Friday 30 April 2010


Immerd is a terribly useful word that the OED demurely defines as To bury or cover in ordure (1635). It therefore functions as a polite way of saying "in the shit", as in "If my parole officer catches me I'll be immerded" or "I can't talk now, I'm immerded in work."

The OED cites two only usages. The first is from a sermon by William Ames entitled The Saint's Security against Seducing Spirits, which runs "Do we... see some eminent professor... immerd himself in the dung of worldly wisdom", to which the answer is yes.

The second comes from Robert Browning, whom I had always considered strangely prudish. It's in an obscure poem of his called Aristophanes' Apology (1875). Aristophanes says of those whom he satirises

The only drawback to which huge delight [...]
Why, 'tis that, make a muckheap of a man,
There, pillared by your prowess, he remains,
Immortally immerded.

The word comes straight from the French merde, meaning ordure. And the French have an antonym, démerder, which due to their lax morals they are prepared to use in  political speeches. During the Nazi occupation of France Charles De Gaulle addressed the French nation by radio in a rousing speech that ended thus:

Françaises, Français, vous avez de la merde jusqu'au cou. Mais moi, qui suis plus grand que vous, je n'en ai que jusqu'aux genoux. Alors, Françaises, Français, démerdez-vous!

Which translates loosely as: Frenchwomen, Frenchmen, you are up to your necks in shit. But I, who am bigger than you, am only up to my knees in it. So, Frenchwomen, Frenchmen, unshit yourselves!

Thursday 29 April 2010

Wales and Bad English

Two points about Wales. First: it doesn't have a name. Wales comes from wealh and means foreign, in the same way that a walnut is a foreign nut because walnut trees were not native to England. Wales simply means foreign country. It is an exonym.

The Welsh word for Wales is Cymru, which comes from the Brythonic word combrogi meaning land of our compatriots. So the English call it "Their Country" and the Welsh call it "Our Country", which means that the floor is wide open for somebody to think up an actual name for Permanentlyrainingland.

Second: when I was young and easy and doing my GCSEs, I used have to write preposterous translations. No awkwardness of the other language (French, German or Latin) could be omitted. Frenchmen were forever "at the house of" other Frenchmen, Romans were always doing things "in order that they might" do something else in the subjunctive (which seemed unfair). I would carefully write out crimes against English prose like "The about to be killed legionaries saw the having been crossed river".

I can still (for some reason) recite some of my Latin set texts, which I, like everybody else, memorised in English:

At that time appeared in the palace a sign miraculous in both appearance and outcome. They say that while a boy slept, whose name was Servius Tullius, his head burnt with a divine fire; and they say that, a great shout having arisen, the king...

In today's Independent there is the story of an unfortunate potholer whose troglodyte corpse has finally been dragged to the light after thirty years in the underworld.

A spokeswoman for Dyfed Powys Police said: "Although he was located at that time in the caves, his body was never able to be recovered despite several attempts over the following weeks and as a result he has remained in the location he died."

There's something fantastic about "his body was never able to be recovered". It ascribes will and inability to a cadaver, but a will to be the subject of a passive verb. Located is fantastically ambiguous because you don't know whether it means "was there" or that his whereabouts were known. I stubbornly refuse to believe that anybody, even a policeman, could invent such a byzantine and grotesque sentence. The spokesman must have been speaking Welsh, or Latin.

All signs in Wales are bilingual, so English speakers who erect them have to e-mail a translator for a Welsh rendering. But translators go on holiday. The lower half of this sign reads “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated”.

Wednesday 28 April 2010


The main theory (though there are several) on the origin of the word bigot, is that it derives from the words by God. The idea was that those who were always invoking their morality and piety were in fact rather nasty and hypocritical.

Any connection this etymology may have to current events is purely coincidental.

N.B. The Inky Fool is non-party political and believes in government by whim.

Inappropriate Places To Kill People

Much Ado About Nothing toddles along in a jolly Shakesperean-comedy sort of way. It's all terribly gentle and fluffy. Then there's a misunderstanding at a wedding which leads Benedick to ask Beatrice whether she's fallen out with Claudio. To which she replies

 I would eat his heart in the marketplace.

And bang! You have one of the foulest images in all of Shakespeare. More efficient than anything in Titus Andronicus, more horrid than anything in Lear. One sentence: I would eat his hearth in the marketplace.

Eating somebody's heart is a pretty nasty idea. For a lady like Beatrice who has so far been pretty ladylike, it's astonishing. You picture her, blood dribbling down her chin as she munches aorta over the opened corpse of Claudio. I can't think of a single line anywhere else in English literature that changes the tone so quickly*. It's like the zero-zero ejector seat, which a pilot can use even when the plane is stationary on the ground. He can sit in the cockpit drowsily humming a tune to himself and watching the flowers grow, then touch a button and a bomb explodes beneath his seat and he is sent hurtling into the sky.

Eating somebody's heart is pretty hideous, but the line wouldn't have the same effect, we would not picture it so clearly, were it not in the marketplace. Because it's in the marketplace, we see the cannibalism. Because it's in the marketplace, we realise that this is not a figure of speech but a plan, a plan with a location.

