Tuesday 30 November 2010

The Etymology of Ranks

The Antipodean wrote to ask why the army contains many majors and no minors. This ignores child soldiers, but is a good excuse for running from the bottom brass through to the top.

The modern ranks were only arranged a few hundred years ago. This means that many of the etymologies make no sense at all. Heads outrank horse-servants, and biggers are smaller.

A corporal has nothing to do with corporal punishment. He comes, via caporale and capo, from caput, the Latin for head*. This is odd as a corporal is the lowest and least of non-commissioned officers.

A sergeant is simply a servant, and is therefore superior to the head.

A lieu-tenant is simply French for a place-holder, or a substitute. The idea is that if I can't be present in person I can send a somebody to take my place and to act with my authority. American lieutenants are loo-tenants, because they're incontinent. English lieutenants are left-tenants, because they're all socialist. French lieutenants have women.

A captain, like corporal, derives from the Latin caput, meaning head.

Major is Latin for bigger. A major was originally a shortening of sergeant-major or bigger servant and his rank has been steadily rising. In Catch-22 a chap whose name is Major Major Major is promoted to the rank of major through an administrative error: thus becoming Major Major Major Major.

A colonel is, literally, a colonnade. A colonnade is a line of columns and a colonel is the chap marching at the head of a column. In a nutshell, colonels have nothing to do with kernels, and there is no truth in them.

Generals are, in general, the general head of the army. It is a shortening of captain general, which was formed along the same lines as attorney general and Estates General and other post-positive adjectives. Generals are therefore generic and genetic, ruling over a genus of soldiers.

I have always wilfully misunderstood Hamlet's line about a play being "caviar to the general" as referring to a gourmandising soldier. The phrase actually means that, just as caviar is disliked by the general public, but loved by gourmets, so the play he refers to is unpopular with the hoi polloi, but appreciated by those who know about such things. I am certain that Shakespeare must have used the phrase himself, before giving it to Hamlet.

Fields Marshals are not, etymologically, martial. Martial comes from Mars, the god of war and relates to martians. Marshals, on the other hand, are mare-skalkaz or horse-servants. Thus putting them, etymologically, below corporals, which shows how logical the army is. It also makes Marshall Ney's name even more amusing.

And soldiers themselves: the word derives, as I have already mentioned, from salt. This means that, if you're an officer, you have salty privates.

Incidentally, what do you get if you drop a grand piano on a barracks?

A flat major.

Now repeat with a pit-shaft.

*Although some say that the reverse is true.

Monday 29 November 2010

Smarting Phones

I recently bought a smart phone, and when it was delivered I seemed to hear the voice of Cleopatra shrieking at me:

Horrible villain! or I'll spurn thine eyes
Like balls before me; I'll unhair thy head:
Thou shalt be whipp'd with wire, and stew'd in brine,
Smarting in lingering pickle.

People still do smart from their wounds, especially those wounds inflicted by a smart bomb, and it occurred to me, smart Alec that I am, to wonder whether there was a connection. There is.

Smart, as an adjective, originally meant painful and had everything to do with the verb smart, which meant hurt. However, we've always had a soft spot for stabbing. We think knives are clever. Sharp, cutting and incisive are all synonyms for intelligent, and the same thing happened, in the seventeenth century, to smart.

Smart Alec's surname was Hoag and he was a pimp and a pickpocket in nineteenth century New York. Smart phones were first mentioned in 1978. And Smarties, everybody's favourite oblate spheroid, have nothing to do with anything.

The Inky Fool trying to look smart

N.B. If you look at the Inky Fool on your iPhone, then press the + in the bottom middle and click "Add to Home Screen" - Hey Presto! You have an Inky Fool app.

Sort of.

Sunday 28 November 2010


Every Englishman gets a little bit excited about words that begin with an X. We shouldn't, but we do. The Xaviers of Xinguara and xylophonists of Xai Xai may mock our cruciform delight: but to our startled eyes that opening X is filled with fantastic foreigness. It is, if we are honest, the only reason that we ever use the word xenophobia.

From the same root as xenophobia comes xenagogue. A pedagogue leads children, a demagogue leads the people, and a xenagogue leads foreigners. For a xenagogue is nothing more than a humble tour guide dressed up in obscure finery, and starting with an X.

How much more exotic would be our holidays if we entrusted ourselves to xenagogues! Gone would be the grating familiarity of the giftshop and instead we would recapture some magic of travel, some hint of the impossible that is otherwise hidden beneath a thousand atlases.

You don't even need to go abroad. A xenagogue can lead strangers around. The first recorded xenagogue is from Lambard's must-read: A Perambulation of Kent (1570).

The places of which I meant to take note in this my xenagogie and perambulation of Kent, the first and only shire that I have described.

You too, dear reader, can be a xenagogue. Simply show somebody around. At a push you could xenagogise to guests in your own home. And then, you too, dear xeader, would begin with an X.

Then you celebrate by pouring yourself a xeric martini.

The Inky Fool had been map-reading

Friday 26 November 2010

St Peter Out

Here, dear reader, for your instruction and edification are two passages from the Acts of the Apostles.

