Thursday 30 September 2010


Sometimes I just like to sit around and contemplate a word's original meaning. Undermining, for example, is an old military technique used in sieges. One way of getting through the castle walls was to tunnel underneath them until the collapsed. Thus all this talk about David Miliband undermining his brother gives me the image of a bunch of Blairite politicians with pick-axes and miner's helmets chipping away in the dark beneath Labour HQ.

Incidentally, the idea was not that the tunnel would collapse upon the diggers, although I'm sure this often happened. The attackers would dig a little mine under the walls, then they would put an explosive in there, light the fuse and run. That's why explosives are to this day called mines, because that's where they were left. Thus a connection between miners and minefields.

The Inky Fool was interrupted mid-attack

Wednesday 29 September 2010


Quomodocunquizing is an adjective that means, according to the OED, "That makes money in any possible way". It is therefore a Terribly Useful Word.

It's also nearly new, having been used only once in 1652 by Thomas Urquhart, who wrote:

Those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets.

Of course, if you toss quomodocunquizing nonchalantly into a conversation about, say, sponsorship deals in association football, nobody will know what you mean. They will take guesses, and fancies are more fun than facts. Quomodocunquizing sounds something like Quasimodo and has enough K sounds to be hurled from the throat like a German endearment. So if you add on the word clusterfists you will arrive by the back alleys of obscurity at the wide avenues of comprehensibility.

The Inky Fool after a hard day's blogging

Tuesday 28 September 2010

The Twist In The Tail That Wagged The Dog

Anton Chekhov once said:

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.

It's a fine rule: a rule of efficiency, a rule that says don't waste a detail and don't introduce a detail for no reason. However, it's a tricky rule to do well.

Chekhov, on the whole, wrote serious and inevitable works. The gun that hangs upon the wall works well in such situations. It is a portent, a threat, a sword of Damocles and other clichés. The audience see the gun and guess that it will be fired. They are filled with fearful foreboding and that is just the sort of feeling that Chekhov liked to fill his audiences with.

However, if, as a writer, you want the element of surprise, then the rule of Chekhov's gun is terribly frustrating. You have to have it there. You can't whip a gun out of nowhere in the last act. But tragic inevitability is only the alias of dull predictability. Of course the bloody gun is going to go off. No tension there.

The writer of the story with a twist is caught between two failings. He must set up the twist: he must give the audience all the information that they need: he must indeed make the twist appear retrospectively inevitable. Yet he must make sure that the audience do not see the twist coming.

A gunless first act would make the shooting of the second unsatisfying. A gunfilled first act must make it predictable.

There are, so far as I can tell, three ways around this.

First, you can introduce the gun and then stick it in a drawer. You pray to all the gods of narrative that people will forget about it until the drawer is reopened in the final scene, at which point they say 'Oh, of course!'.

This can be done, but it's unlikely. The only way, I believe, that it can be carried off is if you then add in a bunch of unnecessary detail into the remainder of the first act in order to confuse them. There is a gun. It is put into a drawer. Then out come the dancing girls, the sword swallower, the talking elephant and the perpetual motion machine. When the gun is removed from the drawer the audience remember that they had forgotten it.

However, this system breaks the Chekhov rule insofar as it requires unnecessary detail. Otherwise don't put it there. What are you now going to do with the dancing girls?

The other method, and the neatest, is the double usage. Suppose that the story is about somebody facing bankruptcy. In the first act the blunderbuss is on the wall. In the second we discover that it is a valuable antique blunderbuss and that in its barrel is hidden a treasure map (if I were writing this we would only realise that after he'd shot himself. But that's because I'm a horrid person).

The gun must fire. That much is inevitable and predictable, but guns can do so much else besides and that, dear tortuous reader, can provide the twist.

N.B. You will no doubt have noticed that I have not provided a single example in this little essay. That's because I don't want to ruin anybody else's twists. I think, I hope, I forlornly pray, that my theory stands up on its own.

