Thursday 31 March 2011


Check it.
The China Post has reported on a:


This is a trifle unfortunate. One might deduce from reading the newspapers that groundswell is a purely technical term that can only be applied to group emotions - a groundswell of opinion or support or whimsy - and I suppose that if you thought about the word at all you would assume that it was about swelling ground.

Only partly. A groundswell is a large wave or rise in the level of the sea caused by an earthquake. Yep. Groundswell is another word for tsunami.

Now go and read that headline again.

Wednesday 30 March 2011


A toady, or yes-man, does not get his name because he crawls around like a toad, or because he is despicable like a toad. Toady is short for toad-eater, and it was a job.

Once upon the seventeenth century the world was filled with mountebanks and quacks who would tour around trying to sell their snake-oil cure-alls. To sell, they needed to prove their potion's efficacy, and for that they needed a toad-eater.

Toads, as everybody knew, were poisonous. So the toad-eater's job was to eat one and collapse into a shivering, floccillating heap. The doctor would then give the toad-eater a dose of his patent medicine and, before the eyes of the crowd, the toad-eater would regain his health.

Obviously being a toad-eater was not a great job. Whether or not you actually ate your toad or only pretended to, it was a pretty humiliating way of making a living.

A toad-eater called William Utting is recorded in 1629, and the word was shortened to toady in 1828, by Disraeli.

P.S. I know this all sounds unlikely, but the OED says it's true.

Tuesday 29 March 2011


I have a distinct recollection of being very young (I think seven) and first hearing the phrase to know something like the back of your hand. It was in a children's story and somebody was saying that he knew this forest like the back of his hand, or somesuch. It worried me greatly as I didn't really know the back of my hand at all. I would, to this day, have trouble picking my own hands out of a police line-up. I know this forest like my own home would be a far more illustrative expression.

I never really recovered, but I do feel an awful lot better now that I know that the back of my hand is the opisthenar. I don't really care whether I know something, so long as I know the word for it. Opis is the same root as opposite, and thenar is Greek for the palm of the hand.

Incidentally, palm trees are named after the palm of your hand because of the shape of their leaves.

So though you may not know the back of your hand (barring tattoos), you can now, at least, give opisthenaric compliments.

I also remember a children's book that had the line "Every Englishman knows in his blood that the moon rises fifty minutes later each day." This caused me no end of consternation as I had no idea about this lunar retardation and was forced to consider the terrible possibility that I might be secretly French.

Might be mine, really couldn't say.

Monday 28 March 2011

Wistful and Wist

I was feeling pleasantly wistful this morning when I was startled by the realisation that I had no idea what wist was, or why I was so full of it.

The answer appears to be that nobody else is sure either. It's one of those words where dictionaries seem to cough, shuffle their feet and try to change the subject. It certainly didn't always mean melancholy and yearning. Once upon a time it meant with rapt attention, but as people only really attend to the things for which they yearn, the meaning shifted and drifted to its sorrowful modern form.

The OED tries to take it all back to whistly, which meant silently once. This means that there may just perhaps maybe a connection to the card game. Originally, there was a game of whisk, but whisk became whist for no reason that anybody can really work out. It may have been that it was a game where you were meant to keep quiet about the cards you had, and play whistly.

We need a word like wistful, there's a very particular human emotion and it doesn't really matter whether we know what wist is, we're all brimming with it now and then.

And here is some unrelated wisteria.

Sunday 27 March 2011


I came across this in A New Dictionary of The Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew (1699).

Grumbletonians, Malecontents, out of Humour with the Government, for want of a Place, or having lost one.

It's terribly lovely word, and almost relevant to the terrifying conditions that prevail in Today's Britain.

N.B. The Inky Fool has no political opinions whatsoever and believes in government by whim.

Friday 25 March 2011

Aestivate and the Undead Lemur

All of a sudden, the winter has vanished. Or it has in London.

This is the time when hibernating creatures yawn, stretch and emerge from the hibernacles: a hibernacle being the place where you spent the winter. Hiber was* Latin for winter. Those Romans who visited Ireland decided that the weather there was so bloody awful that they would call the land Hibernia, which means winterland.