And laid their hands on the apostles, and put them in the common prison. But the angel of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought them forth, and said, Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life. And when they heard that, they entered into the temple early in the morning, and taught. But the high priest came, and they that were with him, and called the council together, and all the senate of the children of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the officers came, and found them not in the prison, they returned and told, Saying, The prison truly found we shut with all safety, and the keepers standing without before the doors: but when we had opened, we found no man within.
   - Acts 5v18-23

And when he had apprehended him, he put him in prison, and delivered him to four quaternions of soldiers to keep him; intending after Easter to bring him forth to the people. Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him. And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. And, behold, the angel of the Lord came upon him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. And the angel said unto him, Gird thyself, and bind on thy sandals. And so he did. And he saith unto him, Cast thy garment about thee, and follow me. And he went out, and followed him; and wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision. When they were past the first and the second ward, they came unto the iron gate that leadeth unto the city; which opened to them of his own accord: and they went out, and passed on through one street; and forthwith the angel departed from him.
   - Acts 12v4-10

The phrase peter out goes back to Michigan in 1854 and a book called Puddleford Papers or Humors of the West, which contains the line:

He hoped this 'spectable meeting warn't going to Peter-out.

Without the out you can get back another nine years to the Wild West of Wisconsin. An old prospector is complaining of how his luck has disappeared:

When my mineral petered why they all Petered me. Now it is dig, dig, dig, drill, drill for nothing. My luck is clean gone - tapered down to nothing.

Nobody knows why the phrase peter out should mean mysteriously disappear. There are four speculative theories.

1) It's to do with St Peter denying Jesus three times.
2) It's to do with a seam of rock in mining having been exhausted, because St Peter was the rock upon which Jesus would build his church.
3) It's to do with the French word péter meaning fart, because péter dans la main is a French phrase meaning fart in the hand or come to nothing.
4) It's to do with a seam of rock in mining having been exhausted, because it's all been blown away with explosive saltpeter, otherwise known as potassium nitrate.

I don't think any of these work. Peter's denials seem irrelevant and his rockiness doesn't have anything to do with disappearance. The French word is pronounce pay-tay and is an odd intrusion into Midwestern English. Saltpetre, which is usually considered the most convincing, doesn't work because it implies explosion, whereas petering is always about quiet and inexplicable disappearance.

However, anybody who knows the New Testament knows that St Peter is forever mysteriously disappearing. In a faintly Christian country, the twelfth chapter of Acts is all you need to explain Peter as a slang term for enigmatic escape, or silently slipping away.

UPDATE I've just come across the verb to peter in a dictionary of London slang from 1860 where it means "to run short, to give out". As the earliest American version is only 1846, that means that well... I'm no longer convinced of the US origin.

Can't a chap get some sleep?

Thursday 25 November 2010

Loving St Catherine's Butterfly

Today is the commemoration of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a fourth century lady who said that she would only marry a man who was prettier, posher, wealthier and wiser than she. She ended up being metaphorically and mystically married to Jesus and was then martyred by being broken on a wheel.

She is therefore commemorated to this day as a firework.

Being broken on a wheel was a nasty business. Essentially you were tied to a wheel and then smashed - in the thoroughly literally and rather painful sense of being hit with a club. After this, as an added extra, your mangled members could be woven between the spokes and then left as breakfast for the birds.

The practice of letting the birds eat the dead is called a sky burial. It is also the completion of the famous phrase wear your heart on your sleeve. In the first scene of Othello, Iago mocks the impracticalities of honesty thus:

For when my outward action doth demonstrate
The native act and figure of my heart
In compliment extern, 'tis not long after
But I will wear my heart upon my sleeve
For daws to peck at.

Daws are, of course, jackdaws.

Anyway, to return to execution by wheel, it is a practice that is famously unnecessary for lepidopterists. Pope (the most quoted poet in English) pointed out that such a grisly and gruesome method of execution is needless when it comes to butterflies, and thus spawned a proverb. The butterfly Pope was talking about was John Hervey, a camp courtier to Queen Caroline, whom he nicknamed Sporus:

Let Sporus tremble — "What? that thing of silk,
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a Butterfly upon a Wheel?"
Yet let me flap this Bug with gilded wings,
This painted Child of Dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose Buzz the Witty and the Fair annoys,
Yet Wit ne'er tastes, and Beauty ne'er enjoys,
So well-bred Spaniels civilly delight
In mumbling of the Game they dare not bite.
Eternal Smiles his Emptiness betray,
As shallow streams run dimpling all the way.
Whether in florid Impotence he speaks,
And, as the Prompter breathes, the Puppet squeaks;
Or at the Ear of Eve [Queen Caroline], familiar Toad,
Half Froth, half Venom, spits himself abroad,
In Puns, or Politicks, or Tales, or Lyes,
Or Spite, or Smut, or Rymes, or Blasphemies.
His Wit all see-saw between that and this,
Now high, now low, now Master up, now Miss,
And he himself one vile Antithesis.
Amphibious Thing! that acting either Part,
The trifling Head, or the corrupted Heart!
Fop at the Toilet, Flatt'rer at the Board,
Now trips a Lady, and now struts a Lord.
Eve's Tempter thus the Rabbins have exprest,
A Cherub's face [see picture, above right], a Reptile all the rest;
Beauty that shocks you, Parts that none will trust,
Wit that can creep, and Pride that licks the dust.

Hervey was not universally unpopular. Dr Johnson was so fond of Hervey's entire family that he once announced:

Call a dog Hervey and I shall love him.

N.B. Hervey is pronounced Harvey.

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Miserable Biscuit-Whores

Once upon a time there was a Hebrew word migdal meaning tower. On the shores of Galilee was a fishing village with a tower.  This village was called Magdala Nunayya, which is usually translated as Magdala of the Fishes, but could equally be rendered The Fishy Tower.

From there, probably, came a lady called Mary from Magdalen. Mary was possessed by seven demons, until a chap called Jesus drove them all out and got crucified. Mary from Magdalen was present at the crucifixion and, by all accounts, was rather upset by it.

