Friday 30 December 2011

Glamorous Grammar

I've been pootling through William Goldman's The Princess Bride and came across this line:

glamour is an ancient concept. See "glamer" in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Well... depends what you mean by ancient as glamer is merely eighteenth century. But the fun thing about glamour is that it's grammar.

The glamour of grammar is a bit easier to understand if you consider the French grimoire, meaning book of incantations and spells. Once upon a time, grammar meant any sort of writing or learning. Writing, to those who don't do it, is a mysterious business and so a book of spells and magical incantations became known as a grammar or, by slight French alteration, a grimoire (which has nothing to do with grim).

In Scotland such magical grammars started to be pronounced with a L instead of an R, and thus a Scottish word for a spell was a glamer, usually in the phrase to cast a glamer over. Glamer became glamour and was imported back into English English by Sir Walter Scott, usually in the phrase to throw a glamour on somebody.

And so by the late nineteenth century, our modern glamour had emerged.

So it's just the old L-R confusion. And, if you want to know how that works, watch the video below:

Requiescat In Pace

Thursday 29 December 2011


Sometimes, a word simply sounds right. Such a word is mungy, with a soft, j-like G. Say it. Mungy. I barely feel it needs explanation, but in case you can't guess it means overcast and damp. You might find mungy stuff under a woodpile, although the word usually applies to the weather; and always applies to the weather in the Lake District.

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Hob and Nob and Hobnobbing

I have been asked by Twitter whether there is any connection, however tentative and tangential, between hobnobbing and hobbledehoy. The short answer is No, because nobody has any idea where hobbledehoy comes from. However, I did discover the true meaning of hobnobbing, which is much more fun than I expected.

The first record of hob nob is found in Twelfth Night where an angry duellist is described thuslyly:

He is knight, dubbed with unhatched rapier and on carpet consideration; but he is a devil in private brawl: souls and bodies hath he divorced three; and his incensement at this moment is so implacable, that satisfaction can be none but by pangs of death and sepulchre. Hob, nob, is his word; give't or take't.

Hob appears to come from the Old English for have, and nob from have not. However, the meaning of hob nob seems to have shifted slightly to give or take - in this case the knight will either give death or take it, but it is a mortal duel.

However, hob or nob quickly became a much more friendly term when combined with a few drinks. If I fill a festive flask and say, 'Here's to you, dear reader of this ridiculous blog,' and you say 'No, here's to you, dear writer of this ridiculous blog,' then we can be said to have toasted each other hob a nob.

Hob nob became a shortening of such mutually amicable bibosity, so that in 1762 Oliver Goldsmith could have the line:

Hob nob, Doctor, which do you chuse, white or red?

And soon such friendly exchanges became known as hobnobbing.

Anyway, after nearly a week at number one on the Amazon bestsellers list, I can gaze with monumental patience on The Etymologicon's comfortable lapse to second place. I shall go and unearth for myself a beaker of the warm South, pop the cork and drink a toast to all of you, dear readers. I shall hob, whether you nob is up to you.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Lurgy, Lurgi or Lurden

Apologies for lack of posts. I have been struck down with a loathsome and lingering lurgy. Lurgy is a purely British term for an unspecified but horrid disease that is doing the rounds, and it was invented by comedians. The first recorded case of lurgy appeared in a 1959 episode of The Goon Show Lurgi Strikes Britain*. That episode was written by Spike Milligan and Eric Sykes, so I blame them for my current condition.

However, the OED, in an uncharacteristic fit of theorising, suggests that those writers may just possibly have got it from fever-lurdan, or the disease of laziness. Fever-lurdan was a facetious term not recorded after 1806, but its last recorded spelling was fever-largie, so maybe there's something in the connection. I'm either too lazy or too ill to research further.

By the way, as a fun bit of trivia, Jimi Hendrix first started taking acid because it made listening to the Goons much funnier.

Merry Christmas one and all.

*The Goons spelled it Lurgi, the OED has it as Lurgy, presumably to differentiate it from lurgi the chemical process of gasification (which is horribly relevant to me).