The Inky Fool commits suicide

Monday 27 September 2010


About two thousand years ago a perfectly respectable lady called Elizabeth became pregnant and her husband lost his voice. He stayed silent as a silo until the child was born. The child was called John and when John grew up he began telling people that they were naughty and chucking them in a river. Now, if you or I tried a stunt like that we'd be brought up by the police pretty sharpish. But John got away with it and, if you can believe it, was considered rather holy for all his attempted drownings. Chaps at the time called him John the Baptist.

Seven hundred years later somebody else lost his voice, or at least had a terribly sore throat. He was an Italian chap who went by the cumbersome moniker of Paul the Deacon so he wrote a verse prayer to John the Baptist that went thuslyly:

Ut queant laxis
   resonare fibris
Mira gestorum
  famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti
   labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes.

[O let your sevants sing your wonders on,
With loosened voice and sinless lips, St John.]

Four hundred years later, somebody set this little poem to music. He wrote a pretty, climbing melody, in which each line started a note higher than the last, until with the words Sancte Iohannes it dropped again to the bottom.

So the first note was on the syllable Ut, the one above was on the Re in Resonare, then Mi in Mira, Fa, So, La...

The problem with Ut, though, is that it's a rather short syllable and difficult for a singer to hold. Try it. So it got changed to Do (perhaps for Dominus, but nobody's sure), and that gave do, re, mi, fa, so, la and, by extension, Si for Sancte Iohannes. Then somebody pointed out that there was already a So beginning with S and you couldn't rightly have two of them beginning with the same letter. So Si was changed it to Ti.

Do re mi fa so la ti do

Which is just a shortening of a hymn to John the Baptist. The shortening technique was invented by a fellow called Guido of Arezzo.

So poor Ut was consigned to history, or nearly. It sort of survives. You see the lowest note was also known as gamma, after the Greek letter. So the lowest note of the scale was once known as gamma or ut. Then a whole scale came to be known as gamma-ut. And that is why when you go through the whole scale, you still run through the gamut.

Which means that this explanatory video is a damned lie.

Julie Andrews singing the praise of John the Baptist

Sunday 26 September 2010


Once upon a time a slogan was a battle-cry. When ancient Gaelic warriors raised their kilts and ran into battle they would shout the name of their tribe or their capital before rushing like wolves to the slaughter. If you imagine the modern football hooligan screaming the name of his club, you probably have some idea.

Their army-shouts or sluagh-gairms did not have the desired effect and the English language spread by spear-point and sword into all but the boggiest parts of these rainy islands. Sluagh-gairm was anglicised to slogan and taken up by politicians and plutocrats, cabinet ministers and corporations. Yet, I still like to think of the advertising executives and PR girls girding up their kilts, shrieking their slogans, and running to their brave and selfless deaths.

Friday 24 September 2010

Which John Milton?

According to the news, a dirty poem has been discovered with John Milton's name attached. The poem runs:

Have you not in a Chimney seen
A Faggot which is moist and green
How coyly it receives the Heat
And at both ends do's weep and sweat?
So fares it with a tender Maid
When first upon her Back she's laid
But like dry wood th'experienced Dame
Cracks and rejoices in the Flame.

Though it comes from a 1709 collection of verses, not even Dr Batt, who found the poem, believes that it's by Milton. The working theory is that somebody attributed it to Milton in order to sully, smear and besmirch his reputation. That seems a trifle unlikely to me. By the standards of the late sixteenth century this isn't a particularly dirty rhyme. Certainly if your main aim was to traduce Milton by writing the muckiest rhyme you could imagine, you could have done something an awful lot saucier.

It might be worth noting that John has always been one of the commonest Christian names in England, and Milton one of the commonest surnames. Any medieval chap from a town with a mill could acquire the moniker. Wikipedia has four John Miltons, Facebook two thousand.

Faggot, of course, used to be a pejorative term for a woman, until in the early twentieth century the baton was passed to homosexuals. The poem is also quite neat in its misapplied words: in the first half the wood is, improbably, coy; and this is answered in the second half by the experienced dame's cracking (although at the time a fallen woman could be referred to as a crack).