Shakespeare was all technique. Every good idea he had he used again. After Hamlet has killed Polonius, Claudius says to Laertes (Polonius' son):

Hamlet comes back: what would you undertake,
To show yourself your father's son in deed
More than in words?

And Laertes replies

To cut his throat i' the church.

I hear that line and think to myself: "Done that one before, Will. Slightly better the first time, but good effort, Will, good effort." It works: violence is twice as vivid with a location attached.

Slitting people's throats is a commonplace threat. I have heard respectable and peaceable matrons complain of some minor annoyance and add "Oh I could slit his throat." They don't mean it and I don't picture it. It is a figure of speech, no more to be taken literally than the strange evolution implicit in "Son of a bitch", or the eternal agony and torture wished for in "Damn him."

But add a location, preferably an inappropriate one like a church or a marketplace, and the image revives, the threat is precise, we see the knife cutting the skin, or the teeth breaking the ventricles.

And all by simply appending to the threat a single, simple clause.

"I'll kill you." - Not that frightening.

"I'll kill you on Tuesday." - Ooh.

A technique, dear reader: a technique to be learned and used.

While we are on the subject of hearts, heart strings (which are so often tugged) are real. Medical fellows call them chordae tendineae, because medical fellows will do anything to avoid speaking English. If anyone ever did tug on your heart strings, you would die. They might also get stuck between Beatrice's teeth.

Label on the upper right

*Although you are welcome to nominate a rival in the comments.

P.S. I got glared at furiously by a passing lady on Saturday just because I happened to observe to a friend that the best way to a girl's heart was keyhole surgery.

Tuesday 27 April 2010

Pseudaposematic Bottoms

An old lady once complained to me about the plague of rabbits in her garden. They were digging things up and eating things and of course they breed like...


And she was utterly stuck. It is well known that everything breeds like rabbits, but what do rabbits breed like? Everything, I suppose. I said, "Bunnies?" and the synonym appeared to console her. "Bunnies," she said decisively and continued.

That was years ago, but the other day in Regents Park I was with a friend watching ducks dabbling. A mallard resurfaced and I pointed and said "You know the water comes off that duck's back like water off a duck's back." These little things keep me afloat. The duck dived again and, gazing at its disappearing bottom, I was reminded of the word pseudaposematic.

Have you ever wondered why mallards have those little squares of blue on their sides? No? Didn't think so. They are not there for ornamentation for the mallard is not a vain creature.

Those speculum markings are there so that if you creep up on a mallard from behind you see a big, angry fish staring at you:

This is the reason that mallards are almost never the victims of sexual abuse*; their bottoms look like angry fish. The mallard protects its bottom by disguising it as something that would make you run away. There ought to be an easier way of saying that, there ought to be one baroque word meaning disguised as something to make you go away: and there is. The mallard, dear reader, has a pseudaposematic arse.

Pseud because it's fraudulent, apo because that's Greek for away (like an apostle who is sent away), and sematic because it's a sign (like semaphore). There's a lot of it about in nature. You have, as like as not, run away from a wasp that is actually a yellow and black striped fly (the difference is something to do with whether the wings are crossed). There are venomless snakes in the bright colours of their poisonous cousins. There are moths with eyes.

But the word could equally be used for the sort of chap who has his head shaved in order to look tough, or the householder I once met who had an empty burglar alarm thingummyjig on the front of his house, or to a scarecrow.

And if you spend enough money at a tattoo parlour, you too, dear reader, can even have a pseudaposematic arse.

The female polyphemus moth looking morose

*Although I learnt today that if you're slithering around in the undergrowth with a camera and a passer-by asks you what you're doing, don't reply "I'm trying to look at a duck's bottom."

P.S. It can also be called Batesian mimicry.


A political journalist just asked me whether I had seen her flip-flops and for a second I thought it was a reference to a change of policy: the dithering of a politician or the tergiversation of an editorial line. It turned out she was talking about shoes.

I don't like the term flip-flop. Even though I can see that it flips the one way and flops the other and that it combines this with ablaut reduplication (like ping pong or tick tock). Perhaps I just don't like the fl sound.

Imagine if Tennyson had changed the last lines of Supposed Confessions of a Second-Rate Sensitive Mind from:

O spirit and heart made desolate!
O damnèd vacillating state!


O damnèd flip-and-flopping state!

He would never have been ennobled.

Far better is the word girouettism, which means "the practice of frequently altering one’s opinions or principles to follow popular trends". It comes from the French for weather vane because of course a weather vane turns whichever way the wind blows. Girouettism also allows you to accuse your opponent of being a girouettist, which would cow anybody or at least send them scuttling to a dictionary.

In Quebec the word is considered so rude that it banned in parliament.

P.S. There is more on windy politicisms in this post on straw polls.

Monday 26 April 2010

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition

I mentioned a few weeks ago the Rule of the Bellman: What I tell you three times is true. Here we can see a single rhetorical trope through the ages and discern the effects of Progress and Providence in bringing it from ramshackle beginnings to poetic grandeur in our own day.

