Monday 31 May 2010


Given that a duckling is a small duck, a darling is a small dear and a godling is a small god, you might be lured into the belief that an inkling is a small splash of ink on the face of a fool. Dear reader, you would be half-right.

Ling is being used as a diminutive suffix but the ink comes from incen, meaning to mutter or whisper. So an inkling is a soft whisper.

However, the word has suffered every indignity at the hands of lexicographers and a giddy public. Dr Johnson, wrongly but reasonably, thought that it was to do with clink. He wrote that "The word is derived by Skinner, from inklincken, to sound within", a bit like tinkling.

Others thought that it was related to inclination, which is why Robert Southey wrote in 1824 "I feel inklings to address an ode to the people of Liverpool", a usage as perverse as the desire that it expresses.

Still others decided (as with sideling) that there simply must be a verb inkle of which inkling was the gerund. This seems to have been employed mainly by the pseudo-dialect school of writing. Richard Blackmore, who wrote Lorna Doone, has "His marriage settlement and its effects, they could only inkle of", Hardy uses it to typically tedious effect, but Samuel Butler in Erewhon Revisited has the lovely line:

People like being deceived, but they also like to have an inkling of their own deception, and you never inkle them.

An inkosi contemplating inkyo

Sunday 30 May 2010

Sir Charles Sedley

Sir Charles Sedley wrote some of the most beautiful poems in English; and you, dear reader, have never heard of him.

There's a reason for that. Sedley was a Restoration poet and a contemporary of Rochester (of whom you have no doubt heard, there was even a film about him with John Depp). At the time both were famous, much printed, and much read. The difference between the two was that Rochester wrote obscene poems and Sedley wrote beautiful ones. Rochester wrote:

Full gorged at another time
With a vast meal of slime
Which your devouring cunt had drawn
From porters' backs and footmen's brawn,

And Sedley wrote:

Love still has something of the sea,
From whence his Mother rose;
No time his slaves from doubt can free,
Nor give their thoughts repose.

This should illustrate the difference both of taste and talent. But - Oh miserable but! - when Sedley had died and the first complete edition of his verse was published, several obscene poems were wrongly included.

This didn't matter much at the time as nobody minded obscenity very much. Sedley and Rochester continued to be popular all the way through the eighteenth century, which T.H.White rightly called The Age of Scandal, until they were both stopped dead by the Victorian period. Rochester, chock full of cunts and cocks, disappeared from the bookshops and bookshelves of the respectable. He vanished from the canon. And poor Sir Charles, with those obscene verses wrongly ascribed to him, vanished too.

Then came the twentieth century. Freud rose, feminism rose, sex revolved, love was free (or at least cheap), and academia became home to a bunch of puerile, giggling, sex-obsessed idiots. In ivy-clad quadrangles pasty-faced dons studied Rochester and squealed with delight because he had used a rude word. 'Look!' they cried. 'He said a naughty thing! Now I'm going to get to say a naughty thing in a lecture! I'm going to be able to write a book paper called The Gilded Vagina: Constructions of the female pudenda 1672-1705 and I'll get to print a dirty word!'

Unfortunately, if you swear as much as I do, it's hard to get excited about the occasional fuck*, and I have never been able to discern any further merit in Rochester's verse.

And Sedley? At the beginning of the twentieth century somebody worked out that the obscene poems had been misattributed. So the verses that had destroyed his reputation under Victoria were no longer there to revive it the period of the New Puerility.

And that is why you have never heard of him. You can still find scraps here and there. He has, quite justly, a couple of poems included The Oxford Book Of English Verse, one of which is called A Song To Celia. I am not sure of this (as I can't be bothered to read the anthology cover to cover) but I think that Song To Celia may be the only poem in the collection without a single simile or metaphor. There are occasional metaphoric uses of words - tied or afford - but other than that the purity and directness of the lyric is astonishing. Here it is in full:

Not, Celia, that I juster am
  Or better than the rest.
For I would change each hour, like them,
  Were not my heart at rest.

But I am tied to very thee
  By every thought I have;
Thy face I only care to see,
  Thy heart I only crave.

All that in woman is adored
  In thy dear self I find,
For the whole sex can but afford
  The handsome and the kind.

Why then should I seek further store,
  And still make love anew?
When change itself can give no more,
  'Tis easy to be true.

And if, dear reader, you are now minded to run out and buy yourself a copy of his complete poems, I should warn you that they are very hard to come by, although up on the net here. My own copy (a birthday present from Mrs Malaprop and Everet Lapel) was printed in 1707. There does seem to be some sort of reprint available on Amazon, but as Sir Charles himself said:

Justice has bid the world adieu,
And dead men have no friends.

Except me.