Milton was rather keen on rumpy-pumpy, but I don't think he would have made a joke about it. The beast with two backs was to him a sacred animal. There was solemnity in his sexuality, if not grandeur in his groin.

They're also a kind of food

Thursday 23 September 2010

Lapse of Meaning

Often, as I write this blog, I lose all sense of meaning. There I am, blogging away about one particular word until I've written it so many times that it stops being a word and becomes instead just a jumble of letters. As in "The word dog was first used for dogs in the dog days and dog became the common word for dog when dogs were first introduced to dog land. Dogs are dogged and so they dog other dogs until dogb..."

Then I throw myself down upon the divan with my smelling salts and linger there, panting, until the word dog has regained significance.

There is a term for this. In fact there are several:

Refractory phase and mental fatigue
Lapse of meaning
Word decrement
Cortical inhibition
Reactive inhibition
Stimulus satiation
Verbal transformation

My favourite of these is lapse of meaning. I am now going to repeat the phrase until I go mad.

The Inky Fool reads the dictionary

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Farther and Further

There's a scene towards the end of Ubik by Philip K. Dick*, in which the hero, Joe, is dying on a staircase.

'Feel any better?' Pat asked.
'No,' he said. And, getting halfway up, lunged onto the next step.
'You look different. Not so upset.'
Joe said, 'Because I can make it. I know that.'
'It's not much further,' Pat agreed.
'Farther,' he corrected.
'You're incredible. So trivial, so small. Even in your own death spasms you-' She corrected herself, catlike and clever. 'Or what probably seem subjectively to you as death spasms. I shouldn't have used the term "death spasms." It might depress you.'

Just so you know, dear and careful reader, farther is generally used for physical distance and further for metaphorical distance. If you are curious about the city beyond the mountains you must travel farther to investigate further.

Onward and upward

*Just read it. Terribly good fun. And, weirdly, this post isn't really a spoiler.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Pluto, Plutocracy and Plutonium

Pluto was the god of the underworld. He was also the god of wealth. That is why we have plutocracy (government by the wealthy), plutocrats and plutomania. This last word either means a frenzied pursuit of money, or the delusional belief that you are already rich. I veer between the two.

Plutonium is not rich, it is so named merely because it is Neptunium's neighbour in the periodic table just as Pluto is Neptune's neighbour in space. Pluto the dog of Disney is named after the planet, or at least he got the name only a few months after the planet, so there must have been some connection.

Finally, Operation Pluto was part of the D-Day landings and stood for Pipelines Under The Ocean.

And with that, this series on planets drifts off into the Kuiper Belt like some lachrymose extra from 2001: A Nine-Year-Old Space Odyssey.

The Inky Fool begs for a loan

P.S. A philoplutary is a lover of money

P.P.S. Anyone considering leaving a comment about how Pluto isn't a planet no more, can take that thought, cover it in brambles, and stick it where the sun only shines very, very faintly.

Monday 20 September 2010


Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

I'm afraid that Le Verrier's Planet, as it was originally called, is rather dull both etymologically and poetically. Most poetry had been written by the time that Le Verrier spotted it in 1846. There is no astrology. No associated metal or character trait. There is an element called Neptunium, but it's not very interesting. There is a theory called Neptunism that suggests that rocks were formed out of the waters of the ocean, which is a pretty idea, but like most pretty things is wrong.

Instead, I shall merely echo Virginia Woolf* in observing that there are some words that should never be used again. Shakespeare's incarnadine, Wodehouse's gruntled and H.P. Lovecraft's gibbous. Incarnadine is, of course, a verb meaning to make bloody.

The only faintly interesting thing about Neptune is that because it's a modern name it is nearly universal. Even the Chinese call the planet "Water King Star".

The Inky Fool hurried to the buffet

*N.B. The Inky Fool does not endorse the works of Virginia Woolf and can accept no responsibility for those who perish from tedium while trying to read To The Lighthouse.

