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.

1 comment:

  1. If you read the label

    from behind the glass door
    the letters will also appear laterally inverted,


    M will still look like M
    O will still look like O

    But the other letters will not cooperate.

    I wonder how Dickens saw it.

    Did he see a reflection of the laterally inverted word on a mirror?