*It should, perhaps, be noted that Sedley's life was utterly scandalous and debauched, he's most famous for starting a riot by washing his penis in a glass of wine (he was also Speaker of the House of Commons, although I don't think we should hold that against him). This post is poetical and cares not a whit for biography.

P.S. For any North London readers, Sedley lived next door to the Steele's in Chalk Farm.

P.P.S. I honestly didn't realise when I wrote this post that today is the 350th anniversay of the Restoration. I was thinking along the lines of yesterday's post on simplicity of expression.

Saturday 29 May 2010

Writing By Numbers

I remember reading an article (though I can't find the reference) about book titles. Some people had done a study of every book in the bestseller lists for the last fifty years in order to discover what titles made a book sell. They concluded that the most successful form was participle noun and that the most successful subjects to mention were death and flowers. They concluded that the perfect title for a bestseller would be Killing Roses. I disagreed and thought it should be Blooming Murder, or maybe Dead-Heading Begonias.

The world is awash with theories, formulas and recipes for writing. The BBC has an article today saying, with surprise, that in the lyrics of the winning entries of the Eurovision Song Contest one word in every fifty is Love.

This is nothing.

The BBC produces a word-cloud of the lyrics, which looks like this:

(Reproduced from the BBC website without the faintest whiff of permission)

This is also nothing.

Most Eurovision contestants are trying to launch a pop career. These are their first singles. But they're getting it all wrong. There was a band whose first single consisted of 109 words, of which 24 were love. That comes out at around 23%. There were also only eight words of more than one syllable. Their word-cloud looked like this:

The single only reached number sixteen in the charts, but the band did go on to become mildly successful.

N.B. When, a few years ago, Paul McCartney (who wrote Love Me Do) published a volume of poetry, he included all four verses of Why Don't We Do It In The Road?, which made me smile. (If you don't know the lyrics see this link).

Friday 28 May 2010

Prepositions The End Of Sentences At

There is an old, old joke about a chap who asks a librarian what section a particular book is in. 'I'm afraid', says the librarian, 'that I can't answer questions that end with a preposition.' 'All right,' says the chap. 'What section's the book in, you twat.'

This joke is terribly unfair on librarians, because any literate person knows that there is no rule saying that you can't end a sentence with a preposition. It is, as Shakespeare put it, such stuff as dreams are made on. Yet it remains one of those errors that flesh is heir to.

That there is no such rule should be obvious to any English speaker. How would you go about using a phrasal verb in the imperative? 'Out look!' you would scream. 'Down get! On we're being fired!'

Referees would say 'On play.' Off would take planes. And nobody would be allowed to sleep in.

No grammarian supports this wild rule. Fowler calls it a "superstition". Bernstein said that anyone who propounded it didn't have a leg on which to stand. Winston Churchill, who knew his way around a sentence, said it was the kind of nonsense up with which he would not put.

So why, you may ask, is it such a common misconception? Why do so many fools, however inconsistently, assert that there is such a rule? Did they just make up it?

Not exactly.

The rule is utterly unfairly blamed on a chap called Robert Lowth. Lowth was an eighteenth century scholar of ancient languages who believed that it was rather silly that schoolboys learnt their grammar from Latin and that it would be easier for everybody if they learnt English grammar first. So he wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar. This book is much and misleadingly cited. But for you, dear reader, for you I sat down yesterday and read it cover to cover*.

Here is the actual section on prepositions, and it's well worth reading the whole thing.

PREPOSITIONS have Government of Cases; and in English they always require the Objective Case after them: as, "with him; from her, to me."

The Preposition is often separated from the Relative which it governs and joined to the Verb at the end of the Sentence, or of some member of it: as, "Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with." "The world is too well bred to shock authors with a truth, which generally their booksellers are the first that inform them of." This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing;

[Any objections so far, dear reader? Notice the "strongly inclined to"?]

but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.

[That's it. Doesn't sound like a rule to me. It's a little stylistic tip for a particular kind of writing. And just to show that he understood, I shall quote further.]

...But in English the Preposition is more frequently placed after the Verb, and separate from it like an Adverb; in which Situation it is no less apt to affect the Sense of it, and to give it a new Meaning; and may still be considered as belonging to the Verb, and a part of it. As to cast is to throw;  but to cast up, or to compute, an account, is quite a different thing: thus to fall on, to bear out, to give over &c. So that the Meaning of the Verb, and the Propriety of the Phrase, depend upon the Preposition subjoined.

I can't tell whether it is more foolish that that little half-sentence has been taken up by generations of fatuous pedants as an iron law of English, or that for a stylistic suggestion poor Lowth has become the object of so many grammarians' scorn.