Sunday 19 September 2010


The purpose of Uranus is, of course, to make me snigger. The planet was originally called Georgium Sidus - George's Star - after King George the Third. The name was then changed to Neptune, which, though it's less obviously patriotic, was still meant to celebrate the victories of the British over the revolting Americans. Then a compromise was suggested of Neptune George III, but it was, of course, a foreigner, and a German at that, called Johann Bode who proposed Uranus.

You see, Mars is the son of Jupiter and Jupiter is the son of Saturn and Saturn is the son of Uranus (or Ouranos), so the solar system was allowed to progress like a divine family tree heading outward into the dark.

Bode's suggestion was backed up by a German chemist who had just discovered a new element and decided to call it Uranium in order to make the name fashionable. To the delight of schoolboys all over the anglosphere, it worked.

Uranus, in Greek, simply meant sky or heaven, the god being but a personification. This is the root of the lovely word Ouranophantor, one who reveals heavenly mysteries, and Uranomania, the belief that you are of divine descent.

However, Uranian also used to mean homosexual. This was not because homosexuality might be heavenly, but to do with the birth of Aphrodite as recounted in Plato's Symposium. There are two accounts of the birth of Aphrodite, goddess of love. The first is that she was the daughter of Zeus and Dione, the second that she was the child of Uranus. In the latter case she would have no female parent, and so Plato took the story of Uranian descent to imply that love need not involve a woman.

The term popped up in English in 1893 in the works of John Addington Symonds, who may have invented it. He wrote:

Thou standest on this craggy cove,
Live image of Uranian love.

Uranian was Oscar Wilde's preferred term for his proclivities. In 1898 he wrote a letter to Robert Ross saying:

To have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble - more noble than other forms.

Symonds also called Uranian love l'amour de l'impossible - love of the impossible - whether he or Wilde delighted in the Uranian pun is not, alas, recorded.

Oscar Wilde contemplating Uranus

Saturday 18 September 2010


Until the eighteenth century Saturn was considered the last and farthest planet, the full stop to creation's great sentence. As Milton put it:

Here Nature first begins
Her farthest verge and chaos to retire,
As from her outmost works a broken foe,
With tumult less and with less hostile din.

Just as Jupiter was the father of Mercury, Venus and Mars; so Saturn was the father of Jupiter. And in direct contravention of all the rules of good parenting he used to try and kill all his kiddies by eating them. Jupiter, however, avoided such digestion, overthrew his father and imprisoned him. That is why Saturn wanders such a long and melancholy track, and why those born under his influence are miserable and saturnine.

This is particularly so on Saturn's special day, Saturday, when everybody is unhappy. As Saturn is the god of lead (Mars=iron Venus=copper), saturnism is lead poisoning.

Beats McDonald's

Friday 17 September 2010


Take the French word for god - dieu - and the Latin word for father - pater - and repeat them faster and faster.

Dieu... Pater

Dieu Pater




Jupiter? By Jove, it is! But how (I hear you cavil) can that be? French didn't come till later. True, but then again you could do it with Zeus Pater. It all goes back to a Proto Indo European root: *dyeu-peter, meaning Godfather. That's why even over in India you got the Sanskrit Dyauspita, meaning god the father. In fact, the Romans got their Jupiter from Jove-Pater, which is why the father of the gods is often referred to simply as Jove.

People from Jupiter would be called Jovians, and they wouldn't be nearly as frightening as the martial Martians because they would be jovial.

Jovial originally meant pertaining to Jupiter and therefore mighty. However, if you're born under the planet Jupiter you grow up to be a happy chap, so jovial is an astrological term.

Thursday 16 September 2010

Wladyslaw Lach-Szyrma and the First Martian

According to Brewers the idea of Martians living on Mars was invented by H.G. Wells in 1898. According to Wikipedia the idea was popularised by Percival Lowell from 1893. However, both of these fellows are trumped, beaten and knocked into a cocked chronological hat by the Vicar of Newlyn St. Peter, Reverend Wladyslaw Lach Szyrma. He was, after all, the first person to use the noun Martian in Aleriel or A Voyage to Other Worlds published in 1883.