Saturday 24 December 2011

Trivial Musings

I am not here. This post is programmed and, all being well, I am probably somewhere on the M6 Toll in the back of a car, sleeping the sleep of the unjust. That means that all you get today is this lovely little piece of prose from a book called Trivia from 1917. I have spent much too much time on Oxford Street in the last week, and this description of that occidental bazaar therefore bores into my very soul:

One late winter afternoon in Oxford street, amid the noise of vehicles and voices that filled that dusky thoroughfare, as I was borne onward with the crowd past the great electric-lighted shops, a holy Indifference filled my thoughts. Illusion had faded from me; I was not touched by any desire for the goods displayed in those golden windows, nor had I the smallest share in the appetites and fears of all those moving faces. And as I listened with Asiatic detachment to the London traffic, its sound changed into something ancient and dissonant and sad - into the turbid flow of that stream of Craving which sweeps men onward through the meaningless cycles of Existence, blind and enslaved forever. But I had reached the farther shore, the Harbour of Deliverance, the Holy City; the Great Peace beyond all this turmoil and fret compassed me around. Om Mani padme hum - I murmured the sacred syllables, smiling with the pitying smile of the Enlightened One on his heavenly lotus.

Then, in a shop-window, I saw a neatly fitted suit-case. I liked that suit-case; I desired to possess it. Immediately I was enveloped by the mists of Illusion, chained once more to the Wheel of Existence, whirled onward along Oxford Street in that turbid stream of wrong-belief, and lust, and anger.

Merry crimble.

Friday 23 December 2011

Christmas in Bedlam

My life, my flat and my diary are all utter bedlam, which is rather appropriate for Christmas. You see, bedlam is simply a variant form of Bethlehem.

The Wycliffite Bible of the fourteenth century says that Jesus was born in Bedleem, but the King James Version took us back to Bethlehem because it's closer to the Hebrew. However, the two pronunciations were pretty much interchangeable until the end of the sixteenth century.

So the chaos and pandemonium of Christmas? That is down to the Hospital of St Mary of Bethlehem for the poor distracted people of London. Distracted in this context means mad, for St Mary of Bedlam was the original English madhouse. As the C17th playwright and inmate Nathaniel Lee put it

They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me.

As the Bethlehem/Bedlam hospital was the most famous madhouse in Britain it easily became a byword for any disordered place filled with poor distracted people like me.

The reasons for my distraction are legion. The Etymologicon is still number one in the Amazon charts, which is playing havoc with my liver. This success is despite my writing, and purely because it has been read so well by Hugh Dennis, whose last instalment can be listened to here. And as a result of all this curiousness I've just been interviewed for this evening's Channel 4 news. Link will follow.

The Bethlem Royal Hospital still exists, is still a psychiatric hospital, and is now based in Bromley in South London.

And here is Hogarth's great painting of Bedlam Hospital:

File:William Hogarth 019.jpg
The Inky Fool checks into his hotel

Thursday 22 December 2011

A Pair of Links

There's a little piece by me in today's Scotsman, which you can read upon line by clicking on this link. It's all about the origins of Christmassy words like satsuma and advent, and explains why Xmas is the original spelling.

The reading of The Etymologicon continues on Radio 4, and today's episode can be heard by following this link. It's being read so well that my litel bok has found itself, like a stage-frightened actor shoved from wings to spotlight, number one on the Amazon bestseller lists. This has, I'm afraid, resulted in pot-fury followed by ale-passion.

Wednesday 21 December 2011


Christmas is the season when strange men in red hats and white beards lurk and loiter in every shopping arcade. It's therefore the time when the word misopogonistically really comes into its own.

Misopogonistically is an adverb that means with a hatred of beards. Sample sentence:

"No I don't want to see what's in your grotto," she said and scowled misopogonistically.

It is, I confess, a rare word and nobody will know what you mean, but with some words incomprehensibility is half the fun. Even more obscurely, the original Byzantine Greek word from which English things misopogonistical derive, had the more specialised meaning of disliking bearded philosophers. It pleases me immensely that the search for truth might be based on facial hair.

I came across this misopogonistically whilst trying to do some further research on yesterday's rather hurried post on possible antonyms for bibliophile; you see it's just a couple down from misogrammatist, which means a hater of learning.

However, I think the readers' suggestions were much better than anything that the whole history of the English language has produced - a regular gallimaufry of linguistic pearls. I particularly liked the various misobiblical coinings, and the Latin odilibri, which, if stressed on the second syllable*, is quite beautiful to say.

Incidentally, The Etymologicon continues to be read very well by Hugh Dennis on Radio 4. Here's a link to today's episode. In fact, it's almost certainly Mr Dennis' splendid voice (or maybe Dan Mogford's lovely cover) that's sent the book stumbling so far up the bestseller lists that it's currently number 3 on Amazon's charts, a vertiginous height from which it will almost certainly toboggan gaily into remaindered lowlands. Still, fun while it lasts.

This is James Murray, the original(ish) editor of the OED, whom I wrote about here.