Lowth's book has also been blamed for the (utterly fatuous) idea that you can't split an infinitive, which he doesn't mention once. In fact, he toddles along merrily beginning sentences with Ands and Buts and being a good clear writer of English.

So Lowth is less read than condemned. And next time anybody tells you that you can't end a sentence with a preposition, tell them to off piss.

Not Guilty

*The title doesn't lie. It's very, very short.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Hackles and Cockpits

It's vitally important that you should know that hackles (those things that are so often up in this boxing ring that we call the world) are the feathers on the back of a cockerel's neck, which rise when he is angry.

Like this:

Cocks are terribly violent creatures and, like Mancunians, one need only trap a pair of them together in a pit to be guaranteed an amusing fight to the death.

Cockpits are rather cramped and horrid, so naval officers used to refer to their poky little quarters at the front of the boat as the cockpit. Then RAF officers stole the joke and used cockpit for the little cabin at the front of a plane. Then they turned on the autopilot and fell fast asleep.

On the limitations of the Globe theatre:

...can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
   - Henry V

The Inky Fool was astonished to find what was going on in his cellar

Wednesday 26 May 2010


Cameron hails 'radical' programme
   - BBC News

Education Secretary Michael Gove hails a new era in schools
   - BBC News

Police chief hails crime decline
   - BBC News

I should like to become a politician if only to expand my hailing skills. The BBC seems immoderately fond of the word and chucks it in everywhere, but I can't really work out what they mean by it: Greet? Applaud? Worship? I rather like to think of a politician waving frantically at a passing policy and then cursing as it disappears round a corner. I fear that the only thing I have ever hailed is a cab, and the occasional Mary.

The Conservative Manifesto

Formication and Fornication

Formication should never be confused with fornication. One is the delusional belief that you have insects crawling all over (and under) your skin: the other is a Sin.

If the two sensations are combined you should consult either a doctor, a priest, or a lepidopterist.

BARNADINE: Thou hast committed...
BARABAS: Fornication? But that was in another country: and besides, the wench is dead.
   - Marlowe The Jew Of Malta

Fornication and formication

Tuesday 25 May 2010

Deeply Profound and Profoundly Deep at Mach 49.3

Why use one syllable, gentle reader, when you could use six? Why use words that other people will understand when you could be incomprehensible and ever-so-slightly impressive? Why talk of deep voices when you could talk of bathypelagic tones? Why be a profound thinker when you could be an abyssopelagic one? And why not trump both with the extreme of hadopelagic which derives from Hades and refers to those strange canyons that loiter beneath the abyss, filled with Krakens, cabinet ministers and cast off ideas for Inky Fool posts?

Which is all the excuse I need to quote The Kraken by Tennyson

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Which is how I feel when I have to get up early in the morning. (I must do something about the unnumbered and enormous polypi in my bedroom. I'll begin by numbering them).

Incidentally, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea does not refer to depth. A French league is about four kilometers, so that would be 80,000 km or 50,000 miles. As the earth's diameter is a bit under 8,000 miles, that would mean that Captain Nemo et al would be out the other side and floating around in space. But Jules Verne was not talking about depth, he was still harping on about travelling around the world. The point of the book is that the Nautilus can travel long distances (about twice round the earth) without rising to the surface.

Even more abstrusely (and I promise I'll stop after this), in A Midsummer Night's Dream Oberon sends puck to fetch an ingredient for a love potion and adds:

Fetch me this herb; and be thou here again
Ere the leviathan can swim a league

To which Puck replies:

I'll put a girdle round about the earth
In forty minutes.

This tell us two things. First, as the English league is three miles and Puck understands this to be forty minutes we can calculate the leviathan's top speed as being four and half miles per hours, which is about jogging pace and Not Very Impressive. However, as the circumference of the earth is just under 25,000 miles Puck has a top speed of about 37,000 mph, which is more than forty-nine times the speed of sound.

The Inky Fool takes a cruise

Monday 24 May 2010

Sunday 23 May 2010

Ou Sont Les Prawns D'Antan?

The best book I know on English usage is Troublesome Words by Bill Bryson. I don't agree with all of it, mind you; I make it a point not to agree with all of anything, just in case. Yet my thoughts this morning turned to this entry.

barbecue is the only acceptable spelling in serious writing. Any journalist or other formal user of English who believes that the word is spelled barbeque or, worse still, bar-b-q is not ready for unsupervised employment.

Incidentally, a barbecue is a framework of sticks. You can cook stuff on such a structure; but the first use in English, way back in 1697, was to a barbecue bed.

[We] lay there all night, upon our Borbecu's, or frames of Sticks, raised about 3 foot from the Ground
   - William Dampier A New Voyage Round the World

Now I must dash as I'm spending the afternoon at a BB-queue.