Aleriel is a novel about an English vicar who meets a Venusian, who's on an incognito tour of the Solar System. The Venusian, Aleriel, describes Venus to him (it's rather like a long matins), and later sends him a letter describing the farther planets and a few of their moons. Aleriel lands his ether-car on Mars and:

buried it in the snows, so that it might not be disturbed by any Martian who might come across it.

And bam! The noun was in our language, as familiar to us now as those other great fictional creatures: the Australian and the American. Martians were originally like this:

Under the forest shade, as we descended, we saw a figure half-human in aspect - erect and dignified - but gigantic in figure. His face was very like a man's and like ourselves, but yet he had a sort of lion look also in his limbs.

We should be very scared of Martians. According to Rev. Lach-Szyrma, they are nine-foot tall, they're vegetarians, they're communists, and they speak Esperanto (or a Martian equivalent). I don't like them one little bit, though Lach-Szyrma thought they were super.

They also live in triangular stone houses with conical metal roofs and have a lot of canals.

Lach-Szyrma seems to have had terribly raw deal in the history of science fiction. There is almost nothing about him on the web*, and I had to go to the Rare Books department of the British Library to read Aleriel. This is odd because science fiction types tend to be a trifle fanatical about noting and archiving every detail of their genre.

Though I disagree with Aleriel's politics and vegetarianism, the book is very pleasantly written and is such a turning point in the history of literature and of our conception of extraterrestrials that it should be in print in some sort of scholarly edition. Its prequel is now completely lost.

It's strange to see a work that predates, essentially*, its own genre. Take this apologetic paragraph from the introduction:

I have endeavoured to avoid as much as possible any conflict with established scientific discoveries; and, indeed, have based my speculations on the known facts of astronomy, only allowing the fancy to have free play where science is, and must be, unable, in its present state, to answer the questions here considered.

Which is pretty much what science fiction is. Most of all, though, I like Lach-Szyrma. There's something cuddly about him, something so wildly hopeful yet politely apologetic. His imagination sailed the solar system in an ether-car, yet his body remained in the vicarage of Newlyn St Peter. When the Venusian describes the capital of Venus he says that it is beyond earthly comparison, but a bit like Edinburgh. The volcanoes of the moon are huge, terrifying and lifeless; but remind him of the Malvern Hills. The Venusian, who is of superhuman intelligence, believes that the strangest thing on earth is that so few people come to weekday services at the parish church.

Poor Wladyslaw. His book is a voice from another world.

I can't find a picture of Wladyslaw, so here is his father Krystyn, who was, of course, a Polish emigré. He was also a soldier, a philosopher and occasional author.

*Somebody has started typing out a brief biography of him here, and then given up. I'd watch out, though, as the page looks hacked and may be virus-ridden.

**I shall not be entering in to huge discussions of what the first science fiction novel is. The point about genre is that it is a form that the public understands and which therefore requires no explanation or apology. A book does not a genre make.

Wednesday 15 September 2010


When God created the English language He very sensibly took several words and made them nearly unrhymable. He did this to stop bad poets going on about love, life and the world. Though you can make it to hurled, you then get stuck with curled and furled. You can't even use whirled because Rhyming With A Homonym Is Cheating. As David Bowie shouldn't have sung in Starman:

I had to call someone so I picked on you.
Hey, that's far out. So you heard him too.
Turn on the TV, we may pick him up on channel two.

World originally meant stuff people do or human life. It therefore got contrasted to Heaven, which is the next world. And from there it came to mean the little planet that the majority of Inky Fool readers call home. Earth, which originally just meant soil (as opposed to, say, water), similarly got saddled with new meaning.

Tuesday 14 September 2010


No reasonable person can look at the word Venus without trying to rhyme it with something. It's like wombat: it's impossible. This is a mite unfair on the poor old lady. Venus has got a terrible press. From her do we get venal, venom, venial and venereal disease.

Vener is the Latin genitive. One early science fiction writer, W.A. Lach-Szyrma (of whom much much more later), wrote:

I must also apologise for the word "Venusian". I know well that compounds ought to be derived from the genitive Veneris; but these are already connected with ideas opposed to those I wish to convey.