*I know it shouldn't be, but do try it.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Not a Bibliophile

In Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies the hero, Adam, is stopped at customs and books are discovered in his luggage. An official tells him:

'Particularly against books the Home Secretary is. If we can't stamp out literature in the country, we can at least stop its being brought in from outside. That's what he said the other day in Parliament, and I says "Hear, hear...."'

I thought of this because I awoke this morning to an anxious e-mail from a friend of mine asking what the opposite of a bibliophile is. Is there any succinct and recondite term for a book-hater? (It turns out that the poor fellow is related to one, and would feel better if he could put a posh name to this oddity).

There is bibliophobia, a dread of books, but that's not quite right as dread differs from dislike. A close dictionary neighbour of bibliophobe is biblioclast, which is somebody who destroys books (particularly the Bible). And then there's the even odder Skoob. This was a tower of books that was burnt in the sixties by a fellow called John Latham. In the sixties this constituted art. Skoob is, of course, just books backwards (and is therefore related to yob and wonk). It's also, oddly, the name of a very good second hand bookshop that lurks under the Waitrose in the Brunswick Centre.

But a book-disliker? Perhaps I could name it after somebody. A great literary character who dislikes books. It may be merely lack of coffee, but I can't think of one off hand.

I might be inclined to coin the term a Callimachus. Callimachus was an Alexandrian poet whose most famous line was 'a great book is a great evil'. However, that's probably just that he liked short books, as do I, so it doesn't really work.

Or maybe a Larkin who once wrote that "Books are a load of crap." Or Bulwer Lytton "We may live without friends, we may live without books;/But civilised man cannot live without cooks."

Or... The problem is that those who don't like books, rarely write down their opinions.

So I'm stuck with Callimachus as my best offer. If anyone can better that (and I'm sure somebody can) put it in the comments, please.

A Skoob tower in Bloomsbury in 1966, photo nabbed from this article.

Monday 19 December 2011

An Egg Dance

Over on the Dear Dogberry page, a reader has asked why we have the phrase walking on eggshells when walking on eggs would make much more sense. For myself, I can't understand why you would do either. However, upon investigation I've discovered that walking on eggs was the original version of the phrase. The OED records it from 1734, where as the walking on eggshell doesn't pop up until 1860.

A much more amusing variant is a thing called an egg dance, which can be performed at home, but probably not on your best carpet. All you'll need is a bunch of eggs, which you arrange on the floor, and a blindfold, which you put over your eyes. You now dance around trying not to tread upon any eggs however lightly.

Egg dancing gets a mention in a sixteenth century play called The Longer Thou Livest, The More Fool Thou Art.

Upon my one foot prettily can I hop
And dance it trimly about an egg.

And there's a good description of it from 1801:

This performance was common enough about thirty years back, and was well received at Sadler's Wells; where I saw it exhibited, not by simply hopping round a single egg, but in a manner that much increased the difficulty. A number of eggs, I do not precisely recollect how many, but I believe about twelve or fourteen, were placed at certain distances marked upon the stage; the dancer taking his stand, was blind-folded, and a hornpipe being played in the orchestra, he went through all the paces and figures of the dance, passing backwards and forwards between the eggs without touching one of them.

As you can imagine, an egg-dance became a byword for any intricate and difficult task, and makes a lot more sense than walking on either eggs or eggshells.

Scrambled eggs at the Inky Fool offices

P.S. The first part of the Etymologicon was read out by Hugh Dennis on Radio 4 this morning. You can listen to it by following this link.

Friday 16 December 2011

The Big Chiz

It's a delightful little oddity of the English language that the phrase the big cheese has nothing whatsoever to do with milk products.

The Urdu word for thing is chīz. This meant that back in the days of the British Empire Anglo Indians wouldn't talk about something being the real thing, but the real chīz. Chīz became a term of approbation used for anything that was the pinnacle of its kind, but it wasn't spelled chīz, it was spelled cheese. From there it was a trifling step to making a man a cheese, and then the big man became the big cheese.

That is all for this week (unless the importunate muse comes upon me on Sunday), so do remember that the serialisation of The Etymologicon will begin on Radio 4 at a quarter to ten on Monday.

The opposite of a big cheese

P.S. What's the only cheese that's made backwards?

Thursday 15 December 2011


Just in case you were looking for a word to describe today's weather oorie is defined in the OED as:

Dismal, gloomy; cheerless; miserable as a result of cold, illness, etc.

Which just about sums it up.