But there is an opposite of hibernation. All you need to do is take the hiber out, replace it with the Latin for summer, aestas, and you get aestivation. Aestiavating (sometime estivating) is the practice of going to sleep until it's autumn again. It's a rather tempting prospect, but the only mammal that does so is the Malagasy fat-tailed dwarf lemur, and I'd hate to be mistaken for one of them. In fact, I feel that whichever naturalist named the Malagasy fat-tailed dwarf lemur was probably in a malevolent mood at the time.

Oddly enough, I've already written one post on Malagasy lemurs. You wouldn't have thought it would be a subject that repeats on a blog about the English language. But lemurs are fascinating creatures. Lemur itself comes from the Latin lemures, which meant the malignant spirits of the unburied dead. You see, lemurs only come out at night and make very strange noises.

If attacked by an ancient Roman lemur you should offer it black beans to eat, or failing that bang brass pans together to frighten it away. This is the reason that in Goethe's Faust Mephistopholes summons up a terrifying troop of lemurs, which sing:

Wir treten dir sogleich zur Hand,
Und wie wir halb vernommen,
Es gilt wohl gar ein weites Land,
Das sollen wir bekommen.
Gespitzte Pfähle, die sind da,
Die Kette lang zum Messen;
Warum an uns den Ruf geschah,
Das haben wir vergessen.

Look, fat-tailed dwarf lemurs!

*I know, hiems, but I'm keeping it simple.

Thursday 24 March 2011

Poodles in Puddles and Love

It is the delight of etymology to notice that two words that sound similar are the same. What seemed to be the free association of sounds is the steady stagger of history. Imagine that each time one person reminded you of another they turned out, though you had met them in different countries and contexts, to be brothers.

All of which is a long way of saying that the best place for a poodle is in a puddle. The poodle comes from the German pudelhund, meaning puddle-hound. This is because the poodle was bred to hunt water fowl and thus spent much of its time paddling in puddles.

The French writer Louis-Ferdinand Celine once wrote that "Love is a poodle's chance of attaining the infinite, and personally I have my pride."

I don't know what a poodle's chance of the infinite is. It would depend, I suppose, on whether infinity could be found in a puddle.

A searcher after the infinite

Wednesday 23 March 2011


God, I love the OED. I love it because it says everything, no matter how silly, with a face as straight as a heterosexual arrow. For example:

fondlesome, adj.

Pronunciation: /ˈfɒnd(ə)lsəm/
Etymology: FONDLE V. + -SOME suffix2.

Addicted to fondling.

1835 W. Beckford Recoll. 36 Turtle doves were never more fondlesome.

Incidentally, the first proper villanelle was written about a lonely turtle dove. More on that some other time. I must feed my addiction.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

The Passionate Poet

This is Byron writing about his life of intense and never-ending poetic passion:

I can never get people to understand that poetry is the expression of excited passion, and that there is no such thing as a life of passion any more than a continuous earthquake or an eternal fever. Besides, who would ever shave themselves in such a state?

By this rationale, we should be able to recognise the most passionate of persons by their state of disrepair. And, while we're quoting Byron, here he is describing John Keats:

Such writing is a sort of mental masturbation - he is always frigging his imagination. - I don't mean that he is indecent but viciously soliciting his own ideas into a state which is neither poetry nor any thing else but a Bedlam of vision produced by raw pork and opium. 

I've just worked out what I'm having for lunch.

Bring on the bacon!

Monday 21 March 2011


First came the shotgun and then came the shotgun wedding. First, came the railroad, and then people were railroaded into doing things. And I had always assumed, by this pretty pattern, that first came the bulldozer and then came the bulldozing of people. How wrong I was! How wrong and how innocent!

A bull-dose is a dose of the bull-whip, or maybe a dose strong enough to kill a bull; and it was the punishment given out in the 1876 American election to those black citizens of the United States who were considering voting for the Wrong Party.

The wrong party in this case was the Republican Party, and the bull-dose given to those who were southern and black and ready to vote for the Elephant was a couple of hundred lashes. The OED's first citation runs:

If a negro is invited to join it [a society called ‘The Stop’], and refuses, he is taken to the woods and whipped. This whipping is called a ‘bull-doze’, or doze fit for a bull.