Having a planet named after you is small compensation for such indignity. Even Shakespeare in Venus and Adonis makes her out as a slightly dotty and unwanted nymphomaniac.

Her Greek equivalent Aphrodite rhymes with nightie and gave us aphrodisiac.

I have already blogged about Venus of the Beautiful Bottom, and know nothing about fly-traps.

The Inky Fool was in a hurry and couldn't chat

Monday 13 September 2010


For the next few days we shall devote ourselves, dear star-crossed reader, to the study of the wandering stars, or stellae errantes, vulgarly known as planets. The first of these and the closest to the sun is Mercury.

Once upon a time the Romans traded stuff, which they called merx. From this we get merchandise, merchant, market, mercenary and mercer. Merx also meant that the god of trade was called Mercury.

To each planet was assigned a metal: Saturn had lead, Jupiter tin, Mars iron, and Venus copper. However, the only planetary-metallic name to have survived is mercury, the stuff you find in thermometers and tuna.

Also, those born when the planet Mercury is ascendant are liable to be fast-moving and energetic and, in a word, mercurial.

P.S. To amalgamate something is to combine it with mercury. It's an old alchemical term that seems to derive from malagma in Latin, which meant bandage.

Sunday 12 September 2010


Ephectic means habitually suspending judgement. If you are ephectic you are reasonable not rash, not pacy but ponderous. I believe it may be a useful word, but I'm not sure yet.

Just the place for a suspending judgement

Saturday 11 September 2010

The Duck-Billed Platypus

The platypus is a strange creature. When a specimen was first sent back to Europe from the eldritch antipodes it was widely thought to be a fake that had been stitched together from the parts of other animals. But the Inky Fool is interested only in words.

First, some irritating people insist upon latinising their plurals. I have deplored and condemned this habit already. But platypus is one of those lovely cases where latinising leaves the pedant with linguistic egg upon his face. The plural would not and could not be platypi. The word is Greek in origin and the plural would therefore be platypodes, or flatfoots.

Secondly, I have already written of how telegrammists paid by the word, and how this changed their prose style. Pennies sharpen the mind and the nib. Probably the most efficient telegram ever written was on the subject of the humble flatfoot. A platypus is a kind of monotreme. Monotremes are very odd mammals, if indeed they are mammals at all. The platypus is venomous (the poison comes out of a spur on its ankle) and can locate its dinner using electricity. They were also rumoured to lay eggs, but nobody was sure of this until 1884 when a naturalist called W.H.Caldwell found a platypus nest. He was terribly excited, but he was also in Australia and wanted to get the news back to a proper country as soon and as cheaply as possible so he sent a four word telegram:

Monotremes oviparous, ovum meroblastic.

Which means: platypuses lay eggs and within those eggs the young is formed from only a part of the yolk.

Thirdly, one of the greatest poems in the English language was written about a platypus. It is by Lord Patrick Barrington and describes the dazzling career of a duck-billed platypus in the British Foreign Office. The first stanza runs thusly:

I had a duck-billed platypus when I was up at Trinity,
With whom I soon discovered a remarkable affinity.
He used to live in lodgings with myself and Arthur Pervis,
and we all went up together for the Diplomatic Service.
I had a certain confidence, I own, in his ability,
He mastered all the subjects with remarkable facility;
And Purvis, though more dubious, agreed that was clever,
But no one else imagined he had any chance whatever.

And you can read the rest here.

Finally, what do you get if you feed a mallard to a cat?

A duck-filled fatty-puss.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Hogwarts, Hobbits and Priority

I was leafing through Finnegans Wake on the lavatory (the price of Andrex being what it is) and I came across this little passage:

Are you right there, Michael, are you right? do you think you can hold on by sitting tight? Well, of course, it's awful angelous. Still I don't feel it's so dangelous. Ay, I'm right here, Nickel and I'll write. Singing the top line why it suits me mikey fine. But, yaghags hogwarts and arrahquinonthiance, it's the muddest think that was ever heard dump since Eggsmather got smothered in the plap of the pfan.

