Monday 31 January 2011


If you are spiflicated you are flabbergasted, flummoxed, caught or confounded. Or as the Captain's Clerk says in Lady Eureka:

"Spiflicated - spiflicated - well spiflicated - regularly spiflicated - I must confess that I ought to be right down regularly spiflicated, smothered, smashed, dished up and done for."

Or as Thomas Moore put it:

Alas, alas, our ruin's fated;
All done up, and spiflicated!

You can therefore spiflicate somebody by dumbfounding or confounding them: by, for example, using the word spiflicate.

The Inky Fool spiflicating

N.B. For any mathmos out there, the paradox on the top right only works for shapes made out of Fibonacci numbers.

Sunday 30 January 2011

The Book of Faces

Right, the Inky Fool is now on Facebook, and socially networking and all that sort of electronically-amicable jazz. If I've got this right (and the good Lord knows that I may not) you can now like the Inky Fool, and then all the latest arcana and erudition will show up in your news feed, which must be lovely.

Just go to the book of faces and search for Inky Fool, or follow this link (which may work).

In the meantime, I shall tell you that the side of a book directly opposite the spine is called, by bookbinders, the face; and that face comes from the same Latin source as superficial.

Saturday 29 January 2011

The Sentence and The Internet

There's a fantastic article on sentences and how they can be constructed over at the FT. I cannot recommend it energetically enough. Imagine, if you will, that I am there in the room with you, brandishing a harpoon and with your loved ones trussed up in a corner telling you to click on the link.

Enough for you?

The one fault that I would find with the article is that it repeats the old canard that e-mail and the Internet are killing prose, that constant reading and writing have debased the art of writing by rendering it common and workaday.

This is tripe. When I was a child, back in the 1980s, communication was by telephone and entertainment was obtained from the goggle-box. My infant fascination with prose was therefore somewhat strange. It was a useless talent because nobody wrote letters any more. The advent of e-mail changed that. A fixation on the difference between apposite and relative clauses suddenly became a social advantage; an apt colon was no longer the preserve of sodomites. I felt as a survivalist must feel when the bomb finally drops.

Absence does not make the heart grown fonder; absence makes you forget. The crappiest lounge-bar pianist will have more appreciation of a virtuoso than somebody who has never touched a piano. Nudists are not wonderful judges of haute couture. Familiarity breeds knowledge, and knowledge breeds appreciation.

The last ten years have been a decade of prose: the first really prosaic decade since the manufacture of the radio. People spend all day every day sending e-mails and each e-mail has a purpose: deal-clinching, informing, party-organising, raise-demanding, joke-telling, introduction and seduction. People want their e-mails to succeed, so they think on their words.

An e-mailed joke must be funny without the aid of a winning smile and a funny accent. It must be constructed. Philanderers can no longer trade on a wink and a leer, they must get on a dating website and work on writing an irresistible profile.You can't spend all day wondering exactly how to phrase something, without beginning to see how clever Shakespeare was.

It may change. In ten years time we may all be communicating by means of smell or sonar. But for now, the wordsmith rules and the poet prevails. This is the age of the word.

The Inky Fool begins a long sentence

Friday 28 January 2011

Survival of the Fittest Fiddle

A little note on Darwin. When we think of the adjective fit we are inclined to think of someone in jogging shorts and other such hideousness. Fit to us means physically capable and the fittest person is the fastest runner, or something of the sort. This is not the sense in which Darwin* used the phrase.

We still use phrases like fit and proper parent or fit for purpose or not fit to hold office, and that was the original meaning of the word fit. It meant appropriate. The fittest word, is the word most appropriate to the situation.

As Stephen Jay Gould once remarked, it doesn't matter how wonderfully developed a fish is, if all the oceans dry up it will die. Similarly, Darwin couldn't have cared less whether a Galapagos turtle could run fast, only that it was well suited to its environment.

If the cap fits, it doesn't mean that it's been to gym.

How did the word get from one to the other? On horseback. Or more precisely, via horse racing. If a horse was in fit condition for a race then it was fit in the modern sense.

And fiddles? Nobody is quite sure why fiddles are fit, although it is certain that the older sense was being used. There also used to be a phrase as fine as a farthing fiddle, which makes more sense and is more fun to pronounce.
The Inky Fool contemplating the gym

*The phrase pops up in the fifth edition of On The Origin Of Species, although it was in fact invented by a chap called Herbert Spencer, who was trying to describe the ideas set out in the first edition of On The Origin Of Species. So it's Darwin adopting a paraphrase about Darwin, if you see what I mean.

Thursday 27 January 2011

Sir Richard Has Taken Off His Considering Cap

Benjamin Franklin was far more fun than you might think. Not only did he write a learned tract called Fart Proudly, he also produced, in his memoirs, a Drinker's Dictionary which contains over two hundred synonyms for being drunk. I have put my favourites in bold.

