heresy entirely, at least confined it to Lawrence Durrell novels.

Anyway, the point of this article in the PMLA was that the word then went underground. This is because of confessionals. 14th century confessions were difficult things. There was always the chance that if you told the priest your sins in too much detail or with two much enthusiasm he might get a little excited. He might indeed go off and find a choirboy or donkey of his own and even if he didn't he might commit such an act in his mind's eye, which would be just as bad.

The result was that manuals telling priests how to take confession prescribed an intricate sort of dance whereby you could only ask the confessor about lustful crimes such as buggery obliquely. Moreover, the confessional manual itself couldn't mention the thing that it was telling you not to let the confessor mention. The result of this was that thinking, talking, or writing about sins of the flesh disappeared for nearly a century.

At the end of the fourteenth century it all started off again. The church had decided that it was rather hard to ban something if you couldn't say that you were banning it and the desire to proscribe outweighed the purity of the priest's mind. So the word bugger came back, but nobody could remember precisely what it meant.

Whereas bugger had originally referred to any homosexual relationship it was now vaguely thought to refer to sex with animals or maybe even some exotic sort of heterosexual sex or something. Nobody was quite sure and they were still rather embarrassed about discussing it.

If a taboo were really taboo, who would know about it?

An undefined word gathers much moss. That century of silence and semantic acretion is, ultimately, the reason that Joseph Squires, 66, was charged with buggery of a donkey.

As a modern parallel to the confessional manuals, I knew a lady who used the word bugger all her life as an expletive only a little less mild than blast. When she was eighty somebody told her what it meant and she never used the word again.

Incidentally, Lord Arran the Conservative Whip who got the bill to legalise homosexuality through the House of Lords was also responsible for the Badgers Act of 1973. He said that his life's aim was to "to stop people buggering badgers, and to stop people badgering buggers."

Lord Arran, your life was in vain.

P.S. In case you were wondering, which I'm sure you weren't, I was researching Cleanness and Gawain and the Green Knight, both of which are unmitigated filth.

Could Consider Thinking About

It may simply be me, but in my precaffeinated trance this morning I read that:

A third of professors could move abroad because of government plans...

...and thought for a moment that that two thirds of professors had had their passports confiscated. Could is an awkward word ambiguously spanning possibility and likelihood. One can as easily say "I could, but I don't want to" as "I could do with a drink". The same goes for consider as in "The moral philosopher looked at his wife and considered suicide." Or indeed thinking about, as in "The efficiency expert thought about taking the day off."

An academic and his son trying to emigrate

Wednesday 6 January 2010

The Abode of Snow

I've always been slightly amused by Australian place names. I find myself imagining the cartographic conference where questions were asked such as "So, Bruce, what shall we call this great sandy desert?" or "What about these northern territories, Bruce, they're going to need a name too. Not to mention these snowy mountains."

This is terribly amusing until you buy a book on the meaning of English place names, which are almost all just as dull. Most places are simply somewhere belonging to someone. Birmingham, for example, is the Beorma ingas ham meaning home of the sons of Beorma. Cambridge is the bridge over the Cam. I once spent a childhood car journey looking up every village we passed and would take a guess that 95% of places are like that.

And the same is true of the remote and exotic. If I started this post by laughing at the Australians calling some snowy mountains the Snowy Mountains, guess what Himalayas means? The abode of snow.

In fact I'm having trouble thinking of a single interesting place name at the moment. So instead I'll tell you that almost all western place names are written down phonetically in Chinese for obvious reasons. Oxford is the only one (I was once told by a sinologist) with its own pictogram. Just as dawn in Chinese is written as the symbol of the sun over the symbol for a tree, so Oxford is the symbol for a river with the symbol for an ox.

Oxford: niu-jin. Ox on the left, ford on the right.

Update: This from the sinologist who told me that in the first place, whom I e-mailed for confirmation:

Re: Oxford Pictogram It does, but I'm not sure if it is the only one. Cambridge I think half gets one (bridge is translated as the Chinese word for bridge, qiao). Basically, Oxford has been literally translated into the two characters ox (niu) and fording point (jin). 牛津 Most other places including London get translated into characters that sound like the English pronounciation (Lun Dun). If I think of another I'll let you know, otherwise some pedant might read the blog and beat me to it.