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
   - Shakespeare Hamlet II, ii (c. 1600)

Break, break, break,
On thy cold grey stones, O Sea!
  - Tennyson Break, break, break (1834)
O dark dark dark. They all go into the dark,  
   - T.S. Eliot East Coker (1940)

LOCATION LOCATION 'LOCATION The 3 things to look for...
   - Valley News 11/22/1956*

Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, and education.
   - Anthony Blair 1997

Ask me my three priorities here and now - April 2010 - and I tell you: jobs, jobs, jobs.
   - Gordon Brown

There are armies of technical names for repetition: ploce, conduplicatio, iteratio: but it took the genius of Puttenham to come up with this:

The Greeks call him Epizeuxis, the Latines Subiunctio, we may call him the underlay, me thinks if we regard his manner of iteration, & would depart from the originall, we might very properly, in our vulgar and for pleasure call him the cuckowspell, for right as the cuckow repeats his lay, which is but one manner of note, and doth not insert any other tune betwixt, and sometimes for hast stammers out two or three of them one immediatly after another, as cuck, cuck, cuckow, so doth the figure Epizeuxis in the former verses.
*There may or may not be earlier citations follow links here and here 

When Metaphors Collide

From yesterday's Sunday Times:

I imagine a ninja creeping through the hospital by night. Mrs Malaprop has already written on axes here.

Sunday 25 April 2010

Incommunicable Earliness

There's a point in The Third Policeman where the narrator is describing walking out onto a country road. He says:

There was an incommunicable earliness about everything.

It is a strange phrase, but I know exactly what he means. The morning is not like the evening. Though sometimes it is clear and sharp and at other times masks itself in mists, the morning feels like the morning and I don't why.

The point is, that I can imagine myself trying to describe exactly this sensation, the sensation that it is morning, using all sorts of silly words. I might point out that it was cold. I might mention dew. I might mention birdsong or make some fatuous observation about flowers that have closed up for the night (I know nothing about flowers beyond Ophelia's last scene, Lycidas and Ode to a Nightingale), and all to try to describe to the reader that incommunicable earliness of everything.

But then Flann O'Brien comes along and draws away the veil, slices through the budding verbal vegetation and simply says "There was an incommunicable earliness about everything.

I believe, too, that this was how Flann O'Brien must have approached the problem. It is (for various reasons) terribly important in the novel that no time has passed and it is still early morning (they have been outside time), but it is also important that nobody should have a watch by which to measure things. Even the sun must be avoided, as certainties are anathema to the whole theme of The Third Policeman. So I imagine him jotting down a few pointers - dew, flowers, mists - and becoming frustrated. Then he gives up. He decides to write instead of "the incommunicable earliness" and he uses that word - incommunicable - precisely because he feels defeated.

Yet it works. I know precisely what he means. He has cut away the inventive aspect of writing and instead is telling, and telling works perfectly.

What rule can be learnt from this by the ardent student of fiction? Tell, don't show.

'Your talk,' I said, 'is surely the handiwork of wisdom because not one word of it do I understand.'

The Inky Fool pondering The Third Policeman

P.S. Ransacking that book to find the quotation reminded me of what a splendid novel it is. All should read it: Amazon link here.

Saturday 24 April 2010


I seldom use the word seldom. Indeed, doing intensive fieldwork for the last few days, I have noticed that seldom is never used at all. It's not that there's no call for the word: the need is frequent. But seldom has been beaten out by the upstart "don't often" "not often". These are longer and have none of seldom's beauty. Say seldom aloud. Go on.

You don't often do that, do you?

Friday 23 April 2010

Thou and You

Here's some lovely poetry courtesy of Andrew Marvell. Notice the words in bold.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.

Once upon a time English was nice and simple. There was the second person singular thou and the second person plural you. Then in 1066 everything went wrong. The Normans arrived bringing with them the royal plural. "We are not amused," said Queen Victoria. "We are Henry the Eighth, we are," said Henry the Eighth. This pluralisation of royals was not simply I becoming we, they also had to be addressed as though they were plural. So the top of society started to demand that they were addressed plurally as you.
This spread. You became a simple reverential form. Through the sixteenth century it got more and more complicated. People would call others you in the way that junk mail tends to add an esquire to my name. You was everywhere. Thou was familar or condescending. You used it to your servants.
So what do you call the girl you love? What do you say when you are trying to be familiar with the queen of your heart. Do you wish for worship or intimacy? Can you be intimate with your deity? Does it depend whether, like Marvell, you're in Hull or London?
None of these questions bothered William Tyndale as he sat down in the early sixteenth century to translate the Bible. Not for him the shallow flirtations and flattery of society, nor the intricacies of adoration: he wanted accuracy.

Now, Greek (in which the Gospels are written) has a second person singular and a second person plural. So he translated the singular as thou and the plural as you. That is why God is thou: not because He is your friend (He isn't, He thinks you're bad), but because God is singular. Jesus thous (it can be a verb like tutoyer) individuals and yous crowds.

And here is an oddity, here is a bit of the screenplay for scene 57 of that delicate, lyrical work The Return of the Jedi:

Darth Vader, standing with other members of the Imperial council, cautiously approaches his master. The ruler's back is to Vader. After several tense moments, the Emperor's chair rotates around to face him.