P.S. I'm going to be lingering at the Waterstones Covent Garden author's evening tonight from five till eight-thirty. If you're in the area, do come along and say hello.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Vainglory, Hubris &c

Yes, I know you're bored with my wittering on about The Etymologicon. You've been reading this web-log for eons and you wish I'd just get back to a post a day. But you must remember that this is my baby, my masterpiece, my pride, my hope and my joy. And I want you to buy at least fifty copies each. So, as my ego is as frangible as it is vast, here's a little round-up of what the press have been saying about my baby.

First off, The Etymologicon is going to be Radio 4's Book of the Week next week. Every weekday morning at a quarter to ten Hugh Dennis will be reading extracts to an expectant nation, and the whole thing will be repeated at half midnight and be available on the Listen Again thingummyjig. This is also the Radio Times' number one radio choice for Christmas.

Anyway, to the papers:

"But this year's must-have stocking filler – the angel on the top of the tree, the satsuma in the sock, the threepenny bit in the plum pudding, the essential addition to the library in the smallest room – is Mark Forsyth's The Etymologicon"  - Ian Sansom in The Guardian

"I'm hooked on Forsyth's book ... Crikey, but this is addictive" - Mathew Parris in The Times (who also made it one of his books of the year).

"The stocking filler of the season... How else to describe a book that explains the connection between Dom Pérignon and Mein Kampf?" - Robert McCrum in The Observer

"The snappy section lengths and the perky writing style, plus the comely jacket-less cover, makes this prime fare for the Christmas market. You can read it through at a sitting or two, or dip in as fancy takes. A perfect bit of stocking-filler for the bookish member of the family, or just a cracking all-year-round read. Highly recommended." - Matthew Richardson in The Spectator

"Kudos should go to Mark Forsyth, then, author of The Etymologicon, who has tried to sort out this linguistic mare’s nest and help us see the wood for the trees. Clearly a man who knows his onions, Mr Forsyth must have worked 19 to the dozen, spotting red herrings and unravelling inkhorn terms, to bestow this boon – a work of the first water, to coin a phrase." - The Sunday Telegraph

And then there's all the lovely ones from around the web that I shall bore you with some other time. For the moment, I shall be available for signing and the like at Waterstones Covent Garden tomorrow (Thursday) night.

And if you want a useful word to describe this post you can choose between omphaloskepsis and quomodocunquizing.

He shall be me, or vice versa

Tuesday 13 December 2011

Homicidal Orthography

I've spent a jolly morning looking at the Murder Map, which is a map of London marking the spot of every homicide, fratricide, patricide, uxoricide &c in London. You can even filter the results by murder weapon. The reason it was such a jolly sight to me was that I appear to live in a small, murderless island. In fact, the only murder round my way was committed with a ligature.

Now that surprised me because, as a linguistic sort of chap, a ligature is just something that connects two letters, and I am afraid of no man who tries to kill me with joined up writing.

A ligature is... well, it's hard to explain, given that blogspot doesn't allow me medieval script but take, for example, double U. You don't see that written down much do you? Looks a bit odd. Double U is the full spelling of the letter W, because the letter double U is made of two ligatured ues (that's something else you don't see much).

Anyway, the reason for my murderous confusion is that ligature comes from the Latin ligare meaning bind. That's why you have ligaments, and medical ligatures which are pieces of thread used roughly like a tourniquet. And if you take some binding string, wrap it round somebody's neck and pull then you have murder by ligature. And if you do that ten minutes walk from me, then I think you're beastly.

It's terrifying to think that this is going on only ten minutes walk from my flat.

Monday 12 December 2011


The other day somebody asked me where the phrase oops-a-daisy comes from. Of course, I didn't know, but I never feel that Ignorance should stand in the way of Opinion, so I muttered something about lackadaisical and tried to look wise. By extraordinary coincidence, it turns out that I might have been right. Oops-a-daisy has a strange and meandering history that goes like this.

First, oops-a-daisy predates oops and whoops. Oops only appeared in 1925 and whoops is even younger having stumbled into the language in the 1930s. They're both variants of the original upsidaisy which was something you said to a child as you lifted it up back in the nineteenth century.

Upsidaisy is a variant of up-a-daisy which dates back to 1711, also addressed to a child to make him rise. So where does the daisy come from? Well, the OED says compare lackadaisy. You see, words influence each other. When the word bunkum already exists, it encourages people to change hocus pocus to hokum. In the same way, lackadaisy (and lackadaisical) appear to have influenced the formation of up-a-daisy from up.

Lackadaisy is formed from lackaday, which is a shortening of alack the day! which means something along the line of curse the day on which something happened, which comes from lack meaning failure, fault, reproach or shame.

And thus did a tour through the dictionary pretty much confirm my nebulous and face-saving guesswork. Who needs scholarship when you have bluff?