He's addled, in his airs, affected, casting up his accounts, biggy, bewitched, black and black, bowzed, boozy, been at Barbadoes, been watering the brook, drunk as a wheelbarrow, bothered, burdocked, bosky, busky, buzzy, has sold a march in the brewer, has a head full of bees, has been in the bibing plot, has drunk more than he has bled, is bungy, has been playing beggar-my-neighbour*, drunk as a beggar, sees the beams, has kissed black Betty**, has had a thump over the head with Samson's jaw-bone, has been at war with his brains, is bridgy, has been catching the cat, is cogniaid, capable, cramped, cherubimical, cherry merry, wamble croft, cracked, half way to Concord, canonized, has taken a chirping glass, got corns in his head, got a cup too much, coguay, cupsy, has heated his copper, is in crocus, catched, cuts capers, has been in the cellar, been in the sun, is in his cups, above the clouds, is non compos, cocked, curved, cut, chippered, chickenny, has loaded his cart, been too free with the creature. Sir Richard has taken off his considering cap, he's chopfallen, candid, disguised, got a dish, has killed a dog, has taken his drops. 'Tis a dark day with him. He's a dead man, has dipped his bill, sees double, is disfigured, has seen the devil, is prince Eugene, has entered, buttered both eyes, is cock-eyed, has got the pole evil, has got a brass eye, has made an example, has ate a toad and a half for breakfast, is in his element, is fishy, foxed, fuddled, soon fuddled, frozen, will have frogs for supper, is well in front, is getting forward in the world, owes no man money, fears no man, is crump fooled, has been to France, is flushed, has frozen his mouth, is fettered, has been to a funeral, has his flag out, is fuzzled, has spoken with his friend, been at an Indian feast, is glad, grabable, great-headed, glazed, generous, has boozed the gage, is as dizzy as a goose, has been before George, got the gout, got a kick in the guts, been at Geneva, is globular, has got the glanders, is on the go, a gone man, has been to see Robin Goodfellow, is half and half, half seas over, hardy, top heavy, has got by the head, makes head way, is hiddey, has got on his little hat, is hammerish, loose in the hilt, knows not the way home, is haunted by evil spirits, has taken Hippocrates grand Elixir, is intoxicated, jolly, jagged, jambled, jocular, juicy, going to Jericho, an indirect man, going to Jamaica, going to Jerusalem, is a king, clips the King's English, has seen the French king. The King is his cousin, has got kibed heels, has got knapt, his kettle's hot. He'll soon keel upward, he's in his liquor, lordly, light, lappy, limber, lopsided, makes indentures with his legs, is well to live, sees two moons, is merry, middling, muddled, moon-eyed, maudlin, mountainous, muddy, mellow, has seen a flock of moons, has raised his monuments, has eaten cacao nuts, is nimtopsical, has got the night mare, has been nonsuited, is super nonsensical, in a state of nature, nonplussed, oiled, has ate opium, has smelt an onion, is an oxycrocum***, is overset, overcome, out of sorts, on the paymaster's books, drank his last halfpenny, is as good conditioned as a puppy, is pigeon eyed, pungy, priddy, pushing on, has salt in his headban, has been among the Philistines, is in prosperity, is friends with Philip, contending with Pharaoh, has painted his nose, wasted his punch, learned politeness, eat the pudding-bag, eat too much pumpkin, is full of piety, is rocky, raddled, rich, religious, ragged, raised, has lost his rudder, has been to far with Sir Richard, is like a rat in trouble, is stitched, seafaring, in the suds, strong, as drunk as David's sow, swamped, his skin is full, steady, stiff, burnt his shoulder, has got out his top-gallant sails, seen the dog-star, is stiff as a ringbolt. The shoe pinches him. He's staggerish. It is star light with him. He carries too much sail, will soon out studding sails, is stewed, stubbed, soaked, soft, has made too free with Sir John Strawberry, right before the wind, all sails out, has pawned his senses, plays parrot, has made shift of his shirt, shines like a blanket, has been paying for a sign, is toped, tongue-tied, tanned, tipsicum grave, double tongued, tospey turvey, tipsy, thawed, trammulled, transported, has swallowed a tavern token, makes Virginia fame, has got the Indian vapours, is pot valiant, in love with varany, wise, has a wet soul, has been to the salt water, in search of eye water, is in the way to be weaned, out of the way, water soaked, wise or otherwise, can walk the line, The wind is west with him. He carries the wagon.

That last phrase can't have anything to do with being on the wagon, which only popped up in the twentieth century. I think that from now on, when I arrive in the pub, I shall buy a beer and announce: "Sir Richard has taken off his considering cap."

The Inky Fool enjoys a quiet night in

*Note spelling.
**A whiskey bottle
***A medicinal plaster made from saffron, vinegar, and various other ingredients (OED)

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Welsh Rabbits and Midwifery

The wonderful things you find in dictionaries. This from Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811):

Welch Rabbit

[i.e. a Welch rare-bit] Bread and cheese toasted. See Rabbit.—The Welch are said to be so remarkably fond of cheese, that in cases of difficulty their midwives apply a piece of toasted cheese to the janua vita to attract and entice the young Taffy, who on smelling it makes most vigorous efforts to come forth.

Incidentally, it is, or was, Welsh rabbit before it was Welsh rare-bit. The rather unkind idea was that Welsh things were poor substitutes*. For example, a Welsh carpet was a pattern painted, or stained, onto a brick floor; a Welsh diamond is a rock crystal; and a Welsh comb is your fingers.

Do any Welsh midwives read this blog? Is this still the standard method?

Come on out

*But Ian Rush was great.