In pictures of the crucifixion she is shown crying, weeping, lamenting and ululating. So much did she weep, and so often was she painted, that her name, without the G, became a byword for misery. And that is way sad people are maudlin to this day.

The disappearing (and reappearing) G is also the reason that the Magdalen[e] Colleges Oxonian and Cantabrigian are both pronounced maudlin. And the people there are miserable.

It's also the reason that girls named after Saint Mary Fishy-Tower are called Madeleine. One such girl was Madeleine Paulmier, who was a French pastry chef* and invented a kind of biscuit called a madeleine. Marcel Proust ate a madeleine and it reminded him of lost time and he went to live with a swan.

Finally, Mary Fishtower's reputation took an nasty knock in 591, from which it has never recovered. Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon in which he seems to have confused and compounded several different biblical ladies. He identified Mary Fishtower with the woman taken in adultery and therefore reckoned that she was a repentant prostitute. The confusion stuck and that is why Mary Magdalene is usually portrayed as voluptuous, if lachrymose, blonde. It is also the reason that Magdalenism means prostitution.

All of which means that one could theoretically have a maudlin and magdalenic Madeline eating a madeleine.

A typical day at Magdalene College

*This is disputed, and the OED doubts her existence.

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Saint Pants

I think, by default, that my long-schemed week of saints is upon us. Now gaze, dear reader, upon my all-compassionate underwear.

Once upon a time there was a chap who probably didn't exist and who probably wasn't called Pantaleon. Legend has it that he was personal physician to Emperor Maximinianus. When the emperor discovered his doctor was a Christian he got terribly upset and decreed that the doctor should die.

The execution went badly. They tried to burn him alive, but the fire went out. They threw him into molten lead but it turned out to be cold. They lashed a stone to him and chucked him into the sea, but the stone floated. They threw him to wild beasts, which were tamed. They tried to hang him and the rope broke. They tried to chop his head off but the sword bent and he forgave the executioner.

This last kindness was what earned the doctor the name Pantaleon, which means All-Compassionate.

Anyway, in the end they got Pantaleon's head off and he died. By the tenth century he had become the patron saint of Venice. Pantalon therefore became a popular Venetian name and the Venetians themselves were often called the Pantaloni.

Then in the sixteenth century came the Commedia Dell'Arte: short comic plays performed by travelling troupes and always involving the same stock characters like Harlequin and Scaramouch.

Pantalone was the stereotypical Venetian. He was a merchant and a miser and a lustful old man, and he wore one-piece breeches, like Venetians did. These long breeches therefore became known as pantaloons. Pantaloons were shortened to pants and the English (though not the Americans) called their underwear underpants. Underpants were again shortened to pants, which is what I am now wearing.

Pants are all-compassionate. Pants are saints. So think, dear reader, upon my martyred underwear.

I've always liked the lines from Kubla Khan:

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Because I imagine the earth to be wearing thick pants. This etymology also means that Liar, liar, pants on fire is wrong, because they couldn't burn Pantaleon.

History does not record and this mosaic does not reveal whether St Pantaleone wore pants.

P.S. There's also a word pantaloonery, which means either fooling around like Pantalone, or the material used for making pants.

Monday 22 November 2010

A Hymn To Sheila

Today, as all Australians must be aware, is Sheila's Day. That is because Sheila is merely the Irish equivalent of Cecilia, which is the female equivalent of Cecil, which ultimately derives from the Latin caecus, which meant blind.

Anyway, today is St Cecilia's day, and St Cecilia is the matron saint of music. Thus this day is devoted to the muses.

Sheila (as I like to call her) only obtained this honour through a misunderstanding. She was a martyr of some sort in the second or third centuries, and an early account of her death said that she was stifled by being locked in her bathroom which was then overheated with air from red hot pipes, or candentibus organis. This seems to have been misread as cantatibus organis, which meant she was stifled while the organ played.

Anyway, writing hymns to St Cecilia has been a standard poetical business for years. Poets must describe music, which is a lot harder than you think. You get some lovely lines, like these by Pope:

Till, by degrees, remote and small,
The strains decay,
And melt away,
In a dying, dying fall.

Or these from Auden:

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,

But the best are the closing lines of John Dryden's , which given his usual mediocrity is a miracle attributable only to the intervention of a saint.

So when the last and dreadful hour
This crumbling pageant shall devour,
The trumpet shall be heard on high,
The dead shall live, the living die,
And Music shall untune the sky.

And here is the whole Auden poem set to music by Benjamin Britten.

P.S. St Cecilia's body is, allegedly, in a church in Trastevere which I visited a couple of months ago. I would have knelt and prayed but somebody was playing the organ very, very badly, and it quite put me off.

Sunday 21 November 2010

Sonnet 21 and the Lost Original

Imagine, dear reader, that five hundred years from now all the James Bond films have been lost, but people are still watching Austin Powers.

Sonnet 21 is not a good sonnet. In fact, it's a bad sonnet. I doubt you've ever noticed it. If you have read it, you probably moved straight on to Sonnet 22 without giving it another thought, and I wouldn't blame you if you did.

But Sonnet 21 is quite peculiarly bad and it gets worse the more you look at it. Here it is in full. Afterwards I shall explain what's wrong with it. Then I shall give you my fantastic theory on why it's like that.

So is it not with me as with that Muse,
 Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
 And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,
Making a couplement of proud compare
 With sun and moon, with earth and sea's rich gems,
With April's first-born flowers, and all things rare,
 That heaven's air in this huge rondure hems.
O! let me, true in love, but truly write,
 And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother's child, though not so bright
 As those gold candles fixed in heaven's air:
  Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
  I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

Many things are wrong with this sonnet: duplication of rhyme, inelegant repetition, tautology, faulty imagery, stupid words, pointless ambiguity and ill-matched lists. Let's take them one by one.