P.S. For anybody who particular wants to hear my brief appearance on Friday morning's Today Programme, the relevant segment can be found here.


Friday 9 December 2011


If you potter about the business world for even five minutes you're liable to come across the word streamline, often as a verb. This may seem curious, given that streams tend to meander in curvy and inefficient fashion, simply taking the route of least resistance, and heading permanently downhill - all things that businesses try to avoid.

Properly speaking, though, the streamline is a very precise scientific idea. It is a situation where the direction of any given particle moving past a surface is equal to the tangent of the curve of the surface at that point.

A tangent is, of course, a straight line that touches (tangibly) a curve (as in the picture at the top right). So if an object is of just the right shape and put in a stream in just the right place it will have a minimal deflection of the flow.

The word streamline was invented in 1868 and spent the next 65 years as a proper scientific term, appearing only in stern academic papers on inviscid fluid, until it was taken out one night by the poet Stephen Spender, who got the word drunk, took her honour from her, and included her in a bit of a poem about sunset. Now, shamed and denuded of her original sense, she is, I'm afraid, in business.

The Inky Fool has a new car

Thursday 8 December 2011

Fewtrils and Fattrels

Fewtrils and fattrels are little things of no value, like this blog-post. They are toys and trifles, mere baubles. The words may therefore be useful for those of you sending Christmas presents, as in "These few festive fattrels I found for you."

That's all for today as I'm horribly busy, but for those of you of a North-West-Londoney disposition I'm doing a reading and book-signing of The Etymologicon at West End Lane Books in West Hampstead tonight at seven-thirty. And, for those of you who get up early, my career as a radio-strumpet* continues apace and I'll be on the Today Programme tomorrow sometime between seven and seven-thirty in the morning.
*I dislike the term media-whore.

Wednesday 7 December 2011


A fellow on twitter asked me whether justice was the only thing that can be meted out. The short answer is that other things can be meted [out], and the long answer is that justice is one of the very few things that cannot properly be meted.

Tennyson's gorgeous poem Ulysses begins thusly:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

Here, meting is pretty much a synonym for giving. And that could be that unless you remember the responses in the Order for Holy Communion as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.

Priest. Let us geve thanckes unto our Lorde God.
Aunswere. It is mete and right so to do.
Priest. It is very mete, right, and our bounden duety that we should at al times, and in all places, geve thanckes to the, O Lord holy father, almighty everlasting God.

And here, mete is pretty much a synonym for appropriate. So who's right? I always find it hard to choose between God and Tennyson, or even, occasionally, to distinguish the two. It is therefore a great theological relief to me to be able to tell you that they are both right, for they are each giving two extremes of one general meaning. Mete means measure.

Or it did once. But then its meaning drifted to something that had been measured, or meted, until something of the right dimensions was mete. And therefore something that was appropriate was mete. That's what's going on in the Communion service. But also if you measure out to a person the amount that is due to him, then you are meting something out.

That's why you can mete out punishment. It means that you are giving a sentence that is measured and appropriate to the crime. And here's the problem with justice: justice is that which is appropriate. So if you mete out justice, you are giving the appropriate amount of appropriateness, and then you drown in a vortex of tautology.

So the full answer is that you can mete out anything you like - fines, food, sharks or champagne - but you can't mete out justice.

At least medioxumate.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

The French Have A Word For It

Merely a link today to this article in The Guardian about French neologisms. It includes the word attachiante, which is a portmanteau of attachant (charming) and chiant (bloody annoying) and means a lady that you can't live with and can't live without: beautiful yet unbearable, intoxicating but intolerable.

Such words are terribly necessary if you're a Frenchman.

Monday 5 December 2011


A jornada is a Mexican (originally) term for a day's journey without water. If there is no water there is no reason to stop your horses and so a jornada has neither pause nor relief. It's not a word we use much. It's hard to travel for a day in England without it bloody raining, let alone avoiding all rivers. Nonetheless, I think that jornada could usefully be revived to mean a day without an alcoholic drink, or indeed an occasion or ordeal where the wine flows like concrete. Thus "That team-building exercise was a complete jornada. Anyone want to go to the pub?"

Sunday 4 December 2011

Stationary Stationery

Those who have never liked the fine distinctions of English spelling will rejoice to learn that the first recorded use of the word stationery, in Nathan Bailey's Universal Etymological English Dictionary of 1727, goes thus:

Stationary, Stationers Wares

The -ary -ery distinction was only introduced in the nineteenth century to annoy schoolchildren.

But what is it that makes stationery so stationary? Why so still?

