Friday 26 March 2010

Old Nick the Quisling

My lifelong ambition is to have my photograph on the cover of a newspaper with a caption that reads "THE FACE THAT BROUGHT SHAME ON BRITAIN". I don't know how I'm going to do it, but everyone's got to have a dream.

One up from such ephemeral infamy is to enter the language. Here are some pictures. First, the devil himself:

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, and gave us the word machiavellian. The thing is that though everybody in 16th Century England knew that The Prince was a Nasty Book, nobody had actually read it. The Prince appeared in Italy in 1532, but there was no English translation until 1640. Free of such hindrances as information, the English could therefore turn poor Niccolo into a diabolically, supernaturally evil figure.

In the early 1590s Marlowe decided to open The Jew of Malta with Nicollo addressing the audience thus:

Albeit the world think Machevil [note the spelling] is dead,
Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps,
And, now the Guise [who organised the massacre of Paris] is dead, is come from France
To view this land and frolic with his friends.
To some perhaps my name is odious
But such as love me guard me from their tongues

Compare that to Sympathy for the Devil.

Stuck around in St Petersberg when I saw it was time for a change
Killed the Czar and his ministers. Anastasia screamed in vain.
I rode a tank, wore a general's rank
When the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank.
Pleased to meet you. Hope you guess my name.

I am not arguing here for a direct Marlovian influence on Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, especially as this song was probably based on Baudelaire and the opening to Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. But the similarities get stranger the more you compare the two. (I only noticed this connection a minute ago and am feeling rather astonished). You can read the full texts: Machevil's speech here and the song's lyrics here.

The important thing is not a direct connection, but that the nature of the personified Devil in the English imagination cannot have changed very much in four hundred years. The passages are essentially the same, right down to the need to not to mention names (Vide Voldemort).

Machiavelli was already a figure of satanic and supernatural evil and from there it was but a trifling step to full diabolism. And so poor old Nicollo became Old Nick: the Devil.

Next up, a traitor. (If you scroll carefully enough you can make this a quiz)

Vidkun Quisling was a Norwegian maths prodigy and invented his own religion (another of my plans). He also embarrassed himself rather during the Second World War by trying to get Norway to surrender so that he could be the puppet Minister-President. He succeeded in his plan and ten weeks after his appointment The Times wrote:

Major Quisling has added a new word to the English language. To writers, the word Quisling is a gift from the gods. If they had been ordered to invent a new word for traitor... they could hardly have hit upon a more brilliant combination of letters. Aurally it contrives to suggest something at once slippery and tortuous. Visually it has the supreme merit of beginning with a Q, which (with one august exception) has long seemed to the British mind to be a crooked, uncertain and slightly disreputable letter, suggestive of the questionable, the querulous, the quavering of quaking quagmires and quivering quicksands, of quibbles and quarrels, of queasiness, quackery, qualms and quilp

Perfect journalism. I was going to add two more names, one of whom was surprising, but that Times quotation has put me to shame. I shall save them for next week.


  1. Wonderful and immensely interesting. I'm gobbling up your posts and have a new respect for (some of) the music of the Rolling Stones.

  2. Oh that Mick, or should I say Mickiavelli? No wonder he's been strutting his stuff since 1469!

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  4. ...milk me pleasure wizard!

  5. Keep it clean, inklings. This is a family blog aimed squarely at the Calvinist/neo-bowdlerian market.

  6. Would you like a Campaign Manager to assist you in achieving your Lifelong Ambition?

    [Moptop coughs modestly, shrugs and etches Masonic symbols in the dust with the toe of her patent leather Balmorals.]

  7. Well there's going to need to be a big PR campaign after I've done it, but foreknowledge would incriminate you.

  8. Recent legal precedent suggests I'd get away with it.

    [I hope you noted my deliberate and inflammatory ETCHINGS.]

  9. I always thought Quislings were newly-hatched Mastermind contestants. You learn something every day if you're not careful.

  10. Neither Quisling nor Machiavelli added anything to the English language, nor did they "give us" any words. The words "Machiavellian" and "Quisling" were inspired by them, but created by someone else and added to various languages long after the two guys had done whatever made them so (in)famous, O Great Writer about Words and Language.