VADER What is thy bidding, my Master?

Thou was the singular, then it was the familiar, then it was the condescending, then it was left only in the Bible often used to address God, and thus thou became reverential again.

Well I say that thou has survived only in the Bible. I believe that there are still a couple of people in Yorkshire who thou each other (I'll believe anything about Yorkshire). A popular beat combo from Leeds called (slightly tautologically) the Kaiser Chiefs recorded a song alarmingly titled I Predict A Riot with the lines:

Watching the people get lairy
It's not very pretty I tell thee
Walking through town is quite scary
It's not very sensible either

Which is thou's proof of life, or at least life Yorkshire.

To return for a second to Andrew Marvell, he was MP for Hull (hence the reference to the "Tide of Humber") and wrote beautiful poetry. William Wilberforce was also MP for Hull and was instrumental in stopping the slave trade. So who, dear reader, who could fill this great post now? What poetic, liberating hero could don so holy a mantle?

John Prescott

Thursday 22 April 2010

Immemorial Time

Immemorial is such a beautiful word that it seems a screaming shame that it should be stuck in a barren marriage with time. It is worse that it is forced to be post-positive, sitting miserably behind its noun. People don't notice post-positive adjectives. Martial courts, laureate poets and apparent heirs all have a slight surprise as the reader notices the adjective for the first time and exclaims "Ah! A warlike court!"

Immemorial, unremembered, time out of mind. As proof of how we forget a post-positive adjective's meaning, here is a chap interviewed in The Guardian about a cricketer's marriage:

India and Pakistan, for time immemorial, have been portrayed as two warring nations which has had a humongous* impact on our psyche.

Now as Pakistan only became a state in 1947, that implies either a strange amnesia on the part of our pensioners, or that immemorial has slunk out of significance.

The reason for this barren yoking is that time immemorial has, or had, a precise meaning in English law. It was the time before the 6th of July 1189 and was set as such in 1276, meaning that human memory must last for 87 years, which seems about right to me.

Yet can those lovely Ms been left to rot? Shall we let Time, to almost quote Shakespeare, come and take my love away?

No. The word, though rusty, is serviceable. It is common, it's meaning is clear, and look at the results. This from Tennyson's Princess:

The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees

Count the Ms. Marvel at the mellifluous euphony. Five miles meandering with a mazy motion. It also rhymes neatly with sartorial.

She sat like Patience on a monument,

*William Hartston in The Independent quite rightly complained that humongous was “surely one of the ugliest words ever to slither its way into our dictionaries”

P.S. There is also an immemorial regiment in the Spanish Army.

Wednesday 21 April 2010

Masochism and Leopold Von Sacher Masoch

Everybody who knows anything at all knows that the word sadism was given to us by the Marquis de Sade; yet Leopold Von Sacher Masoch who gave us the word masochism is known to few, or less. This seems rather appropriate. Whilst the Marquis strides around spanking Fame's bottom with a hardbacked copy of The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom; little Leo is forgotten in some ratty cellar, wearing a gimp-suit and whimpering over a copy of Venus in Furs.

Venus in Furs was Masoch's great work. It describes a chap called Severin who signs a contract with a lady (I use the term loosely) who is thereby:

...entitled not only to punish her slave as she deems best, even for the slightest inadvertence or fault, but also is herewith given the right to torture him as the mood may seize her or merely for the sake of whiling away the time...

I have never read the novel, but imagine that it would make a splendid book-group read, or christening present. Even that masterwork is better known these days as a song by the Velvet Underground, whose lyrics have a fragile connection to the original, mainly in the use of the name Severin.

Venus in Furs was rather closely based upon Leo's own life. He met a girl with the ridiculous name of Fanny Pistor. They signed just such a contract and they set off to Florence together with him pretending to be her servant. The novel thus fictionalised and already fictional existence.

Anyway, when, in 1883, Richard Von Krafft-Ebing was casting around for a name for a newly classified perversion he decided on Leopold Von Sacher Masoch. He wrote in Psychopathia Sexualis that:

I feel justified in calling this sexual anomaly "Masochism," because the author Sacher-Masoch frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writings... he was a gifted writer, and as such would have achieved real greatness had he been actuated by normally sexual feelings.

Psychopathia Sexualis also gave us the words sadism (although he says that this word had been around in France, obviously) and homosexual.
Poor Leo was still alive when his name was appropriated and was, apparently, a trifle peeved by the terminology. Mind you, he probably rather enjoyed the humiliation.

Leo and Fanny (note the whip)

P.S. This post was originally going to be part of Old Nick the Quisling, from last month.