I doubt that any pedants read this blog (I've always imagined you to be a happy-go-luck, devil-may-care, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants and generally hyphenated bunch), but if any do then please feel free to add your own.

Tuesday 5 January 2010


I was reading about Yemen this morning and I thought of the immensely useful word mooreeffoc. My train of thought went something like this.

The Yemeni economy is not superb. The ultimate reason for this (unmentioned in the "so-called" newspaper) was a pilgrim. Once upon a time Yemen had a near monopoly on coffee. So valuable was this export that the king or somesuch forbade anyone to take a live plant out of the country. They kept the monopoly until a pilgrim called Baba Budan managed to smuggle some seeds out to India.

Now if Yemen still controlled the entire world's coffee production, they wouldn't be so poor and might never have developed such an unhealthy fascination with exploding underpants. But unfortunately for the Yemenis there's now an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.

Anyway, that took me on to coffee-related words like Mocha, which is the name of a port in Yemen, and kaffeeklatsch, which is a chat over a cup of coffee.

But the greatest, the most exalted, the king of caffeinated words is mooreeffoc. It was invented by Charles Dickens himself, which is a good thing for any word. Here is the word at the moment of its birth in Dickens' autobiography describing a coffee shop in St Martin's Lane:

In the door there was an oval glass plate, with COFFEE-ROOM painted on it, addressed towards the street. If I ever find myself in a very different kind of coffee-room now, but where there is such an inscription on glass, and read it backward on the wrong side MOOR-EEFFOC (as I often used to do then, in a dismal reverie,) a shock goes through my blood.

A lesser word than mooreeffoc might have died there in that weakened condition like a Spartan baby. But mooreeffoc was taken in by a kindly shepherd called G.K. Chesterton. In his biography of Dickens Chesterton took up mooreeffoc to mean a vivifying defamiliarisation. As he put it:

That wild word, "Moor Eeffoc," is the motto of all effective realism; it is the masterpiece of the good realistic principle - the principle that the most fantastic thing of all is often the precise fact. And that elvish kind of realism Dickens adopted everywhere. His world was alive with inanimate object. The date on the door danced over Mr. Grewgious's, the knocker grinned at Mr. Scrooge, the Roman on the ceiling pointed down at Mr. Tukinghorn, the elderly armchair leered at Tom Smart - these are all moor eeffocish things. A man sees them because he does not look at them.

J.R.R.Tolkein took up the word (or "Chestertonian fantasy" as he called it) in his essay On Fairy Stories, where he defined it as "the queerness of things that have become trite when they are seen suddenly from a new angle".

The word Mooreeffoc may cause you to realise that England is an utterly alien land, lost either in some remote past age glimpsed by history, or in some strange dim future reached only by a time-machine; to see the amazing oddity and interest of its inhabitants and their customs and feeding-habits.

So, dear reader, throw away your exploding underwear. Go out into the world and try to see its strangeness and its beauty. Try to see the world with a sense of mooreeffoc.

Monday 4 January 2010

The Indefinite Person

  I was meeting some friends in the pub the other day and one of them hadn't shown up.
  'Where's Tom?' I asked.
  'A contrite Tom telephoned to say he couldn't make it.'

That anecdote is, of course, a lie. Nobody really talks like that.

A shocked Sir Alex Ferguson launched a scathing attack on his players after Manchester United were sent crashing out of the FA Cup by Leeds United on yesterday.
   - Today's Times

"A shocked Sir Alex Ferguson" has strange implications. The indefinite article suggests not simply that there are an awful lot of different Alex Ferguson's, but that there are several of them that are shocked of which this particular scathing-attack-launcher was but one. It's rather like talking about an angry goat or a dying hedgehog. It implies a plurality, a population, a species.

The possibility that there are many Alex Fergusons should be taken seriously. I imagine a huge warehouse in which all the red-nosed scotsmen are kept in serried ranks (who is serrying the ranks I don't know, perhaps it's the Glazers). Or maybe it's like that truck in Universal Soldier and all the Fergusons have to be kept frozen or they'll go on a killing spree and cut off everybody's ears.