Duplication of rhyme

The second quatrain goes air-ems-air-ems, and the third goes ite-air-ite-air. You can't do that. Shakespeare doesn't do that. In no other sonnet does he allow himself to repeat a rhyme, because it's awkward and it's lazy and it doesn't work.

Inelegant Repetition

Shakespeare repeats the phrase Heaven's air to no rhetorical purpose. It's fine to repeat a phrase for effect (We will fight them on the beaches. We will fight them in the fields.). But to do that you need to organise your repetitions; to repeat something without reason or structure is just sloppy.


Heaven's air is a tautology. Where else would the air be? What else is heaven? Shakespeare was stupidly repeating a phrase that was already stupid.

Faulty Imagery

Both lines involving Heaven's air have ill-formed metaphors. How can the air hem something? The image of a hem is taken from needlework. Heaven's tapestry might hem in a huge rondure, but heaven's tautologous air cannot.

Nor is air a suitable material for fixing gold candles. The walls of creation might hold many candelabra, but heaven's air can't. Imagine trying to get the wall-plugs to stay in place.

Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare did not mix his metaphors: taking arms against a sea  is not a confusion, but a deliberate image of futility.

Stupid Words

Couplement and rondure are both silly, latinate words. The word couplement does crop up in Love's Labours Lost, where it used by Don Adriano De Armado whose language is so hifalutin that he "speaks not like a man of God's making". Shakespeare knew couplement was ridiculous, rondure he just made up.

Pointless Ambiguity

Painted in the second line is odd. Does it refer to make-up, as is usual in Shakespeare? If so, the idea isn't taken any further. One would expect Shakespeare to go on about how his love is naturally beautiful, and the other's love is all cosmetics. Or is it to do with painting, as in art? It's ambiguous, but it's an ambiguity that adds nothing to the poem.

Ill-Matched Lists

"With sun and moon, with earth and sea's rich gems" is not a proper group.

Then in the blazon of sweet beauty's best -
Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow -

That's a proper group: five parts of the body. Sun, moon, earth and stars would make a proper group: but in this line you switch from heavenly bodies to gems. Moreover, you do so awkwardly because the earth looks as though it fits with sun and moon, before you realise that it's the earth's gems that he's talking about. This one is really puzzling. It would be so easy for Shakespeare to have pulled out earth, air, fire, water or any other conventional group. Why this mismatched gallimaufry?

So much for the problems. Here's one solution. Shakespeare was not writing about bad poetry in general. He was writing about one particular bad poem.

That original poem would have these faults:

1) Duplication of rhyme.
2) The phrase heaven's air
3) A misplaced needlework metaphor
4) References to sun, moon, earth and sea's rich gems, April flowers etc.
5) Preposterous praise
6) Endless comparisons
7) Long, fatuous, Latinate words
8) Something to do with painting
9) General awfulness

How did this poem actually go? We don't know. It is lost, gone and vanished like an old oak table. But it is possible to reconstruct it. And, just for you, dear reader, I have done exactly that. Aren't I kind? Here is my (deliberately awful) original.

I saw a portrait of my love today
 Yet, though the painter failed not in his art,
A brush and human hand could not portray
 The image tapestried upon my heart.
The sun itself cannot her brightness feign
 The pulchrous moon, beside her, is not fair.
Sea-sapphires counterfeit her eyes in vain,
 Red rubies to her lips shall not compare.
Frail Nature must within her confines keep
 And Art, unpotented, must mutely stare.
The jealous stars must gaze on her and weep
 Those golden candles fixed in heaven’s air!
  All tellings fade, like April’s first-born flowers;
  Her beauty is beyond all earthly powers.

Mr W.H. tells Will that he admires this monstrosity. Shakespeare, miffed, points out all of the faults and then, just to prove his point, writes this response:

So is it not with me as with that Muse,
 Stirred by a painted beauty to his verse,
Who heaven itself for ornament doth use
 And every fair with his fair doth rehearse,
Making a couplement of proud compare
 With sun and moon, with earth and sea's rich gems,
With April's first-born flowers, and all things rare,
 That heaven's air in this huge rondure hems.
O! let me, true in love, but truly write,
 And then believe me, my love is as fair
As any mother's child, though not so bright
 As those gold candles fixed in heaven's air:
  Let them say more that like of hearsay well;
  I will not praise that purpose not to sell.

It makes a lot more sense now, doesn't it? They are not faults, but parodies: not accidents but allusions. Nor am I merely being kind to dear old Will. You may have noticed that the standard against which I found fault was Shakespeare himself, and Shakespeare is unlikely to be worse than Shakespeare.

As I say, imagine a future where James Bond has been forgotten, but Austin Powers survives.

Could have been worse

Saturday 20 November 2010

The Waters Of Life

The word whisky is not recorded before 1715, when it leapt into the lexicon with the sterling sentence "Whiskie shall put our brains in a rage." Philologists, though, are reasonably agreed that it comes from the Gaelic* uisge beatha meaning water of life.

Why? Because alcohol was already called aqua vitae in Latin. Alchemists, who were trying to turn base metal into gold, could find consolation for their failure in the fact that it's pretty damned easy to distil alcohol, which they called ardent spirits or aqua vitae.

The principle and the translation were not taken up solely by drunken Scotsmen. The Scandinavians called their home-brew aquavit, and the French called their brandy eau de vie.