Tuesday 20 April 2010


Compare and contrast:

Be your own boss. Sack your MP. Choose your own school. Own your own home. Veto high council tax rises. Vote for your police commissioner. Save your local post office. See how government spends your money. So many things to do. So little time in which to do them. The country wants change and I want to get started.
   - Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

I know it well. I must know it well, it's a lie. I can't stir, I haven't stirred, I launch the voice. I hear a voice, there is nowhere but here, there are not two places. Thare are not two prisons, it's my parlour, it's a parlour, where I wait for nothing
    - David Cameron launching the Tory Manifesto

I can't help thinking that David Cameron's speechwriter is overly influenced by Samuel Beckett, just as I am convinced that John Prescott has read too much Joyce. The technique of a series of main clauses slung together with no ands, buts, thens or therefores is called parataxis. St John the Evangelist was rather fond of the device as well. Beckett is usually considered the great paratactic master, but flicking through The Unnameable I couldn't find an example as extended as Mr Cameron's. So Beckett has been outbecketted.

A busy day in CCHQ

Monday 19 April 2010

The Wright Brothers, Baedeker and the Beauty of Pylons

What, dear reader, do these two photographs have in common?

Give up? So soon? Ah well, dear reader, you were never one to make an effort, were you? They are both pictures of pylons, for strange and gradual reasons that I shall explain as gently as possible.

Once upon a time there was a Greek word pylon that meant gate. It was a dull Greek word that might have died in obscurity were it not for the fine classical education of Egyptologists. They took pylon and decided to use it for the gateways of Egyptian temples. They had already decided to call the entrance to Greek temples the propylaeum.

Egyptian temples tend to have the same kinds of gateways. You have two big towers on either side and then a cross-beam between them, as in the illustration that I have so solicitously provided.

Things might have stopped there were it not for bridges. In the late nineteenth century people liked to put towers at either end of a bridge: not for any practical purpose, you understand, just because they looked nice. Such pylons can be found on the Pont Alexandre III in Paris.

You see the towers at either end? You see how they could be considered like the towers of the Egyptian temples with a crossbeam between? It's tenuous. Almost the first reference that I can find to pylons in this sense comes from the 1901 Baedeker guide to Paris, which describes these very pylons and the statues that perched atop them. The same volume of Baedeker also refers to the obelisk in Paris, and to how it had been taken from the temple of Ramses II at Thebes where it had stood "in front of a 'pylon', or gateway".

From here, things become a trifle muddied. It is certain that in suspension bridges, which had been around for a century, these pylons were used to hold the cables that held the bridge. However, the OED is extraordinarily unhelpful on this front. I found an architectural dictionary of 1912 that said they were purely decorative. Nonetheless, observe the wonders of Bristol.

A pylon if ever I saw one

What is certain is that seven years after that Baedeker was written, on the far side of the Atlantic, in North Carolina (near Buncombe country about which I have blogged), the Wright brothers were trying to make their new-fangled airplanes take off. This was troublesome as planes have to gather speed terribly quickly. So they came up with a cunning plan. They built a metal frame tower. At the top of it they had a heavy weight attached by rope to a pulley and thence to the land-loving aircraft. When they dropped the weight the aircraft would be yanked forward giving it the speed required for take off. Here is a picture:

The tower was rather useful. It was light and easy to build and terribly importantly it marked where the runway was. Early aviators found this aspect so useful that they would have a line of pylons marking the approach to the runway. Then they got used as markers in airplane races. You would take off, head for a pylon, perform a pylon turn around it and return to the runway.

I can't work out whether the Wright Brothers were the first to call this a pylon, but it was in use by 1909 and here's a lovely illustration from a 1912 edition of Popular Mechanics:

So now you have lines of frame towers running across the countryside. And from there, dear reader, you get the modern sense, which pops up in 1923 in a novel by Edward Shanks, and by 1930 we finally arrive at the poetry:

Power-stations locked, deserted, since they drew the boiler fires
Pylons falling or subsiding, trailing dead high-tension wires;*

So wrote W.H. Auden and three years later Stephen Spender wrote a whole poem called simply "The Pylons". So fond were these thirties poets of Egyptian gateways that they were later known as the Pylon School of poetry.
Betjeman, who was not of the Pylon School, reacted thus:
Encase your legs in nylons
Bestride your hills with pylons
O age without a soul
For myself, I have always been rather fond of pylons. The discipline of structural necessity gives them elegance. They seem like great elegant giants striding single-file across the countryside. If Don Quixote were alive today, I am certain that he would charge them and not windmills.
It is a frailty of the aesthetic sense that people rarely appreciate beauty when it is necessary. The Roman aqueducts that tourists now gawp at would have been eyesores in their time. A hideous necessity cutting across the pastoral valleys. Windmills were once no more picturesque than windfarms, because they were necessary structures.
I was once being talked at by a terrible bore who was explaining how he had done up his horrid little house in the countryside. He had preserved at great expense some old contraption for grinding corn. I was not interested. I was gazing at the line of pylons that waddled magnificently from one horizon to the other. He noticed my inattention, noticed the pylons and said "Yes, they're horribly ugly, aren't they? Completely ruin the view. But anyway, the corn would have gone in here and then this handle...."
Which only goes to prove what I have always believed: beauty is utility plus a few hundred years.
The march of the giants
P.S. A pylon can also be an artificial limb, or a prologue.
*The opening chorus of The Dog Beneath the Skin

Friday 16 April 2010

A Singèd Bottom All Involved With Stench and Smoke

Puerile as I am, my favourite description of a volcano's eruption comes from the first book of Paradise Lost. when the force
Of subterranean wind transports a hill
Torn from Pelorus, or the shattered side
Of thundering Ætna, whose combustible
And fuelled entrails, thence conceiving fire,
Sublimed with mineral fury, aid the winds,
And leave a singèd bottom all involved
With stench and smoke.