Saturday 22 May 2010

Policy Wonks Know It Backwards

The left-winger said all the other candidates were "policy wonks" and "men in their 40s who played football together".
    - Diane Abbott in The Mirror

This takes us to what might prove the biggest problem of all: that four ex-wonks with limited life experience
    - The Guardian

There is, as everybody knows, a figure of speech that if you know something well, you know it backwards. Therefore, if you know something backwards, you wonk it. Hence a policy wonk.

It is the same formation as yob, Llareggub and mooreeffoc, all of which I have blogged upon before. The first words ever said by one human to another were palindromic:

Madam, I'm Adam.

P.S. This is one of those occasions where the OED has clearly got it wrong. They conflate two different uses of the word and then suggest that over-brainy people at Harvard wouldn't spend their time making up semordnilaps.

Friday 21 May 2010

Homer Among the Postmoderns

Here is a postmodern metaphor. It's taken from Richard Brautigan's Trout Fishing in America:

The sun was a like a huge 50 cent piece that someone had poured kerosene on and lit with a match and said 'Here, hold this while I go get a newspaper' and put the coin in my hand, but never came back.

It's postmodern, you see, because it's got lots of utterly unnecessary details like the match and the newspaper that don't help to describe the sun. It just keeps scuttling along for its own sake.

This is in sharp contradiction to how metaphors used to be used. Here is Homer describing a chap called Simoisius being stabbed:

...he was cut off untimely by the spear of mighty Ajax, who struck him in the breast by the right nipple as he was coming on among the foremost fighters; the spear went right through his shoulder, and he fell as a poplar that has grown straight and tall in a meadow by some mere, and its top is thick with branches. Then the wheelwright lays his axe to its roots that he may fashion a felloe for the wheel of some goodly chariot, and it lies seasoning by the waterside.

Which goes to show that time has no dominion and there is nothing new under the sun. The great thing about Homer is that there are so many translations that you can put poets into the ring and force them to fight for you amusement. Above was Samuel Butler's prose translation. Here is the same passage in Alexander Pope's version:

Short was his date! by dreadful Ajax slain,
He falls, and renders all their cares in vain!
So falls a poplar, that in watery ground
Raised high the head, with stately branches crown'd,
(Fell'd by some artist with his shining steel,
To shape the circle of the bending wheel,)
Cut down it lies, tall, smooth, and largely spread,
With all its beauteous honours on its head
There, left a subject to the wind and rain,
And scorch'd by suns, it withers on the plain
Thus pierced by Ajax, Simoisius lies
Stretch'd on the shore, and thus neglected dies.

And here it is in Chapman's Homer (which Keats first looked into):

Cut off with mighty Ajax' lance ; for, as his spirit put on,
He strook him at his breast's right pap, quite through his shoulder-bone,
And in the dust of earth he fell, that was the fruitful soil
Of his friends' hopes; but where he sow'd he buried all his toil.
And as a poplar shot aloft, set by a river side, 
In moist edge of a mighty fen, his head in curls implied,
But all his body plain and smooth, to which a wheelwright puts
The sharp edge of his shining axe, and his soft timber cuts
From his innative root, in hope to hew out of his bole
The fell'ffs, or out-parts of a wheel, that compass in the whole, 
To serve some goodly chariot; but, being big and sad,
And to be hal'd home through the bogs, the useful hope he had
Sticks there, and there the goodly plant lies with'ring out his grace:
So lay, by Jove-bred Ajax' hand, Anthemion's forward race...

Generally, I prefer Chapman's version; but I think in this passage the Twickenham dwarf wins by a nose.

The Inky Fool contemplating a hair cut

Thursday 20 May 2010

Extravagant and Omnivagant Vagabonds

I posted before on the the word noctivagant, which means wandering around at night. A sister word is omnivagant, which means wandering absolutely everywhere. Both words, though lovely, are rather overshadowed by their big, burly brother extravagant which, etymologically, means wandering around outside.

In the first scene of Othello, Brabantio is told that his daughter is making the beast with two backs (first usage) with Othello. This charge is amplified and expounded thuslyly:

Your daughter, if you have not given her leave,
I say again, hath made a gross revolt;
Tying her duty, beauty, wit and fortunes
In an extravagant and wheeling stranger
Of here and everywhere.

Meaning not that Othello is a spendthrift, but that he's Not Local. It's quite easy to see how the word wandered from its original meaning of out-of-bounds to out-of-budget (a budget being, of course, a small budgerigar).

And it all comes back to the Latin word vagari meaning wander, from which we get vagabond, which probably means wandering around too much, or abundantly vague.