P.S. Janua vita[e] means the gate of life. Its meaning should be obvious; if it's not, consult your parents. The usual Latin phrase is Mors janua vitae, meaning Death is the gate to [everlasting] life. It's therefore the same root as January and janitor and Janus.

Tuesday 25 January 2011

No Buts

Have a look at this paragraph from the opening chapter of the 1939 novel Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright, and see if you can tell what's odd about it.

Upon this basis I am going to show you how a bunch of bright young folks did find a champion; a man with boys and girls of his own; a man of so dominating and happy individuality that Youth is drawn to him as is a fly to a sugar bowl. It is a story about a small town. It is not a gossipy yarn; nor is it a dry, monotonous account, full of such customary “fill-ins” as “romantic moonlight casting murky shadows down a long, winding country road.” Nor will it say anything about tinklings lulling distant folds; robins carolling at twilight, nor any “warm glow of lamplight” from a cabin window. No. It is an account of up-and-doing activity; a vivid portrayal of Youth as it is today; and a practical discarding of that worn-out notion that “a child don’t know anything.”

Any guesses? I'll give you a clue. It's not about what's there, but what isn't. Still no idea? Another clue: the idea was repeated thirty years later by Georges Perec. Yes? No? All right, I'll tell you.

There are no Es. Not one. Gadsby is 50,000 words long and the fifth letter of the alphabet makes not a single, solitary appearance. He even went so far as to not allow himself Mr because it is a shortening of mistEr. You can read the introduction, and indeed the whole of Gadsby here. Its skill of composition is matched only by its insanity of purpose.

The word for such a work is, incidentally, a lipogram.

I was having a drink the other night with a girl who used to work for Bloomberg, the famous mayor manufacturer. Apparently, Bloomberg's style guide absolutely forbids the use of the word but. Nor can you replace it with however, yet, nonetheless or albeit. Each fact is an island, and they must remain in Gradgrindian lines and not use connectors to cancel each other out.

Moreover, at Bloomberg you can't use adjectives of value. Profits can be neither good nor bad, large nor minor. They certainly can't be unexpected.

It's good to know that the torch that Mr Wright lit has not gone out.

N.B. The reason the for the picture. This post is about things that aren't there, which makes illustration tricky. This picture is of Dickens' study and was painted just after his death. It is called The Empty Chair because the chair implies the man who is not sitting in it. The picture was wildly popular and thousands of copies were made. My tutor at Oxford had a copy in his study. Van Gogh, who was a big Dickens fan and moved to London a few years after the novelist's death, loved the picture. That's why Van Gogh did all those paintings of empty chairs and empty beds, because the furniture implies the absent person.

Monday 24 January 2011


If you are ludibrious you are laughable, you are ridiculous, you are mockable. You are a target for ludibry, which is an obsolete word for derision.

And if you, mocking reader, cannot work ludibrious into a sentence over the next week you are not having Nearly Enough Fun.

This lukewarm and ludibrious generation
J. Howie (1780)

N.B. The OED seems to think that the word can mean mocking as well as mockable, but their citations are not very convincing, in fact I think they're ludibrious.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Poems and Pictures in Pubs

Pubs used to be full of pictures like this one, which I found in The Plough on Little Russell Street. (Click to enlarge)

I mean, it's not a good poem, and the picture is never going to make it to the Louvre. Like Lord Lucan, this sort of thing is interesting because it's vanishing. Pictures like these are being ripped down and replaced with chrome radiators and funky Ecuadorian carvings and ironic bits from converted churches, so this minor and meagre art-form will be lost forever unless Something is Done.

So I thought I'd preserve some on Inky Fool. If you see a picture like this, take a photo, e-mail it to me and I'll put it up on a quiet and snoozeful Sunday.

Saturday 22 January 2011

For Those Reading Historical Novels (Or Mr Darcy Was Loaded)

I'm reading Wilt by Thomas Sharpe at the moment. It's terribly good fun so far but I have been troubled, dear reader, sorely troubled by prices. Money is terribly important in Wilt. The novel is all about class and budgets and careers. Henry Wilt himself earns £3,500 a year and his wife secretly spends seventy pounds on clothes and the starter in a restaurant costs 95p.

Trouble is, I've no idea what that means in today's green and folding. It's only thirty-five years since Wilt was published, but inflation is such that I can make neither tail nor head of these (terribly important) details.

I get the same thing reading Pride and Prejudice. People are always described as having an income of so many hundred or thousand a year, and the girls go wild (or don't); but the modern reader is left scratching his head and furrowing his brow and wondering whether to go down to the library with a slide-rule and work everything out in compound inflation.

Nevermore, dear calculating reader, nevermore. Use this:

It's so damned handy that I've installed it as a permanent widget on the right of the blog. I'm afraid that I couldn't find one that would go straight to dollars and all those other funny foreign currencies that don't have a picture of the Queen on them and are therefore worthless. But if you're American (are you, dear reader? I'd so like to know), you can continue on to a site like this and find out that Mr Darcy's £10,000 a year in 1813 is:

£520,000 in modern Britain

$831,869.95 in the USA

$827,134.49 in Canada

$841,250.62 Down Under

€612,635.63 in those amusing countries beyond the English Channel

And the rest of you can work it out for yourselves. The general point is that Mr Darcy is even richer than I am, and it's no surprise that Miss Bennett fell in love with him.