That's democracy for you. People were thus bull-dozed long before the invention of the bulldozer. In fact, several things including guns were given the name of bulldozer before the large vehicle that we know today was christened in the 1930s.

And it's got nothing whatsoever to do with dozing bulls.

An enemy of freedom

Sunday 20 March 2011

The Poetics of the Zoom

There's a fantastic article here about how poets invented the zoom lens, or rather the idea of zooming in and out, which, if you think about it, is something impossible to the human eye. Zooming can only happen in cameras and in the imagination, and it was the imagination that got there first, with the lens-makers scuttling along behind. The first zoom is credited to Milton.

The article misses, though, my favourite poetic zoom, which comes from the opening of an Auden poem:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly - look there
At cigarette end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.

The parted clouds to the cigarette end, faster than any film could make sense of the matter.

Two other little linguistic points were suggested by the article. First, an animalcule is a small or worthless animal. The word isn't in the OED, but that's what -cule always means. Second, zoom is onomatopoeic. The word was originally applied to the flight of aircraft, and specifically to the noise made when the throttle is opened and the aircraft shoots upwards - zoooom. The camera meaning is recorded from 1948.

Anyway, go and have a look at the article. The weather's horrible* and any notion that you have something better to do with your Sunday is a delusion. Click here.

The Inky Fool searching for cigarette ends

*Or it is in the Lake District where I am sojourning.

P.S. I'm indebted to the Antipodean for sending me the link.

Saturday 19 March 2011

Nevermet Press

A publisher that actually wants writers to send them stuff is an extraordinary rarity. However, an outfit called Nevermet Press are currently actively and openly asking for short stories in the sci-fi, horror and steampunk genres, and they asked me to tell you all about it. There is much more information on their site here.

I have never met a steampunk, but I do know that punk was a sixteenth century word meaning prostitute, its meaning then drifted to catamite in the phrase punk kid, and from there became a general term of abuse for anybody worthless or criminal, before being appropriated by noisy youths.

I rather like this

Friday 18 March 2011


While listening to the radio yesterday, it occurred to me that I had no idea what a hotbed was. I've heard the phrase a thousand times (usually in relation to sin), and it turns out that I've seen them too. I simply didn't know what they were.

A hotbed is a flowerbed enclosed in a glass case. This bed is heated, usually by the fermentation of manure, to make a flowerbed that is hot and therefore good for growing things in (but not, unfortunately for sinning in).

Here is a diagram:

As you can see, there is little room for those who like their sins spacious. There is, though, another sort of hotbed. Apparently in the cheapest of cheap American lodging houses one can, or could, be given a bed that was used by different people in rotation. The hotness here is the same hotness that warms a hot-desk, and is ideal for sinners.

Neither hotbeds nor hot-desks, though, have much to do with a hotseat, which was, originally, the electric chair.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Nervous Nations

This is from the preface to Nathan Bailey's Universal Etymological Dictionary of 1721:

Some have remark'd that there is a constant Resemblance between the Genius of each People and the Language which they speak, and thence

The French who are a People of great Vivacity have a Language that runs extreme Lively and Brisk, and the Italians who succeeded the Romans have quite lost the Augustness and Nervousness of the Latin and sunk into Softness and Effeminacy, as well in their Language as their Manners.

The Spaniards, whose distinguishing Character is a haughty Air, have a Language resembling their Qualities, yet not without Delicacy and Sweetness.

The Romans who seem'd to be a People design'd for Command, us'd a Language that was noble, august and nervous.

The Greeks who were a polite but voluptuous People, us'd a Language exactly adapted thereto.

The English who are naturally Blunt, thoughtful and of few Words, use a Language that is very short, concise and sententious.

Quite aside from the truth of all this, it's strange to see how the word nervous has changed in meaning. Nerves were once identified with the sinews. So nervous was a synonym for sinewy, and meant tough.

Similarly, sententious was once a word of praise. A sentence used to be an opinion or judgement (which sort of survives, in that a trial ends up with a judge giving a sentence). From that you got the idea that a single opinion could be expressed in a sentence, hence a grammatical sentence. So, if your speech is not vapid and meaningless, if it contains a thought, it is sententious.