Well, once upon a medieval time, most books were sold by itinerant tinkers and traders who would set up shop in a different place everyday, or often only on market day. An exception to this rule was the stationarius. This was an official position within a university. A stationarius was given a shop from which to sell books and parchment and the like. This meant that unlike most of his competitors he was a stationary booktrader and thus became known as a stationer. In return for the shop he was required to swear fealty and obedience to the institution.

The stationer only slowly became differentiated from the bookseller. It wasn't until 1656 that Blount wrote in his Glossographia

Stationer is often confounded with Book-seller, and sometimes with Book-binder; whereas they are three several Trades; the Stationer sells Paper and Paper-Books, Ink, Wax, etc. The Book-seller deals onely in printed Books, ready bound; and the Book-binder binds them, but sells not. Yet all three are of the Company of Stationers.

Which hardly clears things up. The distinction didn't really catch on until a hundred years later, and the -ery until a hundred years after that.


Friday 2 December 2011


Foolscap paper is one of those things that I've never really been sure about and to which I have never devoted even the idlest of my idle thoughts. I had never, for example, noticed that it's a contraction of fool's cap. But it is.

That's odd because foolscap is an old paper size. Whenever it's used in the news (and it often is) it's put there to evoke what editors like to call a bygone era filled with dial telephones, morality and rationing. Foolscap was a little bit larger than A4, and once upon a time it bore a watermark depicting a jester's headdress.

When it did this is a matter of fevered debate amongst those who care about paper sizes. The earliest known example in England dates from 1659. Indeed, there's an obscure story that during the Commonwealth the republican Parliament replaced the royal watermark that had once appeared on all the laws of England with a fool's hat. But like all the best stories that's probably tosh.

There are much earlier fool's caps in German printing, indeed they go back to 1479. This lends some credence to the idea that the fool's cap was introduced by Sir John Spielman who built England's first paper-mill, as the poor fellow was German.

Despite his teutonicness he still managed to get a legal monopoly on all paper production in England in 1581 and thus he achieved immortality. Not with his paper, not with his watermarks, but because he managed to be obliquely satirised by Shakespeare.

In Henry the Sixth part II, the ridiculous rebels capture a lord and their peasant leader, Jack Cade accuses him thus:

Thou hast most traitorously corrupted the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school; and whereas, before, our forefathers had no other books but the score and the tally, thou hast caused printing to be used, and, contrary to the king, his crown and dignity, thou hast built a paper-mill. It will be proved to thy face that thou hast men about thee that usually talk of a noun and a verb, and such abominable words as no Christian ear can endure to hear.

As Shakespeare would have had to obtain his paper from Spielman's foolishly behatted mill one way or another, we can make a shrewd guess at who he had in mind.

Incidentally, despite the fact that it's probably about his fourth play, Henry VI part II contains Shakespeare's first truly memorable* line, and it's said by another of the peasant rebels when they're planning what to do once they've seized power:

CADE I thank you, good people: there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score; and I will apparel them all in one livery, that they may agree like brothers and worship me their lord.

DICK The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

P.S. There's a lovely review of The Etymologicon over at Tom Cunliffe's excellent blog A Common Reader. Moreover, I shall be talking about the book tonight on Resonance FM on the show Little Atoms, which is also available as a podcast. Evenmoreover, I'm going to be on Loose Ends on Radio 4 tomorrow (Saturday) at a quarter past six.
Smithfield still feels like this on a Friday night.

*Incidentally, I once posted something along these lines before and was bombarded with impolite e-mails from people who assumed that I hadn't read Titus Andronicus. I have, and can even recite you a couple of speeches from it. However, neither Titus nor Love's Labours have any lines that are known to the man upon the Clapham omnibus.

Thursday 1 December 2011

Incensed Incendiaries of Incense

Just a little object lesson today in how a word's meaning can branch with time, like the delta of a river.

Once upon a time there was a Latin word incendere, which to burn. Its meaning is pretty much perfectly preserved in the word incendiary, especially incendiary weapons, which still set fire to things.

However, the word is also preserved in that to which fire is set, namely the incense that is burnt in the higher kind of church in a thurible.

And finally the word is preserved figuratively as a synonym for angry - incensed. This of course merely means that your passions have been fired, your tinderbox sparked and that you're about to explode like an incendiary in a censer.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

Permit Me To Discept

I was reading Nightmare Abbey the other day, when I came upon this opening line in a piece of dialogue:

Permit me to discept.

'Eh?' I thought, and ran to a dictionary. Discept, it turns out, is a very, very arcane way of saying disagree. However, it has the great advantage that as nobody will be quite sure what the word means, it would be hard to take offence. Moreover, as nobody has any idea what the word means it immediately establishes that you're a jolly clever person and your disception will therefore carry more weight.