The Inky Fool returns from the cash point

Friday 21 January 2011

Cash-Strapped Lifelines

Syscap chief executive, Philip White, said: "HMRC has been gradually making it harder to access its Time to Pay scheme, which has been a lifeline for cash-strapped businesses over the past two years.
   - The Guardian

Being strapped for cash does not, dear mucky-minded reader, mean that you are selling your body in some dingy S&M club. I mean, you may be. I'm too polite to ask. The strap in cash-strapped is a strap, but it is being used for safety reasons, not sensual ones.

If you are falling or drowning then you need a strap to hang on to. If you are fallen on hard times, or drowning in debt, then you need a loan. That loan is a metaphorical strap onto which you can hang above the oceans of insolvency.

Therefore, if I have loaned you money, I have strapped you. Thus you are strapped for cash, or cash-strapped.

Or at least that's how people talked in the mid-nineteenth century. These days we keep the same metaphor but call the strap a lifeline. And that's what's so lovely about that sentence from The Guardian: sibling metaphors. Businesses that have already been thrown a strap are now being offered a life-line. It's all very ropey.

So there is nothing at all dirty about being strapped for cash. Strapping young men is a different proposition, and you should probably stop before you are caught.

The Inky Fool consults his bank manager

Thursday 20 January 2011

The King James Version

It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black...

Thus begins Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood. Bible-black is a lovely phrase because, even though my own copy of the King James Version is obstinately brown, I know exactly what he means. The alliteration of Bible-black also makes it a pleasure to say aloud.

The Bible infects and infests our imaginations and our language. This is, dear reader, a Good Thing, because the language of the King James Version is bloody beautiful. John Ruskin once wrote:

Walter Scott and Pope's Homer were reading of my own election, but my mother forced me, by steady daily toil, to learn long chapters of the Bible by heart; as well as to read it every syllable through, aloud, hard names and all, from Genesis to the Apocalypse, about once a year; and to that discipline -- patient, accurate, and resolute -- I owe, not only a knowledge of the book, which I find occasionally serviceable, but much of my general power of taking pains, and the best part of my taste in literature. From Walter Scott's novels I might easily, as I grew older, have fallen to other people's novels; and Pope might, perhaps, have led me to take Johnson's English, or Gibbon's, as types of language; but once knowing the 32nd of Deuteronomy, the 119th Psalm, the 15th of 1st Corinthians, the Sermon on the Mount, and most of the Apocalypse, every syllable by heart, and having always a way of thinking with myself what words meant, it was not possible for me, even in the foolishest times of youth, to write entirely superficial or formal English.

Anything that keeps you away from Walter Scott is a blessing. However, Ruskin's mother must have been a terrifying woman: Psalm 119 is jormungandrian in length (it's an abecedarian acrostic in Hebrew). Deuteronomy 32, though, was a fine choice:

My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass

And so it did, through the strange and sumptuous language of the KJV.

I was reminded of all this by a splendid little article over at the BBC on the King James Bible and how it changed English. I recommend it and you can find it here.

However, the BBC article makes no mention at all of Myles Coverdale, which is a trifle unfair. So I would direct you to this antediluvian post on how iron enters into your soul.

And all the Inky Fool's biblical posts are collected here

P.S. It's worthwhile looking for the misprint in the picture on the top right.

Wednesday 19 January 2011


Donkeys do not live for donkeys years. Like the good, they die young. This is, I suppose, a terrible shame if you're a donkey. The phrase donkeys years therefore makes no sense at all until you remove the Y from years; because donkeys do have very long ears indeed.

Years and years and donkey's ears, as the saying is.
  (Wright, Rustic Speech, 1913)

And that's how it was until somebody got confused and extended the life of the ass. If a donkey had lived for donkeys years, and if it weren't asinine (from ass), and if it were able write good English verse, and if it were the particular donkey upon which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, then it might have written the following:

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorns,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

But it didn't: G.K. Chesterton did. Anyhow, I shall leave you with the sobering thought that a slang term for a straw hat is a donkey's breakfast.

Here is a harrowing song about cruelty to donkeys. What is worse is that the abuse described appears to have been perpetrated by a small child. Every time I hear this song, I think about the poor donkey and weep.

Tuesday 18 January 2011


'What moved thee', quoth she, 'hither to come?'
'For sooth, quoth I, to buy some of your ware.'
And with that word on me she gave a glum
With brows bent and 'gan on me to stare.
  - Skelton The Barge of Court (1499)*

Before glum became an adjective it did steady trade as a noun and a verb. People gave glums and glummed at each other an awful lot. This meant that there was an activity called glumming.

But I marvel I see him not all this same day.
I will seek him out: but lo he cometh this way.
I have yonder spied him sadly coming
And in love, for twenty pounds, by his glumming.
   - Udall Ralph Roister Doister (1556)

Twenty pounds was a lot of money in 1556, from which we can deduce that glumming has always been a sure sign of love.

Glumming seems to me exactly the sort of word that should be revived in a Jurassic Park-style linguistic experiment that's bound to go horribly wrong.

-Where's Steve?
-He's at home glumming, like always.