T.S. Eliot used the old sense of sentence in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It should therefore be stressed on the second syllable.

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Inky Fool.

It is vital for good English that you keep your sentences short and simple.

Wednesday 16 March 2011


Osculable means kissable, but is a much more beautiful word. According to the OED, poor osculable has only been used once, in 1893, to describe the Pope. So the word is nearly virginal and should be taken out and shown to the world.

The Latin for kiss was osculare, and the obscure English words thence derived are wonderful. There's an osculatrix (a lady who kisses), an oscularity (a kiss), and an osculary (anything that can and should be kissed (although this was usually a religious relic)).

So repeat after me:

Pretty? She's a regular osculary.

It's one short of fangast.

There are also a fair few osculatory words in geometry, for when two curves touch at a single point they are said to kiss.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

The Mark of Smith

Cain, as in Cain and Abel, means smith. So the second man on earth was Mr Smith.

It rather changes the feel of the thing, when the murderer has a common-or-garden name like that. The Mark of Smith, doesn't sound quite as harrowing. Raising Smith seems quite a civilised upbringing.

Incidentally, Cain had a yellow beard, symbolic of his villainy. It's mentioned in The Merry Wives of Windsor:

MISTRESS QUICKLY Does he not wear a great round beard, like a glover's paring-knife?

SIMPLE No, forsooth: he hath but a little wee face, with a little yellow beard, a Cain-coloured beard.

It should be noted that the Hebrew q-y-n could mean Smith, and could also mean he who was created. I am following Sir James Frazer here, which I rarely do.

As Jack Charlton asked when told to play in goal for England: "Am I my brother's keeper?"

An all-too-common scene

Monday 14 March 2011

How Shakespeare Drained Venice

[The Duke of Norfolk] toil'd with works of war, retired himself
To Italy; and there at Venice gave
His body to that pleasant country's earth,
   - Richard II IV,1

It's an odd thing that Shakespeare set a play and a bit in Venice (Merchant and Othello) and mentions the city 46 times*, but he doesn't seem to have realised that the city was built in the sea.

At least, that's the implication of the lines above. The Merchant of Venice contains not a solitary reference to gondolas or canals, and nor does Othello. As Holofernes says in Love's Labours Lost:

I may speak of thee as the traveller doth of Venice;
Venetia, Venetia,
Chi non ti vede non ti pretia.

Which means Venice, Venice, he who has not seen you cannot appreciate you.

And that seems to have been the case with Will. To be fair, Venice in Shakespeare's time ruled a lot of territory on the mainland. This was known as terra firma, which is the origin of the phrase.

Anyway, how do you make a Venetian blind?

Poke his eyes out.

Shakespeare was never wrong, reality sometimes stumbled.

*58, if you count variants like Venetian.

Sunday 13 March 2011


A little something to keep you amused. The etymology in this video is actually correct. Ignoramus, we don't know, was a legal term used by a jury who weren't sure.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Constrained Crime Writing

There's a great little article on writing here. It's about police reports. Police reports are, of course, governed by a million rules about objectivity, reporting only facts, omitting adverbs and the like. This piece is about how, even within those constraints, one can make a story emotional or dull, gripping or flat.

Read it. It's here.

Friday 11 March 2011


Tsunami is Japanese for harbour waves. Tsu means harbour; and nami means waves, which is why Hokusai's painting The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is called, in Japanese, Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura.

Tsunamis used to be called tidal waves, until somebody pointed out that they weren't tidal.

Thursday 10 March 2011

An Exercise in Language

An interesting little line from Evelyn Waugh:

I regard writing not as investigation of character but as an exercise in language, and with this I am obsessed. I have no technical psychological interest. It is drama, speech and events that interest me.

I don't know if this is entirely ingenuous. A far simpler truth would be that though the emotions are doled out pretty equally to all members of the species, the ability to express them is catastrophically variable. It would be impossible to live on earth for long without wondering just a little about your fellow man, and whether he's as unhappy as you; but pen and paper are extra.