As a tidbit of literary trivia, the character who utters the line, Mr Ferdinando Flosky, is a piss-take of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Nightmare Abbey also contains the wise words: "You may as well dine first, and be miserable afterwards." This is a rule by which I live.

P.S. I'll be at the author evening in Waterstones Islington tonight from five till eight. But, if you're a North West Londoner, I'll be at West End books on December the eighth; and, if you're a central Londoner, I'll be at Waterstones Covent Garden on the evening of the 15th.
Disception granted.

Tuesday 29 November 2011

Skinning a Flint

The other day I happened to use the word skinflint, and even as the word was popping out of my mouth, it occurred to me to wonder where on earth it had come from. Does it meant that you're flinty-skinned? Or that you have such a lean and hungry look that it appears that your skin is drawn over flintlike bones?

It turns out that neither is the case. Instead, there is a dead phrase whose cadaver lurks in that word. Once upon a time, avaricious people were said to be so greedy that they would skin a flint for its hide. Presumably, back when central heating was expensive and furry animals were abundant, people would occasionally skin dogs and cats (there's more than one way to do this) and, I imagine, even mice and rats in order to save money at the tailor. The absurd pinnacle of such skinning would be the attempt to skin a flint.

Daniel Defoe wrote a book called the Complete English Tradesman (1727), in which he warns that a successful merchant is liable to end up with the following reputation:

That he has been a Hard-Head, a Devourer, a Jew; for these, and more such are the general Titles by which such Tradesmen are usually distinguished and known; that he will let no Body live by him, that he will skin a Flint, that he will buy cheaper than any Man can fell, and sell dearer than any Man can buy; that he cares not who sinks if he can but swim; that he grinds the Faces of his Workmen, and will hardly let a poor Man live by his Labour: Thus he has got what he has by griping and squeezing of labouring Men; and that it will never thrive with him, and the like.

There was even a sister phrase to flay a flint and a later American variant that he would skin a flea for its hide and tallow. All lost and gone to the great phrasebook in the sky.

P.S. For those of you who live within striking distance of Islington, I will be along for the author evening at the Waterstones on Islington Green tomorrow (Wednesday) night. Essentially, there'll be mince pies and wine from 5 till 8 and all are welcome and I undertake to sign copies of The Etymologicon with any personalised dedication that your big heart requires.
Bring me my best skinning-knife.

Monday 28 November 2011

Variant Extravaganzas

The word extravaganza was imported from the Italian to describe an extravagant type of writing that was terribly popular in the nineteenth century. The Victorian stage was filled with extravaganzas, which were defined, by one of their chief exponents, as the whimsical treatment of a poetic subject.

Extravaganza was merely the Italian term for an extravagance, and nowadays, of course, you can have an extravaganza of Christmas trees or shopping or whatnot. Anything faintly over the top can be an extravaganza.

So far, so fun. But regular readers of this blog will know that I have a penchant and peccadillo for vagant words. You see, the vagant in extravagant just means wandering, and an extravagance was merely a wandering beyond the limits. That means that I've also been able to post on the English words noctivagant (wandering around at night), montivagant (wandering over mountains) and omnivagant (wandering absolutely everywhere).

This opens the delightful possibility that if you spent the whole night wandering around it would be a noctivaganza, and that a week's walking holiday in the Alps might count as a montivaganza and so on and so forth.

All of this was suggested to me by Paul Norman of Books Monthly who has just written a very complimentary review of my book The Etymologicon, which you can read here (it's on the left of the page).

File:Rice & Barton's Big Gaiety Spectacular Extravaganza Co. - Gaiety Dancers.png
I think the third from the left may be a crafty man.

Friday 25 November 2011

The Law of the Plinth

A very observant reader has posted on the Dear Dogberry page asking why there aren't more rhymes for plinth. She observes that:

I can't think of anything it rhymes with or even any other word with 'nth' apart from numbers ending in a 'n' when ordering things by position.

Now that's not exactly right, and indeed she corrected herself with labyrinth. There's also hyacinth, labyrinth, absinthe (depending on how you pronounce it) and synth. There are even some weakly stressed words like jacinth (a kind of gem) and Corinth. However, that last example might make you notice that all of these words are late imports. None of them derive from Old English.

Even the OE-derived words that have Nth, such as month and ninth, once didn't. The Old English for ninth was noneth, and for month was monat. Had you been alive a thousand years ago you wouldn't have found any nth words. Or mth words. Or mf words. The Anglo-Saxons had no umph. This is the long arm of the Ingvaeonic Nasal Spirant Law.