When, in polite society, you involuntarily grasp the attention of the room by letting out an explosive fart, quoting the last two lines of that extract is sure-fire way of relieving the embarrassment whilst also demonstrating your knowledge of Milton.

But my flight to Edinburgh is still cancelled.

The digestive tract

Thursday 15 April 2010

Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain

Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain was the mnemonic that I was taught as a child in order to remember the colours of the rainbow. Why anybody thought that I needed to remember the colours of the rainbow, I don't know. Nobody, in all my long and weary years, has ever asked me "Hey, Dogberry, what are the colours of the rainbow in the correct order?" But such was I taught, and as an aftershock to yesterday's post on synaesthesia here is a post on the colours of the rainbow.

Red: Red letter days are so called because in old church calenders feast days were written in red ink. In American banking ledgers of the early twentieth century debts were written in red ink and credits in black. An Italian debtor is said to be in the green. Either way one is in the soup.

Orange: Oranges were originally a fruit and didn't become a colour until 1542. For this reason in the Nun's Priest's Tale Chauntecleer the Cockerel describes his nightmare about a fox thus:

Me mette [dreamed] how that I romed up and doun
Withinne our yeerd, wheer as I saugh a beest
Was lyk an hound, and wolde han maad areest
Upon my body, and wolde han had me deed.
His colour was bitwixe yelow and reed
And tipped was his tayl and both his eeris

He then goes on to defy laxatives.

Yellow: Has always stood for cowardice, it was believed that a lack of blood made the liver yellow. It's odd that nobody seems to like to mention this colour. I can think of no yellow political party and even yellow hair is called blond/blonde (the only adjective in English that agrees with its noun) or golden. The yellow jersey of the Tour De France is the one exception that I can think of.

As Bob Dylan wrote in Tombstone Blues:

Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, “Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?”

The Commander-in-Chief answers him while chasing a fly
Saying, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry”
And dropping a barbell he points to the sky
Saying, “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken”

Green: The sixth stanza of Anderw Marvell's The Garden runs thuslyly:

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness
The mind, that ocean where each kind,
Does straight its own resemblance find.
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds and other seas;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade.

The second couplet, by the way, is based on the idea of contemporary biology that each land animal had an equivalent in the sea. However, even at the time Thomas Browne (the Inky Fool's favourite essayist) was inclined to disbelief:

THAT all Animals of the Land, are in their kind in the Sea, although received as a principle, is a tenent very questionable, and will admit of restraint. For some in the Sea are not to be matcht by any enquiry at Land, and hold those shapes which terrestrious forms approach not; as may be observed in the Moon fish, or Orthragoriscus, the several sorts of Raia's, Torpedo's, Oysters, and many more, and some there are in the Land which were never maintained to be in the Sea, as Panthers, Hyæna's, Camels, Sheep, Molls, and others, which carry no name in Ichthyology,

Blue: Blue murder is not a rather saucy form of homicide: it is a translation of the French exclamation mort bleu, which is a corruption of mort dieu, meaning death of God. Blue murders are likely to be carried out by blue-rinse blue stockings.

Indigo: is one beyond blue, it is therefore a very sad colour. Blues musicians have nothing on their indigo colleagues:

For there's nobody who cares about me
I'm just a poor fool that's bluer than blue can be

Is therefore a lyric from Duke Ellington's Mood Indigo*.


"Roses are red
Violets are blue":
That's what the song said,
But it cannot be true.
"I have seen roses
Damasked red and white"
Shakespeare discloses,
And he's always right.
And a blind man could see
That violets are violet
Such truths are inviolate.

And after that we drift into the invisible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, which is mostly white noise.

Violet in colour, I think you'll agree.

*Duke Ellington wrote neither the melody, the title nor the lyric; but the matter is so vexed that I shan't go into it here.

Wednesday 14 April 2010


She smelled the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight.
   - The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler

Synaethesia is either a mental condition whereby colours are perceived as smells, smells as sounds, sounds as tastes etc, or it is a rhetorical device whereby one sense is described in terms of another. If colours are harmonious, or a voice is silky, that is synaesthesia (or some other spelling).

It is a common enough device, except that there seem to be rules, or norms governing which senses can be coupled. Sight and sound are interchangeable. Quite aside from John Lennon's request to George Martin that the orchestration of Strawberry Fields should be "orange", colours can be loud or discordant while melodies can be bright and rumblings dark. Tone is even an ambiguous word that can be applied to either sense, and I thoroughly recommend Ernest Bloch's Sketches in Sepia. (I omit colours that are purely symbolic: blues music is no more blue than blue movies are).

Touch can be applied to sound - a gravelly voice - and to the warm colours of a painting. But rarely is the favour returned, indeed I can't think of a single example.