Anyway, a little example of Waugh's language. This from Decline and Fall:

'Old boy,' said Grimes, 'you're in love.'
'Smitten?' said Grimes.
'No, no.'
'The tender passion?'
'Cupid's jolly little darts?'
'Spring fancies, love's young dream?'
'Not even a quickening of the pulse?'
'A sweet despair?'
'Certainly not.'
'A trembling hope?'
'A frisson? a Je ne sais quoi?'
'Nothing of the sort.'
'Liar!' said Grimes.

Technically, a linguistic exercise.

Wednesday 9 March 2011

The Handkerchief's Cargo

I have been suffering from a horrid cold for the last week. Every couple of minutes I put a vast, sail-like handkerchief to my face and imitate the mating cry of the victorious walrus. Here are some useful words for those similarly bemucused.

Snite was an Old English word that meant to blow your nose. It is now out of use, though its meaning is still obvious because its wordchild, snot, survives.

Emunction is a very posh form of nose-blowing indeed. I picked up the word from Beckett's Trilogy which has:

...certain habits such as the finger in the nose, the scratching of the balls, digital emunction and the peripatetic piss...

According to the OED, emunction is both obscure and obsolete; but it's awfully good for rhymes.You need to be careful, though, as it can technically mean the emptying of any bodily passage.

Gleimous means full of phlegm (but not, necessarily phlegmatic).

Finally, handkerchief is an oxymoron. Hand means hand (isn't etymology complicated?). Kerchief comes from Old French couvre-chief, which meant head-covering. So a handkerchief is a head-scarf for your hand (and nose).

Othello says of his handkerchief:

'Tis true: there's magic in the web of it:
A sibyl, that had number'd in the world
The sun to course two hundred compasses,
In her prophetic fury sew'd the work;
The worms were hallow'd that did breed the silk;
And it was dyed in mummy* which the skilful
Conserved of maidens' hearts.

What a terrible thing it would have been if Desdemona had had a cold like mine.

*A medicinal liquid extracted from mummies. I may need some.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Doggerel and Dog Mess

I was once stomping about, feeling proud and tragic and misunderstood, when my stern and heroic shoe was cushioned by something soft and forgiving, donated to the pavement by the generosity of a dog's bottom. It is the nature of tragedy that Hamlet never treads on a turd, and in the nature of life that he would. As Auden put it:

They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life

In the end, our heroic autobiographies are all written in doggerel, which means little dog. Nobody is quite sure why. Perhaps doggerel is the sort of writing that would appeal to a puppy. But perhaps there is a better explanation deducible from the words first* recorded use in The Canterbury Tales. When it finally comes round to Chaucer's turn to entertain the pilgrims with a story, the narrator starts to tell the Tale of Sir Thopas. It's a truly terribly story about a knight and a not very frightening monster, and nobody wants to hear the end, for, as the landlord says:

Mine ears achen of thy drasty [shitty] speech.
Now swich a rhyme the devil I biteche!
This may well be rhyme doggerel," quod he.

"Why so?" quod I, "why wilt thou lette me
More of my tale than another man
Syn that it is the best tale I can?"

"By God," quod he, "for plainly at a word
Thy drasty rhyming is not worth a turd."

So I humbly submit, dear reader, that doggerel is the little bit of dog that is left behind on the pavement, and that rhyme doggerel was originally dog-turd rhyme.

*There are earlier records of doggerel as a name, but they don't appear to have anything to do with poetry.

Monday 7 March 2011

Call in the Augurs

Sometimes an etymology is so obvious that you can't believe you've never noticed it before. This was true of cappuccinos and Capuchin monks, and is just as true of inauguration.

When you begin something new, it is a good idea to call in a soothsayer, or augur, to see how it will turn out. They can tell you whether today is a good day to start, and whether you should start at all. This is the inauguration.

Augur itself may come from avis, meaning bird, because Roman augurs used to chop up our feathered friends in order to find the future in the belly of a pigeon. Augur may, though, be the cousin of augment because the purpose of an augur was to predict an increase (or augmentation) in crops.

If augur does come from augment, then it relates to author, as an author is somebody who increases and augments the number of a books in the world. Authors have authority, and writers have rights; but bards sit in bars buying dramatists drams.

The Inky Fool thinks it may rain this afternoon.