J.K. Rowling, j'accuse! This proves what most literate readers have always suspected: that Harry Potter is nothing more than a thinly-veiled reworking of James Joyce's masterpiece.

The word Hogwarts also pops up in the Molesworth books where it is the title of a play that Nigel writes in Latin, the script of which consists pretty much of the word Eheu, meaning alas.

Of course, it's the second simplest thing in the world to look at the phacochoerus africanus, or warthog, and flip the name around in your head until it fits with hogwash. This has been done thrice: by Joyce in 1939, by Geoffrey Willans in 1953, and by J.K. Rowling in 1997.

Just so you know: warthogs have funny, wartish protruberances on their faces, and hogwash is the kitchen leftovers that are fed to pigs.

A much more peculiar question of priority comes from John Aislabie Denham, who was a folklorist in the first half of the nineteenth century. He wrote a list of mythical creatures that ran thus:

...ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, blackdogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-Wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom Thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks necks, waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins, Gyre-carling, pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles, korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description...

The odd thing is that that was published in 1859 and there is no evidence at all that Tolkien ever saw it. Hobbits don't appear anywhere else until John Ronald Reuel published The Hobbit, or There and Back Again in 1937.

It's impossible to know what the hobbit that Denham recorded might have been. Presumably the hob is just a shortening for Robin, as in hobgoblin (which appears twice in the list). Robin and therefore Hob was a popular name with demons like Robin Goodfellow. However, the bit is lost to history. Perhaps it just meant small, in which case a hobbit would be a small demon, the infernal answer to a godling.

Incidentally, if that list made you curious (and I recommend reading it through) Wikipedia has it up with lots of links here.

Fiat justitia, ruat copyright!

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Myoclonic Jerk

Do you ever, dear reader, just as you're falling asleep, suddenly twitch and wake up? For no reason? I do. It's a terribly common phenomenon; and there is, dear reader, a name for it. It is a myoclonic jerk.

The reason I like myoclonic jerk is not simply that it gives a name to the nameless, but that it sounds like a term of abuse. 'That guy', I can rant, 'is a myoclonic jerk.'

It wouldn't matter that the sentence would be meaningless, because it would sound right.

Incidentally, if you ever experience a myoclonic jerk while you're not falling asleep, you are, in the words of doctor friend of mine, "absolutely fucked".

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Pedigrees and Perigees and French Cranes

Here is a pretty picture of some cranes, or grues as the French call them.

Here is a detail showing you the crane's foot or pied de grue as the French call it.

Here is a family tree of the languages derived from Proto-Indo-European.

Do you see the pied-de-grues? Do you see the pedigree? That is because lineages resemble both trees and cranes' feet.

A pedigree should never be confused with a perigee, which is the opposite of an apogee and therefore a low-point. You may, though, if you are the black sheep of your family, be the perigee of your pedigree.

I can fanatically recommend the excellent philological book Pedigree: Words From Nature. It's a trifle odd, though, as it costs £5.68 in Britain, and $140 in America. I may start a hedge fund for rare books.

Incidentally, if you have three toes you are technically tridactylic and generally unfortunate. I have an irrational hatred of people who have toes missing. I fear I may be lack-toes intolerant.

Monday 6 September 2010

Wodehouse's Imaginary Divas

P.G. Wodehouse used to write musicals. Indeed, that's where most of his money came from for a long time. He also did us all a favour by writing about writing. Unfortunately, both books (The Performing Flea and the expanded Wodehouse On Wodehouse) seem to be out of print. But I read them so you don't have to.

Anyway, when writing musicals the problem for Wodehouse was the performers. Actors may be cattle, but they are vicious cattle. Wodehouse had to accommodate the whims, vanities and contracts of the stars, starlets and gas giants of Broadway.

"Why don't I have any good lines in this scene?" they would demand. "I don't even go on in act two." "I demand a huge emotional moment to display my roscian powers."

One would imagine that poor Pelham Grenville would have been happy to get back to his novels and short stories. There, alone with his typewriter and his imagination, he would be free. But this was not the case.