The thing is that, though glumming has been out of work since the Sixteenth Century, its meaning is immediately obvious to sundry and all. Try it. Use it. It might cheer you up.

It's much more fun than gloomy.

Party time at Inky Fool Mansions

*I've modernised all the spelling.

Monday 17 January 2011

Rubens, Van Dyck, Monet and Carpaccio (with a Twist)

Leonardo Da Vinci once wrote that:

...the poet ranks far below the painter in the representation of visible things and far below the musician in that of invisible things. 

However, he didn't seem to notice that the poet was the only one who could wander in both realms, and describe the place where they meet, which is pretty much the human life.

Painting would seem to be the opposite of language, and yet painters have drifted into our vocabulary.

Some words are of obvious origin, such as rubenesque to describe those ladies of delightful plumpness, or Van Dyck to describe the pointiest of beards.

Some require a brief explanation. You might be happy to be described as a Monet, if you didn't realise that it meant that you were beautiful from a distance, but rather disappointing from close up.

Others are as obscure as a comma in hell. Few people have heard of the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1526). He wasn't the greatest artist ever. In fact, his main talent was in the mixing of paints. He did the most lovely reds, and became famous for them. Have a look at the picture of the bedroom on the right. That is the work of a man who knows what his talent is.

There was an exhibition of Carpaccio paintings at the Doge's Palace in Venice in 1961. Just round the corner from the Palace, at Harry's Bar, a chef called Giuseppe Cipriani was wondering what to call his brand new dish of thinly sliced red meat. And that, dear reader, is why carpaccio is called carpaccio.

The dish and its name caught on, and that is why if you do a Google image search for Carpaccio, poor old Vittore is now down in ninth place, behind the food to which he posthumously donated his name.

Giusseppe Cipriani also invented a cocktail, which he called a Bellini after another Venetian painter, Giovanni Bellini*. Giovanni Bellini painted what's probably my favourite painting: the San Giobbe Altarpiece.

*I assume. I haven't checked up whether it was the Elder (and that's the worst line in Brideshead). 

Sunday 16 January 2011

Clouds and Skies

It is testament to the wonders of English weather that the word sky, originally meant cloud. On this grey and overcast island there is little or no difference between the two concepts. So the meanings merged.

Sunbathing with the Inky Fool

P.S. If you wanted to know what pie is doing in the sky, see this old post.

Saturday 15 January 2011

Strange Apostrophes

I picked up a flier today for the Storytellers' Club. It advertises:

Stories by comedians 'round a faux log fire.

On the back of the flier is a review from The Independent saying that they were "Unashamedly literate". I therefore can't help but wonder what that apostrophe is doing before the word round. I mean, really, do they think that round is a shortening of around? It's enough to make you 'cross.

The habit, though, is surprisingly common. I once saw an advertisement for an exhibition at the British Museum that was continuing 'til April.

So let's be very clear: round is not a shortening of around, to is not a shortening of unto and till is not a shortening of until. If you want to argue it historically (and I suspect you do), till has been around since 800, until didn't crop up ti'll 1200.

There's something shuddersome about errors such as these. To be lazy is no disgrace, indeed it's rather charming. But to pin vain apostrophes on innocent words suggests such smugness, such deluded superiority, such busy-bodied meddling that it makes you squirm.

It's worse than adding an apostrophe to [omni]bus, or [tele]phone, or [news]papers: worse because it has the same level of pedantry, but without any knowledge.

I haven't been able to look at the British Museum the same way 'since.

Not enough 'books

N.B. It is the policy of the Inky Fool never to criticise what's known as the Grocer's A'postrophe, on the basis that I've no idea how to run a shop. It is only those who really should, or claim to, know better who come in for stick.

Friday 14 January 2011

Equalising Ecuador

Familiarity leaves you blind, and it's terribly easy not to notice that El Salvador is just The Saviour or that Ecuador is simply the Spanish word for equator, because the equator runs through Ecuador.

And what is the equality that makes the equator so equal? Well it's the celestial equator really, which is the one up in the sky. When the sun is on the celestial equator, which it is twice a year at the equinoxes, then day and night are equally long.

Thursday 13 January 2011


There was a chap at school with me who, whenever a crowd was gathered at a sporting event or somesuch, would shout 'Give us a G!' And the crowd would chorus 'G'. Then 'Give us an I!' 'I.' 'Give us an R!'

It was usually halfway through that the crowd realised he was trying to make them shout Giraffe.

Anyway, the technical term for the meaningless repetition of sounds is echolalia. Echolalia is what babies do when they're learning to speak and simply repeating the words that their parents say. Echolalia is what backing singers do when they repeat the last word of the line. Echolalia is the practice of parrots.

Echo was the nymph who loved Narcissus and, on rejection, pined away until she was only a sound. Lalia was the Ancient Greek for talk.

On the same principle you have glossolalia - speaking in tongues - and coprolalia, which is the compulsive desire to shout obscenities. It's a more beautiful, and therefore less appropriate, way of saying Tourette's Syndrome.

The Inky Fool counts his fishes

Wednesday 12 January 2011

I Long For Short

There was a splendid article in The Independent the other day. Well, like most people who praise newspaper articles, I simply mean that I agree with it. The tenor of the article was...