Too extravagant a wanderer

The Horse's Mouth

Though I know nothing about horses, I know that you can check their health by inspecting their teeth. This is why you should always look a gift horse in the mouth, a lesson the Trojans learnt to their cost. The horse's mouth, though, is merely a particularly good source for a racing tip. He heard it from the stable-boy, you heard it from the trainer, I heard it straight from the horse's mouth.

I know I am a lone voice crying aloud in the wilderness on this subject, but that paragraph was merely a lead-up to pointing out that you can only truly understand international affairs and the glories of English prose if you read the official news website of the North Korean government. The guy who writes it has clearly just learnt the word bedevilled and this account of the sinking of that South Korean ship is fantastic. Here is an unedited paragraph:

Branding the south Korean puppet conservative group as one of most wicked traitors who bedeviled the north-south relations to serve outsiders, a gang of vicious anti-reunification elements who dampened the nation's desire for reunification, a diehard traitorous clique who scuttled the inter-Korean cooperation and dangerous warmongers keen to bring nuclear war disasters to the Koreans, the indictment cites facts to prove its crimes.

Scuttled is a beautiful, beautiful word. Full article here.

Clearly the North has better curtains

Wednesday 19 May 2010

Sulking in the Boudoir

A lady's boudoir is where she sulks.

Once upon a time there was a French word bouder meaning to sulk or pout and boudoir is simply the sulk-room, like a panic-room but much moodier.

Bouder is probably imitative of puffing your cheeks out, because melancholy is so often accompanied by windy suspirations of forced breath. In exasperation you puff out your cheeks, then you blow the air outwards, perhaps biting your lower lip and making an ffff sound. The whole sound could be transcribed as huff, hence being in a huff.

The first ever person to be tetchy was Juliet (as in Romeo). Her wet nurse decided to wean Juliet by putting wormwood oil on her breast. Wormwood is one of the bitterest tastes in the world and the poor baby did not like it:

For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall;
My lord and you were then at Mantua:--
Nay, I do bear a brain:--but, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!

Incidentally, wormwood has nothing to do with either worms or wood. If you put wormwood into alcohol a chemical called thujone is released which is a rather effective painkiller. The old Germans referred to it as man-courage or wer-mut. Wer was man - as in werewolf or man-wolf - and mut was courage as in modern English mood.

Now go and read this poem and cheer up.

The Inky Fool throws a party

Tuesday 18 May 2010


When Paul Collingwood hit the winning runs through mid-wicket, he sparked wild celebrations never before seen by an England cricket team and with it, lifted the biggest millstone from around a nation's neck. 
   - The Daily Mirror

George Osborne was not too upset at having the inheritance tax millstone — the pledge to increase the threshold to £1m — removed from round his neck.
   - The Times

...the staff pension scheme remains something of a millstone around the group's neck...
   - The Metro

It would be possible, perhaps even desirable, to wander through this life without ever even wondering what a millstone is. The answer, since you ask, is that it is a large stone disk that is ground against another large stone disk. This is not done for fun. Grain is put between the stones, and the result is flour.

Seems obvious, I hear you murmur, but why would you put a millstone round somebody's neck? Isn't that a trifle odd, perhaps even antisocial?

The answer is that Jesus wants you to do it.

Whilst in Capernuam, Jesus called over a child and told his disciples:

And if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck. - Mark 9v42

It would seem relatively clear that Jesus is thinking not of putting the millstone round somebody's neck but of attaching it by means of a chain or a strong rope. (It's terribly important that you get the details right before murdering people, at least that's what I find).

The millstone-chained-to-a-chap's-neck thing was not actually Jesus' idea. It was a reasonably standard Roman punishment*. And He's not necessarily saying that you should tie a millstone round someone's neck, only that it might have been better for him in the long run.

In fact, Jesus didn't say large millstone either. He said donkey millstone, which means the same thing, but is much more fun.

The Inky Fool invites you for a swim

* So saith D.E.Nineham. I can't find anything on the web.

Monday 17 May 2010

Overload Surfeit

On the rare occasions that I settle down to watch sportsmen tossing an orb about, I am struck by the deluge, glut, avalanche, landslide and superfluity of information that is hurled at me both verbally and graphically. Watching the cricket yesterday I was informed of so many personal details of each bowler and batsmen that I was beginning to feel an uncomfortable intimacy. The drowsy lady next to me murmured that it was a "surfeit of information".

I wouldn't have noticed the word except that the idea she was talking about is almost always described as information overload and the lovely word surfeit was like the sun rising at the end of a vampire movie. Etymologically it is almost the same as overload, sur means over and feit means do; but overload has kept such terrible company through the years. It has loitered in the foul alleys of management jargon; it has kept company with mechanics and disgraced itself in the beds of lifestyle consultants. It has been aesthetically debauched.