However, the true water of life is a delightful euphemism for human urine. This should be drunk in moderation. Some say that it shouldn't be drunk at all, but urophagia is not to be sniffed at. Morarji Desai, who was Prime Minister of India, used to start every day by drinking the liquor brewed in his own internal distillery, which he always referred to as "The water of life". He said that Gandhi did the same. The Gandhi Institute denies this, although Mahatma's shrine was recently washed in cow-piss.

*Not to be confused with a gay lick.

Friday 19 November 2010


A mugwump is a derogatory word for somebody in charge, or for somebody who affects to be above petty squabbles and faction. The plodding boss and the pompous peacemaker are both mugwumps.

Mugwump is therefore an eminently useful word. It has a preposterous sound: the ug and the ump get across the idea of plodding stupidity, and context can give it meaning.

The origin of the word is extraordinary and involves the first American Bible.

There was a seventeenth century chap called John Eliot who was a protestant, a puritan and a colonist in America. He wanted to convert the local natives - the Wampanoags - to Christianity and to do so he needed a Bible in their language. He learnt Massachusett, the language of the Wampanoags, and then had to invent a writing system to get it down on paper. The result was Eliot's Massachusett Bible of 1663: the first Bible ever printed in America.

Eliot had the perennial translator's problem of finding words for concepts that don't exist in a language. The Algonquians had no centurions, no captains, no generals and so what was he to do when such fellows cropped up in the Bible? He decided to translate all of them using the Wampanoag word for war leader: mugquomp.

Mugwump then disappeared for a hundred and fifty years. There is neither citation nor quotation until the early nineteenth century when it pops up again as a comical and derisive term for a boss.

So long is the silence, that some say that John Eliot's mugquomp has nothing to do with the nineteenth century mugwump. The OED avers that there is no reason to connect the two.

I might believe the OED, were it not that the first modern mugwump it cites is from Vermont in 1828. Vermont is only just to the North of the Wampanoag homeland. This alone would test coincidence to the limit. The second citation is from Rhode Island in 1832 and Rhode Island is slap bang in the middle of Wampanoag territory. Had mugwump reappeared in California or Dorset, I might credit it as an independent coinage. But geography being what it is I am as certain as certain can be that mugwump is mugquomp, and that the first American Bible produced a fine American insult.

We also know that the Wampanoag population of Martha's Vineyard were still using Eliot's Bible in the mid-eighteenth century. All of which means that the OED seems to be rather too exucontian in its derivations.

So bring on the mugwumpery! Insult your boss and when a petty peacemaker belittles your battle, smack the mugwump in the face.

And with that our tribal hebdomadary comes to end. As John Eliot said just before he died: "Welcome joy!"

An editorial meeting at the Inky Fool offices

P.S. I'm sure there's a Sgt Bilko episode where he bets on a horse called Mugwump, but I can't find it.

Thursday 18 November 2010

Christmas Solved By A Snark

If, and the thing is wildly possible, you are even now, dear reader, trembling at the thought of all the horrible gifts that you will have to hand out to sundry and all to mark the celebration of the birth of Our Lord; weep no more, for your confusion about presents for young and old have softly and suddenly vanished away.

I don't know how many of you have been following The Hunting of the Snark blog, but, dammit, you should have been.

Essentially, there's a fellow in Montreal called Mahendra Singh who has been lovingly illustrating Lewis Carroll's poem and providing an erudite commentary on each picture. His is a combination of art and interest that cannot be commended to too high an altitude.

I remember once seeing a copy of Moby Dick, on the cover of which the illustrator had put a picture of a blue whale. It is a sad truth of illustrations that they are often drawn by people who care not a jot or tittle for the content of the book. Not so here. The chap, obviously, cares. Indeed his care may border on lunacy, but that's none of my business. The point is that this is not some fly-by-night illustrator knocking out a job in a week: it is a labour of love, a work of whimsy, and an opus of obsession.

The relation of all this to December 25th?

His work is now being published by Melville. It will be, I don't doubt, one of the finest editions of our times. Moreover, it can be given as a present to both children and adults: from cradle to care-home. Moreover, you don't even need to worry that the receptor of the gift might already have a copy: the point is that he doesn't have a copy with those lovely illustrations. I already own four editions of Snark, but am rabid for this one.

Thus the problems of Christmas are solved with one fell swoop and swooping fall.

Amazon UK link

Amazon US link

And the blog itself is here.

Others, I'm sure can find it by going to Amazon and searching.

Since you ask, dear reader, my favourite lines from the Snark are the following:

He had brought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!"

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our Captain to thank:"
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best --
A perfect and absolute blank!"

Christmas with the Inky Fool

N.B. I need hardly mention that I have never met the illustrator in question and that this advice aims to profit only you, dear reader.

N.Better. I shall return to tribes tomorrow.

Artesian Stella Behind The Arras

If it weren't for Hamlet, nobody would know what an arras is. Had the tapestry behind which Polonius hides been called a tapestry, then the word arras would have been tossed into the river of lexical Lethe and sunk silently into the world's oblivion.

It is an arras because the town of Arras, in what's now north eastern France, was once a stronghold of embroidery, just as Chesterfield must be full of sofas, and Parma full of pigs. Arras was called Arras because it was the capital of Artois, from which must have come the Artois family. The scion of this noble line was Sebastian Artois, who, in 1708, became the master brewer of the Den Horen brewery. By 1717 he had got the brewery renamed in his honour. And the rest is, as they say, is lager: that unnecessarily sweet concoction known to the world as Stella Artois or Wife-Beater.

Artois is a shortening of the post-classical Latin Artesiensis. If that word sounds familiar, it is the fault of monks digging holes.

Carthusian monks in the lowlands of Artois (or Artesiensis, as it then was) would tunnel their way through the impervious rocks beneath them, until they came to the pervious rocks that were sodden with water. This water was being pushed down from the highlands but now, thanks to our in-habited friends, could spurt to the surface.