Right, tenor meaning general sense, comes from the Latin tenorem meaning contents or direction. That comes from tenere meaning to hold (as in a tenacious tenant in an untenable tenement). Meanwhile a singer holds a note and that's the reason that the tenor of an article is not necessarily Pavarotti.

...where was I? Oh yes, modern novels. Too long.

I am the slowest reader I have ever met. Years ago I did some involuntary voluntary* work in a homeless shelter. There was a chap there who called himself Animal. He told me that he had left school aged ten or thereabouts. He needed glasses and didn't have any. He was drunk. He still read more quickly than I did.

To be fair, I make up for it by remembering everything I read, but it still means that I look at the printed breeze-blocks...

Right, breeze is an old word for ash, which is why breeze-blocks are called cinder-blocks in America. Basically, there's ash in the concrete.

...I look, as I say, at the cinder-blocks that pass for novels these days and I think to myself that life is too short, and if The Blind Assassin is really that good, then they ought to have a copy in Heaven. Freedom, Wolf Hall, Infinite Jest: that would be three years of my life. And are they really that much better than Macbeth, Death in Venice and the Great Gatsby? Does the author really have that much more to say?

When I go into a bookshop the first thing I look for is not the title, the cover or the blurb: it's the spine. I like my books like I like my women: slim, beautiful and inexpensive.

Am I alone in this? Does nobody else quail and quake at the sight of those obese tomes that win all the prizes? People like me are probably a forgotten and unexploited market. The publisher even saves on paper and ink: it's win-win.

What's depressing is that if Camus sent L'Etranger or The Fall to the a publishers today he would be told that books ought to be more than 70,000 words and that 60,000 is the absolute minimum. And his manuscript would be thrown into the bin of unpublishables, along with Notes From Underground and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Inky Fool reads the next big thing

*Voluntary in the sense that my school had made voluntary work compulsory.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Pendle Hill and East Timor

What does Pendle Hill in Lancashire have to do with East Timor and the Gobi Desert and Bredon Hill in Worcestershire?

Though Pendle Hill is teeming with witches, this is not a supernatural question. Pendle used to be called Penhul, from Pen in the Cumbric language meaning hill, and hul in Old English meaning hill. Once we moderns had added the Hill onto Pendle, we got Pendle Hill, or Hill-Hill Hill.

Timor comes from timur in Malay, and guess what timur means? You're damned right, dear reader, it means East, because Timor lies at the Eastern end of a chain of islands. So East Timor is East East.

The Mongolian for desert is Gobi, thus the Desert Desert; and the same thing applies to the Sahara Desert (from Arabic çaḥrā, meaning exactly what you guessed).

And so on and so forth round and round this sad and repetitious globe. People, of course, name things for what they are. Then new people arrive, don't understand the name and think that they are clarifying things, when in fact they are building an unnecessary yet delightful heap of verbiage.

Yet I only know of two places that have achieved the hat trick: Pendle Hill and Bredon Hill in Worcestershire, which comes from Bre (Celtic) Don (Old English) Hill, and therefore also means Hill Hill Hill.

Which leads me to a not-that-good A.E. Housman poem:

In summertime on Bredon
The bells they sound so clear;
Round both the shires they ring them
In steeples far and near,
A happy noise to hear.

The remainder, if you want it, is here.

To be fair, you can see why they called it a desert.

Monday 10 January 2011


There was a truly terribly Victorian poet called T.E. Brown. His verse is filled with the three Victorian vices: unnecessary piety, unnecessary children, and unnecessary medievalisms. His most famous work is probably the following:

A GARDEN is a lovesome thing, God wot!
Rose plot,
Fringed pool,
Ferned grot—
The veriest school
Of peace; and yet the fool
Contends that God is not—
Not God ! in gardens ! when the eve is cool?
Nay, but I have a sign;
‘Tis very sure God walks in mine.

Reading that first line is like fighting George Foreman. There's the little jab of lovesome and just as you're disorientated, wondering why it wasn't lovely or pleasant - BAM! - you're hit full in the face by God wot!

God wot meant God knows and was used for emphasis in the seventeenth century, but what's it doing here? It reads like the stained glass in a Victorian porch and then you realise it's only there to rhyme with the affected grot, and then with the clumsy construction God is not. Dear me, and pass the laudanum.

But this terrible poem became terribly popular. It was anthologised in such works as Ye gardeyne boke: a collection of quotations instructive and sentimental, gathered and arranged and Scouting for Girls: The Official Handbook of the Girl Scouts. It's the sort of thing Mr Pooter probably wrote above his garden door.

So famous did the line become that, in the 1930s, it gave a new and wonderful word to the English language: godwottery.

Godwottery can mean two things. First, it can mean the use of affected archaisms, and verily, the poet that useth godwottery is a tosser, iwis.

Godwottery can also mean tacky gardening. The collective noun for a horde of gnomes and charming water-features is godwottery. Here, for example, is Anthony Burgess writing in 1960:

...little girls in pinafores of an earlier age shnockled over stained half-eaten apples; all the boys seemed to have cleft palates. Still, it seemed to me far healthier than the surrounding suburb. Who shall describe their glory, those semi-detacheds with the pebble-dash all over the blind-end walls, the tiny gates which you could step over, the god-wottery in the toy gardens?