Surfeit, on the other hand, has an ancient and regal feel. Henry V, upon his father's death, turned his newly monarchical eye on Falstaff and said:

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell'd, so old, and so profane;
But being awak'd, I do despise my dream.

That's the kind of company that surfeit has been keeping. It is a grand word, a word and a slayer of kings. The intemperate King Michael of Poland died of a surfeit of gherkins, which is one hell of a way of sidling into eternity. King Henry I of England perished in France from a surfeit of lampreys. Perishing in France used to be an awkward habit of English kings, so Henry's body was sewn up inside the skin of a bull and taken to Reading.

So enough of the overload overload, dear reader, and bring on a superabundance of surfeits.

Thus do I pine and surfeit day by day,
Or gluttoning on all, or all away.

Death to the Polish!

N.B. Given my usual cruelty to the ladies and gentlemen of the press, it should perhaps be noted that the drowsy originator of this post was a journalist.

Sunday 16 May 2010

All mimsy were the polka-dots

Fashion designer Bella Freud does not “do knitted polka-dots, because they can look a bit naff and mimsy”, I learned from the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella magazine today; while yesterday’s Times suggested that Old Etonians or Wets* who failed to capitalise on their early advantages were “mimsy gits and no mistake”.

Until this year, I had never heard the word “mimsy” in relation to anything other than Lewis Carroll or Jabberwocky**. But now it seems to be everywhere, a useful term of contempt which broadsheet columnists can apply to anything from “well-mannered” books and films, through political correctness, to sorbet-coloured cardigans, the Lake District, Sophie Dahl, femininity and rugby union. In fact, it was a review of Sophie Dahl’s new television series by Simon Hoggart in The Spectator that drew my attention to the resurgence of the word to imply “a certain sort of self-conscious prettiness”.

The OED defines it as "prim; careful; affected; feeble, weak, lightweight" - quite distinct from Carroll's original sense of something between miserable and flimsy. Interestingly, it has been in use in this sense since the late nineteenth century, but it seems to have recently experienced a surge in popularity - perhaps because there has been an explosion in mimsiness, or in anti-mimsy sentiment among the grumpier sort of journalist.

But even without a dictionary definition, there is something about the word which makes it peculiarly easy to understand. Its combination of letters suggests “prIM”, “sIMpering”, “tIMid”, “MIlksop”, “MIlquetoast”, “MuMSY” and “MIddle-brow” or “MIddle-class”, and there are shades of all of these in the way the word is used – although at the most general level it might best be defined as weak and ineffectual, or pretty in a twee, girly sort of way.

Based on this reading, Cath Kidston is the epitome of mimsy (and I write as someone who earlier today squealed in no doubt mimsy delight after discovering two Cath Kidston cushions under a pile of junk in my bedroom). Expensive cupcakes with pastel-coloured icing are extremely mimsy. So, I suspect, is anything by Emma Bridgewater (all those polka dots), and Laura Ashley.

"Mimsy" is not the only word from Jabberwocky to have survived. The others include:

  • Chortle ("O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!’ He chortled in his joy") - Another portmanteau word, invented by combining "chuckle" and "snort". Still used in the same sense.

  • Burble ("The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame/ Came whiffling through the tulgey wood/And burbled as it came") - This had been around since the fourteenth century, when it was a noun meaning bubble (later taking on the additional sense of "pimple"). But it was Lewis Carroll who introduced the current sense of "a murmorous flow of words" (n), or to emit such a noise (v), by combining "bleat", "murmur" and "warble" - although I think there is some reference to "babble" there as well.

  • Galumph ("He left it dead, and with its head/ He went galumphing back") - The meaning of this word has changed slightly since Carroll invented it, combining "gallop" and "triumphant" to create a word meaning "to march on exultingly with irregular bounding movements". Now the OED defines it as "to bound or move clumsily or noisily" - possibly by association with "clump" or "clumsy".
A polka-dot Aga

Dogberry is watching the cricket

* This term appears to refer to someone who, like our new Deputy Prime Minister, went to Westminster School. It sounds improbable, but no more so than Old Wok.

** “Mimsy”, first applied to “borogoves”, was a portmanteau word invented by Lewis Carroll by combining “miserable” and “flimsy”.

Saturday 15 May 2010

Pasteur Pedicular

A rubbish joke:

A woman tells her doting husband that she wishes to bathe in milk. 'Whatever you ask, darling,' says her husband. 'Would you like it pasteurised?'.
'No. Just up to my chin.'

Which does nothing but illustrate how little shifts of pronunciation can cloud things. Pasteurised is, of course, named after Louis Pasteur. Yet we pronounce his name pa-stir. With his milky method we have longened the A and added in a Y to make it past-yer. Perhaps, perhaps our pronunciation has been skewed by a dream of cows in pasture. I couldn't say for sure.