Such Artesian wells became known as Artesian Wells.

Artesian comes from the Latin Atrabatensis, which was itself just a variation of Atrabates. What was Atrabates? Wrong question! Who were the Atrabates? They were a tribe, a Gaulish tribe who fought Caesar and lost and did all sorts of other exciting things, but never expected that they would become wells, tapestries, and Bad Lager.

Atrabates, incidentally, just means inhabitants. However, the Carthusian order does not admit ants.

Hamlet steals the Inky Fools duvet

Wednesday 17 November 2010

Hooch and Moonshine

Admiralty Island, off Alaska, is a big island teeming not, as the name might suggest, with admirals; but with bears. Sixteen hundred of the furry monsters* wander around being ursine, befouling the woods, and outnumbering the human population by a ratio of three to one. Admiralty Island was originally named Fortress of the Bears, or in the native Tlingit language: Xoots-noowu, anglicised to Hoochinoo.

Anyway, in the eighteenth century a few europeans arrived there to trade furs (it was a bear market), and then in the late nineteenth century a lot of Europeans rushed over to search for gold. When they found that there wasn't any gold they cleverly decided to get drunk. This is where they hit upon the central problem of the whole island: a lamentable lack of liquor stores.

So the natives hit upon the bright idea of brewing their own booze and selling it to the despondent gold-diggers. The health-giving properties of this moonshone homebrew can be deduced from this 1915 citation in the OED:

They [the Chilcat tribe] were about to set out on an expedition to the Hootsenoos to collect blankets as indemnity or blood-money for the death of a Chilcat woman from drinking whiskey furnished by one of the Hootsenoo tribe.

Yeah. That kind of whisky. The good kind.

Anyhow, hoochinoo was a bit of a mouthful both literally and metaphorically, and had soon been shortened to hooch. And that, my child, is why we call cheap whisky hooch to this very day.

Our thanks to the wonderful people of Bear Fortress was to give them smallpox.

It should be noted that though a hoochie-mama may occasionally partake of hooch before engaging in hootchy-kootchy, the terms appear to be unrelated.

Incidentally, moonshine is so-called because it is brewed illicitly by the light of the moon. Moonshine can also mean nonsense or a month. As the younger and bastard brother Edmund says  of his inheritance in King Lear:

Thou, Nature, art my goddess; to thy law
My services are bound. Wherefore should I
Stand in the plague of custom, and permit
The curiosity of nations to deprive me,
For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines
Lag of my brother?

Things the Inky Fool does when drunk

*It should be noted that I don't mind our plantigrade brethren except when they insist on nudity. I can't bear bare bears.

Tuesday 16 November 2010

Pariah States and Pariah Poets

Here is a picture of a parai. As you can tell, dear reader, a parai is a drum. Specifically, it is an ancient Tamil drum.

Like eggs, carpets, and the England football team, it is in the nature of a drum that it should be beaten. In the festivals of Kerala and of Tamil Nadu such drums are beaten by members of a particular tribe and so that tribe was named the Paraiyar.

The poor Paraiyar were considered to be unclean. The first mention of them in English comes from Samuel Purchas' Pilgrimes (1613) and reads:

The Pareas are of worse esteem.... reputed worse than the Divell.

In fact, the Paraiyar were considered to be beneath everybody except the washermen and the shoemakers (who were a load of cobblers*). So put upon and oppressed were the Paraiyar that, among the European invaders of India, they became a byword for outcasts. The Portuguese spelt the name Paria, and we, being British and fond of unnecessary 'H's called them Pariahs. Hence the word.

English has now acquired the phrase pariah state which is thrown hither and thither like a befaeced tennis ball. But in fact, no Pariah state exists. The Paraiyar are alive and well, but have neither independence nor autonomy.   

There was, though, a Pariah Poet. His name was Tiruvalluvar and he once wrote:

Call him not 'man' who makes display of useless words:
Call him but 'chaff of humankind.'


The fool's intrusion in th'assembly of the wise
Is like one placing dirty feet upon a lovely couch.

I'm not sure that Tiruvallar and I would get along.

Well, I'd never do a thing like that.

*Cockney rhyming slang: cobblers' awls = balls.

Monday 15 November 2010

Carib Cannibals

We shall now have a week of posts on tribes and the tremendous words that they have given to language. (Tribes are probably tribes because there were three (tri) tribes in ancient Rome).

When Christopher Columbus arrived in Cuba he discovered that the natives called themselves Los de Caniba, he then sailed on to Haiti where they told him that they were called Caribes. This is because in the old Caribbean languages Ls, Ns and Rs were pretty much interchangeable (which must have been confusing if you were called Rory and ate lollies).

One word - Caribs - survived as the name of a sea. Canib, with a bal on the end, survived as the designation of the culinary eccentricities found in those tropical climes; for the Caribs were anthropophagi.

So that's the Ns and the Rs dealt with. But what (I hear you cry) of the Ls? Well, dear reader, that was a good question and well asked. Now can you think of a writer who set a play on an island? Can you? Can you think of the name of the savage character in that play? Can you? Well you damned well should, you bookless freak. Caliban in The Tempest.

Ban! Ban! Ca-Caliban!
Got a new master, get a new man.

Yeah, him. So far as anybody can tell Shakespeare took the name from his reading on shipwrecks and exploration that formed the basis of the his last play.

So Caribbean, Cannibal and Caliban all come from one word with an ambiguous consonant in the middle.