Sunday 6 March 2011

Thomas Paine, Confucius and the Three Monkeys

A pleasant detail about Confucius: Confucius is a Latinization of the Chinese Kong-zi, which means Master Kong, or...

Oh, yeah.

Confucius is King Kong.

What's the relevance of this?

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

This phrase is usually (and understandably) taken to refer to a seventeenth century Japanese sculpture that sits over the door of a shrine at Toshogu. Here's a picture.

Why monkeys? Because the Japanese phrase for hearing, seeing and speaking no evil is mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru, and zaru is pronounced the same as saru, which means monkey. Hence the sculpture. This is the explanation given in all the dictionaries as the origin of the phrase Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

It's all very well, but what about this passage from a letter of Thomas Paine in 1802?

As to the hypocritical abuse thrown out by the federalists on other subjects, I recommend to them the observance of a commandment that existed before either Christian or Jew existed.

"Thou shalt make a covenant with thy senses,
"With thine eye, that it beholds no evil.
"With thine ear, that it hear no evil.
"With thy tongue, that it speak no evil.
"With thy hands that they cemmit no evils.

If the Federalists will follow this commandment, they will leave off lying.
Federal City, Lovett's Hotel,
Nov. 20, 1802.

So what? I hear you cry. Thomas Paine must have been to Japan. But Japan, at the time, was under Sakoku, a policy of splendid isolation whereby nobody was allowed in and nobody was allowed out*. Sakoku lasted from 1633 to 1853 so Thomas Paine cannot possibly have known about the three monkeys in the shrine at Toshogu.

So where did he get it from?

That's where Confucius comes in. Section Twelve of the Analects has this:

"Look not at what is contrary to propriety; listen not to what is contrary to propriety; speak not what is contrary to propriety; make no movement which is contrary to propriety."

Thomas Paine was rather keen on Confucius and he must have imported the phrase directly from the Analects, and not from the three Japanese monkeys. This leads us to the vital question of whether Paine is right to assert that the phrase is older than "Christian or Jew".

Confucius' birth is usually given as 551 BC, which I reckon is pre-Christian. The word Jew is a shortening of Judaean, meaning the fellows from the Kingdom of Judaea. Israel was united (probably) by Saul in the eleventh century BC. In the tenth century there was a civil war and it split into two halves: one half in the north called the Northern Kingdom and one in the south called Judaea. This situation continued until around 720 BC when the Assyrians came and wiped the Northern Kingdom out, leaving only the Judaeans.

So the usual system of nomenclature is that prior to 720 they were Israelites and after that they were Jews. By my calculation this means that Thomas Paine was out in his dating by a minimum of 169 years.

*There were limited exceptions to Sakoku, but the prospect of somebody making notes about one sculpture at one shrine is pretty damned unlikely. 

Friday 4 March 2011

Another Reason to Love De Quincey

You've got to love De Quincey; and, if you haven't read Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, you've denied yourself one of the central luxuries of life. The following from the second edition.

At present, after exchanging a few parting words, and a few final or farewell farewells with my faithful female agent...

But there's a footnote to this half-sentence. The footnote reads:

Some people are irritated, or even fancy themselves insulted, by overt acts of alliteration, as many people are by puns. On their account, let me say, that, although there are here eight separate f's in less that half a sentence, this is to be held as pure accident. In fact, at one time there were nine f's in the original cast of the sentence, until I, in pity of the affronted people, substituted female agent for female friend.

I always attempt to add as many alliterations as I am able to without awkwardness. For example, the luxuries of life above was originally the pleasures of life. Mind you, nine in a row is pushing it. Alliteration is like picking pockets: very profitable so long as it's not noticed. Have a look at the Fs and Ss in this bit of Keats.

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale
Far sunken from the healthy breath of morn,
Far from the fiery noon, and eve’s one star,
Sat gray-hair’d Saturn, quiet as a stone,
Still as the silence round about his lair;
Forest on forest hung above his head
Like cloud on cloud. No stir of air was there,
Not so much life as on a summer’s day
Robs not one light seed from the feather’d grass,
But where the dead leaf fell, there did it rest.
A stream went voiceless by, still deadened more
By reason of his fallen divinity
Spreading a shade: the Naiad ’mid her reeds
Press’d her cold finger closer to her lips.