The curious thing is that because of that slight shift you can use the word pasteurised without ever noticing that it must be named after the famous chemist. You see it the second you consider the word, but how often do any of us consider anything? I feel certain I don't. I am a man of wild and imponderable action. Thoughts are for losers.

Put the stress back on the middle syllable of excellent, and you can see how it relates to excel and repel and repellent. Not that that should come as a cataclysmic surprise, merely that the connection was loitering in a dusky corner. By Shakespeare's time excellent had already become a cretic. But it still meant exceeding, rather than praiseworthy as we can tell from Queen Margaret's ever-so-slightly-catty remark to Elizabeth of York:

From forth the kennel of thy womb hath crept
A hell-hound that doth hunt us all to death:
That dog, that had his teeth before his eyes,
To worry lambs and lap their gentle blood,
That foul defacer of God's handiwork,
That excellent grand tyrant of the earth,
That reigns in galled eyes of weeping souls,
Thy womb let loose, to chase us to our graves.

Women, eh? (I have an idea for a line of greetings-cards, as a competitor to Clinton's. On the outside of a card I'd have CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR BABY!!!!! !!! and on the inside I would reprint that passage. Any takers?)

As with pasteurised and excellent, lousy is obviously to do with lice, but how often do you think of that when using the word? The slight shift from the unvoiced S to the Z of lau-zee means that we never think of our diminutive neighbours. Louse-ridden has retained a pure and powerful punch. Lousy has lost meaning and must be replaced. Luckily such a word exists: pedicular. Pedicular (which was suggested to me by an erudite reader) means 'of, pertaining to, or caused by lice'. Pedicular is the thinking man's lousy.

A lousy picture, or a pedicular one

Friday 14 May 2010

Druthers and Tar Babies

There are precisely a million and one little differences between American and British English. The Inky Fool once had to go on the run after stubbing out a fag butt in San Francisco. Here for the sake of mutual comprehension and edification are two strange and wayward usages from that strange and wayward continent:

A couple of days ago I got an e-mail from deepest, darkest America* that concluded:

If I had my druthers, each day would consist of 36 long hours. But some asshole stole my druthers.

Now the first thing I thought was obviously that he'd misspelled arsehole. The second thing I thought was that in ancient Rome the day was divided into twelve hours from dawn till dusk, which meant that during the summer an hour was actually longer. And then I noticed that I have no idea what druthers are.

A split google later I discovered that it's a shortening of would rather (to 'drather to druther) and is an exclusively American phrase meaning preference. The first recorded use is in an 1870 story called Centrepole Bill and goes:

If I was a youngster, I 'drather set up in any perfession but a circus-driver, but a man can't always have his 'drathers.

Which explains something, but not the spelling of Centrepole.

The second reason that I was considering odd Americanisms was a question on the Dear Dogberry page which I recently set up as a kind of agony aunt column. The question concerned an article in The Guardian by the bleeding-heart left-winger Norman Tebbit. He referred to the coalition between Tory and Liberal thus:

A marriage of convenience between those two political tar babies hugging each other to death might make an enjoyable spectacle, but the consequences for the country will be baleful.

Which is all well and good, but nobody in England knows what a tar baby is**. Well, children, once upon a time there was a fox and the fox wanted to kill a rabbit. So the fox took the obvious route of making a baby out of tar and putting a hat on it. The rabbit came past saw the tar baby and said hello. When the tar baby didn't reply the rabbit flew into a rage and attacked it, but as tar is sticky the rabbit became stuck. The more the rabbit tried to extricate himself the more trapped he became.

This story is of doubtful validity at best and there are naturalists who go so far as to dismiss it out of hand. It was a folk tale told in the plantations of the Deep South and was collected by a chap called Joel Chandler Harris and put into his Uncle Remus book.

As the whole point of tar babies is that they are inanimate it is hard to see how they could hug each other to death. There may even be a hint of a mixed metaphor somewhere between the married and homicidal babies.

There are Americans who believe the term to be racist. Americans can detect racism in the way that a compulsive gambler can detect that he'll be lucky today. There is a whole Wikipedia page devoted to Controversies about the word "niggardly".

So now we know about tar babies, but Americans don't know about Norman Tebbit. One country is the winner here, but I'm not sure which.

Norman Tebbit addressing a Guardian-reader

*I have never been to Williamsburg VA but imagine it to be both profound and gloomy.
** This assertion is based on my having conducted a rigorous survey of several people.

Thursday 13 May 2010

P.G. Wodehouse's Pinboard

A fellow once told me that P.G. Wodehouse had a huge, green pinboard in his study. When he had finished writing a page he would remove it from the typewriter, read it over and pin it to the pinboard. If he thought it was a Good Page he would pin it near the top and if he thought it was a Bad Page he would pin it near the bottom.

