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.


  1. Surfeit gherkins as a cause of death is truly extraordinary. Worthy of having an entire film - Monthy Python style - created around it.

    I just heaved a large, satisfied sigh. Just from reading you.

  2. The Antipodean18 May 2010 at 05:36

    A lovely word indeed. For some reason there is a sudden dearth of cricket information in the Antipodes. I am therefore about to disgorge my woe by being mildly picky.

    While I have added 'surfeit gherkins' to my emergency list of potential band names, why not a gherkin surfeit? Or a surfeit of gherkins?

    While being quite taken with the imagery of aesthetic debauchery, I think the mechanics would have grimy beds. Lifestyle consultants would have a wide variety of beds, depending on the lifestyle involved. Some may well be grimy, but I suspect the beds of most consultants (lifestyle or otherwise) would involve extravagent threadcounts and / or silk, and possibly mirrors. Which may not help clarify the adjective, but distracted me from cricket for several minutes.

  3. curious georgina18 May 2010 at 06:01

    King John reportedly died from a surfeit of peaches, which may or may not have been exacerbated by an accompanying surfeit of cider. My favourite historical death, though, is being drowned in a butt of malmsey. Do you really think so many people died from eating, though? Did they simply eat so much more than us; was there something toxic in peaches/ lampfreys/ gherkins which modern agriculture/pisciculture has bred out; was the food rotten (quite possible) or poisoned (equally possible); or was "surfeit" an accepted medieval euphemism for something far more horrible or embarrassing?

  4. Deborah, my script for that film is already at the casting stage. Jim Carey as King Michael and Judi Dench as an unscrupulous gherkin saleswoman and Leonardo Di Caprio playing a gherkin.

    Antipodean, you're quite right and grimy is gone. And in gratitude I promise not to begin the next post with a reference to cricket.

    Georgina, my knowledge of history is almost entirely based on 1066 And All That, in which all the monarchs die of a surfeit of something. Whilst writing I was unable to untangle reality from their version (in which Henry I dies of a surfeit of palfreys).

  5. It'll be a change from his usual role as a potato. Right, Fran?