Taste gives you a couple of terms of approbation - delicious and tasty - and of deprecation - bland or disgusting. But again it receives no thanks from its fellow senses.

And smell. Smell sits apart on his own, blowing his nose. Odious, before you ask, means hateful and has nothing to do with odour. Rank and pungent have, over the centuries, been sent as emissaries to the other senses, but that is all and it is possible to forget that words were ever native to a nostril. And smells are never described as being like anything else at all.

And that is why the Raymond Chandler line is so striking. Though the sense is quite discernible, the expression of it pulls you up short. The phrase is memorable in a way that it would never have been were it "she sounded the way the Taj Mahal looks by moonlight."

Synaesthesias of smell are jarring and effective. It is probably an easy shortcut to a memorable line. However, caution, dear reader, should be observed. You may not want your line to be remembered. Many critics have been wrong, some amazingly so, but few will be remembered verbatim as Eduard Hanslick was when he wrote of Tchaikovsky's First Violin Concerto that it showed there could be "music that stinks to the ear."

I shall leave you with an extract from A Rebours, in which our hero has constructed an organ that when the stops are touched gives out drinks. The idea was stolen and perhaps improved upon by Boris Vian in the wonderful L'Ecume des Jours.

Moreover, each liquor corresponded, according to his thinking, to the sound of some instrument. Dry curacoa, for example, to the clarinet whose tone is sourish and velvety; kummel to the oboe whose sonorous notes snuffle; mint and anisette to the flute, at once sugary and peppery, puling and sweet; while, to complete the orchestra, kirschwasser has the furious ring of the trumpet; gin and whiskey burn the palate with their strident crashings of trombones and cornets; brandy storms with the deafening hubbub of tubas; while the thunder-claps of the cymbals and the furiously beaten drum roll in the mouth by means of the rakis de Chio.

The whole can be read here. I may be wrong in all these observations and expect a cataract of counter-examples.

That's how she smelled

P.S. If you're reading this and you've got my copy of A Rebours, give it back before I track you down and hang you. Mrs Malaprop, same goes for you and my copy Ecume Des Jours, they don't publish that translation anymore.

No Truck with Truck

Trucks, as in the big vehicles, have nothing to do with having no truck with. This is a crying shame. The one comes from the Latin trochus meaning iron hoop, the other from the French troquer meaning barter or do business with.

I may cry.

Another Inky Fool post disappears beneath the ice

Monday 12 April 2010

Llareggub Yobs

I was told the other day that a yob was a backwards boy. I didn't believe it. So many etymologies are much too neat and fanciful, especially the ones that involve acronyms and the movement of letters (shit does not mean Store High In Transit). But having pooh-poohed the idea I returned to my burrow and checked a dictionary only to discover that it really is backslang.

Backslang was a code used by Victorian costermongers and Edwardian thieves. There appears to have been quite a wide (and potentially limitless) vocabulary. I'm not sure how far you can credit The Box of Delights* (1935) with linguistic accuracy, but in it two would-be kidnappers use the phrase "Kool slop" which is explained thuslyly:

We would point out that the mystic words uttered by the reprobates are common thieves' slang: 'Kool slop' is what is called back slang: the words Look Police turned backwards. It is a familiar warning in the underworld.

This seems credible because the thing about backslang is that you have to be able to spell. To know that yob is boy backwards means that you know that Y can function as a consonant or a vowel - knowledge that would be denied to your typical urchin before the educational reforms of the 1880s.

[Londoners: there's a lovely point that when the tube was built it was assumed that most of the passengers would be illiterate so they wouldn't know when the train had arrived at their stop. That's why each station has a different pretty pattern of tiles. It is for the use of the illiterate. The same goes for pub signs, but I'm wandering.]

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas is the only good radio-play ever written, and is set in the Welsh town of Llareggub, which is deliciously convincing as all Welsh place names are invented by throwing consonants into a blender, or by very lazy Countdown contestants.

However, the reversible nature of Llareggub was considered so obvious by the printers that early editions changed it to Llaregyb, just to be on the safeside.

The Reverend Eli Jenkins, inky in his cool front parlour or poem-room, tells only the truth in his Lifework--the Population, Main Industry, Shipping, History, Topography, Flora and Fauna of the town he worships in--the White Book of Llarregub.

Which shows that I am not the only inky fellow in the land.
It is the glamour of grammar, let a human into the secrets of the written word and he will start playing with anagrams, acronyms, palindromes and semordnilaps; inventing, rearranging, tangling and encrypting.

There is an almost holy feel to it, which is perhaps why so many people spend so much time trying to decode the Bible. Of course, this is hard for English speakers (unless you believe the King James Version to be divinely inspired), but in Hebrew you can have hours of fun counting the alephs and deducing the mind of God. As Coleman says in Antic Hay when asked who the devil he is:

'I am that I am,' said Coleman. 'But I have with me [...] a physiologue, a pedagogue and a priapagogue; for I leave out of account mere artists and journalists whose titles do not end with the magic syllable. And finally,' indicating himself, 'plain Dog, which being interpreted kabbalistically backwards, signifies God. 'All at your service.'