But I wager that you wouldn't have noticed them, had I not warned you.

For further effy alliteration, see this ancient post.

Eyes suspiciously unfocused.

Thursday 3 March 2011


I was relieved to read the Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable definition of Glory-Hole

A small room, cupboard or the like, where all sorts of odds and ends and junk are dumped.

The OED says that a glory hole can also be a sailor's cabin, or a glass-blower's kiln. I really wouldn't check the Urban Dictionary' s definition unless you have a mind inured to all depravity.

This shows approximately the same lewd development as peep show and felch.

Wednesday 2 March 2011

Keats and Starbucks

So what does the opening of La Belle Dame Sans Merci by Keats have to do with the world's largest chain of coffee shops?

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge is wither'd from the lake.
And no birds sing.

Give up? I thought so. You never were one for hard work, were you, dear reader? The connection is in the sedge.

Sedge is any kind of plant that grows on the banks of a lake or stream. More recently its meaning has dwindled to refer to plants of the cyperaceae family; and, really, unless you're a water-vole, the only place that you'll have heard of it is in the Keats poem.

This takes us to a suburb of Harrogate in Yorkshire with a small stream flowing through it. Here is a picture of that stream*:

You will notice the depressing lack of sedge. It must have wither'd, for there was sedge there once, as the suburb's name is Sedge-stream, except it's not. Yorkshire was, a thousand and bit years ago, overrun by Vikings, so most of their place names are Scandinavian, and the Viking word for Sedge-stream is Star-beck.

Starbeck is only recorded from 1817 but it must have been around before because a) It has a Viking name and b) there were people there who had sex as early as 1379. This sex produced families, and those families were called, by a slight alteration in the name, Starbuck. Since 1379 two things have happened: the Quaker movement was founded and America was discovered.

The result of this double-catastrophe was that among the first settlers on Nantucket Island was a Quaker family called Starbuck. Nantucket was a centre of the whaling industry and the Starbucks took up their harpoons and set off to seek their oily fortunes at sea. Valentine Starbuck met the King and Queen of Hawaii and took them to London where they got measles and died. Obed Starbuck sighted a coral atoll in the middle of the Pacific which was later named Starbuck Island in Valentine's honour. The point is that the Starbucks were famous whalers, which brings us to Moby Dick.

Moby Dick is about a bunch of sailors having a whale of a time (whale, in case you were wondering, was early C20th American slang for a lot - whale of a job etc). The first mate of the whaling ship Pequod is called Starbuck, because the Starbucks were such prominent whalers. Moby Dick, aside from having a vaguely amusing name, is a favourite with American schoolteachers, which brings us to Jerry Baldwin.

Jerry Baldwin was an English teacher from Seattle, who in 1971, along with a couple of friends, decided to start a coffee shop. He wanted to name it Pequod, after the ship in Moby Dick but was shouted down by his partners who pointed out that Pee is not a good syllable to have in a shop selling liquids.

So the others cast around for a local name and found that there was an abandoned mining town near Mount Ranier called Camp Starbo. At this point Jerry Baldwin piped up and suggested a compromise. If he couldn't have Pequod, what about Starbucks,which sounds a little like Starbo and is a character in Moby Dick. They decided that this was a good name, and the rest is bad coffee.

And it all goes back to a sedge-covered stream in Yorkshire.

Gone fishin'

*Stolen from Flickr without a flicker of conscience.

Tuesday 1 March 2011


Nympholepsy is, according to the OED:

Passion supposedly inspired in men by nymphs; an ecstasy or yearning, esp. that caused by desire for something unattainable.

It's therefore a rather similar word to pisgah, and equally useful. So far as one can tell from the literature, ancient Greece was overrun with shepherds who were forever pining after vanishing arboreal nymphs.

A couple of nymphs have made it into the language where they can at last be possessed by pastoral poets, if not pastoral farmers. These are Echo, who pined away for love of Narcissus until she was just a voice; and Calypso, an island nymph who somehow gave her name to Caribbean island music, but nobody's sure how.

The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in the orisons
Be all my sins remembered.

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