And, before you ask: No. I have no idea what shnockled means. Any guesses?

The Inky Fool's garden needed a little work

Sunday 9 January 2011

The Two Words From The Four Quartets

I've managed to read The Four Quartets at least a thousand times without ever having bothered to look up hebetude and appetency. I don't know why. It's not that I'm averse to dictionaries.

First, hebetude means lethargy, as in:

The serenity only a deliberate hebetude,
The wisdom only the knowledge of dead secrets
Useless in the darkness into which they peered
Or from which they turned their eyes. There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
   - East Coker

Appetency means desire or appetite and comes from the section in which Eliot describes travelling on the London Underground. It remains the greatest description of the Tube ever written. You should also note that eructation is belching.

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

Descend lower, descend only
Into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Desiccation of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention from movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future.
   - Burnt Norton

The video below is meant for foul-mouthed Londoners only.

Friday 7 January 2011

Amazing Clues

How vainly men themselves amaze...

Old meanings are confusing enough without shoving two into a line, yet that is what Andrew Marvell did without a flicker of compunction in the opening line of The Garden. The modern reader would be almost excused for thinking that narcissistic men are going about impressing themselves. Though that may be so, Marvell is writing about men who futilely consign themselves to a labyrinth, or maze.

Labyrinths are terrible places, teeming with minotaurs and littered with lost threads, or at least that's how I imagine them. Hampton Court was a disappointment. The reason, of course, is that I was exposed to the myth of Theseus as an infant, though the really dirty bits were thoughtfully concealed from me until I was six.

Anyway, Theseus had to run into the labyrinth, kill the Minotaur and dash out again, all in time for tea. Ariadne, fearing that the tea would go cold, suggested the preposterously obvious idea that he take some thread with him, unwind it on the way in, and follow it on the way out. That way he would not be amazed.

What with the Trojan horse and Ariadne's thread, one can see the Attic genius for the bleeding obvious. To stop himself getting lost he had a thread. And what was the medieval term for a ball of yarn? It was, dear threadbare reader, a clue.

It was a clue that Theseus laid for himself in the labyrinth, it was a clue that led him back and dismazed him. If he had not had a clue of thread he would not have had a clue about how to escape. As John Pomfret wrote of the ideal woman:

She knows the best, and does the best pursue,
And treads the maze of life without a clue,
That the weak only and the wavering lack,
When they're mistaken, to conduct them back.
She does, amidst ten thousand ways, prefer
The right, as if not capable to err.

Slowly, of course, the clue that leads you through the labyrinth became the key that solves the puzzle, and then became the hint that helps you to solve the puzzle, and then, in 1914, received its apotheosis when it was attached to crosswords.

Incidentally, the original labyrinth (etymology uncertain) in which the Minotaur resided was designed by Daedalus, and has therefore been called a Daedal.

Now read this lovely poem by Auden. It's called The Labyrinth.

Anthropos apteros for days
Walked whistling round and round the Maze,
Relying happily upon
His temperament for getting on.

The hundreth time he sighted, though,
A bush he left an hour ago,
He halted where four alleys crossed,
And recognized that he was lost.

"Where am I?" Metaphysics says
No question can be asked unless
It has an answer, so I can
Assume this maze has got a plan.

If theologians are correct,
A Plan implies an Architect:
A God-built maze would be, I'm sure,
The Universe in minature.

Are data from the world of Sense,
In that case, valid evidence?
What in the universe I know
Can give directions how to go?

All Mathematics would suggest
A steady straight line as the best,
But left and right alternately
Is consonant with History.

Aesthetics, though, believes all Art
Intends to gratify the heart:
Rejecting disciplines like these,
Must I, then, go which way I please?

Such reasoning is only true
If we accept the classic view,
Which we have no right to assert,
According to the Introvert.

His absolute pre-supposition
Is - Man creates his own condition:
This maze was not divinely built,
But is secreted by my guilt.

The centre that I cannot find
Is known to my unconscious Mind;
I have no reason to despair
Because I am already there.

My problem is how not to will;
They move most quickly who stand still;
I'm only lost until I see
I'm lost because I want to be.

If this should fail, perhaps I should,
As certain educators would,
Content myself with the conclusion;
In theory there is no solution.

All statements about what I feel,
Like I-am-lost, are quite unreal:
My knowledge ends where it began;
A hedge is taller than a man."

Anthropos apteros, perplexed
To know which turning to take next,
Looked up and wished he were a bird
To whom such doubts must seem absurd.

And buy the Complete Auden here.

The Inky Fool visits Hampton Court

Thursday 6 January 2011

Dear Chap

A dear chap is a bad thing, etymologically speaking.

Once upon a time, markets were called cheaps. That's why there's Cheapside and East Cheap in London. Cheap meant any sort of trade or bargaining or financial push-me-pull-you. If prices were low, it was a good cheap, just as with the French bon marché. If prices were high, it was a dear cheap, as in the Promptorium Parvulorum's:

He byeth in tyme and at hour, so that he hath not of the dere chepe

So a market man, a buyer or a seller, became a chapman. Then chapman dwindled to chap so that in The Beggar's Opera (1728) Peachum can say:

Wife, rip out the Coronets and Marks of these Dozen of Cambric Handkerchiefs, for I can dispose of them this Afternoon to a Chap in the City

By which he does not mean fellow, but customer. However, trade and humanity are woven fine. It is in the nature of Economic Man to view all his fellow fellows through the distorting lens of a shop window. Thus we talk today about a tough customer, even though the tough in question may have no intention of buying.