"I am that I am", is another of God's titles and a picture of NATASHA I is used to similar effect in Nick Cave's And the Ass Saw the Angel while Red Rum, who won the Grand National whilst I was being born, had his name rudely hijacked by Stephen King. I have blogged before on the wonderful word mooreeffoc, any schoolchild knows which cheese is made backwards and anybody who will pay a pound for a bottle of Evian water is just that.

Yet I'm sure I'm forgetting one of the great examples of what are apparently called semordnilaps (palindromes backwards). And it's not even T.S. Eliot's morbid insistence on his middle initial.

T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. I'd assign it a name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot-toilet.
   - Auden (allegedly)

Dylan Thomas' map of Llareggub

*No prizes for guessing what book I re-read a couple of weeks ago.

P.S. There's a good article on backslang here.

Sunday 11 April 2010


According to the Daily Mail (which is always utterly reliable on such matters), immigrant gangs have been mutilating children before sending them to beg on the streets of Britain.

I have to say that I was extremely dissappointed by the Mail's reporting. Not because of any content, it was simply that there are so few opportunities to use the word comprachico in the world today that I really think they should have taken this one up.

A comprachico (from the Spanish child-buyer) is someone who mutilates children professionally. The idea was popularised by Victor Hugo in The Man Who Laughs. He's quite helpful on the subject, pointing out that "a dwarf must be started when he is small", which must, I suppose, be where Werner Herzog got the title for Even Dwarfs Started Small.

For any would-be comprachicos out there, the correct method for making a child a dwarf is to feed him a kind of moth called a knot grass. As Lysander says in Midsummer Night's Dream:

Get you gone, you dwarf,
You minimus, of hindering knot-grass made;
You bead, you acorn!

Alternatively you can use dwarf elder. If you're wondering why anybody would want to turn a child into a dwarf, the answer is that they were apparently very popular as jesters.

Anyway, there was a lovely word pining away for lack of use, and the Daily Mail left it there unused. Frankly, it makes me sick.

They did, though, manage to refer to it as a "twisted version of Oliver Twist", which just about makes up.

Don Sebastián de Morra, Philip IV's court jester

Friday 9 April 2010


A taximeter cabriolet sped over the tar Macadam towards the zoological gardens where it swerved to avoid a perambulator and hit a mobile vulgus of musicians in periwigs who were unable to play their pianofortes and violoncellos for the next fourteen nights, much to the disappointment of their fanatics.

The cutting of a word is called clipping. An imaginary prize for the best sentence with forgotten topiary.

He never saw it coming

Update: It turns out that syncope is only the removal of a word's internal parts. Title changed.

Thursday 8 April 2010

The Lullaby Meter

My favourite poetic meter is the acephalous iambic tetrameter. If that opening sentence doesn't have you weeing in your intellectual nappies then click on read more. For the rest of you, here is a link to Topsy and Tim making a picnic.

Wednesday 7 April 2010

Haywire Straw Polls And The Grass Roots

I find few things more embarrassing than making an unintentional pun. Yesterday, a journalist told me that she had been watching the wires and I said that they must have been going haywire. Then I tried to hang myself. Then I started to wonder what haywire meant.

Hay wire is (amazingly) wire that you use to bind a bail of hay. Apparently its not as strong as normal wire and should never be used for repairs to machinery. If it is, then your machine will become a "haywire outfit". That may or may not be the reason that things go haywire. There's also the possibility that hay wire, like coat hangers and headphone wires, tangle themselves up horribly and that if something has gone haywire it simply means that it has become inextricably interwoven and loopy like the Gordian Knot (which was an actual knot in a place called Gordium, a problem that Alexander the Great solved at a stroke).

Straw polls are similarly enigmatic. Auden once said* of the relationship of a poet's biography to his work that it was simultaneously too obvious to need comment (Catullus loved Lesbia) and too obscurely complex to endure analysis. The same goes for these words of grass.

You do not, as Bob Dylan correctly observed, need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Shakespeare agrees and adds in The Merchant of Venice that an amateur zephyrologist can manage by:

Plucking the grass to know where sits the wind,

You throw a straw in the air and see which way the wind takes it. Hence a straw vote. Hence a straw poll, which elephantine-memoried readers of this blog will remember is a headcount.

OR, it is simply a weak poll, a poll of straw. Straw has always been weak as in straw dogs and straw men and clutching at straws etc etc which is why you only need hay wire to bind it together.

Grass roots is the third of these frail etymologies. It popped up at the beginning of the twentieth century. The roots I can understand, but the grass seems unnecessary. Why not dandelion roots, which are considerably stronger? English seems to be a strangely graminivorous language. But perhaps that's a good thing: hay fever used to be called summer catarrh, which is just horrible.

Or perhaps it's that grass roots are destroyed by GOATs. Now I'm off to accuse my lawn of informing on me to the police.**

The Inky Fool's summer residence

*In his preface to Shakespeare's sonnets. I don't have a copy to hand.
** A grass hand was a jobbing printer who moved employers, hence the sense of disloyalty, probably. A grass widow is an unmarried woman with a child (although I can't for the life of me see how that could happen). All flesh is grassy, bring on the lawnmower.