Don't worry. Ingvaeonic Nasal Spirant sounds rather intimidating and complex, but it isn't.

Ingvaeonic just means Old English, Old Frisian and Old Saxon. These were old languages spoken in Denmark(ish) and then brought to England.

A Nasal sound is just one that you can't make when holding your nose. Try it. Pinch your nose and say 'tatty'. Easy, isn't it? That's because T isn't a nasal sound. Now try saying 'man'. Weird, ain't it? Now try saying 'Steve McManaman'. As Jesus of Nazareth almost put it: 'Man cannot say God and mammon when holding his nose.'

A spirant is the same as a fricative. It's any sound made by forcing air through a bit of your mouth. So clasp your tongue between your teeth and blow. You should get a Th sound. Put your top teeth on your lower lip and... Ffffff. It's the same for Sssss and shhhh. And, technically, the last sound in Johann Sebastian Bach is also a fricative.

So what's the Ingvaeonic Nasal Spirant Law? It's the Law that says that in the Ingvaeonic languages words never end with a Nasal sound followed by a Spirant. Just doesn't happen. And nobody knows why. The Germans do it all the time. The Germans, for instance, say Uns. The Old Germans said Uns. But for some reason, when Old English was being formed, that N got dropped and so we say Us. The Germans talk about a gans, but we have a goose.

All of which means, that one observant reader was close to discovering a law of first-millennial linguistics all on her own.

I was lounging around on my plinth
And thought, as I sipped an absinthe,
Though some like the guitar
I'd rather by far
Hear the sweet man-made sound of a synth.

The which limerick was necessary so I could post this slightly blue-languaged video.

This song is particularly funny if you live as close to Exmouth Market as I do.

Thursday 24 November 2011

Utter Filth and Obscenity which Should be Burned

Read no further. The following post will be utterly obscene. Filth. Beginning to end lewdness and blueness. If you desperately need a respectable logophilic fix, click on the clever widget on the right and you can read all sorts of lovely etymologies in my brand new shiny book, The Etymologicon.

It's got the thirty pages of wonderful etymologies and, so far as I recall there's nothing obscene there at all. As The Observer correctly observed last Sunday, it's "The stocking filler of the season... How else to describe a book that explains the connection between Dom Pérignon and Mein Kampf." Only those who are beyond redemption should continue with this post.

Got that?

Fine, if you're a foul enough gutter-dweller, you may click on the jump break.

Wednesday 23 November 2011


Once upon a time, there was a Latin word fumare that meant to smoke, from which we get fumes. Now, some smoke is a welcome guest in the nose of the smeller and some isn't. So burnt incense was called perfume, but smoking out a hornets' nest was called fumigation, and the dung of deer was called fumet, although why you'd need a special word for deer-dung is beyond me.

There's a pub I know that has a little beer garden at the back. This closes at 10:30pm and a sign says that "smokers may fume out the front", which is a funny little etymological pun. Moreover, it alludes - unknowingly, I assume - to the obscure C19th word fumacious. A fumacious person is one who is fond of smoking.


Tuesday 22 November 2011


The Latin word for cloud was nubes and, as a result, some eighteenth century classicist invented the lovely word enubilate, which meant to blow the mists and fogs away and to make something clear. It's rather like elucidate or clarify, just much prettier.

Then, in the twentieth century, a journalist went further and invented the utterly wonderful word inenubilable for something that cannot be enubilated. Inenubilable can be applied to problems, mysteries, enigmas and other dark conundrums.

It may also be applied to cities that are incurably mist-laden, like London today. Or as Max Beerbohm put it in Zuleika Dobson:

There is nothing in England to be matched with what lurks in the vapours of these meadows, and in the shadows of these spires—that mysterious, inenubilable spirit, spirit of Oxford.

And there are three more lovely book covers up at

Monday 21 November 2011

Changing Covers've been having fun with the names of books. Essentially, I've been messing around and taking titles back to their etymological origins. For example, wuthering was once a dialect term for a coughing fit or a big blast of wind. Height was originally heaven. So Wuthering Heights is Coughing in Heaven.

But the truly fun thing is not what I've been doing, but the work of a graphic designer and the lovely people at Icon Books who have been Photoshopping the covers of these old books and putting on my revised titles. Would you like to see one? You would? Then go to the bookhugger website where they'll be putting them up all week.

Today's dose is Wuthering Heights and Lord of the Rings (which has to do with bread).

They're far better quality than this effort of mine, which is explained in this old post.