Similarly, chap drifted from meaning a potential purchaser and, sometime in the Eighteenth Century, became a word for any old fellow. And if you like the chap, he's a dear chap and that's now a Good Thing.

A chapbook was a book sold to a chapman

P.S. Is mine the only dank and disgusting mind to have noticed the possible connotations of chap-stick? 

Wednesday 5 January 2011


I've just discovered the word paraphilia, and I can't think how it has passed me by for so long. It's a lovely catch-all term for any sort of perversion or peccadillo. But there's something so soft and scientific about paraphilia that you would never guess its meaning, and that could be useful.

'Care for some paraphilia?'

If anything, you might guess that paraphilia was related to paraphernalia; and it often is.

Wikipedia has a helpful and frightening list of paraphilias here. I have a much more beautiful list of paraphilias here.

The Inky Fool was still searching for his scuba diving gear

Tuesday 4 January 2011

Expressly Expressing Express Espressos

If you have ever expressed yourself on an express train, you may have wondered about the origin of the expression and why it should expressly mean that. You may then have settled down with an espresso and forgotten all about it.

Once upon a terribly long time ago there was a Latin word exprimere, which meant to press out, and the past participle of which was expressus. When you press your seal* into soft wax you produce an image, and, so far as anybody can tell, that's why the Latin word took on the meaning of describing or representing something.

Cows expressed milk, sores expressed pus and human beings were expressed by God. Very quickly people got the idea of expressing thoughts as words, as though the mouth were the udder of the mind. Thus Chaucer's:

Thy virtue and thy great humility
There may no tongue express

Also from this came the idea of something that was specifically, or expressly, designed for one purpose and for no other. If God expressed man, he did it rather well, or at least that's what Hamlet thought:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!

We still use this meaning when we say expressly. Thus today's Guardian:

In a work expressly intended for students to perform, Pountney has created a dramatic structure that interlocks three stories of 20th-century student political action...

So how do you send a letter? Do you entrust your epistle to the general mail, or do you employ somebody expressly to deliver it? Do you find a chap, give him one letter and express instructions? If so, then you have sent the letter express.

The same sort of thing happened to trains. Some trains dawdle. They may say on the front that they are going to Euston, but once aboard you discover that they are in no great hurry to get there and that you will probably be pausing at Moreton-St-Davids for an hour or so while they load up the baggage car with sheep. What you need is a train that is meant expressly and exclusively for Euston, a train that does not stop anywhere else.

These days express trains aren't very express and will probably terminate at Preston on a whim, but that's not how it once was, dear reader.

And so a word that meant press out came to mean describe and intentional and specific and fast and non-stop.

And espressos? Though an espresso should be drunk quickly and is probably expressive of something or other, the dwarf coffee owes its name to the original Latin. You see, the steam is pressed out through the coffee grains and into the bonsai cup.

Like a cow expressing milk

*By which I mean a coat of arms, not a marine mammal. I made that mistake once and the zookeeper got cross.

Monday 3 January 2011


Moses led the chosen people to the Promised Land which flowed with milk and with honey and must therefore have been a rather sticky place. But God, keeping one eye on the OED, did not allow Moses to enter the Promised Land, only to glimpse it from a high promontory.

I pray thee, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon.

But the LORD was wroth with me for your sakes, and would not hear me: and the LORD said unto me, Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto me of this matter.

Get thee up into the top of Pisgah, and lift up thine eyes westward, and northward, and southward, and eastward, and behold it with thine eyes: for thou shalt not go over this Jordan.

And from Moses' misery the English language gained the word Pisgah. A Pisgah-sight is a glimpse of something that can never be obtained. The phrase has been doing steady but slow business for four centuries now. Pisgah is eminently useful when describing window-shopping.

Pisgah's advantage is that either you know about Pisgah and the Old Testament and understand the reference, or you hear syllables - Piss! Gah! - and get some sense of Moses' frustration. One can imagine him up on the mountain top cursing and swearing and wiping the Sinai sand from his feet.

And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the LORD shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan,

And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea,

And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar.

And the LORD said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.

So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD.

And he buried him in a valley in the land of Moab, over against Bethpeor: but no man knoweth of his sepulchre unto this day.

Given that Moses is meant to have written the book of Deuteronomy, that last passage has always troubled the commentators. How, they ask, was Moses able to describe his own death? And what's that unto this day doing if it was written back in the day?

The answer is, of course, that God dictated the book of Deuteronomy to Moses and Moses wrote down the story of his own death with the tears flowing down his face, and probably muttering "Pisgah, pisgah, pisgah!"

The Bible does not record whether the sign was there at the time

For Pisgah the OED cites a reference that refers to the OED's original editor, Sir James Murray who died before his dictionary could be published:

Sir James Murray planned and led to within a Pisgah sight of completion a larger and more scientifically organized work of linguistic reference than Dr. Johnson could have produced.

This is either James Murray or Moses; nobody is sure.