Columbus was terribly pleased to hear that they were Canibs, because he assumed that the Canibs were subjects of the Great Khan, and therefore that he had succeeded in reaching Asia through the West. In this the poor chap was mistaken, but it shows the hope and foolishness that etymological speculation may engender.

Now, like Othello, I have spoken...

...of the Cannibals that each other eat,
The anthropophagi and men whose heads
Do grow beneath their shoulders.

Just on the offchance that you're interested, Othello is here alluding to the greatest travel book ever written: The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, which is a delightful filigree of fibs from the late fourteenth century. What's interesting about the Othello line is that Mandeville had been completely debunked a few years before Othello was written.

Mandeville's Travels was a wonderful medieval fantasy that could not stand up to the cruel siege of truth. There was even a satirical play put on in London about how foolish Mandeville's stories were, just before Othello came out. So Shakespeare is deliberately associating Othello with a foolish, mythical and laughable past.

Mandeville itself was partly based upon the Anglo Saxon Wonders of the East which contains this piece of information, which, like me, is more beautiful than true:

Then there is a certain island in the Red Sea where there is a race of men called by us Donestre. they are shaped like soothsayers from the head down to the navel, and the other part is similar to a man's body. And they know all human languages. When they see a man of a foreign race, they call him and his fellows with the names of known men, and with lying words they deceive him and seize him. and then, after that, they devour all of him, except the head, and then they sit and weep over the head.

The Donestre in an Anglo-Saxon manuscript

Sunday 14 November 2010


Methinks, does not have anything to do with thinking.

The Old English had two verbs that sounded alike: thenkan and thinken. Here's the rub: thinken didn't mean think, but thenkan did, indeed that's where our word comes from.

Thinken meant seem. This word has just about died out. It survives only in the phrase it seems to me or me thinken, now contracted to a single word: methinks.

So the thirtieth most quoted line of poetry is: "The lady doth protest too much, it seems to me", as Shakespeare said of the suffragette.

It's an odd little rule of English that we don't like the sound enk. You cannot wenk, lenk or senk, but you can wink, link and sink (and I often do). Such words may have existed, we always turn the E to an I.

English grudgingly admits the enk sound occasionally, in such words as enclosure. Yet even there we confine enk to the unstressed syllable, and tend to pronounce it inklosure, as in Inky Fool.

The Inky Fool was, of course, once known as Enki, and was worshipped by the Sumerians as their god of wisdom. How are the mighty fallen!

The Enki Fool in happier times, talking to a fish.

Saturday 13 November 2010


If something is preposterous it is arsey-versey, back to front and versa-vice. That is because it is pre (before) post (after) erous. It is beforeaftererous. It is preposterous.

The word was, by the way, coined by Erasmus.

The Inky Fool in a hurry

Friday 12 November 2010

Paradoxical Workers

The first two words of the Daily Telegraph the other day were "Unemployed workers". The article then went on about the root and branch (but not trunk) reforms of the benefits system.

I liked unemployed workers. I liked it for a lot of reasons. First, it is an oxymoron in the proper rhetorical sense. Like Shakespeare's:

O heavy lightness! Serious vanity!
Misshapen chaos of well seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!

Or Bart Simpson's "This sucks and blows at the same time." Or "She's hot and she's cool" or "Military Intelligence". In that sense it fits happily into the language of dating and love that I wrote about the other day.

Second, there is the distant ancient voice of Marxism calling from the front page of the Telegraph. Workers of the world unite! To a convinced communist there are only workers and the bourgeoisie, just as in the eyes of God there are only sinners and saints. The notion that a worker is a worker whether he works or no has a long linguistic pedigree.

And in a related sense, there is the idea of the working class: from the great triumvirate of upper, middle and... working. It is the euphemism denied by context: rather like tourist or economy class on an aeroplane.

Finally, unemployed workers recalls that great paradox of identity. Is doing being, or being doing? Or, as Frank Sinatra put it: do-be-do-be-do-be-do.

The famous French tosspot, Jean-Paul Sartre, observed that if you spend all day every day waiting tables, then it's no use claiming that you are, in reality, an artist. In reality you are a waiter. He denied an interior truth that might, like a potent dream, outdo the mere existence.

And all that in two words. The Daily, Shakespearean, Marxist, airborne, anti-Sartrian Telegraph is one hell of a read.

N.B. The phrase was confined to the print edition, which just goes to show that you should fork out hard cash if you want the gems.

Thursday 11 November 2010

Wagering the Wages of War

You can't really wage anything other than war. You can try, but it sounds rather odd. Indeed the phrase waging war gets stranger the more you look at it. A wage war should be similar to a pay dispute, or what job advertisements so euphemistically refer to as a competitive salary.

There is a connection between all these different wages, and indeed to wagers. But you have to go back to the fourteenth century.

A wage was, originally, a pledge or deposit. It was something given in security. From this wage you quite easily get to the modern wager: it is merely the stake, or deposit, thrown down by a gambler. It's also reasonably simple to see how money given in security could end up meaning money given as pay. And war? That's a trifle stranger. It involves trial by combat.

In medieval law it was considered quite reasonable to settle a legal dispute by duelling to the death. Though somebody had to die, lawyers fees were, at least, kept to a minimum. In Latin that was vadiare duellum; in English you waged [pledged yourself to] battle.

Not war. Battle. It was, after all, a technical legal term for the violent and slicing resolution of individual arguments. You wagered your body in mortal combat. However, it's easy to see how the sense of waging battle extended from the promise of violence to the act, and then expanded from the battle to the war.

This last shift in meaning could reasonably be described as wage inflation.

The Inky Fool solving a wage dispute

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Taliban Classes

Taliban means students, but class means called to battle.