When he had finished the novel he would take the lowest page from the pinboard, rewrite it and pin it back up. He would keep doing this until all the pages were bunched near the top like coconuts on a palm tree. Then he would take them all down, put them in order, and post them to his publisher.

This seems like a rather good idea.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

Harlots, Wenches, Strumpets, Whores And Fun Days Out In Merton

David Blunkett called Nick Clegg a harlot yesterday, and he should know one when he feels one. So a post on lovable women.

Harlots are of uncertain origin (see this article). The word appears to have originally meant vagrant and Chaucer used the word to describe jugglers. There's a story that when Jean Harlow mispronounced Margot Asquith's name, Margot corrected her saying 'The T is silent, as in Harlow', but that may not be true.

Prostitutes are not, as I once fondly imagined, women who stand in for (pro stituo) wives, they are women who stand in front of brothels.

Strumpet rhymes with trumpet and crumpet, that is the main reason for the word [limericks in the comments please, and if you don't like it you can lump it]. Nobody's quite sure where the word comes from, but it may have influenced guitars:

TO STRUM: to have carnal knowledge of a woman, also to play badly on the harpsichord or any other stringed instrument. [Capt. Francis Grose, "A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue," 1796]

Whore is a cutting indictment of the sexism of our language, or rather amusing, depending on you point of view. Once upon a time (approximately 6,000 years ago) people buried each other in pits and loved one another, an action they called *qar. They invaded India and wrote the Kama Sutra. They invaded Italy, became Roman and called each other carus or dear, then they caressed and cherished their dear ones, cherie, and were charitable towards them. Some of the pit-burying lovers invaded Germany and started pronouncing C as H (car to har) so they fucked whores*.

There isn't much good prose in Anglo-Saxon. There are a few wonderful poems. The Wanderer, Seafarer, Ruin, Wife's Lament and  Beowulf are beautiful. Prose-wise Anglo-Saxon's a bunch of crap. Alfric's colloquies are insanely inane. His Preface to Genesis is worse; and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle exalts upon plateaus of tedium never dreamt of by wet paint. Therefore, to fill out the prose section of any Anglo-Saxon course people insist upon teaching you Cynewulf and Cyneheard, the only almost interesting part of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Basically a chap killed another chap while he was visiting a prostitute. Unfortunately for posterity and teachers of Anglo-Saxon this murder was so bloody exciting that for most of the story the chronicler forgets to mention which one is which. It's all "They said 'Come out" and they said 'No you come out.' Then they came out and they saw them and they killed the them that was they." [I had to do a damned exam on this]

However, to be fair to the chronicler he did say that he [Cynewulf] was : "wīfcȳþþe on Merantūne"

Wif [wife] meant woman and cȳþþe [pronounced coother] meant intimacy.We were instructed to translate wīfcȳþþe on Merantūne as "wenching in Merton". I'm glad that we were. I am glad to have written the word wenching at least once.

Things have changed in Merton. It's just a part of South London. There's no stockade there anymore and I've just discovered that, according to Merton Borough Council's website, the main reason for visiting the place is now the community toilet scheme.

*Before I get beaten to death by an enraged mob of philologists, I should point out that my fixing on the Kurgan pit-burial culture and my use of the word invade are both decisions based on caprice and whimsy.

P.S. I know I mentioned prostitutes last week. I shall try and keep off the sex trade for a while. It's all David Blunkett's fault.
P.P.S. For those of you who like etymology this video is really very funny and fascinating. (Hat-tip to Bradshaw of the Future)

Tuesday 11 May 2010


Idiopathic is an immensely useful word meaning that you've got no idea what the hell is happening. It's a medical term and is there to allow bewildered doctors to conceal their bewilderment. Technically it means of an unknown or obscure cause. So when you turn up at the clinic and explain to the doctor that your pulse is down your glands are up and your right foot's fallen off, rather than saying 'Blimey, I'm flummoxed' the doctor can smile wisely and say 'Hmm, how idiopathic.'

So never again, dear reader! Never again need you admit that you don't understand something. Idiopathy can maintain you in intellectual comfort forever. Failed guesses, bankruptcies, freak election results and unsuccessful seductions can all be dismissed as idiopathic.

You might even add in the word exucontian, meaning out of nothing. It's a theological word, but along with idiopathic is useful for explaining car crashes to the police.

I only know of idiopathic because a doctor friend of mine once told me that I had a strange dark patch on my eyeball. He examined my other eye and found it there too. We worried and fretted about it for a few minutes before he calmly concluded that I had idiopathic eyes and left it at that. I started to feel Miltonic and Homeric and considered morosely that my light was spent. Later I remembered that I wear contact lenses.