Indefinite Article - Adjective - Proper Noun is a standard journalistic sentence-opener. Recently I've found a chastened Steven Gerrard, a jubilant Murrayfield, a contrite Mr Cornish and "a visibly deflated Martin O'Neill".

Martin O'Neill

Saturday 2 January 2010

Gormless, Feckless, Reckless and Ruthless

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.
   - The Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse

The resurrection of palimpsest words is a simple, practically failsafe, form of humour. There are thousands of them loitering in the language like cripples from an old war: neither kempt, couth nor combobulated. Languages are untidy and untidiable. They may be spick but they are seldom if ever span.

So here are four of them: all less-words.

Gorm (spelled all sorts of ways) was a Scandinavian word meaning sense or understanding. As Orm the monk put it:

& 3unnc birrþ nimenn mikell gom/To þæwenn 3unnkerr chilldre

A sentiment with which we can all, I'm sure, agree. Gorm seems to have remained a popular word in the North of England, but was rarely written down as Northeners couldn't write because their fingers were numb from the perpetual cold.

However, in the nineteenth century literacy spread beyond the Watford Gap and Emily Bronte wrote a book called Wuthering Heights, in which is the line:

Did I ever look so stupid: so gormless as Joseph calls it?

Joseph is a servant who speaks with a strong Yorkshire accent and the word gormless is clearly being brought in as an example of one of his dialect terms. I don't know if it is this one novel that was responsible but from the mid-nineteenth century onward gormless seems to have spread and spread whilst its lessless original stayed at home on the moors and slowly pined away and perished.

Once upon a time there was the word effect. It was a happy, useful, innocent word until it went to Scotland. The Scots are like northeners except more so. Once north of Hadrian's Best Idea, the word effect was cruelly robbed of its extremities and became feck. Those indolent, vigourless Scotsmen who had no effect on things were therefore feckless. This time it was not Bronte but Thomas Carlyle, a Scot, who brought the word into common usage. He used it to describe his wife and the Irish, of whom the less said the better.

It's quite hard to see exactly how Carlyle used the word. This from a letter of 1842:

Poor Allan's dust was laid in Kensal Green,—far enough from his native Kirkmahoe. M'Diarmid has a well-meant but very feckless Article upon him this week.

The article in question was in the Dumfries Courier and though I have a complete bound set of every Dumfries Courier ever published in my pantry, I can't be bothered to look it up and find out whether the article was effectless or simply lazy. In another Carlyle wrote that the summer had made his wife feckless and he even described how living with her in London had turned the couple into "a feckless pair of bodies," "a pair of miserable creatures".  Anyway, Carlyle used feckless but not, that I've ever been able to find, feck and so the one word lived while the other drowned in some lonely loch.

Reckless is far simpler and there's more poetry in it, which is the important thing. Reck used to mean care (although it is etymologically far from reckon). As Chaucer put it.

I recke nought what wrong that thou me profre,
For I can suffre it as a philosóphre.

Shakespeare uses the word too, yet it has an archaic feel. In Venus and Adonis he wrote:
I reck not though I end my life to-day
What recketh he his rider's angry stir,
His flattering 'Holla,' or his 'Stand, I say'?
What cares he now for curb or pricking spur?
For rich caparisons or trapping gay?
He sees his love, and nothing else he sees,
For nothing else with his proud sight agrees.

Shakespeare uses recketh, but only in apposition to cares. The implication, I suspect, is that the word was already archaic and needed the explanatory synonym. In Hamlet Ophelia chides her brother thus:

Do not as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.
Reck is here not explained (except by context) but coupled with another archaic word in old-fashioned alliteration. Meanwhile, the reckless two lines before stands on its own among its modern peers. Shakespeare used reckless six times, as much as all the other recks, reckeths and reckeds put together. Reck must already have been fading, reckless rushing headlong to the future.
The last word for this post (which could have gone on forever and may already have felt as though it has) is ruthless. It's nice and clear and simple. Ruth meant regret and related to rue as truth relates to true. As Milton put it in Lycidas:
Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth
I don't know why this blog keeps mentioning Lycidas. Anyone would think I was obsessed, which I'm not. I can go for hours without even reading it. I'm obsessed with Tennyson and whisky, but never seem to mention either.

This post could have gone on forever, but I've become listless.
Brahms, feeling Lisztless