Wodehouse realised how right the actors were. You simply can't leave a character without a good line. You can't drop somebody half way through a story. Everybody needs a personality or tic. So he would make a point of imagining that he was writing for horrid, vain, demanding actors. He would try to foresee and forestall their complaints and vanities.

And the result was the Blandings books and the Jeeves books and the Psmith books and that whole heap of wonderfulness that we read today.

Often, Constraint is the doting mother of Invention, whilst Freedom sits among her squalid brood refusing even to change Drivel's nappy.

Wodehouse arguing with an actor

Saturday 4 September 2010

Jedward Jedwood Justice

I am reliably informed that there is a boy-band called Jedward. There is also an old practice called Jedwood justice which means, according to Brewers: "Putting someone to death and trying them afterwards."

It derives from the border town of Jedburgh where they used to do this rather a lot. I feel that Jedward and Jedwood justice, though etymologically unrelated, could usefully be brought together.

Incidentally, Jedburgh is terribly important in the history of geology and therefore in the history of history. It was by studying the rock formations nearby that James Hutton worked out his idea of geological time. Geological time stretched the earth beyond the petty grasp of human history or human understanding. In geological time, as Hutton put it:

We find no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.

Which is a lovely example of antithesis.

Hutton contemplating Jedwood for Jedward

Friday 3 September 2010

Heroines on Heroin

Once upon a time cough medicines all contained morphine, and because morphine is a trifle addictive this was a problem. People were too worried to cure their coughs. They thought that it was better to hack a little than to become a junkie.

So a German pharmaceutical company called Bayer decided to develop an alternative. They got out their primitive test tubes and rude retorts, and worked out a new chemical: diacetylmorphine, which they marketed as a "non-addictive morphine substitute". Like all new products it needed a name. Diacetylmorphine was all right if you were a scientist, but it wasn't going to work at the counter. They needed a name that would sell, a name that would make people say: "Yes! I want to buy that product!"

So the marketing chaps decided to call it Heroin, because apparently it made you feel heroic. And guess what? It did sell.

Heroin remained a Bayer trademark until the First World War; but the "non-addictive" part turned out to be a trifle misguided.

And that's why heroines are connected to heroin. Incidentally, the adjective for a heroine is heroinal (as distinct from the unisex heroic). Heroinal, though, has been used only once, in 1652, by Sir Thomas Urqhart who wrote the words:

Her mellifluent and heroinal breast...

Oh, and if you are ever offered "heroic measures" in hospital, it does not mean that you're going to have a tall, dashing doctor. It means that they're going to give you dangerous doses because you're probably going to die anyway.

The Inky Fool's accommodation arrangements are coming along fine

Thursday 2 September 2010


Nobody knows where the word hornswoggle came from. It popped up mysteriously in America in 1829, came to England, and was still being used by The Sunday Times as recently as 1970.

Hornswoggle meant to embarrass, bamboozle or cheat. It survives today, if it can be said to survive at all, as the stage-name of a small professional wrestler, who also likes to be called Little Bastard.

I feel hornswoggle should be reclaimed by the non-wrestling community. Saying the word aloud is almost as delicious a sensual pleasure as wamblecropt.

Try it. Go on.


Wednesday 1 September 2010

Lofts, Attics and Garrets

To move house I had to clear out the loft. A loft is, of course, aloft. It is up in the air and therefore cognate with the German Lufthansa and Luftwaffe (which just means air force).

Loft is a far older word than attic. Attics are Attic because they're Greek. In a Greek temple you have lots of big columns. Sometimes you have another smaller set of columns on top. They are characteristic of classical Athenian architecture and Athens was the capital of Attica.

The technical term for a small section at the top of a temple then became a jocular term for the small space above a house. The word was first used in this sense by Daniel Defoe in his Tour of Great Britain, in which he also described Hampstead (which I am leaving) thus:

But it must be confest, 'tis so near heaven, that I dare not say it can be a proper situation, for any but a race of mountaineers...

Attics should be used for storing mad women and cash.

Garrets (which originally meant watchtowers) should be used for storing artists.

The Inky Fool leaving Hampstead