Taliban means students. There's an Arabic word tālib, meaning student, and, if you make that into a Pashtun plural, you get taliban. This is because the Taliban were, originally, just a small group of religious students who wanted to clean up Kandahar. They then got carried away, as capering students often do, and invaded Kabul.

Class, on the other hand, means those called to fight. There was a Proto Indo European word *kele, that meant, shout. From that the Romans got the verb calare, meaning call to arms. The early Roman population were always getting called to arms. When there were calared, the male population would form up as a c[a]lassis, and set off to find some Sabine women to rape.

The Roman king Servius Tullius divided the Romans into six classes so that he could tax them more efficiently, and so classis then came to mean a group. A classis could still be a military group like an army or a fleet, in the same way that an English division can still be military. But class could just be a part of a whole. Thus a school or a society could be broken up into classes, and the animal kingdom could be classified.

Incidentally, the reason that they are classified ads, is that they are arranged by subject, just as the Roman subjects were arranged for battle.

The Inky Fool found cross-dressing was much less fun in Kabul

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Save The Words

I can do nothing better today than to recommend to you this article in The Guardian, about the website savethewords.org. Essentially, it's a site where they will give you an obscure and moribund word and encourage you to slip it into conversations, letters, ransom notes and the like. The idea is that words like mingent and sparsile will thus live again.

Mingent means urinating, and sparsile describes a star that is not in any constellation. Though mingent amuses, I think sparsile is more sad and more slipinable. I am a sad and sparsile wanderer, or The Defence Secretary is not part of any of the powerful groups within the party and his sparsile position has left him vulnerable in a reshuffle.

So toddle over to savethewords.org. It may be quixotic, but I hate windmills.

"Come forth, Lazarus!" But he came fifth and lost the job.

Monday 8 November 2010

Wikipedia, Cyclopses and Fastchild

I was musing on the word encyclopedia. Did it have anything to do with cyclops? Well, sort of. Can you see the root in encyclopedia, dear reader?

You should. Even pig-ignorant Welsh vigilantes can see that root. Still no idea? Then you are not qualified to attack doctors in South Wales.

Ten years ago, there was one of those flurries of interest in child molesters that so regularly beset our nation. Some right-thinking, high-minded, chaps in Newport quite reasonably decided to take matters into their own hairy hands when they discovered that nearby lived a paediatrician.

They, quite correctly, realised that paediatrician (child doctor) derives from the same Greek root as paedophile (kiddy-fiddler) and, in a philological frenzy, ran down to the poor doctor's place and painted the word PAEDO on the front of her house.

Quite right too. Or nearly right: technically the Greek for child is pais, and paedos is the genitive, but we'll let that slide. The important thing is that the mob should have taken the same direct action against, pedagogues, practisers of orthopaedics, and encyclopedia salesmen.

I mean, if you're going to terrorise people on the basis of etymology, you might as well be thorough. I know I am.

An encyclopedia is called an encyclop[a]edia because of the circle of learning that Greek children undertook. There is a circle (cyclos) of the liberal arts, and youth (paedos) is, in this case, synonymous with education.

So where does all this leave that peculiar portmanteau and source of all truth: Wikipedia? Well wiki is the name of a simple method of making web-pages that can be edited by many users. It was designed to be simple and Very Fast and was therefore called wikiwikiweb. Wikiwiki means very fast. It is an intensifying reduplication of the Hawaiian word wiki, which means fast.

And what does that mean? It means that the biggest website in the world is called FASTCHILD, and is about be destroyed by an angry mob from Newport.

This also allows for the delightful possibility that somebody who is overly fond of Wikipedia is a wikipedophile. (Incidentally, wiki should be pronounced witi, that's how the Hawaiians do it).

And the cyclops? A cyclops is a round-eye or cyclic-optic. So there is the cyclic connection, but there are, thank heaven, no children involved.

N.B. Anybody insisting that the plural of cyclops is cyclopes will be hurled to an angry mob of Welsh vigilantes.

Sunday 7 November 2010


A gundy-gut is a fatso, a porker and a lard-arse. But you had guessed that already, hadn't you? It's like a greedy-guts, but a little more fun, and a little more Eighteenth Century.

The Inky Fool contemplating elevenses

Saturday 6 November 2010


To be fashionable nowadays we must 'brunch'. Truly an excellent portmanteau word, introduced, by the way, last year by Mr. Guy Beringer, in the now defunct Hunter's Weekly, and indicating a combined breakfast and lunch.

I had always thought this strange, hermaphroditic meal was invented by twentieth century Americans. But that quotation is from the Punch magazine of August 1896. Lunch, by the way, is simply a shortening of luncheon, which comes from none-chenche, or noon drink*.

However, the brunch to which I must now flee, doesn't start till one.

Maybe I shall have a noon drink now.

*Though there is much disagreement and disputation upon this point.

Friday 5 November 2010

No Tigers in the Tigris

I spent yesterday evening pottering about a beautiful exhibition on the tiger in Asian art, and wondering to myself whether the River Tigris in Iraq got its name because it was filled with aquatic tigers. I was miserable when I discovered that there is no connection whatsoever.

However, the Tigris (perhaps arrow) and the Euphrates (perhaps good ford) do mark the borders of Mesopotamia, which literally means between the rivers; just as a hippo-potamus is literally a horse-in-a-river; just as the name Philip or Philippos or Philos-Hippos literally means lover of horses; just as Phil-adelphia means brotherly love; just as the Adelphi in London was constructed by four brothers: John, Robert, James and William Adam.

None of which has anything to do with Delphi, which was named after dolphins.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears
Then imitate the action of a tiger.

The Inky Fool had let his garden get out of control.